A study of U.S. young adults suggests that sexual fluidity is relatively common — about one in six youth reported a change in sexual orientation identity and about one-third reported a change in attractions. Changes in sexual orientation identity were especially common among adolescents aged 14–17. The findings were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
In earlier perspectives, sexual orientation was considered to be a stable aspect of identity. But research is increasingly showing that sexual orientation can change over time. This concept is called sexual fluidity, and it is an experience that appears to be particularly common among youth.
Study author Sabra L. Katz-Wise and her colleagues say that the existing sexual fluidity research is lacking in a few ways. For example, study samples have been dominated by White and cisgender individuals, and researchers have not examined how characteristics like race and ethnicity might relate to sexual fluidity. Katz-Wise and colleagues sought to expand on the existing research with a new study conducted among youth in the United States.
“As a developmental psychologist, I’ve always been interested in how identities develop and change over time,” said Katz-Wise, an associate professor at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“I’ve been studying sexual fluidity, which refers to changes in one or more dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual orientation identity, attractions, sexual partners) over time, for the past 12 years since I was in graduate school. But it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve had the opportunity to study sexual fluidity longitudinally, and particularly to think about the best way to measure it, in a large sample of study participants.”
The researchers analyzed data from participants who had completed the first wave of the Sexual Orientation Fluidity in Youth Study. The final sample included 4,087 young people who were living in the United States. People of color and sexual and gender minorities were oversampled. Most participants identified as cisgender, while about 5% identified as either transgender, nonbinary, or another identity. The majority of participants identified as straight (70.2%), while 14.9% identified as bisexual, 4.5% as pansexual, and 4.3% as gay or lesbian.
“The Sexual Orientation Fluidity in Youth (SO*FLY) Study, which is funded by a grant from the NIH, allows us to look at sexual fluidity among individuals ages 14-25 years, both in the past, as well as whether and how changes in sexual orientation occur across time within individual people,” Katz-Wise explained. “It also allows us to study these things in a large sample with diversity in race and ethnicity, as well as gender.”
Participants reported whether they had ever experienced any changes in their sexual orientation identity, and if so, whether their identity had changed more than once. They were asked the same two questions concerning changes in their attraction to others. Participants also completed sociodemographic measures: age, gender identity, sexual orientation identity and attractions, race/ethnicity, and rurality.
An analysis of the survey results revealed that sexual fluidity was not uncommon. For example, 16.6% of the young adults reported having experienced a change in their sexual orientation. These changes were more common among younger participants (aged 14–17), nonbinary and transgender participants, participants who were attracted to more than one gender, and participants who identified as queer, pansexual, or another identity.
Next, 33% of young adults reported having experienced a change in their attractions. This was more common among respondents identifying as transgender, nonbinary, or another identity. A change in attractions was also more common among respondents identifying as pansexual, queer, and bisexual, and respondents who were attracted to more than one gender or attracted to nonbinary people only.
“We found in our study that it was very common for participants to experience changes in their sexual orientation identity (the labels someone uses to identify their sexual orientation to themselves and to others, such as gay or bisexual) and attractions (sexual and romantic attractions that a person feels toward others, such as being attracted to one or more genders), which contradicts traditional ideas about sexual orientation developing early in life and remaining stable across time,” Katz-Wise told PsyPost.
Changes in attractions or sexual orientation were more common among cisgender girls compared to cisgender boys. These changes were also more common among respondents identifying as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or those identifying as another self-specified race or selecting multiple races. Changes in attractions were the least commonly reported among Asian respondents, while changes in sexual orientation were the least commonly reported among Asian and Black or African-American respondents.
“One thing I find really interesting about these findings is that more study participants experienced changes in their attractions than changes in their sexual orientation identity,” Katz-Wise said. “We know that different dimensions of sexual orientation identity do not necessarily match within an individual person. So for example, someone may identify their sexual orientation as lesbian, but have attractions to more than one gender.”
“These findings suggest that when attractions do change over time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone changes their sexual orientation identity labels to match the change in attractions. This speaks to the importance of measuring more than one dimension of sexual orientation (identity, attractions, sexual partners) in research and clinical care to get a fuller picture.”
The study authors point to the importance of continued research concerning sexual fluidity among youth. “Measurement of these changes provides a clearer picture of sexual orientation history and experiences that can inform sexual and reproductive health counseling for this age group,” Katz-Wise and associates write, “as well as identifying exposure to minority stressors, such as sexual orientation-related prejudice and discrimination, which may adversely affect health.”
In all, the findings revealed that sexual fluidity was a common experience among this sample and one that varied by sociodemographic characteristics. According to the authors, the finding that changes in sexual orientation were more commonly reported among younger respondents may suggest that it is becoming more acceptable for young people to explore their sexual orientation. Notably, the study sample was not representative, and the findings may not be reflective of the wider population of U.S. adolescents and young adults.
“As with all research, this study has a few limitations,” Katz-Wise explained. “One is that we used a convenience sample, meaning that the findings may not be generalizable to the broader U.S. population. Another limitation is that this study measured past changes in sexual attraction and sexual orientation identity, which may not be as accurate as measuring changes in sexual attraction and sexual orientation identity over time since people have to remember what happened in the past in order to answer the question.”
“One of the benefits of the larger SO*FLY Study is that we were able to collect data over time, so in future analyses with this data, we will be able to look at how people report their sexual orientation at different time points to look at changes in sexual orientation as they occur rather than asking people to remember what happened in the past.”
“There is so much that we still don’t know about the complexity of sexual orientation, which makes it a very interesting topic to study. This research allows us to learn how we can better support all people as they develop and understand their identities.”
The study, “Sociodemographic Patterns in Retrospective Sexual Orientation Identity and Attraction Change in the Sexual Orientation Fluidity in Youth Study”, was authored by Sabra L. Katz-Wise, Lynsie R. Ranker, Allegra R. Gordon, Ziming Xuan, and Kimberly Nelson.