05 Sep Who Are the Happiest? Straights and Gays, but Not Bisexuals
I have previously raised annoyance, perhaps frustration, when we use simple minded, simply assessed measures of sexuality. This post continues this ire with examples of better (but not ideal) research.
This is true if based on sexual behavior, not on sexual identity.
Thomeer and Reczek assessed happiness and included two measures of sexuality with a large sample based on the General Social Survey between 2008 and 2014. Here are their measures, with my grievances—hey, nothing is perfect!
Happiness: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days: Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” [single item, limited options, superficial measure]
Sexual Identity: “Which of the following best describes you?” Options of gay/lesbian; bisexual; heterosexual or straight; or don’t know.” [only 4 options, neglect identities such as mostly straight, pansexual, mostly gay, asexual, kink, questioning]
Sexual Behavior: “Have your sex partners in the last 5 years been exclusively male, both male and female, or exclusively female?” [sex not defined, no asexuality, why 5 years]
Granted these shortcomings, what they found was intriguing.
Only 2% identified as gay/lesbian and only 2% identified as bisexual. If, however, you asked about sexual behavior rather than identity, the number of not straight individuals doubled. Meaning: using identity to assess sexuality nets you a considerably lower number of sexual minorities and those individuals might not be representative of sexual minorities in general (see more below)
Counter to common sense, over a third of those with lifelong same-sex partners and nearly half of those with lifelong both-sex partners identified not as gay or bisexual but as straight. Furthermore, only about half of those with lifelong both-sex partners identified as bisexual. Meaning: it appears that sexual identity and sexual behavior are unrelated for many individuals.
If you used an identity measure, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were less happy than straights. If, however, you used same-sex behavior, gays and lesbians were as happy as straights, but not so for individuals with both-sex partners–they remained relatively unhappy.
The authors explained the happiness problem as the result of women. “Notably, however, we found that more females than males were represented in three of the groups which experienced a happiness disadvantage—those with life-long both-sex partners, those who transitioned to only different-sex partners, and those who identified as bisexual.
This suggested that disadvantages faced by sexual minorities may be especially concentrated among women.” They almost got it right, but didn’t because women who only had female partners were not less happy than straights.
Because the vast majority of individuals who identify as bisexual are women (frequently in the 60% to 80% range), any study that combines gays/lesbians with bisexuals and finds negative mental or physical health problems likely distorts our understanding of sexual minorities and thus tells us little about male bisexuals, gay males, and lesbians.
Geary and associates recently re-affirmed that any study that assesses sexual identity rather than sexual behavior or sexual attractions misses many (perhaps most) individuals who are sexual minorities. And, in addition, such solicited populations might not be representative of other sexual minorities.
So, one has to wonder, why use an identity measure?
- Identity data are easy to collect.
- Identity “is the component of sexual orientation most closely related to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination, and that collecting data on this aspect of sexual orientation will enable organisations to meet equality legislation” (Geary et al., p. 8).
- It’s likely to please funding agencies and professional disciplines such as public health and clinical psychology.
- It reflects researchers’ personal life histories.
Thus, if the goal of research is to document the problematic nature of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, assessing sexual identity is the way to go.
If, however, the goal is to document real-life developmental histories, concerns, experiences, and stories of those with some degree of sexual and/or romantic attractions, assessing (sexual and romantic) attractions and behavior (sexual and romantic) will likely prove more accurate.
Bottom line: Be careful what you read, hear, and believe about gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
This article originally published on Psychology Today.