Young 'Pranksters' Skewed Landmark Sexuality Study

Released: 1/14/2014 10:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Citations Archives of Sexual Behavior

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – The joke’s on a generation of human-sexuality researchers: Adolescent pranksters responding to the widely cited National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the mid-1990s may have faked nonheterosexuality.

Preliminary results from the landmark study – known as “Add Health” – stunned researchers, parents and educators alike, recalls Cornell’s Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor of human development, licensed clinical psychologist, author and director of the university’s Sex and Gender Lab. “How could it be that 5 to 7 percent of our youth were homosexual or bisexual!”

Previous estimates of homosexuality and bisexuality among high schoolers had been around 1 percent. So imagine the surprise and confusion when subsequent revisits to the same research subjects found more than 70 percent of the self-reported adolescent nonheterosexuals had somehow gone “straight” as older teens and young adults.

“We should have known something was amiss,” Savin-Williams said. “One clue was that most of the kids who first claimed to have artificial limbs miraculously regrew arms and legs when researchers came back to interview them.”

Savin-Williams and Kara Joyner of Bowling Green State University co-authored a recent essay in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior titled, "The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health."

Over the years, analyzing Add Health’s sexual-orientation data became a cottage industry for scholars of human sexuality – Savin-Williams among them. “We offer this essay, with data, to forestall such wrongheaded scholarly work in the future,” Savin-Williams and Joyner wrote.

Joyner and Savin-Williams offered three hypotheses for the gay-gone-straight phenomenon: Perhaps many of the self-reporting nonheterosexuals went back in the closet as they aged. Maybe they misconstrued the researchers’ questions – or it could have been a sophomoric joke to claim, in the confidential survey, to be romantically attracted to the same sex.

Most of the adolescents who revised their sexual orientation in subsequent surveys were boys – who might have found humor in pretending to be gay or bisexual.

Joyner and Savin-Williams quickly dismissed the first hypothesis, saying that notion is inconsistent with what is known about gay youth development. “Gay high school youth in such numbers do not become closeted during young adulthood,” Savin-Williams noted. “Actually, the developmental progress is the reverse: coming out once away from home.”

They gave more credence to the idea that politically correct language about “romantic attraction” might have been misinterpreted. Questions in subsequent Add Health surveys actually used the “S word,” as in sexual orientation. “We’re guessing,” Savin-Williams says, “that some research subjects ultimately understood the message, that they said: ‘Now I know what you’re asking – and, no, I’m not.’”

That and the adolescent pranksters are the most likely explanations for the dubious assessment of Add Health data, the authors conclude.

“I can take a joke as well as the next academic,” says Savin-Williams who has spent a lifetime studying adolescent development.

Yet he is saddened that the Add Health data led researchers, clinicians and policymakers to an inflated sense that gay youth are more suicidal, depressed and psychologically ill than are straight youth.

“We need to be careful when we do our research that our sexual-minority participants are representative of the gay youth population so that we can accurately and adequately represent their lives,” Savin-Williams said.

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