Young women’s psychological distress increases when they change their identity away from the heterosexual norm

New research provides evidence that sexual identity changes tend to be associated with increased psychological distress among young women. But the findings, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviorindicates that this association primarily impacts women who move towards more same-sex orientations.

“There is a perception in our society that sexual orientation, and thus a person’s sexual identity (eg, bisexual, lesbian, straight), sits inside them from the day they were born and does not change across their lives,” said study author Alice Campbell, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland and author of the upcoming book “Sexual fluidity among millennial women: journeys across a shifting sexual landscape.”

“This is true for many people, and we know that efforts to try and force people to change their sexual orientations are extremely harmful and do not work. However, there are a proportion of women who do experience changes to their sexual attractions and sexual identities across their lives. The sexualities of young women today in particular are less binary and more fluid than ever before.”

“I was interested in understanding this sexual fluidity – how many women change their sexual identity? Campbell told PsyPost. “What do these changes look like? Which aspects of a woman’s social environment makes it more or less likely that she will change her identity? And what happens when women’s identities change? This paper came from my doctoral thesis, which set out to answer these questions.”

To investigate whether changes in sexual identity were linked to changes in psychological distress in young women, the researchers analyzed data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, a longitudinal study of more than 57,000 women in four age cohorts for over 20 years. The study focused on four waves of data from 11,527 women who were born between 1989 and 1995.

The participants reported their sexual identity in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. They also completed assessments of general psychological distress and indicated how stressed they had felt over the past 12 months about their relationships with family members, romantic partners, and friends.

Campbell and her colleagues found that changes in sexual orientation were fairly common. But most changes were small in magnitude and changes in a more same-sex oriented-direction tended to be somewhat more common. (For example, a woman changing from identifying as “exclusively heterosexual” to identifying as “mainly heterosexual.”)

Women whose sexual identity changed in a more same-sex-oriented direction tended to report greater psychological distress compared to women whose sexual identity remained stable. In contrast, women whose sexual identity changed in a less same-sex-oriented direction tended to report less psychological distress compared to women whose sexual identity remained stable.

“In this study I found that young women’s levels of psychological distress increased when they changed their identity away from the heterosexual norm, especially when they changed to a bisexual identity,” Campbell told PsyPost.

The researchers also found that feeling stressed about personal relationships mediated the association between sexual identity changes and psychological distress. In other words, the “increased distress was partly attributable to increased stressors in women’s immediate social environments (ie, stress in their relationships with parents, family, and friends),” Campbell explained.

“A significant (and growing) minority of young women are exhibiting sexual fluidity, and changing between heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, and other identities. This is most likely due to society becoming more accepting of same-sex sexuality, especially among women. Yet, my findings reinforce that we remain a heteronormative society in which heterosexuality is the default norm, and same-sex sexuality is stigmatized.”

The largest increase in psychological distress was observed among women whose baseline identity was exclusively heterosexual but who later changed to bisexual or mainly homosexual.

“Bisexual women continue to be sexually objectified and negatively stereotyped,” Campbell said. “My findings suggest that greater support should be offered to young women who are questioning their sexual identity or developing a minority identity. In addition, we must continue to challenge homophobia and protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation if we are to protect the mental health of young women.”

The researchers controlled for a number of variables, including age, marital status, parental status, geographic region, early sexual debut, drug use, and childhood experiences of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. But as with any study, the new research includes some limitations.

“The survey data that we analyzed didn’t include measures of discrimination and internalized homophobia,” Campbell said. “These may be important for explaining associations between changes in sexual identity and psychological distress. In addition, we need to speak to young women to better understand their lived experiences of sexual fluidity.”

The study, “Sexual Fluidity and Psychological Distress: What Happens When Young Women’s Sexual Identities Change?“, was authored by Alice Campbell, Francisco Perales, Tonda L. Hughes, Bethany G. Everett, and Janeen Baxter.

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