Sexual identity is a topic we can ALL relate to. Did you realize that? Maybe when you read the title of this blog your first thought was, “Oh, I’m straight so this won’t apply to me?” Wrong. Or, “I’m an adult, so she’s not talking to me.” Wrong again. You don’t need to identify as L, G, B, or T (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender) to have a sexual identity—every one of us has a sexual identity and went through a process, a journey, to get to where we are today…or, maybe we’re still on that journey?
Let’s clarify some definitions up front:
The terms “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity” are not the same thing and should not be thought of interchangeably. According to Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, Ph.D., a leading theorist and researcher within the field of sexuality, when we talk about sexual orientation we’re referring to:
“…the preponderance of erotic feelings, thoughts and fantasies one has for members of a particular sex, both sexes, or neither sex…considered to be immutable, stable over time, and resistant to conscious control. Sexual orientation influences, but is often independent of, sexual conduct and identity…many with a same-sex orientation never identify as gay.” (Savin-Williams, 2005, pg. 28)
In contrast, sexual identity is considered a developmental process, rooted in fluidity and contextual experience and not as a static, permanent “orientation.” More specifically, sexual identity is defined as “…a socially recognized label that names sexual feeling, attraction and behavior…symbolized by such statements as “I am gay” or “I am straight”…labels can change and take on new meanings over time” (Savin-Williams, 2005, pg. 35).
As stated above, every individual experiences a sexual identity development process, and this process most often begins during adolescence. So, let’s focus there. During adolescence, a primary developmental task is individuation, or figuring out your identity: determining what makes you unique, including understanding yourself with respect to sexuality (Keefer & Reene, 2002; Diamond, 2003).
In general, identity development is a pivotal aspect of adolescence that impacts multiple domains of adolescent health and well-being (Erikson, 1968). Research suggests that identity marginalization or significant problems surrounding identity often lead to poor mental health outcomes, reduced academic achievement, and increased risky behavior (Marks, Powell, & Garcia Coll, 2009). Research also has shown that the process of adolescent identity development occurs differently for females than it does for males, regardless of sexual orientation. However, what we know much less about it is the process of sexual identity development- contexts that are playing a role in experiences, similarities or differences for sexual minority and non-sexual minority adolescents, how adolescents uniquely experience this process depending on their sex, and, ultimately, how it may affect psychological functioning.
Past research has shown that sexual minority adolescents often have worse mental health outcomes than non-sexual minority adolescents (Russell & Joyner, 2001); however, we know that not all sexual minority adolescents end up with poor psychological functioning. In fact, many of these adolescents continue to live their daily lives with as much happiness and angst as any other adolescent (Savin-Williams, 2005). We also know that not all non-sexual minority adolescents have fantastic psychological functioning! Therefore, it is likely that there are certain contextual factors and/or experiences throughout identity exploration that increase risk for poor psychological functioning, while others serve protective roles and help them to thrive. In other words, the same factor (e.g., school context) or experience (e.g., telling a friend about their sexual questioning) may have completely different effects on the adolescent.
Sexual identity is a complex yet critical subject to recognize and understand (Horowitz & Newcomb, 2001). In order to learn more about what sexual identity development for adolescents living in the 21st century looks like and how these adolescents experience this process, there are many aspects of their developmental contexts that need to be considered. According to social constructivist and ecological perspectives, the process of identity formation is a continual, two-way interactive process between the individual and their contexts and it is the meaning that the individual gives to these contextual factors and experiences that serves to build their self-identity. This constant interaction between individual and environment makes identity development continuous, fluid, and experienced differently at different times of life (Horowitz & Newcomb, 2001; Bronfenbrenner, 2000; Weisner, 2005).
In the past, stage models have been helpful to create a framework for the process of sexual minority identity development for some individuals (Cass, 1979; Horowitz & Newcomb, 2001), but for those who do not fit neatly into a clear lesbian/gay identity and continue to have some amount of heterosexual desire and/or heterosexual behaviors, are comfortable with an identity that contains both (i.e., bisexuality). For those persons, however, who would prefer not to label themselves at all or are unsure, these stage models do not make room for their experiences. This feeling of not fitting into a specific label or category can be upsetting and/or stressful in itself, so it becomes critical to take an ecological, multidimensional viewpoint that focuses on individual experience and the relationship between contexts and experiences.
Stay tuned for future blog posts that will explore more about the specific contexts involved in the process of sexual identity development, such as school, friends, family, and religion. Additionally, where do researchers, educators, clinicians, and parents go from here? What can we do to help foster healthy development and a strong sense of sexual identity and pride in the adolescents around us?
For comments and questions regarding sexual identity development at the Jackson Mental Health Hospital, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological systems theory. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 129-133). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.
Diamond, L. M. (2003b). What does sexual orientation orient? A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and sexual desire. Psychological Review, 110, 173-192.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Horowitz, J. L., & Newcomb, M. D. (2001). A multidimensional approach to homosexual identity. Journal of Homosexuality, 42(2), 1-19.
Keefer, B. P., & Reene, K. (2002). Female adolescence: Difficult for heterosexual girls, hazardous for lesbians. The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 30, 245-252.
Marks, A. K., Powell, K., & García Coll, C. (2009). Ethnic Identity. In The Chicago Companion to the Child.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Russell, S. T., & Joyner, K. (2001). Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1276-1281.
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2005). The new gay teenager. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weisner, T. S. (2005). Discovering successful pathways in children’s development: Mixed methods in the study of childhood and family life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Guest blogger Katherine Bedard, M.A. is a Psychology Intern in Pediatric Behavioral Medicine with the Jackson Mental Health Hospital.