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What Does It Mean to Be “Mostly Heterosexual?”

A new article reviews what we know about people who are "mostly heterosexual."

You have all probably heard of the famous Kinsey Scale measure of sexual orientation that ranges from zero (exclusively heterosexual) to six (exclusively gay). Kinsey and his research team classified research participants along this scale based on how they answered a series of questions about their sexual attractions, fantasies, behaviors, and sexual orientation identity labels that they used throughout their lifetime. Most of the sexual orientation research that has been done since that time has generally used such a scale to then classify individuals as heterosexual, bisexual, or gay/lesbian. But how have researchers collapsed these 7 scores into three groups? It varies from study to study, but a fairly typical approach has been to group the 0-1 as heterosexual, 2-4 as bisexual, and 5-6 as gay/lesbian. As a result, very little research has focused specifically on the people who have only a slight amount of same- or –opposite sex attraction (the 1s and 5s). You might call the 1s “mostly heterosexual.” So what do we know about people who are “mostly heterosexual?” A recent review article by my colleague and Cornell University Professor Ritch Savin-Williams and his graduate student Zhana Vragalova described four main research findings about this group: 1) they have a distinct pattern of attractions and are more likely than exclusively heterosexuals to have some same-sex behavior; 2) They are well represented in the population; 3) Their “mostly heterosexual” orientation was relatively stable over time; and 4) This label was subjectively meaningful to those who adopted it. Below I review some of the main findings from the article.

1) What is the sexual orientation profile of someone who is “mostly heterosexual?”

In their review of the literature, the study found that mostly heterosexuals were more same-sex oriented than heterosexuals, but less so than bisexuals in terms of sexual attractions, fantasies, and behavior. This was true across ages and in both men and women. The effect was larger for sexual attraction than for same-sex behavior.

2) How many people are “mostly heterosexual?"

Data from 21 studies were reviewed from 6 counties, and the prevalence of mostly heterosexuals varied widely across studies: from 1.2–23% among women and 1.7–9% among men. The higher rates were found when people were asked if they ever felt a same-sex attraction rather than a current same-sex attraction. Taking out studies that asked the question in this way, the mean prevalence for women was 7.6–9.5% and for men from 3.6–4.1%.

3) Is “mostly heterosexual” just a phase?

Three longitudinal studies provided data on the stability of being mostly heterosexual over time. They found that across two survey time points from early adolescence through adulthood, about half of those who initially identified as mostly heterosexual in adolescence will still identify that way in adulthood. This stability was lower than for a heterosexual identity but higher than for a bisexual identity. The vast majority of those who left a mostly heterosexual identity adopted a heterosexual identity.

4) What do people mean when they say they are “mostly heterosexual?”

A few studies have asked people what they mean when they said they are mostly heterosexual. In a study of young men in upstate New York (Savin-Williams & Rieger, in preparation), they responded with things like “straight until the right guy comes along” and “straight but not narrow.” Another study of young women (Austin et al., 2007) found the mostly heterosexual girls said “85% straight with only minor attraction to women.” They also talked about how their attractions to men and women are different—perhaps the same-sex attractions are more romantic but the opposite-sex attractions are more sexual. One young women said, “I’ll do sexual acts with a woman, but I’m not interested in women romantically” (Thompson & Morgan, 2008, P.19). Quantitative studies have found that when “mostly heterosexual” isn’t provided as a survey response, these individuals most likely chose heterosexual, rather than bisexual or other labels.

This review provokes scientists to consider dropping the three group (heterosexual, bisexual, gay/lesbian) classification that has dominated research and consider a more nuanced approach to the study of sexual orientation. Of course very large surveys are needed in order to study groups that represent about 4-10% of the population. As more large federal surveys begin including sexual orientation items I hope it will be possible to better understand these groups.

If you are interested in reading more about mostly heterosexuals, I encourage you to read the full article:

Savin-Williams, R. C., & Vrangalova, Z. (2013). Mostly heterosexual as a distinct sexual orientation group: A systematic review of the empirical evidence. Developmental Review, 33, 58-88. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2013.01.001

Other citations

Austin, S. B., Conron, K., Patel, A., & Freedner, N. (2007). Making sense of sexual orientation measures: findings from a cognitive processing study with adolescents on health survey questions. Journal of LGBT Health Research, 3, 55-65.

Thompson, E. M., & Morgan, E. M. (2008). 'Mostly straight' young women: Variations in sexual behavior and identity development. Developmental Psychology, 44, 15-21. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.44.1.15

About the Sexual Continuum Blog

Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University. You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook. He periodically live tweets from research conferences on sexuality and you can follow him@sexualcontinuum.