What Does It Mean to Be “Mostly Heterosexual?”
A new article reviews what we know about people who are "mostly heterosexual."
Posted Sep 18, 2013
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
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: 10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.11
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.