There's a stereotype that heavy drinking leads young people to explore other sexual options besides heterosexuality, but the reverse may actually be true — exploring other sexual identities is so stressful, it drives college kids to drink.
Top image: Declan Merriman/Flickr.
A study from the University of Missouri is suggesting that young adults who don't identify their sexual orientation as being either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual tend to misuse alcohol more frequently than people who have a firmly defined sexual orientation. The authors of the study speculate that college students who are coming out as bisexual, or experimenting with their sexual orientation, in college may be stressed out because of it, and as a result, are engaging in risky behaviors — most notably heavy drinking.
Amelia Talley, MU assistant professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Science, observed that bisexuals and students whose sexual orientation were in flux reported the heaviest drinking and most negative consequences from alcohol use: "Those groups reported drinking to relieve anxiety and depression at higher rates than strictly heterosexual or homosexual individuals," noted Talley, "One possible explanation is that people who aren't either completely heterosexual or homosexual may feel stigmatized by both groups."
The study, which was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, followed over 2,000 college students over the course of four years. The students were surveyed twice a year and asked about their sexual self-identification, attraction, and sexual behavior. Aside from those students who self-identified as being either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, there were those who described themselves as "mostly homosexual," bisexual, and "mostly heterosexual". The survey also inquired into their drinking habits — including their reasons for drinking and any negative consequences experienced as a result of their alcohol use.
The results showed that gays and straights drink at roughly the same rate and that they tend to drink to enjoy social situations. But the other sexual minority groups tended to report more alcohol misuse. "This suggests that it may be the stressful process of developing one's sexual identity that contributes to problematic drinking," said Talley in a press release, "just as people in any difficult situation in life may turn to alcohol to alleviate stress."
Talley also discovered gender differences in sexual behaviors and sexual identity.
"Females showed the greatest degree of sexual orientation fluidity," the press release quoted Talley as saying. "They were able to admit a certain degree of attraction to the same gender without defining themselves as completely homosexual." She suggested that "women may be more open to admitting to same-sex attractions because women are more likely to be objectified as sexual objects in our culture; hence, women are accustomed to assessing the attractiveness of other women in comparison to themselves."
Males, on the other hand, are content to define themselves as being either straight or gay. Talley suggests this is because most men aren't aware that being "mostly straight" is a feasible option. She has found that even a small degree of sexual attraction to other men can make a man feel uncomfortable.
Ultimately, Talley hopes that these findings could be used to improve support programs for sexual minorities. Specifically, she would like to see psychological support systems improved for sexual minorities and help for young adults to avoid alcohol problems.