North Carolina

One in five teens reports a change in sexual orientation in high school, study finds

A new study found that many teens report changes in their sexual orientation during high school.

The study was done by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and the University of Pittsburgh and included 744 teenagers from three low-income high schools in rural areas in the southeastern United States, according to a release from N.C. State University.

Of those students, 46 percent were boys and 54 percent were girls, the release says.

Researchers surveyed the teenagers once a year over the course of three years, starting when they were freshmen or sophomores and ending when they were juniors or seniors, the release says.

The study, conducted between 2014 and 2016, found that 19 percent of these students reported at least one change in their “self-labeled sexual identity” over the course of the study, according to the release, and some reported more than one change.

This could mean that a student who identified as heterosexual one year identified as bisexual the next, the release says.

“To be clear, we’re talking about internally driven changes in sexual orientation,” J. Stewart, Ph.D. student at N.C. State and lead author of a paper on the study, said in the release. “This research does not suggest these changes can be imposed on an individual and does not support the idea of conversion therapy. There’s ample evidence that conversion therapy is harmful and does not influence anyone’s sexual orientation.”

More girls than boys reported these changes, the study found.

Twenty-six percent of girls reported a change in sexual identity, while 11 percent of boys did so, the release says.

The study also looked at the teens’ romantic attractions to boys and/or girls and found that 21 percent of them reported changes in to whom they were attracted.

The majority of the teens who identified as “sexual minorities” also reported some “same-sex attraction,” the study found, however there was variation among students who reported being heterosexual, especially among female students.

Nine percent of female students identified as heterosexual but reported having some attraction to girls, the study found, and 12 percent of girls who identified as heterosexual and reported having no attraction to girls also reported “engaging in same-sex sexual behavior.”

The results were similar for boys, but to a lesser degree, according to the release.

“Adolescence is a time of identity exploration, and sexual orientation is one aspect of that,” Stewart said in the release. “One takeaway here is that the process of sexual identity development is quite nuanced for a lot of teens. And based on research with young adults, we expect these patterns will continue for many people into their late 20s and even beyond.”

Teens who don’t identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual during adolescence could still identify as such later, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Having had sex with someone of the same gender does not always mean the teen is gay, and many gay teens have never had sex with someone of the same gender,” the NIH says.

Stewart said in the release that it would be interesting to see if the numbers would change in different “sociopolitical environments.”

“Additionally, we weren’t able to identify how these patterns looked among trans and other gender minority adolescents,” Stewart said, according to the release. “That would be an important direction for future work.”

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Bailey Aldridge is a reporter covering real-time news in North and South Carolina. She has a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.