Disparities between stated sexual orientation, sexual attraction and history of sexual behavior may contribute to hazardous drinking among sexual minority women, according to new research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The researchers, including lead author Amelia E. Talley of Texas Tech University, gathered data from a 10-year longitudinal Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women study. During three different waves of the study between 2000 and 2010, the women were asked about their orientations, attractions and sexual behaviors. During each wave, the participants were asked to identify their sexual orientations as only homosexual/lesbian, mostly homosexual/lesbian, bisexual, mostly heterosexual or only heterosexual. They were also asked whether they were attracted to only women, mostly women, equally men and women, mostly men or only men. Finally, they were asked whether their sexual partners in the last five years had consisted of exclusively women, mostly women, equally men and women, mostly men or only men.
Cognitive Dissonance May Be to Blame for Stress
The research team suspected that women whose professed sexual orientation didn’t fully correspond with their sexual attraction and partner history were more likely to engage in risky drinking. This hypothesis is based on the idea of cognitive dissonance, which refers to the mental stress caused by holding two conflicting beliefs at the same time. The study refers to the differences observed between the participants’ orientation, attraction and behavior as sexual orientation discordance. The researches found that sexual minority women who engaged in sexual activity with mostly opposite-sex partners were more likely to report hazardous drinking. They also discovered that hazardous drinking is more common among older sexual minority women who showed sexual orientation discordance than among younger women who also had discordance. Sexual minority women sometimes face pressure to identify and behave in a certain way in public despite the fact that this may not correspond with the way they privately identify or the range of attractions they experience. The stress and discomfort that this discrepancy causes may be stronger for older sexual minority women because they are “supposed” to have passed the age of experimentation and to have their sexual orientation and preferences sorted out.
Avoiding Further Stigmatization
Previous research has consistently found that sexual minority women and men are at higher risk for hazardous drinking, smoking and drug use, as well as for needing treatment for these issues. However, it is important to understand exactly what puts these individuals at increased danger in order to develop strategies to reduce their risk of hazardous behavior and to avoid further stigmatizing people of minority sexualities. It is not simply the state of being non-heterosexual that makes sexual minority individuals more likely to develop substance use disorders. Instead, it is a combination of internal and external factors such as identity confusion and discrimination that forge this relationship. Talley’s study provides new insight into the stress and anxiety that often beset people with more fluid gender identities. It may also help to explain why women who identify as bisexual tend to have even higher rates of substance abuse than women who identify as lesbian, despite the fact that on the surface it may appear that bisexual women should have an easier time “fitting in” with societal norms. This study also underlines the importance of encouraging people to be themselves, no matter the challenges they may face as a result of being true to who they are.