The Development of Sexual Orientation
The psychological and social processes inherent in the formation of a same-sex sexual orientation have captivated researchers for decades. The period from 1970 through 1990 witnessed a proliferation of stage models that depicted the developmental pathways to the establishment of a healthy gay or lesbian identity. Cass (1979, 1984), Coleman (1982), and Troiden (1979), among others, described these developmental processes similarly: all proposed a sequence of events beginning with awareness of same-sex attraction, followed by a period of sexual experimentation and confusion. Eventually, individuals emerge from this turmoil with an internal sense of themselves as gay or lesbian. Usually, this involves labeling oneself as gay or lesbian, followed by self-disclosure to others. The final developmental milestone in this process is the achievement of a sense of pride. Thus, over time, sexual orientation shifts from being the dominant aspect of one’s identity to one component in a constellation of aspects that make up one’s identity.
Research on bisexual identity development has been slower in coming, perhaps because of the tenacity of negative stereotypes and beliefs about bisexuality. Recent models by Brown (2002) and Bradford (2004) propose that bisexual persons experience a period of initial confusion and anxiety, followed by further exploration, an active search for support from others, and eventual self-acceptance, pride, and activism (Potoczniak, 2007).
Alternative Developmental Models
Although stage models like those proposed by Cass and Coleman have been widely cited in the literature, they have also been criticized on several grounds (Diamond, 2006; Savin-Williams, 2005). Many researchers believe that conventional stage theories are too simplistic to account for the complex nature of sexuality and sexual identity and that they do not adequately reflect the extent to which sexual attractions, behaviors, and identities fluctuate throughout adolescent and adult development. Psychologists Diamond and Savin-Williams are among the critics of same-sex identity stage theories. Each espouses a more social constructionist view of sexual orientation that takes into account the impact of social forces in the making of identities. Savin-Williams (2005) argued that “unless a sexual identity model explicitly rejects universalism and includes contextual, cultural, and historic considerations it is doomed as an obsolete relic of a time when development was perceived as predetermined and universal” (p. 81). Savin-Williams (2001, 2005) proposed an alternative construct to the developmental stage models to better capture the process of sexual orientation termed differential developmental trajectories.
Savin-Williams cited examples in which people’s real-life experiences don’t seem to “fit” the theoretical models that have been proposed. For example, Dube’s (2000) research suggested that some men identify themselves as gay or bisexual without ever having had same-sex sexual experiences. Dube distinguished between gay and bisexual men who label themselves after having sexual experiences with other men (sex-centered) and those who identify themselves before having sexual contact with other men (identity-centered). Schindhelm and Hospers (2004) found confirmatory evidence of this in their sample of gay men.
Diamond (2006, 2008) has conducted longitudinal studies of young sexual minority women over the period of a decade. She found evidence of variation and fluidity in the self-reports of women about their sexuality and identities. In her 10-year follow-up in 2008, Diamond found that more women embraced a “bisexual” label or “no label” over time than claimed a “lesbian” label. As a result of her research findings, Diamond (2006, 2008) has provocatively argued against some of the stereotypes, many of which have been embedded in the research on sexual orientation:
- The nature of sexual attraction is dichotomous, exclusively oriented to either the same or the opposite sex.
- People question their sexual orientation only once during what could be tantamount to a life “crisis.”
- Bisexuality is just a phase on the way to becoming exclusively same-sex oriented.
- Embracing a “label” is necessary in order to achieve a healthy outcome.
In conclusion, Diamond (2006) recommended overhauling our views on sexuality and identity and eliminating the use of categories to describe sexual identities. She recommended that researchers explore “how specific personal-context interactions shape diverse manifestations of same-sex sexuality over time” (p. 87).
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