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The Development of Sexual Orientation

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Of course, in addition to the obvious physical changes of puberty, the natural outcomes of this process include increased sexual drive and feelings of sexual attraction. Most children begin experiencing feelings of sexual attraction sometime during late childhood or early adolescence. The object of their attraction is usually a member of the opposite sex, but some youngsters are attracted to people of the same sex. A person's sexual orientation is his or her tendency to be attracted to people of the same sex (homosexual orientation), of the opposite sex (heterosexual orientation), or of both sexes (bisexual orientation). Why an individual develops a specific sexual orientation is a matter of great debate, as you are probably well aware. The basic issue is the same question we have discussed so often: What are the relative influences of nature (genetics and biology) and nurture (the environment in which a child develops), and how do these two factors interact?

Researchers estimate that from 2 to 10% of adults in the United States identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Patterson, 1995; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2004; Savin - Williams & Ream, 2007). One study of young men who described themselves as homosexual or bisexual found that these men recalled experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction by the age of 10 and had their first homosexual experiences at around 14 (Savin-Williams, 1995).

Some differences between homosexual and heterosexual individuals are apparent during childhood. For example, homosexual men and women report having had cross-gender interests (e.g., preferring toys, activities, or clothing typically associated with the opposite sex) during childhood more often than heterosexuals. Children with gender identity disorder (in which a person is dissatisfied and uncomfortable with his or her biological sex) dress and behave in ways that are more typical of the opposite sex. These children are significantly more likely to develop a homosexual orientation than children without the disorder (Bailey & Zucker, 1995; Zucker & Bradley, 1995).

One model describes the development of a homosexual identity as progressing through four stages (Troiden, 1988):

  • Stage 1: Sensitization. In this stage, which usually occurs before puberty, a child has a general feeling of being different from his or her same-sex peers.
  • Stage 2: Identity confusion. Usually first experienced during adolescence, this stage involves a conflict between a teenager's prior self-image and his or her current feelings of same-sex arousal (or lack of heterosexual arousal).
  • Stage 3: Identity assumption. This stage often begins during the early twenties. The person defines and accepts himself or herself as homosexual and associates regularly with homosexual peer groups.
  • Stage 4: Commitment. This stage begins when the person enters a same-sex emotional and sexual relationship. The person adopts homosexuality "as a way of life," views a homosexual identity as a valid and satisfying self-identity, and may "come out" to others (Troiden, 1988, p. 110).
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