Confusion, ‘Jokesters’ May Skew Student Sexuality Surveys

A host of research on gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers could be based on faulty data because of confused teens and "jokesters" who later said they were straight, according to a controversial new study.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey that followed a nationally representative group of tens of thousands of teens into adulthood, is focused on by the report. Known as Add Health, it's considered one of the most important sources of data on the lives of young people, including those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual.

The fact that more than 70% of the teens who said they had ever had a "romantic attraction" to someone of the same sex but later told researchers that they were straight caught the attention of Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University. According to him, that struck as odd since teens usually come out of the closet, not the other way around. The surprising result showed that some teens didn't understand the question, while others were "jokesters" who were having fun with the survey as contended by Savin-Williams and a fellow researcher in his analysis that was published last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

As the researchers found, people who were "inconsistent" on their sexual attraction scored lower in intelligence and got lower grades.

As the director of Cornell's Sex and Gender Lab, Savin-Williams put it, the questions about "romantic attraction" might have confused them, especially since the survey did not define what that meant.

He added that others may have answered falsely for fun.

As Emily Alpert Reyes of Los Angeles Times reports, the study also noted that earlier research on the Add Health survey found some signs of dishonesty.

The findings raise questions about a wide swath of research on "sexual minority" youth that is based on the Add Health survey as Savin-Williams noted. Additionally, the Archives study argued that confused teens and "jokesters" may have distorted those results, making "sexual minority" teens seem to be in worse shape than they were.

To social science researchers, the existence of "inconsistent" teens isn't new. "It's not that we saw something that no one else had seen," Savin-Williams added. "But they kept using the data. … People should have said, ‘Hold on here. Who are these kids?'"

The assertion that the existence of "inconsistent" teens undermines findings from earlier studies was challenged by other experts. Ilan Meyer, A scholar at UCLA's Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, believes that the notion that gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are at higher risk of suffering worse physical and mental health is consistent with many other studies based on different sources of data.

"Though the new study points to some "interesting issues"," Meyer said, "we don't know what the results would look like if these inconsistent youth were not included." He argued that the study raises the question but doesn't actually answer it.

Not all think that "inconsistent" teens are necessarily just "jokesters" or confused, as other experts argue. It makes perfect sense that young people might have romantic feelings for the same sex, yet later call themselves straight, especially in light of enduring stigma against gays, lesbians and bisexuals in many parts of the country, according to University of Arizona sociologist Stephen Russell, who has used the Add Health data in his own research on sexual attraction and health risks.

01 9, 2014
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