Measurement of sexual identity in surveys: Implications for substance abuse research

  • McCabe S
  • Hughes T
  • Bostwick W
 et al. 
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Abstract

Researchers are increasingly recognizing the need to include measures of sexual orientation in health studies. However, relatively little attention has been paid to how sexual identity, the cognitive aspect of sexual orientation, is defined and measured. Our study examined the impact of using two separate sexual identity question formats: a three-category question (response options included heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbian/gay), and a similar question with five response options (only lesbian/gay, mostly lesbian/gay, bisexual, mostly heterosexual, only heterosexual). A large probability-based sample of undergraduate university students was surveyed and a randomly selected subsample of participants was asked both sexual identity questions. Approximately one-third of students who identified as bisexual based on the three-category sexual identity measure chose "mostly heterosexual" or "mostly lesbian/gay" on the five-category measure. In addition to comparing sample proportions of lesbian/gay, bisexual, or heterosexual participants based on the two question formats, rates of alcohol and other drug use were also examined among the participants. Substance use outcomes among the sexual minority subgroups differed based on the sexual identity question format used: bisexual participants showed greater risk of substance use in analyses using the three-category measure whereas "mostly heterosexual" participants were at greater risk when data were analyzed using the five-category measure. Study results have important implications for the study of sexual identity, as well as whether and how to recode responses to questions related to sexual identity.

Author-supplied keywords

  • College students
  • Sexual identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Substance use

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Authors

  • Sean Esteban McCabe

  • Tonda L. Hughes

  • Wendy Bostwick

  • Michele Morales

  • Carol J. Boyd

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