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Different Categorizations of Women's Sexual Orientation Reveal Unique Health Outcomes in a Nationally Representative U.S. Sample

Published:August 18, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.whi.2022.07.003

      Abstract

      Background

      Sexual minority women (i.e., women minoritized for their sexualities) are identified as high risk for mental health and substance use problems; however, there is no consensus on the criteria by which women are categorized as sexual minority. Though there is some evidence suggesting that certain subgroups of women are at higher risk than others based on sexual orientation, different categorization schemes for sexual orientation have yet to be compared within the same sample.

      Method

      Using data from the National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions–III (N = 19,528), we examined how multiple categorization schemes (i.e., identity, behavior, recency of sexual behavior) for categorizing women who have sex with women (WSW) yield different estimates of prevalence of mental health and substance use issues. We used chi-square and logistic regression to analyze the link between sexual orientation categorization schemes and health, categorizing by 1) self-identification only, 2) behavior only, and 3) the combination of self-identification and behavior (recent vs. past).

      Results

      We discovered high prevalence rates of health problems among heterosexual-identified WSW who reported no recent sexual activity with women (i.e., previously had sex with women but not within the past 12 months); this category of women comprised 35% of all WSW.

      Discussion

      Step by step, we found more detailed information about these women's experiences by moving to the complex categorization scheme (the combination of self-identification and behavior). Heterosexual-identified women who have had sex with women in their past (though not recently) presented as a large group with high prevalence rates of substance use and mental disorders. These women remain invisible to researchers who categorize sexual orientation only by sexual identity or by behavior and ignore the role of behavior change over time—imprecisely categorizing such women as heterosexual or as women who have sex with men. They thus are underserved by health research and represent a significant population for further study and intervention.
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      Biography

      Anna C. Salomaa, PhD, is a Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry at VA Boston Healthcare System. Her research interests include 1) addressing issues in measuring sexual orientation in clinical and research settings and 2) enhancing health outcomes among sexual minority populations.

      Biography

      Jes L. Matsick, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State. Her research incorporates feminist perspectives into the psychological study of stigma and prejudice, with an emphasis on outcomes for stigmatized groups (e.g., LGBTQ + people).

      Biography

      Cara E. Exten, PhD, MPH, is Assistant Professor in Penn State's College of Nursing. As an infectious disease epidemiologist, her research is focused on health disparities in the context of sexual health (e.g., HIV, STIs) and substance use, particularly among LGBTQ + populations.

      Biography

      Mary Kruk, MS, is a PhD candidate in Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State. Her research focuses on 1) experiences of stigma (e.g., identity threat and safety) and health and 2) women's resistance of conventional gendered expectations.