On June 1, the American Sociological Association released a study examining hazardous drinking among women who identified as lesbian or bisexual. The study is one of the first to investigate how apparent contradictions between a woman's sexual identity and her sexual behavior and attraction can lead to hazardous alcohol use.
Dr. Amelia Talley, co-author of this study and assistant professor of experimental psychology at Texas Tech University, told Windy City Times, "Traditionally, people's sexual orientation is believed to be comprised of at least three major facetsself-identification, attraction and behavior. … Only recently have researchers begun to compare alcohol outcomes based on each of the three sexual orientation facets. … My collaborators and I realized that inconsistencies among these facets were not uncommon, especially considering Lisa Diamond's work suggesting that humans express varying patterns of sexual fluidity throughout their lifetime. We wanted to look at some of the consequences of apparently contradictory facets of sexual orientation for alcohol use behaviors."
For guidance on the possible effects of these apparent contradictions, Talley turned to the work of Leon Festinger. Festinger's cognitive-dissonance theory states that humans are uncomfortable when two aspects of themselves, such as their beliefs and actions, are inconsistent with each other.
"In psychology, it is commonly believed that humans have a basic need for consistency" said Talley. "We argued that alcohol might be used, in some instances, by sexual minority women to distract themselves from addressing apparent contradictions with regard to their sexual orientation, due to recent identity or relationship transitions."
The data for the study was taken from a longitudinal survey of adult women who constitute sexual minorities. Participants were interviewed at each of three waves over the course of 10 years. They were asked to define their sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual behavior at each survey, using three distinct five-point scales. Participants were also asked about hazardous drinking including heavy episodic drinking, intoxication, alcohol-related negative consequences and symptoms of alcohol dependence.
The researchers found that women whose pattern of opposite-sex sexual behavior differed from that of their self-ascribed sexual minority identity were more likely to engage in hazardous drinking subsequently. And, inthe last wave of the study, women who engaged in more opposite-sex sexual behavior than would be expected based on their sexual identity reported higher levels of hazardous drinking at that same wave.
Measures of race and ethnicity did not make a difference for this pattern of findings. But there was some evidence that discordance among identities, attraction, and behavior may be more likely to lead to hazardous drinking in older women than in younger women.
Talley told Windy City Times, "For a long time, sexual orientation was presumed to be a stable, largely-fixed, inherent aspect of oneself. It was a big step [in the right direction] for scientists to come out and acknowledge that is it not uncommon for a person to revisit aspects of their sexual orientation from time to time. Older women who have always viewed their sexual identity one way, yet begin to acknowledge attractions toward both genders later in life, may have more to grapple with given that they may have been living with an established identity for some period of time and fulfilling corresponding expectancies [for that identity]."
When asked what she wants readers to take away from the study, Talley said "I want readers to, first and foremost, know that sexual fluidity is common and becoming increasingly so. In my opinion, embracing sexual fluidity and feeling comfortable with fluctuating aspects of one's sexual orientation may help alleviate the discomfort that may fuel hazardous drinking behaviors among sexual minority women. By affirming that such fluctuations and apparent inconsistencies are relatively common, even in the face of societal messages that can be hurtful and constraining to sexual minority persons, a person may begin feel more comfortable exploring and integrating aspects of their sexual orientation into their view of themselves."
As far as the future, Talley said she hopes that others will continue researching these issues. "I think this area of research could benefit from additional theoretical work that attempts to better understand exactly why sexual minority women may be at greater risk for hazardous alcohol use during periods of relative discordance with regard to their sexual orientation," she said. "In some instances, sexual-minority women may be using alcohol during periods of relative discordance as a means to cope with negative affect, as opposed to other potentially more adaptive strategies to manage their emotions."
The full study appears in the American Sociological Association's June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. It was supported with funding from the National Institutes of Health.