COLUMBIA — Young adults who are actively exploring their sexual identities in college might be more likely to misuse alcohol, a newly published study by MU researchers found.
The study showed that college students whose sexual identification was not exclusively heterosexual or homosexual – such as bisexual men and women or mostly straight men and women – tended to misuse alcohol more frequently than students who identified themselves as exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual.
Amelia Talley, the lead researcher for the study and a research assistant professor in psychological sciences at MU, said the comparison among groups did not reveal differences in the amount or frequency of alcohol use, but rather, in the reasons for drinking and its consequences.
The study was published in the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, which publishes peer-reviewed studies on topics related to alcohol consumption and drug use.
Talley said those people who are still exploring their sexual identities, or who might not yet feel entirely comfortable with their sexual orientations, might be more likely to have "maladaptive reasons for drinking."
"They may drink because they are in bad mood or they are upset," said Talley. These sexual minorities may also report drinking to try to fit in with a certain group, she said.
Those groups, compared to strictly heterosexual or homosexual students, attributed higher levels of their drinking to alleviating anxiety and depression. "They may feel stigmatized by both groups," Talley said.
On the other hand, those who are more certain and firm about what their sexual identities are, either heterosexual or homosexual, tend to drink for more common reasons such as to socialize or to feel happier.
"Bisexual men and mostly straight women whose sexual orientation was in fluctuation during the college years reported the most negative consequences from alcohol misuse," Talley said.
The study analyzed data from 2,068 MU students for four years starting in their freshman year in the fall of 2001. They were surveyed about their sexual self-identification, sexual attraction and sexual behavior every semester in their first four years of college.
The survey also asked about frequency of alcohol use, motivations for drinking and negative consequences resulting from alcohol use.
Kenneth Sher, an MU curators' distinguished professor in psychological sciences, oversaw the data collection, which is ongoing.
The intention in gathering the broad range of data is to better understand patterns of alcohol use among undergraduate students and why they start drinking. Talley drew from a sub-sample of students who answered questions about sexual orientation.
Talley said sexual minorities' maladaptive coping efforts and the negative consequences they have resulted in indicate that some were going through a difficult time emotionally during their college years.
Struby Struble, coordinator of MU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Resource Center, said it’s "sad but true" that women questioning their sexuality are more accepted by society when they are misusing alcohol than when they are sober.
"It can be seen as a celebration in our society," Struble said. "Flirting or even kissing when they are drunk will be easier for them. They won’t be hated or ostracized by their friends. Being drunk can be an excuse for them."
Struble said the study affirmed the resource center's efforts to provide programs that support people who are not clear about their sexualities are necessary.
"Be nice to your friends. Be open about your friends' sexual orientation. And, take it seriously," Struble said.
Talley said she hopes this study can encourage people to pay more attention to the diversity of sexual minorities.
"They can be mostly straight or mostly homosexual," she said. "They are all valid and acceptable."
Talley said that sexual minorities need to realize they have the option to not define themselves under a rigid sexual orientation.
Currently, Talley and her team are conducting a survey on mostly straight women, trying to research this group in depth.
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