New Study Shows Those Who Identify as Heterosexual Aren't as Straight as They Think

Tuesday September 7, 2021
Originally published on August 20, 2021

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Scientific research has shown that sexuality exists on a spectrum. But how certain are people about where they fit on it? A new University of Sydney study suggests that peoples' reported sexual orientation can change after reading about the nature of sexual orientation.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature's Scientific Reports, the study found that a significant number of heterosexual people report being less exclusive in their sexual orientation as well as more willing to have same-sex experiences after reading a one-page informational article.

"Did we change people's sexual orientation via our interventions? Surely not. I think our study may have changed how people interpreted their underlying sexual feelings," said lead author Dr. James Morandini. "This means two people with identical sexual orientations could describe their sexual orientation quite differently, depending on whether they have been exposed to fluid or continuous ways of understanding sexuality."

One informational article read by participants suggested that scientific research has found that there are many gradations of sexual attraction towards men and women, and people can fall anywhere along the continuum, from exclusive attraction to men to exclusive attraction to women. Another informational article showed that sexual orientation can change over time, thus can be fluid.

All participants self-identified as "straight" before the study began. However, compared to a control group, after reading the first article, participants were 28 percent more likely to identify as non-exclusively heterosexual, and 19 percent indicated they would be more likely to be willing to engage in same-sex sexual activities. Overall, the rate of "non-exclusive heterosexuality" more than quadrupled after this activity. Similar, albeit weaker, effects were found when people read that sexual orientation is better characterized as fluid rather than stable throughout life.

The study's senior author, Associate Professor Ilan Dar-Nimrod from The University of Sydney's School of Psychology, said, "This is not that surprising given that 'non-exclusive heterosexuals' (as opposed to bisexual, gay or lesbian individuals), although being the biggest same-sex attracted group, are not well captured in our society's representations and even vernacular."

"Given the social value that our society attaches to these labels, however, such a shift may have far-reaching implications," added Dar-Nimrod. "It also suggests that certain level of same-sex sexual attraction may be much more common than previously estimated."

An Australian sample of 460 individuals (232 women, 228 men) who identified as "straight" prior to the study took part in an online panel study.

They were instructed to read an article that suggested that scientific research found one of the following:

  • There are many gradations of sexual attraction towards men and women and people can fall anywhere along the continuum from exclusive attraction to men to exclusive attraction to women.
  • Sexual orientation exists in three discrete, non-overlapping categories: gay, bisexual, and straight.
  • Sexual orientation can change throughout one's lifetime.
  • Sexual orientation is stable once a person identifies which gender they are attracted to.
  • Control (no discussion of sexual orientation but instead discussing global warming).

    Participants were then asked to rate their sexual orientation on a 9-point scale from exclusively heterosexual (1) to exclusively homosexual (9) and provide information on how certain they are about their sexual orientation and how willing they are to engage in same-sex sexual encounters.