Mix or Match?

Sexual attraction, identity and behaviour in same sex attracted young women in Australia: an update in redress, 15 (2), 10-15h2.
Lynne Hillier

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Over the last ten years we have witnessed in Australia an upsurge in interest in young people, same sex attraction and sexual health. Until 1998, much of this sexuality research interest focused on young men because of the more obvious risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The findings from a 1998 national survey with same sex attracted youth indicated that the assumptions made about the ways sexual attraction translates into identity and behaviour for same sex attracted young women were inaccurate and this had implications for their sexual health and well being. For many of these young women there was no clear match between attraction, identity and behaviour and many exclusively same sex attracted young women were having sex with opposite sex partners. These young women were sexually active earlier and, according to one large Australian study, were several times more likely than their heterosexual peers to have contracted a sexually transmissible infection. Now, after a great deal of social change and considerable work in schools to promote an inclusive curriculum and to reduce homophobic abuse, we have a second national survey to provide an update on what we know about how these young women are performing their sexual difference.

Over the last ten years in Australia we have witnessed an upsurge in interest in non-heterosexual young people’s sexual health and well-being. In particular, a great deal of attention has been paid to the sexuality and sexual health of same sex attracted young men. Despite the indications that these young people do gender differently from their heterosexual peers, little research attention for many years was paid to the ways that this may play out for same sex attracted young women, particularly at the intersections of sexual attraction, identity and behaviour. In a 2001 article we argued that research ‘privileges gay male populations, under-represents women and bisexuals and does not sufficiently differentiate between homosexual experience for women and men’ (Dempsey et al, 2001, p.67). The reasons for this lack of attention are many, however of pertinence to this article is the assumption that same sex attracted young women are immune from sexual health issues.

Since the advent of the HIV pandemic, research has mainly focused on HIV prevention with same sex attracted young men. The assumption has been that same sex attracted young women are not at risk for HIV and therefore HIV research dollars should not be committed to them. Same sex attracted young women have been produced as somehow immune from sexual health and well-being problems and not needing to figure in preventative research. As a result, there has been the temptation to bracket them out of the equation when sexual health research and interventions are considered. As well, the belief that woman-to-woman transmission of other sexually transmitted infections is unlikely and rare translated into a lack of interest in non-heterosexual women. The campaign Lesbians need pap smears too by the Anti-Cancer Council in Victoria in 2001 was an attempt to redress the popular belief that lesbians do not suffer from sexually transmitted infections and their secondary effects. The main flaw in this type of thinking is the belief that lesbians do not have sex with men. We learned from the first national survey of same sex attracted youth, Writing Themselves In (Hillier et al, 1998) that many young women who are same sex attracted, and/or who identify as lesbians, do have sex with men. Furthermore, these young women are sexually active earlier than their heterosexual peers and in many cases are performing heterosexuality more actively than heterosexual young women. The stark mismatch between the sexual attraction, identity and behaviour of many of these young women was confirmed by Smith et al’s work in Australia (2003b) and Diamond’s work with non-heterosexual young women in the United States (Diamond 2000). Young women were also less likely to have acted on their same sex desires than were young men.

Though not wanting to be prescriptive, or to foreclose on a more fluid sexuality for young women, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the vast majority of opposite sex attracted young people have an unquestioned and seamless congruence between these three parts of their sexuality which are positioned as natural, normal and inevitable. If we leave aside identity, and discussion in the literature about the problems of identity politics, it is hard to argue for the merit, in terms of their well-being, of a mismatch between sexual attraction and behaviour in these young women, especially when the mismatch is produced in a culture that punishes sexual difference. These findings have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Dempsey et al, 2001; Hillier, 2001).

Of relevance to the sexual health of same sex attracted young women, was a further finding from Writing Themselves In (1998), that schools’ neglect of inclusive sex education and other curricula was particularly evident where lesbian relationships and safe sex were concerned. Less than one in 10 of these young women were given information about relevant safe sex from school or the family. Strong evidence of the need for attention to the sexual health of these young women was found in the 1997 national survey on the sexual health of 3,500 senior students where same sex attracted female students were four times more likely to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection than their heterosexual counterparts (Lindsay et al., 1997).

Since the 1998 Writing Themselves In national report there have been many changes in the Australian cultural landscape in regard to visibility, acceptance and support of sexual difference.

A new inclusive sexual health curriculum, Talking Sexual Health has been introduced into schools in each state. There has been an increase in positive media representation of alternate sexual lifestyles and funding has been made available for community development projects that have raised awareness of sexual difference and have built community capacity to support same sex attracted young people. Relationships bills have been introduced in most states and Ministerial Advisory Committees on gay and lesbian health have been set up in two states.

Of particular interest to this article is what the second national study of the sexual health and well being of same sex attracted young people, Writing Themselves In Again (2005) can tell us about the sexual attraction, identity and behaviour of same sex attracted young women and their sexual health in 2005.

A self-complete survey was made available at the beginning of 2004 on the internet and in printed form. The project was advertised nationally in magazines, on the Internet, national radio and through youth networks. Young Australians aged between 14 and 21 years, who were sexually attracted to people of their own sex, were invited to participate. The survey included demographics and items on homophobia, sexual identity, attraction and behaviour, drug use, self-harm, disclosure and support and feelings of safety in a number of venues. The questionnaire was piloted with young people and youth workers in urban and rural areas.

Young people were invited to complete the survey anonymously online via the http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ssay/ website or fill out a coupon in a magazine with their name and address and apply for a copy. They could also leave their contact details on a toll free answering services for the survey to be sent to them. The content for the web-based version was the same as the hard copy version, with the format modified in order for participants to simply scroll down and submit at the end. To ensure anonymity was maintained, the mail-back process was configured to conceal participants’ email addresses. Using the term ‘same sex attracted’

As with our previous research (Hillier et al., 1996; Hillier et al 1998), we adopted the descriptive term ‘same sex attracted’ for a number of reasons. First, young people tend to experience sexual attractions long before they assign themselves with a sexual identity and so by using attractions as our criterion we were maximising our potential research population. Second, unlike the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, ‘same sex attracted’ is less threatening for organisations and young people. We were, for example, given permission to distribute a rural survey through education department schools using a question about attraction where we may not have been able to use the terms gay or lesbian. Third, by using the term ‘same sex attracted’ we are not foreclosing on young people’s sexual futures by using a firm identity. Young people who are same sex attracted today may or may not become the gay or lesbian adults of the future.

It is impossible to calculate a response rate for this survey. We used a scattergun advertising approach in an attempt to reach as many young people as possible and, because no one was directly approached to be involved in the research, we have no idea how many same sex attracted young people were exposed to the advertising.

We received 1749 valid surveys, over double the number in the 1998 study. Young people were on average, 18 years old with young women being 6 months younger. The gender balance was skewed away from young women, who made up 37% (n=643) of the group. There were nine transgender young people (7 m-f and 2 f-m) in the sample. Eighty-eight percent (n=1539) were born in Australia and (2%, n=35), New Zealand. Of the 10% (n=175) born elsewhere, the majority were born in the Americas (3%, n=51), North-West Europe (3%, n=51) and South-East Asia (2%, n=35). As well, 2% (n=35) were of an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) background, the same percentage for the 1998 survey and a little under the population census figure of 2.9% (Census of Population and Housing: Australia’s Youth. (2001). Eighty percent of young people came from major Australian cities (n=1327), 15% (n=256) from inner regional Australia 5% (n=82) from outer regional and remote Australia.

Sexual attraction
As in 1998, we asked young people whether they were attracted to people of the same sex only, both sexes, the opposite sex only, or if they were they unsure. In Table 1 it can be seen that in 2005, more young men and young women were attracted exclusively to their own sex and fewer young men and young women were attracted to both sexes than in 1998.

Table X Difference in young women and men’s sexual attraction from 1998 to 2004

YW 1998 (374) YW 2005 (643) YM 1998 (375) YM 2005 (1103)
SSA 32% 45% 60% 78%
BSA 58% 46% 32% 19%
OSA 1% .6% 1%/td> .2%
Unsure 9% 9% 7% 3%

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