ReConceptualizing the Gay Teen

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology, June 2004 | Go to article overview

ReConceptualizing the Gay Teen

Winter, Metta, Human Ecology

For more than 25 years Ritch Savin-Williams has been listening to young people talk about what it is like to grow up. His ground-breaking research on adolescent dominance hierarchies, self-esteem development, friendship patterns, and sexuality has appeared in nearly 100 scholarly papers and seven books.


So when Savin-Williams, professor and chair of the Department of Human Development, began analyzing his interviews with 78 college women for his next book,... And Then I Kissed Her: Young Women's Stories, he wasn't expecting the existing scholarship on adolescent development to be challenged.

"These young women blew to bits how scholars have conventionally understood the progression by which members of sexual minorities develop from childhood to adulthood," Savin-Williams explains. "There is little relationship between those stages of development and the way young women are leading their lives today."

By stages of development Savin-Williams is referring to the series of events included in "coming-out" models of sexual identity development. For well over two decades, scholars have held that sexual-minority youth follow a linear development sequence that begins with an individual's first awareness of same-sex attractions and culminates many years later in a celebration of their sexual identity in a larger social context, typically the political arena--or as today, in applying for a marriage license.

But this group of Savin-Williams's interviewees indicated strongly that they did not follow the sequence so often reported in the literature on gay youth. What could account for the difference? Gender.

"Most coming-out models were originally derived from exclusively male samples," Savin-Williams writes in his introduction to "Sexual Identity Trajectories among Sexual-Minority Youths: Gender Comparisons," which appeared in the Archives of Social Behavior. These models posit that a first awareness of same-sex attractions is followed sequentially by testing and exploration, engaging in or experimenting with same-sex sexual contact, adopting a sexual-minority label, disclosing this identity to others, then becoming involved in a same-sex romantic relationship that may eventually be celebrated in public.

In Savin-Williams's trajectories study, he took the findings of his interviews with young women and compared those with how 86 young men described their lives. All were college students between the ages of 17 and 25 years and were diverse in social class, religious affiliation, and size of hometown community. Savin-Williams found substantial differences in the life stories of women. Most significantly, he found that "adolescent males had an earlier onset of all milestones except disclosure, and the contexts for sexual identity milestones were likely to be emotionally oriented for young women and sexually oriented for young men."

Exhibiting a greater variability and complexity of developmental paths was not the only way that the young women Savin-Williams interviewed challenged his thinking. They also frequently refused to accept the labels "lesbian" or "bisexual," terms by which social scientists identify sexual-minority women. "These young women made it clear that they don't like those terms," Savin-Williams explains. "They feel the terms are boxes created by scholars that are artificially restrictive and do not reflect the fluidity and complexity of their sexuality."

These results and their implications are reported in his forthcoming book for the Harvard University Press series on adolescent development, The "New" Gay Teen: Post-Gay and Gayishness among Contemporary Teens.

"Homoerotic youth.... [are] rejecting traditional conceptualizations of identity categories and re-interpreting their lives in innovative ways," he writes in an introduction to Chapter 10, "Re-Conceptualizing Contemporary Homoerotic Youth: Identity Resisters, Refusers, and the Ordinary. …

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