Kids' shifting answers might muddle study of gay youth

Faulty data could make the group seem more, or less, vulnerable than it is

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LOS ANGELES — A controversial new study argues that a host of research on gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers could be based on faulty data.

The report analyzes the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey that followed a nationally representative group of tens of thousands of teens into adulthood. Add Health, as it is known, is considered one of the most important sources of data on the lives of young people, including those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual.

Ritch Savin-Williams noted that more than 70 percent of the teens who said they had ever had a "romantic attraction" to someone of the same sex later told researchers that they were straight.

That struck Savin-Williams, the director of Cornell University's Sex and Gender Lab, as odd.

People who were "inconsistent" on their sexual attraction scored lower in intelligence and got lower grades, so the questions might have confused them, he said in his analysis published last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Others may have answered falsely for fun, he added. Earlier research on the survey found some signs of dishonesty, the study noted. "Inconsistent" boys and girls were more delinquent and more likely to say they weren't honest when they filled out the survey.

Savin-Williams argued confused teens and "jokesters" may have distorted the results, making "sexual minority" teens seem to be in worse shape than they were, the Archives study argued.

Other experts challenged that assertion. The notion that gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are at higher risk of suffering worse physical and mental health is consistent with many other studies based on different sources of data, said Ilan Meyer, a scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles' Williams Institute. The study raises a good question but doesn't actually answer it, he argued.

Other experts argued that "inconsistent" teens might not all be "jokesters" or confused. University of Arizona sociologist Stephen Russell, who has used the Add Health data in his own research, said it makes perfect sense that young people might have romantic feelings for the same sex, yet later call themselves straight.

"Why is it unlikely they might be questioning who they are — and grow up to identify as straight?" he asked. If anything, he argued, such teens might skew the survey results in the other direction, driving down rates of risky behavior and health vulnerability among "sexual minority" teens.