Tag Archives: sexuality

Published on Apr 24, 2017

Gay youth today describe themselves as proud, happy, and grateful – something many of us would have found surprising a generation ago. Yet many adults seem skeptical about this change in perceptions and attitudes. What does it mean to be gay today? Professor Ritch Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of developmental psychology in the Cornell College of Human Ecology, observes that huge gaps still remain in our knowledge about gay youth’s basic developmental needs, their sexual and romantic life, and overall well-being. With his new book, Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay, Savin-Williams aims to begin filling this void, exploring identity and sexuality as told by today’s generation of gay young men. Through a series of in-depth interviews with teenagers and men in their early 20s, he offers a contemporary perspective on gay lives in present day America. In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann Library in March 2017, Dr. Savin-Williams shared highlights from this work and some thoughts about what his findings suggest for the future of gay youth in an age of growing tolerance.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 23, 2014



Genetic factors related to how sexually mature a girl thinks she is influence her sexual behavior, above and beyond her actual physical development, reports a new study.

The study, published in June in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 50:6), is the first to directly test the link between pubertal timing and involvement in specific sexual behaviors, disentangling the genetic and environmental influences shaping adolescent sexual timing and behavior, the authors say. Their findings indicate that unique genetic factors influencing how mature girls think they are predict their engagement in dating, romantic sex and casual sex, whereas genetic factors associated with the timing of puberty predict the age when girls first become sexually active.

Sara Moore


“We’ve known for a long time that when kids go through puberty is strongly influenced by genetic factors, but there’s more to puberty than just biology,” says Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and recipient of this year’s Young Investigator’s Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence.

“Dramatic social and environmental changes take place as kids transition into the new roles that come with sexual maturity; it turns out that how girls interpret and respond to these changes is also genetically influenced,” Mendle says.

“While environmental influences are extremely important in the dating and sexual outcomes we studied, we were surprised that genetic factors played such a large role,” Mendle adds.

“We suspect that genetically influenced traits such as sensation seeking and sociality could be at play in shaping how teens navigate the complex social environments surrounding puberty,” says Cornell graduate student Sarah Moore, who is first author on the study, “Pubertal Timing and Adolescent Sexual Behavior in Girls” with Mendle and K. Paige Harden from the University of Texas.

The researchers analyzed information from more than 900 female sibling pairs in a national longitudinal study of adolescent health and risk behavior. The pairs included identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings, cousins and unrelated siblings, allowing the researchers to distinguish the effects of environment from heredity.

The team found that shared genetic influences on age of puberty and on how girls perceive their physical maturity were responsible for differences in the age at which girls became sexually active. Girls who matured earlier than their peers perceived earlier maturity and also initiated sex at an earlier age. Potentially, this is because genetic factors such as hormone levels influence age of menarche and also affect visible appearance and sexual desire, the authors say.

Genetic factors related only to girls’ perceived maturity, on the other hand, were responsible for their engagement in sexual behavior. Girls who perceived earlier maturity than their peers were more engaged in dating, romantic sex and nonromantic sex. Furthermore, the team found no association between girls’ involvement in specific sexual behaviors and genetic or environmental factors influencing the onset of puberty. In other words, pubertal timing itself is not a risk factor for casual sex as some prior research had suggested, say the authors.

“Our research shows that girls’ perceptions of their pubertal development are different from their actual pubertal development and drive different outcomes down the road,” Mendle concludes.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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Jane Mendle
The Paper

By Roger Segelken
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, April 24, 2014

The largest minority on the sexual-orientation spectrum – the mostly heterosexuals, estimated at around 7 percent of the general adult population – report more health problems than heterosexuals and somewhat fewer than bisexuals.

So say the Cornell psychologists who put mostly heterosexuals – also known as MHs or mostly straights – on the map (and on the minds of human-sexuality scholars and therapists): Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of human development and director of the Cornell Sex and Gender Lab in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D. ’14.

Their study was published in the April 2014 Journal of Sex Research as “Psychological and Physical Health of Mostly Heterosexuals: A Systematic Review.”

“Compared to heterosexuals, mostly straight youth and adults reported more physical and mental health problems,” said Vrangalova, now an adjunct instructor in the Psychology Department at New York University.

“MHs are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders (from anorexia to obesity) and are more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm than heterosexuals,” the Vrangalova said. “They also report more health-risk behaviors, like substance use and sexual risk taking, and have more sexual/reproductive health and physical health issues.”

Finally, the mostly straights expressed more experiences of victimization, lower connectedness in their personal and social relationships, and were more likely to inhabit stressful or risky environments than heterosexuals, the psychologists learned. On the positive side, MHs were more educated and suffered fewer broken bones, compared with others on the continuum.

Compared to bisexuals, mostly heterosexuals fared somewhat better on most examined outcomes, although these conclusions were more tentative as there were fewer bisexual comparison groups, and the differences were often small or in the opposite direction.

This first-of-its-kind review of MH health status drew on 60 other studies that were based on 22 datasets across the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway between 1991 and 2013.

The authors described MHs as “more same-sex oriented than exclusive heterosexuals, but less so than substantial bisexuals, in their sexual/romantic attraction, fantasy, physiological arousal, and recent and lifetime sexual behavior.”

The term, MH, gained greater currency in the last five years or so, according to Vrangalova, who co-authored a much-cited 2013 paper, “Mostly Heterosexual as a Distinct Sexual Orientation Group,” in the journal Developmental Review, with Savin-Williams.

They argued for a fourth group in the conventional, three-way (heterosexual/bisexual/lesbian-and-gay) framework. They suggested a spectrum or continuum where sexual-orientation self-identity “is not always either/or.”

While MHs were found to be the largest sexual-minority group – comprising about 4 percent of men and 9 percent of women in the general population – that proportion nearly doubles among college students, Vrangalova commented. “The college years are a time when young people are freer to experiment in all things, to look around and to think about their identities.”

So far MHs go largely unnoticed, the authors noted, writing: “They are likely to socialize in the sexual-majority culture because there is no visible MH subculture nor are MHs actively encouraged to join LGB spaces.”

All the more reason, Vrangalova and Savin-Williams believe, that health professionals should learn “to identify MHs in their practice so they can adequately assess risk and direct care and counseling.”

Public-health professionals and youth-based organizations, they say, “need to be aware of MHs’ substantial presence in the general ‘heterosexual’ population and work to make their services and messages as inclusive as possible.”

The study was funded in part by American Institute of Bisexuality.

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Ritch Savin-Williams
The Paper


By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 11, 2014



When college students have casual sex – “hooking up” – how it influences their mental and physical health depends in part on their intentions for doing it, finds a Cornell study.

Hooking up for the “wrong reasons” – peer pressure, to boost one’s self-esteem, hoping it will lead to a long-term relationship or coercion by intoxication or other means, according to examples given in the study – decreased students’ well-being compared to peers who refrained from casual sex. On the other hand, casual sex motivated by the “right reasons” – such as a self-directed desire for pleasure, intimacy or excitement – did not heighten these negative health effects.

“Why you engage in casual sex is more consequential for your physical and mental health than whether you do it,” said author Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D. ’13 in the field of human development. Her paper, “Does Casual Sex Harm College Students’ Wellbeing? A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Motivation,” was published online Feb. 5 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“There are a number of situational, personal, interpersonal and social factors that determine whether one’s casual sex experiences are good or bad for them,” Vrangalova said. “This study is one of the first to examine, and find evidence of, one such factor: motivation.”

At the start and end of an academic year, Vrangalova surveyed 528 Cornell undergraduates, recording their mental and physical well-being, number of casual sex partners, their motivations for hooking up and various demographic factors. Applying self-determination theory, a psychological measure of people’s intentions, she determined whether students hooked up for autonomous reasons – those that are self-directed and reflect one’s values – or non-autonomous factors, outside influences such as coercion or social pressure.

After controlling for demographics, personality traits, prior casual and romantic sex, and initial levels of well-being, hookups motivated by external forces were linked to lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and poorer physical health. Autonomous hookups were not linked to negative outcomes. (The study defined hookups as any form of genital contact between partners who were not in a long-term romantic relationship.)

“Most studies on the link between casual sex and health have only looked at the simple comparison between those who have hooked up as a single group and those who haven’t, and findings have often been inconsistent across different studies,” said Vrangalova, who did the work as part of her doctoral dissertation. “This study shows the importance of internal processes, such as motivation, as moderators for health outcomes.”

The results could help guide teachers, counselors and doctors advising young adults about sex by “shifting education, policy and clinical work away from uniform, one-size-fits-all strategies and messages regarding casual sex and its health consequences, and toward more individually tailored, and, thus, more useful, approaches,” the paper reports.

The study was funded by student grants from the Foundation for Scientific Study of Sexuality, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and Cornell’s Human Ecology Alumni Association.

Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology.

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By Susan S. Lang
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, March 3, 2014



The age at which people become sexually active is genetically influenced – but not when they grow up in stressful, low-income household environments, reports a new study.

“Our study shows that environmental influences – rather than genetic propensities – are more important in predicting age at first sex (AFS) for adolescents from stressful backgrounds, who have few societal and economic resources,” says Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, pointing out that genes determine when teens begin puberty, which is a strong predictor of AFS.

“In fact, genes contribute only negligibly to AFS for these teens. It can almost be thought of as the environment ‘taking over’ the natural developmental trajectory that might occur in a less stressful background,” she adds.

For teens from financially advantaged backgrounds, on the other hand, the environment is much less influential and genes play a more important role in predicting AFS, Mendle notes.

The study, co-authored with University of Texas at Austin researchers, was published online in January in the journal Developmental Psychology.

While many studies have examined either genetic influences or environmental influences on AFS, “ours was one of the very first to consider gene-environment interactions in AFS, or how genetic expression may vary according to environmental circumstances,” Mendle says.

Using a sample of 1,244 pairs of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes) and non-twin full siblings (who share 50 percent of their genes) from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers found that genetic influences on AFS were suppressed among low-socioeconomic-status and ethnic-minority teens compared with higher socioeconomic status and ethnic-majority youth. Father absence did not uniquely moderate genetic influences on AFS.

“And because we looked at identical twins and siblings, we could account for the importance of big family differences – and that enabled us to focus solely on understanding the environmental influences in AFS,” she says.

In addition to genetic influences, the use of twins and siblings in the study design accounted for shared environmental influences, such as religion or certain aspects of parenting, for siblings in the same family and for environmental influences that were unique to each youth.

Their findings “are broadly consistent with previous findings that genetic influences are minimized among individuals whose environments are characterized by elevated risk,” the researchers wrote.

“There has been a lot of dialogue and controversy in America on how to handle adolescent sexuality, and what programs may be most effective in reducing some of the outcomes associated with high-risk sexual behavior in teens,” Mendle says. “Many factors predict whether a teen is sexually active and when he or she transitions to sexual maturity. Our results help us understand in what contexts these factors will be malleable.”

The study, “Early Adverse Environments and Genetic Influences on Age at First Sex: Evidence for Gene x Environment Interaction,” co-authored by Texas researchers Marie D. Carlson and K. Paige Harden, received no outside funding.

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By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, January 13, 2014

The joke’s on a generation of human-sexuality researchers: Adolescent “pranksters” responding to the widely cited National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the mid-1990s may have faked “nonheterosexuality.”

Preliminary results from the landmark study – known as “Add Health” – stunned researchers, parents and educators alike, recalls Cornell’s Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor of human development: “How could it be that 5 to 7 percent of our youth were homosexual or bisexual!” Previous estimates of homosexuality and bisexuality among high schoolers had been around 1 percent.

So imagine the surprise and confusion when subsequent revisits to the same research subjects found more than 70 percent of the self-reported adolescent nonheterosexuals had somehow gone “straight” as older teens and young adults.

“We should have known something was amiss,” says Savin-Williams.  “One clue was that most of the kids who first claimed to have artificial limbs (in the physical-health assessment) miraculously regrew arms and legs when researchers came back to interview them.”

Now Savin-Williams is the co-author (along with Kara Joyner of Bowling Green State University) of an invited essay in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior that was published online Dec. 24, "The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health."

The Add Health study (with more than 14,000 participants in four “waves” between 1994 and 2009) was intended to “assess various social and familial contextual variables that influence health, well-being and health-related behaviors” of American young people.

Over the years, analyzing Add Health’s sexual-orientation data became a cottage industry for scholars of human sexuality – Savin-Williams among them. “We offer this essay, with data, to forestall such wrongheaded scholarly work in the future,” Savin-Williams and Joyner wrote.

They offered three hypotheses for the gay-gone-straight phenomenon: Perhaps many of the self-reporting nonheterosexuals went “back in the closet” as they aged. Maybe they misconstrued the researchers’ meaning when asked, rather euphemistically: “Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a male?” and “Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a female?”

Or it could have been a sophomoric joke to claim, in the confidential survey, to be romantically attracted to the same sex. Most of the adolescents who revised their sexual orientation in subsequent surveys were boys – who might have found humor in pretending to be gay or bisexual.

Joyner and Savin-Williams quickly dismissed the first hypothesis, saying that notion is inconsistent with what is known about gay youth development. “Gay high school youth in such numbers do not become closeted during young adulthood,” Savin-Williams noted. “Actually, the developmental progress is the reverse: coming out once away from home.”

They gave more credence to the idea that politically correct language about “romantic attraction” might have been misinterpreted. Questions in subsequent Add Health surveys actually used the “S word,” as in sexual orientation. “We’re guessing,” Savin-Williams says, “that some research subjects ultimately understood the message, that they said: ‘Now I know what you’re asking – and, no, I’m not.’”

That and the adolescent pranksters are the most likely explanations for the “dubious assessment” of Add Health data, the authors conclude.

“I can take a joke as well as the next academic,” says the Cornell professor, a licensed clinical psychologist, author and director of the university’s Sex and Gender Lab who has spent a lifetime studying adolescent development.

Yet he is saddened that the Add Health data led researchers, clinicians and policymakers to an inflated sense that gay youth are more suicidal, depressed and psychologically ill than are straight youth. “We need to be careful,” Savin-Williams said, “when we do our research that our sexual-minority participants are representative of the gay youth population so that we can accurately and adequately represent their lives.”

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By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 25, 2013

The new book "Human Bonding: The Science of Affectional Ties" (Guilford Press) provides a scientific roadmap to love, relationships and what makes them strong – from our first attachments in infancy through old age.

“It is amply documented that people with close social ties are happier, healthier and even live longer than those without such ties; indeed, our very survival as a species depends on the formation and maintenance of strong social bonds,” said Cindy Hazan, co-editor of the book, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and a founder in the field of relationship science.

“A central aim of this book is to provide an integrative, science-based overview of human bonding across the lifespan,” she said.

The book grew out Cornell’s popular course on human bonding, which Hazan designed and has taught for 25 years to capacity crowds, Hazan explained. Many students who took the course have gone on to become relationship scientists in their own right, she said, including seven of the contributors to the current volume.

"Human Bonding" addresses early bonding experiences from infancy through adolescence; mate selection, love and sexual desire, hooking up and online dating; keys to relationship success’ predictors and consequences of relationship dissolution; and the role of social connectedness in mental and physical health.

The book includes a chapter by Hazan and Gul Gunaydin, Ph.D. ’13, and Emre Selcuk, Ph.D. ’13, which integrates the social science evidence on the process of human mate selection. In it, the authors explain the many factors that influence how we narrow a large pool of potential mates down to one. For years, researchers focused on the characteristics that people say they seek in a mate, but more recent work has revealed that what we say we want in a partner differs significantly from who we actually end up partnering with. Proximity, the authors say, turns out to be a surprisingly influential factor.

The book, designed for students and relationship scholars, and those interested in understanding our closest – and often most perplexing – relationships, was co-edited by Mary Campa, Ph.D. ’07, assistant professor of psychology at Skidmore College.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, May 30, 2013



College-aged women judge promiscuous female peers – defined as bedding 20 sexual partners by their early 20s – more negatively than more chaste women and view them as unsuitable for friendship, finds a study by Cornell developmental psychologists.

Participants’ preference for less sexually active women as friends remained even when they personally reported liberal attitudes about casual sex or a high number of lifetime lovers.

Men’s views, on the other hand, are less uniform – favoring the sexually permissive potential friend, the non-permissive one or showing no preference for either when asked to rate them on 10 different friendship attributes. Promiscuous men favored less sexually experienced men, however, if they viewed other promiscuous men as potentially interested in stealing their girlfriends.

The findings suggest that women still face a double standard that shames “slutty” women and celebrates “studly” men, said lead author Zhana Vrangalova, a graduate student in the field of human development in the College of Human Ecology. The study, “Birds of a Feather? Not When It Comes to Sexual Permissiveness,” published online May 19 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, reports that promiscuous women, therefore, are at greater risk for social isolation and poor psychological and physical health.

“Sexually permissive women are ostracized for being ‘easy,’ whereas men with a high number of sexual partners are viewed with a sense of accomplishment,” Vrangalova said. “What surprised us in this study is how unaccepting promiscuous women were of other promiscuous women when it came to friendships – these are the very people one would think they could turn to for support.”

She added that prior research shows that men often view promiscuous women as unsuitable for long-term romantic relationships, leaving these women outside of many social circles.

“The effect is that these women are really isolated,” Vrangalova said.

For the study, 751 college students provided information about their sexual experience and views on casual sex. They read a near-identical vignette about a male or female peer, the only difference being the character’s number of lifetime sexual partners (two or 20). When asked about the person on a range of friendship factors, female participants – regardless of their own promiscuity – viewed sexually permissive women more negatively on nine of 10 friendship attributes, judging them more favorably only on their outgoingness.

Permissive men only identified two measures, mate guarding and dislike of sexuality, where they favored less sexually active men as friends, showing no preference or favoring the more promiscuous men on the eight other variables. Even sexually modest men preferred the non-permissive potential friend in only half of all variables.

The authors posit that evolutionary concerns may be leading men and women to disapprove of their bed-hopping peers as friends. They may actually be seeking to guard their mates from a threat to their relationship, Vrangalova said.

In the case of promiscuous women rejecting other women with a high number of sexual partners, Vrangalova suggested that they may be seeking to distance themselves from any stigma that is attached to being friends with such women.

The authors report that the findings could aid parents, teachers, counselors, doctors and others who work with young people who may face social isolation due to their sexual activity.

The study is co-authored by Rachel E. Bukberg ’11 and Gerulf Rieger, postdoctoral associate in human development. It was funded in part by an award from the Human Ecology Alumni Association.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 8, 2012.



Regardless of their sexual orientation, teens who do not fit behavioral norms for their gender are not as happy as their gender-conforming peers, finds a new Cornell study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (41:611-621).

The findings suggest it may be the effects of not conforming to gender stereotypes, rather than sexual orientation, that drive the increased mental health risks found among non-heterosexual youth. Although being a feminine boy or a masculine girl is often related to sexual orientation, until now, the separate effects of gender expression and sexuality on mental health had not been untangled.

"We need to rethink how sexual orientation relates to health. Too much emphasis has been put on a non-heterosexual orientation itself being detrimental," said Gerulf Rieger, lead author and Cornell postdoctoral associate, who conducted the study with Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor of human development and director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

For their research, Rieger and Savin-Williams analyzed data from 475 rural high school students who participated in a survey about their sexual orientation, preference for male-typical or female-typical activities, and psychological well-being.

The researchers found that the non-heterosexual youth in the study were more likely to violate gender norms for behavior, feelings, activities and interests, but so did some heterosexual youth. The effect of being a feminine boy or a masculine girl was similar regardless of sexual orientation -- both childhood and adolescent gender nonconformity were negatively linked to well-being. The effects on mental health, however, were small, which the researchers say may explain why most same-sex oriented individuals experience few mental health problems.

"Perhaps some adolescents are harassed not so much because they are gay," said Savin-Williams, "but because they violate 'acceptable' ways of acting. If so, sexism may be a more pervasive problem among youth than homophobia."

This research was supported by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station federal formula funds, received from the National Institutes for Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, August 6, 2012.




While the eyes may be the window to the soul, pupil dilation can reveal a person's sexual orientation, finds a new Cornell study. Pupils were found to widen most when study participants watched erotic videos of people they found attractive, thereby revealing where they were on the sexual spectrum from heterosexual to homosexual.

Although there was a popular belief that sexual orientation can be revealed by pupil dilation to attractive people, there was no scientific evidence until now. For the first time, researchers at Cornell used a specialized infrared lens to measure pupillary changes to participants watching erotic videos.

The findings are published Aug. 3 in the journal PloS ONE.

Previous research explored these mechanisms either by simply asking people about their sexuality or by using such physiological measures as assessing their genital arousal. These methods, however, come with substantial problems.

"We wanted to find an alternative measure that would be an automatic indication of sexual orientation but without being as invasive as previous measures. Pupillary responses are exactly that," said Gerulf Rieger, lead author and Cornell postdoctoral associate, who conducted the study with Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor of human development and director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell.

"With this new technology, we are able to explore sexual orientation of people who would never participate in a study on genital arousal, such as people from traditional cultures," said Rieger. "This will give us a much better understanding how sexuality is expressed across the planet."

The new study adds considerably to the field of sexuality research than merely a novel measure, say the authors. As expected, heterosexual men showed strong pupillary responses to sexual videos of women, and little to men; heterosexual women, however, showed pupillary responses to both sexes. This result confirms previous research suggesting that women have a different type of sexuality than men.

Moreover, the new study feeds into a long-lasting debate on male bisexuality. Previous notions were that most bisexual men do not base their sexual identity on their physiological sexual arousal but on romantic and identity issues. Contrary to this claim, bisexual men in the new study showed substantial pupil dilations to sexual videos of both men and women.

"We can now finally argue that a flexible sexual desire is not simply restricted to women -- some men have it, too, and it is reflected in their pupils," says Savin-Williams. "In fact, not even a division into 'straight,' 'bi' and 'gay' tells the full story. Men who identity as 'mostly straight' really exist both in their identity and their pupil response; they are more aroused to males than straight men, but much less so than both bisexual and gay men," Savin-Williams notes.

The researchers are confident that their new measure will aid in understanding these groups better and point to a range of sexualities that has been ignored in previous research.

The research was funded by the American Institutes of Bisexuality and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.