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Same-Sex Attraction Not Contagious Among Adolescents

There are many straight people in this country who suffer from a closeted (or even open) fear that homosexuality is contagious, that merely befriending a gay or lesbian person or being near one will cause a straight individual to sprout a same-sex attraction.

But a large study recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior may help dispel that fear. Analyzing the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a long term-study conducted from 1994 to 2002 of a nationally representative sample of 90,118 students in Grades 7-12, researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. found that same-sex attraction does not spread in adolescent peer groups.

What is unknown breeds fear, and what is misunderstood breeds misconception. For the longest time, homosexuality suffered from these two key detractors, and thus, the worry that same-sex attraction could be infectious persisted.

But now, gay and lesbian people are coming out more than ever before, revealing themselves as our friends, neighbors, and siblings -- normal people. They are no longer unknown.

Scientists are also beginning to learn more about homosexuality and its causes. Admittedly, there's no precise consensus yet, but homosexuality is certainly not as misunderstood as it once was. The American Psychological Association sums up the current state of knowledge pretty well:

"Although much research has examined the possible genetic,

hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual

orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude

that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or

factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles;

most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual

orientation."


Back to the current study: The researchers focused on 14,738 of the 90,000+ students that completed a series of three in-depth home interviews -- the first being conducted at around 16 years of age, the second a year later, and the third five years after the second. As part of the interviews, students were asked to name, identify, and elucidate the relationships with their closest five male and five female friends, many of whom were also involved in the longitudinal study. They were also asked specific questions to gauge sexual activity, relationship desire, and same-sex attraction.

Using the data from the first and second interviews, the researchers employed a statistical method to see whether subjects' reported level of same-sex attraction was at all related to that of their friends. Data from the first interview was used to control for predilection to future same-sex attraction, sexual activity, and the desire to seek out relationships. It was also used to control for homophily -- the idea that people tend to choose friends who behave similarly.

The analysis returned the increase in odds of reporting a certain behavior associated with each friend or sibling who engages in the same behavior. Subjects were far more likely to engage in sexual intercourse (1.79x)
if their friends were also engaged in sexual activities. The same was true for seeking out romantic relationships (2.69x). However, they weren't more likely to report same-sex attraction (0.96x).

samesexgraph.jpg "Although we found evidence that both sexual activity and desire to have a romantic relationship may spread from person to person, attraction to same sex partners did not spread," the researchers say. 

The study's key limitation is fairly evident: self-reporting. Self-reported sexual attraction is undoubtedly suspect, especially for high school students. However, it's worthy to note that students' same-sex attraction was highly correlated with self-identified sexual orientation assessed five years after the high school interviews.

The researchers' method of statistical analysis is also fairly new and relatively untested. Based on Social Contagion Theory, the statistical program attempts to root out social influence from large, documented peer networks. Of note, it was recently hailed as establishing "a new path in the study of networks."


Though crude, the current study is a worthy examination of the idea that same-sex attraction can spread in social networks -- a topic that's been rather difficult to research -- and it's the first to do so in a large, longitudinal data set.

Source: Tiffany A. Brakefield, Sara C. Mednick, Helen W. Wilson, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Nicholas A. Christakis, James H. Fowler (2013) Same-Sex Sexual Attraction Does Not Spread in Adolescent Social Networks. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 10.1007/s10508-013-0142-9

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