Not Always a Straight Path: College Students’ Narratives of Heterosexual Identity Development

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Research has recently begun to examine heterosexual identity development, providing preliminary evidence of variation within a sexual identity category that has frequently been conceptualized as uniform and unremarkable. The current study sought to classify and describe young adult participants’ narratives on their heterosexual identity development using Worthington et al. (2002) heterosexual identity status model. Participants included 1,051 heterosexually-identified undergraduates (632 women; 419 men) from two public universities in the western United States who provided written narratives about their sexual identity development. Responses were analyzed for levels of identity exploration and commitment, which were used to create five identity status categories. The majority of participants described identity commitment with passive exploration, with more men in this category than women. A significant subset of participants described identity commitment with active exploration, with more women in this category than men. Smaller numbers of participants described active exploration without commitment, unexplored commitment, and identity diffusion. More women were in the active exploration without commitment status than men; no gender differences emerged in the other two statuses. Participants classified into statuses with active exploration and higher commitment also evidenced higher scores on quantitative measures of sexual identity exploration and commitment, respectively. Men evidenced higher quantitative scores than women on identity commitment; there were no gender differences in the quantitative assessment of identity exploration. Findings support the existence of variations and systematic gender-based differences in young adults’ heterosexual identity development.