Update: The study is now available at the JPT website.
A new study has just been published on the experiences of sexual minorities in faith-based colleges and universities. This is a study I conducted with Stephen Stratton, Janet Dean and Michael Lastoria. Here is the abstract:
Studies on faith-based campuses are beginning to offer a glimpse into the real experience of sexual minority students in these unique settings. This study adds to this growing body of information by surveying 247 undergraduates, who describe themselves as sexual minorities at 19 Christian schools across the United States. They responded to questions related to attitudes regarding sexuality, sexual identity, religiosity, and sexual milestone events. The results from this sample suggst those who attend higher education at faith-based institutions are a distinct group within Western culture when it comes tot he development of religious/spiritual identity and sexual identity. Although diversity with regard to same-sex and opposite-sex attraction is present among those surveyed, common themes exist for this unique sample of undergraduates. Implications for mainstream culture and Christian educational institutions are discussed.
I’ve been presenting these findings in consultations and workshops for awhile now, but here is the gist of what we found. We reported different degrees of sexual attraction to the same- and opposite-sex, which is in keeping with some of the most recent research on sexual minorities and actually harkens back to Kinsey’s observation of a continuum of attraction rather than a simple either/or dichotomy.
There was also diversity in terms of religiosity. Although likely a highly religious sample compared to the general population, we did see diversity here and it was associated with degree of same-sex attraction. Those with no or little same-sex attraction were higher on intrinsic religiosity (in which religion is an end to itself; valuing religion for its own sake)–and the more same-sex attraction reported, the more likely to score lower on intrinsic religiosity. But, again, as a whole, Christian sexual minorities were likely more religious than the general population.
When asked about milestone events in the development of one’s sexual identity, as in our previous study, we saw that fewer participants had (1) engaged in same-sex behavior, (2) initially attributed their attraction to a gay identity, or (3) adopted a gay identity label.
In terms of public/private sexual identity, it was rare for participants to have a public identity as anything other than straight. We wrote,
This may be associated with the influence of the campus culture, religious conviction, or persona. choice, but it may also reflect a distinctive of those seeking to develop an identity that engages both the religious and the sexual. (p. 19)
In terms of private identification, about 4% thought of themselves as gay/lesbian, 10% bisexual, and about 9% questioning. Labeling here was associated with strength of same-sex attraction: the less same-sex attraction, the more likely to identify as straight; those who did privately identify as gay/lesbian were high on same-sex attraction.
This finding may represent a distinct trajectory insofar as the sample tended to not gravitate toward identity labels common to the mainstream LGBT community. It could be a result of heterosexism and homophobia; or it could be evidence that there is a group of sexual minorities that “engages in identity formation in a way that contrasts with mainstream culture” (p. 19), perhaps due to the salience of their religious faith.
The last major area we asked about were attitudes/values around sexuality and same-sex behavior. When people reported less same-sex attraction, they tended to be more conservative than those who reported more same-sex attraction. Folks who were more intrinsically religious were also more often conservative in their sexual attitudes/values.
As a group, though, these sexual minority students were more alike than different in many ways. They agreed that their campuses hold a negative view of sexual minorities and that there are few resources to support sexual minorities. (This is an area I think Christian institutions would do well to respond to in earnest.) They also tended to see sexual chastity as an attainable goal.
When I look at this data as a whole, I tend to think that it speaks to not just one experience that holds true for everybody. Rather, I think there are many ways to be a sexual minority on a Christian college campus. There is no doubt in my mind that some sexual minorities experience their sexuality in much the same way that the mainstream LGBT community talks about it, and this group may hide their experiences or sense of who they are in order to “get through” college.They may very well hold to beliefs and values that are more commonly expressed by members of the mainstream LGBT community.
But I think it is a mistake to see this sample as doing that as a whole. I think other Christian sexual minorities represent a more distinct identity development model in which their faith is given such weight that they make different choices in areas in which volition is in play, such as choosing not to engage in sexual behavior (to the same- or opposite-sex). Their religious beliefs, values and identity may also keep them from attributing their attractions to a gay identity (as is the normative experience within the LGBT community). They might be more likely to attribute their same-sex attractions to the Fall (original sin that taints creation in some way) or draw upon some other explanatory framework that makes sense to them but does not lend itself to a LGBT identity.They might view their same-sex sexuality in a more positive light than that and as much larger than their impulses; they might experience their sexuality in the temperament and personality, as well as their creativity and ways of relating to others. They might just choose not to enter into same-sex relationships by virtue of their formed judgments about sexual ethics.
Where will they be in a few years? I don’t know. That is a question for another study altogether. Some may eventually end up using the word “gay” as an adjective to name the reality of the same-sex sexuality while making similar decision about behavioral chastity; others may choose to make different choices about sexual behavior in the years to come, but those choices do not appear to be common at this age, at least not with the sample we surveyed.
Stay tuned. We are currently analyzing data from a smaller study of Christian sexual minorities who are enrolled in a Christian college or university, as well as sexual minority alumni from those institutions. We are also planning to launch a larger longitudinal study to see if there are changes in behavior, identity, and attitudes/values among Christian sexual minorities over time.