Bisexual teens’ behavior focus of nursing study

by Anne Preller

Professor Elizabeth Saewyc had her own ad agency and a marketing career. But 10 years ago, she traded her corporate prowess and power suits for a life far less glamorous.

“I hit that midlife time when I wanted to change my life,” Saewyc said.

Shortly after this realization, she decided she wanted to become a nurse.

Recently, Saewyc received an $878,644 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study health and risk behaviors among bisexual adolescents.

Saewyc, who now has a bachelor of science degree in nursing, a master’s degree in advanced community health nursing and a doctorate in nursing science, said she has always been interested in women’s health issues.

“I was taking a class on teen pregnancy and one of the professors, Dr. Michael Resnick, had one little statistic,” Saewyc said. “Twenty-five percent of lesbian girls had been pregnant, and I was really kind of blown away by that.”

Later in her educational track at the University of Washington-Seattle, Saewyc worked with homeless pregnant teens, many of whom were lesbian or bisexual.

The current data and her firsthand experience piqued Saewyc’s interest and led her to research why so many lesbian teen-agers have been pregnant.

“Beyond teen pregnancy I’ve looked at other health issues among gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents that have increased risk because of their harassment,” Saewyc said. “Things like suicide, teen pregnancy, depression and substance abuse.”

Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens have increased risk factors because of the stigma and the harassment they receive from their families and society, Saewyc said.

“Some of those means of coping are like, turning to drug abuse,” Saewyc said. “Others who don’t cope so well usually are a suicide risk.”

But not all gay, lesbian or bisexual teenagers are engaging in risk behaviors to cope with their sexuality.

“Those who grow up in supportive families and those who manage to hear about their special uniqueness cope in very healthy ways,” she said.

The new study, “Bisexual Youth in Risk and Resilience Studies,” will be distributed as a survey in U.S. and Canadian schools and will target teens between the ages of 12 to 19.

“We’re interested in figuring out what things protect kids from crummy outcomes,” Saewyc said.

This study was a result of the lack of information about bisexual teens in the current research on homosexual teens, she said. “We don’t really know if (bisexual) kids are the same or different.”

What the research does show is adolescence is a time of change, Saewyc said, and the survey will represent a “snapshot of time.”

“Many adolescents haven’t had sex with anyone, but they do know who they are attracted to,” she said. “People’s sexuality is an unfolding process, even through adulthood.”

From previous research, Saewyc found kids who identify as bisexual – meaning they are attracted to both sexes – tend to outnumber the gay and lesbian teen-agers 5-to-1.

Kelly Herrmann, a senior studying global studies, psychology and art, said she is wary of how the

survey results could be used.

“I guess it’s useful, but it also sets up a framework where you can discriminate against people and say that these types of people are associated with these types of behavior, therefore you’re that type of person,” Herrmann said.

Herrmann said she didn’t think about her sexuality until she was 18.

She said she had always considered herself pro-gay-rights and found herself attracted to males – even maintaining a steady boyfriend for a year and a half.

“Then I just kind of started getting attracted to females, and then I figured it out,” she said. “And I thought whatever goes, goes.”

Herrmann doesn’t think any particular issue influenced her sexuality.

“Anything you do is a factor,” she said. “I hesitate to make assumptions that risk factor and sexual identity go hand in hand.”

But Saewyc said the survey is about health and health behaviors at the population level and would ask questions such as, ‘Are you eating?’ and ‘Have you ever been in a fight?’

The survey will focus on the health risks facing the populations that participate.

“We don’t know about the bisexual lifestyle,” Saewyc said. “We’re hoping to capture that.”


Anne Preller covers student life and
welcomes comments at [email protected]