Epidemiology and Biostatistics Publications


Measuring Sexual Orientation in Adolescent Health Surveys: Evaluation of Eight School-based Surveys

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Journal of Adolescent Health





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PURPOSE: To examine the performance of various items measuring sexual orientation within 8 school-based adolescent health surveys in the United States and Canada from 1986 through 1999.

METHODS: Analyses examined nonresponse and unsure responses to sexual orientation items compared with other survey items, demographic differences in responses, tests for response set bias, and congruence of responses to multiple orientation items; analytical methods included frequencies, contingency tables with Chi-square, and ANOVA with least significant differences (LSD)post hoc tests; all analyses were conducted separately by gender.

RESULTS: In all surveys, nonresponse rates for orientation questions were similar to other sexual questions, but not higher; younger students, immigrants, and students with learning disabilities were more likely to skip items or select "unsure." Sexual behavior items had the lowest nonresponse, but fewer than half of all students reported sexual behavior, limiting its usefulness for indicating orientation. Item placement in the survey, wording, and response set bias all appeared to influence nonresponse and unsure rates.

CONCLUSIONS: Specific recommendations include standardizing wording across future surveys, and pilot testing items with diverse ages and ethnic groups of teens before use. All three dimensions of orientation should be assessed where possible; when limited to single items, sexual attraction may be the best choice. Specific wording suggestions are offered for future surveys.


Dr. Greta Bauer is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.