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'Deciding' sexual orientation


Q: At what age do teens decide their sexuality?

A: What we think you are asking is at what age do teens decide their sexual orientation. The term sexual orientation refers to an individual finding himself or herself sexually attracted to people of the same sex, opposite sex or both. Sexuality is a broader term and reflects the fact that all human beings have sexual feelings and desires.

Not a lot of up-to-date research is available to answer your question. What we do know suggests that most people become aware of their sexual orientation before adolescence, even though they may try to deny these feelings.

Research in this area is difficult to do for many reasons. First, many individuals, including teen-agers, are reluctant to answer questions about sex.

Second, it is quite normal for teen-agers to go through a phase where they question their sexual identity and may experiment with same-sex activities. This does not necessarily mean that they will develop into a homosexual. Finally, because sexuality involves a wide range of feelings, fantasies and behaviors and evolves and changes during adolescence, young people cannot always be easily classified as to their sexual orientation.

Your use of the term "decide" suggests that teen-agers make a deliberate choice about their sexual orientation. What we currently know about the development of sexual identity indicates that it is the result of a complex interaction between biology and environment and not under an individual's control.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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