Can Sexual Orientation Change in Adulthood?

Can Sexual Orientation Change in Adulthood?

by Dr. Sadiq Muhammad


  1. Evidence Sexual Orientation Can Change
  2. Why Sexual Orientation Changes
  3. Homosexuality is not Innate


  • If homosexuality develops as a result of a gender-identity disorder in childhood stemming from rejection from one’s gender group, resulting in a desire for affection which becomes sexualised at adulthood, we should see homosexual individuals re-orientating as heterosexuals, if they experience acceptance by their biological gender-group. This is precisely what we see.
  • Only 10% of adolescents who experienced homosexual attraction at 16 years of age, still experience it at 17 years of age, as compared to 78% of heterosexually attracted boys. This demonstrates that homosexual attraction in adolescence in significantly more unstable than heterosexual attraction. It also demonstrates that supporting “gay teenagers” in their orientation is irresponsible as the vast majority will identify as heterosexual a year later.
  • This trend is maintained when we look at how sexual orientation changes between 17 and 21 years of age, with the majority of boys of every sexual orientation at age 17 turning towards a heterosexual orientation by age 21. Heterosexually oriented individuals at age 17 maintain their sexuality to an overwhelmingly greater degree than any other sexual orientation.
  • These trends are maintained in adulthood: more people shift to a heterosexual orientation than turn towards a non-heterosexual orientation. Heterosexual individuals maintain their orientation to a much greater degree than non-heterosexual orientations, again indicating that heterosexuality is an inherently more stable sexual orientation.
  • Part of the reason for changes in sexual orientation in adulthood is due to sexual and domestic violence. This “pushes” people out of their sexual orientation, towards the opposite gender. This however, is a much weaker motivator of sexual orientation determination than the gender-identity disorder identified in “What Causes Homosexuality?”. These two different mechanisms may account for the two main categories of homosexual individuals: gender non-conforming and gender-conforming.

Evidence Sexual Orientation Can Change

We have demonstrated in previous articles that homosexuality arises as a result of a psychological gender-identity disorder following rejection in childhood and adolescence by one’s own gender group. If this is the case, then one would expect homosexual individuals to become heterosexual following life-events of acceptance from members of the same biological gender. This is precisely what we see in the majority of cases.

We find that studies of adolescents provide strong data in this regard. Excellent work in 2007 by the USA Adult (ADD)-Health Survey1 demonstrated how sexual orientation in adolescence changes and crystallizes. This team looked at to what degree romantic attraction and sexual behaviour, as components of sexual orientation, remained stable over time, through the use of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which drew on approximately 50,000 in-home interviews with students drawn from 132 public and private schools in the US, from over 80 communities.

These interviews were conducted in three batches: wave 1 involved 20,747 individuals (average age 15.8 years); wave 2 re-interviewed 14,738 students (average age 16.7 years), one year later and wave 3 re-interviewed 15,170 students from wave 1, four years later (average age 21.7 years). This was a large and detailed look at how components of sexual orientation, namely, romantic attraction and sexual behaviour, change in late adolescence. By tracking the same individuals, the study was able to look at how individual sexual orientation changes over time.

Wave 1 (below)
Wave 2 (across)
Both-Sex8.8%17.3% 73.9%16.5%0.1%83.4%
Opposite Sex1.0%0.6%98.4%1.1%1.7%97.3%

Table 1: How sexual behaviour changed from 16 years of age (wave 1, left columns in bold) to 17 years of age (wave 2, italicised across) in six U.S metropolitan areas: The left column (bold) represents the sexual behaviour of interviewees at 16 years of age and the columns across (italicised) represent their shift by age of 17 in sexual behaviour. Thus, there is a 61% likelihood that a boy demonstrating only homosexual sexual activity at age 16 years will demonstrate only heterosexual sexual behaviour by 17 years of age. The majority of boys and girls of every category of sexual orientation moved towards heterosexual attraction, as determined by interviews focussing on romantic attraction and sexual behaviour.

The study demonstrated that same sex attraction was very unstable. The vast majority of individuals who experienced same-sex attraction at 16 years of age lost it by the age of 17 years of age (see Table. 1). Only 10.3% and 4.5% of boys at 16 years of age who experienced same-sex attraction and bisexual attraction, respectively, still maintained this a year later. The majority in both cases had developed heterosexual attraction. Compare this to heterosexually attracted boys at 16 years of age, 78.1% of whom continued to have heterosexual attractions one year later. The same picture was seen for women too: after one year, the majority from all categories of sexual orientation had turned to heterosexual attraction, and heterosexually attracted girls at 16 years of age maintained their orientation with an overwhelming majority of 83.2% (see Table 1).

This picture of individuals moving from homosexuality/bisexuality to heterosexuality is maintained when we look at how sexual orientation between 17 years of age (wave 2) and 21 years of age (wave 3) changes, too (see Table 1). The only exception to this is that homosexually attracted individuals at 17 years of age shift slightly more towards a bisexual orientation over a heterosexual orientation, by the age of 21. Even in this though, the direction is still to one of greater heterosexual attraction, in the guise of bisexual attraction.

These changes show us that homosexual and bisexual attraction during adolescence shifts towards a heterosexual orientation, while heterosexual orientation maintains its numbers. In other words, homosexual and bisexual attraction is extremely unstable as compared to heterosexual attraction. Hypothetically this may be because as students mature into their final years of school, they are less likely to face bullying and rejection from their own gender-group. Indeed, bullying has been shown to decrease towards the latter years of adolescence2. Thus, those feelings of rejection, which underpin the desire and need for same-sex affection would wane, and the desire for affection and acceptance would be met through friendship and social inclusion. Identification with one’s gender-group would be established, along with all the psychological mores and attitudes of that gender-group, sexual orientation among them.

That homosexual and bisexual attractions gravitate towards heterosexuality in adolescence also undermines the notion, that there are “homosexual adolescents” who require support in “coming out” as gay to their families. Indeed, as detailed above, the majority of homosexually or bisexually attracted individuals at 16 years of age will have only heterosexual attractions one year later. Supporting such individuals to self-identify as gay or bisexual at such an age is therefore, wholly irresponsible.

Fig. 1: How sexual attraction changed from 17 years of age (wave 2) to 21 years of age (wave 3) in six U.S metropolitan areas: The x-axis represents the categories of sexual attraction experienced at age 17 for men (Above) and women (below); the y-axis represents the percentage of individual sexual attraction at 21 years of age. Men: The majority of boys all moved every category of sexual orientation moved towards heterosexual attraction. Women: Movement towards heterosexuality predominates in all categories except among same-sex attracted students at 17 years old, who move more towards bisexuality by 21 years of age.

Is this instability of homosexual and bisexual orientations seen in adulthood too? A large-scale study in 2005 by Kinnish3 looking at how sexual identity changes from the age of 16 years to middle age, demonstrated again that sexual orientation, especially for bisexual and homosexual individuals, is remarkably fluid. This team compiled questionnaires on sexual orientation history from 762 individuals, comprised of heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual individuals. The results demonstrated that over approximately 30 years of adult life, only 3% of 163 heterosexual men and 3% of 119 heterosexual women had changed their sexual identity one or more times. On the other hand, 39% of 177 homosexual men, 64% of 154 lesbians, 66% of 76 bisexual men and 77% of 65 bisexual women had changed their sexual identity one or more times over the same time period. The study further demonstrated that 39% of lesbians at one time had considered themselves heterosexual. These changes towards bisexuality in women or lesbianism have especially been noted to occur during marriage or after divorce4. This further supports, as detailed in “What Causes Homosexuality” the notion of psychological shift in sexual orientation rather than a biological one. 

Why Sexual Orientation Changes

It is clear from the above studies that sexuality can change over the course of a lifetime and that this is much more the case for homosexuality and bisexuality; heterosexuality being a comparatively more stable sexual orientation. But why do these shifts occur at all?

In “What Causes Homosexuality?” it has been demonstrated that lesbianism can result from sexual abuse of pre-pubertal girls, resulting in a desire to flee from the objects of their oppression. Could the same process be occurring in adulthood too, when we find that women, previously heterosexual, turn to bisexuality and lesbianism after marriage and divorce?

This seems to be the case when we take a look at the rates of sexual violence suffered by different sexual orientations, as compiled and analysed by The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 20105 (see Table 2). This national survey conducted 18,049 telephone surveys across 50 states of the US. The interviewers asked about intimate partner violence, categorised as psychological aggression (expressive aggression and coercive control), control of reproductive or sexual health, physical violence, sexual violence and stalking. Prevalence of intimate-partner violence was defined as having experienced at least one of the above forms of abuse over the course of one’s lifetime. Table 2 below demonstrates the lifetime prevalence of such abuse, according to different sexual orientations:

Table 2: Rape and sexual violence prevalence categorised by sexual orientation: Women: Bisexual women stand out as having suffered statistically significant higher rates of rape and sexual violence than heterosexual or lesbian women. Men: Both bisexual and homosexual men suffered statistically significant higher rates of sexual violence than heterosexual men, by a large margin. Results obtained from The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010

The authors of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey from which the above table was sourced were keen to emphasise that such statistics of rape and sexual violence relate to incidents within the context of an intimate partner relationship6. As such, the instances of sexual abuse suffered by pre-pubertal girls who later identify as lesbians, as discussed in What Causes Homosexuality, would not be included in these results.

We know that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of rape and sexual violence are men. When we look at the rates of sexual violence experienced by men, we see precisely the trend one would therefore expect: homosexual and bisexual men experience twice more sexual violence than heterosexual men, and indeed more. Other studies too, such as the one conducted by Donovan et al in 2006, have also shown homosexual men to have prevalence rates in the UK of 35.2% for domestic abuse, much higher than the rates seen for heterosexual men7

Table 2 throws up some interesting points as regards women. Given that men are the main culprits of sexual violence and rape, one can understand why lesbians have the lowest rates of rape, given that their intimate partners are women; however, one would imagine then that bisexual women should have lower rates of rape than heterosexual women, since the latter have only male partners. This, however, is not what we see. We see that bisexual women suffer almost three times the rate of rape as compared to heterosexual or lesbian women. How can we account for this? One way to understand these figures is to consider that bisexuality is triggered in women by rape and other acts of sexual violence. In other words, it is rape that precedes bisexuality, and not the other way around, as might be assumed if one were only taking into account sexual orientation in relation to number of male partners. Thus, while sexual violence and rape in pre-pubertal girls has been associated strongly with the development of later lesbianism8, as discussed elsewhere, it seems that sexual violence and rape post-puberty, in the context of intimate partner relationships, gives rise to bisexuality in women. Why is this, and why do such victims of partner-related sexual violence not become lesbians instead of becoming bisexual?

In “What Causes Homosexuality?” it has been discussed how homosexuality developing from childhood and early adolescence seems to be a coping strategy for many, to deal with rejection and the yearning for affection from one’s own gender-group. This could be described as the “pull-factor” to homosexuality – a desire and need for same-sex affection and acceptance, resulting in a gender identity disorder. We have also reviewed how the “push-factor” of sexual violence and abuse (especially, but not exclusively, in pre-pubertal girls) is related to the later development of lesbianism, where girls turn to female sexual partners as a result of their horrific experiences at the hands of men. These two mechanisms are not necessarily separate; the “push-factor” of sexual abuse in pre-pubertal girls may result in a feeling of ostracism and difference from other girls, resulting in a gender-identity disorder and subsequent homosexuality. However, the “push-factor” of sexual violence and abuse is likely to act independently of gender-identity if it occurs after puberty, once gender-identity has already formed. Such cases would explain why bisexual women have such disproportionately higher rates of suffering rape and sexual violence than lesbians, who show even less evidence of post-pubertal sexual violence than heterosexual women.

Under this hypothesis, heterosexual women emerging from abusive relationships with men may develop homosexual attractions as a result of the psychological pressure of abuse, while homosexual men may develop heterosexual attractions as a result of similar psychological burdens following abuse at the hands of other men. This shows that even when sexual orientation is largely fixed by gender-identity, it can still, temporarily be changed in such scenarios where one’s sexual orientation is putting one in harm’s way. The “pull-factor” of gender-identity disorder and the “push-factor” of sexual violence may be the reason why we see in homosexual populations, two broad categories of individuals: 1) those with traits and manners of the opposite sex (“effeminate men” and “butch women”) and; 2) those who have traits matching their own biological gender. It may be that the former category of “effeminate men” and “butch women” develop more as a result of the “pull-factor” of gender-identity disorder, the early signs of which are gender non-conformity in childhood, while the latter category may develop as a result of the “push-factors” of sexual violence. It is interesting to note that, anecdotally at least9, “effeminate men” are less likely to change to a heterosexual identity during their lifetimes as compared to homosexual men and women whose mannerisms are gender-conforming. This indicates perhaps that the “push-factor” of sexual violence or abuse may be a weaker mechanism of engendering homosexuality than the “pull-factor” related to one’s gender identity.

Despite these mechanisms, according to the studies detailed above, sexual orientation for men and women in adolescence and adulthood shows a general trend towards heterosexuality. This demonstrates that despite the dangers of a male partner for men and women, heterosexuality is an inherently more stable sexual orientation than homosexuality or bisexuality.

Homosexuality is not Innate

Finally, we return to the main purpose of this article: the fact that sexual orientation can change at all during adolescence and adulthood – as has been amply demonstrated by large, nationally representative population studies – is one of the best proofs that homosexuality is not ingrained and predetermined by one’s genes or biological makeup. People can change their sexual orientation – indeed – they do so, all the time.

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