TORONTO — Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens in British Columbia are at a higher risk of becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy than their heterosexual peers, says a study released Tuesday.
The authors suggest the discrimination, sexual abuse and harassment that gay, lesbian and bisexual teens face may prompt them to indulge in more sexually risky behaviour like having sex without using condoms, starting to have sex before the age of 14 or having multiple sexual partners.
Lead author Elizabeth Saewyc said that a succession of surveys since 1992 show that in general, all teens are becoming more sexually healthy and taking fewer risks than they did when the survey was first administered.
But there are still disturbing differences between lesbian, gay and bisexual teens and their heterosexual counterparts, she suggested.
"One of the challenges is that although teen pregnancy rates are declining, although some of the risky sexual behaviours are declining for all orientation groups, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens still started at much higher rates than their heterosexual teens," said Saewyc.
"There’s still a gap. For us, that is a concern that there still is this gap between heterosexual teens and gay, lesbian and bisexual teens."
Saewyc is an associate professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia and research director of the McCreary Centre Society. Her study, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The findings are drawn from data compiled through the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, administered every five or six years to between 15,000 and 30,000 Grade 7 to 12 students in schools across the province. Conducted by the McCreary Centre Society, the survey gathers information on a range of issues including nutrition, weapons in school and sexuality.
This research article, which compares findings from the 1992, 1998 and 2003 surveys, showed girls who described themselves as bisexual were nearly twice as likely as girls who said they were heterosexual to have been pregnant. And in 2003 lesbian teens were more than 2.5 times as likely to have been pregnant at least once.
Male teens who described themselves as bisexual or gay were between three and four times more likely than heterosexual boys to have impregnated a girl in 2003 – which is actually a decline from earlier surveys.
Saewyc said it is a common misconception that gay boys don’t have sex with girls.
"We assume that sexual attraction, sexual behaviour and sexual identity are going to be 100 per cent consistent for people. And that’s not the case. Especially not for teenagers," she said from Vancouver.
"So they may know who they’re attracted to. They may identify. But they’re not necessarily only going to be having sex with their same gender."
Gay and lesbian teens may have sex with members of the opposite sex for a variety of reasons. Some do it to hide, to deflect the abuse that they see inflicted on gay, lesbian and bisexual teens. They call it "camouflage."
"For some, it may be that they’ve been told that this is abnormal and wrong and they may think: ‘Well, if I just have sex with enough opposite-gender people that will cure me,"’ Saewyc said.
"And for some, it is camouflage. It’s passing. For some, it’s curiosity – ‘Well, how do I know I’m really gay until I’ve tried and decided no, I really don’t like that?"’
David Wolfe, a clinical psychologist who has a chair in children’s mental health at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the way to address the elevated pregnancy rates among bisexual, gay and lesbian teens is to find ways to stop making them feel so stigmatized.
"The take-away (message) to me is we have to normalize in our education of teens around such sexual orientation," Wolfe said in an interview from London, Ont. "It’s much like racism and sexism has always been – it’s still something that’s permitted to continue in the schools."
He said there needs to be more openness in the education process about the fact that there are different sexual orientations.
"I’m not necessarily saying to normalize it by making Dick and Jane become Dick and Fred or something. But I think that in their health education, they have to understand the variability of human sexuality. …"
"Parents may look at it as saying that somehow we’re endorsing this behaviour. … But what it’s really saying is that this is a reality. There are people there with different coloured skin. There are people there with different sexual orientation. And you don’t try to meld them all together and pretend they don’t exist … and label them as somehow wrong."
"We are creating our own problems by creating problems for them," Wolfe insisted. "By not giving them a chance to have a voice in it. Then it becomes a bigger problem – and we blame them for it."