Emerging adulthood presents a unique developmental milieu for sexual orientation and identity development. Over the past 10 years, a body of research has begun delineating contemporary emerging adults’ understandings of their sexual orientation and processes of sexual identity development. This scholarship has increasingly recognized the complexity and multidimensional nature of sexual identity development among both heterosexual and sexual-minority individuals. This review covers current conceptualizations of sexual orientation and identity, traditional and contemporary models of sexual identity development, and recent empirical literature assessing developmental trajectories, consistency between and within dimensions of sexual orientation and identity, stability of these dimensions, and issues of sexual identity labeling and categorization. This scholarship suggests that increased attention to diversity within and between sexual identity groups is warranted but also reveals notable patterns and categories that should be considered as the field moves forward.
Developing a meaningful sense of one’s sexual orientation and identity is an important undertaking during emerging adulthood. Indeed, Arnett’s (2000) original proposal outlining emerging adulthood as a new period of the life course was in response to an increasingly drawn-out transitional period between adolescence and adulthood within industrialized societies driven by various social, economic, and demographic changes. One of these central changes has been a greater acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation coupled with patterns of delaying marriage (Arnett, 2004) that has translated into increased opportunities for sexual and romantic exploration among emerging adults.
Engaging in sexual identity exploration also goes hand in hand with other prevailing characteristics of emerging adulthood. Arnett (2000, 2004, 2006, 2007) maintains that the distinctive features of emerging adulthood include negotiating experiences of instability, feelings of transition, heightened self-focus, and identity exploration. Exploring identity options and maintaining flexible commitments in identity domains, such as education, work, politics, and religion, is commonplace in emerging adulthood (Cote, 2006; Kroger & Marcia, 2011) and sexuality is no exception. As a result, this developmental period offers an especially rich setting for studying how sexual identities are produced and maintained.
Despite emerging adulthood being the age of possibilities, it is important to recognize that the transition to adulthood is still frequently equated with heteronormative milestones such as marriage and parenthood (Waters, Carr, Keflalas, & Holdaway, 2011), for which there are many legal and structural barriers for sexual minority individuals. Furthermore, despite evidence of increasing social acceptance for sexual minority individuals facilitating earlier and less distinctive identity development (e.g., Savin-Williams, 2005), sexual minority emerging adults continue to experience alarming levels of discrimination and victimization (e.g., Friedman et al., 2012). As such, sexual orientation and identity development during emerging adulthood, especially for those whose sexuality might diverge from normative models, may be both rife with opportunities for exploration and simultaneously constrained (Torkelson, 2012).
A small but important body of research over the past 10 years has helped to begin delineating contemporary emerging adults’ processes of sexual identity development. The goal of this review is to synthesize this recent literature with specific attention to issues of sexual identity and sexual orientation among contemporary emerging adults. The three main areas of focus in this review include (1) current definitions and conceptualizations of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and sexual orientation labels; (2) prevailing theories and perspectives on sexual minority and heterosexual sexual identity development; and (3) recent empirical research that informs our understanding of sexual orientation and identity development among emerging adult populations.
Definitions and Conceptualization
Identity is broadly understood as a personally and socially meaningful sense of one’s goals, beliefs, values, and life roles (Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1987). More complex understandings of identity recognize that identity is defined at intrapersonal and interpersonal levels, consists of individual, relational, and collective identities and includes multiple identities or domains of identity that intersect and interact with each other (Vignoles, Schwartz, & Luyckx, 2011). Early models of sexual identity primarily focused on sexual minority populations and emphasized self-identification with and disclosure of a gay or lesbian label (e.g., Cass, 1979; Coleman, 1982; Troiden, 1989). Later models of gay and lesbian identity development began taking into account both individual and group membership components of sexual identity (e.g., Fassinger & Miller, 1996; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996).
Recently, sexuality researchers have adopted more inclusive and multidimensional conceptualizations of sexual identity that incorporate sexual attraction, fantasy, and behavior, as well as romantic, emotional, and social preferences, in understanding sexual identity (Dillon, Worthington, & Moradi, 2011). Contemporary scholars conceptualize sexual identity as comprising cognitive and emotional understandings that individuals have about the meaning and significance of numerous aspects of their sexuality, such as their sexual attractions, desires, behaviors, values, and relationships (Horowitz & Newcomb, 2001; Savin-Williams, 2011). Together, this organized set of understandings help form a personally and socially meaningful sense of one’s sexuality.
One important component of sexual identity is the understanding an individual holds about her or his sexual orientation. Despite the prevailing use of three discrete categories of sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual, or gay/lesbian; Vrangalova & Savin-Williams, 2012), contemporary definitions of sexual orientation are much more complex. Kinsey and colleague’s innovative seven-category continuum first offered multiple sexual orientation options based on the sex of sexual partners that ranged from “0” representing “exclusively heterosexual” to “6” representing “exclusively homosexual” (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). However, despite its revolutionary qualities, this model is viewed as incomplete both because it is a binary model that forces same-sex and other-sex sexual behavior to vary in relation to each other and because it is singularly based on sexual behavior, thus ignoring other facets of sexuality (Savin-Williams, 2008; Sell, 1997). Revised models allowed homoeroticism and heteroeroticism to vary independently (e.g., Storms, 1980), included multiple dimensions of sexual orientation (such as sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-identification, and lifestyle) and added a temporal measurement (past, present, and future; Klein, Sepekoff, & Wolf, 1985).
Currently, a widely employed definition of sexual orientation is that it is a physiological predisposition toward patterns of sexual and romantic thoughts, affiliations, affection, or desires with members of one’s sex, the other sex, both sexes, or neither sex (American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, 2009). These predispositions are understood to exist on a continuum and may relate to a self-ascribed sexual orientation label drawn from existing social categories (i.e., heterosexual, bisexual, gay/lesbian, asexual). This label frequently represents a conscious acknowledgment and internalization of one’s sexual orientation (Mohr, 2002) and has also been termed sexual orientation identity (Dillon et al., 2011). It important to clarify that although one chooses a sexual orientation label, sexual orientation is not considered mutable because it is “tied to physiological drives and biological systems that are beyond conscious choice” (American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, 2009, p. 30).
It is important to note that one’s sexual identity, sexual orientation, and sexual orientation label or identity do not necessarily correspond perfectly (Glover, Galliher, & Lamere, 2009; Savin-Williams, 2006). For example, an individual may elect to identify with a sexual orientation label that is more closely aligned with her or his behavioral experiences, rather than sexual attraction or desire. Further complicating matters is that sexual identity and sexual orientation labels are subject to both historical and cultural forces (Cohler & Hammack, 2007). As a result, it is both possible and likely for sexual identity to be altered over the life course as shifts in awareness, understanding, and experience occur (e.g., Diamond, 2008). This complex and multidimensional perspective of sexual identity and sexual orientation has only recently gained momentum in the field of sexual identity research, spawning revisions of traditional models of sexual identity development and a number of research studies that attempt to identify patterns of exclusivity, variation, and consistency in sexual identities and labels over time.
Models of Identity Development
In efforts to better understand the processes involved in forming a sexual identity, scholars have been proposing models of sexual identity development for over 30 years. Because early definitions of sexual identity primarily emphasized self-identification as a sexual minority, models of sexual identity development have chiefly focused on understanding the emergence and adoption of a sexual-minority identity. One of the most widely cited models of lesbian/gay identity development is Cass’s (1979) six-stage process of incorporating a lesbian/gay identity into one’s self-concept. These stages included identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis.
Following Cass, multiple authors have offered other versions of sexual orientation/identity formation for gay and/or lesbian populations (and to a lesser degree bisexual populations). Almost all of these models describe a linear path of coming to terms with homoerotic desire and subsequent changes in self-concept that are required to accept, act upon, internalize, and disclose that desire with regard to one’s individual and social identity as a sexual minority (Brown, 2002; Reynolds & Hanjorgiris, 2000). Unfortunately, when efforts have been made to empirically classify individuals using Cass’s (1979) stage model, researchers have not found substantive evidence of participants in more than two stages (Johns & Probst, 2004; Halpin & Allen, 2004). However, there is some empirical evidence of three major milestones within sexual minority individual’s pathways to “coming out”: (1) an awareness of being different; (2) recognizing and exploring same-sex and other-sex attraction and behavior; and (3) coming out to oneself and others, which includes an acceptance and integration of a sexual-minority identity and label (e.g., Cass, 1983; Chapman & Brannock, 1987; Fassinger & Miller, 1996; Levine, 1997).
Bisexual identity development has historically received less attention than gay or lesbian identity development but is typically considered distinct from heterosexual, gay, and lesbian identity development. In an early model of bisexual identity development, Weinberg, Williams, and Pryor (1994) concluded that many bisexual individuals initially establish a heterosexual identity and then experience an extended period of confusion based on attractions to both sexes before settling into a bisexual identity. Also because typical notions of sexual identity are dichotomous, processes of bisexual identity development require identity “invention” and ongoing maintenance as a result of personal and social resistance to bisexual labels especially when in a monogamous partnership (Bradford, 2004; Brown, 2002; Collins, 2000). As a result, bisexual identity development is often viewed as more dynamic and open ended (Fassinger & Arseneau, 2007; Fox, 1995; Zinik, 1985), with women’s bisexuality being especially characterized by flexibility, fluidity, and complexity (Diamond, 2008; Kinnish, Strassberg, & Turner, 2005; Rust, 1993).
Heterosexual identity development has similarly received less attention than gay or lesbian identity development. Because sexual identity typically only becomes a visible aspect of development once an individual begins diverging from the heterosexual norm (Striepe & Tolman, 2003), sexual identity researchers frequently conceptualize heterosexuality as an unmarked, or invisible, identity (e.g., Diamond, 2008; Frankel, 2004). Indeed, sexual-minority individuals have often described their sexual identities as more salient and involving an effortful process than heterosexual-identified individuals (Konik & Stewart, 2004). Nonetheless, several models of heterosexual identity development have been proposed (Eliason, 1995; Sullivan, 1998; Worthington, Savoy, Dillon, & Vernaglia, 2002), and all of them take into account the likelihood that heterosexual identities are established without much critical examination or awareness as a result of heteronormative privilege. These models further propose that establishing an integrated or synthesized heterosexual identity requires mindful thought and action about one’s hetero sexuality and, likely, a consideration or recognition of possible alternatives.
Although the historical significance of these models is great, traditional models of sexual identity that put forth a predetermined developmental trajectory have recently been challenged (Diamond, 2005; Savin-Williams, 2001). A common criticism of traditional models has been that sexual identity development neither necessarily follows a consistent route, nor is necessarily a stable phenomenon, leading researchers to question whether or not there is a predictable series of steps or static categorization system for sexual identity (e.g. Eliason & Schope, 2007; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000). In particular, individuals whose experiences of sexuality involve multiplicity and fluidity have been ill described by such models. It is now understood that patterns of sexual behavior and sexual orientation labels often shift over time (Diamond, 2008) and that there are often inconsistencies between individuals’ sexual attractions, behaviors, and identities (Hoburg, Konik, Williams, & Crawford, 2004; Vrangalova & Savin-Williams, 2010). As such, the historically dichotomous and essentialist models of sexuality where individuals possess and seek to publicly embrace one “true” identity (heterosexual or gay/lesbian) are not empirically substantiated.
Recently, there have been efforts to amend previous models of sexual identity to better reflect the complexities and dynamics of sexual identity development through multidimensional, social constructionist models. For example, Horowitz and Newcomb (2001) proposed a social constructionist model that is meant to be applicable to individuals with various sexual orientation identities. The model separately considers sexual desire, behavior and identity and recognizes the ongoing and reflexive nature of sexual identity development. Dillon et al. (2011) also offered a multidimensional and universal model of sexual identity development that incorporates individual and social processes, including group membership, and is based loosely on Marcia’s (1987) model of identity development. They describe five statuses that are presented as nonlinear and flexible. These include (a) compulsory heterosexuality, defined by naïve commitment to heterosexual and heterosexism social assumptions; (b) active exploration, defined by purposeful exploration and evaluation of one’s own sexuality as well as consideration of one’s and other’s attitudes toward and privileges afforded to heterosexual and sexual-minority groups; (c) diffusion, characterized by either a carefree or anxiety-provoking lack of commitments, either personally or social; (d) deepening and commitment, including both that which is achieved by heterosexuals without active exploration and that which is achieved by heterosexual and sexual-minority individuals via active exploration of personal and social identities; and (e) synthesis, where “individual sexual identity, group membership identity, and attitudes toward dominant and marginalized sexual orientation groups merge into an overall sexual self-concept” (p. 664).
Also challenging the traditional linear, stage-based models of sexual identity development, Savin-Williams (2001) offered a differential developmental trajectory model that assumes an interactive approach to development. This framework recognizes that both similarities and differences exist across, among, and between individuals of varying sexual orientations and identities, such that there are developmental milestones and processes that all individuals experience, however, each pathway is distinctive based not only on sexual orientation but other individual and group characteristics. In a similar movement away from stage models, Hammack and Cohler (2009) attempt to transcend essentialist and constructionist conceptualizations of sexual identity by employing narrative and life course perspectives to contextualize the process of sexual identity development in history and discourse. In this paradigm, identity is developed as individuals make sense of their own sexual desires and experiences through the process of narrative engagement within a given sociohistorical context.
Recent scholarship has also evidenced increased attention to individuals identifying as asexual and their processes of sexual identity development. In Storms’ (1980) two-dimensional model of sexual orientation, asexuality comprised the quadrant that represented individuals who were low in both same-sex and other-sex attraction or erotic fantasy. Many recent scholars have similarly emphasized that asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction or low sexual desire (Bogaert, 2006; DeLuzio Chasin, 2011), with some empirical evidence to support this definition (e.g., Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010; Prause & Graham, 2007). Embedded in this definition is the recognition that asexual individuals have the capacity for sexual arousal, varying histories of sexual behavior (solitary and partnered), and the potential for romantic attraction to and partnership with others (Bogaert, 2006). In a qualitative study of asexual identity development, Scherrer (2008) described the difficulties of finding and defining a sexual identity label, the adoption of an essentialist perspective on asexuality to gain legitimacy, and the importance of considering the romantic (in addition to the sexual) dimension. DeLuzio Chasin (2011) also made the point that self-identification as asexual is also very important, especially given the continued association between asexuality and diagnoses such as hyposexual desire disorder.
Another important contemporary critique of traditional models of sexual identity is based on the increasing normalization of sexual diversity among current cohorts of (western) youth. Younger generations are increasingly accepting of sexual diversity, making same-sex sexuality less remarkable and rendering the old sexual identity categories and coming-out models less applicable (Entrup & Firestein, 2007; Russell, Clarke, & Clary, 2009; Savin-Williams, 2005, 2008). Indeed, Savin-Williams (2005) proposed that these changes have eliminated the need for sexual identity labels, given that the creation of sexual categories reifies essentialist models that are overly fixated on sexual orientation and underemphasize other facets of sexuality. Furthermore, given that most models of sexual identity development neglect to examine the role of multiple individual differences, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and socioeconomic class, future understandings of sexual identity must consider the intersection of these sociocultural and individual forces (for an example, see Chun & Singh, 2010). Striepe and Tolman (2003) have also argued for greater attention to gender ideologies in conceptualizations of sexual identity. Ultimately, despite the proliferation of divergent models of sexual identity development, contemporary scholars in the field are seemingly in agreement that current understandings of sexual identity should necessarily be culturally and historically situated and account for dynamic and complex experiences of sexual identity.
Contemporary Topics in Research on Sexual Identity in Emerging Adulthood
Trajectories of Achieving Traditional Sexual Identity Milestones
Resulting from both the legacy of coming-out models and recent efforts to understand diversity within sexual-minority identity development, multiple researchers have continued to compare the sequence and timing of traditional developmental milestone trajectories for sexual-minority youth. Historically, research has suggested that sexual-minority youth typically adhere to a progression that involves awareness of difference in childhood, recognition of same-sex attraction during early adolescence, the original assumption of a same-sex identity label in late adolescence, and the solidification of a same-sex identity during emerging adulthood (e.g., Troiden, 1989). However, researchers have more recently suggested that sociohistorical forces normalizing same-sex sexuality have condensed the timing between milestones (e.g., Floyd & Bakeman, 2006; Grov et al., 2006). For example, in a cross-sectional analysis of reports of same-sex attraction and identity labels for sexual-minority youth, Glover at el. (2009) found no differences between the adolescent and emerging adult participants, supporting assertions that contemporary youth are employing similar self-labels at both developmental stages.
Despite movement toward earlier awareness and identification among sexual-minority youth, systematic variation in trajectories of development has been identified. Underscoring the diversity in timing of sexual orientation milestones, Friedman, Marshal, Stall, Cheong, and Wright (2008) found three trajectories among their U.S. urban sexual-minority male sample (ages 18–30, mean age 32) who all experienced traditional sexual identity milestones in the same order (same-sex attraction, same-sex sexual behavior, self-identification with a sexual-minority label, and disclosure to others) but varied in their timing. Members of the early trajectory reported experiencing all milestones before emerging adulthood. Members of the middle trajectory reported attraction and sexual behavior during adolescence but self-identification and disclosure during emerging adulthood. Members of the late trajectory did not report same-sex sexual experiences, self-identification, or disclosure until emerging adulthood. Floyd and Stein (2002), who found similar diverging trajectories in a younger U.S. sample of sexual-minority adolescents and emerging adults, proposed that some adolescents may wait until emerging adulthood to self-identity, disclose to others, and enter same-sex relationship because this period offers more freedom from parental control and peer stressors associated with high school.
In U.S.-based samples of sexual-minority adults that also included women, gender differences in the timing of traditional sexual identity milestones emerged, such that, on average, women reported older ages of first awareness, same-sex experience, and self-identification (Floyd & Bakeman, 2006; Grov et al., 2006). In a sample of 2,733 sexual minority adults from the east and west coasts of the United States, Grov et al. (2006) found that emerging adult men and women (ages 18–24) reported self-identification at younger ages (average age was about 15 years for men and 16 years for women) than all other age cohorts; similar findings materialized for coming out to others (an average of 17 years for both men and women) and first same-sex experience (averages of 16 years for men and 17 years for women). They found no differences based on race or ethnicity for the age that participants self-identified or were out to others, though racial-minority participants were less likely to be out to their parents.
With regard to the sequencing of the milestones, Floyd and Bakeman (2006) found that an “identity-centered” pattern of identity was more common among the younger cohort, such that emerging adult participants more frequently reported self-identifying before engaging in same-sex behavior than older adult participants. Women were also more likely to report this sequencing than men. In a study of a general sexual minority population in California (ages 18–84, mean age 49), Calzo, Antonucci, Mays, and Cochran (2011) found that most participants across age groups who achieved sexual identity milestones during emerging adulthood self-identified on average about a year before their first same-sex sexual experience. Extending the examination beyond these traditional milestones to identity commitment, relationship, and community connection among bisexual individuals, Brewster and Moradi (2010) found increases in each of these variables from emerging adulthood through early and middle adulthood, with some evidence to suggest more identity and relationship exploration during emerging adulthood.
Because understanding heterosexual identity development has not been subject to the same emphasis on milestones associated with coming out, researchers do not typically examine these variables to understand heterosexual adolescent and emerging adult heterosexual identity development. Nonetheless, we do know that the emergence of sexual feelings and other-sex attractions generally occurs in late childhood or early adolescence, followed by the onset of dating and partnered sexual activities in middle to late adolescence (Diamond & Savin-Williams, 2009). This trajectory, coupled with the traditional uncomplicated notion of heterosexual identity development, would suggest that by emerging adulthood, most heterosexual youth have “completed” an uncomplicated process of sexual identity development. However, there is some evidence for diversity among heterosexual emerging adults with regard to the processes of sexual identity development. For example, in two studies of college men and women (ages 18–23, mean age 19), qualitative analyses of participants’ narratives of sexual identity development identified that substantive subsets of exclusively heterosexual emerging adults (53% of men and 67% of women) reported having engaged in sexual identity questioning (Morgan et al., 2010; Morgan & Thompson, 2011). In another study of over 1,000 college students (ages 18-25, mean age = 20), Morgan (2012) employed Worthington et al.’s (2002) model of heterosexual sexual identity development to analyze participants’ sexual life history narratives, finding evidence that exclusively heterosexual participants described varying levels of sexual identity exploration and commitment, with 19% of men and 28% of women having actively and purposefully engaged in sexual identity exploration. However, these findings are not necessarily universal. In a qualitative study with 220 heterosexual-identified emerging adult college students in Turkey (ages 18–30; mean age = 20), Boratav (2006) found that most participants indicated that their sexual identity, feelings, and experiences had always been the same and that participants were confident that their sexual identity would remain the same into the future.
In summary, research on the patterns and timing of meeting traditional sexual identity milestones among contemporary youth indicates that emerging adulthood continues to be an important developmental period for sexual identity development. Understanding that many contemporary youth may be “completing” the traditional milestones before entering emerging adulthood is an important consideration for researchers and practitioners alike. Furthermore, knowing that other emerging adults are still grappling with issues of self-identification and identity disclosure and others are still just beginning to be aware of same-sex attractions during emerging adulthood points to the substantive variability of experience within this developmental period. Furthermore, the trend among contemporary emerging adults to self-identify before engaging in same-sex behavior is particularly important to recognize because it suggests that youth are privileging sexual attraction over sexual behavior as an indicator of sexual orientation. These trends appear to be particularly pronounced among young women, signifying gender differences in the timing and sequencing of sexual identity development. Lastly, research indicates variation in heterosexual identity developmental trajectories during emerging adulthood.
Consistency between Dimensions of Sexual Orientation and Sexual Identity
In addition to continued interest in the timing and sequencing of traditional sexual identity milestones, a notable recent contribution from research has been a focus on identifying variation and consistency between different dimensions of sexual orientation and identity. For example, a study with almost 8,000 college students (ages 16–23; mean age = 22) from the United States and Canada obtained during the 1990s found general, but not absolute, consistency between measures of sexual orientation labels, sexual attraction, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior (Ellis, Robb, & Burke, 2005). In their sample, there was a substantive cohort (about 80%) of participants who revealed highly consistent reports of other-sex-only attraction, fantasy, and behavior. Similar consistency between measures of sexual identity labeling, sexual attraction, sexual behavior, and romantic experiences was also identified in a more recent sample of 38 sexual-minority emerging adults in the United States (ages 17–22; Glover et al., 2009) as well as among heterosexual and sexual-minority emerging adults in the third wave of the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health; Savin-Williams, Joyner, & Rieger, 2012). Lastly, research with a young population in Thailand (ages 15–21; mean age = 18) evidenced strong correlations between measures of sexual orientation labels and sexual attraction, r = .64 for women; r = .79 for men (van Griensven et al., 2004).
Despite finding general consistency among the multiple measures of sexual orientation, all of these studies also identified notable subset of participants with variations between domains of sexual orientation and identity. For example, Ellis et al. (2005) found that despite less than 3% of their male and female population reported a sexual-minority orientation label, 10% of men and 13% of women reported some same-sex attraction, 20% of men and 25% of women reported at least occasional same-sex fantasies, and, among participants with sexual experience, almost 13% of men and 8% of women reported at least some same-sex sexual experience. Furthermore, in a study with Turkish university students (ages 17–43; mean age = 21), three dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual desire, sexual behavior, sexual orientation label) were significantly, but only moderately, correlated, rs = .24–.37 (Eskin, Kaynak-Demir, & Demir, 2005). Indeed, 73% of the participants in this study who indicated past or current same-sex attraction identified as heterosexual. Lastly, in a stratified sample of about 4,000 men in New York city (no ages reported), Pathela, Blank, Sell, and Schillinger (2006) found that 12% of men reported having had sex with a man in the previous year but not a women. Similar to the results found by Eskin et al. (2005), 73% of the men in Pathela et al.’s (2006) study who reported having sex with a man in the previous year identified as heterosexual.
Overall, these results point to a general correspondence between dimensions of sexual orientation and identity among sexual-minority and heterosexual-identified emerging adults. However, all of the studies also revealed that these dimensions do not always perfectly correspond with each other and that inconsistency between domains is particularly notable for young women. Despite frequently including populations spanning adolescence, emerging adulthood, and adulthood, these studies have not indicated whether consistency between dimensions varies with age. One of the implications of this research underscores the value of adopting a multidimensional view of sexual orientation and identity such that assessments or understandings of sexual orientation and identity that rely exclusively on measures of sexual attraction, behavior, or identity labeling likely do not accurately reflect other dimensions of the participant’s personal and interpersonal sexual experience.
Exclusivity Within Dimensions of Sexual Orientation and Sexual Identity
In addition to research that has identified variations between dimensions of sexual orientation and identity, another important contribution of contemporary studies of sexual orientation and identity among emerging adults is the identification of patterns of (non)exclusivity within dimensions of sexual orientation and sexual identity. As described in the previous section, correspondence between sexual identity labels and reports of sexual attraction, fantasy, behavior, and romantic experience is not always absolute. This occurs when participants report varying degrees of same-sex versus other-sex attraction, fantasy, and behavioral or romantic experience. As such, these data not only reveal variation between dimensions but also that a substantive proportion of heterosexual and sexual-minority youth report nonexclusive patterns of sexual attraction, fantasy, and behavior as well as romantic experience. Indeed, research has revealed that, particularly among same-sex identified youth, there is a greater prevalence of nonexclusive patterns of same-sex attraction than exclusive patterns of same-sex attraction.
In a sample of over 1,000 adults in the United States (75% between the ages of 18–35), Vrangalova and Savin-Williams (2012) not only found evidence for participant identification with intermediary identity labels (i.e., mostly heterosexual, bisexual, and mostly gay/lesbian), but also that participants who selected exclusive identity labels (i.e., heterosexual and gay/lesbian) frequently indicated nonexclusive patterns of sexual attraction and behavior. Indeed, 52% of gay-identified men and 61% of lesbian-identified women indicated some current other-sex attraction and/or current or past other-sex behavior. These findings also revealed that nonexclusivity was more common in relation to sexual attraction than behavior. Furthermore, women were more likely to select nonexclusive identity label than men; however, reports of nonexclusivity in attraction or behavior did not differ between the women and men who did identify with a nonexclusive identity label. Glover et al. (2009) also found more polarized reports among males than females with regard to sexual identity labels and sexual attraction, again suggesting more frequent nonexclusivity among same-sex-oriented young women than young men. Interestingly, among an adult sexual-minority sample (ages 18-74, average age in the mid-30s) of both men and women, Floyd and Bakeman (2006) found that individuals who self-identified during adolescence were less likely to have had heterosexual partners than those who self-identified during emerging adulthood, thus suggesting that earlier identification with a same-sex identity may be associated with more exclusive patterns of sexual behavior.
Other recent research has purposely set forth to identify patterns of nonexclusivity within heterosexual populations. In a sample of 243 heterosexual-identified college students (ages 18-33, mean age 23), Vrangalova and Savin-Williams (2010) found that 79% of their female sample and 43% of their male sample indicated at least a small amount of same-sex attraction and 53% of women and 22% of men reported at least some fantasizing about members of the same sex. Among those who were sexually experienced, 14% of women and 4% of men reported a same-sex sexual partner. In total, 84% of heterosexually identified women and 51% of men indicated some same-sex attraction, fantasy, or behavior. Lower numbers of same-sex attracted heterosexual-identified college students (mean age 22) were identified in Hoburg et al.’s (2004) study: close to 30% of women and 19% of men reported some same-sex sexual/physical preference. Among their second sample (528 heterosexually identified college students; mean age of 19), 16% of women and 5% of men reported same-sex fantasies while 7% of women and 4% of men reported same-sex behavior (Hoburg et al., 2004). Among heterosexual-identified adolescents and young adults in Thailand, 10% of men and 12% of females reported same-sex attraction (van Griensven et al., 2004). In a recent study of public same-sex kissing among heterosexual-identified college women, Yost and McCarthy (2012) also found that 33% of their participants reported having “made out” with another woman at a party.
In sum, the vast majority of adolescents, emerging adults, and adults who experience same-sex attractions, fantasy, and behavior also experience other-sex attractions, fantasy, and behavior. Similarly, but with less pervasiveness, a notable proportion of individuals who primarily experience other-sex attractions, fantasy, and behavior also experience same-sex fantasy and behavior. These patterns are particularly evident for young women, and much of this research has evidenced these findings within college populations; however, it is unknown whether nonexclusivity is particularly pronounced for emerging adults. These findings complement those that have identified discrepancies between dimensions of sexual orientation and identity by further supporting movement away from more essentialist conceptualizations of sexual orientations and identity and toward multidimensional and complex understandings of these concepts. Furthermore, this recent body of research encourages the legitimization of bisexuality despite dominant cultural models that continue to privilege dichotomous perspectives of sexual orientation.
Stability in Dimensions of Sexual Orientation and Labeling
Recent longitudinal research has also been able to address issues of stability over time in participants’ self-ascribed sexual orientation labels and their reports of various dimensions of sexual orientation. Most evidence points toward general stability in sexual orientation labels and across dimensions of sexual orientation. For example, in a 6-year longitudinal study with a sample of almost 14,000 U.S. youth (aged 12–25), Ott, Corliss, Wypij, Rosario, and Austin (2011) found that overall sexual orientation label changes were uncommon, but that women were more likely to report shifts in orientation labels than men and that sexual-minority participants were more likely to report shifts than heterosexual participants. Interestingly, these results also indicated that emerging adults (18–21 years old) were equally likely to change their sexual orientation label as adolescents (12–17 years old).
Further evidence of general stability in sexual identity was revealed in an analysis of Add Health data from Wave 3 (aged 18–24) and Wave 4 (aged 24–38), with the highest rates of stability among the “100% heterosexual” men and similar reports of stability between the 100% heterosexual and the 100% homosexual participants (Savin-Williams et al., 2012). Bisexual individuals were the most likely to indicate shifts between Wave 2 and Wave 3 (more often toward heterosexuality rather than homosexuality), and all shifts that occurred were most frequently to an adjacent identity category. Women were also more likely than men to subscribe to a nonexclusive identity label and report shifts over time. Slight shifts in reported sexual attraction were also identified in a birth cohort of approximately 1,000 New Zealand youth assessed in the 1990s at age 21 and 26 (Dickson, Paul, & Herbison, 2003). A small group of men (1.9%) moved away from reporting an exclusive heterosexual attraction and 1% moved toward it. More women reported moving away from an exclusive heterosexual attraction (9.5%), but a similar percentage to the men reported moving toward it (1.3%).
Evidence of slightly more pervasive shifts in sexual orientation labels and reports of sexual orientation dimensions emerged in a sample of 762 U.S. adults (aged 36–50) who completed retrospective questionnaires assessing three dimensions of sexual orientation and self-identification at 5-year intervals (starting with 16–20 years; Kinnish et al., 2005). They found that two thirds of the participants reported some kind of shift across the three dimensions of sexual orientation. Heterosexual women were more likely to change in sexual fantasy and romantic attraction than heterosexual men and lesbian-identified women were more likely than gay-identified men to shift their orientation label and reported romantic attraction, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior. Bisexual men and women were equally likely to have shifted sexual orientation labels.
In studies exclusively examining sexual minority youth and adults, patterns of sexual orientation label changes and diverging reports of sexual orientation components have also emerged. In a 10-year longitudinal study with 79 sexual-minority women (between the age of 18–25 at the beginning of the study), Diamond (2008) reported that 67% of women changed sexual orientation labels at least once, most frequently moving toward a bisexual or unlabeled identity. In a study with 164 sexual minority youth from New York city (aged 14–21), Rosario, Schrimshaw, Hunter, and Braun (2006) identified patterns of change over 1 year in sexual orientation labels, with male participants reporting more change than female participants.
Overall, this research indicates that among heterosexual and sexual-minority populations, reported shifts in sexual orientation and/or self-identification are not particularly frequent, but do occur, especially for sexual-minority participants and women. These shifts typically involve slight adjustments from one adjacent label to another and, in emerging adulthood, most frequently include moving away from an exclusive heterosexual or homosexual identity and toward a bisexual or intermediary identity label. Regarding when these shifts take place, they can be expected between adolescence and emerging adulthood, as well as during and after emerging adulthood. As such, instability in reports of sexual attraction, fantasy, and behavior as well as sexual identity labels is prominent in, but not limited to, emerging adulthood.
Sexual Identity Labels
Another contemporary scholarly discussion surrounds the role and applicability of tradition sexual orientation labels in the lives of contemporary emerging adults. Savin-Williams (2005) has argued that in response to the restrictions imposed upon them by traditional sexual orientation labels, youth have refused to allow themselves to be limited by the confines of the traditional categories and instead opted to adopt nontraditional labels or relinquish labels altogether. Indeed, adolescents and emerging adults (aged 15–22, mean age 19) who participated in focus groups indicated that attraction (cognitive and physiological) and relationship interest were the two most important components of sexual orientation and that sexual behavior and self-identification were not necessarily relevant (Friedman et al., 2004). The potential for orientation labels to change and the lack of centrality of a sexual orientation identity in one’s life were reasons offered for the lack of importance of a sexual orientation label.
Among sexual minority youth (aged 14–21), Glover at al. (2009) found that despite making use of traditional sexual orientation labels in closed-response survey questions, about one third of their participants did not rely on traditional labels in open-ended responses asking them to describe their sexual orientation in their own words. Furthermore, their research indicated that variability and transitions in the use of traditional labels for young women may be a result of the labels not accurately reflecting their attractions. Diamond’s (2008) emerging and young adult sample of sexual minority women, of whom a subset rejected a traditional sexual orientation label, indicated that doing so was not only the result of uncertainty, but also a purposeful rejection of sex-based orientations, the desire to reflect an openness to change, and because none of the traditional labels accurately represented their experiences.
Nonetheless, similar to Glover et al. (2009), a study with late adolescents in California found that when offered the option to select a traditional orientation label from a list of options, the vast majority of nonheterosexual youth identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (70%; Russell, et al., 2009). The remaining adolescents selected “Questioning” (13%), “Queer” (5%), or chose to write in a label (10%) that mostly frequently represented a more fluid or flexible identity or an ambivalence or resistance to labels. Overall, it is clear that traditional sexual orientation labels do not resonate with all contemporary adolescents and emerging adults for a variety of reasons, perhaps most notably the restrictiveness of the terms. However, whether out of ease or actual identification with the term, the majority of emerging adults are willing to subscribe to a traditional sexual orientation label when given the option and that the label they choose frequently corresponds with other dimensions of their sexual orientation.
How many subgroups are there?
A naturally resulting question from the rejection of traditional sexual orientation labels by contemporary youth is whether or not there is a way to offer more labels to more accurately represent individuals’ lived experiences. There is growing evidence that subdividing traditional sexual orientation groups and offering alternative sexual-orientation labels reveal unique groups of people who possess unique sexual profiles. For example, Weinrich and Klein (2002) found evidence for a 10-group model based on separately clustering men’s and women’s responses to the 21-item Klein Sexual Orientation Grid (Klein et al., 1985). This model included three subgroups of bisexual adults in addition to heterosexual and gay/lesbian orientations.
Worthington and Reynolds (2009) also identified additional “types” of sexual orientation and identity in their sample of 2,300 adults (aged 18–89; mean age 33) based on cluster analyses of participants’ orientation to females, orientation to males, heterosexual identity, and Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual (LGB) identity. They identified three distinct subgroups of bisexual men and women and two distinct subgroups of heterosexual women and gay men, for a total of 12 groups. The three female bisexual subgroups differed based on male versus female orientation and level of LGB identity. The three male bisexual groups differed based on a slightly higher orientation toward females over males or a moderately higher orientation to males over females coupled with a higher LGB identity. The two gay male groups differed based on a higher heterosexual versus LGB identity. The two heterosexual female groups differed based on both orientation to women and a higher heterosexual versus LGB identity.
Research allowing individuals to self-identify with “in-between” labels has also revealed between-group differences. For example, Thompson and Morgan (2008) found that among college women (aged 18–29; mean 19), those who identified as “mostly straight/heterosexual” reported significantly higher same-sex attraction and fantasy than exclusively heterosexual-identified counterparts and significantly lower same-sex attraction and fantasy than their bisexual-identified counterparts. Furthermore, although they resembled their heterosexual counterparts with regard to sexual relationships, when indicating their ideal sexual relationships, they again were significantly different from, and in-between, their heterosexual and bisexual counterparts. In a sample of U.S. adults (75% were between 18 and 35; mean age was 29), Vrangalova and Savin-Williams (2012) found support for a five-category model that incorporated “mostly heterosexual” and “mostly gay/lesbian” into the traditional three-category model (heterosexual, bisexual, and gay/lesbian). Furthermore, participants who selected the mostly heterosexual and mostly gay/lesbian labels were distinctive in measures of sexual attraction and sexual partners in a pattern that suggested a continuous distribution of sexual orientation based on two distinct dimensions (same-sex and other-sex orientation). Interestingly, in an analysis of Wave 3 and Wave 4 of Add Health data, the most common sexual identity after “100% heterosexual” was “mostly heterosexual” and when participants indicated a change in their sexual identity from Wave 3 to Wave 4, it was most frequently to “mostly heterosexual” (Savin-Williams et al., 2012). However, in an analysis of Wave 3 Add Health data (aged 18–27, mean age = 22), Loosier and Dittus (2010) found no differences in the number of same-sex relationships partners for mostly heterosexual youth when compared to heterosexual youth nor for mostly gay/lesbian youth when compared to gay/lesbian youth. The mostly heterosexual and mostly gay/lesbian youth did differ from bisexual youth.
It is obvious from current research that a two-category (heterosexual or gay/lesbian) or three-category (heterosexual, gay/lesbian, or bisexual) classification of identity does not fully resonate with contemporary youth. These recent studies have revealed that when given multiple options, adolescent, emerging adult, and adult participants will frequently subscribe to intermediary and alternative identity labels, especially “mostly heterosexual.” It remains unclear whether a particular preference for alternative sexual identity labels exists during emerging adulthood, and if so, what these alternative labels actually represent to emerging adults. Continued investigation into shifting meanings of identity labels among contemporary youth is necessary.
Intersecting Identity Development Processes
Sexual identity is just one of many identity domains undergoing transformation during emerging adulthood. Recently, scholars have begun to investigate how sexual identity (particularly sexual minority identity) intersects with other domains of identity, such as gender identities, racial or ethnic minority identities, and religious identities. These burgeoning areas of research will be briefly reviewed in the following section.
First, despite ongoing recommendations to consider gender identity and gender ideology as relevant, but distinct, aspects of sexual identity development (e.g., Shively & DeCecco, 1977; Striepe & Tolman, 2003), few researchers have offered studies that do so. Striepe and Tolman (2003) noted the importance of recognizing that questioning or rejecting conventional gender ideologies has implications for the salience of sexual identity development among both sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents. Because researchers have found that gender-related attitudes generally become more flexible from adolescence into emerging adulthood (e.g., Davis, 2007; Marcell, Eftim, Sonenstein, & Pleck, 2011), it is possible these changes facilitate or correspond with explorations of dimensions of sexual orientation and identity during this developmental period as well. Interestingly, McDermott and Schwartz (2012) found that among emerging adult college students, sexual-minority men indicated greater distress than heterosexual men with regard to questioning their gender role ideologies, perhaps because sexual-minority men are forced to question their roles as men in society because they do not fit into dominant heterosexist perceptions of masculinity due to their sexual orientation.
Gender identity has a similarly complex and dynamic relationship with sexual identity development during emerging adulthood. Despite historical conflations between sexual identity and gender identity, researchers have identified numerous combinations of gender and sexual identities among adults who self-identified within the transgender spectrum (e.g., Kuper, Nussbaum, & Mustanski, 2012). Furthermore, although significant subset of participants maintained traditional gender and sexual identity labels in their study, “transgender” and “genderqueer” were the most common gender identity labels with “pansexual” and “queer” as the most common sexual orientation labels. Even though gender identity and sexual identity need not vary in predictable patterns, these domains of identity are not completely unrelated. For example, Diamond, Pardo, and Butterworth (2011) emphasized that experiences of sexual desire and behavior are contingent upon an appraisal of one’s own and one’s partner’s gender status and that awareness and exploration of multiplicity and fluidity of either gender identity or sexual identity frequently leads to an awareness of flexibility in the other domain as well.
In addition to connections between gender and sexuality, researchers are currently exploring connections between race or ethnic identity and sexual identity. For example, several recent studies have examined the experiences of African American (e.g., Goode-Cross & Good, 2009), Latino (e.g., Jamil, Harper, & Fernandez, 2009), and Asian/Asian American (e.g., Narui, 2011) sexual minority adolescents and emerging adults. These studies have suggested that ethnic identity and sexual identity development processes are generally independent (Jamil et al., 2009) that certain contexts facilitate either sexual or ethnic identity development, but not both (Narui, 2011), and choices to make a racial identity more central to one’s definition over a sexual minority identity are based on appraised risk of rejection (Goode-Cross & Goode, 2009).
Intersections between a sexual minority identity and religious identity are another burgeoning area of research. In a recent study, five hundred and twenty-six 18- to 24-year-old men who have sex with men, who participated in a longitudinal mixed-methods study revealed how positive and supportive aspects of a religious identity could be maintained while either reframing or rejecting negative religious messages about same-sex sexuality, thus enabling the coexistence of both a sexual minority and religious identity (Kubicek et al., 2009). Dahl and Galliher (2012) described similar results in a qualitative study with 8 adolescent and 11 emerging adults. Their sexual-minority-identified participants also acknowledged negative religious messages that led some participants to seek alternative more accepting religious or spiritual identities that incorporated the positive qualities of their religious experiences growing up but were less negative with regard to their sexual minority orientation and identity. Schachter (2004) has described this process of navigating multiple identities with conflicting ideologies “identity configurations.”
Emerging adulthood offers a unique period of the life course where young men and women are often released from restrictions that accompany living with parents to a time where they can maintain flexible commitments and focus on exploring alternative identities in domains such as sexuality, gender, religiosity, and ethnicity or race (Arnett, 2004). Researchers are just beginning to identify intersections between these domains of identity to understand how processes of sexual identity development intersect and diverge from those in other identity domains. Notably, when conflicts between values emerge, reconciling these differences with regard to one’s personal and social identities can be particularly challenging and requires ongoing negotiation.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Recent scholarship has seen an increased focus on recognizing and accounting for the complexities and multidimensional nature of sexual identity development among both heterosexual and sexual-minority individuals. This recognition is evident through the numerous theoretical discussions regarding how to measure and define sexual orientation and identity, the multiple models proposed to study sexual identity development among various populations, and the burgeoning empirical literature assessing developmental trajectories, consistency between and exclusivity within dimensions of sexual orientation and identity, stability of sexual orientation dimensions and identity, and issues of sexual identity labeling and categorization. Scholarship drawn primarily from the past 10 years that addresses or includes emerging adult populations suggests that this increased attention to diversity within and between groups in their personal understanding, lived experiences, and developmental trajectories is warranted; the vast majority of studies have revealed multiple instances of incongruence between dimensions of sexual orientation and sexual identity as well as instability leading into and continuing after emerging adulthood. Furthermore, trajectories of development are divergent in sequence and timing and no single set of identity labels fully resonates with contemporary emerging adults.
Indeed, what appears to unify heterosexual and sexual-minority emerging adults with regard to sexual orientation and identity is complexity, variation, and flexibility, much like the high variability that characterizes emerging adulthood in general (Arnett, 2006; Waters et al., 2011). For example, there is a cohort of sexual minority youth who transition into emerging adulthood having already developed a highly integrated sexual-minority identity. There is also a cohort of emerging adults who are just starting to explore same-sex interests and may continue to do so into young adulthood. There is also a cohort of emerging adults who subscribe to two or more different sexual orientation labels and another cohort who will maintain the same sexual orientation label throughout emerging adulthood and beyond. Some emerging adults will resist labeling their sexual orientation altogether. Even though this kind of variation can take place in adolescence and adulthood, emerging adulthood offers a particularly fertile and forgiving milieu for negotiating experiences of instability and transition (Arnett, 2004).
In particular, the pervasiveness of nonexclusivity in sexual attraction, fantasy, and behavior among sexual-minority emerging adults is one of the more significant contributions of recent research in this field. It is highly important to legitimize nonexclusive patterns of sexual orientation, given that conventional cultural models of sexual orientation continue to stigmatize nonexclusive same-sex attraction and behavior as a “transitional” orientation or identity. Recognizing the prevalence of other-sex attraction and behavior among primarily same-sex-oriented emerging adults as well the prevalence of same-sex attraction and behavior among primarily other-sex-oriented emerging adults is particularly important during this developmental period because internal and external pressures to resolve negotiations of instability as one heads into adulthood may unnecessarily challenge or silence these common experiences.
These patterns of nonexclusivity, variation between domains, and instability in sexual orientation and identity are especially prominent for young women. In studies of both heterosexual and sexual-minority populations, most have identified higher rates of inconsistency and change among emerging adult women than men, though both genders exhibit flexibility in sexual orientation and identity. Scholars have suggested that sexual fluidity may be especially pronounced among women because of women’s partner-centered orientation whereby their identities are constructed and maintained within the context of relationships (Peplau & Garnets, 2000). These gender differences may also be the result of lower sensitivity to stigma and internalized homonegativity among women (Balsam & Mohr, 2007).
Limitations and Future Research
Despite the recent inroads made toward better understanding sexual orientation and sexual identity development during emerging adulthood, a number of important scientific inquiries are lacking. One of the major limitations of the current body of literature is a specific focus on emerging adulthood. Although many studies include emerging adults in their sample, they are infrequently the focus of studies or analyzed separately from adolescents or older adults. When data do focus exclusively on emerging adults, the samples are most often college students, an issue common to studies of emerging adulthood in general (Arnett, 2006). Given the lack of studies either describing emerging adult populations or comparing emerging adults to adolescents or to young adults, it becomes difficult to assess the particular developmental issues facing emerging adults as they navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood with regard to their sexual orientation and identity. Studies that focus on describing emerging adults’ sexual orientations and identities during this developmental period and in comparison to other developmental periods will benefit our understanding of both emerging adulthood as a discrete developmental period and sexual identity and orientation throughout the life span.
Another limitation in this body of research is that a lack of consistency in defining sexual orientation makes studies difficult to synthesize (Savin-Williams, 2006). Although this is not a limitation specific to research on sexual identity and sexual orientation in emerging adulthood, greater consistency in measurement would facilitate comparisons across developmental periods as studies could be compared and aggregated to ascertain a more complete representation of the diversity and uniformity of experience. As described in this review, multidimensional conceptualizations of sexual orientation and sexual identity are currently understood as the most accurate ways to understand and assess sexual orientation and sexual identity development. Several new sexual orientation labels have also emerged as meaningful in categorizing individuals into sexual orientation or identity groups. Systematic use and continued refinement of these concepts and terms would greatly benefit this area of research.
There is also an ongoing need for this body of research to pay greater attention to the sociohistorical context of development. Contemporary sexual minority youth (D’Augelli, 2012; Hammack, Thompson, & Pilecki, 2009; Savin-Williams, 2005), and likely heterosexual emerging adults, are subject to different social discourses with regard to their sexual orientation and identity than youth from 10, 20, and 30 years ago. Furthermore, despite the inclusion of some international research in this review, information about emerging adults’ sexual identity and orientation primarily comes from the United States. In addition, U.S. populations continue to be comprised of predominantly European American participants from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds (if indicated). Sexual-minority participants also tend to primarily be recruited from sexual-minority community centers, events, clubs, or listservs, resulting in a reduction of diversity in these samples. Greater international diversity in samples is needed as are continued efforts to reach diverse and varied populations within the United States.
The fourth area of expansion of research that would greatly benefit this field of study would be further investigation into how sexual identity intersects with other personal and social identities. Given the dynamic and reciprocal influences between sexual orientation/identity development and gender ideology/identity development during emerging adulthood, further research is needed to clarify these connections. In particular, attention to the ways that emerging adulthood as a period of the life course facilitates and restricts exploration and change in these domains would be beneficial as well as further assessing associations between gender identity and sexuality. There have also been some inroads with regard to intersections between sexual minority and ethnic or racial minority identity as well as religious identity, yielding valuable information about the ways that concessions in each domain must be navigated to configure disparate social pressures and ideologies associated with maintaining each identity. Continued research investigating these dual identities and others (such as political and vocational identities) as well as how sexual identity interacts with other life decisions (such as work, marriage, and family) would help further our understanding of how the domain of sexual identity influences and is influenced by other domains of identity.
In addition to the studies reviewed in this article, scholars have identified a number of other important considerations with regard to sexual orientation and identity development in emerging adulthood. These include a variety of interpersonal and social influences on sexual orientation and identity development, sexual-minority emerging adults’ experiences with discrimination as well as social support and collective action, and numerous physical and psychological health-related outcomes associated with various sexual orientation identities. A number of clinical implications for professionals working with emerging adults surrounding issues of sexual orientation and sexual identity have also been identified. The focus of this article was to present an overview of existing scholarship concerning developmental processes related to sexual orientation and identity among contemporary emerging adults and to provide suggestions for how this field can move forward. In summary, this body of research suggests that increased attention to diversity within and between sexual identity groups is warranted but also reveals notable patterns and meaningful categories of sexual orientation and identity that can be instrumental for researchers to make sense of the ways that individuals of different age groups, cohorts, sexual orientations, and sexual identities may resemble and differ from one another.