Highly educated men are more likely to report being non-heterosexual, indicates a new University of Notre Dame study, while highly educated women are more likely to say they are heterosexual and have a stable sexual identity.

“I was surprised by how strong the association was for women, although I was not surprised by the direction of the association for either gender,” Dr. Elizabeth Aura McClintock, study author and assistant professor of sociology, told Medical Daily in an email.

McClintock examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). Essentially, she tracked 5,018 women and 4,191 men as they transitioned from their teen years to young adulthood. The successive waves of information gathering began in 1994/1995 and ended in 2007/2008. On average, participants began the study at age 16 and ended at age 28. As part of the Add Health study, interviewers rated each participant’s physical attractiveness.

In many ways, McClintock’s results confirm well-known findings from past studies. For instance, women are more likely than men to report bisexuality and also to change their sexual identity over time. (Choices on the Add Health survey include 100 percent heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly homosexual, and 100 percent homosexual.)

"Not only might women experience attraction to both genders more often than do men, male eroticization of same-sex female sexuality grants women greater latitude for experimentation," McClintock wrote. Meanwhile, the new study finds men are much more likely to report being either "100 percent heterosexual" or "100 percent homosexual," than women.

Overall, McClintock notes, there is social pressure toward heterosexuality.

"To take an obvious example, kids' Disney movies have yet (to my knowledge) to depict a same-sex romance," McClintock said. "Kids are raised with the general social expectation of heterosexuality." This social pressure combined with a woman’s more fluid sexual nature means romantic opportunities will influence her sexual identity. In one context, a woman's more flexible nature has a chance to emerge, in another, her flexible nature will remain submerged, McClintock believes.

Her research showed, for example, that the more physically attractive women had higher probabilities of identifying as “100 percent heterosexual” than less attracive women. According to McClintock, attractive women (as well as those with higher levels of education) may have been less likely to explore same-sex relationships simply because they had more opportunities with “better” men.

Meanwhile, women who have less opportunities with men (and less appealing choices) might explore a same-sex partnership… simply because they remain unoccupied. When it comes to sexual identity, McClintock says her results indicate that, for women only, context matters.

Source: McClintock EA. The Social Context of Sexual Identity: a working paper. ASA Conference. 2015.