The association between health risk behaviors and sexual orientation among a school-based sample of adolescents

Robert Garofalo*, R. Cameron Wolf, Shari Kessel, Judith Palfrey, Robert H. DuRant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

610 Scopus citations


Objective. This study is one of the first to examine the association between sexual orientation and health risk behaviors among a representative, school-based sample of adolescents. Design. This study was conducted on an anonymous, representative sample of 4159 9th- to 12th-grade students in public high schools from Massachusetts' expanded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Sexual orientation was determined by the following question: 'Which of the following best describes you?' A total of 104 students self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB), representing 2.5% of the overall population. Of GLB youth, 66.7% were male and 70% were white (not Hispanic). Health risk and problem behaviors were analyzed comparing GLB youth and their peers. Those variables found to be significantly associated with GLB youth were then analyzed by multiple logistic regression models. Results. GLB youth were more likely than their peers to have been victimized and threatened and to have been engaged in a variety of risk behaviors including suicidal ideation and attempts, multiple substance use, and sexual risk behaviors. Four separate logistic regression models were constructed. Model I, Onset of Behaviors Before Age 13, showed use of cocaine before age 13 years as strongly associated with GLB orientation (odds ratio [OR]: 6.10; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.45- 15.20). Early initiation of sexual intercourse (2.15; 10.6-4.38), marijuana use (1.98; 1.04-4.09), and alcohol use (1.82; 1.03-3.23) also was associated with GLB orientation. Model II, Lifetime Frequencies of Behaviors, showed that frequency of crack cocaine use (1.38; 1.06-1.79), inhalant use (1.30; 1.05-1.61), and number of sexual partners (1.27; 1.06-1.43) was associated with GLB orientation. Model III, Frequency of Recent Behaviors, showed smokeless tobacco use in the past 30 days (1.38; 1.20-1.59) and number of sexual partners in the previous 3 months (1.47; 1.31-1.65) were associated with GLB orientation. Model IV, Frequency of Behaviors at School, showed having one's property stolen or deliberately damaged (1,23; 1.08-1.40) and using marijuana (1.29; 1.05-1.59) and smokeless tobacco (1.53; 1.30-1.81) were associated with GLB orientation. Overall, GLB respondents engaged disproportionately in multiple risk behaviors, reporting an increased mean number of risk behaviors (mean = 6.81 ± 4.49) compared with the overall student population (mean = 3.45 ± 3.15). Conclusion. GLB youth who self- identify during high school report disproportionate risk for a variety of health risk and problem behaviors, including suicide, victimization, sexual risk behaviors, and multiple substance use. In addition, these youth are more likely to report engaging in multiple risk behaviors and initiating risk behaviors at an earlier age than are their peers. These findings suggest that educational efforts, prevention programs, and health services must be designed to address the unique needs of GLB youth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)895-902
Number of pages8
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1998


  • Risk behaviors
  • Sexual orientation
  • Suicide
  • Victimization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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