Alcohol use and associated problems peak during young adulthood (Grant et al., 2004
; Wechsler & Isaac, 1992
), with levels of alcohol consumption tending to increase during the transition to college (Baer, Kivlahan, & Marlatt, 1995
; Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2005
; McCabe, Schulenberg, Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Kloska, 2005
; Read, Wood, & Capone, 2005
). One group that appears to be at heightened risk for alcohol use during this developmental period is lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (LGBs), a finding that is especially pronounced among women, who drink at higher rates than their heterosexual peers (Eisenberg & Wechsler, 2003b
; McCabe, Boyd, Hughes, & d’Arcy, 2003
; McCabe, Hughes, Bostwick, & Boyd, 2005
). The processes leading to increased risk during this significant developmental period, however, remain inadequately understood because of a paucity of research on the determinants of alcohol use among LGB young adults.
Although not specifically designed to address the concerns of LGB individuals, several developmental models (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002
) may help explain why LGB young adults might be at risk for increased alcohol use. The overload model suggests that health-risk behaviors can result from experiencing several developmental transitions in short succession. In the transition to young adulthood, many LGB individuals negotiate the process of acknowledging, defining, and accepting their sexual identity (Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2001
). This task is undertaken in addition to the normative developmental tasks of young adulthood, including peer and romantic relationships and academic achievement, that their heterosexual peers confront (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002
). These combined stresses could potentially challenge an individual’s coping capabilities, and alcohol use may serve as an alternative coping strategy.
Whereas the overload model focuses on stress related to developmental transitions, most past research on LGB individuals focuses on stress associated with a stigmatized identity, including discrimination experiences and internalized homophobia (for a review, see Bux, 1996
). Both approaches, however, suggest that alcohol use among LGB individuals may be driven by coping motives and largely ignore more normative influences on drinking behavior that LGB young adults might share with their heterosexual peers.
A developmental model that is more consistent with a role for normative social influences on alcohol use among LGB young adults is the transition catalyst model, which posits that some level of risk-taking is normative and that alcohol might facilitate certain aspects of the transition to young adulthood (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002
). To the extent that the additional developmental task of acknowledging and integrating a marginalized identity may be difficult or stressful for LGB young adults, these individuals might be rendered more vulnerable to normative risk factors for alcohol use during the transition to college. Consistent with this hypothesis, there is evidence within samples of LGB individuals that normative influences impact substance use and abuse, particularly under conditions of stress (McKirnan & Peterson, 1988
). With rare exception (Eisenberg & Wechsler, 2003a
), however, normative psychosocial processes have not been examined as prospective influences on alcohol use among LGB young adults, even though the importance of examining basic developmental processes with this population has been recognized for some time (Savin-Williams, 2001
Among general samples of young adults, both normative social and cognitive influences predict increased rates of alcohol use. Social norms, both descriptive and injunctive, refer to the influence of the environment on an individual’s level of alcohol consumption. Descriptive norms for drinking behaviors denote an individual’s perception of how much alcohol others in their environment consume; injunctive norms, on the other hand, indicate an individual’s beliefs about the acceptability of drinking (Larimer, Turner, Mallett, & Geisner, 2004
). Both types of norms have been shown to predict drinking behavior and alcohol-related problems (Larimer et al., 2004
; Sher, Bartholow, & Nanda, 2001
). In addition to these social influences, a well-established cognitive influence on drinking behavior is alcohol outcome expectancies. Alcohol-related expectancies, both positive and negative, are beliefs about the effects of drinking alcohol. A substantial literature documents the association between alcohol expectancies and drinking behavior across time (e.g., Goldman, Brown, & Christiansen, 1987
; Jones, Corbin, & Fromme, 2001
During adolescence and young adulthood, peer relationships are consistently implicated in the etiology and maintenance of substance use, including alcohol (for reviews, see Borsari & Carey, 2006
; also see Hops, Andrews, Duncan, Duncan, & Tildesley, 2000
). For example, a longitudinal study of young adults demonstrated that peer use of alcohol predicted binge drinking and problem use by young adults, providing evidence for a causal role of peer influence on drinking behaviors (Andrews, Tildesley, Hops, & Li, 2002
). Peers can influence the alcohol use patterns of young adults in several ways. In addition to contributing to the development of norms regarding alcohol use, peers exert direct pressure to drink and influence behavior via modeling of drinking behavior (Borsari & Carey, 2001
). Another way in which peers can influence alcohol use during this developmental period is through the stability, intimacy, and support they provide—that is, through the quality of peer relationships (Borsari & Carey, 2006
). In particular, an absence or dissolution of peer relations has been consistently associated with alcohol use among college students (e.g., Hussong, Hicks, Levy, & Curran, 2001
; Senchak, Leonard, & Greene, 1998
), suggesting that the quality of peer relations can serve as both a risk for, and protection against, the initiation of alcohol use. It has been hypothesized that a dearth of stable, intimate, and supportive peer relationships leads to increased alcohol use primarily through the development of cognitions that reinforce drinking as a means of coping with social isolation (Borsari & Carey, 2006
These social–cognitive influences also appear important in understanding the drinking behavior of specific high-risk groups, who tend to have more permissive social norms and higher alcohol expectancies (Larimer et al., 2004
; Sher & Gotham, 1999
). In particular, individuals with a family history of alcoholism have elevated alcohol expectancies compared with those without such a history (Conway, Swendsen, & Merikangas, 2003
; Pastor & Evans, 2003
; Sher & Gotham, 1999
). Additionally, members of fraternities and sororities are more likely than non-Greeks to endorse attitudes that higher levels of alcohol use are normative and to indicate that their peers are more encouraging of heavy drinking (Baer, 1994
; Sher et al., 2001
). Social norms and expectancies have also been shown to mediate differences in drinking behavior among these two high-risk groups (Larimer et al., 2004
; Sher & Gotham, 1999
). Although LGB status is different in many ways from Greek membership or a positive family history of alcoholism, the prominence of social– cognitive influences on drinking behavior suggests the possibility that these influences may contribute to alcohol consumption among LGB adolescents and young adults. To our knowledge, no study has simultaneously examined these social– cognitive influences to determine whether they differ by sexual orientation or account for drinking differences between heterosexual and LGB young adults.
The present study addressed gaps in the literature with respect to social–cognitive influences in the development of alcohol use among LGB young adults. Using prospective data from a large cohort of students who were recruited during the summer between their senior year in high school and their matriculation into college, we had the following specific aims: (a) to determine whether levels of alcohol consumption among LGB individuals differ from those of their heterosexual peers both prior to college matriculation and during the initial transition to college, (b) to evaluate social–cognitive influences on alcohol use among LGB young adults, and (c) to examine social–cognitive influences as possible mediators of differences in drinking behavior between heterosexual and LGB young adults.
It was hypothesized that LGB individuals would exhibit higher levels of alcohol consumption than their heterosexual peers, especially among women who have been shown to be particularly at risk (Burgard, Cochran, & Mays, 2005
; Cochran, Keenan, Schober, & Mays, 2000
). In addition, given prior research with other high-risk drinking populations, LGB young adults were expected to report greater peer influence, more positive alcohol expectancies, and perceptions that their peers drink more heavily and are more accepting of alcohol use, relative to their heterosexual peers. Finally, social– cognitive influences were expected to be significantly related to drinking behavior, and group differences in these influences were expected to mediate the association between sexual orientation and drinking behavior. If these three mechanisms were shown to operate similarly in LGB and heterosexual young adults, the results would suggest greater generalizability than previously known. If the opposite was true, the results would highlight where mainstream psychological models of addictive behaviors fail tests of generalizability to LGB young adults. Additionally, determining whether social– cognitive influences contribute to alcohol use among LGB young adults has important implications for future etiologic research as well as for the prevention of alcohol abuse in this population.