Book Review: The New Gay Teenager
The New Gay Teenager includes a well-researched and interesting analysis of current research concerning gay adolescence. Unfortunately, this contribution is overshadowed by other problems with the book.
In this book, author Ritch Savin-Williams argues that many early studies of gay teens used flawed methods, meaning the conclusions of those studies are unreliable and not applicable to gay teens in general. Additionally, he criticizes common theories about how teens form a gay identity or realize that they are gay. Savin-Williams comments that current studies look only at "the lives of those who we might say are most gay -- those most likely to feel compelled...to categorize their sexuality." These studies have thus ignored those who "have been freed from" a need to categorize themselves.
On one hand, Savin-Williams is making a valid point about the methodology of many studies: It is difficult to determine a measure of sexual orientation. One has to include behavior, desire and identity, each of which may not match the other measures. However, Savin-Williams comments on the many categories that teens use to refer to their sexual identities, but he asserts that these labels have little meaning. By failing to provide an assessment of why some teens choose to identify their sexuality with a particular term, Savin-Williams fails to explain his stance that those who choose a label are less "free" than other teens. He seems to reject the possibility that a shared identify has any value or that teens gain anything by identifying their sexuality.
Savin-Williams further compounds this problem when assessing measures of sexual orientation. He takes a positive step by trying to study all same-sex attracted teens rather than just those who identify as bisexual or homosexual, but he fails to differentiate between levels of same-sex attraction. He emphasizes the diversity of same-sex attracted teens without examining that diversity.
Another particularly problematic component of the The New Gay Teenager is the quotes included in one of the final chapters. Six quotes from Yale students are included to demonstrate that "same-sex-attracted students…no longer feel that 'being gay' is a primary aspect of their identity." While these students' comments are important, it does not seem justified to conclude that their experiences, which were gained at an elite university, are typical of adolescents in general. In many areas of the country, teens continue to face hate crimes, teasing and bullying at school or at home simply for identifying as gay.
The author also dismisses activism. He asserts that doing things such as fighting for gay rights is unpopular and not accepted by the student body as a whole. While Savin-Williams says these students are probably agreeing with the idea that "the only way to lift the stigma of homosexuality is to be matter-of-fact about it," they in fact imply that the only way to lift the stigma of homosexuality is to limit it from becoming part of one's larger identity. Should adolescents simply compartmentalize their sexuality and avoid fighting for gay rights in order to be accepted at the current moment?
Ritch Savin-Williams implies that adolescents should compartmentalize their sexuality and avoid fighting for gay rights in order to be accepted. He implies that this will lead to homosexuals becoming more accepted and normalized. However, this answer is only helpful to those who can "pass" as straight in everything but the gender of whom they date. Teens who express different gender identities based on their sexual identities are excluded.
In The New Gay Teenager, Ritch Savin-Williams focuses on debunking the myths of who is gay and the characteristics of these individuals, demonstrating the many flaws in earlier studies and showing an optimistic picture of gay teens. However, his vision of an adolescence in which teens no longer "need" to identify as gay ignores the many teens who do not conform to heterosexual norms in their gender identities, their values or how they express sexuality.
The diversity that Savin-Williams says other researchers have missed is thus missed by Savin-Williams himself; his vision only works in areas that are tolerant for particular teens. Overall, the amount of time he spends pushing this vision undermines the accurate and thoughtful analysis contained in the rest of the work.