February 6, 2014 New Study Prompts Questions about Media, Stigma, and LGBT Health
Gay and bisexual teen boys use illicit steroids at a significantly higher rate than do straight kids, a “dramatic disparity”, researchers say. (Sexual Orientation and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids in US Adolescent Boys, Aaron J. Blashill, PhD and Steven A. Safren, PhD, Pediatrics, 2/2/14)
This study reports that 21 percent of gay or bisexual identified boys said they had ever used steroids, as compared to 4 percent of straight identified boys. The authors found similar differences among those who reported moderate use (taking steroid pills or injections up to 40 times): 8 percent of gay or bisexual boys reported that amount, compared to less than 2 percent of straight boys. Heavy use (40 or more times) was reported by 4 percent of gay or bisexual boys, compared with less than 1 percent of straight boys.
The authors indicate that “Given the dramatic disparity … it would seem that this is a population in which greater attention is needed.”
This is an important study, particularly since more health research on issues and needs of LGBT populations is needed. What is also needed is more investigation of underlying social factors that contribute to problems like the issue reported here. Without paying attention to the role of stigmatization of homosexuality, it would be too easy to pathologize issues like these as symptomatic of sexual orientation as opposed to symptomatic of social attitudes toward sexual minorities.
The authors of this study don’t do that. Reasons for difference in use rates were not part of this study. Blashill and Safren do speculate that gay and bisexual boys feel more pressure to achieve a bulked-up “ideal” male physique, or that they think muscle-building steroids will help them fend off bullies.
While plausible, these reasons may be superficial. Body image concerns have been previously documented amongst gay male populations. “Gay men report greater amounts of pressure from the media despite valuing physical attractiveness similarly as straight men. Apparently, both gay and straight men recognize the importance of appearance, yet straight men—relative to gay men—feel less pressure to achieve attractiveness.” (Marino Carper, Negy, and Tantleff-Dunn, Body Image, 2010) Numerous studies suggest media influence and social stigma may play a role.
“Growing up as a gay male is difficult in today’s society, as gay males face discrimination, harassment, and even the possibility of parental rejection. Oftentimes, young gay males look to the media for role models and see unrealistic images of the male body that they idealize and strive to resemble.” (Sex Info Online, 2/15/13). “Negative childhood social experiences related to gender nonconformity increase the internalization of media messages.” (Wiseman and Moradi,, Journal of Counseling Psychology, Apr 2010) In a previous study, one of this study’s authors reports that, “Gay men who report concern over lack of muscularity tend to be more likely to report general fear of receiving negative appraisals about themselves.” (Blashill, Eating Disorders, 2012)
The disparity in steroid abuse between straight identified boys and gay or bisexual identified boys may well reflect the disparity in the way society regards each group. Blashill and Safren’s study represents a call to action – for researchers to initiate more studies about health needs for LGBT people, especially young people; for media to examine their role in perpetuating images that objectify and regulate “ideal” types; for parents to take a role in affirming that their kids are valuable, lovable, and beautiful people however they look and whoever they are.