Alcohol use among sexual minority women: Methods used and lessons learned in the 20-Year Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women Study
Background: Two decades ago, there was almost no research on alcohol use among sexual minority women (SMW, e.g., lesbian, bisexual). Since then, a growing body of scientific literature documents substantial sexual orientation-related disparities in alcohol use and alcohol-related problems. Research has identified multiple risk factors associated with high-risk/hazardous drinking among SMW. However, this research has almost exclusively used cross-sectional designs, limiting the ability to draw conclusions about processes through which sexual minority status affects alcohol use. Longitudinal designs, although very rare in research on alcohol use among SMW, are important for testing mediational mechanisms and necessary to understanding how changes in social determinants impact alcohol use.
Aim: To describe the processes and lessons learned in conducting a 20-year longitudinal study focused on alcohol use among SMW.
Methods: The Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women (CHLEW) study includes five waves of data collection (2000–present) with an age and racially/ethnically diverse sample of 815 SMW (ages 18–83) originally recruited in the Chicago Metropolitan Area in Illinois, a midwestern state in the United States (U.S.). Measures and focus have evolved over the course of the study.
Results: The CHLEW study is the longest-running and most comprehensive study of SMW’s drinking in the U.S. or elsewhere. Findings reported in more than 50 published manuscripts have contributed to understanding variations in SMW’s risk for hazardous/harmful drinking based on sexual identity, age, race/ethnicity, sex/gender of partner, and many other factors.
Conclusions: By describing the process used in conducting this long-term study, its major findings, and the lessons learned, we hope to encourage and support other researchers in conducting longitudinal research focused on SMW’s health. Such research is critically important in understanding and ultimately eliminating sexual orientation-related health disparities.
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