Tomboys, Sissies and Abuse

By Walter Armstrong 02/20/12

Childhood gender nonconformity results in much higher risk of abuse, trauma and addiction

Zoe Heran in 2011's "Tomboy" photo via 

File this first-time study under "Sad but Unsurprising." Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Children's Hospital Boston found that people who displayed childhood gender nonconformity have a much greater risk not only of early abuse but of untreated post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). And therefore they are far more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs in adulthood.

It has long been understood that being a tomboy or a sissy makes you an object of mockery on the playground. Studies into so-called gender nonconformity during childhood have previously shown—again, no surprise—more negative relationships between child and parents. But despite the enduring presence of kids who deviate from sexually stereotypical behavior—showing a preference for opposite-sex playmates, say, or cross-dressing—no research until now has bothered to look for the evidence of actual sexual, physical or psychological abuse—and its common aftermath, PTSD.

The Harvard/Children's Hospital team did not have to go far for their data. They relied on the Growing Up Today Study, a 2007 self-reported survey of 9,864 adolescents and young adults, average age 22.7 years.

Their findings, published today in the online Pediatrics, include: one in 10 US kids under age 11 manifests gender nonconformity—behavior generally perceived as, but in statistical reality not predictive of, a homosexual orientation or preference. By early adulthood, these youths were much more likely to have been abused sexually, physically or psychologically and to now suffer from PTSD. The abuser was usually, yet again unsurprisingly, a parent or adult under the same roof.

Many studies have demonstrated a causal link between childhood abuse and adult substance abuse. It is estimated that about one half of all female alcoholics and addicts experienced some form of early  PTSD and/or abuse; the rate among men is believed to be one third to one half less.

A study of adult addicts and alkies who paid that steep price for gender rebellion in childhood, however, remains to be done.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.