A new study has found that teenage boys — but not girls — who identified as either homosexual or bisexual were more likely to have experienced parental maltreatment in childhood. Moreover, the association was largely explained by childhood gender nonconforming behavior. These findings were published in Child Development.
Studies have consistently linked nonheterosexuality to an increased history of childhood maltreatment, including neglect, emotional abuse, and physical abuse. Some hypotheses attempt to explain this link by suggesting that childhood sexual abuse can shape atypical sexual orientation by leading girls and boys to adopt same-sex attraction. Another theory, however, suggests that nonheterosexuals display gender nonconforming behavior in childhood that place them at greater risk of experiencing parental maltreatment.
Study authors Yin Xu and colleagues analyzed data from a British prospective birth cohort to examine whether childhood gender nonconforming behavior (GNCB) would explain the increased prevalence of maltreatment among nonheterosexual boys and girls.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children collected data from pregnant women expecting to give birth between 1991-1992 and followed-up with the new families over two decades. Xu and associates analyzed data from 5,007 children who provided their sexual orientation at age 15. Since sample sizes for homosexuals and bisexuals were small, researchers grouped bisexuals and homosexuals into a single category of nonheterosexuals. The distribution of the sample was 2,290 heterosexual boys, 59 nonheterosexual boys, 2,585 heterosexual girls, and 73 nonheterosexual girls.
Childhood parental maltreatment was measured six times throughout early childhood, from 8 months of age up until age 6. Gender nonconforming behavior was measured three times between the ages of 2 and 4, by assessing children’s preferences for toys, activities, and interests using the Preschool Activities Inventory.
In line with previous research, the results uncovered an increased prevalence of parental maltreatment among nonheterosexual youth. However, the results were only significant for boys. While 12% of heterosexual boys experienced maltreatment in childhood, 26% of nonheterosexual boys did. For girls, 12% of heterosexual girls experienced childhood maltreatment and 13% of nonheterosexual girls did.
For both boys and girls, gender nonconforming behavior was associated with a higher likelihood of maltreatment. Importantly, logistic regression showed that the link between maltreatment and sexual orientation was no longer significant when GNCB was taken into account.
“The findings,” the authors say, “suggest that the association between childhood maltreatment and male nonheterosexuality may at least partly be accounted for by GNCB. This supports the hypothesis that the greater levels of childhood gender nonconformity among nonheterosexual males may make them more vulnerable to maltreatment (Alanko et al., 2010; Xu & Zheng, 2017).”
The lack of association between maltreatment and sexual orientation for girls contradicted the researchers’ presumption that female sexuality is more affected by psychosocial experiences than male sexuality. One explanation is that gender nonconforming behavior is more stigmatized in boys than girls and boys who behave against gender norms are less likely to be accepted by family and more likely to be maltreated than nonconforming girls are. Still, the study does not rule out other psychosocial factors that may be involved in shaping female sexual orientation.
A limitation to this research was that it was unable to control for certain confounds like additional genetic or environmental factors that might be simultaneously affecting maltreatment, sexual identity, and GNCB. The authors propose that further studies build on the findings by exploring these additional variables.
The study, “Childhood Maltreatment, Gender Nonconformity, and Adolescent Sexual Orientation: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study”, was authored by Yin Xu, Sam Norton, and Qazi Rahman.