Thoughts on Gender (Non)Conformity
By: Molly Cunningham
Childhood gender nonconformity (noun): a phenomenon in which pre-pubescent children do not conform to expected gender-related sociological or psychological patterns, and/or identify with the opposite gender.
I am going to break from the theme of women and religion this quarter to highlight a news story that prompted quite a bit of discussion in my circle of friends and in GALS.
The story concerns a study released by the Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston, which examined a population studied in the “Growing Up Today Study” of the 1990s. The study aimed to examine the nascent connections between childhood development and the physical and sexual abuse. The study, as reported in the Harvard Gazette, is the, “…first study to use a population-based sample to look at gender nonconformity as a risk factor for abuse.”
The authors claim boys and girls who engage in activities not typically assigned to gender are at greater risk for physical and sexual abuse from adults, particularly parents. This abuse and the negative societal response associated with gender non-conformity result in a higher incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health disorder developed in response to trauma.
This seems a rather bold claim, considering how shaky the evidence is for the main claim – that gender non-conformity contributes to future ptsd and other physical conditions– has several flaws in my opinion.
The first minor objection concerns the scope of the study. From the details reported by the Harvard Gazette, the study is far too small to make any claims of certainty on this connection. It is a study of, “9,000 young adults,” out of a study, Growing Up Today, of 26,000 contributors. Why did the authors of the study not consider children beyond that study? The authors may have enjoyed the convenience of the study, but the study could have benefitted from a broader cross-section of American society.
On the issue of gender identity, the study appears to only consider gender conformity in favorite childhood “toys and games… and media characters“. It is absurd to link gender identification to these very general characteristics and childhood objects. Does the study mean to imply that if a girl plays with her brother’s toy cars – as I frequently did – she is more likely to identify as “masculine”. If so, it is patently ridiculous to hinge gender identity, a broad and expansive aspect of individual identity, on toys.
Furthermore, does the study truly wish to imply gender identification engenders physical or sexual abuse as a child? Individuals who do not conform within the norms associated with his or her gender may indeed face bullying and harassment from peers. Kids can be cruel. Teachers and parents often compound the isolation of bullying and teasing. Without cruel intention, these adults in positions of authority can exacerbate these problems by allowing, “kids to be kids” .
Sexual or physical abuse, however, does not discriminate based on gender identity. A rowdy little boy who plays sports can be abused in the same ways a quiet boy who likes his sister’s dolls. Abusers prey on vulnerability, which may be linked to gender identity. Abuse, however, is much more linked to the fact that children instinctively trust the adults in their lives, and abusers prey on that fact.
More importantly, how would this study be translated into a practical solution advocated in the final paragraph? Will school nurses will be asking: “Oh, Johnny (or Susie), you don’t play with GI Joes (or Barbies) at playtime. Does Mommy or Daddy hurt you at home?”
I would guess such a policy would cause a complete uproar amongst children, parents, and anyone with any understanding of mental health! Children may see absolutely nothing wrong with their non-conforming behavior. Should school officials single them out for scrutiny? Parents may also object to the horrifying assumption of this study. Because gender non-conformity is correlated to abuse, should children be questioned without any other probable cause for questioning like physical injury?
My greatest hesitation with the study is the connection between mental health disorders like PTSD and gender non-conformity. Mental health disorders, including PTSD, are related to a myriad of causal stimuli. It cannot be necessarily attributed solely to instances of childhood abuse or trauma. It is related to many smaller events within the varied life of a human being.
My objections should not be understood as a complete dismissal of the study. The study does offer crucial insight into a vulnerable population of children, boys and girls who do not align perfectly with the modern conception of gender. Children who are different often suffer bullying and teasing from their classmates and from their peers. Children who do not fit inside the boxes society set for them can suffer horrific abuse from the adults they trust implicitly.
There are also children who color outside the lines of their gender who face challenges with determination and resolve. These are the children who refuse to be cowed and bullied because they are different from everyone. I would hate to stifle the expression and the fun of these children because of one study. Society must engage fully in this discussion on gender to provide safety to the children who dare to defy gender.
Molly Cunningham is the Editor in Chief of Galatea and a third year Philosophy major in the College. You may contact her with any questions.