Friday, December 24, 2010

Studying LesBians: Offences by lesbian teens are seen as more offensive

Studying LesBians is a monthly column that discusses recent, and not so recent, research involving lesBians. This time I'll look into a study about the relation between sexual orientation and punishment.

This month an article was published in the academic journal Pediatrics entitled Criminal-Justice and school sanctions against non-heterosexual youth: a national longitudinal study. The article describes a study involving 15,700 American teenagers, who were followed for 7 years, and had many aspects of their lives studied.

The main things Kathryn Himmelstein and Hannah Bruckner looked at were sexual orientation and a number of sanctions by schools and the criminal-justice system.

Their main findings were that non-straight teenagers were 40% more likely to be punished in some way by schools, as well as by the police and the courts. Even more striking is that in general, non-straight teenagers were found to be much less likely involved in any serious misbehaviour.

More specifically, this involved things like being expelled from school, getting stopped by the police, but also more serious sanctions like juvenile arrest; juvenile conviction; adult arrest; and adult conviction.

In the article itself it's summarized as follows:

Nonheterosexual youth suffer disproportionate educational and criminal-justice punishments that are not explained by greater engagement in illegal or transgressive behaviours.

These results are rather shocking. Even more shocking, or perhaps it's not that surprising, these results especially applied to lesbians. In other words, the simple fact of being a lesbian as a teen can get you expelled, or even put in jail. Before we discuss the implications of this, let's look at the study more closely.

During the 1994-1995 school year, a little over 20,000 kids in grades 7 through 12 were interviewed extensively about their lives. This interview was followed up in 1996 and again during the 2000-2001 school year, when the kids from the first wave were between 18 and 26 years old.

They still managed to keep 15,700 of the original respondents, which is quite impressive. Even more impressive is they managed to collect so much data from such a large sample of teenagers.

Everything about the study and how it was conducted seems ok, and I couldn't find any big flaws or other reasons for these results to be inaccurate.

This longitudinal health study looked into many aspects of the kids' lives, but in this article only sexual orientation and sanctions by school and the justice system were assessed.

Categorizations into straight and non-straight were made based on answers about 3 aspects of sexual orientation: same-sex attraction, same-sex experiences and identification with labels of sexual orientation.

This was measured with questions like: Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a male/female? and sexual identification was measured with a Kinsey type scale. This appears like a more extensive way of assessing sexual orientation in teens than is often the case.

An interesting side-note is that for many teenagers sexual orientation and same-sex attraction isn't a very stable thing yet, with big differences between behaviour and identification, not only over time but also within a wave. For example, 28% of the teens who reported same-sex behaviour identified completely as straight.

In the total sample, 17.1% of female respondents reported same-sex attraction, 6.2% reported same-sex relationships, and 14.5% self-identified as other than 100% heterosexual. These numbers were a little higher than for boys, but boys tend to be more extreme (straight or gay), whereas girls are more fluid in their sexuality.

The researchers also assessed what kind of misbehaviour the teenagers had engaged in, ranging from minor misbehaviour (running away from home, lying to parents), moderate misbehaviour (stealing, selling drugs, driving a car without owner's permission) and violent behaviour. This behaviour was controlled for in the study, as well as age, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

It was then assessed what the relationship was between being straight or not and 6 different outcomes: expelled from school; stopped by police; arrested before the age of 18; convicted (or pled guilty) in juvenile court; arrested after turning 18; and convicted (or pled guilty) in adult court.

Results showed teens who indicated being attracted to or having experiences with the same-sex were more likely to be sanctioned by school or police. Interestingly, when it comes to identifications, only girls who identified as non-straight were more likely to be sanctioned (it made no difference for boys).

In other words, regardless of misbehaviour, ethnicity, etc., non-straight youth were more likely to be expelled from school, being stopped by the police and even ended up in court more than straight teens. This was especially the case for identifying as non-straight and being attracted to the same sex, and not so much for same-sex romantic or sexual behaviour.

Again, this was mainly a problem for girls, who were much more likely to be expelled from school, stopped by the police or even arrested and convicted than their straight counter parts. What's up with that?

The article offers a number of possible explanations. Most of these suggestions can be summed up as due to homophobia: getting punished for deviant behaviour or for being different.

Other explanations do not seem very plausible: they focus on same-sex behaviour explanations even though it's identification and attraction that is related to sanctions. They also wonder if it's due to self-measures of identification, as if sexual orientation could ever be assessed by anyone but the person themselves.

I am surprised not more or better possible explanations for these findings were given. I especially think it's surprising that nothing is said about the fact that being sanctioned is mainly a problem for non-straight girls. Surely, there's plenty of plausible reasons for this.

For example, AfterEllen mentioned that it's well known that lesbians who do not conform to traditional feminine roles and behaviour often are seen as aggressive and uncooperative.

In addition, Autostraddle talks about how "the juvenile-justice system also has a history of policing female sexuality, and a history of being antagonistic towards girls with 'aggressive' or 'masculine' gender presentations."

These are very plausible explanations for the results found in this study, and they also explain why they are mainly found for girls. It seems like it is not so much a case of homophobia (although I am sure that plays a role as well), but the fact that too many people (with power) do not like when girls aren't behaving like stereotypical pretty, silly, dumb girls.

Could it really be that sad? It would be a really interesting follow up study. Let's have a closer look at all girls who get into trouble with the law or at school and those who do not, and see if it's girly behaviour that explains a big part of it. I wouldn't be surprised it this were the case.

I would also love to see studies like these for Western European teenagers. Do we find the same results or not at all? In most Western European countries, we seem to be a little less concerned with traditional female behaviour, so perhaps we wouldn't find the same thing. Or perhaps we are just as homophobic over here?


What do you think of these study results? Do you think the explanations are plausible? Do you find it worrying? Do you think in Europe we would find similar results? Let us know in the comments.

This post was first published on eurout.


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