Recent headlines have sparked heated debate about whether boys should be allowed to dress as girls. For example, a 5-year-old boy in Seattle who enjoys things traditionally for girls, such as...

Recent headlines have sparked heated debate about whether boys should be allowed to dress as girls. For example, a 5-year-old boy in Seattle who enjoys things traditionally for girls, such as jewelry, the color pink, and dresses was supported and encouraged by his mother, who wrote a book about him called “My Princess Boy”. A J. Crew ad featured a mother painting her young boy’s toenails hot pink (CBS News, 2011 April 13). Reactions ranged from outrage and disbelief to support of the mothers.

On the flipside, girls who shun traditionally “girly things” such as dresses and flowers in favor of more traditional “boy things” such as watching or playing sports, rough-and-tumble play, and choosing boys as friends are often called tomboys.

For either sex, choosing to engage in activities traditionally reserved for a specific sex can result in teasing and accusations of homosexuality.

  • Using research gathered from your textbook, online course content, and at least 1 research article, analyze the above scenarios.
  • Are the behaviors discussed above (i.e., preferring things traditionally acceptable for a specific sex) indicative of homosexuality? Why or why not?
  • Describe the psychological consequences (positive and negative) that might result from engaging in behaviors reserved for a specific sex?
  • Develop an argument for or against concern that these children might be exhibiting a paraphilia.
  • Which paraphilia(s) might apply and what criteria would you use based on the research?
  • What, if any, intervention would you recommend to a parent whose little girl or boy expresses the desire to engage in behaviors typical of the opposite sex? If you do not believe intervention is necessary, explain why.
Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The behavior that you are referring to is known as Gender Non-Conformity. This is a phenomenon that has been studied longitudinally in specific individuals for years. Research studies performed from a variety of perspectives have, in their majority, agreed in the fact that the behavior of children who refuse to engage in gender-appropriate behavior is not a true corelative, nor a raw indicative, of homosexual behavior in the future. 

In the Journal of Gender Studies (2003) the article"Same-Sex Sexuality and Childhood Gender Non-conformity: A Spurious Connection," by Lorene Gottschalk, states that, from the feminist perspective

...all human beings are born with the potential to be sexual, rather than with a particular sexual orientation, and that the direction of sexual preference, or sexual orientation, is socially determined, and influenced by the values and social arrangements of the dominant culture.

Even ten years prior to that, the 1993 article "The Causes of Homosexuality: A Scientific Update," by Bonnie Bullough, PhD states that, many males who are homosexual have declared that, at one point or another, they have exhibited gender non-conformist behavior (urinating while squatting down, wearing their mothers'/sisters' clothing, or trying on makeup). However, the same claim has been made by women who are heterosexual and have experienced "penis envy", leading them to act out boyishly in order to stand out from the other siblings. In the article, it further says that:

Not all cross-gendered children became homosexual. Rather, the data suggest that a childhood cross-gender identity and behavior is the precursor to four types of adult patterns: homosexuality; adult cross-dressing (transvestism); trans-sexualism; and ordinary heterosexuality without any discernible non-normative sex pattern.

However, there is a variable that may twist the correlation between non-conformist behavior to actual homosexual behavior and practice: the urge with which the child, at his or her most succeptiblle, needs to engage in such behavior in order to bring normality into his or her world.

The strength of the urge for the cross-gendered behavior and the social learning that takes place probably helps to determine the pattern of adult behavior

When role playing, gender-switching, and personality changes become a necessary part of the consciousness of the individual, no matter at what age, it should be looked into as a potential problem of dissociation, whose origins should be the focus of in-depth analysis. 

All this being said, the problem with the child from Seattle is that we are not fully aware of how much of his behavior is truly initiated, and how much is "encouraged" (pushed in) by a mother who may or may not be just anxious make a name for herself and her child. Since we do not know what REALLY goes on behind closed doors in that household, we can only get the information from the mother and whatever she has coached her child to say.Meanwhile, what we are witnessing, media-wise, is the utter exploitation of a minor by the hands of his/her parent.

Here is the basic argument for the Seattle case: if the mother argues that children are not being encouraged to be "who they really are", then why is this such an isolated case? If all children have the same pronness as the child in Seattle to behave in a non-conformist way, how come we do not see a majority of children acting in the same manner? It cannot all be the parents' failure to encourage them? There is more to this story that what the one-sided argument that supports it. 

Psychological consequences

Based on the previous information, it is arguable that there is a danger to go with media-fueled theorems and move away from what developmental psychology has already shown for years. Just to name one accepted foundation of psychology and sociology, Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development break down, age by age, the challenges of each developmental stage with children as well as the outcomes that surface when such challenges are not completed.

During early childhood, namely, the 2nd and 3rd year, the child experiences the "autonomy versus shame and doubt" stage. This is one first step for the child to be come assertive: they learn to use the toilet, they declare that everything is "theirs", they question "why" and they begin to let themselves "be seen and heard" in their families. Developmentally speaking, ages 4-5 will seek for initiative (exploration, Pre-K tasks); then, from ages 6- 11, their focus will be mainly Industry (progressing in school, adapting to peers, and learning social rules). Imagine the disparate notions that the Seattle child will create in his/her mind, and what a clash he/she will have at all times when facing all of these stages (some of which the child may have already endured). Add to this the added stress of a parent that may actually be forcing specific behaviors, whether they are gender-conforming or not.

It is not until the 12th year that children formally and actively start to question their sexuality, whether they have previously behaved non-conforming to gender or not. It will happen regardless, and inevitably. The only negative psychological outcome in curbing the behavior of minors comes from condemning, punishing, or humilliating them for choosing gender-based behaviors.

According to Money (1988) as published in Vernon Johns

Adrenalin helps cement experiences in memory. This may in turn insure that the disapproved behavior becomes permanently fixed in the punished child's love map...punishment may prevent the normal fixation of lust into the development of the lovemap. 

If a child wishes to dress in pink to a point of anxiety and frenzy if he does not, then the problem is not the dressing in pink...there is more to look into. 

Back to the Seattle child, encouraging something (although wwe still do not know for sure) "natural" in the Seattle child is one thing. Now, giving those non-conformist behaviors a media-based forum is not good parenting. It is also abuse. 


Be extremely careful in relating paraphilia with minors. Paraphilia is related to sexual deviancy in that objects and behaviors may cause sexual arousal in those who exhibit it. Pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and cross-dressing are examples of paraphilia. If you refer back to the accepted foundations of social and psychological behavior throughout development, children (particularly very small ones) have not yet built the needed schema to make a correlation between an object and sexual arousal....unless there is a case of early sexual exposure which more likely occurs during cases of pedophilia of which children are the victims. Cross-dressing in children, as the articles state, is a tendency that seems to just appear naturally as part of their processes of exploration. Based on this information, paraphilia (in its true sense) is not possible in children unless they have been exposed to abuse or other forms of sexual humilliation.

..sexually interested children are often subjected to humiliation and abuse. This punishment can prove very counterproductive for it might actually increase the likelihood of the child developing a paraphilia. Punishment causes fear and the desire to flee and this induces the normal body reaction of adrenalin release. 

The only intervention that is asked of parents, when children display these behaviors, is that they are not punished for it. There are ways to help children understand their bodies and the sensations that they feel in their bodies. When a child is punished, there is more to lose than to win. Hence, parents need to rid themselves of pre-installed puritanical notions of propriety, and understand that children are but the newer guests in our planet; our job is to educate them and make them healthy members of society. 

CaitlynnReeves | Student

1) Are preferring things tradionally attributed to the oposite sex indicative of homosexuality? Absolutely not. I don't see how someone's favorite color or clothing preferences might affect who they choose to sleep with. 

2) Besides the obvious negative consequences of being bullied for such behaviours, individuals may feel the need to exagerate their preferences/behaviours. For instance if a girl is labled a tom boy for playing football she may feel inclined to dress in boys clothes in order to bend to the stereotype. Being steryeotyped is unpleasant and can have far reaching consequences. 

3) I'm not qualified to answer the rest of this question, but I can offer up my opinion. While a boy wanting to wear dresses may seem odd to the adult mind, children do not see things the way we do. They are often unaware of gender, race, or ethnic differences. It does not seem strange that a child would be curious about new and different things. To what extent this curiousity should be supported is up to the parents.