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Sissies, Mama’s Boys, and Tomboys: Is Children’s Gender Nonconformity More Acceptable When Nonconforming Traits Are Positive?


The evaluation of gender nonconformity in children was examined in two studies. In Study 1, 48 young adults evaluated the positivity of culturally popular labels for gender nonconformity, including “tomboy,” “sissy,” and two new labels generated in a pilot study, “mama’s boy” and “brat.” The “mama’s boy” was described as a boy who has positive feminine traits (gentle and well-mannered) as opposed to the “sissy” who was described as having negative feminine traits (crying and easily frightened). In Study 2, 161 young adults read descriptions of gender-typical and nonconforming children, evaluating them in several domains. The label “mama’s boy” was considered negative in Study 1 but an unlabeled positive nonconforming boy was rated as likable and competent in Study 2. However, participants worried about nonconforming boys, saying they would encourage them to behave differently and describing such children with derogatory sexual orientation slurs. “Tomboy” was generally considered a positive label in Study 1. In Study 2, gender nonconforming girls were considered neither likable nor dislikeable, and neither competent nor incompetent, reflecting ambivalence about girls’ nonconformity. It may be that we use gender nonconformity labels as indicators of sexual orientation, even in young children. Therefore, even when an individual displays objectively positive traits, the stigma associated with homosexuality taints judgments about their nonconforming behavior.

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We would like to acknowledge the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship program, which supports the first author (Grant No. DGE1255832). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We additionally gratefully acknowledge support from the Lenfest Grant, which supports the second author.

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Correspondence to Emily F. Coyle.

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Coyle, E.F., Fulcher, M. & Trübutschek, D. Sissies, Mama’s Boys, and Tomboys: Is Children’s Gender Nonconformity More Acceptable When Nonconforming Traits Are Positive?. Arch Sex Behav 45, 1827–1838 (2016).

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