General Strain Theory: Sexual Minority Group Illicit Drug Use

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Updated: Jun 08, 2019
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The topic of my paper will be about illegal substance use among sexual minority adults and adolescents (also known as the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender LGBT populations) and how it is explained by the General Strain Theory GST using internal and external risk factors. My paper will explore this particular deviant behavior using a GST lens in order to provide a criminological perspective on why sexual minority adolescents and adults might be placed at greater risk than others to use illicit substances. The articles reviewed and discussed in this paper will offer further implications and feedback on how sexual minority adults and youth can be approached and appropriately processed through the criminal justice system, will proposing alternative forms of treatment or rehabilitation for this population.


A meta-analysis by the National Institute of Drug Abuse reveals that lesbian, gay and bi-sexual adolescents were 90 percent more inclined to engage in substance use when juxtaposed with heterosexual adolescents (NIDA, 2017). Since it is illegal for youth to drink and smoke in the United States until age 21, this data is relevant for the purposes of showing how there is a disproportionate illicit use of drugs by sexual minorities that needs to be addressed. Some explanations for this are to be further discussed and explored, but primarily through the eyes of the criminological strain theory in this research paper.

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There are three variations of strain when it comes to general strain theory. The strain of loss, not being able to accomplish a goal, and lastly, the strain of experiencing mistreatment (Cullen, Wilcox, 2017). This paper will be placing more of an emphasize on the negative experience strains that may lead certain populations such as sexual minority youth and adults to use illicit drugs. For instance, a data analysis study in California found that transgender students were almost more than twice as likely to use illegal drugs than non-gender students, and further attributed this to the high social stress or strains transgender youth experience from their family unit and the school systems in California (De Pedro, Tunac, Gilreath, Jackson, Esqueda, 2017).

This finding supports the GST, in that transgender youth do face harsh judgement and negative interactions in the systems that are supposed to be the most safe and secure systems for them, school and family. This type of strain can produce the pressure for “criminal coping”, which in this study, is to use illicit substances in order to manage the negative experiences transgender youth face (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017). Programs to target substance misuse for transgender youth was suggested and this can also be something to consider in the criminal justice system when looking at diversion programs for first time, low level drug offenses for sexual minority youth and adults (De Pedro, Tunac, Gilreath, Jackson, Esqueda, 2017). This is something to be explored later in this paper.

A Boston Youth Survey study discovered that sexual minority youth, in communities with a greater degree of LGBTQ hate crimes involving assault, used marijuana more frequently than sexual minority youth who did not experience as much hate crime related activities in their communities (Duncan, Hatzenbuehler, and Johnson, 2014). The strains in this study are the hate crimes that LBGTQ individuals have to experience in their communities, which are negative experiences that impose a great deal of pressure on sexual minority youth to use illicit substance like marijuana in order to cope.

Discrimination and criminal victimization are factors that increase the risk of criminal behavior and this seems to be the case in this study (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017). There is also research suggesting that there is a correlation between smoking and other illegal drug use like cocaine and stimulant use among sexual minority youth. This is something for researchers to be cognizant of when trying to mitigate the use of increased drug use for sexual minority youth (Bowers, Walls, Wisneski, 2015). Sexual minority youth could be coping with the strains they endure by initially smoking and then eventually turn to other more dangerous and illicit drugs.

Sexual minority youth currently view themselves as having less social support than their counterparts when it comes to parental involvement and understanding. This experience could result in negative emotions that can become difficult to cope with and could explain why sexual minority youth participate in heightened illicit drug use when juxtaposed to other peers (Pearson & Wilkinson, 2013).


With the current opioid epidemic we are facing throughout the United States, this next finding sheds some light on opioid use for sexual minority adult men, specifically gay men. Childhood trauma such as physical abuse and these related stressors are linked to a high percentage of opioid misuse for gay men, mostly the older men (Kecojevic, Wong, Corliss, and Lankenau, 2015). As we know, child abuse and neglect are types of strains that do increase the risk of criminal deviant behavior. In this instance, the opioid misuse for gay men, which are a subset of a sexual minority population (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017).

A data analysis study of transgender men and women revealed that gender dysphoria, which is distress one experiences regarding their assigned gender or sex, was linked to illicit drug use among women and marijuana use among men and women (Gonzalez, Gallego, Bockting, 2017). The strain in this study is identified to be the gender dysphoria transgender men and women experience, which in turn causes this cohort to negatively cope through illicit drug use. It may also be safe to expect a degree of “anticipated strain” from transgender men and women, in that they may feel that they will be judged in the future for how they identify in the community, producing negative emotions. These negative emotions could then be used to fuel criminal behavior such as illicit drug use (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017).

There has also been research conducted on negative emotions and attitudes LGBT populations internally have towards their sexual orientation and gender identify. Internalized homophobia and transphobia are found to increase the risk of alcohol and drug misuse along with other risky behavior (Hatzenbuehler, and Pachankis, 2016). When a sexual minority group experiences public stigma and minority stress, this increases likelihood of sexual minority groups responding negatively to rejection (Hatzenbuehler, and Pachankis, 2016), which is a specific strain that can result in criminal behavior and later be considered an “anticipated strain” as well (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017).


If the criminal justice system is analyzing illicit substance use for sexual minority youth and adults, substance use treatment can be implemented as a way to help those rehabilitate and have access to treatment. We’d also want to look at preventative approaches to illicit substance use specifically for this cohort. A community-based alliance or group such as the Gay Straight Alliance could offer support and an outlet for youth and adolescence to decrease the risk of using substances. A survey-based study indicated that adolescents that weren’t involved in a community based or school-based alliance were at greater risk to misuse prescription drugs, smoke marijuana, use cocaine and other hallucinogenic drugs.

Pro-socialization and support are heavily promoted in this study for sexual minority youth and can even have implications for sexual minority adults, as one could presume support groups are beneficial for all age groups (Heck, Livingston, Flentje, Oost, Stewart, and Cochran, 2014). The socialization and support aspect of groups like GSA provide individuals with the coping skills to avoid strains that are conducive to criminal behavior, which is a GST recommendation to help reduce crime, more specifically illicit substance use amongst sexual minority youth and adults (Cullen, Wilcox, 2017).

With sexual minority adolescents having a greater degree of illicit drug use and are at higher risk for illicit drug use than heterosexual youth, it is suggested that action should not just be taken on the individual level but on a systemic level as well. This calls for the criminal justice system and the community to collaborate on interventions to be most helpful to this special population (Newcomb, Birkett, Corliss, Mustanski, 2014).

Parental rejection is an identified strain that can influence crime and it’s suggested that parents of sexual minority youth are given the necessary tools and education to ensure that sexual minority youth are not continuing to form these negative perceptions which parents may give off intentionally or unintentionally, that can lead to unhealthy behaviors (Pearson & Wilkinson, 2013).

With regards to sexual minority adults, preventative approaches toward substance misuse should be including psychosocial factors such as childhood traumas, that contribute to the strains and negative experiences one has to process and cope with, through means of illicit substance use and misuse (Kecojevic, Wong, Corliss, and Lankenau, 2015). When people lack the skills to cope with strains in a legal sense, they resort to criminal deviant behavior which does include using illegal drugs.

This suggests and supports the need of prosocial activities and interventions to help provide those at-risk access to outlets that can help them recover from any adverse experiences they may have had to endure (Cullen, Wilcox, 2017). Because GST is a theory that covers such a wide range of criminal behavior, prevention efforts to mitigate illicit drug use by sexual minority populations should incorporate the major types of strains that this population have to experience and the social cognitive processing that this entails (Traube, Schrager, Holloway, Weiss, and Kipke, 2013).

Two primary interventions are presented that can be promoted and enforced by the criminal justice system to help mitigate the illicit drug use by sexual minority groups as it is explained by GST. The first type of intervention is considered a structural intervention which seeks to put policies in place within school systems that help reduce stigma and prejudice regarding LGBT students. This would help ensure that strains, sexual minority students experience at school, are significantly reduced while the risk of engaging in negative coping habits such as using illicit substance is also drastically reduced.

The second is individual based interventions which promote and encourage mental health treatment, and healthy interactions with parents, educators, mental health providers and even other professionals within the community such as probation officers. As a former mental health provider and a current provider in correctional health services, primarily in community transition, I am a major proponent of both of these interventions because it has a pro community approach that can even include law enforcement and the criminal justice system (Hatzenbuehler, and Pachankis, 2016).


In conclusion, I’ve explored and discussed the current challenges sexual minority groups face that lead to illicit drug use, as explained by General Strain Theory. I’ve also discussed several intervention strategies that can be implemented and promoted by the criminal justice system in order to mitigate the risk of illegal drug use for this population. Strengthening the social bonds between sexual minority groups, family, schools, community and the criminal justice system can help reduce the risk of low social control that strains are said to be associated with (Cullen & Wilcox, 2017). This involves structural and individual based interventions that promote cross collaborations between all stakeholders in one’s community, primarily the communities that sexual minority groups reside in (Hatzenbuehler, and Pachankis, 2016).

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General Strain Theory: Sexual Minority Group Illicit Drug Use. (2019, Jun 08). Retrieved from