Childhood Abuse, Criminal Victimisation, Sex Work, and Substance Use Among Homeless Street Youth: An Application of General Strain Theory

Robert Agnew’s general strain theory proposes that strain leads to crime and deviance. Substance use is a specific type of criminal behavior that the theory attempts to explain. This thesis uses general strain theory to examine how a number of specific types of strain – homelessness, childhood abuse, criminal victimization, and sex work – are related to substance use. In addition, the relationships between strain and negative emotions are examined. This thesis also examines how the relationships between strain and substance use are conditioned by negative emotionality/low constraint, deviant peers, deviant values, coping skills, self-esteem, and emotional support. Finally, the role of gender in all of the above-mentioned relationships is explored. In short, this thesis represents a fairly comprehensive test of general strain theory as it applies to substance use. In order to conduct this test, data was obtained between May 2009 and August 2010 by administering a survey to 400 homeless street youth in Toronto, Ontario.

The results yield substantial support for some of GST’s main propositions. In particular, support is found for hypothesized relationships between strain and substance use as well as strain and negative emotions. Additionally, certain factors are found to condition the relationships between strain and substance use. Finally, gender differences in the relationships between strain and substance use are observed. These supportive results suggest that general strain theory is a novel way of explaining substance use by homeless street youth in Canada. Consequently, suggestions for future research and social policy are offered.

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