Sociology Ph.D. Dissertations


Structural Disadvantage, Heterosexual Relationships and Crime: Life Course Consequences of Environmental Uncertainty

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Peggy Giordano, PhD

Second Advisor

Hyun-Hwa Lee, PhD (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Stephen Cernkovich, PhD (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Wendy Manning, PhD (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Monica Longmore, PhD (Committee Member)


Recent research has explored connections between heterosexual involvement and crime, but these prior studies are limited by focusing primarily on marriage and more traditional notions of dating courtship and also by not often considering the structural/economic conditions that influence the nature and development of these relationships. The current study draws on four waves of panel data from the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study (n = 930) to investigate the linkages between social class, heterosexual relationships, crime, and drug use. I hypothesize that environments characterized by high levels of uncertainty (family instability and economic disadvantage) are likely to encourage the development of unconventional styles of heterosexual involvement, that are in turn associated with crime and drug use. I explore these dynamics in adolescence as well as in early adulthood with specific emphasis on the character and quality of young adult unions and the roles that these relationships play in the criminal desistance process. Furthermore, I examine the degree to which heterosexual influences vary according to gender, and the extent to which they mediate male-female gaps in criminal risk-taking. Results indicate that risky/unconventional heterosexual attitudes and behaviors are reported more frequently by youths from disadvantaged communities. These attitudes and behaviors are found to significantly influence adolescent levels of criminal involvement and drug use (wave 1), net of a broad array of traditional delinquency predictors. Longitudinal analyses suggest that these dynamics continue through to adulthood, affecting not only subsequent levels of crime and drug use, but also the characteristics of adult unions. Analyses that focused on a specific heterosexual relationship in wave 4 revealed that earlier permissive attitudes and unconventional behaviors (wave 1) are related to relatively high levels of conflict, infidelity, and concurrent drug use within these later unions. Among these union characteristics, a high risk of infidelity emerged as a robust and significant influence on adult levels of crime, drug use, and risky routine activities (i.e. going out to bars/nightclubs). Complications regarding gender and the role of emotional attachment as a criminal deterrent are also discussed. Findings are largely consistent with the notion that unconventional patterns of heterosexual involvement forge an intermediate link between social class and criminal behavior. This study calls for more research on these interpersonal dynamics as they may relate to the general levels of crime and disorder within low-income communities and youthful peer-networks.