Tina Pittman Wagers is a clinical psychologist and teaches psychology at University of Colorado Boulder. August 2014 she survived a heart attack. September 2014 she first posted this column. The repost today is in connection with her presentation today at the Stanford MedX conference about her experience, insight, and new research agenda.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon one year and six weeks ago.
Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon one year and six weeks ago; then came the really difficult challenge.

I am new to this role as a heart patient. My heart attack was five weeks ago, and I am getting the feeling that I have just begun down the confusing maze of angiograms, CT scans, EKGs, medications (and lots of ’em), heart rate monitors, cardiac rehab classes and blood tests. Indeed, even the phrase “my cardiologist” is one I never thought would pass my lips. Here’s why: I am 53 (we’ll discuss the significance of this age in a moment). I am fit, active, slim, haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years and am a big fan of kale, salmon and quinoa, much to the chagrin of my two teenage sons. I live near the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, where I hike with my dog and often a friend or two, almost every day. I had completed a sprint triathlon two weeks before my heart attack. Ironically, this event was a fundraiser for women with breast cancer – it turns out that heart disease kills women with more frequency than breast cancer. But, hey, who knew?

My heart attack happened while I was swimming across a lake in Cascade, Idaho. I was about a quarter mile into the swim when I found that I couldn’t breathe, and was grabbed by an oddly cold and simultaneously searing band of pain about three inches wide across my sternum. My husband, Ken, was on a paddleboard nearby and helped pull me out of the water, and started paddling me back, stopping to allow me to vomit on the way back to shore. If you’ve never been on a paddleboard, it may be hard to imagine the balance it takes to paddle relatively quickly and keep the board from getting tipped over by the unpredictable movements of a heaving passenger in the midst of a heart attack. Suffice to say that I am grateful for Ken’s strength and balance in innumerable ways. An hour later, I was at a clinic in McCall, Idaho, where an astute ER doc was measuring my heart rate (very low) and heart attack-indicative enzyme called Triponin (rising) so I won an ambulance ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. I received excellent care there, queued up for an angiogram the next morning and was diagnosed with SCAD: a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, and, fortunately, a relatively mild one. Twenty percent of SCADs are fatal. Furthermore, I have none of the typical risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

I do have one of the main risk factors for this kind of heart attack, though: I am a woman. Eighty percent of these heart attacks occur in women. The average SCAD patient is 42, female and is without other typical risk factors for heart attacks. The current thinking about SCADs is that they are not as rare as originally thought, but are under- diagnosed because they happen in women who don’t look like typical heart patients.

Another related factor: I am menopausal. The majority of SCAD patients are post-partum, close to their menstrual cycle or menopausal – all times in women’s lives during which we experience significant fluctuations of sex hormones. Up until five days before my heart attack, I had been on low doses of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), in an effort to vanquish the hot flashes, sleep disruption and cognitive fogginess I was experiencing. I suppose HRT might have also represented an attempt to hang on to youth, in a youth-and sexuality-obsessed culture in which the transition to menopause often means a dysregulated and sweaty march into irrelevance.

Since I had my heart attack, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, but that’s another column) interacting with professionals in the cardiology world, trying to figure out what happened to me, and how I can avoid having another SCAD – the rate of recurrence in my population is about 20-50 percent. I have encountered some lovely people, but almost all of them are baffled about what to do with me. I am atypical, as they inevitably explain, but the medications, the treatments, the rehab programs that they have to offer are designed for typical patients. So, that’s what my doctors try, but there is a lot of “voodoo vs. science” as one cardiologist explained, because science doesn’t have the answers to my questions. (I would add that there is a cardiologist, Dr. Sharonne Hayes at The Mayo Clinic, who is doing a lot of the research and seeing the patients who’ve had SCADs. I hope to meet her one day. I imagine a scene something like my 13-year-old self meeting David Cassidy, only in an exam room in Rochester, Minnesota– it’ll be just that cool.)

One of the factors that contributed heavily to my medical predicament was no doubt my menopausal and HRT status. The American Heart Association points out that lower estrogen levels in post-menopausal women contributes to less flexible arterial walls, clearly a factor in SCADs. The question then arises: how might HRT help prevent another heart attack? However, as anyone who’s even scratched the surface of the HRT world, there is a lot of conflicting data about who should use HRT, who shouldn’t, what the benefits and risks are, and what the differences may be between different formulations and methods of delivery of HRT. One study, the Women’s Health Initiative study, was a large study started in the early 1990s, and was a valiant attempt to gather data about the effects of HRT on women’s health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the average age of the women in this study was 63 – 12 years older than the typical age of the American woman hitting menopause and considering HRT, so the results have been criticized for their poor generalizability to newly menopausal women.  The research on HRT since the WHI study has been scattered, often contradictory, and hard for the average woman to access.

Why do we know so little about women and heart attacks, why they happen, what the symptoms are, and what we can do about hormonal factors that contribute? A big part of the problem is that, until the National Institute of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act in 1993, researchers largely excluded female humans from their studies. NIH has just this year (2014!) decided to use a balance of male and female cells and animals in their research. Up until now, 90 percent of the animal research has been conducted on males. Animal research, which is often a precursor to clinical trials in humans, has been missing out on vast pieces of investigation related to the female body. I am living (fortunately) proof of the fact that the delays in including females in research have translated into significant gaps in clinically relevant knowledge related to women’s health. Well-meaning physicians and practitioners only have the “typical” approaches to try with their “atypical” patients. Why this appalling delay to include female subjects? Because female rodents as well as humans experience menstruation and menopause, which are frequently considered dysregulating nuisances to many scientists. As a consequence, we have an enormous amount of catching up to do in order to understand what factors affect female bodies and health problems in different ways than our male peers.

Emma Watson gave a great talk last week to the UN about feminism meaning equal access to resources. One of the most important resources we have is scientific knowledge that can be applied to responsible, effective and efficient clinical care. Let’s hope that women can start to be understood as typical research subjects and patients, not as inconvenient, fluctuating, atypical anomalies.

WBC sign on Kim DavisI couldn’t decide if I was surprised or not when I read that Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was protesting Kim Davis. WBC is notorious for their protests, and their targets have ranged from U.S. soldiers killed in combat to country western singer, Blake Shelton. Add Kim Davis to a long list. But of course it is peculiar that the “God Hates Fags” church would protest the person who, at least this month, epitomizes religious resistance to gay rights. Dr. Rebecca Barrett Fox, who has studied WBC for more than a decade, generously agreed to answer some questions about this seeming contradiction.

Rebecca first encountered Westboro Baptist Church when she accidently stumbled into Fred Phelps’ kitchen where his wife was frying eggs for breakfast. She was a graduate student interested in studying the congregation and arrived on a Sunday morning to find all doors locked except for one to an adjacent building, which happened to be the pastor’s house. That was in 2004 and since then, she has spent countless hours observing church services, conducting interviews, watching pickets, and witnessing arguments at the Supreme Court. A book based on her ethnographic work with the church, God Hates: Wesboro Baptist Church, the Religious Right, and American Nationalism, will be released in 2016 by the University Press of Kansas.

 KB: Most readers know about Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) from the media storm they have created by protesting gay people and military funerals. Can you explain the religious ideology that fuels their attitudes about what and why to protest?

RBF: In WBC theology, all people are sinners by their nature; all people are totally depraved and unable to do a single thing to bring them out of sin or closer to God. This includes every member of WBC. The good news is that God has elected some people to love and save and others to punish and damn. And if God has elected you, you cannot resist him, so you will heed his call and turn toward righteousness. That is, you live a godly life, even though you are by nature a sinner, because God has elected you; you don’t get into heaven because you live a godly life. It’s important in this theology not to reverse the cause and effect.

Same-Sex Marriage Dooms NationsWhile we can’t know who is going to heaven (since righteous living is only a hint that you might be elect, not a reason for it), we can know who is going to hell—or at least some of them. If you aren’t living a godly life, it’s because God hasn’t elected you; and he hasn’t elected you because he hates you, which is his prerogative as your creator.  Remember that the elect can’t resist living a righteous life, so the only people left to dwell in disobedience are the damned, those chosen by God for his holy hatred before they were even born.

That theology is not unique to WBC; it’s called hyper-Calvinism, and while it is not popular, it informed a lot of the work of Puritans. We are seeing, more broadly, a neo-Calvinist revival here in the US, with a few churches even using the word “Puritan” in their name again.  Even so, WBC’s particular strain of theology seems mean-spirited to most Christians.

What is striking, I think, is though nearly every conservative Christian church condemns Westboro’s pickets and disagree with their theology, they actually end up at the same place: that gay people (and their supporters) are destroying America. For WBC, God doesn’t hate people because they are gay; they are gay because he hates them. This is different from the “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology of other conservative churches, which Cynthia Burack and others have artfully explored, which say that God loves gay people but just hates that they have same-sex relationships. In the end, though, both groups have God casting those people into hell. Does it matter if God sends you to hell because he hates you (the WBC perspective) or because, despite the fact that he loves you, you just won’t stop being gay? I’m not sure that the Religious Right’s “loving” God here is more appealing than the angry God of WBC.

Both WBC and the Religious Right argue that America’s acceptance of gay people is leading to our doom, both in practical terms—like a weakening of important institutions such as the military and marriage—and in spiritual terms, as God grows angry with us for failing to adhere to his moral code. WBC takes this message to scenes of national tragedy, including military funerals as well as scenes of gay pride. The link seems strange to some, but here it is: In 2003, the US Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, codified acceptance of same-sex intercourse by striking down state anti-sodomy laws. When it did that, according to WBC, the nation became the enemy of God. And, of course, God punishes his enemies through national tragedies and by destroying the military. Thus, every bad thing that happens to us as a country—every mass murder, every oil spill, every economic downturn, every tornado, every military death—is actively ordered by God to punish us for our acceptance of homosexuality.

But why protest at all and why these moments?

Pickets are one way that God can reach the elect. When you hear WBC, you either dismiss them or hear God’s voice. You don’t get saved by WBC preaching or picketing since your election happened before your birth. However, by your response to WBC, you reveal your election or damnation. Additionally, church members have to picket because they see it as something that God demands of them; they need to do it regardless of how it is received. From a sociological perspective, picketing also serves to discipline the group, to create and maintain boundaries between the inside world of the church, where people have hope for election, and the outside world, which is evil, and to invest people in the church. The picket is as much about the picketers’ performance of their faith as it is about the reactions of passersby, which usually reinforce the church’s view of the world as hostile. And they picket tragic moments, in particular, they say, because this is when people are most vulnerable and thus most open to hearing their message. It seldom works to find new members, of course, as few people hear their words as the words of God, but the point is as much to help people see their damnation as their salvation, so every picket is a victory in that sense.

Were you surprised when you learned that WBC was speaking out against Kim Davis? Why focus on the private life of Kim Davis, when her public voice aligns with what seems the most pressing beliefs of WBC? What about forgiveness of sin? 

Christians Caused Fag Marriage Isaiah Phelps-RoperIf religion and sex are in the news, WBC usually weighs in. The Davis case is an example, in WBC eyes, of how Christians have failed to prevent the advancement of the gay agenda by failing to adhere to God’s standards about sexuality more broadly. WBC sees homosexuality as the last sin a culture will accept; by the time we decided to legally recognize gay marriage, we’ve already legalized divorce and remarriage, made adultery commonplace, and legalized abortion. Homosexuality is the last stop on a train we should never have boarded, in this line of thinking. And that is not unique to WBC. The Southern Baptist Convention just excluded a church whose pastor questioned the Convention’s willingness to allow pastors to follow their consciences on marriage for divorced people but not gay people. Many church leaders, including Albert Mohler of the SBC, have had to figure out how to defend a long history of marrying divorced people while denying marriage to gay people.

Kim Davis, from WBC’s perspective, can’t fully endorse their message because she is living with a man who is not actually her husband. What Davis should do, according to WBC, is to repent of her three most recent marriages and return to her first husband; if he has remarried or is no longer interested in pursuing a relationship with her, she should remain single.  For WBC, divorce is only part of the sin; remarriage is also a sin, and you can’t both live in a state of sin and ask for forgiveness for it—just like you can’t both be sexually active in a same-sex relationship and ask for forgiveness for it, a premise shared by WBC and conservative Christian churches. Many Christians, far beyond those at WBC, are willing to call out non-celibate gay Christians as unrepentant but would never ask a divorced and remarried person to abandon their marriage. WBC sees that as hypocrisy.

Are Kim Davis and WBC two sides of the same coin? Or are they really different factions of fundamentalism? 

In the end, they both want to deny gay people rights and respect. The theology behind that matters very little in couples’ and families’ lives, and our democracy should not carve out religious exceptions that allow the denial of rights to individuals.

On the other hand, I find Kim Davis far more threatening to democracy than WBC. She is more powerful, able to immediately shape the lives of people in dramatic ways because of her role as an elected official. She is attractive to the Religious Right, and already conservative pundits are using her case as a litmus test for the Republican presidential nomination.

Kim Davis—and the anti-gay Religious Right more broadly—has a friend and a foil in WBC, in that the church recalibrates the scale of hate to make the Religious Right look more reasonable and tolerant. As long as Westboro Baptist Church is there, the Religious Right can point to them and say, “We’re not like that! We love gay people! We just hate their sinful ways!”

People like Kim Davis and members of WBC are an increasingly marginal group in the contemporary U.S. Should we pay attention to what they say?

 Yes, I think we must. These groups are marginal in the sense that they are small and often times reviled. But they do important work for those who oppose hate by revealing, in a community’s response, where it fails to protect those on its own margins. It’s easy to rally against hatred in general; it’s harder for a community to rally against homophobia and even harder to really question its own investments in heteronormativity. It’s easy to organize a counterpicket and drive a small group of people you already see as nutty out of your town, especially when they are really only in town for an hour or two anyway; it’s harder to build coalitions across long-standing prejudices and suspicions held by neighbors. Can communities embrace those challenges? I’m hopeful.

rebecca.barrett-fox Dr. Rebecca Barrett Fox teaches sociology at Arkansas State University, where she continues her research on religion and hate groups.

Reading Rachel Hills’ The Sex Myth was like reviewing my Sociology of Sexualities syllabus. Application of Foucault’s theory of power and social regulation? Check. Discussion of heteronormativity? Check. Mention Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle of sex? Three checks! Hills offers an analysis of contemporary sexual norms that is rich saturated with sociological research. She touches on many of the issues I unpack with my students at City College, but adds her own journalistic flare, making this book not only an informative but enjoyable read.

Hills argues that in this age of supposed sexual liberation and unprecedented freedom, sex has actually become heavy with significance, warping our perceptions and expectations. For instance, pressure has shifted from not having sex to having sex – and lots of it. Thus, the social denigration of virgins after a certain age or those with few sex partners. Hills finds that people tend to assume everyone around them is having more sex than them, and this becomes a race to keep up. She refers to this as a “gap between fantasy and reality.” One consequence is that folks become pre-occupied with whether or not they are having enough sex. The measurement of “enough” is based on assumptions and occasional check-ins with close friends on how much sex they are having. A better barometer of sexual satisfaction, though, would be asking yourself whether you’re having all the sex that you want. This may vary depending on what else is happening in your life.

This is just one of the many examples Hills offers us of the consequences of “the sex myth” – the belief that sex is all important, powerful, and indicative of how we’re doing as individuals and a society. She also points to the troubles caused by holding too precious ideas of “normality” when it comes to sex as well as the influence of masculinity and femininity in shaping sexual expectations.

Overall I found The Sex Myth to be a great read. I appreciated Hills’ generous use of sociological research to ground her arguments as she weaved in personal narratives from her life and the lives of people she interviewed. It was also refreshing to read many of the concepts I teach in academic settings covered with the delightful writing style of a journalist.

My only critique is the limited age range represented in the stories Hills highlights. One of the lies the sex myth promotes is that your sex life peaks in your twenties and it’s all down hill from there. Unfortunately, Hills inadvertently reinforces this myth by only featuring the stories of twenty-somethings. There were only two interviewees over the age of 30 featured, and one of them was experiencing a lengthy sexless period of their life. Perhaps selfishly, as someone migrating my way through my 30s, I wanted more representation of sexual experiences across the lifespan and how these experiences are shaped by or counter the sex myth. If Hills wanted to focus on sex-pectations for twenty-somethings, that’s fine, but that frame should be made clear from the start.

Other than this age caveat, I recommend without reservation this book to anyone looking for a fun subway read, an introduction to thinking critically about contemporary sexuality, or a book to offer your undergrads in human sexuality classes.

This post originally appeared at Inequality by (Interior) Design on March 15, 2014


HNA7078r1+ToyStories_Jacket_edit1203.inddPhotographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project on children around the world depicted with their most prized possessions was recently published. It’s an adorable set of photos of children with odd collections of items they feel define them. The photos are collected in a volume—Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things.

Initially, I was reminded of JeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” (here), where she took pictures of girls surrounded by all of the pink things they owned and boys surrounded by their blue clothes, toys, and décor. Some of what struck me was the global uniformity in the objects surrounding children. It’s a powerful statement of globalization to see that children are growing up all around the world with some of the same cultural influences: from characters, to colors, to cars and weapons, and more.

Enea, 3, Boulder, Colorado.But, at a larger level, I think this project reflects one way we like to think about identity: that each of us has one of them and that it is established early on and that it (or elements of “it”) stick, such that we can recognize vestiges of our childhood identities in our adult selves. Indeed, when I’m explaining Freud to students, I often start by summarizing what I take as Freud’s central insight—“Life history matters.” It matters for who we are, who we might become, and more.  But, “life history” is rarely captured in a snap-shot.  We think of it this way–but out identities are projects that unfold in time.  Some things make larger marks than others, but identifying exactly what is important and why is often more difficult than we like to think.

Naya, 3, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica.Galimberti’s project is wonderful and the pictures vividly capture a moment in a child’s life. I’ve often looked for signs of who my first child might become in some of his early interests. For a while, he was much more interested in cooking utensils than toys. We actually brought a pasta claw on a plane once to distract him during a flight agreeing that the pasta claw was our best option at the time. I have all sorts of pictures of my son playing with wooden spoons, spatulas, whisks, and more when he was just learning to crawl. And if he turns out to be a chef some day, I can imagine pulling these out and saying, “You know, he was always interested in this. He was born to be bake.”

Shotaro, 5, Tokyo, Japan.I caught myself wondering what my son would have pulled off the shelf to display were he included in Galimberti’s project—or, indeed, what I’d pull off the shelf for him if I were asked to identify his most prized possessions. Today, for instance, I think I’d select a truck or two, his heart wand, a blown-up balloon, a rubber spatula, his grocery cart, an assortment of rainbow colored wash clothes, a few of his stuffed animals, a toy train, perhaps one of his dolls, and I’d probably include a hodge-podge of his favorite books. But, the most important word in the last sentence isn’t one of the objects I selected; it’s the word “today.” If you asked me a week ago, I’d have a slightly different answer—a month ago, I might have had a completely different answer.

Mikkel, 3, Bergen, Norway.The photo series reflects a bias against an understanding of identities as flexible projects—an issue that is, perhaps, best illustrated in childhood. Every morning, I have a discussion with my partner about what we’re having for dinner that evening. We’re both mentally planning on what the end of the day is going to look like. But, our son has picked up on this and loves talking about dinner each morning as well. Sometimes he asks me what our evening meal will be when I get him up in the morning. But, often, when we get to the meal, he declares: “I love ____________. ____________ is my favorite!” Not every dinner (or book, or toy, or experience, or…) is his “favorite,” but it’s more often the case than not.

One way of explaining this would be to say that he doesn’t understand what “favorite” means—we like to think you can have lots of things you like, but only one “favorite.” But, I think if he could articulate it, he’d either say that he has more than one favorite, that everything is his favorite, or that his “favorite” is, like mine, a continuously evolving category that changes depending on his mood, the time of day, what he’s wearing, how he feels, who he talked to that day, what he’s reading right now, and more. His identity is no different from the rest of us. It’s a work in progress—and that is a beautiful thing.

Gabriele Galimberti came up with this project, not the children he photographed. I love the pictures. He asked them to select their most prized possessions; they didn’t ask themselves. Galimberti has a talent for capturing these children’s spirits—at least in that moment. But, how to read these photos or what these photographs actually mean about the children they depict is another question entirely.

When we create our own narratives, thinking through the people we “know” ourselves to be, it’s not uncommon to say, “Well, I’ve always liked ______________” or “Ever since I can remember, I was a _________________ person. It’s just who I am.” But, for every instance of identifying moments in childhood we feel like stand out as representative of who we are are a series of moments that might have been identified as meaningful had we turned out to be someone different altogether.

I grew up with two sisters. So, it wasn’t uncommon for the three of us to play games together, organized primarily by my eldest sister. We’d play dress-up and I can remember wearing tutus, dresses, and all sorts of feminine attire. My parents took a great picture of the three of us in our back yard—all in “girl” one-piece bathing suits. I’m sandwiched between them. My dad has the picture in a photo album at home with the caption “My son the gender scholar!” next to it. I imagine if I’d gone on to later identify as a woman, this picture might have been intensely meaningful to me.  Indeed, the blog “Born this Way” collects childhood pictures of gay men and lesbians who identify their sexual identities as shining through when they were children–often in the form of some gender transgressive outfit, haircut, pose, or activity.  Today I like the photo of my sisters and me in “girl” bathing suits because I like to think it represents my spark and my passion for questioning boundaries. But, there are many more photographs of me playing with sling shots, water guns, and all manner of “boy” toys that my parents and I might not identify as important parts of my identity today—though perhaps we should.

We allow children to “play” with identity much more than we allow others.  But, even children’s identity play is limited and limiting when we ask them to take a stand for who they are early on.  Perhaps there’s something important about having 17 “favorite” dinners that we ought to preserve–it allows kids to recognize their various selves and acknowledge their capacity to change, shift, and change back again.

When I haphazardly label my son lately, I always get called out.  If I say, “Look at you.  You’re a dancer” when we’re jumping around in the evenings, Ciaran looks at me and says, “I no dancer, Dada.  I Ciaran.”  He might think I’m suggesting “Dancer” is his name.  But, maybe he’s just resisting being boxed in, and maybe I should be listening.

Women – and black women in particular – have seen significant improvements in high school completion rates since the turn of the century, almost cutting in half the black-white gap for women during that time, as I shared last month. But has that meant an increase in college entry and completion – especially since a college degree should demand higher wages in the labor market?

The second report in my Young Black America series of reports examined just that. I found that Figure 1young black women and men are entering and completing college at higher levels than in the past. Yet, these gains haven’t been enough to noticeably close the gap between them and their white counterparts.

From 1980 to 2013, women had higher college entry rates than men, with white women having the highest entry rates of all (see Figure 1). In 1980, 46.9 percent of 19-year-old white women had entered college (including community college). The college entry rate for white men was 41.0 percent and the rate for black women was 40.0 percent. Black men had the lowest entry rate of 25.9 percent, 14.1 percentage points lower than that of black women.

Since then, college entry rates have significantly increased, with most of the increases occurring between 1980 and 1990. During that time, entry rates for both black and white women increased about 20 percentage points, and rates for white men increased 22 percentage points. College entry rates for black men increased the most, rising 29 percentage points from 1980 to 1990.

Despite making the most progress in entry rates, young black men still lag behind black women and whites. In 2013, the entry rate of black men was 60.0 percent, 34.1 percentage points higher than their entry rate in 1980. However, this rate was still 6.6 percentage points less than black women, 9.0 percentage points less than white men, and 17.9 percentage points less than white women.

Figure 2But entry is different from completion. The data on racial gaps in college completion rates were even more striking. Although my analysis of high school completion rates showed a significant convergence between black and white women, the exact opposite is the case with college completion rates (see Figure 2). In 1980, 11.5 percent of 25-year-old black women had completed college with a bachelor’s degree or higher. During the same year, the college completion rate of white women was 21.3 percent, for a black-white gap of 9.8 percentage points.

Things got worse not better: In 2013, the gap in college completion rates between black and white women was 21.4 percentage points, with completion rates of 19.7 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively. The same is true among men. In 1980, the black-white gap in completion rates for men was 12.9 percentage points, and it increased to 17.6 percent in 2013.

These growing rather than shrinking gaps confirm that there’s more work to be done. Young blacks are 30 percentage points more likely to enter college than in 1980, with entry rates increasing 26.6 percentage points for black women and 34.1 percentage points for black men. These are significant improvements, but remain far behind their white counterparts. Young blacks also still lag almost 20 percentage points behind young whites in college completion rates.

But the growth—rather than continued decline—in black-white gaps highlights the need to examine why these racial gaps persist, and in the case of completion rates, continue to widen.

Increases in educational attainment are important, but not just for their own sake. College degrees should lead to higher employment rates, wages, and other labor market outcomes. However, large gaps in completion rates are likely to result in sizable racial disparities in these outcomes. Upcoming installments of my Young Black America series will examine whether that is in fact the case.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

 August already? The summer has sped by. Each time a new atrocity hits the airwaves—anti-voting legislation, another police shooting of an unarmed black citizen, new measures to curtail access to women’s reproductive health care—I pause. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said by others as sick at heart as I am? So many eloquent voices have been raised and yet new assaults on citizens’ rights continue.

Ninety-five years ago this month women won the right to vote. Fifty years ago, August 6, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act . Those of us who witnessed the passage of the 1965 legislation hoped that finally we had a way to overcome many of the barriers racism had built. Racism remained virulent, as the Watts riots—the very same August of 1965—revealed. But with more equal voting rights, I along with many others, hoped further progress could be made. Often people speak as if the 19th amendment was ‘for women’ and the Voting Rights Act was for ‘minorities’ as if Black and Hispanic women aren’t hampered by racism every bit as much as they are by sexism.

And during the last fifty years we made progress on a second critical aspect of the struggle for women’s equality—the right to control our own bodies. Without access and choice in matters of birth control and reproductive health, even the right to vote leaves women caught in a world where biology too often equals destiny. The birth control pill was a major breakthrough—by the mid 1960s more than five million American women were using ‘the Pill’. And by 1972 the Supreme Court had overturned state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by unmarried people . The 1973 Court decision in Roe v Wade protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy at any point during the first 20 weeks.

But the path forward for women’s equality and reproductive rights soon twisted. Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which had seemed headed for passage in the 1970s, stalled and although the deadline for ratification by the required thirty-eight states was extended to from 1979 to 1982, the Constitutional amendment failed.

Today’s reality is shaped by decades of work by anti choice activists with little concern for the health and self-determination of women. They have campaigned relentlessly to overturn Roe v. Wade. They threaten abortion providers; even murder staff and doctors. And they spread all manner of false information on the ‘terrible consequences’ and ‘life long regrets’ of abortion procedures. All this goes along with strengthened opposition to sensible sex education.

Today women, especially poor women without the financial resources to travel and to pay for medical advice and assistance, are no longer able to count on controlling our own bodies. Under the guise of saving unborn babies, and ‘protecting’ the health of women, conservative legislators are proposing and passing wildly expanded restrictions on access to sound reproductive health care. Programs such as Colorado’s that clearly lower rates for teen pregnancy and abortion by providing access to effective birth control are denied public funds. Using misleading data and heavily edited videos they demand the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the critical health services the organization provides.

It is no coincidence that these campaigns often go along with opposition to equal pay legislation and increases in the minimum wage, opposition that keeps the poor, poor. Meanwhile, the conservative agenda has muted potential pro-choice advocates. Many choose to ignore the threats to women’s rights, convincing themselves that they are not personally affected.

Reproductive rights can never be separated from the struggle for women’s equality. They are a central component. So let’s get busy and understand what’s at stake. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Katha Pollitt said it best:

“[The stakes are] about whether Americans will let anti-abortion extremists control the discourse…Silence, fear, shame, stigma. That’s what they’re counting on. Will enough of us come forward to win back the ground we’ve been losing?”

I hope so. I am not the only woman who helped friends when they needed an abortion. I am not the only parent whose developmentally challenged daughter would require an abortion if she were to become pregnant. I am far from alone in my outrage and disgust with the current climate, and I am certainly not the only one speaking out.

But there are more women and men still to be heard from. The stakes are high. We need every voice, every personal story that can deepen understanding of the costs to women, their children and families that result when reproductive freedom is curtailed. Impersonal facts alone carry so little of the truth that matters, the truths that touch and sometimes change hearts and minds.   Now is the time to speak up—in public as well as private conversations; to write heartfelt letters; to send a larger-than-usual donation to organizations battling for reproductive rights. Action is required—and it is required now.

Darren, a charismatic program facilitator, scrawls masculinity themes across the white board. The youth, as they get called collectively, fidget in their chairs and rumble with ideas. They are from high schools scattered across this East Coast city, all Black and Latino, and have become friends in this grant-funded program. They call out things they’d like to address in a skit they will perform – “fatherhood,” “dominance,” “violence.” We take a break and the youth retreat into their screens. Ray kicks back, heels up on Shawna’s lap, laughing at a video his friend sent of a scuffle from school that day. “That doesn’t seem like healthy behavior, does it?” I ask. Ray laughs, “Naw. It’s stupid funny though” and he flashes a wide smile. “Does that count as attitudinal change?” I turn to ask Darren.

The Halls
The Halls is a group helping young people navigate healthy relationships. Find them on twitter at: https://twitter.com/TheHallsBoston

When we hear about feminist men, we almost inevitably hear the story of how and why they came to identify with feminism. A friend of mine, borrowing language from superhero comics, once called this ritual narrative an origin story. While these stories can be repetitive and self-centered, I understand why men recount them over and over. When men talk about how they became feminists they are, in essence, explaining how they came to identify with a movement of people who work to reduce men’s privileges, their own privileges. Today, for some men their origin involves a washed-out community room, a binder with a violence prevention curriculum inside and a low-paid facilitator.

Scholars have examined men’s pathways into feminism and other forms of gender justice work and found patterns. Often, it is a two-part reaction, some kind of “sensitizing experience” in childhood and a radical spark in young adulthood. While this pattern is no doubt very common, by telling the stories this we way can obscure the larger social and historical architecture in which they occur, and miss the work it takes to grapple with the implications of feminism over the long haul.

In our book, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, my co-authors and I look at the life histories of feminist men with a wide angle lens as we try to bring into view the institutional structure and cultural system of the feminist movement at the historical moment at which men became engaged. In short, not only do men’s sensitizing experiences and radical sparks take dramatically different forms depending on the historical moment, but which men are sensitized and sparked also shifts.

Today, in a startling number of ways, feminism is in the water, but more specifically it is in organizations. The White House has a campaign against sexual violence called It’s On Us. During the Super Bowl, a coalition of corporations and organizations, called No More, ran an ad calling attention to sexual and domestic violence against women. The NBA has been running a “Lean In Together” commercial, with star WNBA and NBA players encouraging men to support women’s equality. In the wake of the Ray Rice assault, the NFL brought on Beth Ritchie and has promised more prevention programs. Public health departments and foundations now fund violence prevention programs in many urban communities. If these campaigns provide sensitization or spark, it looks dramatically more mainstream, straightforward and diverse than it did forty years ago.

Violence prevention programs, including those with high school youth, are rarely explicitly feminist. But the women and men who implement them often are. Many young feminist men of color who we interviewed for the book had come to identify as feminist through their work with boys and men of color around community violence or drug abuse and, often guided by women of color, found that feminism helped make sense of connections between power and violence in their lives. We call the perspective that these men provide “organic intersectionality” – a way of connecting violence against women with other systems of power and inequality that bubbles up out of lived experience. But most youth in these programs won’t take up careers in feminism or social justice. They will learn about hegemonic masculinity and empowerment and feminism and then the grant will run out or they will leave the program, and their formal education in this area will end. Their passions will change. Some men I know have left these programs and gone on to college, started a business or worked in a warehouse. How does feminism reverberate through their lives and politics?

The institutionalization of feminism into policies and organizations has opened up cracks for men to find their way to feminism in new ways. We must begin to understand how young men of color living in urban communities, as well as transmen, undocumented immigrant men and others make sense of allyship, consciousness-raising, and violence. Tomorrow’s feminist men are already out there – what stories will they tell?


Sq Prof low 2Max A. Greenberg is a lecturer at Boston University and the author (with Michael A. Messner and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons

Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders “Are Students Really Asking?” for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.

As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).

There’s no obvious sexual script to follow in queer sex (e.g. “man pursues woman, begging to put his penis in her vagina”). Even what may seem like the most obvious case—sex between two gay men—is not obvious. The majority of sexual encounters between gay men in the US don’t involve penis-anus penetration but they usually involve 5-9 different sexual behaviors that occur in over 1,300 unique combinations. Even with anal sex, we still have to talk about who wants to “top” and “bottom.” So for us, communicating about what we want is less of a strange new requirement imposed by decree—Keenan’s word—of state legislature or university president than a normal matter of course.

Lest you write us queers off as weird and complicated, straight sex isn’t as simple as Hollywood would have us believe. Research on women’s orgasms by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty shows that straight college students also perform a wide variety of sexual acts in a wide variety of combinations. And, importantly, they highlight how un-communicated sexual expectations among straight partners lead to misunderstandings, unsatisfying sex, and even sexual assault.

One of the men Keenan interviewed was initially defensive, as if affirmative consent were an attack on men categorically as sexual abusers of women. Again, from my queer perspective this seems a bit silly. When two men have sex, we still need consent, and it has nothing to do with one of us being a “vulnerable woman” or the other being a “predatory man.” Even in heterosexual encounters, men are sometimes assaulted by women (albeit less often than the reverse). This highlights the real target of consent campaigns: people who feel entitled to sexual activity without regard for their partner’s willingness. (Entitlement and willingness are, of course, deeply gendered.)

I’m not trying to say communicating about sex is easy at first or doesn’t need to be learned/taught. But it’s really not so strange or new once we step outside strictly scripted heteronomative roles—roles that are too narrow even for most straight sex (let alone things like pegging). Likewise, concerns that consent campaigns are an attack on men only make sense within those narrow sexual scripts as well. If queer sex has taught me anything, it’s that communication, far from being an onerous burden, is a part of the fun.

Jeffrey Lockhart is the principal investigator of an international study of LGBTQ college students and a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He can be found tweeting at @jw_lockhart.

There’s been a lot of evangelical Christian commentary in response to the Supreme Court ruling last month that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. Jimmy Carter says that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. Franklin Graham says that God might strike the White House with lightning for its rainbow makeover on the night of June 26.

6-8-2015-11-28-12-AMWhite conservative Protestant evangelicals have been the obligatory homophobes in the political controversy over same-sex marriage in America since its beginning. And for good reason. According to Pew Research polling since 2001, these evangelicals consistently lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to favoring gay unions. The National Association of Evangelicals released a statement on June 26 confirming that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, God defines marriage as a “covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” Yet, there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that evangelicals are, in fact, changing their minds when it comes to who should be able to legally marry. Sociologists Lydia Bean and Brandon Martinez analyze national survey data to argue that evangelicals are increasingly ambivalent about same-sex marriage. Evangelicals have become more supportive over the past decade, though they still have lower level of support than all other religious groups. A 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that Evangelical Millennials (18-33 year olds), in particular, seem to defy evangelical stereotypes with 43 percent of whom support same-sex marriage.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the nation, it seems inevitable that evangelicals will continue to increase their support for it. But what does this mean for conservative Protestant evangelicals, whose beliefs are structured around ideas about gender difference and heterosexuality? Will evangelical beliefs fundamentally change by allowing gays and lesbians into the sanctity of marriage? I believe no.

My evidence: pegging. Yes, pegging: the sex act referring to the anal penetration of a man by a woman, usually with some sort of strap-on device (thanks, Dan Savage). In my book, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming 2016, University of California Press), I examine Christian sexuality websites—online stores, message boards, blogs, podcasts, and virtual Bible studies—that promote the idea that God wants for (straight) married couples to have great sex. For many users of these sites, this can include kinky sex. For some of these users, this includes gender-deviant sex like pegging. Their rationale goes like this: if a couple is straight, married, monogamous and—crucially important—devoted to God, any consensual sex in which they engage is permissible according to the rules of their faith. Godly sexuality, for evangelicals, is personal as much as it is objective. It gives believers a sense of control, autonomy, and choice amidst a belief system that is predicated on limits and boundaries to avoid sin.

I find that when engaging in sex that removes them from their role as active penetrator, Christian men must find other ways to construct their masculine identities. They draw on the sense that their relationships with their wives and with God are spiritually exceptional, and that these relationship, more than anything else, are what construct their identities as Godly men. I call this gender omniscience, which defines gender through a spouse and God’s unique ability to know the unknowable: a man’s “true” gender. This renders even non-normative sex quintessentially heterosexual and gender normal.

An optimistic reading of evangelicals’ sense of permissible sex might suggest that they are on a trajectory toward acceptance of multiple kinds of sexual expressions and identities. At what point does the technically heterosexual sex between a woman penetrating a man with a strap-on dildo lose its “straightness?” Or to put this another way, at what point does a gay man penetrated by his husband become a part of what evangelicals deem Godly sex? It is a blurry line. Evangelicals see gender as predetermined, natural and mutually exclusive between men and women, but malleable enough to accommodate a diverse array of actions and behaviors. They see heterosexuality as a clear line in the sand distinguishing right and wrong but make the boundaries of heterosexuality expansive enough so as to incorporate a diverse arranging of men’s and women’s bodies to engage in sex acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

Yet as I think about some Christian sexuality website users who guiltlessly engage in pegging, I become increasingly convinced that their logic actually reinforces and bolsters sexual boundaries, not diminishes them. Relying on the relationship between a believer, spouse, and a God who is presumed to condemn homosexuality, evangelicals make claims about who gets the Godly advantage of limitless sexuality, and who is stuck outside this charmed circle. If the prediction is correct that a majority of evangelicals, like the broader American public, will eventually support same-sex marriage, my research suggests that they may do this while still excluding gays, lesbians, and other queers from Godly sex.

Recently a video went viral depicting a woman named Toya Graham hitting, slapping and dragging her son from the streets of Baltimore with the goal of preventing him from participating in the civil unrest that began after the death of Freddy Gray. Mr. Gray was a young African American man who was dragged into police custody by six officers. News reports say that within an hour of his arrest he fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital where he died a week later. His name is now added to the list of countless African American boys and men who have died under questionable circumstances during interactions with law enforcement and private citizens. Gray’s death rightly sparked outrage, and in some instances convulsions of anger.

Many in the media have applauded the actions of Toya Graham who they describe as appropriately taking swift action to constrain her son’s participation in the public outcry—what some called a riot, and others a disorganized protest. Media and pundits seized on the video of Ms. Graham, announcing all could be resolved if we just “Send in the Moms”. However, this simple, dominant narrative is complicated by Ms. Graham’s stated reason for pulling her son from the streets of Baltimore: To prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” Let’s think about that statement. She feared that his public participation, his expression of justified discontent, could very well lead to his death at the hands of the police. While she may have seen her son participating in civil unrest that included instances of illegal conduct, throwing stones, etc., she believed that the likelihood of these instances being resolved professionally and without the use of deadly force with respect to African Americans, was unlikely. After the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray and many others, we would be hard pressed to deny the fact that African American parents have reasonable concerns about their sons’ safety during interactions with law enforcement, and indeed, in some instances, the broader society.

The media and pundits have played their trick of confounding the real issues of the day with a sensationalist theme: mothers taking a stand, demonstrating their strength and setting their children straight. Police officers killed yet another black male youth under questionable circumstances. Law enforcement and the media seem to view these young boys and men’s lives as disposable and lacking value. It is within this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged with the purpose of reaffirming the value of African American lives. I am troubled by a media that praises the image of a young black man being beaten down, even by his mother, so that he accepts the untenable situation the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address and refrains from expressing his version of discontent with the way society treats him. These young boys and girls and men and women have every right to be upset by the various systems that have failed them.

American society has a tendency to expect African Americans to be superhuman as they express their discontent. Indeed, the protests we are taught to remember from the 50s and 60s are of the courageous civil right leaders who were able to gain support by having their bodies bludgeoned in full view of American eyes and the world. These activists did not physically defend themselves because they knew any response would be used to justify the barbaric acts committed by their fellow white countrymen and women. These violent images also went viral and forced white Americans to confront the oppressive parts of their culture. As a benefactor of the civil rights movement, I know that one person or one version of activism did not achieve its accomplishments.

And we often forget about the other race riots that happened during the civil rights era. Those led by the white teens that went into the Woolworth Counter to torment and torture the nonviolent protesters simply seeking service. The race riots led by white adults who shouted racial epithets at the young Ruby Ridges who simply sought admission to an all white public school. We refuse to discuss the countless racially motivated killings used to terrorize the African American community. And, for the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. And, lastly we don’t discuss the immeasurable restraint the African American community has exhibited in the face of this racial terrorism, particularly after the recent shootings by white supremacist, Dylan Roof, who killed nine church members during bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There should not be a racial sliding scale of who gets to express their dissatisfaction with the state and how that dissatisfaction is received.

With the nearly daily stories of black male killings—our contemporary version of strange fruit—there is no wonder that mothers and parents are resorting to self-help measures to protect their children, and their sons in particular. In my own research examining African American middle and upper-middle-class mothers’ parenting approaches, ensuring the physical safety of their sons is a continuous and pervasive concern. Unfortunately, I believe Ms. Graham’s actions play an unfortunate part in reinforcing the idea that African Americans, and boys and men in particular, must behave differently in order for society to recognize their humanity. I disagree with the charge to “Send in the Moms” to tame the legitimate anger of their children about the continuous disgraceful and discriminatory treatment they confront from institutions and individuals within the broader American society. This broader society includes law enforcement officers, teachers, principals, shopkeepers and members of the general public- people that the average white child is taught to view as a source of support and protection. The mothers in my research who have far more resources than Ms. Graham are similarly worried about how their sons will be treated by this broader society. These mothers out of necessity teach their children to be fearful of and deferential to law enforcement officers who are meant to protect and serve us all but do so selectively. I understand Ms. Grahams’ fear for her son, her impetus to keep him out of harms way and her desire to prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” I am also afraid of the long-term consequences of preventing him and others like him from publicly expressing their discontent.


Dow, DawnDawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. She is a frequent presenter at academic conferences including the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and the Pacific Sociological Association. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives and is forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family.