This month’s column features our first guest-post from Dana Benyas. Dana followed the pre-med track at the University of Michigan, graduating with honors in Sociology when she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in 2014. Interested in increasing access to preventive healthcare, especially reproductive health care, Dana reports on the findings from her undergraduate thesis.


Women who have unplanned pregnancies or contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are often incorrectly stereotyped as being promiscuous, poorly educated, from a minority group, or as having low self-esteem. It is dangerous but easy to indulge the rhetoric that “those kinds” of women have unplanned pregnancies or STIs because they made poor decisions.

Engaging in unprotected sex is fairly common among all women, with about one-third of U.S. women at risk for unplanned pregnancies reporting that they do NOT consistently and correctly use contraception. However, given sexual stereotyping of “at-risk” women, I questioned if social status would influence a woman’s autonomy in making sexual-safety decisions. In other words, would privileged, highly educated, and motivated women make risky sexual safety decisions when labeled with a diminished status in an isolated social status system?

I conducted interviews and anonymous surveys for my undergraduate thesis on how social status influences the sexual safety patterns of sorority women at an elite public university in the Midwest. At this university, the fraternal system has well-known rankings, whereby a woman’s sorority affiliation equates with a social status ranking (1 being the highest and 5 being the lowest). These rankings supposedly indicate coolness, greater wealth, attractiveness, and gregariousness. The vast majority of the 23 women I interviewed were from upper-middle class and upper class families. All were obtaining Bachelors degrees from an elite institution, and many planned to pursue Masters or Doctorate programs. They were born into a privileged status, but, within Greek Life, they did not necessarily feel privileged.

Sorority women’s sexual experiences varied greatly depending on their sorority’s rank. Women in lower ranked sororities felt more pressure to have sex and/or have unsafe sex with higher-ranked fraternity men:

We were at [a tier 1 fraternity]… It was my first time there and I was talking to this kid. My friends thought we were going to hook up. We ended up not… The next morning my friend was like, “Did you ever hook up with that kid?” and I was like, “No” and she said, “But he was in [a tier 1 fraternity]!

Generally, the women preferred condoms to be used, unless they were in exclusive relationships. Conversely, all women assumed that all men did not want to use condoms. These conflicts of interest were exaggerated since men, not women, were expected to carry condoms. Another interviewee elaborated on how power imbalances may translate to condom use.

It’s a hierarchy, so the [people] in the higher tiers have more power. I think that definitely manifests itself within their personalities and their actions…[fraternity guys] would think that they can just not use a condom if they don’t want to, especially if it’s a girl from a lower tier. It’s like her opinion doesn’t matter as much.

With these assumptions in mind, engaging in unprotected sex signified a woman’s concession to take more sexual risk than she preferred.

Unable to measure frequencies of unprotected sex, I measured women’s Plan B emergency contraception use and STI diagnoses as proxies. A limitation of these measures is that I did not control for timing or type of STI testing, so some STIs may have been underreported. In addition, Plan B use and STI diagnoses do not equate with unprotected sex: Plan B may be used to quell concerns of condom breakage, and some STIs may be contracted even with the correct and consistent use of male condoms.

The 71.4% of all STIs reported came from tier 2, compared to an even spread of the remaining 28% of STIs across all tiers. Additionally, 38.5% of all Plan B use was in tier 2, compared to an even spread of Plan B at 20% per tier. Women in tiers 2, 3, 4, and 5 saw men give preferential treatment to higher ranked women (i.e., invites to fraternity events and notably greater interest/effort by men in one-on-one interactions). Tier 2 women were invited to a few top tier fraternity events, so they witnessed the preferential treatment tier 1 women received: revered status felt like a missed opportunity. Contrastingly, lower ranked sororities had difficulty getting invites from fraternities of any rank. Those in the second highest tier being most marginalized aligns well with literature on high school cliques, where second tier “wannabes” put aside their own wishes to appease higher status peers.

Women in the lowest status, tier 5, were openly teased in social settings and excluded from romantic opportunities in Greek Life. The majority of tier 5 women I interviewed did not have intimate relationships. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether these women would have succumb to sexual pressures from men to have unprotected sex or have rejected the tier system to preserve self-esteem. To feel more power in sexual decision-making, women in tiers 3 and 4 commonly dated outside the fraternities or dating lower-tiered fraternity men.

Similar results come from studies about people with inferior status not negotiating sexual safety. Green’s research on gay hook-up culture found status rankings based on “erotic capital,” or a sense of power and skill within the sexual-social marketplace. High erotic capital provided men more desirability, more power, and therefore the right to select the kind of sex they wanted—protected or unprotected. Their partner was complaisant, because they felt lucky to have been selected for the sexual experience. England found women’s ability to stay on course with family planning depended on college enrollment, a  representation of socioeconomic status. She found that women with higher socioeconomic status more commonly followed a consistent contraception regimen, compared to women with lower socioeconomic status. Lower socioeconomic status made it more difficult to find suitable and affordable birth control, making consistent contraceptive use unrealistic. Also, women in a lower socioeconomic status felt they had less autonomy and became accustom to altering their lives to deal with challenges.

My study shows a correlation between diminished social status and greater likelihood of unprotected sex. Concession to unprotected sex is not a result of amoral character or a lack of sex education; rather it is a response to negotiating status imbalances between romantic partners.

Yet, there is a distinct difference between the women I studied who had unprotected sex and stereotypes about the kind of women who have unprotected sex. The majority of women I studied were diligently on oral contraceptives or LARCs, diminishing risks of unplanned pregnancies, but not of STIs. Those not using oral contraceptives or LARCs either identified as “virgins” or were in tier 1 sororities, where male partners easily consented to condom use. Finally, access to healthcare was unanimous across tiers: they could all easily manage the cost of oral contraceptives, emergency contraceptives, and STI testing. Coming from affluent families, health insurance and comprehensive sex education were norms in their communities.

Unwanted pregnancies and untreated STIs can negatively impact women and society at large. Without the luxury of high-quality, affordable healthcare, women who seem to fit negative stereotypes may simply lack access to contraception, abortion, STI testing, and treatment. Let’s stop inappropriately categorizing women who have unprotected sex, and instead work towards increasing access to sexual health education, reproductive health care, and birth control resources for all women.

A few months ago Kentucky county clerk Kim Davies made the news because she refused enact the Supreme Court order to marry same sex couples in her county citing religious objections. Davis was jailed for contempt of court, released, and is now back at work, though letting her subordinates marry same sex couples rather than doing so herself. Last week Justice Kennedy suggested, perhaps not directly, that she resign from her job.

But this post isn’t about Kim Davies; it’s about a protest against Kim Davies. Understandably, people, both gay and straight, were upset about her behavior – some protested outside of her office, some confronted her at her desk, some wrote op-eds, some went on talk shows. Others took to YouTube and Instagram as they staged a virtual kiss-in across the United States in a protest called #kissesforkim.

CPT43X8VEAAu8nYThis protest was started by two comedians from the group Comedians in Public – Jericho Davidson and Michael Albanese. These two heavily bearded, and apparently straight, men, in a video launching the #kissesforkim project said, “Dear Kim Davis, we want to let you know that no matter what you do, love will always win.” They instructed viewers to “grab your closest friend, give him a kiss, take a photo or video, and upload it using #KissesForKim, to let Kim know that she cannot win.”

While these instructions are aimed at “gay, bi, trans WHOMEVER!” according the video, the pictures of two presumably straight men kissing were picked up most favorably by the interwebs. for instance, posted the following “#Heterosexual men the whole world over are making out with each other for a good cause. Find out why at #kissesforkim #kimdavis #kissykissy #smoochsmooch #xoxo #gay #straight #samelove.”  Indeed, much was made of the fact that the two men who created the campaign identified as straight. Now it’s not that same sex couples didn’t appear in these photos, it’s that the straight-identified men got the attention. For instance, in this photo the poster points out that he and his partner are not straight.
Kissesforkim1Other posters even thanked straight men for doing this, calling them “great men.”
kissesforkim2We would suggest that the focus on (and discourse surrounding) straight men kissing is instructive. In fact, it reminded us of a previous episode we had written about who were engaging in seemingly same sex activities in a post we called “Bro-Porn.” In that post we addressed the way in which two straight comedians kissed at Chick-fil-A to protest the organization’s homophobic policies and the Warwick men’s rowing team posing nude for a photo shoot. We suggested that perhaps engaging in acts that seemingly contradict normative expectations of masculinity, may in fact bolster it:

This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobia stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore’s and the Warwick rowing team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobia stance can’t call them into question. (here)

In that post, we suggested that performances of protest, in some ways, underscore the same understandings of heterosexual masculinity that make the form of protest noticeable in the first place. They illustrate a form of heteroflexibility that is celebrated as heterosexual and masculine when the right men participate in the right ways. In the end, they’re actually strategically relying on the very discourse they claim to oppose. Something similar is likely going on with the #kissesforkim protest.

How could that be? To begin, it’s important that these forms of protest/allyship involve humor; they’re played for laughs.  And part of the “humor” in these forms of digital activism is that these guys are so straight that no one would ever actually think they are gay.  In doing so, they actually shore up heterosexual privilege–albeit in a new and unorthodox fashion.

9781479825172_FullThe very smart new book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by Jane Ward addresses precisely this issue. In studying straight identified men who have sex with one another, Ward shows that sex between straight white men is a lot more common than you might think. In the book, Ward is centrally interested in how it is that sex and sexual acts between straight white men are read as credibly “heterosexual.” Ward uncovers a terrific array of discourses relied upon by straight men that authorize “lapses” in their otherwise heterosexual identities and behavior. She refers to the discourses collectively as “hetero-exceptionalism.” And at the conclusion of the book, Ward makes a really interesting argument about what homonormativity has done for straight white guys who might occasionally engage in sexual behavior with other straight white guys. She writes,

Increasingly central to contemporary discourse about the difference between heteroflexibility and authentic gayness is a romanticized story about queerness as same-sex love, as opposed to “meaningless” same-sex sex. The former is reserved for the real gays, while the latter is available to heteroflexible straights as well. (here: 197)

kissesforkim5This is not to say that the straight white guys participating in #kissesforkim don’t actually want change. We’re not arguing that their “real” motives are sinister and are actually attempts to reclaim the spotlight. We are here interested in how these men’s behavior is understood, what people seem to imagine it “means” and doesn’t mean, and the fact that straight white men’s participation here is so celebrated.  And we are interested in what kinds of cultural transformations provide a framework within which we can make sense of these men’s activism and our collective interest in them.  In this case, homonormativity provides a discourse within which these men’s same-sex behaviors can be read as straight–as “hetero-exceptional.”  #kissesforkim continues a tradition of straight white men receiving an incredible amount of attention for being willing to take a stand against sexual prejudice, even if that “stand” might be little more than a party gag in front of friends.

For months I’ve been keeping an eye on (and meaning to write about) various campaigns that address or try to rectify gender stereotyping in children’s clothing.  I was cheering on Michele Yulo of Princess Free Zone  and her campaign to create a new line of suits specifically for girls, (Suit Her), which looks like it will need another round of funding.  Yet more independent online shops seem to be popping up to offer lines of slogan-free, neutral clothing for (mostly) girls and tracking how these shops re-envision engendering their wares could be the basis for a great study.  Asking the owners if they’re yet making any kind of significant profit or gaining traction using clothing to enact social change could well be another.

Not too long ago I saw a great think piece which asked why refashioning girls’ clothing always means refusing skirts and dresses (i.e. rejecting the trope of femininity) and not offering boys a range of skirts, dresses, or pink garments and mixing all of this up.  It’s a point well taken and the lack of variety in boys clothing, nevermind fewer choices overall, hits close to home as I continue to try to dress my three-year-old in ways that eschew slogans and stereotypes.

While independent visionaries will keep pushing boundaries (so I hope) when a mainstream clothier makes a move it’s significant.  I was deeply intrigued (and initially suspicious) by the new line Ellen Degeneres launched with The Gap about two months ago, but am slowly coming around.  The videos shot for the line (and the “unstaged” behind the scenes ones) are deliberately black and white, with no pink anywhere.  The girls are making faces, getting muddy, catching frogs, creating with robotics, and pounding the drums — what girls do — or, the opposite of what girls are supposed to do?

The blue/gray/black palette of the actual clothes reminds me of how frustrated I often feel not being able to buy lighter colors for my son — again, is this just a simple inversion so that the GAP can catch the wave of easy empowerment that so many corporations want to claim, all under the guise of generously helping girls?

I was intrigued to learn that some of the nonprofessional models are part of the Pink Helmet Posse — skateboarders who all started young and are frank with Degeneres about the prejudice they have experienced.

I was also cheered to learn that $250,000 from sales “will be donated to Girls Inc.”  Even if that’s a tiny fraction of their profit and a simple PR move, it’s something for a nonprofit I respect.  Glancing at the #heyworld Twitter hashtag they’ve coined, (meant to foster discussion about supporting girls), didn’t yield much and seems an easy vehicle through which the GAP can keep promoting its campaign — i.e.  both sales and a message of social change.  But it is a step in a different direction for a major retailer whose children’s departments are fundamentally bifurcated. I assume that this line “GapKids x ED Collection” will be solidly planted on the girls’ side, at least breaking up the color scheme a little, and changing through less static models, (literally, with the girls in their advertising), the message beyond the ad.

In parallel with measuring change within the kids’ clothing world, I was curious how Halloween would fare this year.  The yearly lament about the oversexualization of costumes for both girls and women has been well underway, and this recent article comments on how often “man” v. “girl” is used to describe parallel costumes. With Target’s recent desegregation of the toy aisle, I wondered what they would do with Halloween. Visiting two local stores revealed costumes identified by ages v. gender, although the costumes themselves (not unlike the toys) definitely skew towards gender stereotypes.

More cheering, in parallel with the work independent retailers are doing, there has been an amazing wealth of feminist Halloween ideas out on the Internet.  A quick roundup shows real pushback against sexualized, reductive costumes that define what girls can be through the limitation of their offerings, although these are all “home made” v. mass marketed costumes. Some play on a facile definition of feminism, some gleefully use the holiday to publicly make a social statement with pointed humor.  Some good ideas from Girls Leadership here. Thanks to Bitch Media for this great collection. And some good ideas are also listed here.  
RBG baby

The recent article in the New York Times, “Where Have All the Tomboys Gone?” (which highlights Degeneres’s new GAP line) refers to the term “tomboy” as “retro” and outdated, unnecessary when (of the people interviewed) there’s casual acceptance of girls who don’t want to dress in stereotypically feminine ways and surprise that it would be otherwise (at least in their families). The trend of women adapting “men’s wear” is traced with emphasis that this is a one-way street in the mainstream, i.e. there is never a public trend of men wearing styles designated for women.

“Tomboy” as a phrase might be leaving the American lexicon, but keeping an eye on Halloween costume options is one way to watch levels of crossing and acceptance.  With the awareness that girls adapting into male-designated clothing is always far less objectionable than the reverse, glad as I was to see lists of feminist costume ideas proliferate on the web, I regret that there wasn’t a list for boys or men. While one girl at my son’s preschool chose a male superhero costume (complete with rippling plastic chest), the winks at how “cute” this was, I’m certain, wouldn’t have gone to a boy dressing up as Elsa. Moving beyond just gender, this article, “What Color is Your Princess?” astutely highlights the assumption of whiteness within the princess universe, which is of greater concern to the author than that her son wants to dress up as one at all.

I didn’t know the Onion ventured into video and stumbled on this one from a few years back.  Entitled, “How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume for Your Effeminate Son” it’s a parody that’s painful to watch as boys who don’t want masculinized costumes are “rehabilitated” into stereotypically “boy costumes” to disguise their features or habits labeled as feminine.  It’s stunning in its spot-on precision about anxiety about boys breaking with male code.

As a yearly barometer, Halloween can offer a quick read of current trends, pop culture, and what gender stereotypes are readily available and which are still transgressive to cross. Yet, studying what commercial retailers and independent outlets do the rest of the year is a far more steady signifier of what change has occurred, and what trend is edging over into expectation.   In a year’s time it will be interesting to see what is (still) considered humorous, provocative, or casually acceptable.  Happy feminist Halloween!



Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)
Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)

Here’s what we know: Even with a college degree, young blacks still face lower employment rates and higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. I’ve shown previously that young blacks are entering and completing college at higher rates than in the past. The third report of my Young Black America series examined the employment and unemployment rates of young blacks and whites from 1979 to 2014, and I made a striking discovery: Employment gaps between blacks and whites have become worse since the onset of the Great Recession. The jobs recovery, apparently, is not colorblind.

From 1979 until the Great Recession, young blacks with college degrees had employment rates that were basically the same as their white counterparts. However, once the recession hit, employment rates decreased for all – even those with college degrees. At the same time, the gap between blacks and whites widened, with college-educated young blacks being 3.9 percentage points less likely to be employed than their white peers (see Figure 1).

figure 1 bucknor part 3In 2007, 87.2 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 88.3 percent of their white counterparts were as well. Both rates bottomed out in 2011, with a black employment rate of 80.3 percent and a white employment rate of 86.3 percent. This gap of 6 percentage points for college-educated young blacks and whites represents the largest racial employment gap since 1979.

In 2014, employment rates still hadn’t fully recovered, with young blacks having more ground to make up than whites. During that year, 83.3 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 87.0 percent of young whites, for a racial employment gap of 3.7 percentage points. Young blacks with college degrees had an employment rate that was still 3.9 percentage points below their pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees were only 1.3 percentage points below their pre-recession employment level.

The data on unemployment rates tell a similar story. Even with a college degree, unemployment is a fact of life for many young blacks. In 2007, the unemployment rate of young college-educated blacks was 4.6 percent, 2.8 percentage points above their white counterparts (see Figure 2). Black unemployment peaked in 2010 at 9.1 percent, more than twice the rate of whites (4.2 percent). In 2014, black unemployment dropped to 6.4 percent, still 1.8 percentage points higher than its pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, 0.8 percentage points higher than their unemployment rate in 2007.figure 2 bucknor part 3

Looking at young blacks overall can often mask the different experiences of black men and women. This is certainly true for unemployment rates during the recession and recovery. Black men were hit harder during the recession, and still have higher unemployment rates than black women. In 2007, young black men with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, and black women had an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. These rates peaked in 2010 at 10.7 percent and 8.0 percent for black men and women respectively, before falling to 7.1 percent and 5.9 percent in 2014.

By contrast, throughout most of the recession and recovery, white men and women have had virtually identical unemployment rates.

These numbers show that employment and unemployment rates of college-educated young blacks are still far from their pre-recession levels, suggesting that the economic recovery is incomplete. They saw their employment rate drop 6.9 percentage points during the recession, and have only recovered 3.0 percentage points. Their unemployment rate increased 4.5 percentage points, and recovered 2.7 percentage points. Despite the gains in educational attainment that I found in earlier reports in this series, there are still noticeable racial and gender differences in labor market outcomes.

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.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Rothchild

This month, I bring you a guest post which sheds light on current events, events that literally hit home for me when the Planned Parenthood clinic closest to my university was attacked by arsonists. I welcome back Jennifer Rothchild, Ph.D. Associate professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies (GWSS) Program at the University of Minnesota, Morris, she is one of the founders of the American Sociological Association’s section on the Sociology of Development. She currently researches gender and development, health, childhoods, and social inequalities by examining the intersections of gender, sexuality, and reproductive health in the United States and abroad.


“Choose mercy! While there is still time!” A man shouted to me as I walked into a Planned Parenthood office. I couldn’t see him, which made the comment oddly affecting. I kept my eyes forward and pushed through the front door.

More than 20 years ago, my friend Kat had told me about her first trip to Planned Parenthood. As she left that building, a woman standing outside approached her, grabbed her shoulders, and cried, “‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE JUST DONE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE DONE?’”

I will turn 45 this February, and yesterday was my first visit to Planned Parenthood. Shame on me: a self-proclaimed activist, and a gender and sexuality scholar. Until now, my privilege had allowed me to get all the women’s health care I needed through medical clinics and private practice physicians. All covered by insurance. But I knew Planned Parenthood was always there, should I ever need their services.

I had a health problem, and this time I chose Planned Parenthood because that is what it is: a health clinic. The woman at Planned Parenthood who booked my appointment warned me: “You should know that this clinic will have protesters. Turn into the parking lot, and a volunteer will help you get by the protesters, and then park.”

There are many misconceptions about Planned Parenthood; here are some facts:

  • Planned Parenthood services include STD/STI (sexually transmitted disease/sexually transmitted infection) testing and treatment for both men and women, cancer screenings, contraception, abortions, and other health services.
  • Abortions make up less than 3% of the services provided by Planned Parenthood.
  • Federal funding for Planned Parenthood is only for Title X: restricted to family planning and STI testing.
  • Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortion services do not receive any federal funding, even if those particular clinics also provide services that meet Title X criteria.

On a rainy, cold morning, I arrived at Planned Parenthood, and a volunteer waved me into the parking lot. Next to this volunteer stood a protester, holding a sign about texting a certain number before “aborting.” I wondered if these two women talked to each other as they stood together in the rain?

Once inside, I was overwhelmed by a need to express gratitude to everyone I met. I assumed that most Planned Parenthood patients felt same way, if not always vocalizing their sentiments. But I was wrong. My intake nurse told me that just that morning a patient told her, “I hate who you are. I hate what you do. I don’t want to be here, but I need birth control pills.”

Her story made me wonder about the level of denial and disconnect that must be actively maintained to keep those ideas working side by side. In 2012, Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times about a doctor who performed abortions:

He shared a story about one of the loudest abortion foes he ever encountered, a woman who stood year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted ‘murderer’ at him and other doctors and ‘whore’ at every woman who walked into the clinic.

One day she was missing. ‘I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled.

She told him: ‘I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.’

‘Nothing like life,’ he responded, ‘to teach you a little more.’

A week later, she was back on her ladder.

That morning, security was at a premium at the Planned Parenthood clinic: a guard stood at the front door, and I needed to show him identification. I was given a name tag that read only “Jennifer.” A few minutes later, “Jennifer R.” was summoned from the waiting room. I wondered how much money could be saved and put to better use if Planned Parenthood didn’t feel compelled by threats and attacks to spend on security measures.

In the waiting room I saw young and old women, white and black and Latina. There were men, too. I couldn’t imagine the individual stories that brought them to Planned Parenthood. But, I might have assumed they all shared was a lack of access and means to the kind of health care that should be their right. According to a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office, 79% of people receiving services from Planned Parenthood lived at 150% of the federal poverty level or lower (that comes out to around $18,500 per year for a single adult). These people live in vulnerable conditions, where an unplanned pregnancy could result in future burdens, unfair and disproportionate in consequence.

If Planned Parenthood clinics are shut down, we will see not only tremendously diminished reproductive health but also epidemic numbers of unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions, as well as greater needs for social services such as WIC. Concerns for women’s health aside, Planned Parenthood delivers mercy upon people who benefit from its services.

The nurse practitioner spent time talking with me, getting to know me. I told her how grateful I was for the work she did. She graciously explained, “I started working here 15 years ago to educate women about their bodies. Women don’t know their bodies.”

Driving out of the parking lot, I stopped and rolled down my window to thank the same volunteer who had stood in the rain when I arrived, waving me into the parking lot. There was now a different protester. This woman was young, white, blonde, and wearing a pink raincoat. She could have been a twenty-something version of me. In her hand, she clutched a brochure limp from the rain. Her sad gaze followed me as I drove away. I wish she saw and knew the things I understood.

I also wish everyone understood that Planned Parenthood volunteers, nurses, and doctors risk their own safety and well-being because women’s health—and women’s lives—hang in the balance. These women and men are standing up and fighting for me, fighting for you.

“Choose mercy.” Yes, we should.

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.