Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay

Many of us likely remember how panic purchasing during the early days of the pandemic led to empty shelves in toilet paper and hand sanitizer aisles in stores across the country. Less surprising to me was the run on baby care items, including formula, wipes, and especially diapers. What many parents took for granted—abundant diaper supplies in a range of types, sizes, and brands—was no longer a given.

The one in three parents who struggled to access diapers pre-pandemic already understood this dilemma all too well. Diaper need, not being able to afford enough diapers without foregoing other essentials, has increased exponentially since March 2020. Due to pandemic-related job loss, financial hardship, and disconnection from others parents could previously rely on to help fill their diaper gaps, diaper banks have reported three- to six-fold increases in diaper requests.

Despite the tireless efforts of a growing network of diaper banks and pantries across the United States that distribute free or low-cost diapers to families in need, they can meet only a small fraction of our country’s diaper need. Although diapers are a basic need of early childhood, existing public programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), do not cover diapers. Welfare cash aid support is rarely enough to cover families’ other essentials, much less the $75 average monthly expense to diaper one child using disposables. Cloth diapering is infeasible among most low-income families due to prohibitively expensive start-up costs, limited access to in-home washers and dryers, and price-per-load for using public laundry facilities. For many families, lack of access to disposable diapers can perpetuate a cycle of financial hardship, whereby daycare center requirements for disposables lead to work and school absences when parents cannot afford diapers.

What, then, are parents to do when they face diaper despair? My research based on interviews with dozens of mothers who experienced diaper need revealed a variety of innovative, labor-intensive strategies caregivers pursue to provide enough diapers for their children in the context of poverty and limited public support for basic essentials. The women I interviewed did three types of what I call diaper work, the physical, emotional, and cognitive labor involved in managing diaper need and related anxiety and stigma. Mothers carefully tracked limited diaper supplies, asked others they knew for diapers or diaper money, and went without their own basic needs to afford diapers.

Mothers could tell me exactly how many diapers they had and predict within hours when they would use their last diaper. Maria, a 30-year-old, Latina mother of four, kept a chart to monitor her infant son’s liquid intake by the ounce, log every diaper change, and track a daily diaper quota based on whether her son had diarrhea or diaper rash. In describing her track-and-budget diaper work technique, Maria told me: “Diapers are lasting longer because I know when my son pees, how many times, how much he pees each time, and how many times fill up a diaper. . . . Diapers [are] the number one concern for me right now because I don’t want to struggle more, so I have to think about stuff in this way, and I can’t go over my daily limit. It’s hard living paycheck to paycheck, living diaper to diaper.”

“[L]iving diaper to diaper” often meant participating in an informal diaper economy that emerged through mothers’ efforts to manage their diaper need. Their strategies ranged from common money-saving tactics like couponing and asking for free diaper samples, to more extreme approaches such as theft, trading food stamps for diapers, and even selling their blood plasma. Mothers sold household items, cleaned others’ homes and cars, babysat others’ children, and collected recyclables all to earn diaper money. They bartered for, borrowed, and exchanged diapers and figured out who in their social networks could be relied upon to help with diapers or diaper money. Diapers were a unique form of currency for which mothers were willing to do almost anything if it meant their babies were clean, dry, and happy. As Natasha, a 35-year-old, Black mother of four explained to me: “My neighbors help with diapers because they know I’m trustworthy. If you don’t have a job, then you won’t be able to get Pampers, and you need someone to love you, help you get them.” For mothers like Natasha, diapers had a unique practical and symbolic importance that conveyed comfort, dignity, and love.

Mothers’ diaper work also involved deciding what their households, and especially they, could go without to afford diapers. Well aware of racist, classist, and sexist stereotypes about “welfare queens,” some emphasized foregoing what others might think were vanity goods or vices, such as hair and nail grooming, cigarettes, and alcohol. The most common stories, however, were of mothers regularly sacrificing or severely limiting their own basic needs, including food, medicine, clothing, and period supplies. Many had even used the latter, along with paper towels, pillow cases, and toilet paper, to create makeshift diapers when they had no other options.

One mother I met, Aisha, 20 years old and Black, showed me the growing hole in her thinning flip flops. As her daughter’s first birthday approached, she was still wearing the same shoes purchased for a few dollars during her second trimester of pregnancy. Subsisting on a diet of mostly tortillas and cereal, Aisha managed her diaper dilemma as many mothers did, by making household purchasing choices based on a per-diaper exchange rate. Just as mothers could tell me exactly how many diapers they had, they could also quickly tell me how many diapers in their child’s size could be bought for the price of a new pair of shoes they needed but went without.

Aisha was one of the mothers whose fears of entanglement with the child welfare system influenced her diapering choices. Beyond lacking ready access to a washer and dryer, the main reason Aisha could not use cloth diapers was because: “[T]hey might see it as a kid in rags. . . . If you go in front of a judge and be like, ‘Well, I didn’t have diapers or diaper money, so I used cloth,’ and your kid pees and soaks right through it, . . . they’ll say you’re not taking care of your kid.” The diaper work of mothers of color like Maria, Natasha, and Aisha went beyond the physical labor of stretching limited diaper supplies and the cognitive labor of tracking every diaper and expense. It also involved coping with the constant stress and anxiety associated with each diaper change and the stigma directed at mothers of color parenting in poverty.

What do we learn from studying mothers’ experiences of diaper need and the diaper work they do to manage it? It reveals how intersecting race, class, and gender inequalities intensify certain aspects of parenting and why we need to revise existing theories of parental labor to account for that. The theory of “intensive mothering” developed by sociologist Sharon Hays highlighted societal expectations for mothers’ parenting to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. As a theory used mostly to understand the experiences of middle-class, white mothers, intensity in parenting has primarily come to mean the work relatively privileged women do and the sacrifices they make to promote their children’s educational success and high-class status.

Focusing on diaper work reveals how marginalized mothers engage in what I call inventive mothering, which goes beyond being self-sacrificial, time-consuming, and child-centered to include strategies that are necessarily resource-stretching, dignity-protecting, and stigma-deflecting. Poor mothers are often regarded with pity and contempt, rather than admiration and respect, as they struggle to meet their children’s basic needs. Yet a close look at their perspectives and experiences of managing diaper need reveals highly innovative and laborious strategies that are just as deliberate, complex, and attuned to inequalities and providing children opportunities. These opportunities include clean, dry diapers, something every child requires and deserves, but not every family can easily afford.

Lifting the veil on mothers’ diaper work is an imperative to reevaluate our frayed social safety net and consider how deliberate policy choices have consequences like diaper need. As controversy stirs over President Biden’s proposal for a $15 hourly minimum wage, we should keep in mind that a single mother working full-time for the current $7.25 minimum wage must spend at least six percent of her annual gross income just to diaper one child. Most states still tax diapers, and only California offers diaper vouchers as part of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare cash aid program. Changes to TANF, the only form of direct public aid families can use to purchase diapers, have also exacerbated diaper need. Due to time limits and eligibility restrictions, most families in poverty do not receive TANF, and states now spend only about 20 cents for every dollar of TANF funding on basic assistance that can be used to buy diapers.

State spending on cash assistance for families’ basic needs is lowest in states with higher proportions of Black children, which exacerbates racialized poverty and its myriad effects, including diaper need. We must address this need as part of our nation’s ongoing efforts to reckon with deeply entrenched structural racism. Mothers of color are more likely to experience diaper need and, according to the women I interviewed, more likely to be judged when they struggle with and seek help for it. Within the folds of a diaper may not seem a likely place to look for racial and economic justice. Yet, given diaper need’s close connection to adverse social, economic, and health outcomes for both children and parents—including intensive diaper work—it is a need we have a moral and political responsibility to address.

Jennifer Randles is Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Follow her on Twitter at @jrandles3 and reach her at

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

January 26 will be National Spouses Day, and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  If you’re looking for a spouse — or hoping to become a better one — here are a few things you might want to know, including why you shouldn’t panic if no one is on the horizon.

Get a College Education

  • As late as 1970 more than 80% of US women age 40-45 were married, with few differences by education but a slight advantage for women with a high school degree. In the last two decades, however, a different and much larger educational marriage gap has emerged. As of 2014, 75% of women aged 40-45 with a Bachelor’s degree or more were currently married, compared to only 65% of those with some college, 59% of women with a high school diploma, and just 56% of women who had not completed high school.
  • In the 20th century, women with PhDs or professional degrees were the least likely women to marry. Today, women with such advanced degrees are the MOST likely to marry. More than 80% of women age 40-45 with professional degrees or PhDs were married in 2014.  
  • A college education is especially protective against divorce. The Pew Research Center reports that as of 2015, college-educated women had an 80% chance of their marriage lasting more than 20 years. For women with a high school education or less, the chance of a marriage lasting that long is only 40%.

Take Your Time

Get by with a little help from…the internet?

  • The most common way heterosexual adults met their future marital partners in the latter half of the 20thcentury was through friends. However, after peaking at 35% in 1990, the percent of heterosexual adults who met their partner through friends had fallen to 20% by 2017. Meanwhile, the number of adults who met their partners online had soared to nearly 40%, up from just 1% in 1995. For heterosexuals, the internet is now the most common way of meeting a marital partner. Bars and restaurants are the second most common place to meet a partner, with 27% reporting they met their partner there, up from 19% in 1990. Yet most of these initial in-person meet ups were actually precipitated by online connections, making the number of couples who owe their start to online dating even greater! Heterosexuals who meet on line tend to enter marriage more quickly than their counterparts who meet in other ways, but they do not have a higher risk of breakup.

Don’t be afraid to buck outdated rules

  • As of 2016, one in ten marriages involved partners of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, a more than three-fold increase from 1980. Among newlyweds, approximately one in six is married to someone of a different race or ethnicity.  Many researchers believe these trends reflect an erosion of the traditionally rigid boundaries between different faith communities and racial-ethnic groups.
  • In the past, marriages where women had higher education or higher earnings than their husband had an elevated chance of divorce. But in recent decades women’s advancements in education and the work force have ceased to threaten marital stability. Couples where men and women are educational equals are the least likely to divorce and those in which women are more educated than their male partners are no more likely to divorce than those where the man is more educated than the woman. Since the 1990s, couples where women earn as much or more than their husbands no longer have a higher risk for divorce.

When making marital wishes, don’t forget the nightly dishes

  • It turns out the best predictor of a happy marriage is not how good-looking, talented or rich your spouse is, but how much you share – in your conversations, your interests, and especially the daily routines of life, such as housework. Gender egalitarian and same-sex couples have some big advantages here, since they tend to share more equally. Sharing housework and childcare, especially, is associated with greater relationship quality – including more satisfying and frequent sex. But have a conversation about who is going to do what, because when it comes to sharing housework, some tasks matter more than others. If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship and your partner won’t share the dishwashing, this could mean your relationship is headed in the wrong direction. 41% of women who do the majority of dishes say their relationship is in trouble, compared to just 20% of those who share dishwashing equally. Meanwhile, men are three times more satisfied with their relationships when their partner trusts their judgment enough to share the shopping.
  • Talk it out. For women who want their partner to share responsibilities for domestic labor, communication is key. Men who report higher quality communication with their partner are more likely to do an equal share of housework and childcare.

And always remember, single doesn’t mean second-best

  • Only 16% of men and 17% of women say that having a spouse is essential to their fulfillment. What IS essential for a fulfilling life, according to 57% of men and 46% of women, is having an enjoyable job or career.
  • Once you have an education and a secure income, you do have a better chance of getting married. But you also have a better chance of enjoying health, happiness, and a wide range of friendship networks if you stay single. In fact, at the highest income levels, never-married individuals actually report more supportive friendship networks then their married counterparts.
  • This is an important advantage, because having supportive and numerous friendships is a stronger predictor of mental and physical health than being married or living with a partner.

Reprinted from 2020

Daniel L. Carlson is Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, at the University of Utah, and a Board Member of the Council on Contemporary Families He can be reached at Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She can be reached at

Now fully updated just in time to plan your Spring 2021 syllabus, the below links will take you to all the blog posts we published in 2020 related to the Covid-19 pandemic and families.

Covid-19 and Romantic Relationships

Covid-19 and the Gendered Division of Paid and Unpaid Work

Covid-19 and Children

Covid-19, Telecommuting, and Working from Home: 

Covid-19 and Family Ties

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and is the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter to get updates about new blog posts @ATKuperberg or contact her directly at

Children face continued social isolation, with 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country choosing remote learning instead of in-person classes this past Fall. This means children will consume more social media than usual. Media images will outnumber — and may well outweigh — real-life interactions with kids their own age. Although boys and girls consume the same amount of media, that extra dose of media exposure may have very different consequences for boys and girls, slowing down ongoing progress toward gender equality.

Do Girls Really “Rule”?
Girls and women have made many strides toward gender equality in the past 30 years. In 1977, two-thirds of Americans said it was better for men to do the breadwinning while women stayed home to take care of the family. By 2016, the figures were reversed: Two-thirds of Americans — and a full three-quarters of millennials – now say men and women should be equal both at work and at home. Thirty years ago, little girls were still routinely cautioned to “act like a lady” and not to compete with boys at school or in sports. Today, girls are encouraged to think they can excel in all sorts of activities formerly confined to men.

Many girls seem to have gotten the “girl power” message. Among Americans under age 35 today, equal numbers of men and women are practicing law, while 60% of physicians are women. Since Title IX was passed in 1972, there has been a nearly ten-fold increase in girls who play high school sports.

Or Is the Real Rule for Girls “Just Be Sexy”?
But at the same time, the mass media deluges girls and women with a very different message, one that encourages them to seek approval by the way they dress and look rather than by their abilities and talents. Beginning in early childhood, girls and women are bombarded with the message that the best way to have value and achieve high status is to be sexy. This message, which sometimes masquerades as a form of empowerment, perpetuates stereotypes that may prove just as difficult to overturn as those of “the feminine mystique.” The diffidence and modesty teens and young women were expected to portray in the past has been replaced with an equally restrictive expectation to wear revealing clothes that accentuate breasts and buttocks (surgically enhancing them if necessary), sport just the right amount of make-up to be alluring but not “cheap,” and carry themselves, preferably in high heels, as if constantly trying to attract sexual attention from (adult) men. Both ideals of women, past and present, center around their self-presentation, previously as passively submissive, now as active architects of their sexual objectification.

This message starts early. When researchers analyzed 10 of the most popular television programs among White and Latina elementary school girls in the U.S., they found that only 38% of the characters were girlsbut 75 percent of the time, these girls were presented in sexually objectifying ways. So girls are less likely than boys to be major characters or initiators of action on shows, and when they do make an appearance on the screen, they are typically wearing skimpy clothing, making comments about their bodies, and flirting with the boys’ characters. This delivers a two-pronged message: girls are less important overall than boys, and the only way to be important – to be noticed – is to be sexy, attractive, and flirty with boys.

Sexualized Messages Are Everywhere
On average, children in elementary school watch four and a half hours of television a day: At this rate of exposure, children see approximately 78,069 examples of “sexy girl” role models just in children’s programming alone every year. And with schools, playgrounds, and after-school activities grounded, children are likely to consume much more media this year.

Sexualized depictions of girls and women are prevalent in nearly all forms of mainstream media, including magazines, video games, music videos, television shows, and movies. A 2017 study published in Pediatrics reported that sexually objectifying portrayals of women appear in 52% of all magazine advertisements and 59% of music videos.

Music videos seem to be especially influential in propagating sexualized stereotypes. In a forthcoming paper based on our latest research, we asked seventh-grade boys and girls if they agreed with several statements expressing sexualized gender stereotypes, such as “there is nothing wrong with boys being primarily interested in a girl’s body,” “pretty girls should expect to be flirted with and should learn how to handle it,” and “using her body and looks is the best way for a girl to attract a boy.” All the students endorsed some of these statements, but of the seventh-graders who never watched music videos, only 17 percent agreed with more than half.   Among youth who watched between 4 to 6 hours per week, a third agreed with more than half these statements. And among seventh-graders who watched 7 to 9 hours of music videos per week, a full 50% agreed with more than half such statements.

This does not even count the impact of the sexualized toys marketed to young girls. MGA Entertainment, aiming at the 6-to-10 year-old market, recently released “L.O.L. Surprise! Dolls,” outfitted in mini-skirts, high heels or thigh-high boots, and fishnet stockings. As a recent viral video indicated, some of the dolls reveal clingy lingerie when dunked in cold water.

Girls Who Dress Sexy Are Assumed to be Popular, But Not Smart
Even before the end of elementary school, girls come to equate looking sexualized as a marker of popularity and status. Girls, especially prior to puberty, aspire to look sexualized before they have any understanding of sexuality or sexual behavior, and before they see it as a way to attract the attention of boys.  Instead they are reflecting what the media has told them their most successful peers are like and who they are most likely to hang out with. When six- to nine-year old girls were asked what outfit would be popular with other girls, they selected an extremely short black mini-skirt and an off-the-shoulder top, an outfit significantly more sexualized than what they said they wore every day, and more sexualized than what they thought boys would like. So looking sexy is seen as a route to be popular among one’s peer group.

On the other hand, looking sexy is not seen as admirable in other ways. Experimental studies with childrenteens and adults of both sexes reveal that women and girls who “look sexy” are consistently rated as less nice, less smart, and less competent than similar females who are not portrayed as sexualized. Indeed, they are often denigrated for these traits by the very same girls who aspire to look like them! In our research with elementary school children, children as young as 5 tell us that, compared to non-sexualized girls wearing jeans and a blouse, girls in skimpy clothing with heavy make-up and jewelry are not as nice, not as athletic, and not as smart as the other girls, but that they are more popular. When asked to describe a sexualized girl in a picture, elementary school-aged girls say things like, “Girls that dress like that aren’t very smart” or that they just “act dumb.” Yet a large proportion of girls aspire to look like the sexualized girl, even while saying she has very few redeeming qualities.

The Downside of Succeeding at Sexy
Unfortunately, the association of successful sexual display with shortcomings in other areas can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our research with girls aged 11 to 14 shows that when girls prioritize sexualized attractiveness, even temporarily, they appear to deprioritize, within themselves, traits they presume to be incompatible with sexiness, such as intelligence. This tendency shows up even earlier: When researchers gave some elementary-aged girls a sexualized doll (“Fashion” Barbie) to play with for just five minutes, the career aspirations they reported afterwards were more limited than those of girls who played with the non-sexualized Mr. Potato Head. Researchers in both Europe and the US find that, among girls, valuing being sexualized, or even just being exposed to sexualized images of girls, leads to lower levels of working memory (the memory necessary to solve math problems and remember the beginning of the sentence while reading the end of the sentence), plus worse performance in girls’ math, language arts, science, and social studies (in both their grades and standardized test scores).

In our research with middle school girls, we find that seventh-grade girls who believe that girls should be valued for their sexual appeal have lower academic motivation and less confidence in their academic ability by the eighth grade, regardless of how well they are currently doing in school. Even girls who do well in school report downplaying what they know when they value being sexualized, saying they don’t raise their hands even when they know the answer and they pretend to do worse on a test than they actually did. So instead of striving for academic excellence, we see middle school girls concluding that the most direct path to social status is to be sexy, and that requires “playing dumb.”

Once girls adopt a sexualized look, this penalizes them in their interactions with adults, who tend to assume that such girls are not just “playing dumb,” but actually are dumb. For example, when adults were shown pictures of a fifth-grade girl dressed in either a tee-shirt, jeans, and Mary Jane shoes or a short dress with a leopard print cardigan and a purse, the girl dressed in the sexy outfit was described as less intelligent, capable, competent, and determined than the girl in jeans. This held true even when the sexualized girl was described as being an honors student and the president of the student council! Given that adults also rate sexualized girls as less smart than non-sexualized girls, regardless of their academic accomplishments, girls who manage to live up to cultural ideals of sexiness face lowered expectations for their academic success from their teachers, their peers, and themselves.

Constantly seeing sexualized females affects boys and girls in even more disturbing ways. Elementary school girls who aspire to wear sexy clothing and think that sexy equates with popular are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, rating their ideal body as thinner than their actual body; by adolescence, that is associated with disordered eating, an early sign of the eating disorders that disproportionately affect girls in their teens.

Children in elementary school who were exposed to pictures of sexualized women in experimental studies rated those women as less than fully human and less worthy of being helped when in danger than non-sexualized women. In a recent meta-analysis of 59 different studies, researchers documented that the more sexualized media teens are exposed to, the more likely they are to endorse “rape myths,” such as the belief that it is okay for a woman to be raped if she is wearing suggestive clothing. The link between seeing sexualized women in the media and condoning sexual violence towards women was the strongest among White boys between the ages of 11 and 17.

Despite this long-range danger to women, the drive to be sexualized — to assume one’s value comes exclusively from sexual attractiveness — is largely coming from girls (or more precisely, girls’ reactions to the barrage of sexualized media messages) rather than from boys their own age. In our studies with elementary school children, when we ask children to tell us about the sexualized girls, it is girls who recount elaborate stories about why sexualized girls are more popular and attractive. Boys in elementary school are still pretty clueless about the different implications of a girl wearing a belly shirt or a hoodie. This fits our understanding of how stereotypes develop in children: we all pay more attention to the cultural messages that are relevant to us. Girls are closely paying attention to what is valued in women and girls – and despite all the feel-good slogans about “girl power,” the message girls get from the media is that sexiness is valued above everything else. As long as this is the standard girls learn from the mass media, full equality will be unattainable.

Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., is the Lester and Helen Milich Professor of Children at Risk in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, Director of the Center for Equality and Social Justice, and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: Raising Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Reposted with Permission from the Gender & Society Blog 

Why do women leave academic science and engineering? This puzzle has plagued scholars and practitioners for decades. Despite a rising presence in graduate programs, women still constitute only 24 percent of tenured professorships in the natural sciences and only 15 percent in engineering fields in the US.

A popular explanation is that the job is very demanding. The work hours are long, and the structure, like the ticking tenure clock, does not make combining a career with parenting easy, especially for women. This is even more apparent now that COVID has exposed and exacerbated the disproportionate impact of caregiving responsibilities on women’s academic careers. It’s no wonder that some women don’t want to stick with it.

Though parenting demands are undoubtedly critical, they don’t paint a complete picture. Many women leave before they have children, and therefore, before they presumably encounter work-family conflicts. Further, parenthood doesn’t explain why women are more likely to leave science and engineering careers than other demanding professions, like law or medicine.

Fortunately, studies of academic workplace culture can offer some insight: gender-based discriminationexclusion, and harassment have been documented for decades in academic science and engineering. But knowledge about the ways in which academics actually communicate beliefs and assumptions about motherhood, in particular, remains limited. As such, it is an open question as to whether or not exposure to workplace beliefs about motherhood might help explain gender differences in early-career decision making.


Our study, based on in-depth interviews with 57 young, childless, PhD students and post-docs in natural sciences and engineering fields at four universities, fills this gap. We find two critical things. First, the young women and men that we talked to described a pervasive workplace culture that frames motherhood, but not fatherhood, in opposition to legitimacy as a scientist or engineer. In this context, it is widely believed that motherhood is controversial and should be feared, rejected, and hidden. Second, these ideas about motherhood disadvantage women in their day-to-day interactions and, ultimately, motivate some of them to leave academia.

Interviewees told stories of faculty saying things like “There’s more to life than babies” and “I don’t understand why women complain . . . you just have to decide you get a family or a career in chemistry, one or the other and just accept it.” One recounted how a professor’s “gist was that having children is sort of narcissistic. And she’s above that . . . like, simpletons want to have kids.” When asked what topics she might discuss with her dissertation advisor, one graduate student explained: “If it were something [like] ‘I’m having a child’ . . . I would feel uncomfortable about how he’d receive that because of the ‘women always fail’ thing.” Some described an alarmist narrative about motherhood, such that women’s, but not men’s, reproductive plans and decisions were publicly discussed and critiqued by colleagues.

Not surprisingly, most women reacted negatively to this culture. Words like “scary,” “frightening,” “worry,” “struggle,” and “stressed” routinely came up when we asked women their thoughts on combining family with a career in academic science or engineering. These words were never used when we asked men the same question. The more women were taught to fear motherhood, and the more they felt they could not discuss family plans, but rather had to reject and hide them, the more these plans seemed to pose an insurmountable obstacle to career success. We use the phrase the “specter of motherhood” to describe these circumstances.

These beliefs and practices surrounding motherhood made it particularly difficult for young, childless women to gain professional respect. Women recounted stories of having their commitment questioned and being asked why they were getting a degree since they would likely “end up dropping out anyway to have babies.” Others realized they would be taken more seriously and given more attention from their advisors if they made it known that they did not plan to have children. These experiences taught women that their already questioned presence in the profession would likely become more tenuous if they were to become mothers in the future.

We show how this recognition—that gaining professional respect requires continuously engaging in practices that reject, denigrate, and hide motherhood—disproportionately drives women away from academia. Of the people we interviewed who had already decided to leave academia, despite originally being open to it when they started graduate school, the specter of motherhood was a factor in nearly all of the women’s rationales. It was not a factor in any of the men’s.

It is noteworthy that most of the men and women we interviewed disliked or disagreed with these norms and practices around motherhood. Most perceived them as “extreme”, “odd,” and generally out of step with “normal” people—people who presumably value family and see motherhood as an ordinary aspect of life. Given that, it is not surprising that some women are unwilling to engage in this unusual approach to family life, especially if they can still achieve career success outside of academia that doesn’t require them to give up motherhood.

Our findings offer insights for academic institutions. A larger presence of mothers could help dispel the specter of motherhood and so policies that lead to better recruitment and retention of mothers, like tenure clock extensions are necessary. But our work reveals that interventions that target attitudes about motherhood are also critical. Programs that raise awareness about the many mothers who are successful academic scientists  and that describe the benefits of academia to mothers—like, scheduling flexibility and job stability—are crucial to counter the spectre of motherhood we discovered. Programs should also address motherhood during graduate advising to normalize seeing and talking about children in workplace settings.

Our study is focused on academia but the specter of motherhood may be present in other professions, especially elite male-dominated ones. If ideas about motherhood are similarly powerful in shaping women’s career aspirations in other occupations, then measures that target these attitudes are  critical for addressing the stalled progress toward gender equality more broadly.

Sarah Thébaud is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research identifies cultural, social psychological, and institutional processes that contribute to gender inequalities in the workplace, families, entrepreneurship, and higher education. She earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University and was a postdoctoral 
fellow at Princeton University. 

Catherine J. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a mother. Her main research and teaching areas are gender, work and occupations, social psychology, health, and methods. Before joining the faculty at UCSB, Professor Taylor earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University, was a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University, and was a faculty member 
at Indiana University. 

I was excited to find out that two of my favorite scholars who study the family and gender, Kathleen Gerson and Sarah Damaske, have published a new book about interviewing, The Science and Art of Interviewing. I recently had the opportunity to interview Kathleen Gerson about this book. Dr. Gerson is a sociologist and author of several books, including The Unfinished Revolution, and The Time Divide. In her new book with Dr. Sarah Damaske, author of For the Family? How Class and Gender shape Women’s Work, and the forthcoming book The Tolls of Uncertainty, they discuss the science and art of conducting interviews, the method they most often use to do their own research.

AK: How did you and Sarah decide to write a book about interviewing?

KG: The idea began with James Cook, my editor as well as Sarah’s at Oxford, who asked me over lunch one day how I went about doing my own research. At the time, I responded casually that there’s “a method to the inevitable madness,” never imagining this would prompt him to follow up by asking if I would like to write a book about how to tame the unwieldy process. My immediate reaction was skeptical. How could I find the time? Yet when Sarah and I learned that James had approached both of us, we started to brainstorm about the possibilities for what we could accomplish together. Although neither of us had planned to write a book of this kind, the prospect of working together as teammates began to feel irresistible.

Sarah and I had already worked together closely over the years and knew we shared a passion for interviewing. We also agreed about the principles that underlie successful interview studies. The more we talked, the more excited we became about writing a book together that would explain how and why interviewing is such a powerful method. We kept hearing the same questions from our students and colleagues, many of whom were puzzled about what interview-based research can and should do. How do you formulate an interview project? How do you conduct good interviews? How do you analyze interview material? And, above all, how do you use interviewing to build theory as well as to provide thick description? Since many of the practices that produce great interview studies remain largely invisible, we became convinced that social researchers of all stripes could use a step-by step guide for tackling the conceptual and practical challenges that arise at each stage of formulating and carrying out scientifically grounded interview-based research.

Around the same time, the publication of Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s controversial article, “Talk is Cheap,” served as another spur to action. The debate sparked by that article’s limited depiction of what interviews (and other self-reporting methods) can contribute fueled our growing enthusiasm. We saw a clear need to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding interview-based research. From that point on, our mission became clear: first, to explain why and how interviewing is an irreplaceable and indispensable method for understanding society; and, second, to show how to craft theoretically informed and empirically rich interview studies.

AK: Your research examines issues related to families, gender and work. Asking people about their families and the gendered division of labor can often surface resentments and strong ideological beliefs. Do you have any advice specifically for people collecting interviews on especially sensitive topics?

KG: Interviewing is especially well-suited – and, arguably, the best method – for exploring sensitive topics. Good interviews create a “safe space” by removing people from their ordinary contexts and allowing and encouraging them to discuss their most private concerns. Like the proverbial meeting of two strangers on a train, interviews provide a setting where people can discover and explore their most deeply held but rarely articulated thoughts and experiences. Over the decades, countless participants have talked with us about events and emotions they had never before shared with even their closest friends and intimates. The biggest challenge, then, is to create that safe space and use it to make a genuine connection.

To get off to the right start, first put yourself in the right state of mind so that you can then put the participant at ease. At its core, an interview is an exchange. We ask strangers to share their time and their life experiences, and we owe them our undivided attention and unequivocal support in return. This appreciation of their generosity and commitment to accept to what they convey does more than help interviewees feel comfortable; it also sets the stage for listening carefully, following up neutrally, and remaining open to surprises that upend your expectations and preconceived ideas. Interviewers need to resist any temptation to prejudge, assign blame, or reduce a person’s views to some form of false consciousness. Once your preconceptions are set aside, it becomes easier for both of you to stay in the moment and for you to offer any support that may be needed when sensitive issues arise. This atmosphere empowers people to disclose painful experiences, air a full range of emotions, and express controversial and even distasteful views. The good news is that this approach creates a win-win outcome for everyone. Participants can – and, in my experience, usually do – gain new insights about their lives. And you are able to make conceptual breakthroughs by grappling with the unexpected complexity that your interviews elicit.

AK: Do you have any advice for family researchers in particular?

KG: Because families are arguably the most intimate realm in our lives, interviewing offers an especially powerful tool to learn about them on multiple levels. In contrast to surveys with pre- coded answer categories, interviews can delve deeply into the subtle, often contradictory dynamics of private life. And in contrast to ethnographic observation, interviews can obtain information on a person’s inner life, private activities, and past experiences that no external observer can see. Whatever aspect of family life you may be studying, my advice is to take advantage of these strengths. Inquire about families’ many dimensions, including its members’ mental states and behavioral strategies, and then explore the links between these dynamics and the wider social contexts in which families are embedded.

Given the diversity of family circumstances and the many aspects of family life that command our attention, it’s necessary to make some basic choices at the beginning. Sarah and I are in favor of posing a “big” question, which you can then answer by crafting a focused, theoretically informed research design. Since you can only interview so many people in one study, its important to build any necessary controls and comparisons into your sampling strategy. And it’s equally important to construct an interview guide that collects the information needed to answer your questions while also providing an organized, enjoyable structure for each participant. Our book offers techniques for accomplishing both of these goals. We recommend using theoretical sampling, which means defining the parameters for whom to include (and exclude) and then making certain you have the necessary variation within those parameters to make strategic within-sample comparisons.

When it comes to the interview guide, we stress the need to structure the interview chronologically, so that people can relate pivotal events and family histories in order and use this timeline as a scaffolding for talking about their family experiences, practices, hopes, fears, and plans. We also recommend nesting questions in a sequence that inquires about the various dimensions of family life, first asking about what happened and then following up with questions about the responses and consequences that ensued. All in all, this approach makes it possible to trace the interaction between the institutions that shape family life and the actions people take to reproduce or change those institutional arrangements. To borrow from Marx, interviews allow us to discover how people make families, but not under conditions of their own choosing.

[Bonus Question] AK: The one great tip I have always remembered from my grad school research methods class on interviewing was to start by asking people what they want their fake name to be in your project, as an ice breaker, and to reinforce the idea that their answers will be confidential. What is one great tip you have for a brand new interviewer starting out? What about a tip for a seasoned researcher trying to improve their practice?

KG: It’s difficult to limit myself to just one or two tips, but here are a few short and simple ones that I keep in mind and would offer to beginners and more seasoned interviewers alike:

  • Choose a topic that inspires your passion and keeps you going when the going gets tough.
  • Remain curious. The reason for doing the study is that you don’t yet know the answer.
  • Expect things to change along the way.
  • Greet surprises in the field as an opportunity to learn rather than as a threat to your earlier
  • Be patient and persistent, especially when matters don’t work out as planned and you
    need to make adjustments.
  • When you hit an obstacle, remember that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • Stay confident amid the uncertainty. In the end, all the hard work will be well worth the

Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Arts & Science and Professor of Sociology at New York University, where her work focuses on the intertwined revolutions in gender, work, and family life taking place in the U.S. and globally. In addition to “The Science and Art of Interviewing” (with Sarah Damaske), her books include “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family” and “The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality” (with Jerry A. Jacobs), among others. She is now at work on a book about Americans’ responses to the intensifying conflicts between earning an income and caring for others amid rising economic insecurity and family uncertainty. 

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Reposted with permission from Psychology Today.

The pandemic has shone a light on inequities that have long existed in American families. But now locked at home, what might have been hidden is exposed to the light of day, after day, after day of spending time at home with our families. Even those of us who go out to work come home to stream TV shows and movies for leisure because nothing else is open.

A whole cottage industry has sprung up among researchers (including myself) to measure whether being at home so much more has shined a lot on just how much domestic work is hidden, and in so doing, encouraged men in heterosexual relationships to step up to the plate, to do their fair share. The short answer is maybe, but not really.

Some studies suggest men are doing more housework and child care, but other research finds that is not so. It seems, however, that the consensus is that the new job of homeschooling, often known as supervising online education, has fallen almost entirely on mothers. My colleagues and I hoped that the younger couples would be the more egalitarian ones, but we found no differences by generational cohort.

So when the slow progress toward equality here in America started to be depressing, I turned to the only entertainment available, streaming, for some consolation. I had read about a Danish television show Borgen, which centered on a fictional female premier of Denmark. Surely I could binge my way into existing at least temporarily, in my imagination, in a feminist future. After all, while the World Economic Forum ranks Iceland as the winner in gender equality rankings, Denmark (and the other Nordic countries) are close behind. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, Denmark scores 77.5 out of 100 points and leads the other European Union countries in the areas of health and money. The gender inequality most pronounced in Denmark is in the area of power, and no surprise, men still have more.

To avoid suspense, the show is incredibly depressing when you expect a feminist utopia. Here is a show with strong feminist women characters—the tough prime minister, as well as the central journalist of note, who is a young ambitious, brave, and brash young woman. The characterizations of these women are complex: Each is devoted to her work and each really enjoys good sex. Each can hold her own in any spitting test with a colleague. The prime minister even wins a political poker game with the most powerful industrialist (and of course, man) in Denmark. While gender equality is definitely portrayed as still a work in progress in the public sphere, the feminists are winning. The prime minister even manages to pass a quota system so that women have to be appointed as 50% of corporate boards.

So what’s the rub? Why did I go to bed depressed once the first season was well underway? (Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know.) Because even in a Danish television show, men’s self-esteem and even their interest in sex is portrayed as tied to their success at work. Mr. Danish First Gentleman has agreed to scale back his career to accommodate his wife’s political ambitions. Now, it’s not as if the Prime Minister has demanded he become an economically dependent stay-at-home dad whose sole job is to cater to her and the children. No, he has just stepped down as a CEO to become a professor teaching international finance while his children are young. This is something political wives do all the time. Just ask Michelle Obama. But what is just expected of political wives is considered impossibly degrading for political husbands. He loses interest (or is it ability?) in sex, at least with his powerful (and beautiful) wife. He starts flirting with a student. Eventually, he takes a demanding and lucrative job without even discussing it with his wife. When it becomes clear that his new company stands to benefit from her government’s decisions, she demands he resign. He does so, and then their troubles truly begin. Poor Mr. First Gentleman cannot spend a few years as a professor, rather than an executive, while his wife runs the country. His very masculinity is at stake.

How does he get his mojo back? After taking the job, he “takes” his wife while she is sitting on the kitchen countertop shocked that he has made such a major decision affecting their family without so much as a phone conversation. He then begins an affair and insists on a divorce.

Gender still matters, even in European countries so far ahead of us in their march toward equality. There are two major feminist cautionary take-home messages from this Danish TV production. It is at home where gender equality is most entrenched. When mothers are not the primary parent, they are suspect as women. And when fathers are the primary parent, they often feel emasculated. Even in Denmark.

This leads us to the second takeaway from this show: Men are the problem for gender equality. Women have changed dramatically. We have learned to wield power, to win at poker, and even the ambiguous skill of compromising our absolute integrity to get the job done. Men, on the other hand, are stuck in definitions of success that require women to be their (and their children’s) caretaker so they can slay dragons or run big companies. The message Borgen shouts from the rooftops is that women who are powerful in the world will have to go it alone because men continue to need wives that put them at the center of their universe. Men have not learned to be second fiddles, to support their wives’ careers, even if that career is running the country.

Similarly, the beautiful, smart, and ethical journalist Katrina despairs at her 31st birthday that she is still single and childless. She avoids going home because her mother will harangue her about being a spinster. Even in Denmark.

Once again, this show reminds us that gender matters. Gender is not just an identity, nor even a set of stereotypical roles for women and men, but rather a system of inequality. The racial uprisings this summer have reminded all of us that racism is structured into the very fabric of our society. And so too, sexism is structured into the fabric of American society, and clearly, Danish society as well. Gender structures our beliefs about ourselves, our expectations for others, our ideology, and even our legal systems.

Both our sexist response to this pandemic, with women shouldering most of the burdens of more family time and responsibility for children’s schooling, and the failure of a series featuring strong Danish women both show how deeply gender is structured into our lives. As I argue in my most recent book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles With the Gender Structure, the only way forward is to leave gender behind entirely. We need a fourth wave of feminism that diminishes the sex assigned at birth from a main source of inequality and difference, leaving behind its relevance only to biological reproduction. Why raise boys and girls to be different kinds of people? Why expect female spouses to support their high flying partners, but not expect the same from husbands? Why should we impose gender socialization or expectations on one another? Some liberation stories include the refrain, “Let my people go.” But here, the refrain is for all of us: Let all people go. Let gender go.

Barbara J. Risman, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Where The Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure.  

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf).

In our sound bite media culture, the least typical cases often get the most publicity. Media treatment of “affirmative consent” on college campuses is a case in point. The New York Times recently devoted more than 3000 words to the sexual consent policy of Antioch College—a school with a total of 135 students. Antioch College requires verbal consent to be requested and given for every sexual act. It is an extreme outlier. Even when the media attends to more typical cases, the focus tends to be on secular, coastal schools. With such coverage, readers get a skewed notion of what schools are doing—and might even believe that most colleges require verbal agreement to sex. In turn, this inaccurate notion might feed into the belief that schools have become overly solicitous of those who accuse assault, at the expense of the rights of those accused. This is not true.

Actually, few schools require verbal consent for sex. Our research team at the University of Michigan read hundreds of university policies—381 to be precise. We drew a sample of public and private not-for-profit schools granting bachelor’s degrees with undergraduate enrollments of 900 or more. A team of researchers searched every school’s policy for a definition of sexual consent. Just 12 schools—three percent—required verbal consent for sex. Our analysis of these 2016 policies show that college definitions of consent are less stringent than what many may assume, based on the media hype. And too many schools either have no definition at all or one that is incoherent.

Arriving at a workable definition of sexual consent matters. The data on college sexual assault is consistent and depressing: Since the first reliable data on college women’s sexual victimization were collected by Mary Koss in the late 1980s, survey after survey has found that roughly one in five undergraduate women is sexually assaulted in college. Rates of victimization of women who do not attend college are at least as high, possibly higher. Although college women experience all forms of gender-based violence – from sexual harassment to forcible sexual assault to homicide by current or former intimate partners – incapacitated sexual assault is of particular concern. Most campus assaults involve alcohol, and many undergraduate students continue to view sex while very drunk as acceptable.

University commitment to addressing campus sexual assault has waxed and waned over the decades. For the most part, universities have done only what they have been pressured to do. A combination of social movement activism, media attention, and federal enforcement of Title IX led to an unprecedented focus on campus sexual assault under the Obama administration. In 2011, the Department of Education put universities on notice that failure to provide an educational environment free from sexual violence constitutes a violation of student civil rights. Backed up by tougher enforcement, the Department of Education prompted universities to engage in a flurry of activities—hiring compliance officers, rolling out new educational programs for students, staff, and faculty, designing new websites, hosting webinars for parents, rewriting student codes of conduct, creating new hotlines for reporting sexual misconduct, and redesigning procedures for the investigation and adjudication of reported incidents.

As part of this wave of activity, many schools developed—or revised—their definition of sexual consent. The Obama administration took an interest in attempting to shape school definitions of consent. In 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued a checklist for sexual misconduct policies. The Task Force recommended that at a minimum, the definition should recognize that:

  • consent is a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity;
  • someone who is incapacitated cannot consent;
  • past consent does not imply future consent;
  • silence or an absence of resistance does not imply consent;
  • consent to engage in sexual activity with one person does not imply consent to engage in sexual activity with another;
  • consent can be withdrawn at any time; and
  • coercion, force, or threat of either invalidates consent.

This qualifies as an “affirmative consent” definition, as it states that sex should be voluntary and that silence does not imply consent. But note that this checklist says nothing about verbal consent. In fact, most of the bullet points refer to what consent is not. And these points are not particularly controversial. Very few people think that consent to sex with one person means consent to sex with someone else! In short, what schools—and the states of California and New York—mean by “affirmative consent” is less stringent than what the press and the public imagine. The confusion may be in part generated by the tendency to refer colloquially to “affirmative consent” as “yes means yes” policies, which suggests that verbal consent is required.

With that background, let’s delve into the state of consent definitions. We found that a solid 10 percent (n=37) of schools in our sample did not define consent at all. This is a serious failure on the part of schools, as the definition of consent is the lynchpin of a sexual misconduct policy. If one does not have a definition of consent, one cannot accuse anyone of violating it. Without a clear definition, schools cannot effectively educate their students about sexual consent nor fairly adjudicate complaints.

Among schools with definitions, the text provided was often short, vague, or unintelligible. For example, University of Montevallo plugged Alabama’s state law into its policy, defining “lack of consent” according to “Section 13A-6-70”:

“whether or not specifically stated, it is an element of every offense defined in this article, with the exception of subdivision (a)(3) of Section 13A-6-65, that the sexual act was committed without the consent of the victim.”

Even schools with clear definitions generally still focused on detailing what invalidates consent. For example, universities generally agreed that consent was invalidated by violence or physical force, threat of violence or physical force, coercion, or intimidation.

Most schools did adopt some elements of an affirmative definition. Almost three quarters (72 percent, 274 schools) included at least six affirmative consent elements in their definitions—which we view as a threshold for a meaningful affirmative consent definition (See Table 1 for a list of the elements and the number of schools including them). Schools were most likely to specify that sex should be voluntary. There was also wide agreement that silence or absence of resistance does not imply consent, and that consent can be revoked at any time. About two-thirds indicated that consent can be communicated in words or actions. Nineteen percent of the schools specified that the initiator of sexual activity is responsible for seeking consent.

Schools agreed that people cannot consent if incapacitated, with 91 percent of schools explicitly noting this in their policies. Given the high rates of incapacitated rape on campus, how schools handled incapacitation is of particular relevance. Only 73 percent of schools explicitly defined incapacitation. The most helpful schools provided examples. Georgian Court University offered specific behavioral descriptions (e.g. “warning signs that a person may be approaching incapacitation may include slurred speech, vomiting, odor of alcohol, unsteady gait, combativeness, or emotional volatility”). As this example suggests, most schools set the bar for incapacitation high. Having had a few drinks or even being quite drunk did not, in the eyes of most schools, qualify as incapacitation. Most agreed that unconsciousness qualifies as incapacitation (78 percent of schools explicitly stated this). A minority of schools (36 percent) explicitly stated that the intoxication of the accused is not a defense.

Definitions—at least those of secular schools—were scrupulously gender-neutral. They did not make a priori assumptions about the gender of the perpetrator. The definitions allowed for the possibility of women as perpetrators in heterosexual sex, of violence in non-heterosexual sex, and for parties to have non-binary gender identities.

Religious schools offered a notable exception to the gender neutrality of most policies—as they frequently required students to adhere to conventional gender and sexual identities. They prohibited consensual heterosexual sex outside of marriage, gay sex, and transgender identity, the viewing of pornography and, in some cases, sexualized dancing. Handling sexual assault allegations at religious schools can be challenging, as assaults often expose violations of the school’s consensual sex policies. Sometimes religious schools punish the victim for policy violations instead of or in addition to sanctioning the perpetrator.

In short, most schools have not gone to extremes. The more worrisome are those that have no definition of consent, or one that is so vague as to be useless for guiding education or adjudication. Failure to offer a clear definition of consent creates vulnerabilities both for those who experience harm and those accused of perpetrating it. Although the media often set up the issue as the rights of victims vs. the rights of the accused, the fact is that all students share an interest in clear policies. Students are entitled to a clear definition of sexual consent, available in a place where they can easily access it. They are entitled to receive high quality education about how they are expected to treat each other, and to have confidence that the policies will be used to guide a fair, transparent adjudication process.

Universities haven’t yet gotten it right on sexual assault. The media is not wrong on that point. But intense scrutiny of extreme outliers to the neglect of ordinary cases leads to a misstating of the problem, which in turn may led to faulty solutions. We need good facts to produce good policy.

Table 1. Elements of Affirmative Consent

Element % n
1 Consent is a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity 82 312
2 Silence does not imply consent 68 260
3 Consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual encounter and can be revoked at any time 67 255
4 Consent is “unambiguous, affirmative, OR conscious” 65 249
5 Consent can be communicated through words or actions 64 243
6 Consent to some form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity 59 224
7 Absence of resistance does not imply consent 55 209
8 Consent to sexual activity on one occasion is not consent to engage in sexual activity on another occasion 54 207
9 A current or previous dating or sexual relationship, by itself, is not sufficient to constitute consent 50 192
10 The accused person’s level of intoxication is not a defense for engaging in sexual activity without consent 36 137
11 The consent definition includes the words “affirmative” or “affirmative consent” 33 126
12 Once consent is withdrawn, the sexual activity must stop immediately 27 102
13 Consent to engage in sexual activity with one person does not imply consent to engage in sexual activity with another 20 76
14 The initiator of sexual activity is responsible for seeking consent 19 73
15 Consent must be communicated verbally, through words. Consent obtained through non-verbal communication is not sufficient. 3 12
16 Consent is enthusiastic. 1 2

Authors’ analysis of 381 U.S. non-profit public and private college and university consent policies in 2016.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong is the Sherry B. Ortner Collegiate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, Sandra Levitsky, Kamaria Porter, Miriam Gleckman-Krut, and Elizabeth Chase are all from University of Michigan, and Jessica Garrick is from Southern Methodist University

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

On average, children in elementary school watch four and a half hours of television a day: At that rate they see almost 80,000 examples of “sexy girl” role models, in children’s programming alone, every year. A new report details why we should we be concerned about how much more they will watch during school closures due to the pandemic. 

A new briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families examines the mixed signals the mass media sends to girls when they say “Girls Rule” but continue to present “Sexy Girls” as role models. “The media want kids to do what they say, not what they show,” notes Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research, “but as every parent knows, kids pay more attention to what we practice than what we preach. This research shows that ‘The Talk’ may be equality, but ‘The Walk’ is something else entirely.”

The report, “Media Messages to Young Girls,” authored by Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, spells out how children learn the desirability of “looking sexy” from the mass media– and the ways this undercuts their own self-confidence and the respect they get from others. For example, girl characters continue to be under-represented in the most popular tv shows for elementary school children, but when they are shown, they are mostly portrayed in a sexualized way. Girls learn the rules quickly, telling Brown and her team that “the way to achieve high status and popularity is to be sexy,” even as they also tell them that sexy girls are not very nice, smart, or athletic.

Even when school is in session, Brown calculates, elementary school children watch four and a half hours of television a day, and see more than 75,000 examples of “sexy girl” role models a year. With 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country choosing remote learning instead of in-person classes, such exposure to sexualized images of females is likely to balloon this fall as children spend more time with media than in classrooms, playgrounds, and sports.

And that is a big problem, Brown’s research shows, because when girls prioritize sexualized attractiveness, they minimize traits they think are “incompatible with sexiness, such as intelligence….When researchers gave some elementary-aged girls a sexualized doll (“Fashion” Barbie) to play with for just five minutes, the career aspirations they reported afterwards were more limited than those of girls who played with the non-sexualized Mr. Potato Head.” Even more disturbing, children in elementary school exposed to pictures of sexualized women rate those women as less worthy of being helped when in danger than non-sexualized women.

Brown notes that the girls who buy into these media-fueled “sexy girl” aspirations are not responding to pressure from boys their own age. “When we ask children to tell us about the sexualized girls, it is girls who recount elaborate stories about why sexualized girls are more popular and attractive. Boys in elementary school are still pretty clueless about the different implications of a girl wearing a belly shirt or a hoodie.” In other words, says Virginia Rutter, author of The Gender of Sexuality, who was not involved in the research, “this is not so much a kids’ problem as a grown-up problem. Girls are trying to live up to what the media tells them is valued in grown-up women by grown-up men.”

For Further Information

Christia Spears Brown, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky;


Brief report:
Press release:

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf).

Public conversation about campus sexual assault tends to focus on two different issues. The first stems from the idea that campuses are a “hunting ground”: If we find and punish the sociopathic predators, we can solve this national crisis. The second is how to fairly adjudicate cases that are more ambiguous, as if we could solve the problem by developing policies and procedures that can appropriately resolve “he said/she said” cases. There are certainly predators, and fair adjudication is unquestionably important. But the individual characteristics of those who assault are only one part of the problem, and only a very small proportion of sexual assaults are formally reported; neither of these responses gets to the origins of assault.

Our approach is different. Instead of focusing on predators or procedures after the problem has occurred, we examine the “social roots” of sexual assault. A phenomenon that happens as frequently as campus sexual assault cannot just be the product of individual bad actors or poor choices, and so we look at what makes assaults a predictable regularity of campus life.

Our forthcoming book, grounded in a public health approach and based upon what scholars call an “ecological model,” considers the broader context of young people’s relationships, drawing attention to the systems that produce or influence patterns of behavior, rather than only the specifics of particular interpersonal interactions. Think about successful efforts to reduce smoking: Yes, there was a focus on individual behavior, but it was nested within changes ranging from how people could use space (first airplanes, then restaurants, then public parks, and now even some public housing), to disincentives such as tax-driven price increases, to larger educational and psychological campaigns aimed at reducing the overall cultural acceptability and mystique of smoking.

We analyze a broad ecosystem to make sense of why assaults occur: the sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that young adults have absorbed in families, communities, and school; the relationships students share in campus communities; the power dynamics between them; how sex fits into the larger campus culture; and how physical spaces, drinking patterns, and peer groups create particular types of opportunities for sex while also affecting the way in which sex is subsequently interpreted and defined by those having it. Looking at this broader context raises questions that have been largely absent from previous discussions about sexual assault: from how our communities have been organized in ways that promote sexual illiteracy to the dynamics of underage drinking, social cliques, stress, shame, and even the spaces where students hang out and sleep.

Sexual assault is defined by the absence of consent. And so understanding consent—what it means, how it works, and how it is understood in the campus community—is essential. As the paper by Armstrong et al. reveals, the standard of consent on some campuses, and in some states, is “affirmative,” which means that lack of resistance may not be interpreted as consent. People need to indicate by words or actions that they consent to sex, and they need to do that every time.  Columbia University (and Barnard College) are among the institutions that make this an explicit part of student conduct requirements.

Saying vs. Doing in the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation Study

We conducted 18 months of ethnographic research on sexual assault with undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard as part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a comprehensive, mixed-methods research project that examined sexual assault and sexual health. In that ethnographic research, we found a striking contrast between what students know and what they do. In the 17 focus group discussions we conducted with diverse groups of undergraduates, students easily parroted the principles of affirmative consent: absence of a no does not mean a yes; both people have to give consent; consent to kissing does not convey consent to intercourse. Yet the individual interviews with the 151 undergraduates showed that few students actually have sex that way. Rather, they described a wide range of practices they used to elicit or convey consent – from a text like “you up?’ to the telegraphic verbal “should I get a condom?” to the mere presence of someone in their room. Only a minority of students described practices that meet the standard for affirmative consent.

Furthermore, for many students (and non-students!), drinking and sex tend to be tightly coupled. Some people drink in order to have sex. Drinking helps them lower inhibitions, manage their shame about wanting sex, chat up a new partner, or get naked with someone they don’t know well. It just helps them “loosen up.” This raises another set of challenges for identifying when free consent has actually been obtained. While the strict standard of consent suggests that one needs to have one’s full mental capacities to consent, the reality of many sexual interactions is quite different.

Teaching women how to refuse sex has been shown to be effective at reducing sexual assault. One randomized controlled trial in Canada found that women who’d received “refusal skills training” had a one-year risk of being raped that was about half the rate for women in the control group. Similarly an analysis of the SHIFT survey data found that college women who had sex education in high school that included refusal skills training (and was not grounded in an abstinence-only approach) were about half as likely as others to be raped in college. But such refusal skills are difficult to put into practice in the context described above. And, of course, while it’s important for people to be able to protect themselves, that approach alone can contribute to a victim-blaming mindset (“why didn’t she just refuse more forcefully?”). Moreover, although the focus on women reflects the epidemiological reality – women experience the greatest absolute number of assaults, while most assaulters are men – it obscures the fact that men are also assaulted.

Consent is shaped by context

Additionally, thinking about consent as something that can be taught in a one-off college orientation session – something that people will do differently just because they are told to – approaches consent as an individual practice, or a purely personal negotiation between two people. That gives short shrift to the many ways in which larger social forces and even physical structures shape sexual behaviors and even interpretations of consent.

Other papers in this symposium discuss some of the powerful social factors that shape the way students understand and perform consent. Widely-shared gender assumptions within heterosexual relationships dictate that men initiate sex, and that women’s role is to regulate men’s access to their bodies. These “gendered sexual scripts” mean that in heterosexual interactions giving consent is a woman’s job and getting it is a man’s; men move the ball down the field, and women are the gatekeepers. Relatedly, this implies that men always want sex, so that if women do make sexual advances, men’s consent is assumed rather than sought. One result – though hardly the only problem with this framework – is that some men experience a lot of fear about being accused of not getting consent. Our interviews showed that Black men were particularly attuned to this possibility and to the risks they face in a system of hyper-incarceration.

Peers also influence consent processes by helping friends interpret what happened. While we think of consent as happening in the moment, people often make sense of sex after it has happened. Peers may actually also set up sexual situations, serving as “wing men” or “matchmakers.” By doing this they establish conditions where sexual contact is more acceptable, thereby influencing people’s interpretation of consent.

Time and place also matter. As one of our forthcoming papers led by Matthew Chin shows, people use the time of day and the physical location of interactions to make sense of whether situations are sexual and whether sexual advances are more or less likely to be received. For example, at a recent training session on consent for freshman (not at Columbia), a young woman we know heard the speaker say that when someone sits on your bed, that’s not consent to have sex. A man in the audience responded, “dude, that’s totally consent; if someone sits on your bed, she obviously does.” But the physical context here is critical. In a private home, with plenty of places to sit, it might be legitimate to see the choice to sit on one’s bed as a sexual invitation. But in most dorm rooms, there are only two places to sit: on the bed or on a hard-backed desk chair. After hearing this exchange, the young woman went out and bought a big comfy chair for her dorm room, so that visitors would have someplace else to sit.

Of course, not everyone can afford to furnish their own dorm room, nor could all dorm rooms even fit furniture beyond the standard bed-desk-dresser. But this example shows how taking a step back and examining the modifiable social factors that shape consent provides new avenues for intervention. Drawing on these and other findings in our research, our own institution has changed dining hall policies so that one dining hall on campus is now open all night, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere for students who want to hang out together and now have someplace to do so other than one person’s bedroom. Such changes are part of what public health calls “a multi-sectoral” response – trying to address a problem by leveraging support from those who shape all facets of the undergraduate experience, rather than only relying on prevention educators.

Consent in developmental context

But an ecological framework does more than expand sexual assault prevention beyond the typical domain of discipline and health education. It incorporates a developmental perspective, reminding us that students do not step onto campus as blank slates — that being attentive to their pre-college experiences is vital in building a bolder and more comprehensive vision of what sexual assault prevention needs to look like. For one thing, many students are sexually assaulted before college: SHIFT found that 20 percent of students who participated in our survey had experienced a sexual assault before college. It’s not only pre-college assaults that matter, but students’ whole lives before college. The families, schools, religious communities, and youth-serving institutions that shape the young people who show up with so many hopes, dreams, and fears on freshman move-in day could play a vital role in preparing them to have sexual relations in a way that is respectful and not harmful of others. But mostly, we found, these institutions fail to prepare young people, bombarding them with fear-based messages that tell them what not to do rather than promoting what we think of as the foundational element of comprehensive prevention. This is the principle of “sexual citizenship”: the internal “acknowledgement of one’s own right to sexual self-determination” along with recognition of “the equivalent right in others.”

Some students grow to young adulthood in a context that promotes their own sexual self-determination, but ignores the corollary, so that they view prospective sexual partners as objects or metrics of achievement. Other students emerge into adulthood having been subjected to intense shaming about sex. If they have never been granted space to imagine circumstances under which it is ok to say yes to someone, it turns out that it’s also hard to say no, because having sex at all feels very confusing. When a young woman describes to us giving a blow job to a man in whom she’s not interested “just to get out of there,” that may not be assault – but it’s certainly reflective of a broader context in which many young women grow to adulthood without being encouraged to develop as sexually-self-determining, while many young men grow to adulthood being encouraged to extract as much sex as they can from women, without being attentive to their wishes, much less their pleasure.

Sexual assault is not one thing, it is many things

As we’ve shown in the papers from the SHIFT project, and as we describe in compelling ethnographic detail in our book, sexual assault is not one thing, but many things. The diversity of experiences, contextual factors, and forms of power at work means that there’s unlikely to be any single intervention or program that by itself will measurably move the needle on campus sexual assault. In this respect, as a public health problem, preventing sexual assault is more like preventing traffic accidents than inoculating against measles (although resistance to the measles vaccine also reminds us that even when highly effective technical solutions exist, that’s no guarantee of real-world uptake). To reduce traffic accidents, engineers work to build safer roads. Highway police set up sobriety checks on New Year’s eve. An elaborate educational apparatus has been developed, with parental support, skills-based education, and social support for peer-to-peer safety interventions (designated drivers), all to promote people’s capacity to drive without harming others with their cars. Where is the corollary social effort at teaching young people not to harm each other with their bodies?

And so while no one program is likely to fix campus sexual assault by itself, our biggest policy prescription is comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. There’s strong evidence that sex education can modify the beliefs and characteristics associated with committing an assault.  Helping people who might assault others learn not to do so is an achievable social goal and an important corollary to “refusal skills” programs. It’s not just the technical information that young people need, it’s the ethical framing. It’s also unnecessary to add fear-based messages about assault /to the existing hodge-podge of scary images and warnings about pregnancy that many young people in America already get. Rather, comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education must be grounded in respect for young people’s right to sexual self-determination. Part of teaching young people to listen when someone else says no, or to feel confident about saying no, or even to know internally whether they want to have sex at all, is acknowledging their right to say yes.

Jennifer S. Hirsch is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and can be contacted at jsh2124@columbia.eduShamus Khan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. He can be reached at