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

In the spring of freshman year, shortly after leaving a party with a guy friend, Lydia and he had sex that Lydia describes as unwanted. As the hookup unfolded, Lydia, then a 19-year-old freshman, recalls: “Part was me was like ‘it’s fine, it’s not gonna be an issue, it won’t change anything, it’s just sex, it’s not a big deal’ while the other part is thinking pretty much the opposite. This is intimate…he could see me differently as a person. He might think I was a whore or easy. Or the opposite even: if I said no, he would think I didn’t like him as a person or…that I led him on or something like that and I was being a bitchy girl to him. I didn’t really want that.”

In the end, Lydia went along with sex. When I interview her one year later, as part of a larger study on unwanted sex, she talks about the pressure she felt to go through it—pressure to avoid having him think she’d been leading him on and pressure to project an image of a woman who can handle herself. Lydia also describes the social awkwardness of the encounter, explaining “it would be very uncomfortable to say no at the time because I was over at his place. I would have to leave and get all my stuff and I didn’t know what he would say.”

Some outside observers would call this non-consensual sex. Others would put the blame squarely on Lydia for not being assertive enough to say no. Lydia did not consider this an assault, nor did most of the 110 students who reported similar instances of unwanted sex to me. Yet they all described a combination of powerful social pressures that made it seem especially difficult to say no.

Uncomfortable reality

I argue that many of these social pressures stem from a desire to avoid making things uncomfortable. Some of the impulses that make these pressures so powerful are admirable – the desire to preserve someone’s feelings, not to disappoint expectations or make others feel let down, etc. A few, I will show later, stem from fear of harm. But most, I found, are just plain normal – the desire to save face, deflect awkward situations, and/or stave off potential ridicule or resentment.

In most everyday interactions, the pressure to be polite and avoid hard feelings is a social lubricant, helping social life flow smoothly. But when it comes to erotic interactions, these social expectations are not only highly gendered but also largely unsuitable to the changing sexual and romantic terrain that college students now inhabit. This terrain includes a world of delayed marriage, filled with more egalitarian male-female friendships than the past, but also more freedom for everyone to have casual sex, a freedom that may become a burden in the context of a campus hookup culture where sex may or may not lead to dating.

My interviews with students at a large private university in the northeast make it clear that in this environment there is a lot of sex that people only openly admit was unwanted after the fact. This is sex that they did not want at the time yet went along with despite not experiencing physical force or threat of force. A minority of my respondents — some women and non-heterosexual men — reported being afraid to say no to a man who was coming on to them for fear that he might react physically. Surprisingly, however, much more common in students’ accounts was the profound importance of gendered social expectations.

The synergy between “nice” and “easy”

Most of my respondents had unwanted sex because in social interactions, even sexual ones, people work to manage their partner’s feelings. A very common feature of interviews was for respondents to emphasize how the pressure of the situation created a momentum where it was “easier” to have sex than it was to call a halt. Understanding how and why this happens reveals the limits of talking in terms of either “sexual victimization” or “sexual empowerment” — or even “individual choice.” There are still real sexual predators on campus, of course. But in other cases, gender stereotypes and habits from the past interact with changing sexual and romantic practices to make it difficult for even well-intentioned individuals to have the mutually consensual sexual encounters they would likely prefer.

One of the strongest messages given to young girls is the importance of being “nice” and not “hurting people’s feelings.” And that sticks. Across interviews, many women described actively internalizing the idea that women/girls are supposed to be nice (not “bitchy”), and concluding that one way of being “nice” in an erotically-charged situation is by having sex, rather than have a partner think you were “just leading him on,” as the interchange below illustrates.

Penelope: “I really don’t know how to say no when a guy wants to have sex, I feel terrible when I say no…Don’t want them to see me as someone who doesn’t want to have sex. At the same time, don’t want them to see me as weak.”

Interviewer: Are those the things you think women are supposed to be balancing?

Penelope: “Yea. Having a lot of confidence but also not seeming easy. Cute and sexual, but not slutty.”

-Penelope, 19-year-old sophomore (heterosexual)

In several instances, women described feeling responsible for finishing what they “started.” Once women had given a man a green light — gotten in a taxi with him, touched him erotically, or done something else that he might take as a signal for willingness to have sex, there was an expectation for women to follow through, even if they did not actually want sex.

Most women are aware that some college men sort women into types (e.g., sluts, girlfriend material, etc.) and use these categories to decide if she “deserves” respect (Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney 2006; Ray and Rosow 2010). Such categorizations, which draw on sexist stereotypes, can place a woman in the category of “easy” simply because she has opted to spend time alone with a man in a place where sex could plausibly be on the agenda. In some instances, women felt they must follow through with sex because they believed that they had given this impression. In particular, women who engaged in casual sex sometimes reported feeling that because they were deemed more sexual they had less right to decline sex. Some queer and bisexual women also recounted scenarios where they felt that being alone with a man set in motion certain expectations that they should go along with sex because, after all, they slept with men and with women alike.

Below, Amy, a bisexual woman describes how her past sexual experience—the fact that she “sleeps with everyone”—in a sense made her feel she could not say no in this context.

“And then he at one point decided to take advantage of me and I was like ‘okay.’ I just kind of dealt with it…. I don’t think I have the right to make a big deal out of it because at the end of the day I sleep with everyone. So who cares. If you’re going to have a lot of sex, at the end of the day someone is going to try to fuck you up.”

-Amy, 19-year-old sophomore (bisexual)

Consensualish for men versus women

Accounts from men who had unwanted sex with other men reflected some of the same stereotypes as women’s descriptions about the need to accommodate male sexual neediness. They too described an expectation to “finish what you started” or to give the partner an orgasm. While this pressure is often documented in the heterosexual literature (Armstrong, England and Fogarty 2012; Bogle 2008), it was interesting to see the orgasm imperative transferred onto the male partners of men.

Heterosexual men also described incidents of having sex they didn’t actually want. But where women and gay/bisexual men described feeling pressure to ensure male partners’ pleasure, heterosexual men experienced the flip side of these gendered pressures – feeling that they would face social ridicule if they did not take advantage of any proffered sex.

During his freshman year, Mark woke up one night to find a woman on top of him, trying to have sex. He explains:

“We had our night out, got back from bars, crashed in my bed. 2 or 3 am there’s a random person in my bed on top of me. I guess I’m in more of a position at that point to be passive than to say what’s going on? I would rather not make a big deal of it…”

Interviewer: Did you end up having sex [with the woman]?

Mark: “Yea…. I wasn’t gonna be like you shouldn’t be here. It would just be weird. There’s 4 or 5 dudes in the suite asleep. I would rather not make a scene. What am I gonna do? Go complain I was raped by like honestly a really nice looking girl, just someone I personally didn’t vibe with…. So I’m not gonna be as aggressive, like ‘get off of me’ the way a girl would…If I did that to her and then she made it a thing or people heard about, it would be insane. I would have got shit.”

-Mark, 21-year-old junior (heterosexual)

Other heterosexual men described having unwanted sex to project an image or take advantage of a sexual opportunity. Men worried that turning down sex could result in ridicule or being viewed as a “pussy,” “virgin,” “idiot” or “gay.” It is notable that these terms are different from those applied to women who decline sex (i.e. “bitch,” “prude,” “tease”).

These uncomfortable gender pressures are magnified by the fact that in a sense, hookups are an incomplete institution, changing and evolving much like our expectations of gender and sex. For example, data from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS)—a survey led by Paula England of over 20,000 students from 21 four-year colleges and universities between 2005 and 2011—show that only 40 percent of recent hookups involved intercourse, and 35 percent involved no more than kissing and some non-genital touching. Yet these findings contrast with the highly sexualized expectations associated with hookups and a culture of “pluralistic ignorance”—where students assume everyone else is having sex (Wade, 2012).

Saving face

In addition to gender expectations, another very common factor hindering people from refusing unwanted sex was their felt social pressure to save face, avoid conflict, or simply make the encounter less embarrassing or strained (Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1983). Such a scenario usually plays out as follows: a man or woman ends up alone with a partner. They realize at that point that they do not want to have sex for various reasons (e.g. “not feeling it;” would rather do something else; missing an ex-boy/girlfriend etc.). However, they consciously decide to go through with it rather than end the encounter.

“Then when he asked about the condom, I was like this is where I should cop out, but I just went along with it…For some reason, I figured that it would be less awkward if I just finished what had started and then left… If you leave in the middle there is some unresolved tension, whereas the first option is [to have sex], yes, it’s a little awkward but not unheard of. “

                                                                        –Meghan, 18-year-old freshman (heterosexual)

Much like Meghan, students often perceived that the encounter would conclude more neatly (e.g. “done deal”) if they had sex. Across interviews, respondents frequently described a desire to keep the encounter running smoothly, without “weirdness” or disruption, which discouraged them from calling an end to unwanted sex.

Interviewer: You said you felt pressure to keep going?

Jeff: “Definitely.”

Interviewer: Was that from her?

Jeff: “Yeah. I kinda felt…. It was me too, based on the situation. Felt like I had to go all the way. It was just necessary.”

Interviewer: Necessary?

Jeff: “Yeah.”

Interviewer: Why not stop it?

Jeff: “It would have felt weird to me. I can’t see myself…. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have done that.”

-Jeff, 25-year-old senior (heterosexual)

In many instances, men’s stories mirrored women’s, where being face-to-face with someone who wanted to have sex created a situation in which saying no felt either awkward or “mean.” Having unwanted sex was one way to resolve such a situation. Scholars argue that keeping the situation going in a way that is “normal” and fits expectations is a predominant motive during social interactions (Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1983). We see people engaging in “repair work” or trying to “smooth” over interactions on behalf of others, sometimes even when they have just met someone. Across interviews, accounts of saving face (one’s own or the other’s) and acting in recognizable ways fit into a larger narrative where going along with unwanted sex allowed people to avoid disruption, even at the expense of some personal discomfort.

Together, these findings suggest why campuses cannot rely on court judgments and punishments alone to solve these kinds of cases. Nor should they just shrug them off, telling people they should have been more assertive about their wishes. Instead, as people negotiate these social spaces and changing mores while struggling with increasingly dysfunctional gender expectations, we need to think about how to get a more productive conversation going about how to reconfigure these gender expectations, reducing the pressure people feel to conform to them.

A conundrum: Cases where force is not actually threatened but genuinely feared

I include a final section on the more equivocal cases where people say that they had unwanted sex because they feared that saying no might trigger violence. These cases involved quite a different scenario from the rest of my findings. In situations that were neither physically forceful nor overtly coercive, some women still recalled acquiescing to sex because of the possibility that otherwise the man could overpower them. It was common, for example, for women to reference men’s size, strength, or physical presence when describing unwanted sex, or to recall being aware of these things.

Jackie: “He was physically looming over me. He did what he wanted and didn’t ask me what I wanted. Just that.”

Interviewer: Would you say that sex was unwanted?

Jackie: “Kind of, but I did agree to it so it was consensualish.”

Interviewer: Consensual and wanted?

Jackie: “Less wanted. Consensual but unwanted. There we go….”

Interviewer: So you decided to have sex with him?

Jackie: “Yea. ’Cause he was looming over me.”

-Jackie, 18-year-old freshman (heterosexual)

In Jackie’s retelling of “consensualish” but unwanted sex with a man she met on Tinder, she implies that his physical affect reminded her of his ability to use force, and this was part of the reason she went along with sex. it is not clear whether this “looming” is in fact a threat that he would force her to have sex if she said no. It is possible that his objective size difference just gives her this impression. But perhaps he is, consciously or not, reminding her that he is capable of this. Situations where it is difficult to decipher whether a given gesture is harmful or innocuous have been documented elsewhere in relation to racism and sexism (Gordon and Riger 1989; Jackson 2010). It is precisely this kind of “uncertainty” in the context of structural or historical power differences that reproduces inequality without there being an outright demand. Across interviews, many women reported not knowing whether a man might “snap” as a reason to go along with sex.

This fear is real, and in many cases rational, statistically speaking. However, adjudication processes and court cases will not solve this issue because no force was used or threatened. So, what do these cases imply? It is a conundrum. On the one hand, you can’t prosecute men (it’s usually men) for being so big that they scare someone. On the other hand, given the track record of so many men, you can’t blame a woman or for that matter a smaller man for being afraid to say no, any more than you can expect a black person stopped by a white cop not to respond differently than a white person would, even if the white cop is respectful and turns out to not be a racist.

In fact, I found that this type of unwanted sex also occurred for men having sex with men. For Lincoln, unwanted sex unfolds with a man he meets online.

“On the way I was super scared. I felt like I was going to die in a way. We end up in his apartment, He tries to pour me some wine but I refuse to drink it because I’m not sure what’s in it. And he like keeps on untying my pants and I don’t want it. I was like could we talk first? And he just kept doing it. I didn’t know how to react.”

-Lincoln, 20-year-old sophomore (gay)

Lincoln goes so far as to describe fearing he might die. He is afraid to drink the wine. In his uncertainty, he imagines rape and nonconsensual drugging are things that could happen. Other men who had sex with men described similar scenarios where they were uncertain whether an encounter was unfolding in a way that was dangerous or ordinary. Paradoxically, in their view, sometimes it was better to have unwanted sex than to risk getting forcibly raped.

In my data, heterosexual men did not worry about or even consider the possibility of violent escalation in their accounts, but several women and gay/bisexual men reported that this thought inhibited them calling an end to the encounter or from trying to leave, even in cases where a man had done nothing to indicate that he would use force. This finding has implications for current debates around affirmative consent. Given that this potential for violence may be present, this would suggest that an affirmative consent strategy might be helpful in situations where women or gay/bisexual men are unsure as to whether they are in danger. In such situations, an overt discussion of consent, and greater communication in general, might help reinforce and reaffirm one’s ability to stop or slow an encounter. Perhaps campus-wide discussions are needed to make it clear that this potential for violence can be in the air, and that men need to offer reassurance that they will respect a no.

In closing, it is high time for a multi-pronged strategy that is not just focused on going after predators but also on developing a new erotic culture. Such a shift could include teaching women that being nice doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries while teaching men that they don’t always have to orgasm. These findings also make a good case for the importance of empowerment education, which has been proven to be effective, but is often criticized for just teaching women how to say no, not teaching men to stop raping (Gidycz & Dardis, 2014).

While there is no substitute for getting men to stop raping, my research indicates there is a subcategory of unwanted sex where the man probably would stop pushing if the woman didn’t feel so compelled to be “nice” and if women (and some men too) didn’t subscribe to the idea that a man just can’t stop beyond a certain point of arousal, or that stopping would be cruel. Therefore, empowerment training could be an important tool for women (and some men) to learn how to say no to unwanted sex, even if other work is needed to stop predatory behavior. As part of a multi-pronged strategy, combining empowerment training with messaging (e.g. raising men’s consciousness of the need to offer reassurance) could play a very positive role in reducing unwanted sex.

Jessie V. Ford is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University Jf3179@cumc.columbia.edu

In 2017 I interviewed Dr. Alicia Walker about her first book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife, which was a study of women who have affairs using the website Ashley Madison. In her new book, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity she reports on in-depth interviews with 46 men who use the same website to have relationships outside of their marriages or long term partnerships. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Walker about her new book.

AK: Why do men have affairs?

AW: The men in this study believed their primary partners lacked interest in them, both as sexual partners and as people. They perceived their wives as disinterested in the details of their day, their dreams, goals, and fears. They judged their primary partners as disappointed in them, as partners, as people, and as men. The men fashioned their wives as “impossible to please,” claiming they nagged and no amount of effort ever contented them. The men framed their own contributions to household labor as a “favor” to their wife, whom they felt should express gratitude for the effort. However, they clearly placed the blame for this dynamic on the institution of marriage itself rather than something specific about their wives. They explained that marriage trains men to feel badly about themselves.

Further, the men described either sexless marriages or sexual dynamics entirely lacking in the sensuality, passion, and fervor they craved. Many men detailed years and decades of sexual encounters where their wives failed to orgasm. Men internalized all of these conditions as signals of their inferiority. They believed their primary partners’ disinterest in them indicated their own failure of masculinity. In their minds, if they were manly enough, their wives would both enthusiastically engage in sex with them and hang on their every word.

The men in this study made clear that while sexual, their affairs primarily served to boost their self-esteem. Specifically, they sought out affair partners who provided emotional support, relational management, and emotional connection. The men wanted romantic partners who asked about their days, helped manage their emotional life, and made them feel safe and cherished. These affairs included sexual encounters, and they wanted affair partners who enthusiastically participated in prolonged sexual encounters, what popular culture calls “The Girlfriend Experience.” Affair partners who experienced orgasm further validated the men’s sense of accomplishment and skill. These provisions increased the men’s sense of themselves as “masculine.”

For these men, the attention and enthusiasm of their primary partners would prevent their participation in affairs. While the men appreciated the provision of relational management (help managing their emotional lives), emotional connection, interest in them, and enthusiasm in bed gained in their outside partnerships, they wanted most to have all of that from their primary partners. So, while outside partners soothed the men’s hurt egos and sense of themselves as masculine, their lives still lacked what they craved most: approval and attention from their primary partners. While they valued the self-esteem boost from affairs, the men reported feelings of emasculation as a result of the dynamics of the primary partnership, a space where men believed they failed repeatedly to perform masculinity to the satisfaction of their wives.

AK: Your earlier book examined women who have affairs and this one focuses on men. How are men and women’s motivations for affairs different, and how do those differences reflect broader ideas about gender in society?

AW: Initially, the data seemed to reveal gender differences in affair motivations. However, closer analysis revealed that the dynamics of the primary partnership provoked motivation to participate in affairs. Specifically, among those whose primary partnerships lacked emotional connection and intimacy, affairs served to provide those missing elements. This included 7 women and all of the male participants. Conversely, for participants whose primary partnerships provided emotional connection and intimacy, yet lacked satisfying sex, affairs served to provide sexual satisfaction. This proved the motivation among the bulk (the remaining 39) of the women who participated. Essentially, participants sought to outsource whatever facets remained missing within their primary partnerships.

However, among the 7 women who also sought emotional outside partnerships, there remained no mention of internalizing the dynamics of the primary partnership as their own fault. So, the gendered difference centered on the response of the men and the 7 women to the lack of emotional connection and intimacy in their primary partnership. Men experienced their primary partners’ withholdment of relational management, emotional connection, and sexual enthusiasm as evidence of their own failures and inadequacies. Women made no mention of this in our interviews. The men in this study repeatedly emphasized an internalization of their primary partners’ disappointment in them, lack of sexual interest in them, and failure to orgasm as a result of sex with them as their own fault and as evidence of their own lack of adequate manliness. By contrast, the 7 women whose primary partnerships lacked emotional intimacy failed to blame themselves. Rather, they bemoaned their primary partners’ lack of interest and ability to engage on that level as some deficit within their husbands.

This difference functions as a broader effect of gender socialization in our society. The burden of masculinity lies in its continual need to be performed and proven. At no point do men reach a finish line where we proclaim them “manly enough.” Thus, when primary partnerships failed to live up to men’s expectations, they concluded the fault must lie within their own inferiority, specifically, their inadequacies as “men.”

AK: What is one finding that surprised you when you were doing your research?

AW: I found most surprising the fact that men internalize their primary partners’ disinterest, frustration, or failure to verbalize thanks for routine household tasks as disappointment in them, and further assume this as an indicator of their inadequate masculinity. Men believed their primary partners to feel constant disappointment in them based on her failure to inquire about his day, lack of desire in participating in extended sexual sessions, and failure to verbalize thanks. In general, men express tremendous hurt and resentment in response to what they perceived as their primary partners’ lack of enthusiasm in all arenas. Further, they believe their own inadequacies provoke her disappointment. They think that her lack of interest signals a lack of adequate manliness within them. If she fails to orgasm, if she fails to appropriately appreciate his domestic labor efforts, if she seems bored with his stories, they experience injury and upset, but immediately fault themselves. As one participant put it: “Men’s egos need constant pumping up.” Both the reported volume of need for praise and their self-awareness of this need served as the biggest surprise.

Alicia Walker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity and Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity. Follow her on twitter at @AliciaMWalker1. 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.


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families.

In recent months, conversations around the role of the police have drawn mainstream attention to what contemporary policing actually encompasses. Responding to violent crime constitutes only a small share of police work; instead, we often call on armed officers to address homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and other social adversities. Even when these encounters do not lead to arrest or physical violence, ubiquitous policing in marginalized communities, especially Black communities, heightens experiences of exclusioninjusticeand precarity.

In a new study, I trace how another, parallel institution comes to loom large in marginalized communities: Child Protective Services (CPS). Each year, U.S. child protection authorities, tasked with responding to child abuse and neglect, investigate the families of over three million children, disproportionately poor children, Black children, and Native American children. A staggering one in three children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood.

To understand why CPS encounters are so commonplace, especially for marginalized families, I observed CPS investigations in Connecticut and interviewed approximately 100 key participants on these cases: professionals reporting suspected child maltreatment, frontline investigators, and investigated mothers. My research shows how, with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them. As with the police, this expansive reliance on authorities with coercive power fosters fear and mistrust even when CPS does not find sufficient evidence to confirm maltreatment.

Contrary to media coverage focused on a few exceptional cases of horrific maltreatment, CPS’s broad reach does not imply millions of malevolent parents are willfully or seriously abusing their children. The situations drawing CPS’s attention typically involve adversities such as domestic violence, substance misuse, homelessness, and mental health needs, often among families experiencing material hardship and systemic racism. As I learned, the educational, medical, law enforcement, and other professionals who initiate two-thirds of CPS reports usually do not think the children they report are in grave danger. And CPS investigators agree. Nationwide, the vast majority of reports (over 80 percent) are deemed unfounded by CPS.

But nor does widespread CPS reporting represent a deluge of false reports from bureaucrats concerned about liability given legal mandates, or, conversely, eager to see children taken from “bad” parents. Overwhelmingly, teachers, nurses, police officers, and other service professionals say they would have reported their most recent case even if not legally required to do so. But usually, they do not want or expect CPS to remove children from the home. Instead, they call CPS in the hope of resolving a key dilemma they face: They want to help families but have limited time, resources, and roles to do so as they believe necessary. Thus, they turn families over to an agency they hope can intervene with families in ways they cannot. At a women’s services center, a staff member explained that “this is the tool that we have” to ensure children’s needs are met. These purportedly benevolent intentions expand the reach of CPS, as reporting professionals call on CPS not primarily to identify children in need of foster care, but to rehabilitate families broadly.

  • Reporting professionals almost always want CPS to provide supportive services, reasoning that CPS has more information about available and appropriate services. For example, in one case, a police officer responded to an incident of domestic violence. “I don’t think that it’s a situation where the kids need to be removed from the house,” he said. Instead, he hoped CPS could assess the family’s needs and perhaps refer them to counseling, interventions he saw as beyond his role and knowledge.
  • Yet reporting professionals also call on CPS’s coercive authority, framing the agency’s power as useful in pressuring parents to accept voluntary services or adjust their behavior in ways reporters believe will improve conditions for children. Another case involved a school struggling to manage a child’s behavioral outbursts. The parents had resisted the school’s desired intervention and the child also mentioned his father hitting him on the head. The school social worker hoped the parents would be more receptive to advice and service referrals coming from CPS. As she reasoned, when CPS refers, “parents either hear it differently or out of nervousness and fear of what if I don’t accept this service. Not that that’s the greatest way to get people involved, but if you get them involved, then hopefully the outcome is beneficial.”
  • Embracing CPS reporting as a means of rehabilitating families disproportionately channels marginalized families to CPS. Race and class biases shape which families reporting professionals believe need supervision and correction. A daycare director, for example, described “red flags” that might make her more likely to turn to CPS: “Your quick, first red flag would be a lower-income family. Where they live has a lot to do with it too.” Moreover, given underinvestment in communities of color and poor communities, systems serving these families face resource constraints that may increase reliance on CPS. In one case, a major provider of mental health services for low-income Black and Latinx families reported a Latina mother who did not follow through with treatment recommendations after her daughter’s suicide attempt. The therapist said she “didn’t want to throw CPS at” the mother, but with her high caseload, she felt she could not keep following up to ensure the daughter received recommended services. “Because I’m seeing so many families,” she said, “things get lost and they fall through the cracks… [so it’s] gotta go to the big guys.”

But professionals’ wide-ranging concerns about families are often ill-suited to the intervention CPS offers.

  • Frontline investigators point out that responding effectively to many of the families coming to their attention does not require the coercive authority that CPS can exert. CPS is uniquely empowered to identify candidates for legal intervention and child removal. But with children’s basic safety typically not at issue, investigators question the need for a child protection-specific response, recognizing that any assistance they might be able to offer could be provided by others instead. As one investigator noted, reporting professionals could make referrals or educate families themselves, but “they just pick up the phone and call us,” straining his caseload and subjecting families to unnecessary surveillance: “Once you call us, it’s a whole different ballgame… We come in and we delve into everything.”
  • CPS investigators, like reporting professionals, are often unable to address families’ persistent needs. “I know I’m supposed to be a miracle worker, but sometimes there’s nothing we can do,” lamented another investigator. For example, the agency can refer to therapeutic services, but cannot address the chronic material needs at the root of many reports. On one case, involving a family’s housing conditions, the investigator wondered aloud, “What am I supposed to really do? I don’t see the kids being neglected.” She wanted to help the family, but CPS could not provide ongoing rental assistance. “The sad part is there’s nothing we can do in the sense that we don’t have housing,” she reflected.

Upon receiving reports, CPS investigators conduct multiple home visits and question families on numerous aspects of their personal lives. Investigators try to connect families with social services, but, like police, these efforts are often undermined by the agency’s coercive authority. Faced with the possibility of family separation, parents react with fear, mistrust, or resentment, straining their relationships with critical service providers.

  • CPS investigations foster substantial anxiety among investigated families. Although reporting professionals and investigators rarely expect children will be removed, the threat of removal is ever-present even if unstated. “I couldn’t speak. The only thing that crossed my mind was that they were going to take them away,” recalled one mother. “I always thought that their job is to come in and take a child from their family,” another reflected. “Oh my God. You don’t understand. I was so scared.”
  • CPS reports can also lead parents to distance themselves from reporting systems, even when parents ultimately view CPS investigators positively. For example, one mother, reported to CPS for using marijuana during pregnancy, hesitated to speak openly with healthcare providers afterwards, potentially precluding her from accessing needed support. After giving birth, she worried she was experiencing postpartum depression. But, she explained, “I don’t tell them any of that because I don’t need them to say, oh, she’s going through postpartum. She’s gonna hurt the baby.”

Thus, in asking CPS—like the police, armed with tools of surveillance and coercion—to take on all manner of social problems, we further traumatize and marginalize families. To work towards a more effective and just response, we can, first, revise mandated reporter trainings and CPS hotline screening to discourage and remove routes for professionals to wield CPS as a tool of disciplinary control. Second, akin to models that replace police with unarmed, support-oriented crisis response teams, we might devise an alternative entity for reporting professionals to obtain assistance for families, perhaps one that can refer families to a range of services based on the needs they identify.

Any alternative must provide truly voluntary assistance and advocacy, offered without threats of punishment. Recent reforms seeking to orient CPS more around service delivery, such as “differential response” systems and child maltreatment prevention services, remain tethered to the agency’s inherent coercive authority. But effectively supporting child and family welfare requires investments outside coercive systems—investments that shift power and resources to affected communities. Research is clear that broad-scale anti-poverty policies, such as minimum wage increases, the Earned Income Tax Creditchildcare subsidies, and child support pass-throughs, reduce child maltreatment risk and CPS intervention. Families navigating the U.S.’s weak labor market supports, stingy welfare state, and persistent and pervasive racism do not need intrusive and apprehension-inducing inquiries into their parenting; they need equitably distributed material resources as well as the political power to ensure public policy responsive to their needs.

Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology; ktfong@gatech.edu.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-release/

Even before the pandemic, telecommuting had mixed results on gender equity. And mothers telecommuting during the pandemic report more stress and depression than mothers working outside the home. 

As of April/May 2020, 55 percent of currently employed parents were working from home, and many experts predict that telecommuting will become more widespread even if schools do reopen next month. Is telecommuting the new normal? And if so, what does that mean for women’s well-being at home and at work?

A unique new study, Before and During COVID-19: Telecommuting, Work-Family Conflict, and Gender Equality, released by the Council on Contemporary Families, compares parents who were telecommuting before the pandemic and after. The good news? Telecommuting fathers do a lot more childcare than other fathers – enough more to actually even out their time with moms. The bad news? They don’t increase their daily housework at all, while telecommuting women increase theirs by almost 50 minutes. The really bad news? Telecommuting during the pandemic increases mothers’ depression and anxiety significantly more than working from a separate location. One conclusion the authors draw is that women benefit from the boundaries created by work away from home.

Investigators Thomas Lyttelton (Yale Sociology, Emma Zang (Yale Sociology), and Kelly Musick (Cornell Policy Analysis and Management) examined time use data from parents who were telecommuting from before COVID-10 and after. Using data from the 2003-2018 American Time Use Survey (ATUS, = 19,179) and the April and May 2020 COVID Impact Survey (N = 784), they found two distinct patterns of adjustment telecommuting, pre COVID-19:

Telecommuting dads closed the gender gap on childcare. Pre COVID-19, dads spent 67 more minutes caring for children on the days they worked exclusively from home. This was 47 minutes larger than the moms’ increases on work-from-home days.

For housework, the gender gap got worse. Pre COVID-19, when mothers worked from home, they increased their housework by 49 minutes, while fathers did no more housework on work-from-home days than on days they worked away from home.

Work-family spillover hits telecommuting moms hard. Aside from actual child care, telecommuting fathers, pre-COVID-19, reported that children were present while they were working for 21 minutes per day, on average, on days they worked from home. But mothers reported children present when they were working for 54 minutes per day, a gender gap of 27 minutes.

And in the pandemic, telecommuting moms report especially elevated stress. Telecommuting moms are more depressed and stressed than moms who work outside the home — and more depressed and stressed than dads working in either location. Telecommuting dads are actually less anxious when working from home than when at a separate workplace; the opposite is true for moms.

The authors note: “The closure of schools and childcare facilities greatly increases childcare burdens on parents, with telecommuters now expected to educate their children alongside doing their day jobs, a job that has so far fallen most heavily on women…. Mothers telecommuting in April – May 2020 reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at higher rates than telecommuting fathers. The same was not true for mothers in the workplace, where we found no gender differences in stress and depression.”

What are those rates of stress now? In the pandemic, 20 percent of mothers working from home report feeling depressed, while 11 percent of fathers working from home do. For anxiety, six percent of fathers working from home report it, while three times as many mothers — 18 percent — working from home report it. (See Figure 2 in the brief for additional details.)

Where does this leave us?
“Telecommuting seems to work better for gender equity when men do it rather than when women do it. As a historian, my take is that men need to be reintegrated into the household just as women have been reintegrated into the work world. Telecommuting seems to help dads pay attention to childcare requirements they can ignore when at work,” notes Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research.

“By contrast, most telecommuting women find it hard to ignore the internalized pressure to take care of every pile of dirty laundry, sweep up every pile of dirt, and jump to attention every time a child wanders into the room. This is a form of work-family conflict people often ignore when they tout the advantages of working from home, and as this report shows, it’s a source of gender inequality at home and at work,” Coontz concludes.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality-advisory/

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

A fact sheet prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families 

Mentally…Dads foster their children’s development by challenging them both cognitively and physically. Dads promote children’s communication skills by asking children questions and requiring them to clarify what they are saying. Dads encourage children to take age-appropriate risks and go outside their “comfort zone,” which can help children develop confidence and reduce anxiety. But don’t leave all the consoling and calming tasks to mom, says sociologist Barbara Risman. Men who take primary or equal responsibility for childcare are just as nurturing and sensitive as women, and great models for their children.

  • Things to try: Read together with young children and engage them in back-and-forth conversation using wh-questions (i.e., Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?). For older kids, form a “book club” where you both read the same book and talk about it together. When on the playground, stand back and allow children to attempt new activities on their own first, without interfering, but provide safety and encouragement from the sidelines.

Emotionally…Dads who laugh with and praise their toddlers have kids who are less distressed in frustrating situations. When children experience anger and sadness, Dads’ support helps kids learn how to manage their emotions and have better relationships with friends. And when Dads show their teens love and acceptance, their teens have more positive outlooks and greater confidence and get better grades in school.

Healthily…Dads help raise healthy children by being present at regular family meals and by encouraging healthy eating and physical activity and modeling healthy behaviors.

  • Things to try: Kids are more likely to eat foods that they helped prepare, so involve your kids in making meals and snacks. Even preschoolers can help prepare food (for example, washing or mixing ingredients, brushing bread or potatoes with oil) and older kids can help with chopping and cooking. Take walks or hikes together, play tag or basketball.

Remotely…Dads don’t have to live with their children to make a difference: Non-resident fathers who are involved in child-related activities and maintain good relationships with their children have a positive influence on children’s social and academic outcomes.

  • Things to try: When you can’t see your child in person, check in regularly via phone, video-chat, or texts. Ask open-ended questions that invite conversation (“What’s something that made you happy this week?”) rather than yes or no or vague questions. Some activities can be done “together” virtually, for example being on a video-chat with your child while both watching a favorite tv show.

Intergenerationally…What Dads do now not only affects their children, but their grandchildren as well. Dads who are more involved in parenting their kids raise sons who grow up to become more involved fathers and who have better quality relationships with their own children. In addition, Dads who coparent well with Moms have sons who later form supportive relationships with their own parenting partners.

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, schoppe-sullivan.1@osu.edu. Kari Adamsons, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Connecticut, kari.adamsons@uconn.edu.


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

The current #MeToo reckoning, following from the decade-long grassroots campus sexual assault movement, underscores the pervasiveness of sexual harm. As the contribution to this symposium by Armstrong at al points out, most surveys find that 20 percent of undergraduates experience sexual assault, yet such assaults remain woefully under reported. A study of 834 undergraduate women at a Midwestern university found that 234 (34 percent) had experienced sexual assault during their time on campus. Of those, only five (2 percent) filed a formal complaint leading to a disciplinary hearing.

There is no other violation on campus that causes so much trauma, but is so difficult to adjudicate. Concrete evidence is rare. Memories are often impaired by trauma or alcohol. Shame, fear and uncertainty make disclosures unlikely. Racial bias too easily creeps in. Offenders are still not held accountable. Campuses are not yet safer. The quasi-judicial systems on campuses cannot overcome these complex problems. Responding to them requires that we resist one-size-fits-all responses.

There is reason to think it is a mistake to premise our entire response to campus sexual misconduct primarily on a serial predator model. Predators exist, but many people who cause harm are not incorrigible. Some do not realize the hurt they have caused; many do not accept that they violated consent. They too easily rationalize their behavior, reinforced by a broader set of cultural norms that objectify women, trivialize sexual encounters, and indulge drunken hook-ups. By understanding the real-life contexts of assault, we can generate better methods for processing the wide range of cases that occur.

The majority of campus assaults happen behind closed doors and often begin with some level of mutual sexual consent. Consent to kissing does not mean consent to sexual intercourse. But administrators who adjudicate sexual assault complaints must sort through conflicting stories told by people with impaired memories, typically without corroborating physical evidence, and come to a finding that has significant consequences for both parties. Even those deeply committed to reducing sexual violence face a daunting administrative task.

Many incidents of misconduct are perpetrated by one friend or acquaintance upon another; frequently by people who are too drunk to think and communicate clearly; sometimes by people with little sexual experience and much sexual anxiety; sometimes after undue badgering by peers who prioritize sexual quantification over healthy relationships. And such people are swimming in a sea of sexist and sexually-objectifying pornography and other media that reinforce toxic masculinity, perpetuate rape myths like “no means yes,” and highlight stories of high-ranking officials (like presidents and Supreme Court justices) who glibly dismiss accusations of causing serious sexual harm. The problem is too large to suspend our way out of it, although we try.

A recent history of seeking to address campus sexual assault

For nearly a decade, campus administrators have responded to the grassroots student movement and to federal oversight, both demanding greater attention to campus sexual violence. Campuses have revised their policies and procedures to make it easier for students to report assaults and file complaints. Some have walked to the edge of due process in an attempt to make it easier for accusers to be heard. Yet sexual violence continues to remain highly underreported. Few survivors avail themselves of these new, legalistic hearing processes. And when they do, many remain dissatisfied with the outcome.

Evolving Responses

The student movement that raised awareness about campus sexual assault a decade ago initially demanded that university administrators take the problem seriously and punish students with suspension and expulsion. But this movement has evolved. As an alternative to punishment in some cases, many survivors are now asking for a process that provides accountability through acknowledgment of harm and pathways to prevention. Often, they want their stories believed, for the student to apologize for the transgression, and to be reassured that the behavior will not be repeated.

Leading student sexual assault activists such as Sofie Karasek, an assault survivor herself, call for new approaches: “We need institutional responses to sexual harm that prioritize both justice and healing, not one at the expense of the other.” At Princeton University, student activists recently issued a set of 11 demands. Number three on their list: “The establishment of an opt-in restorative justice track for survivors who wish to avoid the process of Title IX proceedings.”

Is it possible to create conditions where a student who has caused sexual harm can admit fault and take responsibility for it? In a world that simultaneously celebrates sexual conquest and vilifies sex offenders, how can someone be held accountable for crossing an unacceptable line without paying a permanent price in social exclusion? Is there an alternative to our current adversarial model, which drives a permanent wedge between victim and offender and nearly forces accused students into an entrenched position of defensive denial?

Restorative justice alternative

restorative justice (RJ) approach to campus sexual harm is a radical alternative to current systems. It is premised on the optimistic possibility that many people who might cause harm can learn to be better sexual partners, to authentically and transparently communicate during sex, and to attend to nonverbal cues that indicate (or fail to indicate) consent. It is also premised on the notion that people who cause harm can regret it and can want to do something to take responsibility and regain others’ trust in them—something restorative theorists call “earned redemption.”

Two principles are fundamental to a restorative approach. (1) It is a voluntary option reserved only for victims and accused students who agree to engage in it; RJ does not replace current systems. (2) The starting place for an RJ process is the accused student’s admission of causing harm; it is not an adversarial process subjecting the survivor to an argument about facts. The purpose is straightforward: it is a process designed to identify harms, needs, and obligations to try to make a terrible situation better. Although restorative justice is often equated with a facilitated dialogue between victim and offender, it is better understood as a philosophical approach focused on identifying and repairing harm. The approach has a clear intention, but not a fixed practice. Face-to-face dialogue is not required and many survivors would not choose it. Nevertheless, they may still wish to communicate their needs and have the person who caused harm acknowledge their wrongdoing and do something to help right the wrong.

A whole campus model of restorative justice includes three layers of action. The foundation is skill-building for interpersonal competence. Community-building circles are structured but intimate dialogues about topics of consequence, such as the nature of consent, hook-up culture, toxic masculinity, or the close association of drinking and sexual violence. In these dialogues, students do not simply get told the rules, but share with each other their honest concerns and set clear normative standards for their micro-communities, such as a first-year seminar, residence hall floor, or athletic team. This foundational layer is grounded in a public health model of primary prevention.

A second layer includes restorative responses to incidents of sexual misconduct and harm. Students may choose to participate in a restorative process as an alternative to a formal hearing, or more likely, as an alternative to doing nothing at all. The goals are accountability, student learning and development, safety planning, and personal healing. Such responses are not limited to the key stakeholders, since the fallout from such incidents of harm often extends into their larger peer groups. And they are not limited to interpersonal harms, but may include restorative responses to sexist misconduct such as “rape chants” and offensive social media posts that have a deleterious effect on campus climate.

A third layer of restorative response attends to the messy process of reintegration after a student has been found in violation of a campus sexual misconduct policy and suspended for it. The suspension itself may satisfy retributive demands but it rarely provides reassurance to the survivor or broader campus community that the student has learned anything from the sanction and will be responsible moving forward. Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) are a restorative model based on a highly successful model for managing sex offender reentry from prison. Campus CoSAs are groups of trained volunteers that meet with the returning students, often on a regular basis, to simultaneously provide them with social support to help them successfully graduate and to monitor them and address any early red flags to reduce risk of reoffending.

Powerful objections

There are some powerful objections to the idea of restorative justice. It may not send the message of moral outrage as clearly as retributive justice. It may put survivors in a situation that re-traumatizes them. It may be used by administrators to avoid costly hearings or litigation or bad press. RJ facilitators may be poorly trained or incompetent. These are risks. Rigorous research is needed to assess how serious they are and how effective a restorative approach can be. Nevertheless, the current models seem to be failing many students and restorative justice approaches offer one promising alternative.

The symposium editors sought to clarify a few particulars.

Q: You say that restorative justice doesn’t replace current systems. But it seems that a guy would be very reluctant to participate in a dialogue that involves acknowledging accountability if there was a chance that his confession could be used against him if the woman later files charges. Any provisions to protect him from that?

Yes, this is a significant hurdle. I’m working on a law review article right now that will include a template MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) as an agreement between the campus and the local District Attorney to provide some reassurance for a “reverse Miranda rule”–what’s said in the RJ process won’t be used against them later. Better solutions will require state legislation to protect the confidentiality of the process. In addition, campuses are having students sign confidentiality agreements and/or agree that if they choose the RJ process they would be unable to pursue a hearing later. Finally, according to Coker, some programs are asking students to formally “admit to causing harm,” but not necessarily admit to a conduct or Title IX violation.

Q: Also, you talk about a third layer after a student has been found in violation and suspended. But the first two layers don’t involve such formal punishments. What is the relationship between having this dialogue and then getting suspended, or getting suspended and then having this dialogue? 

It’s an awkward relationship. Reintegration circles are designed to follow from formal processes, not RJ processes. They are meant to address the problem of victim/community anxiety or anger about the return of a student after suspension. I published an article recently that was a case study of one such process. In that case, supporters of the offender were quite angry about how the formal process was handled, alleging racial bias, and a lot of the circle was dedicated to addressing that concern. The circle was also focused on developing plans to manage the student’s mental health and address his wish to study abroad. Of course, reentry circles would also be valuable for social support after an RJ process in which the participants voluntarily decide it is best for the student to take a leave of absence. That’s not a suspension, merely an agreement that the leave is the best way forward.

David R. Karp, PhD, is a Professor of Leadership at the University of San Diego, dkarp@sandiego.edu.

Each year, U.S. child protection authorities, tasked with responding to child abuse and neglect, investigate the families of over three million children, disproportionately poor, Black, and Native American children. A staggering one in three children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood. In a new study, sociologist Kelley Fong finds that professionals frequently refer families to Child Protective Services to get them help. But because CPS is a coercive institution, not a social service one, this often undermines families in marginalized communities.  

Despite its goal of protecting children, Child Protective Services (CPS) has some troubling features in common with policing in the United States. That’s the conclusion of “The Tool We Have”: Why Child Protective Services Investigates So Many Families and How Even Good Intentions Backfire, released by the Council on Contemporary Families. Kelley Fong, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology, explains “how, with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them.”  Dr. Fong notes, “As with the police, this expansive reliance on authorities with coercive power fosters fear and mistrust” — even when CPS finds parents are not maltreating.

The data: Interviews with people who refer families to the CPS, CPS investigators, and the moms who were investigated. To understand why CPS encounters are so commonplace, especially for marginalized families, Dr. Fong observed CPS investigations in Connecticut and interviewed approximately 100 key participants on these cases: professionals reporting suspected child maltreatment or neglect, frontline investigators, and investigated mothers. Many reporting professionals understand that CPS may not be appropriate but feel it is the only “tool we have.” As a result, referring to CPS —like calling the police — becomes a kind of catch-all reaction to non-criminal problems, in this case to get support services for families in need:

Reporting professionals almost always want CPS to provide supportive services, reasoning that CPS has more information about available and appropriate services. But CPS investigators, like reporting professionals, are often unable to address families’ persistent needs, and the fact that they come in with the power to remove children puts marginalized families in a legal but also a psychological vise.

Embracing CPS reporting as a means of rehabilitating families disproportionately exposes marginalized families to CPS’s coercive authority, and, paradoxically, that leads to less help and more mistrust.

Moms: “I was so scared.” Fong’s interviews with investigated mothers reveal the heart of the drama that can unfold with CPS.

CPS investigations foster substantial anxiety among investigated families. In these investigations the threat of removal is ever-present–even if unstated. “I couldn’t speak. The only thing that crossed my mind was that they were going to take them away,” recalled one mother. “I always thought that their job is to come in and take a child from their family,” another reflected. “Oh my God. You don’t understand. I was so scared.”

CPS reports can also lead parents to distance themselves from reporting systems. One mother, reported to CPS for using marijuana during pregnancy, hesitated to speak openly with healthcare providers afterwards. After giving birth, she worried she was experiencing postpartum depression. But, she explained, “I don’t tell them any of that because I don’t need them to say, oh, she’s going through postpartum. She’s gonna hurt the baby.”

Where this leads: “In asking CPS—like the police, armed with tools of surveillance and coercion—to take on all manner of social problems, we further traumatize and marginalize families,” Fong explains. She argues that changes in training and development of support-oriented crisis response teams would be better aligned with many of the family needs that are often handed off to CPS.

When you see the fist, you panic. Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research, observes: “Fong’s CPS findings parallel what happens when we ask police to respond to problems that social workers should be dealing with. In both cases, people who’ve been trained to coerce and punish bad actors are asked to get needy people out of bad situations.  We tell people wearing a gauntleted fist to extend a helping hand. They aren’t trained to do that, and even when they try, many people only see the fist and they panic.”

Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology; ktfong@gatech.edu.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-release/
Preprint of underlying new study: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/kfong/files/fong_asr.pdf

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

In the first installment of our “pandemic home tour,” I began by noting what has been happening in contemporary families, citing findings described in my 2017 book The Stuff of Family Life and then contrasting them with pandemic-related patterns. I discussed the sleeping spaces of children and young adults as locations for identity transitions when they move from childhood bedroom to dorm room or apartment (now thwarted by pandemic pushes for young adults to remain home while starting or continuing an adult chapter of life). I named adults’ bedrooms as locations for the placement and sometimes accidental display of intimate objects (now turned into both rest and paid work spaces with technological devices that simultaneously give outsiders glimpses into our private worlds and connect us to intimate others via video calls). In this portion of our home tour, we head into kitchens, hobby areas, dining rooms, patios, and beyond to uncover the ways that inequalities and ideologies about families and homes are shifting during the pandemic.

It has long been the case that kitchens and hobby areas (such as tool sheds or craft rooms or, in my house, the dining room table) are labor-rich spaces in the home, both for everyday household labor such as cooking and washing dishes, and for activities more likely today (especially among middle class families) to be labeled as leisure such as sewing, woodworking, baking, or home décor projects. And while men and women are looking more similar to each other than in the past with regard to home-based labor and leisure, it is still the case that women bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities, including those that are about the aesthetic representation of the home via pandemic-inspired “statement” décor and the provision of carb-loaded comfort via sourdough starters.

Now in the kitchen we see a move toward more home-cooking as restaurants have had to close or limit their capacities. Over the last several months in hobby areas (or on dining room tables) we have seen an increase in home remodeling projects, Marie Kondo-ing, and crafting (including fabric mask-making) as people renew their interests in domestic hobbies and notice the spaces that need fixing up or cleaning up more than before. In other words, in light of lessened travel and more time spent at home, we are seeing more attention to domestic display and more at-home leisure, especially among those who can afford the time and money needed to decorate, bake, or sew for fun.

The move to more at-home cooking, eating, and hobby-making is one that is experienced by men and women differently in even more pronounced ways during the pandemic. Inequalities between men and women have been exacerbated in the management of home and work responsibilities such as homeschooling and cleaning (and in the disproportionate reduction of work productivity among women). Who has time for hobbies when paid work and homeschooling children co-occur? Whether it is helping a child with homework, setting up a home office at the kitchen table next to groceries, or pulling out the power tools to fix that door that has been squeaking since pre-COVID days, the labor associated with increased time spent at home is not equitably distributed and seems to be reverting to more traditional gender roles than we’ve seen in some time.

The Author’s “second” (outdoor) living room

The living room (or family room), a more public space within a home as compared to a bedroom or bathroom, has long been a place where parents, children, and guests interact and sometimes compete over its use. It is also seen as a place of relaxation and socializing, with TVs and low tables and couches meant more for plopping and chatting than for sitting up straight. During the pandemic, when the invitation of outsiders into a home carries with it a whole new set of safety-related meanings, and when there are more people spending more time at home (thus competing over space), spaces just outside of homes have been turned into spots for “living room-type” interactions. Patios, porches, balconies, and rooftops are the new second living rooms – the social hour locations and retreats from the “bustle” of home. It is no wonder that sales of outdoor couches have skyrocketed (it is also no wonder that the patio heater I ordered online seems to have doubled in price between August and September).

Any decent family scholar will tell you that a home tour should never start or end at the doors of a single home. There are countless spaces beyond a single home that are part of contemporary family stories, before and during the pandemic. For example, what about those families who spend time in two or more home spaces – divorced or separated families, created families, transnational families, and intergenerational families who do not limit their frequent connectedness to one dwelling? In my 2017 book, I wrote that it is a mistake to presume a home has clear boundaries and is limited only to those whose private lives are connected. In fact, to do so lessens our ability to understand families as they really are, including inequalities and problems that are hard to eradicate because they are too-often hidden behind closed doors.

During the pandemic, we have seen kids navigate different quarantine rules and space allocations in the households of separated parents. We have seen the creation of “pandemic pods” to allow for at least some enhanced social interaction among those who may not share a dwelling but who would call each other brother and sister. We have seen political moves that render national borders impermeable between countries for people who are just trying to return to their families. We have seen people unable to visit aging parents or grandparents in their homes, in senior living homes, and even in hospitals. In all of these cases, we are realizing perhaps more than before that we don’t always get to control the boundaries in our family lives, and that, when we do feel a little bit of control, we create connections rather than barriers.

We spend a lot of time in our families working on defining and dealing with boundaries. Who counts as family? When will I be an adult? Who is entitled to work spaces in a home with doors that close? Can I wear pajama pants during my work call? Which spaces are off limits to kids and visitors? The pandemic not only shines a spotlight on these boundary-making processes that we were already doing, it disrupts them. Let’s pay attention so that we can more fully and intentionally use our home spaces to see connections between us and others, and to be aware of the significance of space and objects in our relationships.

Defining family life as an entirely private affair fails to account for how our family lives actually are. We constantly interweave public and private life, and not just by opening fence gates and creating desire lines across our lawns or apartment building carpets that emerge from countless visits with neighbors. What happens in the world is happening in our homes. Our private stories are curated in public social media outlets. And during a pandemic, our private health stories are part of public health concerns. Now, while seeing grandparents through windows and putting plexiglass and cotton fabric between our faces and six feet between our bodies, we realize just how not-human those boundaries feel. We realize that rendering family life as entirely private, as entirely home-centric, also renders us home-bound and missing out on the larger social connections that sustain us as social beings.

Michelle Janning, is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She is the author of several books on how spaces and objects not only symbolize what’s happening in contemporary families, but also shape family life itself. She also sewed a couple hundred fabric masks this summer to give away so that she could have people visit her on her patio. Michelle’s latest article is from Bringing Children Back into the Family: Relationality, Connectedness, and Home, in the Sociological Studies of Children and Youth Series. The book is available to buy from this link – to get 30% off from any book in the series use the discount code BCBF. Janning’s work is described at www.michellejanning.com.


The Author’s office-classroom-lunchroom

In my 2017 book The Stuff of Family Life I show how home spaces and objects – room by room and life stage by life stage – tell the stories of contemporary family life. In 2020, the stories have taken some pandemic-related turns, including the shift of some home spaces to new functions (for example, my dining room is also my classroom, my office, and – evidenced by the loud chewing noises near my feet during my classes – my dog’s lunchroom). In this two-part series I provide a “pandemic home tour” in which I contrast the stuff (and spaces) of pre-pandemic family life with what is happening now.

In this installment I highlight bedrooms and home offices, calling attention to identity transitions and changing ways that intimacy is (and sometimes is not meant to be) shared in our interactions with others.

I begin our home tour in a child’s bedroom. A few years ago when I surveyed college students about how they defined home, it became clear that a geographic move away from a childhood bedroom accompanies the perception that this move signifies increasing independence, where the accessories of childhood are left behind. Even if stuffed animals and childhood bedspreads find their way into residence hall rooms, students strategically curate these items for a new audience in a more public setting, all the while wrestling with the best way to materially symbolize a burgeoning adult identity. Rather than putting a teddy bear on top of a bed, a student may hide it in a drawer to keep the childhood vibe to a minimum, only pulling it out at bedtime or to show it to a few intimate friends as they talk about their childhoods.

In the time of COVID-19, many college students are either starting college in their childhood bedrooms or returning home to those spaces to continue their higher education journey once their campus closes. In fact, the proportion of all 18- to 29-year-olds who live with their parents has now surpassed 50%, which is a higher proportion than seen during the Great Depression. The process at play this fall for young adults who otherwise would live on the campus of a residential college or university or in an apartment involves a renegotiation of adult-type roles with family members who may see them as children. Alongside this role renegotiation is a material and spatial negotiation that asks whether the spaces and objects of childhood are amenable to burgeoning independence (and amenable to display to new college and job peers in Zoom classes). Preliminary evidence suggests they are not. Starting college in a bedroom with a Disney Channel poster unironically displayed on the wall during class may not be the most desirable Zoom background for college students who want to convey an adult identity.

And further, it is not just 18-year-olds navigating a new adult experiences in childhood bedrooms. COVID-19 has also sent millennials back to their parents’ homes (sometimes because they cannot afford to live on their own, sometimes because they choose to return home to have or provide social support even if they could afford to keep their own places). Role negotiations (and sometimes decisions about room décor and object display) between parents and adult children are thus trickier than even a year ago. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic may alter the definition of adulthood now that the criterion for geographic separation from parents is not necessarily possible, nor maybe even desirable, for 18- to 29-year-olds.

As our tour moves into home spaces that may offer privacy for adult members of families, such as a couple’s shared bedroom, we notice the storage and display of intimate objects such as pajamas, hygiene products, and even love letters. Intimate objects have always been great locations for examining how public and private boundaries can operate within a home. We know this because a request to see someone’s sock or underwear drawer would be met with furrowed eyebrows more than a request to see inside someone’s new barbeque.

In our pandemic world, bedroom spaces have been infiltrated more than in the past by communication technologies such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Our bedrooms have, in more cases than in the past and primarily for those who are privileged to be able to work from home using computers and communication technology, become our home offices. So now not only are children and pets Zoom-bombing work meetings, the intimate bits of our shared bedrooms are more likely to be accidentally seen by work colleagues in these video meetings. We are also establishing etiquette for these kinds of encounters, suggesting that the interaction rituals associated with these new platforms and spaces are becoming routinized and filled with meaning.

At the same time work colleagues get to see our private spaces, video conversations are more likely than before to be the place to establish new intimacies (via online dating apps) and maintain existing ones (via Zoom celebrations such as weddings). So, not only is the bedroom increasingly likely to serve as an intimate space where work occurs via digital platforms; the creation and maintenance of intimate connections requires those same platforms. The home-work boundaries we may have had in place before have been punctured, revealing that the public-private distinction that may have pushed bedrooms further into the realm of “private” has blurred. We must now spend energy on transitioning between using the laptop for an online dating encounter and that same laptop for a work meeting. The laptop, meanwhile, rests on our bed.

In the second installment of our home tour next week, I’ll showcase kitchens, hobby areas, living rooms, patios, and places where home is situated in more than one place. By doing so, I will uncover the ways that gender inequalities in families are manifesting themselves during the pandemic, as well as ideological shifts related to families and homes that are emerging in response to pandemic-related physical and spatial barriers. I discuss how the pandemic is showing us how connected we’d actually like to be, within and between families.

Michelle Janning, is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She is the author of several books on how spaces and objects not only symbolize what’s happening in contemporary families, but also shape family life itself. She also sewed a couple hundred fabric masks this summer to give away so that she could have people visit her on her patio. Michelle’s latest article is from Bringing Children Back into the Family: Relationality, Connectedness, and Home, in the Sociological Studies of Children and Youth Series. The book is available to buy from this link – to get 30% off from any book in the series use the discount code BCBF. Janning’s work is described at www.michellejanning.com.

The puzzle. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in an unprecedented shift to remote work, with 55 percent of currently employed parents working from home in April/May 2020. At least some of the pandemic-related shift to telecommuting is likely to persist for some time, with companies like Facebook moving to permanent remote work for many workers. What does this mean for the perennial issue of work-family conflict, and additionally, what are the implications of expanded telecommuting arrangements for gender equality at work and in the households of parents with children?

On the one hand, telecommuting can ease work-family conflict by giving workers greater control over their schedules. Mothers of young children particularly value telecommuting, and flexible work has been linked to higher rates of maternal employment. Although mothers still do a great deal more housework and childcare than fathers, the amount of childcare done by fathers has increased almost threefold since the 1970s, and in 2019 fathers, on average, spent 55 minutes per day caring for children. Fathers also report that they would like to be spending more time with their children, so working from home could be a way for fathers to increase their share of housework and childcare. For many working couples, then, telecommuting may be an attractive and egalitarian strategy for managing the competing demands of work and family.

On the other hand, telecommuting can worsen rather than ameliorate gender inequalities in the home and in the labor market. Workplaces provide a barrier, both physical and psychological, between parents and demands to do additional childcare and housework. Social pressures to spend intensive time on child-rearing and on housework are much stronger for mothers than fathers, and once the separation from home life provided by workplaces is removed, this may lead mothers to increase the amount of household labor they do by more than fathers.

Early indications of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender inequality have been contradictory, with different surveys suggesting that gender gaps in household labor have either narrowed or widened, depending on whether the researchers focused on housework and childcare alone or included home schooling.

The data. We examine the links between telecommuting and gender inequality with data collected before and during the COVID-19 crisis: the 2003-2018 American Time Use Survey (ATUS, = 19,179) and the April and May 2020 COVID Impact Survey (N= 784). This allows us to report on gender differences in parents’ household labor and work contexts for parents working in the workplace, at home, and splitting their time between the two before the pandemic, as well as to assess the impact of telecommuting that was a direct response to the pandemic and has been taking place in the context of schools and child-care centers being shut down. We also use a subsample of regular telecommuters in ATUS (N = 339) to compare the behavior of mothers and fathers on days in the workplace and days working from home. The parents in this sample tend to be more similar in their work-related characteristics relative to a broader group that includes those who never work from home.

The results for pre-COVID-19 childcare: Telecommuting dads catch up with moms. In general, telecommuting parents put more time into household labor than do parents who work at a separate location. But prior to COVID-19, we found an interesting gender difference in what types of household labor individuals did more of when working from home, and this produced two diverging patterns in the division of total household labor. Under ordinary circumstances, telecommuting fathers increase the amount of childcare they do more than do telecommuting mothers. Looking at a subsample of mothers and fathers who all reported telecommuting some days for their job, we find that dads spent 67 more minutes caring for children on the days they worked exclusively from home than on the days they worked exclusively from the workplace. This increase in childcare time was 47 minutes larger than the average increase in childcare we find on days when mothers worked from home, and it appears to effectively close the gender gap in childcare hours (see Figure 1). By contrast, gender gaps in childcare were substantial for workers who mix their time at home and the office or who work only from the office. These results suggest that telecommuting can bring fathers closer to parity with mothers when it comes to childcare.

The results for pre-COVID-19 housework: Telecommuting moms, but not dads, do more. But for housework the opposite is true. Comparing mothers and fathers in the same sample as above, we find that on the days mothers worked from home, they increased their housework by 49 minutes. Fathers did no more housework on days when they worked from home than on days when they were absent from home while working. So when it comes to the division of housework, unlike the division of childcare, telecommuting may be associated with increased gender inequality.

The results for pre-COVID-19 work-family conflict: Children spend more than twice as much time in the presence of telecommuting moms when the moms are working than they do with dads. The issue is further complicated by the fact that people who work at home are sometimes in the presence of children even when they are not doing childcare but are working – or trying to work. This creates spillovers from the parental role into the employee role. When people are forced to juggle their attention between children and work, they experience a form of work-family conflict that is absent in work settings separate from the home – one that leaves parents unable to give either work or home life their full attention. This conflict is far more intense for telecommuting women than for their male counterparts.

In general, parents working from home report that their children are with them while they work far more than do parents in the workplace. But while telecommuting fathers reported children as present during work for 21 minutes per day, on average, on days they worked from home, mothers reported children present during work for 54 minutes per day, leaving a gender gap of 27 minutes (Figure 1). That this kind of work-family conflict disproportionately affects mothers may have downstream consequences for labor market gender inequalities, as the quality or productivity of working time may be lower for telecommuting mothers than fathers.

Figure 1: Gender Gaps in Household Labor by Work Location among Ever-Telecommuters

Why do moms do more? Our research doesn’t tell us why, exactly, telecommuting mothers do so much more housework. But we know that women often hold much stricter standards than men about the amount of laundering and daily cleaning that has to be done. While these may be “choices” made by the mother or the couple, they are often choices constrained by the tremendous pressures that women – especially married women – feel to “keep up appearances” in the home. Women also tend to feel much more pressure than men to live up to the ideals of intensive parenting. Whatever the reasons that telecommuting mothers spent more time on housework and were more likely to be interrupted by children while trying to work, the consequences seemed to counteract many of the advantages of telecommuting. Comparing the wellbeing of mothers working from home and a separate workplace before COVID-19, we find little evidence that telecommuting resolved work-family conflict: Telecommuting mothers were no happier, and no less stressed or tired, than mothers working from a workplace.

Implications? Assessing the implications of telecommuting for gender equality is especially complicated in the United States, where government support for working families is far less generous than that provided by other rich countries. Most localities do not provide free or subsidized childcare, and its unsubsidized cost is prohibitive for many families. In this context, telecommuting is a choice many parents make to solve a childcare problem. It may be the best choice in the circumstance, but it should be no surprise that making such a choice involves work-related tradeoffs, and that, given parenting norms, these tradeoffs are more severe for women. As an example, using a simple approach that assigns median earnings to average changes in work hours associated with housework, we estimate that the potential annual earnings mothers lose by devoting extra time to housework instead of wage-work is $660 for mothers who telecommute one day a week, and $2638 for mothers who telecommute four days a week.

These patterns suggest that even under circumstances where telecommuting is not a substitute for childcare or full-time school, it poses some threats to the long-term progress of gender equality, at least when engaged in by women. Given the intense socialization of women into not being able to ignore perceived demands of children and dust bunnies alike — and the outright shaming they often experience when they do ignore them — there may be some benefits to working outside the home for women. By contrast, given their socialization to be able to ignore the demands of children, there may be some benefits to working inside the home for men.

The results on working at home during the pandemic. The conditions of telecommuting imposed by COVID-19 are especially likely to increase gender inequalities in household labor and the labor market. The closure of schools and childcare facilities greatly increases childcare burdens on parents, with telecommuters now expected to educate their children alongside doing their day jobs, a job that has so far fallen most heavily on women. Overall, parents in the workplace report less depression than telecommuting parents. But the extra stress for telecommuting women is striking. Mothers telecommuting during April – May 2020 reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at significantly higher rates than telecommuting fathers, who unlike actually mothers experienced less anxiety when working from home. For parents in the workplace, we found no statistically significant gender differences in rates of stress and depression (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Subjective Well-Being During COVID-19 by Gender and Work Location

Implications, taking COVID-19 into account. Our findings on telecommuting both before and during the pandemic point to families’ –and society’s– urgent need for more government support for parents. Telecommuting has real benefits. It gives parents greater flexibility to structure their work, saves time commuting, and allows parents to spend more time with their children. And given COVID-19, telecommuting is surely the best option for parents at the moment. But when parents have to combine working from home with looking after children, it is easy for telecommuting to exacerbate gender inequalities in both formal and informal work. Even with fathers doing more, telecommuting with children detracts from mothers’ work environments and is associated with more stress. Subsidizing childcare, and, where possible, reopening schools in the fall would greatly reduce this tension. But until science suggests it is safe to do so, employers must be urged to rethink traditional measures of productivity and recognize the need for men as well as women to make the work adjustments they need to as they strive to cope with these unprecedented demands on their time and energy.



Childcare Measures

In our paper, we construct two different measures of parents looking after children. First, we create a measure of childcare that combines basic care activities of younger children (e.g., feeding, bathing) with activities relating to education (e.g., helping with a child’s homework or attending a PTA meeting) and health (e.g., sitting with a sick child) and associated travel of all children under 18. This measure captures time spent explicitly caring for children. Second, we construct a broader measure of all time parents spend with household children when they are actually doing tasks other than childcare. This broader measure captures time during which parents may be splitting their attention between looking after children and another activity. We use this measure to analyze the presence of children while parents are working. In our full paper, we also look at gendered differences in time with children by telecommuting, and we find results that are similar to our reported estimates of childcare (see paper Table 2).

Couple-level Dynamics and Same-Sex Partners

The American Time Use Survey collects information on all members of a household, including couples, but only records time use data, including childcare and housework, for one person per household. This means that we can examine how telecommuting parents’ behaviors differ based on their partners’ employment, and we find that telecommuting fathers particularly increase the amount of childcare they do when their partners work full time (more than 35 hours per week). But we do not have information on partners’ telecommuting, and thus cannot assess how parents react to their partner’s telecommuting. The number of telecommuters in our descriptive sample (788 parents telecommuting for full days) also prevents us from examining same-sex couples. Without such narrowly prescribed gender roles to fall back on, same-sex couples divide childcare and housework tasks more fairly than opposite-sex couples, and so we would expect their reaction to telecommuting to also differ. This could be a fruitful avenue for future research.

Thomas Lyttelton is PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale. Contact him at thomas.lyttelton@yale.edu . Emma Zang is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Yale; contact her at emma.zang@yale.edu.
Kelly Musick is Professor and Chair of Cornell Policy Analysis and Management and can be reached at musick@cornell.edu. 

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality-advisory/