Families as They Really Are

Even in the most affluent societies, many young people grow up in families that are poor and/or unstable in some way, and the evidence is clear that this experience can lead to behaviors that put their futures at risk. That risk, however, is not necessarily going to be same across societies, and figuring out where it is most and least pronounced is an important task for family researchers.

The U.S., as is often noted, has a much less generous social safety net for families and children than many other countries; less generous than Scandinavian countries, of course, but also compared to the other wealthy, English-speaking countries that it is often grouped with in the broad category of “liberal welfare regimes”. As a result, children who grow up in the U.S. are much more likely than their peers in these other countries to experience some key risks to positive development, such as family poverty and instability. There is just not enough protection for their families and communities, and so they are more likely to enter adolescence in dire straits. Indeed, based on research from a range of interdisciplinary scholars, including Timothy Smeeding, Jane Waldfogel, Barbara Bergman, and Patrick Heuveline, we know that kids in the U.S. are worse off, but is being worse off worse in the U.S.?

My students and colleagues in the U.S., U.K., and Canada have been trying to provide some answers to this question. This research reflects some key lessons of contemporary family and developmental research. Specifically, we are viewing family poverty and family structure not as single and static states but rather as a long-term pattern of continuity and change. We also are focusing on adolescence, a period in which complicated patterns of brain development, parent-child relations, and peer orientation lead to behaviors with heightened potential for harm. Doing so has revealed that, although the odds of growing up in poor and/or unstable families and engaging in adolescent risk-taking are both generally greater in the U.S., the link between these two things is not always stronger in the U.S.

For example, in a study that came out this year in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Michael Green, Haley Stritzel, Chelsea Smith Gonzalez, Frank Popham, and I compared longitudinal population datasets in the U.S. and U.K. to examine adolescent health and health behavior. We categorized young people in terms of their histories of family poverty since birth (e.g., early poverty only, persistent poverty, later downward mobility). The results clearly show that the accumulating experience of poverty over time is much more prevalent in the U.S., that this accumulating experience is associated with smoking and health limitations in both countries, but that this association does not really differ across countries.

As another example, in a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Chelsea Smith Gonzalez, Lisa Strohschein, and I compared longitudinal population datasets in the U.S. and Canada to examine teen pregnancy. We counted how much of girls’ lives since birth they had spent in poverty and how many family structure changes they had experienced.  Similar to the other study, the results clearly reveal more long-term exposure to poverty and instability in the U.S. and that such exposure is associated with greater odds of a girl getting pregnant as a teen. This study, however, also revealed a country-level difference in this association. In the U.S., prolonged experiences of family poverty and family structure were associated with teen pregnancy, but, in Canada, any experience of family poverty and family structure change was. In other words, there was a dosage effect of family poverty and instability in the former and a threshold effect in the latter.

To be clear, we are not saying that family poverty and instability do not matter to adolescent behavior. They do. We are also not saying that social policies do not protect young people from harm. They do. We are also not saying that the circumstances of young people in the U.S. are the same as those in the U.K. and Canada. They are not. What we are saying is that the ability of social policies to buffer against the risks of family poverty and instability—once they have arisen—is not as neatly straightforward as one might assume.

Our work represents the comparison of three relatively similar countries, only two family variables, and only three adolescent outcomes.  As such, it is just a drop in the expanding bucket of population research comparing family contexts of child and youth development across countries. There is more to know here. How is family poverty and instability experienced by young people across countries in which it is more or less normative? Which domains of adolescent development are most and least reactive to family disadvantages across countries? Are there differences in patterns for children, adolescents, and young adults? Expanding the comparison pool to countries with much more generous welfare regimes than the U.S. and much less economic development than the U.S. is also important. What we offer here, therefore, is encouragement to keep this conversation going.

Robert Crosnoe is the Rapoport Professor of Liberal Arts and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and President of the Society for Research on Adolescence.

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Reposted from Psychology Today 

Enough already. Aziz Ansari is not a rapist nor necessarily even a liar. Nor is “Grace” the woman who had the worst night of her life either a victim or a vixen. They are both casualties of our gender structure. Let me explain.

Most people think that gender is an identity, some authentic knowledge about the self. But identity is really only a small part of how gender structures our lives, our society. If we want to understand what happens in heterosexual hook ups, we have to understand the gendered meanings of the hook up culture. Every society has an economic structure, and so too every society, including ours, has a gender structure which has implications for our personalities, our expectations of others, our ideology about what should be, and our acceptance (or rejection) of sexual inequality.

Gender is part of how we define ourselves. Most of us are still raised to be good little boys and girls.  Good boys don’t cry, but they do get notches in their belts from peers for objectifying women, and pursing them sexually.   Girls are told they can be anything they want to be, you go girl, but when it comes to their bodies, they should accessorize fashionably and please men. Girls may ‘rule’ but they are still expected to be nice when doing so.  And of course, women remain the sexual gatekeepers, deciding when boys get that notch on their belt. There is strong evidence that gender gets inside us, that socialization helps create feminine girls and masculine boys.  Socialization shapes how we behave. Girls like “Grace” are taught to be nice, to be subtle and polite in their rejection of men, to give off non-verbal cues rather than causing a scene or using a four letter word. Boys learn that they are entitled to get what they want, but only if they go for it.  They are taught to tackle, to score. No one has to do anything to encourage women and men to behave this was as adults, gender is internalized into who we are.

But that’s only the beginning of the explanation for the he said/she said sexual drama, the overt and covert coercion that the #MeToo movement has illuminated. Gender isn’t only how femininity cripples women, nor how toxic masculinity empowers men. It is also the expectations we take for granted, when we interact, and the unconscious scripts that have problematic outcomes, including  during heterosexual casual sex. Erotic imagination in male-centric. Take this date in question.  The woman spent time discussing an outfit with friends; she is attempting to appear desirable. Aziz controlled the very existence of the encounter (doing the asking) and orchestrated it (choosing the wine, the restaurant, and paying the bill). Without conscious reflections, cultural expectations and scripts are followed: the man’s agency creates the date, the man is the sexual aggressor, the woman sought after, and paid for. This is still the lay of the land in 2018, the script that “Grace” describes of her evening with Aziz. Has he bought just dinner, or the expectation of sexual intercourse?

What men and women expect from one another is not just a part of their relationship, but part of a societal story  about sexual desire, desirability, nudity, and power. Does a woman who goes to a man’s home, undresses, and acquiesces to receiving  oral sex providing non-verbal cues that she intends to have penetrative sex? No woman should ever be pressured into any kind of sex. And yet, the narrative of heterosexual seduction at the core of our romantic myths includes  a reluctant woman won over by a persistent suitor. Pair that with the material wealth and status advantage most men have over their dates (and the super star quality of this particular man) and you get an explosive potion for coercion, under the cover of erotic play. And a prescription for male privilege: research shows clearly that men are far more likely to orgasm in a hook up then are their dates. Our heterosexual script has desirable women seduced by powerful, sexual men.  If you disagree, explain how the movie 50 shades of grey made such a fortune.

Sexual coercion, non-consensual sex, is always wrong. Any form of assault is a crime. And still, there are shades of grey, beyond 50, when women and men are confused by a changing gender structure. In today’s world everything is in flux. As my forthcoming book suggests, some young adults totally reject their socialization as feminine male-pleasing women and chauvinistic men and instead try to incorporate both masculinity and femininity into their personalities.  Others fully endorse a world where men are expected to be the pursuers of feminine woman.   Our gender structure is changing, but unevenly, and without any clear guidelines.  When it comes to casual hetero sex, gender is embedded in our own desires, our expectations for partners, and acceptance of cultural norms, and power differentials. And desire, expectations of acceptable norms may contradict one another.

Perhaps half way thru the encounter a woman decides she’s had enough, and doesn’t care any more about being desirable for a powerful man she does not desire.  She can, and should, dress and walk away. But her socialized internal gendered self, however, may scream: be nice.  And so she politely tries to indicate non-verbally, she’s not into it. He should get the hint.  But then again, his training for masculinity, toxic as it may have been, screams keep trying, that she’ll get into it eventually, if he is just seductive and persistent enough. She feels pressured, he becomes a predator. Neither plans on the transformation of a date into a #MeToo moment.

The only way out is to smash the gender structure entirely. Let’s stop arguing about whether she should have been more assertive (less girly) and walked away earlier, or whether he should have understood her signals.  It’s both/and not either/or.  Let’s stop raising masculine boys and feminine girls. Stop teaching girls to be nice, even to men who pressure them.  Stop raising boys who feel entitled to sex even if their partner is not enthusiastic. Let’s raise boys to have empathy for others, to cry when they feel pain.  Let’s raise good people, not women and men.  We must shatter gender stereotypes, including those about dating and sex. All people experience desire and arousal, seek orgasms, and love. No one should wait to be desired, nor be expected to give more then they get, whether sex or love.  Can this happen when men still hold the power outside of the bedroom? Probably not.  The male privilege deeply embedded in our gender structure must end everywhere: how we raise our children, what we expect from one another, and the distribution of power and prestige at work, in government, in Hollywood, including between the sheets.

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Will Meghan Markle be welcomed in the royal family? The recent wedding of Markle, a biracial woman of Black and White heritage, and Prince Harry, a White male member of the British royal family, marks a social milestone. More than fifty years out from the Supreme court decision that legalized interracial marriages across all 50 states in the U.S., this wedding has inspired a new conversation about racial inclusivity infusing “bicultural Blackness” within a traditionally white elite. The celebratory tone makes sense as mixed-race couples represent 17 percent of recently married couples in the United States. This increased demographic prominence also coincides with broad based approval. According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of millennials say they would be “fine with a family member’s marriage” to any racial group.

But is true acceptance solely being “fine” with a racially different in-law? While crossing racial lines has reached broad-based acceptance, do mixed-race families have access to the same supports from kin as their single-race peers? Families also routinely provide a range of vital resources, such as financial help, sharing residence, or child care.

The story on this front is considerably more complicated. A new short report, authored by myself and Ellen Whitehead and recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, reveals that White mothers of biracial infants are less likely than White mothers with White infants to report that they can rely on friends or family for help if needed. Interestingly, differences were not uncovered for either Black or Latina mothers.

How can interracial couples experience nearly universal acceptance and be more likely to perceive isolation from family resources? First, sociologists often note that approving of something in principle does not always translate into practice. This extends to interracial marriage, as sociologists Mary Campbell and Melissa Herman identify clear differences between Whites approval of interracial marriage and their likelihood of forming interracial relationships. Whites therefore may continue to hold, while not explicitly disclosing, negative attitudes toward interracial coupling.

Beyond, the broader context of race and class inequality needs to be more central to how we talk about and understand the dynamics of racial mixing. Differences in support between Whites with biracial and single race infants reveal the endurance of a white/non-white divide that can be found in nearly every social sphere – where we live, whom we call our friends, and where we go to school. How can interracial couples seamlessly traverse boundaries that remain intact?

In addition, race does not solely divide our associations, it also divides our access to resources, significantly influencing what families may be able to give. According to Pew, Blacks and Latinx families are more than twice as likely as Whites to be poor as of 2014. This broadly aligns with findings on absent resources. While a large share of White mothers of biracial infants reported having absent resources, their levels were quite close to perceptions reported by Black and Latina mothers, nearly 30 percent of whom report that family and friends could not help them in some way if needed. White women with white (single-race) infants were the most privileged, with only 10 percent reporting lack of support.

Experiences of interracial families lie at the nexus of race and class divides. While the expansion of mixed-race family formation signals the growing normalizing of interracial coupling, how families fare is more telling in how, or if, barriers are truly crossed.

Jenifer Bratter is a full professor of sociology at Rice University.  She is a sociologist and demographer whose research explores racial mixing and its implications for unequal racial outcomes.  She has recently published articles in Journal of Marriage and Family, Ethnicity and Health, Social Science Research, and Race and Social Problems. Email her at jbratter@rice.edu

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Re-posted from Education Week

The #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront what has been a long-standing concern for women across various communities: sexual harassment and, more broadly, gender inequality.

It’s critical that we implement sanctions against perpetrators of sexual harassment and that we increase men’s awareness of what is and is not acceptable. But this movement also highlights the need for thinking more seriously about how we teach children and teens about these issues.

Sexual harassment is not merely something that young people will need to contend with sometime in their distant future when they are adults in the workforce. Rather, it is something many of them, especially girls, are experiencing right now and right in their schools. Like it or not, schools are formally and informally communicating lessons to their students about expectations for men’s and women’s sexual conduct. Thus, we should look to education as a significant avenue to tackle sexual harassment and gender inequality.

In particular, we need to rethink what is typically referred to as “sex education.” First, we need to change the very word we use for it from “sex” education to “sexuality” education. This education must address not just “the birds and the bees,” but sexual harassment, including the ways in which it sometimes affects different groups of women and girls.

The conventional wisdom about sexuality education in schools is that there are two choices: an abstinence-only curriculum or a comprehensive curriculum that includes both abstinence and other topics, such as options for preventing pregnancy and protecting individuals from contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

While research has largely established that the latter approach is more effective than abstinence-only education in delaying sexual activity and reducing adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, comprehensive sexuality education would be even more effective if it were even more comprehensive.

One way to do this is to expand sexuality education curricula to incorporate lessons about sexual harassment and gender inequality. A 2011 nationally representative survey commissioned by the American Association of University Women found that nearly half of middle and high school students surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 academic year. Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed, but the problem was widespread across genders: 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys reported experiencing sexual harassment. This included in-person sexual harassment, such as unwelcome touching or sexual jokes, as well electronic sexual harassment, such as unsolicited pictures or videos.

I have encountered this high rate of sexual harassment in my own research as well. When interviewing Latina girls in Chicago on their sexual experiences, I heard repeated stories of boys groping them in the hallway or making sexual comments about their bodies in school.

Teachers and other school employees need better training in how to identify and stop sexual harassment. In her 2007 book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, sociologist C. J. Pascoe found that teachers frequently witness the harassment yet fail to do anything about it, or they may minimize the seriousness of the incident.

It is also important that school employees become aware of how unconscious racial biases may influence their perceptions of such incidents. Research shows that black and Latinx students face more disciplinary action and are assumed to be more adult-like and less innocent, and thus in less need of protection. Researchers, including Monique Morris and Jody Miller, have documented how school personnel routinely label black girls as “loud,” or “unladylike” when they are perceived to fail to conform to white, middle-class expectations of femininity.

Such research demonstrates how racial and gender stereotypes of girls of color can inform some school personnel’s understanding of their harassment. It can even lead educators to punish these girls’ attempts to protect themselves or to assume they provoked their own sexual harassment.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in schools also suggests that sexuality education should be made more comprehensive in terms of when it is taught. Instead of treating it as a discrete topic limited to health class, it should be incorporated into other aspects of school.

In rethinking sexuality education to address the issue of sexual harassment, for instance, schools need to think about dress-code policies. By focusing almost exclusively on girls’ attire, school officials often reinforce the sexual double standard that permits boys more freedom than girls, thereby reinforcing gender inequality. Instead, schools should concentrate on training school personnel and students on identifying, preventing, and addressing sexual harassment.

These lessons can also be incorporated into classroom discussion, where students could learn and dialogue about relevant topics in an age-appropriate manner. For instance, students can explore Title IX through history class assignments. Students’ familiarity with the federal law—which prohibits sex discrimination in educational activities and programs by institutions that receive federal funds—can empower them to demand gender equity in their schools, as well as in the larger society. Gender equity can also be examined in the social studies classroom, where teachers can facilitate student discussions of gender stereotypes in the media, for example. These types of classroom activities can also assist students in developing media-literacy skills, such as understanding how our engagement with media relates to social interactions.

Young people are already facing sexual harassment in their lives, including their schools. Why not help them take it on now in a more structured context? It’s time to start these conversations earlier, help youths recognize harassment, call it out, and demand that something be done about it. Maybe this can help us move in a more concerted effort to stop making sexual harassment and gender inequality a “normal” aspect of our culture. It’s gone on too long. It’s about time we figure it out.

Lorena Garcia is an associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a sociologist who studies the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race and the author of Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity (New York University Press, 2012).

On April 24, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services rang the death knell on work authorization for spouses of high-skilled immigrant workers. Under the direction of the White House, the USCIS conducted an audit of the H-1B guest worker program, specifically to see if it complies with the President’s Buy American, Hire American executive order. In a report submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the director of the USCIS proposed sweeping changes to the program, including removing regulations that would allow the spouses of H-1B workers to obtain work permits.

Despite being an established program for almost thirty years, the H-1B program has become a target for the current administration. The H-1B visa program first came into existence after the passage of the 1990 Immigration Act.  As the tech boom of the 1990s and rising fears about “Y2K” created a demand for technically-trained labor, U.S. companies began to seek workers from around the world.  The H-1B is given to workers in “specialized and complex” jobs. Typically issued for three to six years, the visa allows employers to hire foreign workers.

While the visa has always been classified as a “temporary nonimmigrant visa,” employers can sponsor the visa holders for permanent residency. The program also created the H-4 family reunification visa, which go overwhelmingly to the women spouses of workers. Children under the age of 21 years are also eligible for the H-4 visa.

The H-4 visa has real benefits for foreign workers, as it allows hundreds of thousands of family members to migrate to the U.S. along with the primary visa holder. Employers have supported the H-1B and H-4 visa, arguing that companies can bring the “best and brightest” to work in the U.S., particularly if they can also bring their families along. However, the visa also comes with restrictions: H-4 visa holders can’t work legally, apply for a social security number, or qualify for many federal education programs.

In my ethnographic study of H-1B and H-4 visa holders, I document the long-lasting negative impacts of these work restrictions on women’s careers, emotional health, and economic well-being. Many spouses of H-1B workers are also well educated and have advanced degrees, but after moving to the U.S., they become housewives. Their dependency creates other problems as well. In cases of domestic violence, H-4 visa holders have difficult leaving their partners without putting their own visas at risk.

There has been some relief for H-4 spouses who were already in the process of applying for their green cards. In 2015, the Obama administration issued an executive order that allowed H-4 visa holders employment authorization. But that authorization is contingent on the good standing of the primary H-1B visa holder. In other words, if their partner loses the H-1B, the spouse also loses her work authorization.

Even with this risk, the ability to work has provided welcome respite for tens of thousands of dependent spouses.  After spending years stuck at home, the chance to join the workforce is important both psychologically and economically vital. As my study and recent reports have shown, many families delay making major life choices or even having children until both partners are able to work. Having two incomes also offsets the high cost of living in regions where H-1B workers are concentrated. In addition, women’s participation in the workforce can translate into greater gender equity at home.

However, with this most recent report by the USCIS, we not only see a mandate to severely curtail the number of H-1B visas granted, but also to eliminate rights for their family members. As my research has shown, when immigrant women are given opportunities to become economically productive, they are more likely to stay in the U.S., and receive numerous other benefits. Ending the ability of immigrant spouses to work will undoubtedly reduce the amount of highly skilled workers willing to move to and stay in the U.S.

Amy Bhatt is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Contact her at abhatt@umbc.edu.

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50 years ago a student was expelled from Barnard College for living with her boyfriend. In March 1968 an article published in The New York Times discussed a young unmarried couple that was living together but not married, sparking a national scandal and debate about morality. It was quickly discovered that the woman in question was Linda LeClair, who was later expelled from Barnard College over the matter; this incident was later dubbed “The LeClair Affair.”

In the years after The LeClair Affair, premarital cohabitation became trendy, and by the early 1970s every women’s magazine had published articles about celebrities living with unmarried partners. Rates of cohabitation skyrocketed; in the late 1960s less than 7% of first marriages among young women aged 18-35 began in premarital cohabitation. By the early 1980s over 40% of first marriages in this group were among couples that lived together beforehand, and rates rose to nearly 70% in the early 2010s*.

In the 1980s concern grew over this increase and debate raged over whether cohabitation was the reason for a recent increase in divorce. Some said it was the type of people who cohabited that had a higher divorce rate because of their lower levels of financial preparedness, lesser religiosity, and higher likelihood of having divorced parents, while others argued it was the act of living together itself that caused couples to later divorce. More recently, research (including mine) has found cohabitation is not associated with a higher risk of divorce once factors like the ages at which they form their unions are taken into account, and that this is true even if couples have a child prior to marriage.

But even though it doesn’t cause divorce, there is still a problem with premarital cohabitation: as cohabitation went from new trend to the new normal, it has also increasingly been undertaken by those who don’t have the financial means to marry directly. Gaps in education between premarital cohabitors and couples that marry directly have been growing steadily since the 1970s. In 2010-2015, nearly 50% of young women marrying their first husband without living together first had a college degree; this rate was only 34% among women marrying after living together first*.

This growing gap positions cohabitation as a new facet of family inequality. Young adults want to pay down debt and become financially stable before entering marriage; this is an increasingly elusive goal, especially for those who do not complete a degree, so they enter cohabitation instead of marriage while waiting for more financial stability. Those with less education also are more likely to rush into cohabitation to make ends meet, some before they are ready, or with a less-than-ideal partner that a longer courtship would have revealed.

Today’s Linda LeClair wouldn’t be living with her boyfriend because it is trendy, but because she is up to her eyeballs in student loan debt, driving an Uber to survive, and struggling to establish herself in a career that could bring some stability and health insurance. After decades of disinvestment in public higher education by state governments, a minimum wage that has not kept pace with inflation, and an increasing number of young adults working in the “gig economy” that offers no stability and few benefits, it’s no wonder that young adults today have the highest rates of premarital cohabitation in U.S. history – and also have the lowest rates of marriage and childbearing. More affordable public higher education and more stable job opportunities that pay a living wage for young adults at all levels of education would allow more to shape their relationships according to their desires, instead of out of financial necessity.

*Numbers based on author’s analysis of the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (N=3594) and multiple waves of the National Survey of Family Growth (1995, 2002, 2006-2010, 2011-2015, N=9420), examining women who married between age 18 and 35.  

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg

We know quite a lot, statistically, about Millennials, the up and coming young adult generation. Those who are employed are more likely than any previous generation to have a college degree. And yet, they are also more likely to live with their parents for longer stretches as adults.  The Pew Research Center Fact Tank  shows that 15 percent of Millennials live at home between the ages of 25 and 35, far more than generations before them. Their moving home continued even as the unemployment rate decreased, although those without a college degree are far more likely to boomerang home to their parents than are their college educated peers. Millennials appear to be less likely to move around the country to follow job opportunities, perhaps because so many jobs no longer carry the wages and benefits that would justify relocation. One trend very clear is that Millennials are far more likely to lean Democratic than any other generation. These left-leaning college educated young adults, some slow to fly away from the nest, are now the largest generation in America. And among women, Millennials are most likely to see the advantages men have over women, over half of them think men have it easier, far more than any previous generation. And twice as many women than men report having been sexually harassed at work, making this younger generation as aware of women’s victimization as any other.   Their mothers’ feminism hardly ended women’s problems in the workforce.

This is what we know from nationally representative statistics. But I wanted to know more, particularly about how college educated Millennials, our future leaders, felt about gender politics, not only in the workforce but how they experienced sex-based opportunities and constraints in their own lives. My colleagues and students and I interviewed 116 Millennials. Our sample was minority majority, with most of the respondents having been raised in working class, many in immigrant households. Most were now in college or recent college graduates.  In addition to recruiting a sample with much race and ethnic diversity, we also recruited a gender diverse sample, including those who rejected the gender binary entirely (some of whom identify as genderqueer) and some transgender young people. We asked these people to tell us their life history, with a specific focus on their experiences where gender was particularly salient. In the process, we sought to explore whether this new generation will change the face of gender politics at home or at work.

The answer is both yes, and no.  We could identify no one-size-fits-all generational experience.  What we did find was a complicated gender structure that some Millennials endorsed, some resisted, others rebelled against, and that left many simply confused. America continues to be a society with incredible religious diversity, and in my interviews, I quickly noticed that the men and women who were proud of their being girly girls and tough guys, wanted others in their social networks to follow sex-based traditions, and endorsed world views where men and women should have different opportunities and constraints were often raised in literalist faiths where the religious text was taken as gospel, and not metaphorical.  These true believers in a traditional gender structure came from many faiths, Evangelical Christian, orthodox Jew, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim. What they shared was a belief that god intended men and women to be complementary, not with equal opportunities to all social roles. These were young adults following in their parents’ footsteps, conserving the past for the future. In our sample, we talked to many of these young traditionalists, but in a national sample, they would be a small minority.  Still, they exist and complicate any picture of Millennials as movers and shakers of tradition.

But then, of course, many Millennials are also critical of sexual inequality. In our research, we identified two different patterns among young people with these attitudes. Some are innovators who simply ignore and reject any rules that apply only to women or men. They are proud to integrate aspects of masculinity and femininity, toughness and caring, into their own identities, reject expectations that force them into sex-specific roles, and want women and men’s lives converge so that everyone has the rights and opportunity to share the work of caring for others, and earning a living. What seems new in this generation is that this feminism isn’t a women’s only movement. These innovators are men as well as women. But some of those we interviewed went far beyond simply rejecting sexism, they rejected gender categories themselves, particularly the way social norms require us to present our bodies. These rebels reject the need for the category of woman or man. Some use the language of genderqueer, others simply say they are between the binary. A few are comfortable with remaining women but present themselves so androgynously as to be commonly presumed to be male. All reject the notion that women and men need to carry their bodies differently, or dress distinctly. These rebels have a tough time in everyday life. If you do not fit easily into a gender binary, you find yourself an outsider everywhere you turn, with no obvious restroom, no clothing designed for your anatomy, and no box to check on many surveys. While people with these problems are no doubt a very small proportion of American Millennials, they are having a tremendous cultural and political impact, with both California and Oregon now allowing people to choose a gender category other than woman or man.  These new laws provide more accurate identifications for genderqueer Millennials, as well as for intersex people. Rebels may be small in number but are clearly re-shaping cultural ideas about gender identity.

Of course, many of the young adults we interviewed were not so easily categorized. I call them straddlers because they have one foot in traditionalism and one in gender criticism.  It’s hard to know if this inconsistency is a moment in the lifecycle or will characterize their adult lives. After all, being a young adult today is confusing, and psychologists have labeled this stage of life emerging adulthood.  It is indeed a long and winding road, according to Jeffrey Arnett, from the late teens through the twenties to arrive at an adult identity and lifestyle. Many of the young people we interviewed held inconsistent  their ideas about themselves, their expectations for others, and how society should operate. They are as confused, and as in transition, as is the gender structure itself.

Millennials are a diverse group. When it comes to the gender structure, I identified four categories, traditionals, innovators, rebels, and straddlers, of Millennials with very different orientations. Does nothing, then, make this generation distinctive? Yes, some patterns do indeed provide a generational marker that transcends their differences. All these Millennials talked of women as employed workers whether they were mothers or not. The belief that the world of work and politics is for men, and the hearth and home the sole province of women is a 20th Century memory that now sits in the dustbin of history. Even women that endorse more freedom for men than women expect and desire to spend most of their adult lives in the labor force. But beyond the changing expectations for women’s lives, my research suggests the most defining feature of Millennials is their gender and sexual libertarianism.  Whatever they choose for themselves, they have no desire to impose their choices on anyone else.  What this means for America is that as the Millennials become the largest voting block, they are unlikely to cast their ballots for laws that require anyone to become just like them when it comes to gender or sexuality. And in that way, the Millennials may just take us to a more open and society.

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in the UK.   She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.

What’s happening with kids today?  A few years ago, liberals were confidently–  and conservatives dejectedly– predicting that millennials were blurring traditional distinctions between the sexes both in the workplace and at home, operating on “the distinctive and historically unprecedented belief that there are no inherently male or female roles in society. While 55% of the youth vote went to Hillary, that is five percent  less than voted for Obama.  More important, over a third of Millennials voted for Donald Trump despite his having bragged about harassing women on tape.   The #MeToo movement’s amazing popularity, with the women involved chosen as 2017 Person of the Year at Time Magazine,  suggests that feminism has risen again.  Is this feminism a youth movement or still led by Millennials’ mothers? Are young people on board with today’s feminism?

Some sociologists are arguing that today’s young people may be getting more conservative when it comes to gender equality.  They  noticed that between 1994 and 2014 high school seniors had become more traditional in their ideas about how to organize family life and decision making in the home (Pepin and Cotter 2017). Another report  published by the Council for Contemporary Families (Fate Dixon 2017), showed that similar slippage  between 1994 and 2014 but only for young men. This led to a New York Times headline asking worriedly whether millennial men now wanted stay-at-home wives, and a WA Post oped assuring conservatives  that the rediscovery of “gender specialization” is a natural development that reflects the way most families actually work, replacing the egalitarian feminist vision of sharing caregiving and breadwinning responsibilities equally.

So what are the Millennials’ gender politics?  My colleagues and I examined the results of a nationally representative sample, the General Social Survey, which asks the same questions every year, allowing us to track tends over time analyzing data from 1977 to 2016. What stood out to us was the virtual collapse of support for the traditional notion that women are suited only for motherhood and homemaking and should be “protected” – or excluded — from the public sphere. Our analysis suggests that the major change in our society is that those who used to believe women belonged in the home and did not deserve equality at work no longer believe that (or at least they no longer admit to doing so on surveys).  But those people still do believe that mothers should be primarily responsible for children.

The most important division today is not between feminists who champion women’s right to do everything in the public sphere that men do and traditionalists who endorse men’s dominance in the world of work and politics, something supported by most Americans for more than 150 years. Today’s debate is between the minority of people who believe mothers are primarily responsible for children and those who wholeheartedly support the sharing of duties in both private as well as public life. Even the most conservative Republicans accepted Sarah Palin’s right to be a vice-presidential candidate, although they did not necessarily accept the feminist premise that marriage itself should be egalitarian and husbands should be equally responsible for the housework and child care.

Where the Millennials stand on these questions is still being debated.  In my forthcoming book (January 2018, Oxford University Press,)  Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A  New Generations Wrestles with the Gender Structure I argue that the Millennials are a generation with as divided gender politics as the rest of the country. In interviews with 116 Millennials, I found that gender stereotypes, and discrimination still shape their experiences. The fear of being stigmatized for  challenging gender stereotypes is still widespread, but far more among young men than women.  Nearly everyone felt the powerful constraint of gender stereotypes when it came to how display their bodies, from the clothes they wore to the mannerisms they used, to what they weighed and where they had muscle.

Beyond that similarity, there was great diversity in how Millennials wrestled with the gender structure. But that diversity wasn’t really based on the sex of whom I was talking too. Some were very traditional, both women and men, especially those who subscribed to literalist faith traditions. They supported different norms, opportunities and constraints for men and women as family members. Others were innovators, feminists in belief. They talked the talk, and walked the walk or claimed to.What makes these innovators different from 2nd wave feminists is that this does not seem to be a women’s movement, but rather a feminist one that includes men. Perhaps even more distinct, an emergent trend in this generation is a small but vocal group of young adults who reject gender entirely, refusing to “do gender” in how they present their bodies.  Some adopt a genderqueer identity, between the binary of man and woman, and dress accordingly. I interviewed several female-bodied, genderqueer Millennials who felt their female body dressed in male clothes became androgynous. Others mixed feminine and masculine styles, such as male bodied person donning high heels with his beard, or a female bodied person wearing combat boots and short cropped hair,   long earrings and a feminine lacy scarf. There is no accurate count of how many such rebels exist nationally, but a new study from the Williams Institute, a think tank within the UCLA school of law, found that a quarter of California youth were gender non-conforming.

The majority of the young people I interviewed, however, were somewhat unsure about what gender means for them today.  Their answers were full of inconsistencies, as full of chaos as the world they are trying to navigate. Girls today are told they can be anything they want to be, but still feel pressure to be thin, accessorized and attractive to men. Perhaps this paradox between freedom of career choice and continued expectation to be eye candy  helps to explain the continued sexual harassment they face.  Gender equality has meant opportunity, including the opportunity to remain an object for male gaze. Boys continue to be stigmatized for doing anything that even hints at femininity, from playing with dolls, to studying to be a nurse. And yet, those same boys are expected to be involved fathers and nurturing fathers. The result is much confusion of just who expects what, and why.

Millennials are as divided in their beliefs about gender as is the rest of America.   But while some Millennials may be ambivalent about how far to push the gender revolution, this is not your grandparents’ ambivalence. My data suggest one more commonality among this generation.  Whatever they want for their own lives, they are not interested in forcing other people into gendered boxes, or condemning them for choices that violate traditional beliefs about what males and females should do. They seem to have an unprecedented acceptance of the choices other people make to either meet or reject the constraints of gender expectations. What was very clear is that even Millennials who make traditional choices are unlikely to accept a political agenda that penalizes people who do not.

Barbara J. Risman is a College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.   She is currently a  2018 Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Durham University in the UK.

Our understandings of women’s sexuality is focused on love. We embrace the idea that women have sex when they’re in love, and when they are not in love they are disinterested in sexual activity. For women, the claim that they love someone validates their sexual behavior.

The women I spoke to while doing research for my recent book on women’s infidelity challenge this notion. These women approached cheating and their sex lives with pragmatism rather than sentimentality. The women spoke of vetting potential affair partners specifically to avoid emotional entanglements on the spectrum of “love.” They opted instead to seek out partners whose interest in an affair was purely sexual. Doing so permitted them to maintain appropriate boundaries that enabled them to keep their priorities aligned.

These women weren’t cheating to find a Prince Charming or a Mr. Right. They weren’t mate shopping, or looking for a love affair. They were looking for Mr. Now and Then. They were cheating to stay married.  So, their entire approach to vetting partners and designing their affairs was geared toward preserving their marriages and families.

Most of the women in the study–all of whom used the website Ashley Madison to seek out affairs–reported sexless marriages, or marriages in which the sex was orgasmless—at least for them. After enduring years of living in a sexual desert, the women made the decision to put up a profile online and seek out a like-minded partner. Many spoke of it as akin to finding a subcontractor, outsourcing a task to a temporary party. And that’s how they approached it. They weren’t looking for a permanent fixture in their lives. They were happy with their marriages with the exception of their sex lives. So, why replace the whole relationship when you can simply outsource the sex to someone whose sole purpose in your life is to provide sexual pleasure?

The appeal of Ashley Madison for these women was obvious. It is a site specifically for married people to find other married people for affairs. For a woman for whom the preservation of their marriage is their primary concern, a site like Ashley Madison is just another practical decision in her pragmatic approach to cheating. Rather than getting involved with someone in her social circle–a situation ripe for discovery–meeting someone online provided a level of protection for her “real life.” If she gets involved with a neighbor, for example, there are ample opportunities for shared social contacts to observe them interacting and pick up on subtle body language that could reveal their intimacy. But a partner met online is removed from her life. There is no risk of a casual neighborhood barbeque resulting in the upending of her marriage. Additionally, when the sexual relationship ends, the partner met online disappears from her life. No mess, no fuss. By contrast, the ending of a sexual affair with a neighbor means that man is still in her life, an ever-present threat of detection.

The vetting process involved frank and graphic discussions of compatibility. Rather than getting to know someone as a person before discovering their sexual preferences, skills, availability, size, or stamina was not well-matched, and then having to make a tough decision, the women opted to establish compatibility first. As one woman pointed out, “He can be a nice guy all day, but that doesn’t bring me to orgasm.” Thus, their process lacked sentimentality, and instead focused on skills and availability. The concept of their affair partners as subcontractors is evident here as well. When you are outsourcing a job, you hire solely based on how well the candidate can meet your job demands, and not based upon how much you like them. These women employed the same strategy.

With that same mindset, many women reported maintaining multiple affair partners simultaneously. As they pointed out, they had already learned from marriage that relying on one person to meet all of your needs was a recipe to be let down. So, they kept multiple affairs going at once to ensure their satisfaction was never dependent upon a single partner. They spoke of this candidly, referring to those men as a “roster,” “herd,” or “team.” They described their practice as “keeping the candy jar full.” There was nothing sentimental or sappy in their perceptions of their practices with regard to their participation in affairs.

Matter-of-factness punctuated these women’s affairs. Avoiding “love” in their affairs, partnering with men detached from their “real” lives, and matching only with compatible partners, these women focused solely on their mission, which was to have satisfying sex. These women’s experiences challenge our commonsense understandings of women’s sexuality and women’s infidelity. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our ideas about how women regard sex, how they partner, and how they manage sexual relationships that don’t meet their expectations.

Alicia M. Walker is an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, and the author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Follow her on Twitter at @AliciaMWalker1

Originally posted 5/14/2015 

Recent months have seen a dramatic increase in media and government attention to gender-based violence, particularly sexual assault. Unfortunately, that attention has largely focused on a relatively elite group of young women – those enrolled in 4-year colleges. Much of the discussion has focused on the prevalence of a so-called “rape culture” in such settings, characterized by widespread tolerance of sexual violence. This essay presents evidence that sexualized violence and tolerance of such violence are actually more prevalent among youths who are not enrolled in college. more...