Social Media “Untitled” by geralt licensed by Pixaby

Why did she wait so long to come forward? She should have known better. Why would she even trust him? She was asking for it.

Phrases like these boil down to victim-blaming, or the insistence on placing the responsibility for systemic societal issues on the individuals who are affected. These phrases become a way people understand sexual violence and interact with victim-survivors within a broader rape culture. Importantly, they can worsen the mental health effects for victim-survivors and keep women from coming forward to disclose their experience. Victim-blaming online is common, but much of the research examines the discourses of posts or the impersonal aspects, where strangers over the internet share their views. But what happens when young women read these phrases from family on social media?

In my recent article, I interviewed 33 young women college students about their negative online experiences. Rather than share stories of anonymous trolls targeting women with overt sexism, the young women I talked to more often described family being a primary source of mistreatment. In fact, I heard one example repeatedly: family members’ negative comments about women and women’s issues are frequent and incredibly frustrating. High-profile events surrounding sexual violence, especially in the wake of #MeToo, means young women are seeing lots of content and commentary from strangers, but also friends and family. Respondents shared how family members repost memes and other content that minimize the depth and scope of women’s mistreatment. Notably, they recalled seeing family members, including those they thought were generally more progressive, blame victim-survivors, make fun of children who were kidnapped and assaulted, and claim women who came forward about their assault were lying or simply looking for attention.

Social media has broadened our access to our family’s mundane life events but also their politics, and some family members can feel very comfortable extending their commentary and opinions onto their relatives’ social media posts. Many young women shared stories of family members directly commenting on their posts about feminist issues, such as the pink tax, domestic violence, and sexual violence to attempt to delegitimatize the post as “fake news” or otherwise misinformation. Some family members escalated the situation further, calling and texting young women to address their “political” post or demand the woman delete their post altogether.

While blocking someone seems like a straightforward strategy to avoid this type of interaction, the fact that this involves family complicates the situation. While women of color were most likely to call-out family members for harmful views, many respondents feared defending their posts too aggressively, and were hesitant to block family, since they would have to confront these very people when they went home. The strategy they chose as most useful was silence.

Silence here involves posting less often about social issues women cared about, which has larger democratic costs. But silence also extends to not disclosing their experiences of sexual violence. Victim-blaming and aggressive backlash to their own posts about sexual violence meant young women identified who they could not trust to believe or support them. Twenty-six women in the study had experienced sexual harassment on a selfie, but shared they did not share this with family because it was their fault for posting the picture. Ten women in the study had been raped by men they met online, including four women who were targeted from as young as the age of ten. Seeing their family victim-blame was part of what motivated these respondents to keep their sexual victimization to themselves. This was even true for women who were never assaulted, but nevertheless felt as though their family’s negative reactions to others’ disclosure was enough evidence that they would not have a support system in place.

When the primary advice for navigating harmful interactions online is “don’t feed the trolls,” silence in the forms of not responding to antagonizers or no longer posting at all become not only practical strategies to avoid further abuse, but also strategies that are institutionally encouraged. As my research points out, though, this silence can also extend to not disclosing sexual violence, which has real costs for women college students across race and sexual orientation. Women in college are at an extreme risk for sexual violence; disclosure after victimization can be the first step to recovery as well as seeking recourse. Yet young women’s disclosure is made significantly more difficult when their social media is saturated with victim-blaming narratives from news media, strangers, and family, and when their universities’ continue to have control over the pathway following survivors’ reports of sexual violence. As collective efforts continue to draw awareness to sexual violence, combat rape myths, and demand accountability online, we should be aware of the ways close family members contribute to repression.

Stephanie M. Ortiz (@SmoSaidSo) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UMass Lowell specializing in everyday racism and sexism.

Wedding rings. “Untitled” by Master Tux licensed by Pixaby

In a world that is progressively embracing diverse expressions of gender and sexuality, questions surrounding identity and relationships are becoming more intricate. Consider the following: If a man is dating a woman, what is the man’s sexuality? This question may trigger various assumptions in your mind. But let’s dive deeper into the dynamic interplay of identity, relationships, and societal norms, and challenge our conventional understanding.

The Spectrum of Identity

At first glance, it may seem obvious to assume that a man dating a woman is straight. However, as our understanding of gender and sexuality evolves, it’s essential to recognize that an individual’s sexuality cannot be neatly categorized based solely on their partner’s gender. Progressive views acknowledge that a man dating a woman could identify as bisexual, pansexual, or queer (bi+), encompassing a broader spectrum of attraction and orientation. This perspective challenges the traditional binary notions of straight and gay, and encourages us to appreciate the complexity of human identity.

Marriage and Identity

But what happens when we shift the context to marriage? Does the act of marrying someone influence how we perceive their sexuality? Despite society’s increasing acceptance of diverse relationships, marriage is often associated with a certain permanence that can overshadow an individual’s true identity. If a bisexual man marries a woman, does that automatically make him straight? Can a pansexual woman’s marriage to another woman define her as a lesbian? The answer, unequivocally, is no.

The Fallacy of Assumptions

As social beings, we tend to rely on assumptions that have been ingrained in our interactions and cultural norms. These assumptions are guided by a binary way of thinking about gender and sexuality, reinforced by a concept known as heteronormativity, which privileges and normalizes heterosexuality. This dichotomy fails to accommodate the expanding definitions of gender and sexuality, complicating our understanding of identity within the institution of marriage.

Navigating Bisexual Erasure

Coauthored with Meagan Pendleton, our recent publication “Doing Sexuality: How Married Bisexual, Queer, and Pansexual People Navigate Passing and Erasure,” delves into the experiences of bi+ individuals within marriages. By analyzing in-depth interviews with 23 bi+ married individuals, our study sheds light on the challenges faced by those who openly identify as bi+. The commitment of marriage sometimes reinforces binary perceptions of sexuality, leading to the erasure of bi+ identities. Morgan, a bisexual woman married to a man, explained:

I’ve gotten a lot of really awful questions that are like “Oh, so you’re married to Emanuel, so does that mean you’re straight?” I’ve gotten that so many times… I think that with the misconceptions about bi people not being able to make up their mind and all that, I think that when one of us ‘makes up our mind’ [laughs], or it seems like we’re making up our mind by getting married, right? I think the misconception that we’re now straight or we’re now gay depending on who you’re married to, it definitely is a little bit stronger because of marriage and commitment.

This erasure, perpetuated by misconceptions, marginalizes bi+ individuals and has detrimental effects on their mental well-being.

Marriage as a Privilege and a Challenge

Interestingly, our study also uncovers another facet of this complex narrative: the privilege of passing as straight. Many bi+ individuals in man/woman marriages shared how this arrangement grants them the choice of when to disclose their identity. Some saw this as a privilege, while others used it as a defense mechanism to protect themselves and their families from potential stigmatization. Nathan, a bisexual man married to a woman, explained:

I will tell you I am more out at work than I am where I live. Not because I personally have issues with it, but I have two high school aged boys that still have to get through a football locker room, and kids can be mean. So, I’m a little bit more protective of my orientation as it were … at least until such time as my boys graduate from high school, and then it’s all ok. Then at that point, it’s like, then I don’t care. But I’m being sensitive to how they might be treated by their friends if their friends knew. So, like I said, I’m more out here.

This dual experience of privilege and concealment highlights the intricate ways in which societal expectations and personal choices intertwine.

Challenging Perceptions and Doing Sexuality

Our study’s findings lead us to ponder the nature of sexuality as an achieved status, influenced by societal interactions and institutions like marriage. Just as West and Zimmerman’s concept of “doing gender” suggests, sexuality is intricately woven into how others perceive us, regardless of how we identify ourselves. To truly challenge the normative boundaries of marriage and the binary understanding of sexuality, bi+ individuals need visibility. This calls for outward expressions of queerness within marriages, thereby increasing awareness and understanding of diverse relationships.

Conclusion

As we strive for a more inclusive society, we must recognize the complexity of human identity and the challenges faced by bi+ individuals within the context of marriage. The intertwining of societal expectations, personal choices, and fluid identity necessitates a shift in how we perceive and interact with each other. By embracing the diverse tapestry of human experience, we move towards a future where the full spectrum of gender and sexuality can be celebrated, understood, and respected.

Daniel J. Bartholomay (he/him) (@Dr_Bartholomay) is an assistant professor of sociology and co-coordinator of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. His research examines inequalities, health disparities, and family dynamics within the LGBT+ community. He has a book under contract with Rowman & Littlefield titled The Future of Marriage: The Changing Landscape of Gender, Sexuality, and Family. You can learn more about Daniel’s work here.

Unpacking the Romantic Histories of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults

Queer couple kissing. “Untitled” by Artificial Artist licensed by Pixaby

Relationships of all types take work, but what we learned from interviews with lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) folks was how to create relationships that allow you to bring your whole self – and shedding the expectations and limits of others along the way.

Our study, Resilience through relationship experiences: A qualitative exploration of lesbian, gay, and bisexual romantic development arose from our curiosity about how lesbian, gay and bisexual people build relationships characterized by strengths in communication, intimacy, connection, and stability in spite of the negative health outcomes and discrimination they experience. We wanted to know: What happens in between those two realities? How, even when the cards stacked against you, do you find and keep meaningful, positive relationships? What do those “successful” relationships look like for LGB folks?

A Note About the Science

To answer these questions, we analyzed relationship history interviews from 10 LGB young adults. Ten may seem like small number, but our in-depth interviews provided nearly 17 hours of contact with participants. Researchers can gain a surprising amount of insight from a small number of people if we have rich data about their experiences. In this study, interviewees detailed every sexual and relationship experiences they could recall throughout their lives. This gave us enough information to analyze how romantic development might unfold for LGB folks.

In this type of research, we do not suggest that our findings generalize to the whole population, or even to all lesbian, gay, or bisexual people. However, when we find common threads across people’s lived experiences, we venture to say that what we see in the data may be meaningful. In this case, we found three themes that helped us understand romantic development for LGB people.

Concealment

We found that some LGB folks hid their early relationships from family and friends, and they did so primarily in two ways. We called the first type “concealment through silence,” which described how LGB participants avoided conversations about their same-gender partners or sexual identities. Specifically, folks paid close attention to negative messages about homosexuality that came through their religious and cultural communities. Remaining “silent” was a response to the feeling that it was risky to be openly LGB.

We defined the second type of concealment as “overemphasizing heteronormativity.” Participants hid their sexual identities and relationships by dating different-gender partners and “acting” straight to throw others off the idea that they were LGB. One participant described acting “boy crazy” as a teen when she started to suspect that she was attracted to women.

Concealment was not universal. A few folks didn’t have to hide their early relationships or identities at all. Those who had families and communities which were accepting and open-minded were able to grow up more openly in their sexual identities.

Conformity

Another strategy that LGB participants used to navigate early relationships was to try and blend in. The two ways we saw folks conforming in their relationships was through heteronormative conformity and homonormative conformity. Heteronormative conformity happened when participants followed the scripts and expectations that are common in heterosexual relationships. For example, in addition to seeking different-gender partnerships (which ultimately felt disappointing or incomplete for lesbian and gay folks), some participants felt pressure to legitimize their same-gender relationships by having big, traditional weddings.

Homonormative conformity usually happened in LGB folks’ early same-gender partnerships, as participants tried to figure out and follow expectations in the queer community. Some participants described falling into LGB stereotypes or going through the motions of a relationship according to what they thought same-gender relationships should be like. Bisexual participants recalled feeling pressure to conform to a “monosexual” identity (lesbian, gay, or straight) in order to fit in with either queer or heterosexual standards. Regardless of the kind of conformity, it typically did not lead to the most satisfying relationship experiences.

Authenticity

Even though most of our participants had experiences with concealment and/or conformity, nearly all of them managed to build relationships which were “authentic” meaning they were grounded in participants’ needs, boundaries, and hopes for the future. The people in our study were able to shed both hetero- and homonormative expectations of what relationships should look like to evoke queer resistance, confidence, and joy. For some participants, finding authentic relationships involved some growing pains: ending limited or constrained earlier relationships, engaging in self-reflection, and shifting priorities. Authentic relationships were a process, not an end goal, and were rooted in folks’ ability to self-define and direct their own relationships.

Conclusion

Being authentic in your relationships means directing the development of the relationship in line with your goals. Regardless of a person’s identities, authenticity seems worth pursuing, even if there are challenges along the way.

Mari Tarantino (she/her) is currently a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying Human Development and Family Science. Her research focuses on sexually and romantically marginalized individuals in partnerships and family contexts. Prior to starting her graduate career, Mari earned her BS in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire and minored in Queer Studies and Interdisciplinary Health Education. Her most recent work titled, “Queering LGB+ Women’s Sexual Scripts,” addresses how heteronormativity influences LGB+ women’s sexual partnerships and STI-pregnancy prevention efforts.

Twitter: @mari_tarantino

Tyler Jamison (she/her) is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her research focuses on romantic relationship development and dissolution during adolescence and emerging adulthood. Her most recent work explores singlehood in the context of romantic life and narratives of love in long-term relationships. She writes about love and relationships for Psychology Today on her blog page Assembly Required.

Twitter: @drtylerjamison

1.) What causes women to acquiesce in the workplace?

Cover of Glass Walls

Of the six gender bias barriers Dr. Leanne Dzubinski and I discuss in Glass Walls, acquiescence is the last. It may be a consequence of all the other barriers—male privilege, disproportionate constraints, insufficient support, devaluation, and hostility—that women experience at work. Instead of fighting a system that is setup for them to fail, women acquiesce. And it is a very rationale choice. No individual woman can win when fighting patriarchal work environments alone.  Acquiescence consists of work-life conflict, self-blame, self-silencing and self-limited aspirations. Each of these is often framed as individual women’s choices, such when a woman must figure out how to maintain her career with a new baby or when a woman chooses not to try for that big promotion. This framing leads to pressure on the woman to accept these inequities as justified and to find her own way to manage them. But they are actually derived from workplaces that are setup to retain male control and power. The cause is not a failing of an individual woman, it is the male-normed system.

2.) What are the top strategies for men to fight against gender bias?

The place for men to start is to learn about gender bias. Learn how to identify it. Then avoid behaviors that marginalize women. The next strategy is to call it out when you see it within your own workplace. For example, if you are in a meeting, and your female colleague is being “hepeated” (when a man repeats a woman’s idea and he gets the credit), redirect the conversation back to her and note that it was her idea: “Melanie just said that. Let’s hear more about what she thinks.” Keep in mind that women are often not in the room when bias or discrimination happens. If you are part of a hiring or promotional conversation, be sure to call out if women are being overlooked or held to different standards than male candidates. Like if a woman is considered “too young” for a certain position, ask if a man of the same age would be considered too young and redirect the conversation to the candidates’ skills. In Glass Walls, we offer lots more strategies for men to fight gender bias, whether those men are leaders or colleagues.

3.) What can women do to shatter the glass walls of their workplace?

Women should know that they are not responsible for fixing a male-normed system all on their own. As mentioned, it’s not a fight individual women can win. We all—leaders, allies, men, and women— have a role to play in shattering the glass walls of gender bias. And we all must work together to advance gender equity and inclusion. That said, there are some steps women can take to improve their own situation. First, women should depersonalize any bias they experience. This can be hard because bias often feels personal. But it is not. It is happening to so many of us women. Second, women should focus on building a support network of individuals inside and outside their organization.  This quote from one of my dissertation participants is so true: “It is really important that you have a group of people that you can talk to, get advice from, believe in, understand, and who understand you.”  Third, be persistent. Recognize that there will be roadblocks. Not everything comes easily. Changes may be small and seem slow but that is often how progress is made. Perhaps you had a conversation with a male colleague who regularly talks over you, and you helped him understand how his behavior keeps you from doing your job. If your colleague was receptive to your feedback, consider that a win. Last, have alternatives. Some workplaces are just plain toxic, and the only good solution is to leave your role. Think about your options, like a new role in a different department, a job in a new organization, or even working for yourself. There are lots of jobs, lots of opportunities. Make positive change where you can in your present workplace, but don’t let one person or workplace block your personal fulfillment and advancement.

Amy Diehl is the Chief Information Officer at Wilson College, a Gender Equity Researcher, and author of Glass Walls: Shattering the Six Gender Bias Barriers Still Holding Women Back at Work https://amy-diehl.com Follow Amy on Twitter @amydiehl

Chalk drawing of school. “Untitled” by stux licensed by Pixaby

When the parents of young children picture their elementary school experience, they likely recall their parent dropping them off inside their classroom, maybe even parents joining students for lunch or volunteering on the playground. As children, parents were unlikely to experience the kinds of security typical in elementary schools today. Stringent visitor policies, cameras, and locked doors are increasingly typical in elementary schools, as schools react to concerns about school shootings or other threats to students. One particularly striking difference is in the placement of law enforcement in school, most commonly called school resource officers or SROs. In 1997, only 3% of elementary schools had an SRO but over a third of elementary schools had an SRO by 2016. Some reports indicate SROs could be even more popular after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in 2022.

Having not experienced having an SRO in elementary school and potentially never attending a school with an SRO, parents are likely confused about what SROs are doing in their children’s elementary schools. After all, young children are unlikely to engage in the kinds of behavior that SROs manage in high schools (e.g., drug use) and some behaviors that are unlawful for adolescents are considered more age-appropriate behavior to be managed by teachers in elementary (e.g., physical fights). Even if parents assume SROs are in school to prevent school shootings, these incidents are much less common in elementary schools.

We set out to answer this question about the activities and impacts of SROs in elementary schools in a research project with two school districts that placed SROs in all elementary schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. In some ways, our answer to this question was simple, yet surprising: SROs are doing everything and touching seemingly all aspects of the school (published version here, accepted version here).

Keep in mind, SROs are highly trained and well-compensated members of law enforcement. While they might technically be there to focus on security, there are few security threats to address and almost no law enforcement activities to be done in elementary schools. So, SROs have time and want to be helpful. Teachers and school staff are infamously pressed for time, constantly feeling like they cannot get everything done that they need to. Most principals and assistant principals we spoke with are thrilled that the SRO has time to help.

We observed SROs taking on many activities that were seemingly innocuous like delivering messages to classrooms from the office, helping children out of cars during drop off in the morning, or reminding students to walk in the hallway. However, we also found some concerning trends in surveys we distributed to students, parents, teachers, assistant principals, principals, and SROs. First, SROs were more enthusiastic about their positive effect on students than the students themselves. SROs all reported that they made students feel much safer at school while students were more neutral on this question, and SROs were more likely than students to see themselves as students’ mentors and confidants. Second, SROs downplayed their involvement in student discipline – responding that they did not handle student behavior or disciplinary incidents. But teachers reported that they did observe SROs taking part in student discipline.

Why do we care if SROs are really involved in elementary schools while overstating their positive influence and downplaying their role in student discipline? First, high quality research that identifies the impact of SROs in secondary schools has found they increase exclusionary punishments like suspension, particularly for students who identify racially as Black. Suspensions can have tremendously negative implications for youth academically and behaviorally including lower grades and higher likelihood of incarceration. The idea that SROs can have particularly negative effects on students of color should alarm any parent committed to racial equity and having a welcoming school environment for all students.

Second, SROs are typically placed in schools to prevent shootings, but we have no evidence that SROs successfully do so. In fact, research suggests that SROs do not lower the risk of gun violence, at best, and potentially exacerbate the risk of school shootings. SROs all carry firearms, potentially leading any potential shooter to target schools with SROs (e.g., if the shooter is suicidal, which most school shooters are) or come more heavily armed, a phenomenon known as the weapons effect. Even discounting the negative evidence on SROs, they are very expensive. If schools really just need an extra set of hands, then it is more cost effective to hire another staff member to help with those tasks the SRO is picking up in their (ample) free time.

So, what are members of law enforcement doing when they are stationed at elementary schools? Potentially, a great deal, with some principals and assistant principals we talked to going as far as saying the SROs are like a “third administrator” in their school. While principals likely appreciate that SROs are helping out in a time-strapped environment, we have little reason to believe students are benefitting from this arrangement, and students of color (particularly Black students) especially stand to be disadvantaged by an SRO being at their school. Our research encourages parents and community members to be skeptical whenever an SRO or principal advocates for the continued presence of SROs in elementary schools.

Samantha Viano is an Assistant Professor of Education at George Mason University. Her research critically examines endemic challenges in PreK-12 schools and the policies schools adopt in response including research on school safety and security, teacher mobility, and online credit recovery. You can learn more about her research at her website www.samanthaviano.com and follow her on Twitter @DrSamViano or Bluesky @drsamviano.bsky.social

Single mom. “Untitled” by geralt licensed by Pixaby

As a young child in the early 1990s, my family had all the markers of a middle-class lifestyle.  Even though neither of my parents had a bachelor’s degree, my father had a good job as an operator at the local power plant, we lived in the suburbs in a new development, and my mother stayed home with my sister and me.  However, that all changed when I was eight years old and my parents divorced.  As in most cases, my mother took primary custody and moved us back to her hometown in rural North Carolina.  Even with help from family members and checks from my father, we struggled.  After nearly a decade out of the labor force and technologically illiterate, good jobs were hard to come by for my mom.  Using Pell grants, she went back to school, excelling in community college while cleaning houses part-time. However, when the time came to transfer to a regional university, an hour away, the commute and technological divide became too much, and she dropped out after only a few weeks. 

My family’s experiences with single motherhood are far from unique.  It has been well documented that living in a single mother household substantially increases the likelihood of being poor.  In the United States, 46.7% of children in single mother households were poor in 2019.  Yet, this is not just an American issue.  In practically all Western democracies, children in single mother households are more likely to be poor than children living with two parents.  At the same time, this risk of poverty has changed over time and varies across countries.  In particular, I wondered what more could have been done to help women like my mother and children like me. 

This is exactly the question investigated in my recent article.  Certainly, I am not the first to consider why single mother families are so prone to poverty and what can be done to address it.  However, previous research has typically focused on only one, or maybe two, possible explanations.  These include family characteristics, such as whether single motherhood is caused by divorce, death, or never getting married, and work characteristics, including whether single mothers are working and whether she is working part- or full-time.  When it comes to macro-level factors, economic conditions have been of interest, building on the classic expectation that a rising tide lifts all boats, as well as social policy generosity, looking at the provision of maternity leave or government provided childcare.  In my research, I bring together and test all four.   

In my analyses, I do not find much support for the economic arguments; a stronger economy is not necessarily the best way to address poverty for children of single mothers.  When it comes to family characteristics, relative to having a mother who has never been married, having a divorced mother means a slightly smaller chance of poverty, while having a widowed mother means the lowest chance of poverty among the three groups. But if the goal is to find solutions, these findings do not provide much help.  Certainly, a policy that recommends your husband dying in lieu of divorce is not advisable or ethical, nor is one that encourages marrying to divorce instead of remaining unmarried. 

Work characteristics affect poverty in ways most would expect: working full-time and having a high level of education is best.  Unfortunately, this is not a practical expectation for single mothers, particularly in the United States.  As illustrated by my own anecdotal experience and as demonstrated by previous research, going back to school and/or working full-time is not possible for many single mothers.  Childcare is expensive, higher education is demanding, and the persistence of the motherhood penalty, in which mothers experience labor market discrimination, means the types of jobs available to single mothers may still not be enough to lift them out of poverty.

Policy solutions, however, are tangible and effective.  The most impactful policy solution I find is family allowances.  The more a country spends on family allowances, the bigger the effect on child poverty.  This proves true not just for children in single mother households but also for children living with two parents. If a country increases its spending one standard deviation, the chances of poverty for the typical child in a poor single mother household go down 10 percentage points.  Rather than a 50/50 chance of poverty, she would have a 40% chance.  As mentioned, children in two parent families would also benefit from this spending, but children of single mothers benefit more.   While not completely eliminating the single mother penalty, spending on child allowances can substantially reduce it, bringing the poverty gap to around 6 percentage points at the highest levels of spending.

This evidence gives substantial support for the potential of government spending on family allowances to address the high levels of poverty among children of single mothers.  Similarly, this spending would benefit not just children in single mother households, but in two parent households as well.  However, particularly in the United States, cash benefits, especially for the poor and able-bodied has not been popular.  Therefore, implementation of such policies may encounter resistance.  Yet, it is my hope that given this evidence and the fact that family allowances have the potential to benefit many children, those in positions of influence can push to improve the lives of children and families.   

Amie Bostic is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.  Her research focuses on social policy, poverty, and public opinion.  You can find her other recent publications here, here, and here.  She is on Twitter @amie_bostic.

Siblings. “Untitled” by La Petite Femme licensed by Pixaby

Amidst the backdrop of the pandemic, a profound realization swept over young kids like a gentle breeze—a newfound appreciation for the invaluable presence of an older sibling. They witnessed firsthand the blessings bestowed upon them by having a constant companion, a guiding mentor, and a steadfast pillar of support. Indeed, older siblings donned a myriad of roles in their younger counterparts’ lives—playmate, confidant, friend, and even a guardian angel when times grew tough. The realm of research has delved deep into the captivating realm of sibling dynamics, particularly exploring the phenomenon known as sibling spillover effects on educational attainment. Within this vibrant tapestry of literature, a resounding chorus emerges, heralding the remarkable influence that older siblings wield in shaping the educational journey and holistic development of their younger counterparts.

In our new study, we explore the sibling spillover effects within elementary and middle school levels, as well as the disparities between socially disadvantaged and advantaged families. To conduct this analysis, we utilize administrative data encompassing all children born between 1988 and 2004, who were enrolled in public schools in North Carolina. Our focus lies in comparing younger siblings who share similar individual and family characteristics related to academic performance, with the exception of divergent academic achievements observed in their older siblings.

Here’s what we discovered: older siblings who are born just after the school-entry cutoff date tend to be the oldest students in their classes. This means they have a little extra time before starting school, giving them an advantage in terms of their development and learning. As a result, these older siblings often perform better academically.

But here’s something fascinating: When older siblings do well in school, it actually helps their younger siblings do better too, especially when they reach middle school. And this effect is even stronger in families that face challenges. For example, we found that this positive impact is greater in non-Hispanic Black families compared to non-Hispanic White families. It’s also more pronounced in single-mother families compared to families with both parents, and for students attending schools with higher levels of poverty compared to those in schools with lower poverty levels. There are a few reasons why this happens.

First, older siblings can be role models for their younger siblings. They can inspire them to work hard and take their education seriously. When younger siblings see their older siblings doing well in school, it motivates them to do the same.

Second, positive attitudes towards education can be contagious within a family. When older siblings have a positive mindset and show enthusiasm for learning, it can rub off on their younger siblings. This creates an environment where everyone values education and strives to do their best.

Lastly, parents often make investment decisions that promote equality among their children. They want all their children to have an equal chance at success. So, when they see that an older sibling is excelling academically, they may provide extra support and resources to help the younger siblings achieve similar success.

Now let’s talk about the magnitudes of these effects we found. We found that around 23% of the test score gains of older siblings born shortly after the school-entry cutoff date actually spilled over to benefit the academic performance of their younger siblings during middle school. What’s truly remarkable is that the impact of sibling spillover we observed is comparable to about 6% of the performance gap between Black and White students in the United States. When looking at the various factors that contribute to the connection between test scores among siblings, such as genetics and shared family background, our findings suggest that sibling spillover effects account for approximately one-third of these connections.

Sixth grade marks the crucial transition between elementary to middle school, and guess what? It’s during this time that the sibling spillover effects really kick into high gear! Think about it: as students move into middle school, everything changes. New classmates, new teachers, and a whole new atmosphere. And guess who’s right there by their side, making a significant impact? Their older siblings! This transition period turns out to be a goldmine for sibling influence. The effects of older siblings on their younger counterparts’ academic performance reach their peak during this time. It’s like a power surge of support and inspiration flowing from the older sibling to their younger sibling, propelling them forward.

What all these findings mean? The positive effects of older siblings on their younger counterparts during middle school can have long-term implications for their future success. Disadvantaged families, who often face economic hardships, may experience negative effects that spill over from older to younger siblings. To address this, it is crucial to provide robust support systems for disadvantaged families in the United States, ensuring they have access to necessary resources.

However, there is also a silver lining. When parents and society invest in the educational attainment of the older sibling, it can have a positive ripple effect on the academic performance of the younger sibling. This means that efforts to support and enhance the education of older siblings can indirectly benefit their younger siblings, especially in Black families, single-parent households, and low-income families. By recognizing and investing in these opportunities, we can promote educational equity and empower families to break the cycle of disadvantage.

Emma Zang, Ph.D., is assistant professor of sociology, biostatistics, and global affairs at Yale University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of health and aging, family demography, and inequality. She is also interested in developing and evaluating statistical methods to model trajectories and life transitions. Her research has been covered by major media outlets in the United States, China, South Korea, India, and Singapore, such as CNN, NBC, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, ThePaper.cn (China), and the Straits Times (Singapore). Twitter: @DrEmmaZang.

LGBT puzzle pieces. “Untitled” by Myriams-Fotos licensed by Pixaby

One dominant belief about what it means to be transgender is that transgender people do not have joyful relationships with their families. This can be true for some trans people. As Tomás, a Latinx trans man, told us, “Stuff with my familyis fucked up. My brothers won’t speak to me. My parents have disowned me.”

However, this is just one of many experiences that transgender people can have with family. For example, of the 27,715 respondents to the U.S. Transgender Survey, 60% of those who were out to the family they grew up with reported “that their family was supportive of them as a transgender person.”  There can also be joys in being a transgender parent.

We interviewed a diverse group of 40 transgender people and asked them, “What do you find joyful about being transgender?” As we detail in our recent article in Social Problems, the most common theme that people mentioned when asked about trans joy – the joy of being transgender – was “connection with others.”

Counter to common narratives about trans people, many folks we spoke with mentioned family as a source of joy, particularly families they have created. Several interviewees discussed how their families of origin had not supported them being transgender. However, that form of family rejection made space for them to create new kinds of families with friends and partners who loved them for who they are. Moreover, they attributed the ability to meaningfully connect with others to their trans identity, stating that they now had a loving, supportive chosen family because they are transgender, rather than despite being trans. As Ben, a white trans man, explained:

Sources of joy? I don’t know, I kind of feel like a lot of my life is a source of joy. I was really lucky; if I hadn’t come out to my parents at a young age, I wouldn’t have met these amazing people who are now my family. And there’s so many people that I’ve met because of my experiences. I would definitely say the people I have gotten to interact with are my never-ending source of joy (laughs). I am so appreciative that I have gotten to meet so many of the people in my life, and I wouldn’t have met any of these people without this aspect of my identity.

Julian, a Latinx genderqueer person, had a similar experience, saying:

Things feel good when I feel like I’m in a community where I can make sense. Having room to move around and play with gender is really fun. And, kindness, looking out for people, and almost like family. That shows up in a lot of queer community and I have access to that, which I wouldn’t if I didn’t have this experience.

As Ben, Julian, and other trans people we spoke with revealed, being transgender was a source of connection with others, rather than a deterrent to feelings of kinship and togetherness.

Social connections offer access to vital resources, better health outcomes, and social support. Traditionally, scholarship on marginalized groups has focused on how discrimination hinders these valuable connections with others, particularly for groups like transgender and LGBQ+ people whose families of origin do not usually share their identities. 

Due to the tendency to focus on exclusion and discrimination, scholars, activists, and the general population often fail to observe how being from a stigmatized group is a source of joy and can facilitate connection, including through gaining membership to a community with those who share your identity. Though focusing on “joy” may seem frivolous to some, it is actually a vital form of resistance to oppression.

Although many of our interviewees described feeling alone when first coming out as transgender, the majority shared that the story of coming out does not end in social isolation. 70% explicitly mentioned connections with others as one of the joys of being trans. Thus, rather than resulting in exclusion, being transgender helped them connect with others, bringing them joy. Moreover, that connection often felt like family to them.

Bailey, a white gender fluid person, told us about how some members of the eco-activist community they were part of rejected them when they came out as trans. However, after leaving that group, a friend introduced them to trans community. They explained how that community:

Have come to feel like…family? That word is so much and can be so violent. But they are like my family and have supported me in ways that my former activist community never could. And never did. So I find joy in having this community who has brought me in and fed my soul and helped remind me that I am cared for.

For Bailey, although coming out as trans meant rejection from one community, it also facilitated a closer connection with a group of people who nurtured and supported them for who they were.

Chloe, a white transgender woman, echoed this, saying:

I find generally in trans communities more acceptance and like I have to do less explaining….I just feel like a kinship and like a family. Like the people who are in my chosen family have pretty much been gender variant or trans so yeah, that’s where I’ve ended up and where I feel good so that’s the joy.

Thus, even if being part of a marginalized group may reduce access to some sources of love and support, such as from one’s family of origin, it can provide access to others. As the people we spoke with revealed, rather than reducing joy, being transgender facilitated tremendous amounts of joy, including through the creation of chosen families and communities. It is vital to highlight these aspects of trans life, since trans joy is key to resisting oppression.

Author bios:

Laurel Westbrook (@LaurelWestbr00k) is a Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. They are the author of Unlivable Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism. Stef M. Shuster (@stefshuster) is an Assistant Professor in Lyman Briggs College and Sociology at Michigan State University. They are the author of Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender.

Person with an open book in a library. Untitled by geralt licensed by Pixaby

As societies become increasingly divided by socioeconomic fault lines, how do we learn about the lives of others? My new research sets out to learn how young Americans growing up in a country defined by inequality and segregation learn about their unequal society. I investigate this question in the context of college. School, more than any other institution today, provides the context for children’s cognitive, social and moral development, for its presence in children’s lives across the Western world is sustained, durable, and compulsory.

I theorize that (young) people learn important lessons about inequality in their society from the economic and racial homogeneity or heterogeneity of their neighborhood, school, and workplace context. I conceive of a process of institutional inference whereby people draw from experience and available information to develop an understanding of inequality. Socializing institutions like college shape this process by providing a durable context to young adults’ interactions with others in this crucial developmental stage.

Through their recruitment and admission practices, colleges determine the exclusivity and heterogeneity of the context in which students learn important lessons about social and racial inequality in the US. In doing so, they shape the development of students’ inequality beliefs by exposing them to a certain type and range of information, but not to their counterfactuals. Through their institution, a person may gain access to experiential evidence and to narratives about the meritocratic and structural causes of inequality that lie outside their own biography.

Crucially, racial and socioeconomic diversity provides students with information indicative of the structural sources of inequality in their society, i.e., how race and family background may help or hinder social mobility. A college environment with minimal diversity keeps this kind of information from students and does not provide counterevidence to the dominant meritocratic view of society.

To empirically test my theoretical framework, I traced the inequality beliefs of ten cohorts of US college students between 1998 and 2010, totaling 141,597 college students across 436 residential four-year colleges in the US. To describe change in students’ beliefs, I compared student’s responses to a survey taken before they start college, typically at freshman orientation, and an exit survey taken by those same students in the spring semester of senior year, four years later. 

So, do students believe America is a meritocracy, and that racial discrimination is a thing of the past? I find that most freshmen believe in meritocracy, but they also acknowledge racial inequalities. By senior year, about half of students have held on to their beliefs, whereas some 20% have grown more convinced that theirs is a meritocratic society, and 30% now see their society as structurally unequal, meaning that inequalities reflect an unfair playing field.

To study why students change their beliefs in one or the other direction, I consider three features of the college context, being: (1) the ethnic and racial background of their roommates, and the degree of (2) racial and (3) socioeconomic diversity in the student body of their college.

My research reveals that having a roommate from a different racial or ethnic group is associated with students developing a less meritocratic understanding of America. Black and Hispanic students, especially, lose faith in meritocracy, and Asian students come to see more racial inequality.

Ironically, white students are less affected by their roommate than non-white students. This asymmetric impact of experiences with diversity may be illustrative of people’s higher attentiveness to personal disadvantages than those facing others. To the students involved, a particular experience may reveal both privilege and disadvantage, but another person’s privilege is easier to recognize than one’s own – especially, it would seem, for white students. Let’s also acknowledge that what may constitute an eye-opening experience for some, can be a draining and psychologically costly confrontation for another.

Another finding speaks to the broader college context: The effect of having a roommate from a different race or ethnicity is strongest at places that lack socioeconomic and racial diversity, such as colleges with a majority white student body or schools where the lion’s share of students have college-educated parents. That is, diversity experiences matter most where they are least likely to take place.

My findings suggest that the college context deeply shapes students’ view of inequality. Historically, colleges have had the mission to educate young citizens (‘tomorrow’s leaders’) about their country’s past and present, the democratic process, and their part in it. They have the potential, more generally, to broaden students’ perspectives and increase intergroup understanding. Currently, however, a majority of students receives only limited exposure to socioeconomic and racial heterogeneity, both directly and in the campus environment.

For many students, then, increasing diversity in the overall population is met with social isolation in the microcosm of higher education. With little exposure to diversity, adolescents grow up to develop a naïve understanding of American meritocracy in a country that is increasingly divided along racial and economic lines. For these students, the college experience undermines rather than serves the civic and integrative role of higher education.

College, then, reinforces inequality in two ways: (1) credentials increase the economic gap between graduates and the 70% of Americans without a degree, and (2) when colleges lack diversity, tomorrow’s educational elite learns to legitimize the growing gap as meritocratically deserved.

More exposure to diversity creates conditions under which students can develop an awareness of the structural processes shaping inequality. Be it through purposeful roommate pairing, inclusive admission policies, or affirmative recruitment efforts, a college environment that better reflects our diverse population would impact the perspective of 20+ million students currently in college and, with it, public opinion and national politics.

Jonathan J.B. Mijs (@JonathanMijs) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. You can learn more about his work at www.jonathanmijs.com [url: https://www.jonathanmijs.com].

Book cover of Forbidden Intimacies

In many countries across the globe, polygynous marriages—one man married to more than wife—exist outside the threshold of legality and tolerance. Reality television has brought the question of polygamy’s criminality into the homes of millions of viewers. The best-known is Sister Wives, which began airing in 2010 and documents the life of Kody Brown, his wives—Robyn, Meri, Janelle, and Christine, and their 18 children. Shortly after its debut, police in Lehi, Utah, announced opening an investigation into possible felony charges of bigamy, carrying at that time a possible penalty of twenty years in prison for Kody and up to five years for each wife. In a dramatic final episode of the second season the Brown family fled Utah, moving to Nevada for fear of being charged. People magazine quotes Meri, Kody’s first wife, stating that she views polygamy as “basic human rights, civil rights.”

While some see living in polygamy as a right, others argue that it is a harmful and violent patriarchal family structure that must be criminalized. Awa Ba began an organization—End Polygamy [En finir avec la polygamie]—in France after her sister was subjected to it. For her, forbidding polygamy is necessary to fight the extreme violence that it represents. These opposing ways of understanding polygamy have shaped how governments seek to regulate it. My book, Forbidden Intimacies: Polygamies at the Limits of Western Tolerance, takes a comparative deep dive into the mismatch between what I found to be the existence of polygamies and the ways that governments regulate them as a singular, harmful structure. From 2010 to 2016, I conducted ethnographic research, conducting 145 interviews with 165 participants, to understand how polygamies are lived and how regulation impacts these families in the United States, Canada, France, and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean.

Polygamy is a multidimensional phenomenon, and there is no single reason why it persists even in contexts of illegality. Being a deeply rooted sociocultural practice for some, and being permitted or required in some religions, certainly contributes to its persistence. Still, it is rare globally. According to a Pew Research Center report, roughly 2 percent of the global population lives in polygamous families. It is banned in every country in North and South America. In the United States and Canada, the most visible population is Mormon fundamentalists such as the Brown family, with an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 individuals, living mainly in Utah. In France, polygamy is tied to colonialism and migratory patterns from West Africa in which workers from former colonies brought over multiple wives in large numbers in the 1970s and onwards. An estimated 200,000 individuals live in polygynous households in France. Mayotte became France’s 101st department in 2011 making its inhabitants French citizens. Its traditional practice of polygamy among its Muslim African population has been progressively banned since 2005.

One reason polygamy is forbidden is the problematic way that it puts power into the hands of a patriarch who can exploit his wives. While this kind of power dynamic certainly exists, my research finds that the way that polygamies are lived depends on social context. For example, some polygamies are homegrown, emerging out of the cultures and societies in which they are rooted, and others migratory, being transported into a new national context. The ways that emotions are structured and experienced in polygynous relationships also shape how they are lived. My concept of labyrinthine love helps us understand how types of love, jealousy, and commitment blend together to making some families workable and others not. For some families, there is little love and jealousy leads to violence between wives and sometimes between wives and children. Abdou, the son of a second wife who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, expressed: “In Senegal, we call the other wife my mother’s rival, because for her, she was a rival. So, she took care of me because she had no choice. I was in the house, but she didn’t take care of me [like a mother would].” In other cases where the family works well together, women benefit from having sister wives where they can share working outside the home and household tasks. In Utah, Julie married as a second wife at age 18. She told me: “You come up with your insecure feelings, or your jealous feelings, or your . . . But, in the long run, when it is all said and done, I absolutely love living with Oliver and Ellie. I love sharing our lives together. Love sharing our children.” For families that work well together, jealousy is often dealt with head on.

While polygynous families flourish or self-destruct, governments struggle to regulate them, generally participating in racial projects that define a racialized other based on the specter of polygamy. As the title of the book suggests, governments ban polygamy because it exists at the limits of “western” tolerance. Regulation often pushes these families underground and makes women and children even more vulnerable. A good example is France, where most of the families living in polygynous households have migrated from former colonies. In 1993 the Pasqua law banned living in a polygynous household, and the French government sought to implement a policy where men must “decohabit”—live with only one wife—or lose their ten-year residence permit. One woman I interviewed who worked extensively with these families explained the serious consequences of this policy: “They are obliged to lie, they are obliged to hide, they are obliged to say this, to say that, but none of it is true!” If the goal is to aid women and children in these families, banning polygamy often has the opposite effect.

Forbidden Intimacies is about how intimacy, as a feature of all important relationships, is shaped by what is determined to be intolerable. The book takes the reader on a journey to understand the ways that polygyny becomes antithetical to intimacy itself.

Melanie Heath (@DrMelanieHeath) is Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the politics of transformations in gender, sexuality, and family.