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

Covid-19 and Romantic Relationships

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

Covid-19 and Children

Covid-19, Telecommuting, and Working from Home: 

Covid-19 and Family Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Reposted with permission from Psychology Today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1. Elements of Affirmative Consent

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

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

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

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Further Information

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


Brief report:
Press release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent is shaped by context

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

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

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

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

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

Consent in developmental context

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

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

Sexual assault is not one thing, it is many things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncomfortable reality

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

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

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

The synergy between “nice” and “easy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consensualish for men versus women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving face

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: You said you felt pressure to keep going?

Jeff: “Definitely.”

Interviewer: Was that from her?

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

Interviewer: Necessary?

Jeff: “Yeah.”

Interviewer: Why not stop it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: Would you say that sex was unwanted?

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

Interviewer: Consensual and wanted?

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

Interviewer: So you decided to have sex with him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie V. Ford is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University

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

AK: Why do men have affairs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alicia Walker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity and Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity. Follow her on twitter at @AliciaMWalker1. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology;

Brief report:
Press release: