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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single mom. “Untitled” by geralt licensed by Pixaby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author bios:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book cover of Forbidden Intimacies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pregnant belly with baby booties. “Untitled” by Marjonhorn licensed by Pixaby

A healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby are the primary goals of most parents choosing to have a child. While parents may take many steps, such as using prenatal vitamins or quitting drinking alcohol or smoking, some factors influence pregnancy outcomes beyond their control.

I was awarded a large NIH grant to study how structural stigma, that is, the way that stigma and discrimination are codified into laws and policies, influence the maternal and infant health of sexual minority women (e.g., women who identify as bisexual/lesbian/queer or have same-sex attractions or relationships [SMW]). Sexual minority populations are more likely to experience discrimination at multiple levels compared to heterosexual populations, and several studies have linked stress to adverse maternal and fetal health. Little research, however, has examined how stress and the social environment may impact the obstetrical and perinatal health of SMW.

Much of the prior research focused on women in same-sex relationships accessing assisted reproductive technologies to conceive. While important, these studies systematically exclude SMW in romantic relationships with men (i.e. bisexual women partnered with men), SMW who are single, and SMW who become pregnant through sex with a male partner. In fact, my research has found that SMW, including lesbian-identified women, are more likely to describe their pregnancies as “unwanted” than heterosexual women.

In a first-of-its-kind study using nationally representative data, we documented that SMW were more likely to have preterm and low birthweight infants. We were unable, however, to identify the mechanisms that led to these worse outcomes among SMW. This finding led us to use the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a longitudinal, probability-based US survey of middle and high school students that began in 1993 and 1994 and has followed the same students for over twenty years. Using this longitudinal data, we were able to document several disparities in perinatal and obstetrical risk factors by sexual orientation, including preconception health behaviors. These differences, however, did not explain why SMW were more likely to report preterm and lower birthweight infants.

 One factor, however, proved to be critical to pregnant SMW and their babies: the number of state policies that provide protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) persons. The policies we examined included same-sex marriage or civil union protections, anti-LGB discrimination policies, legal same-sex adoption, and banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Indeed, state policies were so powerful in shaping SMW’s birth outcomes that in states with three or more of these policies, SMW had even better birth outcomes than their heterosexual peers despite higher rates of reporting key risk factors for adverse birth outcomes. The policies we examined included same-sex marriage or civil union protections, anti-LGB discrimination policies, legal same-sex adoption, and banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. We found that these policies also were associated with a lower risk of maternal hypertension, particularly for Black SMW. This finding is in line with other research that has suggested that policies that ensure equal protection for persons based on their sexual orientation may disproportionately benefit sexual minorities of color.

The results from these studies come at a critical time when the rights of women and LGBTQ populations are under attack. A record number of laws have been introduced to undermine the progress made by LGBTQ activists and introduce new forms of discrimination that ban or reduce access to health care and multiple other forms of social and economic resources. Similarly, the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons is also under unprecedented attack; the 50-year precedent of Roe v Wade was repealed in June 2022, and many bills have been introduced to restrict access in states where abortion remains legal. With colleagues, I have argued that attacks on LGTBQ populations and reproductive rights are rooted in the same ideology that seeks to maintain a system that privileges men and heterosexuality and punishes those who challenge traditional gender and sexuality-based norms. We created a measure incorporating these two forms of discrimination (structural sexism and structural LGB stigma) into a single construct called “structural heteropatriarchy.” We showed that women who live in states and counties with higher levels of structural heteropatriarchy were more likely to have preterm and low birthweight infants, even if they identified as heterosexual.

In sum, this set of studies shows that the political and social environment in which an individual lives can undermine many of the efforts pregnant people may take to ensure a healthy pregnancy. However, the results also show that policy changes can dramatically improve maternal and infant health. Moreover, these policies do not necessarily need to target pregnant people per se, but increasing the number of civil rights and social resources individuals can access may improve maternal and infant health while also likely benefitting non-pregnant citizens. That is, living in environments that foster safety and inclusion, and support an individual’s right to choose if, when, and how they become a parent, can lead to improved population health, improved maternal and infant health, and ultimately healthier future generations.

Bethany Everett is Associate Professor of Sociology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah and an affiliate of the Center for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research at Columbia University. She completed her PhD at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an NIH Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Fellowship while she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago from 2012-2015. She has published over 75 peer-reviewed articles and is currently PI of an NICHD-funded R01 study on sexual orientation disparities in maternal, infant, and child health and her work focuses on the social determinants of health, particularly in the area of orientation and sexual and reproductive health. Follow her on Twitter @bethanygeverett

Sexual satisfaction proves important for individual well-being and the well-being of relationships. Relationships where one or both partners are sexually dissatisfied can face many problems and can lead to marital dissatisfaction. Research finds an association between relationship satisfaction and better quality of life and better parent-child relationships.

In our recent study, Dr. Walker interviewed adults over the phone and email to investigate what components people needed to consider sex great. She interviewed 78 adults of various ages and sexual orientations and asked about what makes sexual experiences great and good, and what separates great sexual experiences from good sexual experiences.

We found three primary themes for what makes sex great: orgasm, emotional connection, and chemistry or connection.

The majority of people said that they, their partners, or both needed to orgasm during sex for a sexual experience to be great. Whether folks said they or their partner needed to orgasm varied by gender. Some women placed importance on their own orgasm. This is most likely related to the orgasm gap (the phenomenon where women orgasm less than men in heterosexual sexual encounters, and when women have sex with men they orgasm less than when they have sex with women). Men tended to care more about their partner’s orgasm; this could be because men report their partner’s orgasm as sexually satisfying. Some men and women said that both parties need to orgasm during sex for it to be great. This reflects popular media depictions of orgasms and great sex, where both partners collapse in simultaneous pleasure.

Emotional connection proved an important component for great sex as well, but “emotion” was not always code for “love.” Most people specifically explained that an emotional component during sex did not have to be love, or even romantic. Emotional connection can mean trust, affection, or even comfort. Only a few participants said the emotion must be love for great sexual experiences. Unlike other research which found women more likely to place importance on love during sex, an equal number of men and women spoke of its importance. However, gender differences existed. Echoing previous studies, some women spoke of an emotional connection being more important than physical sensations, while other women wanted both emotion and orgasm. Some even told us that emotional intimacy increased their likelihood of orgasming.

Finally, people said that great sex required chemistry or connection. Respondents mentioned both physical and emotional aspects of sex when they spoke about chemistry and connection. Sexual chemistry often proves hard to define, and our participants struggled to define it as well. However, people agreed that people cannot manufacture chemistry; they said couples either have it or they don’t. Participants made clear that chemistry is out of your control, and you cannot choose with whom you do or don’t have chemistry. Chemistry often allowed for better emotional and physical intimacy between partners. People said chemistry helped them to build affection and trust in their partners, and that good sexual chemistry often led to orgasms.

Participants made clear the importance of orgasms, emotional connection, and chemistry for sexual encounters to transcend from a good experience to great. Learning the components of great sex helps us all improve our sex lives, which improves our happiness, well-being, and relationships. What does great sex mean to you?

Alicia M. Walker is an Associate 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. Her work focuses on intimate sexual relationships, sexual identity and behavior, and gender. She specializes in closeted sexual behavior. Follow her on Twitter @AliciaMWalker1.

Audrey Lutmer is a Sociology PhD student at Georgia State University. She studies gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual behavior. She is most interested in how sexuality affects gender expression. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyLutmer

Person standing in front of a Zoom call screen. “Untitled” by Alexandra Koch Licensed by Pixaby

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on mental health for individuals and families across the country, with recent analysis finding more than four in ten U.S. adults have endured high levels of psychological distress at some point during the pandemic. Because of structural inequalities, some groups have been harder hit than others. One group that has experienced disproportionately large drops in emotional well-being during COVID is LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minority) people. Even before the pandemic, LGBTQ+ adults—particularly Black, Latinx, and multiracial LGBTQ+ people—faced structural discrimination and day-to-day mistreatment that strained well-being at work and elsewhere

How have pandemic-related changes to paid work affected LGBTQ+ well-being outcomes? As the pandemic took hold, many people had to work in-person amid new risks to their health and finances, while others, typically more advantaged workers, found themselves working from home in a world of Zoom meetings. Past research suggests working from home could be protective for LGBTQ+ workers’ well-being, if working remotely from a supportive home environment means less exposure to stressors like workplace microaggressions. On the other hand, the blurred work/home border of remote work could also be harmful for well-being. For example, it could increase stress for those who try to guard against mistreatment by keeping a strict separation between work and home life, such as by not talking about a same-gender partner at work

With prior research pointing in inconclusive directions, we asked: how has work location mattered for the well-being of LGBTQ+ adults since the onset of the pandemic?

To investigate this question, we worked with a team of other researchers to analyze survey and time diary data (reports of how, where, and with whom respondents spent their time for a 24-hour day) from the Assessing the Social Consequences of COVID-19 Study, collected online between April 2020 and July 2021. We looked at respondents’ “experienced well-being”—in other words, how someone reports they are feeling minute-to-minute—while they were working. We compared whether experienced well-being while doing paid work was different for LGBTQ+ workers and cisgender heterosexual (i.e., non-LGBTQ+) workers, and whether well-being differed across work locations.

As described in our recent article published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, we found that work location did indeed make a difference for well-being, especially for LGBTQ+ respondents. LGBTQ+ adults felt more stressed and tired while working in a workplace compared to while working from home (Figure 1). While non-LGBTQ+ adults were also less stressed while working at home, work location had a smaller impact on their stress level and almost no impact on their tiredness level. Working in-person at a workplace during the pandemic appeared to be more harmful to LGBTQ+ individuals’ experienced well-being, compared to that of their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.

Figure 1. Predicted means of LGBTQ workers’ and non-LGBTQ workers’ feelings of stress and tiredness by work location (N=7,650 work episodes across 3,515 respondents).

Notes: Results are predicted means from random effects models. * p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001.

We also investigated what kinds of factors might help account for the gaps we observed in stress and tiredness between LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ adults across work locations. For example, does adjusting for work characteristics, socioeconomic factors, or family characteristics help explain the results?

We found that work characteristics—like total time working that day, duration of each work episode, and whether or not respondents found interactions with their co-workers to be exhausting—played an important role. Collectively, work characteristics explained about 35 percent of the stress gap and 24 percent of the tiredness gap. When working in-person at a workplace, the duration of work episodes (i.e., how many minutes someone is working at one time) tended to be longer for LGBTQ+ workers than non-LGBTQ+ workers, whereas the reverse was true among people working from home.

It could be that LGBTQ+ adults working in-person during COVID are more often in jobs with strict schedules and limited control over work pace, meaning they are not able to take a break when feeling stressed or tired. This would be consistent with other analyses showing that LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in some face-to-face service positions like restaurant-based jobs.

Another factor that may be contributing to the stress and tiredness gaps across work location for LGBTQ+ adults is greater exposure to workplace microaggressions related to sexual and gender identity, race/ethnicity, and other statuses. In our survey data, LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts to characterize interacting with co-workers as frequently exhausting. It is possible that working from home is helping to buffer some of the “minority stress” LGBTQ+ individuals too often face at work.

LGBTQ+ adults are, of course, far from a homogenous group. Strains on well-being while working may be compounded for multiply-marginalized LGBTQ+ adults who are also subject to racial discrimination, mistreatment based on disability status, or other forms of bias and exclusion at work. An important limitation of the study is the relatively small survey sample size. This restricted our ability to fully examine well-being experiences separately across sexual and gender minority groups (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minority identities), and intersections with racial/ethnic identities. However, comparing descriptive well-being reports using four broad groups (LGBTQ+ respondents of color, LGBTQ+ white respondents, non-LGBTQ+ respondents of color, and non-LGBTQ+ white respondents) indicated that although working in-person was linked to higher stress for all LGBTQ+ adults, this was especially so for LGBTQ+ adults racialized as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, multiracial, or another race/ethnicity compared to LGBTQ+ adults racialized as white. In light of emerging research indicating there may be differences in working-from-home experiences across racialized groups, a deeper dive into how structural racism, heterosexism, cisnormativity, and other forms of inequality may jointly influence well-being experiences across work locations is warranted.

For many workers, remote work in some form is here to stay. A more complex understanding of how work location may impact well-being—particularly for individuals not traditionally centered in research on work, family, and health—will be critical to supporting the emotional well-being of marginalized workers both today and in the future.

Layne Amerikaner (@LayneAmerikaner) and Hope Xu Yan (@HopeYanxu) are doctoral candidates in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. You can read more about Amerikaner’s research here and about Yan’s research here. The study described in this blog post was published in Social Science & Medicine in April 2023. The study was authored by Layne Amerikaner, Hope Xu Yan (equal first authorship), Liana C. Sayer, Long Doan, Jessica N. Fish, Kelsey J. Drotning, and R. Gordon Rinderknecht.  

Parents and children. “Untitled” by 460273 Licensed by Pixaby

Many of us can easily identify which child in our families has kept our parents up the most at night—for example, the one who experimented with drugs early in life, suffered a concerningly long “bad luck streak” at the casino, or has been in trouble with the law. Research shows that older parents often experience more disappointment, strain, or complicated emotions in their relationships to their adult children with these sorts of problems. However, there is also some evidence that adult children who reform their deviant behavior are more likely to become their mothers’ favored child.

To build on this research, my collaborators (Marissa Rurka, Jill Suitor, Megan Gilligan, Karl Pillemer, Liam Mohebbi, and Nicholas Mundell) and I examined the reasons why adult children’s behavioral reforms are associated with changes in older mothers’ favoritism. More simply, we wanted to know how and why former “problem children” become “prodigal children” in their mothers’ eyes. To answer this question, we used qualitative interview data from the Within-Family Differences Study (WFDS). The WFDS contains interviews with older mothers (ages 65-75 at the first interview) and their adult children (interviewed separately) at two different timepoints, seven years apart. This dataset was well suited to help answer our research question because it is the same data that originally produced evidence (mentioned above) of the link between adult children’s behavioral reforms and their mothers’ newfound favoritism.

The WFDS measured deviance by asking mothers whether any of their children had experienced trouble with drugs, alcohol, or the law in recent years. Favoritism was assessed by asking mothers to which child they felt most emotionally close. Mothers were encouraged to explain their answers to closed-ended questions like these throughout the interview, thus providing qualitative data for our investigation.

We focused our main analysis on the 20 families that contained a “prodigal child”—a child who was considered deviant and not favored at the first interview, but was no longer deviant, and was favored at the second interview (seven years later). Our analysis revealed two reasons why these children’s behavioral reforms were related to newfound favoritism by their mothers: perceptions of familism and perceptions of need.

First, as they reformed their behaviors, mothers grew to see these children as more dedicated to their families of origin, and often their mothers specifically. The same children described as having a “mind of [their] own” at the first interview grew to be seen by their mothers as “very family-oriented,” “always checking on me,” or “a little mother to me” by the later interview. This pattern was especially clear in families that also contained a deviant child who did not reform their behavior..

For example, Faye had two daughters who were both deviant at Faye’s first interview—both had experienced teen pregnancies, drug issues, and moved away with romantic partners whom Faye felt were poor choices. Describing Kristen, the younger of the two, Faye said, “I don’t think her life is going, well, the way a mother wants for her children.” However, by Faye’s later interview, Kristen recovered from her substance abuse issues and repaired her bond with her mother by moving back nearby and involving Faye in her granddaughter’s life. In contrast to the new warmth Faye felt from Kristen, Faye felt like her older daughter Mary had fully “alienated” her by her later interview and had abandoned her family commitments due to her still ongoing drinking problem. Describing her disapproval, Faye said, “[Mary] decided she wanted to…be on her own. She thought, ‘well, I’m going out drinking again,’ and disrupted her [family], and now she’s getting [divorced]…Nothing to be proud of.” Faye’s remarks about Mary highlight how deviant behavior can weaken family bonds and negatively impact older mothers’ impressions of a child. Meanwhile, Faye’s relationship to Kristen helps us see why an adult child who reforms their behavior and strengthens their family commitments in the process can bring mothers particularly great joy.

The second pattern that emerged from our analysis was these children’s need for their mothers’ support. Mothers often saw their prodigal children as both needing and appreciating their support in ways that their other children, who they saw as more “on their own,” had outgrown. Feeling like their help and support played a role in their children’s positive changes made them feel like good mothers and created an emotional bond.

For example, when describing the substance abuse issues her son Joey experienced in early adulthood, Dorothy acknowledged “Joey was straying back then,” but became upbeat as she explained the closeness that came as a result of his behavioral reform, saying “He had some problems in the past and he came out of them with our help. And he’s been great ever since. He just shows his gratitude a lot…He shows that he came out of it very well.” If children did not change their behaviors, their ongoing need for help could be depleting, rather than affirming to mothers. But, as Dorothy described, if children “came out of it well,” their changes could be viewed as gestures of gratitude for their mothers. This dynamic allowed mothers to feel that their guiding role in their children’s lives was necessary and valuable, which fostered feelings of favoritism, particularly during a life stage when some had begun to feel like their other children’s need for their guidance and advice was lessening.

Taken together, our findings suggest that even children who engaged in behaviors that their mothers found troubling can become Mom’s Favorite in adulthood. Simply stopping the troubling behaviors may not be a surefire path to favoritism, but if disengaging from these behaviors is coupled with strengthening your commitments to family and showing your mother that you need (and appreciate!) her support, then there is a good chance that you might just become a Prodigal Child.

The full text of our article, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, can be found here.

Reilly Kincaid is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University. Her research focuses on parenting, gender, social psychology, family relationships across the life-course, and work-family issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @ReillyKincaid.