BR: You introduce the term “genetic strangers.”  Can you define it for us, and explain how the families you studied embodied the term?

RH: We use the term ‘genetic strangers’ to describe people who share genes but who do not know one other … or even that the other exists.  Genetic strangers are not relatives until a relationship is created.  In fact, the core of the book is about whether and how strangers become relatives … and what happens to the meaning of family as a result.

In Random Families we refer to “donors, donor siblings and their families as ‘genetic strangers’ as a way to bind together something that usually connotes familiarity with something that symbolizes the opposite.”  In the conventional heteronormative view, there is nothing more intimate than blood ties (i.e., shared genes). As single mothers and two-mom families joined the ranks of heterosexual parents who needed gametes to create a baby, those gametes often came from commercial sperm banks.  The rise in markets for sperm and/or eggs means that more children share half their DNA with strangers.

The donor sibling networks we discuss in Random Families are modern strangers in a modern world — a world in which we interact with people we do not know well and may never have met before.  Think about the Internet, especially Facebook groups or our own FB page that often includes people with whom we do not share space or time. The internet extends our acceptance of strangers whom we believe can provide us with a sense of connectedness or belonging, information and perhaps even intimacy. Donor sibling networks are a special case of people who may have randomly purchased the same donor; and after finding each other they might try to turn that strangeness into some form of kinship.

BR:  According to your evidence, there are distinct eras in the history of the emergence of families connected by donor siblings.  Can you identify these eras and how the experience of creating familial networks differs between them?

RH: Those are important questions because they point again to the distinction between stranger and relative.  The first successful pregnancy with donor sperm began nearly six decades ago. But because donors were anonymous it didn’t make sense to talk about networks, even if multiple offspring were probably created in the earliest days.  It wasn’t until much later that this made sense, particularly with the rise of the internet, which increased the availability of information and made it much easier for people to connect by means of Facebook and web sites such as and 23andme, for example.

That’s why we distinguish different eras in donor-conceived networks based on the kind of genetic information available and by the ease of access to that information.

The first era of donor-conceived networks begins in the 1980s with lesbian couples and single mothers (straight or queer) who pioneered the formation of these families by using smaller commercial sperm banks in two important hubs – San Francisco and Boston.  In contrast to the anonymous sperm marketed by the large, often national, sperm banks, these smaller banks offered identity-release donors.  The parents felt that nurture – how they raised their children – would trump nature. They told their child he or she had a “father” whom they could meet when they turned 18.  If at age 18 children wanted to connect, they could ask the bank to relay that desire to the donor.  Surprisingly, it was usually the donor who fostered connections between their various offspring as they came forward.  The child almost always expanded family to include these new relatives and conventional terms, such as father and brother/sister were also likely to be used. The donor was a good guy who kept his promise and arrived to meet his genetic offspring. The offspring met as a sort of afterthought.

The second era begins in the 1990s with parents who purchased anonymous donor sperm only to have anonymity stripped away with the growth of the internet and online networks.  These nuclear families fully expected to raise their children with disclosures about the sperm donors, but they expected that family lineage would come from the parent(s) and not through paternal (donor) kin. The growth of the internet and the ease with which people could access internet sites changed all of this. Registries emerged as independent sites and then banks offered these registries as opt-in features. Parents (for the most part mothers) were startled to learn about this possibility to connect with other families who shared their child’s genes.  Parents would register and usually they did not discuss their decision to do this with their children. They wanted to check out these strangers who lived all over the country before telling their children. Once parents were satisfied, they told their children they had “half siblings.” Children were surprised. Sometimes these relationships moved offline to a face-to-face meeting and sometimes the children became close to these new siblings.  Counting these networks as extended kin took time as these unscripted relationships slowly developed.  Parents might have orchestrated those first “reunions” when children were adolescents or teens. In the book we compare two networks from this era. Both have anonymous donors; but the donor in one network decides to reveal his identity which represents a likely possibility. Moreover, the kids in these two networks react differently to meeting their donor siblings. As these networks expanded, intimacy between such a large group of children became problematic.  Like other kinds of large organizations, the networks fragment into smaller groups that sometimes resemble high school cliques.

The third era of donor-conceived networks begins with children born after 2003. The distinguishing feature is that children born in this era would grow up with donor siblings as commonplace. These parents had toddlers when registries first began, and they connected early on with their child’s donor siblings.  Unlike the earlier era when kids were surprised that they had donor siblings, these kids saw their half-siblings more like cousins who visited once or twice a year. Sometimes children formed close ties to one or two other children in the group. These networks are larger from the start (as more parents decide to locate a child’s half siblings). There are no large gatherings with all the members. Families are most likely to meet regionally with a smaller group.

Finally, we feature a network of younger parents whose children are under five and who knew about donor siblings when they purchased gametes. It is not the newness of the internet or registries that emerges among this group. Instead, these parents, whose children are too young to understand the idea of donors and donor siblings, question whether they can find a new kind of kinship organization. They don’t want to make assumptions about the relationships within the group and how their children might feel when they are older. They hope that by providing memories of gatherings their children will want to define those relationship with each other in the future or, at the very least, they will have each other to talk to about being donor conceived. For these parents the donor sibling network is more like other interest groups or forums they belong to where they can share information that they hope will benefit their child. This new period (maybe not an era) represents kinship revisited.

Since consumer demand for identity release donors increased over these eras the people we interviewed with children born after 2000 are more likely to have this kind of donor. Yet, when the children eventually can have contact with their donor (if their child wants this) these last two networks imagine a donor who is willing to offer information. He is not the “father” who arrived in the late 1980s.

BR:  In many of the narratives, you write about how individuals, and nuclear families, come to reassess the relative power of nature versus nurture in children’s development. Please explain how children come to think of nature versus nurture in their experiences as they met genetic family members.

RH¨ We made a point of interviewing children (ages 10 to 29) because we anticipated that at an early age they would have to puzzle through distinctions like nature versus nurture that are loaded with meaning for families, as well as for children.

But to be fair to the kids, it’s important to put “nature versus nurture” into context first.  That is, for all the public discussion of genetics and all the information available about individual genetic makeup (e.g., from services like and 23andme), there is huge ambiguity about the meaning of genes for parents, let alone for children.  Even in the scientific community there is no consensus about the heritability of many human qualities – like intelligence, musical ability or sports.  So, when we interviewed kids it was important for us to listen carefully to the way they gave meaning to genes.

In most instances, parents set the foundation for kids’ understanding of nature versus nurture, usually with their first conversations about a child’s origins or birth story. Donor is a hollow concept to a child.  Parents fill in the concept, but always with reference to their preferred way of talking about family. A discussion about inherited traits and characteristics is how we locate children in a family system: “Your curly hair is from me, or musical ability from your grandmother.” If they have a donor’s profile, parents usually reference bits of information that factored into their selection of a donor (e.g., “He is an astronaut” or “wants to become a lawyer”, or he “reads a book a day” or “he likes mountain climbing”). Over time, parents and children collaborate in inventing both the donor and the child’s genetic inheritance.

However, for donor-conceived children nature versus nurture really becomes relevant – and complicated – when donor siblings are located. When half-siblings first meet, they quickly discover shared traits, starting with physical resemblances. It’s important to note that children who share a donor are primed to find similarities with their half-siblings.  The experience is often powerful and, not surprisingly, talk about genes and heredity takes center stage.

Donor-conceived children described a real tension between nature and nurture – if not immediately, then over time as they transformed genetic strangers into relatives. Kids who had no siblings within their nuclear family often took great delight in meeting children who were like them, especially since their parents encouraged the contact.  But even with parental encouragement some kids felt they should downplay the importance of genes – because putting genes at center stage implicitly distances them from the family they’ve always known. This is most pronounced in families with a non-genetic parent.  On the other hand, they could not deny the fact of physical resemblance and the often- eerie feeling that occurred when they discovered unexpected similarities like sense of humor and musical ability.

With time and distance, a more nuanced view about nature and nurture seems to emerge.  Kids assimilate the new information and arrive at workable definitions of siblinghood, for example.  They make a point of preserving a central role for non-genetic parents, such as talking about deeply-ingrained preferences for food, music, or esoteric matters that they shared with their non-genetic parents.  Talk about genes is tempered by a more sophisticated understanding that they can belong to their parents while acknowledging that they share some things with a donor and their donor siblings.

Cover of new book by Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson


Rosanna Hertz is Class of 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.  Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families. In this blog Professor Risman interviewed Professor Hertz with three questions about her new book, co-authored with Margaret K. Nelson, Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin.  (2019, Oxford University Press).

A Research Brief Prepared for the University of Texas at Austin Population Research Center

End-of-life planning enhances the quality of later-life caregiving, health, and death. Ideally, informal planning—conversation with loved ones about future care and end-of-life preferences—and formal planning—wills, healthcare proxies, advance care directives, and other legal documents—begins long before the end of life process. Planning is most beneficial when implemented in midlife before people are confronted with debilitating conditions or difficult decisions. Yet only about one-fourth of adults in midlife have advance care directives.

The institution of marriage, particularly heterosexual marriage, involves socially established and legally sustained patterns of norms, roles, values, and behaviors that provide spouses with informal guides to their roles and obligations. Yet norms about husbands and wives taking care of each other “in sickness and in health” may interfere with actually discussing and planning such care prior to serious illness or infirmity. Indeed, studies repeatedly show that heterosexual married couples often do not know each other’s wishes, do not always provide care for each other or receive adequate care from children and extended family, and sometimes even face interference from families.

On the other hand, the institution of marriage is less-established for same-sex couples—marriage only recently became a right and the spouses do not necessarily conform to the marital norms often seen in different-sex couples—which may change the incentives for end-of-life planning. For example, same-sex couples may be less likely to expect end-of-life care from a spouse and therefore be more likely to discuss their expectations for the end of life. In addition, same-sex spouses may worry about encountering discrimination that could lead to family interference and lack of family support and therefore take proactive steps to protect themselves at the end of life. Conversely, they may be wary of going to a lawyer or asking for help from family members because of those same fears of discrimination.

Therefore, formal and informal end-of-life planning unfolds differently for same-sex and different-sex spouses due to different incentives and disincentives that result from the institutional aspects of marriage and higher levels of discrimination against sexual minorities.

The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 90 spouses at midlife in 45 gay, lesbian, and heterosexual marriages. All respondents were Massachusetts residents at the time of the study (2012–2013); Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2004. At the time of the interviews, same-sex marriage was not federally protected and was not legal in the majority of U.S. states.

Key Findings

  • Informal planning conversations and formal end-of-life plans differ for same-sex and different-sex couples. Same-sex spouses devote considerable attention to both informal and formal end-of-life planning, while heterosexual spouses report minimal informal or formal planning. Two key motivators explain this difference:
    • Weaker legal protections for same-sex relationships: Greater engagement in end-of-life planning among gay and lesbian couples has been largely motivated by the weaker legal protections around same-sex relationships, especially prior to legalization of same-sex marriage across the U.S.
    • Concerns about family interference and a lack of family support:
      • Same-sex couples—especially lesbian couples—expressed concerns about family interference and about a lack of support from extended family at the end of life.
      • Heterosexual couples were largely unconcerned about the potential for extended family going against their end-of-life wishes. Therefore, heterosexual couples may be unprepared if they do encounter family interference.
  • Couples have different assumptions about what their spouse knows and what family will do at the end of life.
    • Heterosexual couples tended to assume that their spouses knew their wishes and that family members (especially adult children) would provide end-of-life care.
    • Gay and lesbian couples did not make these same assumptions and instead relied on multiple explicit conversations with spouses and friends about their plans and wishes.
      • Same-sex couples often created plans for multiple hypothetical scenarios and worked with lawyers to put legal protections in place.
      • Most gay and lesbian couples did not discuss being concerned about lack of family support. Rather, they talked about building strong friendship networks and having explicit conversations with those friends about providing future care.

Thomeer brief figure

Click here to expand figure

Policy Implications

The norms and expectations of heterosexual marriage serve as disincentives for different-sex couples to plan for later-life care and end of life. On the other hand, while gay and lesbian couples may be better prepared for death, their greater planning for end of life may reflect valid concerns about the need for more protection. Recent state initiatives—such as Florida’s proposed bill that would allow hospices to refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults—indicate that the end of life may actually be a time of heightened discrimination for gay and lesbian couples. Initiatives should aim towards more equality at the end of life. Indeed, policymakers should develop end-of-life planning incentives for all—as well as those not in long-term relationships—which would have the potential to increase well-being for the dying and the bereaved.


Thomeer, M.B., Donnelly, R., Reczek, C. & Umberson, D. (2017). Planning for Future Care and the End of Life: A Qualitative Analysis of Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Couples. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 58(4):473-487.

Suggested Citation

Thomeer, M.B., Donnelly, R., Reczek, C. & Umberson, D. (2018). Same-sex couples devote more attention to end-of-life plans than heterosexual couples. PRC Research Brief 3(8). DOI: 10.15781/T2RF5KZ8Q.

About the Authors

Mieke Beth Thomeer (mthomeer@uab.eduis an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Rachel Donnelly is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Corinne Reczek is an associate professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Population Research at The Ohio State University; and  Debra Umberson is a sociology professor and director of the Population Research Center at UT Austin. Thomeer and Reczek are also former Population Research Center NICHD Predoctoral Trainees.


This research was supported, in part, by an Investigator in Health Policy Research Award to Debra Umberson from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; grant R21AG044585 from the National Institute on Aging (PI: Debra Umberson); grant P2CHD042849 awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and grant T32 HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, awarded to the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

We have a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family about cohabitation and marital dissolution (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2018). You can find the prepublication version of our paper here or linked from Rosenfeld’s website here. We used the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), and we found, as many other researchers have found, that premarital cohabitation is associated with a higher risk of marital dissolution at ten years’ marital duration. We also discovered that in the first year of marriages, couples who had cohabited before marriage had a lower rate of marital dissolution, presumably because the cohabiters had the benefit of experience at living together.

Kuperberg’s blog post argues for a specific operationalization of age of relationship’s initiation. For married couples who did not cohabit before marriage, she defines the age at marriage as the beginning of the relationship. For couples who cohabited before marriage, she defines the age at cohabitation before marriage as the age of relationship initiation. Since cohabitation precedes marriage (for those who cohabited before marriage), Kuperberg defines the cohabiters as having an earlier relationship start. The earlier relationship start, in her view, explains away the difference in later divorce rates (and see also Kuperberg 2014 where a similar argument is made). Kuperberg’s way of operationalizing the age of relationship initiation is not standard in the scholarly literature on cohabitation and divorce, but it is interesting and worth examining.

The earlier people marry, the less time they have to gather information about potential partners, and the less time potential partners have to gather information about them (Oppenheimer 1988). People who marry later are more established in their careers and presumably more mature at the time of marriage. Earlier age at marriage is associated with higher subsequent rates of divorce.

Since premarital cohabitation typically precedes marriage by a year or two, the age at first cohabitation is earlier than the age at first marriage. Nonmarital unions have much higher breakup rates than marital unions (Cherlin 2009; Rosenfeld 2014). Expectations of sexual exclusivity are different before and after marriage. In the NSFG data it is unknown when relationships started, when couples made the promise to marry, or when (if ever) couples first made the promise of sexual exclusivity. It is safe to assume that most couples who married but did not cohabit before marriage had a period of engagement before marriage, but the length of that engagement is unknown in NSFG. The age at first marriage (for couples who did not cohabit before marriage) is therefore not functionally the same point in the relationship, in terms of commitment and search and exclusivity, as the age at first cohabitation (for couples who cohabited before marriage).

For couples who did not cohabit before marriage in Kuperberg (2014), their cohabitation began when the marriage began. Treating the beginning of the cohabitation as the age when the relationship started would be consistent (for cohabiters and for non-cohabiters) if the outcome variable included breakups of cohabiting couples as well as breakups of marriages. In Kuperberg (2014), the outcome is divorce, meaning only married couples were at risk for breakup in Kuperberg’s analyses. Cohabiting couples started their relationships earlier but were not at risk of divorce until they were married. Using age at first cohabitation as the age the relationship started in combination with an outcome variable that ignores cohabitation breakups potentially biases the effect of cohabitation to be less associated with marital dissolutions. This is why Kuperberg’s analyses show no effect of premarital cohabitation on later risk of divorce.

If the NSFG included a similar commitment age for the non-cohabiters, perhaps the age at which the couple were engaged to be married, then the age of commitment to marry could be consistently controlled for across the subsamples of cohabiters and non-cohabiters. Unfortunately, NSFG did not include consistent measures of age at engagement for all women who subsequently married.

We agree with Kuperberg that controlling for age of first cohabitation or age at first marriage (whichever came first) appears to lower the effect of premarital cohabitation on later risk of divorce. Depending on what other controls are included, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and later divorce can be reduced to zero. We don’t agree that Kuperberg’s approach is the correct or the only reasonable approach.

Table 1: Replacing age at marriage with age at first cohabitation or marriage

M1: Original Model, Rosenfeld and Roesler (2018) Table 2, Model 5 M2: Replacing age at marriage (categorical) with first age of cohabitation or marriage (categorical)
Log odds ratio coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s effect on the marital dissolution rate (SE in parentheses) 0.29*** (0.03) 0.16*** (0.03)

Source: NSFG data on first marriages for women age 44 and under, NSFG wave 1988 and later.

Note: Additional controls not reported above: marital duration  (1df), year of marriage (1df) marital duration first calendar year dummy variable (1df), premarital cohabitation interacted with first year of marriage (1df), age at marriage for M1 (for M2 and M3, age at first cohabitation with spouse) (categorical, 3df), presence of children under 18 (1df), calendar decade (5df), educational attainment (3df), race (2df), stable family of origin (1df), mother’s education (3df), NSFG wave (5 df). N of couple-years is 216,455. N of couples is 24,888.

*** P<0.001; ** P<0.01; * P<0.05; + P<0.10, two tailed tests.

Table 1 starts with the association between premarital cohabitation and later odds of marital dissolution from Rosenfeld and Roesler’s (2018) Table 2, Model 5. The log odds ratio coefficient was 0.29, and highly significant, indicating couples who cohabited before marriage had an odds ratio of marital dissolution of e0.29=1.33 times higher, after the first year of marriage, compared to couples who never cohabited before marriage. If we replace age at marriage with age at marriage or age at first cohabitation (whichever came first), then the coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s association with marital dissolution drops from 0.29 to 0.16, but remains statistically significant.

Table 2: Replacing age at marriage with age at first cohabitation or marriage, while also controlling for nonmarital cohabitations

Original Model, Rosenfeld and Roesler (2018) Table 3, Model 4 Replacing age at marriage (categorical) with age of cohabitation or marriage (categorical)
Log odds ratio coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s effect on the marital dissolution rate (SE in parentheses) 0.13*** (0.03) -0.01 (0.03)

Source: NSFG data on first marriages for women age 44 and under, NSFG wave 1995 and later.

Note: Additional controls not reported above: marital duration (1df), year of marriage (1df) marital duration first year dummy variable (1df), premarital cohabitation interacted with first year of marriage (1df), age at marriage or age at first cohabitation (categorical, 3df), presence of children under 18 (1df), calendar decade (4df), educational attainment (3df), race (2df), stable family of origin (1df), mother’s education (3df), NSFG wave (4 df), nonmarital cohabitation (2df). Premarital cohabitation is cohabitation with the woman’s first husband before marriage. Nonmarital cohabitation is prior cohabitation with men other than the man who would later become the woman’s first husband. N of couple-years is 167,723. N of couples is 19,777.

*** P<0.001; ** P<0.01; * P<0.05; + P<0.10, two tailed tests.

Table 2 adds additional controls for nonmarital cohabitation. If we control for nonmarital cohabitations, which are much more strongly associated with marital dissolution than are premarital cohabitations (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2018; Teachman 2003), the association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution is reduced to a log odds ratio coefficient of 0.13. The smaller association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution in Table 2 (compared to Table 1) allows us to replicate Kuperberg’s central finding. In Model 2 of Table 2, controlling for age at first cohabitation reduces the association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution to zero.


While we agree that using the age of first cohabitation instead of the age of first marriage can reduce the apparent association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution to zero, we do not agree that this is the best or the only reasonable approach. As we are examining marital dissolution (rather than relationship dissolution), the beginning of the marriage is a start time that has consistent meaning for all couples whether they cohabited before marriage or not. The beginning of cohabitation (for couples who cohabited before marriage) is not the same relationship decision point as the beginning of the first marriage (for couples who did not cohabit before marriage). Whether one chooses to control for the age at marriage or the age at first cohabitation depends on one’s substantive interpretation of the meaning of relationship milestones. We appreciate Kuperberg’s thoughtful and innovative work. We disagree with her conclusions, because we do not think that age at first cohabitation is a consistent relationship milestone for couples who did and who did not cohabit before marriage.


Cherlin, Andrew J. 2009. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. New York: Knopf.

Kuperberg, Arielle. 2014. “Age at Coresidence, Premarital Cohabitation, and Marriage Dissolution: 1985-2009.” Journal of Marriage and Family 76:352-369.

Oppenheimer, Valerie Kinckaid. 1988. “A Theory of Marriage Timing.” American Journal of Sociology 94:563-591.

Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2014. “Couple Longevity in the Era of Same-Sex Marriage in the US.” Journal of Marriage and Family 76:905-918.

Rosenfeld, Michael J., and Katharina Roesler. 2018. “Cohabitation Experience and Cohabitation’s Association with Marital Dissolution.” Journal of Marriage and Family.

Teachman, Jay. 2003. “Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution among Women.” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2):444-455.



The stories that news headlines tell might suggest that parenting in contemporary society consists of scrutinizing how much helicoptering is too much, worrying about screen time, and lamenting the vast chasms of inequality that result in so many different kinds of childhoods. Many of these stories are true, some are based on rigorous social scientific research, and a few may even call people into action to create social change so that parents and children thrive rather than suffer. But if all we did was examine what’s going on with parenting today by looking at news media, we’d miss important new research findings that complicate all of the often-oversimplified headlines.

Because I was dissatisfied with how I saw parenting depicted in our social and news media feeds, I gathered a group of stellar researchers and practitioners to tell a detailed, timely, and untold story about the topics contained in the headlines. The result is a book that I edited entitled Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research. Each chapter, authored by stellar researchers and practitioners in sociology, psychology, and economics, starts with a provocative news headline, and then delves into what the research says about how parenting is really happening in contemporary society. Imagine a headline saying “This is bad for your kids!” Now imagine a fantastic collection of chapters that scrutinize what “this” means, what “bad” means, and whose kids we’re really talking about. This post summarizes the key general takeaways from this new collection of research findings, with links to the web pages of authors whose work is featured.

Let’s start with the notion that parents are evaluated more than ever, and more visibly than ever, based on how much (and what kind of) effort and intentionality they use in their parenting. The concepts of helicopter parenting, intensive parenting, and concerted cultivation need to be complicated (and actually, differentiated from each other) in light of new research findings, even as the existence of helicopter parenting constitutes a type of moral panic (albeit one that reproduces privileges among those elite parents who preserve their privilege to hover even if they’re critiqued). If we only focus on some sort of universal hovering technique of all parents in all places, we miss variations within families (maybe each child requires different hovering techniques, maybe each developmental stage does, too). And we miss the fact that age of children and parents matter (maybe some parents’ efforts to hover enough so that kids thrive into their adulthood may end up making those kids be so successful that they fail to come home for the holidays, thus oddly disappointing the aging parents). So, not all hovering looks the same, is performed the same way, or has the same impact.

When it comes to how well parents are doing, there’s plenty of research out there that examines the fact that parents are less happy than non-parents, some of which is interrogated in the book. What’s important to add to this is an elaboration that it is due to a lack of available family friendly policies that this gap is particularly pronounced in the U.S. And even in countries where progressive policies may be enacted, there can be a cultural lag whereby people are reluctant to take advantage of the policies for fear of being stigmatized. And what about time that parents may be able to spend doing leisure activities? Turns out that overall leisure has declined and a bigger share of mothers’ leisure time is now spent with children. So, the story we can tell about parental well-being in the U.S. especially is that we lack supportive policies, and even in the face of supportive policies, gendered cultural values about who is supposed to parent impact likelihood to take advantage of policies as well as who gets to be present during leisure activities that are not part of the calculation of work-family balance.

Any story of contemporary parenthood requires a focus on social inequalities. In addition to the gender inequalities noted above, any family studies book will highlight how parents’ and children’s lives are impacted differently based on group status. Of course socioeconomic status impacts parents’ access to valuable resources. But parents and teachers also play a role in how children interpret their own living conditions, including when children living in poverty may have mixed ideas from, on one hand, family and neighbor stories about how hard it is to make ends meet, and on the other hand, teachers’ voices saying how important it seems to work hard to get out of poverty or fellow classmates’ voices talking about how important it is to have the latest video game or shoes. In addition to social class, one of the ways that intentional efforts by parents to turn their parenting into a concerted project that has been largely absent from past research relates to immigrant status. For example, visa restrictions that disallow paid employment impact how much parenting becomes an intense part of life that otherwise would be filled with paid employment in a home country. And what about immigration as it may relate to adoption? When we think about becoming parents, it is more crucial than ever to remember that crossing national borders in an adoption process can also occur when immigrant parents are deported and children are left behind to be fostered, a situation that challenges traditional notions of children’s rights and parenthood. Clearly race and immigrant status matter in the lived experiences of today’s parents and children. In fact, talking about race with children varies depending on parents’ race. White parents are more likely than non-White parents to avoid talking about race with their kids, in part because they have the privilege to ignore this – a result of still-present colorblind ideology. As more conversations occur about privilege in our society, it will be important to investigate how and whether this racialized form of parent-child communication may change. And finally, when it comes to inequality, the notion of who is legally allowed to partner and parent matters. Since same-gender marriage is legal, researchers will need to continue to investigate ways that children of these parents are faring well (which they are). This is especially crucial, because, despite the legality of family formation in this way, cultural values associated with heteronormativity and repronormativity prevail, even when people imagine their own LGB children’s future parenting and family lives.

In no uncertain terms, and despite unequal access to resources, cultural support, or family-friendly policies, people still overwhelmingly want to parent, and they want to see their children become parents, too. Importantly, in all of these research findings, the specific groups studied have experiences that intersect with other inequalities. It is never just about class, citizenship, race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. It is always about all of these.

What a rewarding adventure it has been to be the curator of this collection of new takes on not-so-new questions about parenting and parenthood, all of which have been presented here in a far-too-cursory manner. If family scholars and practitioners wish to have their work be part of the national (and international) conversation about what’s best for families, look no further than the latest research that these authors have conducted.

But always look beyond the news headlines.

Michelle Janning is Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences, and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College. Her research connects material culture and spatial design with family roles and relationships. She is the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2018), and is the editor of Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research (Praeger, forthcoming). In the book discussed in this post, Janning also includes a chapter on the role of technology in contemporary parenting. Her work is featured at

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In this blog I interviewed her with three questions about her new book, Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan (2019, Rutgers University Press).

BR: You write that stories about lesbian and gay successes were used both by the social movement for parents of LGBT children and by some of your respondents as well. Can you discuss the ways in which that seemed to have both strengths and weaknesses for your respondents?

AB: Many of the heterosexual parents that I spoke to were worried about the economic implications of being gay or transgender. Social stability and class mobility were major touchstones in our interviews, in support group meetings for parents and for queer and trans young people thinking through family issues, and in other places that parents gathered. These parents viewed normative signs of success, like a college degree and a stable job, as particularly important for children who do not conform in other areas. They used lesbian, gay, and (on rarer occasions) transgender success stories in ways that were often personally empowering but politically limiting. I saw queer and trans activists struggle with this: How to welcome heterosexual family members into the movement without compromising their more radical queer ethics?

In general, we think of normativity as benefiting middle class lesbians and gays, and this is true in Taiwan as in many other places. But, I also caution that it is often middle class and more privileged activists and academics who have the most developed critiques of normativity. We have to be mindful not to create a new stratification system based on how non-normative we manage or espouse to be, because this will end up reinforcing the very class divisions we claim to be trying to dismantle.

BR: It seemed that you attempted to bring together two different literatures, research on gender & sexuality with the research on family change in Taiwan. Did this integration of traditions, and your research itself, provide you with any directions that you’d recommend for studying and working with LGBT families of origin in the future?

AB: Bringing literatures together sounds fantastic in a proposal but tends to be harder in practice. The gaps that exist often reflect larger epistemological and political differences. For example, demographic data are collected by the state for population management and surveillance, and queer theorists are pushing back on this. But knowing something about fertility rates, about patterns in how people create and sustain families or break away from those families, is obviously of great value for those of us who are trying to figure out what is going on with queer populations and how to support them. I think queer scholars and activists can appropriate these data while remaining very critical of methods and frameworks.

In studying and working with families of origin, we cannot simply export models based on U.S. populations to other parts of the world. This is (I hope) an obvious point but one we must continue to make. For example, in my answer above, I noted parents’ economic concerns around sexuality and gender. These are concerns that activists must address if they want to bring parents into the movement. A model that assumes parents’ concerns are primarily moral or religious (as they are for many U.S. parents) is inadequate in this context. As a second example, I point out in the book that research on trans people in families does not consider the effects of gender transition within patrilineal and patrilocal family structures – still among the most common family structures in the world. There are many new directions that open up when we step outside the narrow box of what we already know based on predominately white, western families.

BR: Can you provide some examples of how your standpoint helped shape the research project and the analysis?

AB: Ethnography is such an intimate mode of research and who we are matters a great deal. There are several parts of my biography that I highlight in the book: my race and national origin, my femme sexuality, and my family background and coming out experience. I am white, U.S. born, and employed at a North American university. The unearned privileges that come with these characteristics shaped, for example, my ability to cross borders freely and without fear to do this research and my ability to apply for grants without first checking the citizenship requirements. (The Wenner-Gren, which provided the majority of funding for this project, does not discriminate based on nationality, but many other funding agencies do.) In Taiwan, my outsiderness shaped the ways that people perceived and related to me. For example, many people invited me to spend time with them in their homes, including on holidays and other special occasions. Hospitality can be a barrier to deep understanding because when we are hosting others, we often present only our best. But it can also facilitate understanding – in this case, by giving me a glimpse of everyday family life that I might not have had otherwise.

While I was doing this fieldwork, many people asked me questions about my own family story. I am very close to my family, but our journey around sexuality has been a difficult one, threaded with periods of deep pain. This, too, shaped the research. It opened up my life to my informants in a way that, in certain cases, brought us closer. In other cases, it positioned me as a daughter in need of advice from the heterosexual parents with whom I was spending so much time. It continually reminded me of the emotional labor my informants were doing when they agreed to be interviewed. This whole experience also changed the way I approached the topics of sexuality and gender with my parents. I became more open to hearing their points of view and reasons for acting and feeling as they did. Being an ethnographer gave me tools to listen in a way I had not been able to achieve before. So as much as my biography shaped the research, the research also shaped me and my family relationships.

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Reposted from Psychology Today

Americans live longer than ever before, with life expectancy increasing from 60 to 80 years of age over the 20th Century. Baby boomers are living what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls a Third Act, discovering new ways to experience healthy active years after retirement. With a rapid increase in life expectancy and rising expectations for the quality of life, baby boomers are forging new ways of aging. So what does this mean for sexuality? Are we beginning to see gender equality between the sheets among the aging boomers?

Remember, it was only 40 years ago that women were considered sexually obsolete after menopause (and, many times, even earlier). Men defined their virility by their ability to get and sustain an erection. Today these may seem like ridiculous calculators of age and sexual fitness as both culture and technology has changed the ways we think about sex and gender.

Boomers pioneered the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s and yet, they did so after having been raised with the sexual script that men pursue and women submit. This permitted men to interpret an awkward “no, thank you” rejection as a possible “yes” in the making. Still, it was a radical shift in our cultural norms for men to be able to take a woman to bed before promising marriage and for women to seek sexual pleasure outside of relationships. After all, the one night stand of the boomer generation precluded the “hook-up culture” of today’s Millennials.

While much misogyny remained, and gender inequality is still a futuristic goal, the boomers did liberate sex from marriage and made the right to sexual pleasure a human right. Now, it appears that boomers must—once again—break the gender rules set by generations before them when it comes to sex after 50.

For men, erectile dysfunction or ED (an inability to get or maintain an erection) can feel emasculating although such physiological changes are actually explained by the biology of aging. Even with the advent of Viagra and Cialis, which are impressively effective at treating erectile issues, research suggests that some men still feel uncomfortable bringing up sexual difficulties with their doctors. And doctors, too, are reluctant to ask patients over 50 about their sexual health due to old stigmas surrounding sex later in life. Gender stereotypes that men are powerful, and always ready for sex, still haunt the boomer men who were raised in an era when talking about sexual problems held negative stigmas. We do see boomer men working around some of these stigmas though, for instance, many men are ordering ED meds via online prescribers like the popular Roman website.

For women, menopause is often cited as the primary culprit affecting their sexual lives. However, research finds that social and psychological factors such as emotional well-being and a strong emotional connection with one’s partner as well as positive body image may be more predictive of sexual activity later in life than the hormonal changes associated with menopause. That’s not to say age has no physiological impacts on sex for women; discomfort during sex due to less blood circulation in the genital area (reducing vaginal lubrication) is a biological factor that reduces sexual comfort during sexual intercourse in later life. Of course, technology, here too, can come to the rescue with products to increase lubrication and blood flow. In fact, many women find menopause liberating sexually because they no longer have to worry about pregnancy every time they have intercourse. Even more promising, most women who desire to remain sexually active as they age will do so, albeit with a bit more prepping.

The boomers want fulfilling relationships as they age and our culture is beginning to reflect this. Women in their 60’s and 70’s are now being cast in leading roles involving romantic and sexual relationships. Both Jane Fonda’s and Lily Tomlin’s characters in Netflix’s, Grace and Frankie have love affairs, and of course, so do their ex-husbands… with one another. What’s more, people over 50 are the fastest growing demographic of online daters. Indeed, women over 50 who date report frequent and satisfying sex and boomer men can usually find an intimate partner if they are in the market for one.

Boomers are by far the most sexually liberal generation of older adults that we’ve ever seen.  And by pushing against the pre-existing molds of what sex after 50 looks like, boomers are showing us that they want gender equality and sexual satisfaction between the sheets in their encore adulthood, the third act of their lives.


Risman, Barbara J, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough (co-editors). 2018.  Handbook on the Sociology of Gender.  Springer Publishers.

Nicholas Velotta is a Freelance writer and graduate of the University of Washington, and can be contacted at Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

A briefing paper prepared by Nicholas Velotta and Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Not too long ago, women were considered “over the hill” once they reached middle age. Women in the 1960s recalled being told that their fate was to be “fat at 40, finished at 50.” But over the last two decades the U.S. has seen a massive shift in older adults’ attitudes towards sex, romance, and intimacy, with women in particular feeling emboldened to remain sexually and romantically satisfied throughout their entire life cycle, not just when they are young. Heterosexual partners tend to become more egalitarian as they age, and the majority of divorces that do occur after age 50 are initiated by women. Matchmaking sites have given older women far more chances to find partners than in the past, while men can now take Viagra or Cialis in order to keep their sex lives vibrant and healthy.

Desexualized? Who is on the hook for cosmetic surgery?

There are challenges of course, and many of those challenges are starkly gendered. After menopause, women are frequently seen as non-sexual beings, something we call the desexualization of older women. Men on the other hand have been given lifelong statuses as sexual beings and seldom face societal obstacles to romantic contact later in life. To compensate for this gender double standard, many women have resorted to surgical interventions to reduce the signs of age on their body—in fact, they make up the largest growing market for cosmetic surgery. Other women have decided to forgo relationships and sex entirely, relying on social networks of friends to support them emotionally instead of intimate partners. Fortunately for the many women who continue to date later in life, the research concludes that their sexual satisfaction and frequencies are fairly high.

Resexualized. Stars might suggest older faces that are sexy.

What our review, “Gender and Sexuality in Aging,” in The Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, best illustrates is that Baby Boomers have become far more liberal in regard to sex, and when older men and women prioritize lifelong sexual satisfaction they have a better shot at achieving it today than ever before. Gender, sexual orientation, race, and other demographic factors affect Boomers’ success at this, and U.S. culture as a whole is just beginning to value intimacy as a lifelong goal. But with older faces becoming “sexy” (think Alfre Woodard at 65, Meryl Streep at 69. Or  Denzel Washington at 63, Tom Selleck at 73) and more attention being given to the study of sex and aging (see the endowed professorship in sexuality and aging at the University of Minnesota), we are seeing progressive shifts in our mainstream culture towards making older bodies less stigmatized and more romanticized.


Nicholas Velotta, University of Washington, Pepper Schwartz, Professor of Sociology, University of Washington. They are authors of “Gender and Sexuality in Aging,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

A briefing paper prepared by Pallavi Banerjee, University of Calgary, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Imagine thousands of highly qualified women forced to stay home because they are not legally allowed to work. Sounds unreal in this day and age, right? And yet this has been the reality for many women who have legally migrated to the US on what are popularly known as dependent visas or H-4 visas. These are visas given to spouses and children of workers who migrate to the U.S. on H-1B visas to work in a “specialty occupation,” mostly in science, technology and engineering fields. The H-4 dependent visa forbids the spouse of a skilled worker to engage in legal employment for a term that could be as long as 20 years. These visas disproportionately affect Asian migrant families in the U.S., given that more half of the H-1B and H-4 visas go to Indians, followed by Chinese.

Dependent H-4 visas were originally designed with women in mind, as the extension of the 18th-19th century coverture doctrine that a wife had no legal identity outside that of her husband. The doctrine was generally accepted until the late 20th century in accord with the male-breadwinner ideology of the 1950s in the US. However, the law in itself is not gendered. This means that men as well as women can be excluded from the labor market if they come in with a spouse who is on an H-1B visa. In practice, women are the majority of those affected. But either way, these policies leave lasting imprints, although in distinctly gendered ways, on the lives of spouses who come in with one H-1B and one H-4 visa holder. Families where the woman is dependent on the man have to live like 1950s nuclear families, even though many women are qualified to be co-providers and would prefer to be. In families where the man is excluded from the labor force, by contrast, gender power struggles within the families assume difficult and complex forms, generating ambivalence in both the working and the stay-at-home spouse.

Trailing wives and the reinvention of dependence.

Because the most common recipients of H-1B visas are male high-tech workers, women (their wives) are disproportionally affected by these policies. Approximately 80 percent of all H-4 visa holders are women, most of whom are highly-educated and were working before migration. A “housewife visa” or “vegetable visa,” as many of the dependent wives call the H-4 visa, forces these wives to become economically, socially, and psychologically dependent on husbands. My interviews with these women revealed that they experienced a loss of dignity and an increase in self-deprecation. They tried to cope by engaging in excessive cooking, cleaning, and decorating while also resenting it. These women told me they felt they were back in the days of the “traditional family” where women had no identity of their own and were devalued in society. They talked about being rendered invisible and feeling shackled and depressed. Some even reported contemplating suicide. In situations of domestic violence, women in such circumstances have no means to leave and support themselves. Accordingly, some women describe these visas as “prison visas.”

Trailing husbands and the loss of status.

Relatively few men are on the H-4 visas, and typically these are the husbands of women who were granted work visas because of their training as nurses. Such men report a complicated relationship with their dependent status. While most claim to enjoy raising children as an equal caregiver with their wives, the loss of their culturally normalized head-of-household status leaves them sore and resentful. In order to compensate for this loss, dependent husbands find multiple ways to reassert their masculinities. For instance, they emphasize how they “allowed” their wives to be the main migrant. They also skirt around doing any of the everyday housework and control the family finances, while invoking the imagery of the “sacrificial father” who gave up his career “to ensure the well-being of the children and family.” Meanwhile, the breadwinning wives overcompensate for being the breadwinner by doing all household chores.

Executive Orders from Obama to Trump.

In 2015 Obama responded to research and a spurt of online activism around the issue of legal dependence by signing an Executive Order that made it possible for H-4 visa holders to obtain Employment Authorization Documents after being approved for permanent residency. H-4 visa holders without permanent residency approval remained stranded. But the EO did have positive effects on the lives of 179,600 spouses that year, and 55,000 additional spouses in subsequent years, as estimated by USCIS. Many H-4 visa holders attempted to return to work. Some with specialized degrees found work quickly. Others found it difficult to find jobs, as is common for women with a long employment hiatus. However, what was important is now they had the opportunity to look for work legally.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has announced its intent has to implement the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order. This will revoke the employment authorization for H-4 visa holders, threatening economic and family stability for many and perpetuating gendered dependencies and conflicts within and outside the families. These apparently gender-neutral visa policies harm women and men alike, by imposing either a male breadwinner family that subordinates women or a female breadwinner family that leads to ambivalence, resentment and conflict.


Pallavi Banerjee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, Canada, and author of forthcoming Dismantling Dependence: Gendered Migrations, Indian High-Skilled Families and the Visa Regime (NYU Press)Prof. Banerjee’s research on H-4 visa played a critical role in the Obama Administration’s reformulation of those rules. Professor Banerjee is author with Raewyn Connell of “Gender Theory as a Southern Theory” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.


A new article published in Journal of Marriage and Family examines the relationship of cohabitation and divorce, and claims that recent research that finds that premarital cohabitation does not impact divorce rates is incorrect. They find that in the first year of marriage, premarital cohabitation is associated with lower divorce rates compared to those who directly marry (because those who would have divorced quickly are filtered out by premarital cohabitation), but that afterwards premarital cohabitation is associated with higher divorce rates. These effects “cancel each other out,” making it appear as if cohabitation is not associated with divorce, when, according to them, it still is; just not in very early marriage.

However this research makes an important omission. They account for the age at which women married their first husband, but don’t account for the age at which they moved in together.  As my past research has shown, accounting for age at marriage but not the age at which couples moved in together artificially inflates the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce for recent cohorts, compared to statistical models that account for the age at which couples moved in together, or even statistical models that do not account for age at all.

This inflation happens because the older that couples are when they move in together with the person they will eventually marry (whether at marriage or beforehand) the less likely they are to divorce.  When accounting for age at marriage only, researchers are comparing couples who married directly at, for example, age 24, to those who moved in together at perhaps age 21 and then married at age 24.

My research argues that a more accurate comparison would compare those who moved in together at, for example, 21 (and then eventually married) to those who both moved in together and married at age 21.  When doing so, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce disappears for some cohorts; and in very recent cohorts, as I show in my recent CCF report, reverses, with premarital cohabitors having a lower risk of divorce compared to couples that marry directly. In other words, the reason premarital cohabitors seem to have a higher risk of divorce is not because cohabitation causes divorce; it’s because premarital cohabitors who eventually marry select partners and move in together at earlier ages compared to other couples who marry at the same age, when they are less prepared for the roles and responsibilities that are associated with eventual successful marriages.

To demonstrate the importance of how researchers account for age on research findings, I recalculated the odds ratios for the relationship of premarital cohabitation and divorce that I present in my recent CCF report on changing cohabitation over time (which accounts for age at coresidence), in statistical models that either account for age at marriage instead, or don’t account for age at all. As you can see in Figure 1 below, models that account for age at marriage show a stronger association between cohabitation and divorce. In the most recent cohort, this effect appears neutral, but when accounting for age at coresidence instead (or even if not accounting for age at all) premarital cohabitation is associated with a lower risk of divorce.

Figure 1: Odds Ratios for the Association Between Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce in First Marriages in Four Cohorts: The Importance of Age Controls

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1956-1985, N=3,594) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,420) using Cox regressions and based on women <36 at first marriage. Controls for raised not religious, religious attendance, race, education at marriage, mother’s education, prior cohabitations, lived with both biological parents at age 14, birth prior to coresidence, began coresidence while pregnant. Age at Coresidence models additionally control for age at coresidence and age at coresidence squared.  Age at Marriage models additionally control for age at marriage and age at marriage squared. †p<.10, **p<.01

In my new article recently published in the journal Marriage & Family Review I show that the length of time that couples live together before marriage has grown in recent decades (See Figure 2), increasing the importance of correctly accounting for the age at which couples move in together, as it grows further and further from the age at which these couples marry.

Figure 2: Average Duration of Premarital Cohabitation with First Husband among Premarital Cohabitors who Married before Age 36 (Months)

While the overall pattern in this new research of lower divorce rates in the first year of marriage after cohabitation seems plausible, accounting for age at marriage rather than age at coresidence artificially inflates the divorce rates of premarital cohabitors across all marriage durations, calling into question whether premarital cohabitation is in fact associated with higher divorce risks at later marriage durations, as found by the authors. A comparison that accounted for age at coresidence instead of age at marriage would likely have led to significantly different findings.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg and reach her at


A briefing paper prepared by Kenly Brown, University of California, Berkeley, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).  

Since the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist criminologists have explored the ways in which the distribution of justice and punishment varies, based on people’s marginalized (or privileged) identities, their vulnerability to state violence, and their exposure to interpersonal violence  (Potter, 2015Riche, 2012Chesney-Lind, 2006 ; Burgess-Proctor, 2006Bertrand, 1969Heidensohn, 1968). In my chapter with Berkeley’s Nikki Jones, “Gender, Race, and Crime: The Evolution of a Feminist Research Agenda,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Genderwe argue that feminist scholars must “examine the relationship between interpersonal violence and institutional violence, as well as the feminist movement’s relationship to the state” (p.456). Ultimately, institutional violence shapes the conditions and outcomes of the interpersonal violence that marginalized groups navigate on a daily basis.

In my study, The Disciplinary Dumping Ground: The Construction of Black Girlhood in an Alternative School, I use a similar intersectional analysis to study the ways in which alternative education creates inequitable conditions of learning and access for Black girls who are vulnerable to exclusion, neglect, and violence in their everyday lives. I extend literature on exclusionary discipline (i.e. disproportionate levels of harsh punishment sanctioned against Black and Latinx students) to consider the significance of exclusionary spaces in education: alternative schools.

Benign intent, harmful result.

California has seven types of alternative schools: independent charter, community, juvenile court, opportunity, school of choice, community day, and continuation. Continuation schools enroll 75 percent of the 136,000 students enrolled in alternative schools, ostensibly providing a more positive environment for students who have difficulty learning in large school settings, are at-risk to not graduate, and/or have disruptive behavioral issues (Taylor, 2015 & Velasco and Gonzales, 2017). Despite this benign intent, teachers, students, and practitioners colloquially refer to alternative schools as dumping grounds used to warehouse students of color from under-resourced neighborhoods that traditional high schools find disruptive and/or underperforming (Dunning-Lozano, 2016Kelly, 1993). Indeed, Elder’s qualitative research found that continuation schools were less like a learning community than a correctional institution for students stigmatized as “outsiders” — academically failing, on parole, pregnant, and /or working (Elder, 1966).

My research explores how alternative schools contribute to the further isolation of marginalized students, particularly low-income Black girls, who are the most vulnerable to violence and neglect in their interpersonal lives. Studies have shown that Black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls and are more harshly punished in school for not meeting mainstream expectations of middle-class white girls (Epstein, Blake, and González, 2017). Using ethnographic methods including direct and participant observations and semi-structured interviews, I find that the compounding effects of isolation, neglect, and danger in low-income communities render Black girls more vulnerable to be pushed into learning environments that are also isolated, lack stable funding, and have limited resources. An intersectional vulnerabilities framework shows how stereotypes associated with Black girls and women perceived as aggressive, domineering, or hypersexual increase their exposure to interpersonal violence in their everyday day lives and structural violence at the hands of institutions.


Kenly Brown, Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Nikki Jones, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence and recently published The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption. They are authors of “Gender, Race, and Crime: The Evolution of a Feminist Research Agenda,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.