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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1. Elements of Affirmative Consent

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

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

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

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Further Information

Christia Spears Brown, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky; christia.brown@uky.edu


Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/girls-media-messaging-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/girls-media-messaging-release/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent is shaped by context

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

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

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

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

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

Consent in developmental context

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

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

Sexual assault is not one thing, it is many things

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

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

Jennifer S. Hirsch is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and can be contacted at jsh2124@columbia.eduShamus Khan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. He can be reached at sk2905@columbia.edu.

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

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

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

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

Uncomfortable reality

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

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

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

The synergy between “nice” and “easy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consensualish for men versus women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving face

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: You said you felt pressure to keep going?

Jeff: “Definitely.”

Interviewer: Was that from her?

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

Interviewer: Necessary?

Jeff: “Yeah.”

Interviewer: Why not stop it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: Would you say that sex was unwanted?

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

Interviewer: Consensual and wanted?

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

Interviewer: So you decided to have sex with him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie V. Ford is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University Jf3179@cumc.columbia.edu

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

AK: Why do men have affairs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology; ktfong@gatech.edu.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-release/

Even before the pandemic, telecommuting had mixed results on gender equity. And mothers telecommuting during the pandemic report more stress and depression than mothers working outside the home. 

As of April/May 2020, 55 percent of currently employed parents were working from home, and many experts predict that telecommuting will become more widespread even if schools do reopen next month. Is telecommuting the new normal? And if so, what does that mean for women’s well-being at home and at work?

A unique new study, Before and During COVID-19: Telecommuting, Work-Family Conflict, and Gender Equality, released by the Council on Contemporary Families, compares parents who were telecommuting before the pandemic and after. The good news? Telecommuting fathers do a lot more childcare than other fathers – enough more to actually even out their time with moms. The bad news? They don’t increase their daily housework at all, while telecommuting women increase theirs by almost 50 minutes. The really bad news? Telecommuting during the pandemic increases mothers’ depression and anxiety significantly more than working from a separate location. One conclusion the authors draw is that women benefit from the boundaries created by work away from home.

Investigators Thomas Lyttelton (Yale Sociology, Emma Zang (Yale Sociology), and Kelly Musick (Cornell Policy Analysis and Management) examined time use data from parents who were telecommuting from before COVID-10 and after. Using data from the 2003-2018 American Time Use Survey (ATUS, = 19,179) and the April and May 2020 COVID Impact Survey (N = 784), they found two distinct patterns of adjustment telecommuting, pre COVID-19:

Telecommuting dads closed the gender gap on childcare. Pre COVID-19, dads spent 67 more minutes caring for children on the days they worked exclusively from home. This was 47 minutes larger than the moms’ increases on work-from-home days.

For housework, the gender gap got worse. Pre COVID-19, when mothers worked from home, they increased their housework by 49 minutes, while fathers did no more housework on work-from-home days than on days they worked away from home.

Work-family spillover hits telecommuting moms hard. Aside from actual child care, telecommuting fathers, pre-COVID-19, reported that children were present while they were working for 21 minutes per day, on average, on days they worked from home. But mothers reported children present when they were working for 54 minutes per day, a gender gap of 27 minutes.

And in the pandemic, telecommuting moms report especially elevated stress. Telecommuting moms are more depressed and stressed than moms who work outside the home — and more depressed and stressed than dads working in either location. Telecommuting dads are actually less anxious when working from home than when at a separate workplace; the opposite is true for moms.

The authors note: “The closure of schools and childcare facilities greatly increases childcare burdens on parents, with telecommuters now expected to educate their children alongside doing their day jobs, a job that has so far fallen most heavily on women…. Mothers telecommuting in April – May 2020 reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at higher rates than telecommuting fathers. The same was not true for mothers in the workplace, where we found no gender differences in stress and depression.”

What are those rates of stress now? In the pandemic, 20 percent of mothers working from home report feeling depressed, while 11 percent of fathers working from home do. For anxiety, six percent of fathers working from home report it, while three times as many mothers — 18 percent — working from home report it. (See Figure 2 in the brief for additional details.)

Where does this leave us?
“Telecommuting seems to work better for gender equity when men do it rather than when women do it. As a historian, my take is that men need to be reintegrated into the household just as women have been reintegrated into the work world. Telecommuting seems to help dads pay attention to childcare requirements they can ignore when at work,” notes Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research.

“By contrast, most telecommuting women find it hard to ignore the internalized pressure to take care of every pile of dirty laundry, sweep up every pile of dirt, and jump to attention every time a child wanders into the room. This is a form of work-family conflict people often ignore when they tout the advantages of working from home, and as this report shows, it’s a source of gender inequality at home and at work,” Coontz concludes.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality-advisory/

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

A fact sheet prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families 

Mentally…Dads foster their children’s development by challenging them both cognitively and physically. Dads promote children’s communication skills by asking children questions and requiring them to clarify what they are saying. Dads encourage children to take age-appropriate risks and go outside their “comfort zone,” which can help children develop confidence and reduce anxiety. But don’t leave all the consoling and calming tasks to mom, says sociologist Barbara Risman. Men who take primary or equal responsibility for childcare are just as nurturing and sensitive as women, and great models for their children.

  • Things to try: Read together with young children and engage them in back-and-forth conversation using wh-questions (i.e., Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?). For older kids, form a “book club” where you both read the same book and talk about it together. When on the playground, stand back and allow children to attempt new activities on their own first, without interfering, but provide safety and encouragement from the sidelines.

Emotionally…Dads who laugh with and praise their toddlers have kids who are less distressed in frustrating situations. When children experience anger and sadness, Dads’ support helps kids learn how to manage their emotions and have better relationships with friends. And when Dads show their teens love and acceptance, their teens have more positive outlooks and greater confidence and get better grades in school.

Healthily…Dads help raise healthy children by being present at regular family meals and by encouraging healthy eating and physical activity and modeling healthy behaviors.

  • Things to try: Kids are more likely to eat foods that they helped prepare, so involve your kids in making meals and snacks. Even preschoolers can help prepare food (for example, washing or mixing ingredients, brushing bread or potatoes with oil) and older kids can help with chopping and cooking. Take walks or hikes together, play tag or basketball.

Remotely…Dads don’t have to live with their children to make a difference: Non-resident fathers who are involved in child-related activities and maintain good relationships with their children have a positive influence on children’s social and academic outcomes.

  • Things to try: When you can’t see your child in person, check in regularly via phone, video-chat, or texts. Ask open-ended questions that invite conversation (“What’s something that made you happy this week?”) rather than yes or no or vague questions. Some activities can be done “together” virtually, for example being on a video-chat with your child while both watching a favorite tv show.

Intergenerationally…What Dads do now not only affects their children, but their grandchildren as well. Dads who are more involved in parenting their kids raise sons who grow up to become more involved fathers and who have better quality relationships with their own children. In addition, Dads who coparent well with Moms have sons who later form supportive relationships with their own parenting partners.

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, schoppe-sullivan.1@osu.edu. Kari Adamsons, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Connecticut, kari.adamsons@uconn.edu.


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

The current #MeToo reckoning, following from the decade-long grassroots campus sexual assault movement, underscores the pervasiveness of sexual harm. As the contribution to this symposium by Armstrong at al points out, most surveys find that 20 percent of undergraduates experience sexual assault, yet such assaults remain woefully under reported. A study of 834 undergraduate women at a Midwestern university found that 234 (34 percent) had experienced sexual assault during their time on campus. Of those, only five (2 percent) filed a formal complaint leading to a disciplinary hearing.

There is no other violation on campus that causes so much trauma, but is so difficult to adjudicate. Concrete evidence is rare. Memories are often impaired by trauma or alcohol. Shame, fear and uncertainty make disclosures unlikely. Racial bias too easily creeps in. Offenders are still not held accountable. Campuses are not yet safer. The quasi-judicial systems on campuses cannot overcome these complex problems. Responding to them requires that we resist one-size-fits-all responses.

There is reason to think it is a mistake to premise our entire response to campus sexual misconduct primarily on a serial predator model. Predators exist, but many people who cause harm are not incorrigible. Some do not realize the hurt they have caused; many do not accept that they violated consent. They too easily rationalize their behavior, reinforced by a broader set of cultural norms that objectify women, trivialize sexual encounters, and indulge drunken hook-ups. By understanding the real-life contexts of assault, we can generate better methods for processing the wide range of cases that occur.

The majority of campus assaults happen behind closed doors and often begin with some level of mutual sexual consent. Consent to kissing does not mean consent to sexual intercourse. But administrators who adjudicate sexual assault complaints must sort through conflicting stories told by people with impaired memories, typically without corroborating physical evidence, and come to a finding that has significant consequences for both parties. Even those deeply committed to reducing sexual violence face a daunting administrative task.

Many incidents of misconduct are perpetrated by one friend or acquaintance upon another; frequently by people who are too drunk to think and communicate clearly; sometimes by people with little sexual experience and much sexual anxiety; sometimes after undue badgering by peers who prioritize sexual quantification over healthy relationships. And such people are swimming in a sea of sexist and sexually-objectifying pornography and other media that reinforce toxic masculinity, perpetuate rape myths like “no means yes,” and highlight stories of high-ranking officials (like presidents and Supreme Court justices) who glibly dismiss accusations of causing serious sexual harm. The problem is too large to suspend our way out of it, although we try.

A recent history of seeking to address campus sexual assault

For nearly a decade, campus administrators have responded to the grassroots student movement and to federal oversight, both demanding greater attention to campus sexual violence. Campuses have revised their policies and procedures to make it easier for students to report assaults and file complaints. Some have walked to the edge of due process in an attempt to make it easier for accusers to be heard. Yet sexual violence continues to remain highly underreported. Few survivors avail themselves of these new, legalistic hearing processes. And when they do, many remain dissatisfied with the outcome.

Evolving Responses

The student movement that raised awareness about campus sexual assault a decade ago initially demanded that university administrators take the problem seriously and punish students with suspension and expulsion. But this movement has evolved. As an alternative to punishment in some cases, many survivors are now asking for a process that provides accountability through acknowledgment of harm and pathways to prevention. Often, they want their stories believed, for the student to apologize for the transgression, and to be reassured that the behavior will not be repeated.

Leading student sexual assault activists such as Sofie Karasek, an assault survivor herself, call for new approaches: “We need institutional responses to sexual harm that prioritize both justice and healing, not one at the expense of the other.” At Princeton University, student activists recently issued a set of 11 demands. Number three on their list: “The establishment of an opt-in restorative justice track for survivors who wish to avoid the process of Title IX proceedings.”

Is it possible to create conditions where a student who has caused sexual harm can admit fault and take responsibility for it? In a world that simultaneously celebrates sexual conquest and vilifies sex offenders, how can someone be held accountable for crossing an unacceptable line without paying a permanent price in social exclusion? Is there an alternative to our current adversarial model, which drives a permanent wedge between victim and offender and nearly forces accused students into an entrenched position of defensive denial?

Restorative justice alternative

restorative justice (RJ) approach to campus sexual harm is a radical alternative to current systems. It is premised on the optimistic possibility that many people who might cause harm can learn to be better sexual partners, to authentically and transparently communicate during sex, and to attend to nonverbal cues that indicate (or fail to indicate) consent. It is also premised on the notion that people who cause harm can regret it and can want to do something to take responsibility and regain others’ trust in them—something restorative theorists call “earned redemption.”

Two principles are fundamental to a restorative approach. (1) It is a voluntary option reserved only for victims and accused students who agree to engage in it; RJ does not replace current systems. (2) The starting place for an RJ process is the accused student’s admission of causing harm; it is not an adversarial process subjecting the survivor to an argument about facts. The purpose is straightforward: it is a process designed to identify harms, needs, and obligations to try to make a terrible situation better. Although restorative justice is often equated with a facilitated dialogue between victim and offender, it is better understood as a philosophical approach focused on identifying and repairing harm. The approach has a clear intention, but not a fixed practice. Face-to-face dialogue is not required and many survivors would not choose it. Nevertheless, they may still wish to communicate their needs and have the person who caused harm acknowledge their wrongdoing and do something to help right the wrong.

A whole campus model of restorative justice includes three layers of action. The foundation is skill-building for interpersonal competence. Community-building circles are structured but intimate dialogues about topics of consequence, such as the nature of consent, hook-up culture, toxic masculinity, or the close association of drinking and sexual violence. In these dialogues, students do not simply get told the rules, but share with each other their honest concerns and set clear normative standards for their micro-communities, such as a first-year seminar, residence hall floor, or athletic team. This foundational layer is grounded in a public health model of primary prevention.

A second layer includes restorative responses to incidents of sexual misconduct and harm. Students may choose to participate in a restorative process as an alternative to a formal hearing, or more likely, as an alternative to doing nothing at all. The goals are accountability, student learning and development, safety planning, and personal healing. Such responses are not limited to the key stakeholders, since the fallout from such incidents of harm often extends into their larger peer groups. And they are not limited to interpersonal harms, but may include restorative responses to sexist misconduct such as “rape chants” and offensive social media posts that have a deleterious effect on campus climate.

A third layer of restorative response attends to the messy process of reintegration after a student has been found in violation of a campus sexual misconduct policy and suspended for it. The suspension itself may satisfy retributive demands but it rarely provides reassurance to the survivor or broader campus community that the student has learned anything from the sanction and will be responsible moving forward. Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) are a restorative model based on a highly successful model for managing sex offender reentry from prison. Campus CoSAs are groups of trained volunteers that meet with the returning students, often on a regular basis, to simultaneously provide them with social support to help them successfully graduate and to monitor them and address any early red flags to reduce risk of reoffending.

Powerful objections

There are some powerful objections to the idea of restorative justice. It may not send the message of moral outrage as clearly as retributive justice. It may put survivors in a situation that re-traumatizes them. It may be used by administrators to avoid costly hearings or litigation or bad press. RJ facilitators may be poorly trained or incompetent. These are risks. Rigorous research is needed to assess how serious they are and how effective a restorative approach can be. Nevertheless, the current models seem to be failing many students and restorative justice approaches offer one promising alternative.

The symposium editors sought to clarify a few particulars.

Q: You say that restorative justice doesn’t replace current systems. But it seems that a guy would be very reluctant to participate in a dialogue that involves acknowledging accountability if there was a chance that his confession could be used against him if the woman later files charges. Any provisions to protect him from that?

Yes, this is a significant hurdle. I’m working on a law review article right now that will include a template MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) as an agreement between the campus and the local District Attorney to provide some reassurance for a “reverse Miranda rule”–what’s said in the RJ process won’t be used against them later. Better solutions will require state legislation to protect the confidentiality of the process. In addition, campuses are having students sign confidentiality agreements and/or agree that if they choose the RJ process they would be unable to pursue a hearing later. Finally, according to Coker, some programs are asking students to formally “admit to causing harm,” but not necessarily admit to a conduct or Title IX violation.

Q: Also, you talk about a third layer after a student has been found in violation and suspended. But the first two layers don’t involve such formal punishments. What is the relationship between having this dialogue and then getting suspended, or getting suspended and then having this dialogue? 

It’s an awkward relationship. Reintegration circles are designed to follow from formal processes, not RJ processes. They are meant to address the problem of victim/community anxiety or anger about the return of a student after suspension. I published an article recently that was a case study of one such process. In that case, supporters of the offender were quite angry about how the formal process was handled, alleging racial bias, and a lot of the circle was dedicated to addressing that concern. The circle was also focused on developing plans to manage the student’s mental health and address his wish to study abroad. Of course, reentry circles would also be valuable for social support after an RJ process in which the participants voluntarily decide it is best for the student to take a leave of absence. That’s not a suspension, merely an agreement that the leave is the best way forward.

David R. Karp, PhD, is a Professor of Leadership at the University of San Diego, dkarp@sandiego.edu.

Each year, U.S. child protection authorities, tasked with responding to child abuse and neglect, investigate the families of over three million children, disproportionately poor, Black, and Native American children. A staggering one in three children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood. In a new study, sociologist Kelley Fong finds that professionals frequently refer families to Child Protective Services to get them help. But because CPS is a coercive institution, not a social service one, this often undermines families in marginalized communities.  

Despite its goal of protecting children, Child Protective Services (CPS) has some troubling features in common with policing in the United States. That’s the conclusion of “The Tool We Have”: Why Child Protective Services Investigates So Many Families and How Even Good Intentions Backfire, released by the Council on Contemporary Families. Kelley Fong, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology, explains “how, with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them.”  Dr. Fong notes, “As with the police, this expansive reliance on authorities with coercive power fosters fear and mistrust” — even when CPS finds parents are not maltreating.

The data: Interviews with people who refer families to the CPS, CPS investigators, and the moms who were investigated. To understand why CPS encounters are so commonplace, especially for marginalized families, Dr. Fong observed CPS investigations in Connecticut and interviewed approximately 100 key participants on these cases: professionals reporting suspected child maltreatment or neglect, frontline investigators, and investigated mothers. Many reporting professionals understand that CPS may not be appropriate but feel it is the only “tool we have.” As a result, referring to CPS —like calling the police — becomes a kind of catch-all reaction to non-criminal problems, in this case to get support services for families in need:

Reporting professionals almost always want CPS to provide supportive services, reasoning that CPS has more information about available and appropriate services. But CPS investigators, like reporting professionals, are often unable to address families’ persistent needs, and the fact that they come in with the power to remove children puts marginalized families in a legal but also a psychological vise.

Embracing CPS reporting as a means of rehabilitating families disproportionately exposes marginalized families to CPS’s coercive authority, and, paradoxically, that leads to less help and more mistrust.

Moms: “I was so scared.” Fong’s interviews with investigated mothers reveal the heart of the drama that can unfold with CPS.

CPS investigations foster substantial anxiety among investigated families. In these investigations the threat of removal is ever-present–even if unstated. “I couldn’t speak. The only thing that crossed my mind was that they were going to take them away,” recalled one mother. “I always thought that their job is to come in and take a child from their family,” another reflected. “Oh my God. You don’t understand. I was so scared.”

CPS reports can also lead parents to distance themselves from reporting systems. One mother, reported to CPS for using marijuana during pregnancy, hesitated to speak openly with healthcare providers afterwards. After giving birth, she worried she was experiencing postpartum depression. But, she explained, “I don’t tell them any of that because I don’t need them to say, oh, she’s going through postpartum. She’s gonna hurt the baby.”

Where this leads: “In asking CPS—like the police, armed with tools of surveillance and coercion—to take on all manner of social problems, we further traumatize and marginalize families,” Fong explains. She argues that changes in training and development of support-oriented crisis response teams would be better aligned with many of the family needs that are often handed off to CPS.

When you see the fist, you panic. Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research, observes: “Fong’s CPS findings parallel what happens when we ask police to respond to problems that social workers should be dealing with. In both cases, people who’ve been trained to coerce and punish bad actors are asked to get needy people out of bad situations.  We tell people wearing a gauntleted fist to extend a helping hand. They aren’t trained to do that, and even when they try, many people only see the fist and they panic.”

Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology; ktfong@gatech.edu.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-release/
Preprint of underlying new study: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/kfong/files/fong_asr.pdf

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.