photo credit: Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

A recent study by Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer found that 50 percent of Americans feel that by law women should have to take their husbands’ last name. Shafer suggested in an interview that this is a fundamental cultural view: Women should prioritize family over themselves. Such cultural views are evident in other decisions that couples make. Consider the case of the “trailing spouse”—in which one partner follows the other, most commonly a wife follows a husband, almost as if it is part of what it means to be a wife or husband. Thing is, this can happen outside of marriage, too. Women—college women, like me, about to graduate—follow men in support of the man’s career and often at the expense of their own. There are many theories as to why this happens from gender roles to economic practicality to differences in job flexibility. But, I’m not here to talk about theory.

Instead, as a senior in college who is in a relationship, I would like to openly challenge the acceptance of this norm. I am committed to my career goals, such as publishing my own research and working on social policy and to my relationship. I simply relate more to a “backs together facing the world” model than one in which either of us feels the pressure to follow the other at the expense of our own aspirations. I am in good shape: my partner, a lovely guy also about to graduate from college, and I agree on this. Do we want to live with or near each other? Yes. But, we are also both ambitious and are aware that our careers may lead us to separate places at times. This is okay. Loving your work and loving your partner are not mutually exclusive.

Given my views, you can imagine how I felt when reading that half of Americans believe women should legally have to take a man’s last name in marriage. In a world where I feel empowered enough to say yes my relationship matters, and yes my career matters, too, it is disheartening to see the prominence of an opposing worldview. To be clear: I believe name changing is not just a quaint tradition, but also a kind of submission, that can perpetuate the cultural expectation that women should follow men. Following is not the only way to make a relationship work—and there is a lot of research on the new normal in egalitarian relationships and couples satisfaction that suggest that following might not be the best way. That is not to say that studies cannot point to how egalitarian ideals can fall down. But who wants to start out with abandoning egalitarian ideals, by following, or by name changing.

Where do I go from here? Wherever my work takes me.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

Journalists’ fixation on objectivity resulted in an embarrassment of deceptive comparisons during the election. Reporters’ use of false equivalencies, oversimplifying one shared trait to compare issues, bears a remarkable resemblance to reporting practices that have impeded progress for women. For example, the myth that women abuse their partners at comparable rates as men is partly attributable to false equivalency reporting, distorting what people believe causes domestic violence and how they imagine solving it.

false-equivalences

The parallels don’t stop there. Attempts to undermine mainstream news are emblematic of the ways men discredit women’s voices. Russian internet trolls spread propaganda during the election, using similar tactics as virtually organized “fathers’ rights” groups who denounce biased child custody cases—despite research showing alleged abusers are twice as likely to be awarded custody than protective parents. Pervasive faux controversies during the election distracted from policy debates, resembling the way the decades-long preoccupation with “mommy wars” delegitimized discussion of policies designed to help women meet work and family demands. The problems of both-sides reporting is akin to comparing ill-informed men’s opinions on reproductive health policy to health providers’ expert recommendations.

Amid the post-election disappointment that another glass ceiling would not be shattered, there is a silver lining in increased demands for better journalism. New research is asking why people believe lies. The commentary generated by a Teen Vogue article and the cancellation of the television show Good Girls Revolt spotlighted the importance of bringing underrepresented groups to the table. And there is hope that changing how news is reported can alter public opinion. After journalists began reporting climate change denial as misinformation, almost 10 percent more Americans acknowledged the seriousness of global warming than the previous year. Mainstream pleas for quality journalism offer an opportunity to improve reporting important to our democracy, and to women’s equality.

Joanna Rae Pepin (@CoffeeBaseball) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Her research examines the intersection of the transformation of families and progress towards gender equality. Her current projects investigate the mechanisms behind the way couples share money within their families, and how these in turn shape power dynamics within romantic relationships.

 

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Today, the black woman has been sexualized and objectified in more ways than one. With the degradation of the black woman, the value and uniqueness of them has been ignored. The media offers a made-up truth about black women, and society has swallowed this stereotype. This means Hollywood has a narrow perspective of black women, and only represents a select few. In movies and TV, black women are either a struggling single mom or a successful strong business woman who can’t find love anywhere. Issa Rae, the creator of the hit HBO show Insecure, has come to not only change this narrow-minded portrayal of black women but to also show the many types of women within the black community alone. We are all different.

Insecure is a sequel of the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that follows Issa, played by Issa Rae. Issa is a 29-year-old “insecure” woman who struggles with everyone’s depiction of her. Although she tries to defy them, stereotypes seem to follow her and ignorant questions become the norm of her everyday life. Issa Rae’s content follows the different sides of women of color and how multidimensional Hollywood’s depiction SHOULD be. Insecure is just what we need in today’s Hollywood and so I looked for a TV fan who could offer some analysis. I found Janelle Jones, whose work I read as a student of inequality. Janelle Jones is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Her work focuses on unemployment, job quality, racial inequality, and economic development. She is an alum of Spelman College, where of which she received her BA in Math. She has an MA in Economics from Illinois State University.

Here’s my conversation with Janelle:

Q: Issa Rae believes that Hollywood’s representation of black women isn’t relatable. Do you think Issa Rae is achieving her goal to change that representation?

JJ: I think Hollywood representations of black women are incredibly narrow, and that makes them not relatable to so many. There are three common depictions that have even the slightest focus on black women: some kind of tragic tale about struggle and redemption, black women as the sassy best friend, or black women in the strict position of service. The thing I love the most about Issa Rae and Insecure is this complete human story that centers on a black woman. The HBO series is an extension of her popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (great title). The ability for black women to be silly and awkward is not something we get to see on mainstream television.

Q: What direction can we go in (what else needs to be done) for Hollywood moving forward?

JJ: Shows like Insecure (and Atlanta) are taking huge steps forward by showing complete stories centered on very normal aspects of black life. Another huge step would be more people of color behind the scenes, as directors, writers, producers, etc. Part of telling a genuine black experience on TV is making sure that story is in black hands throughout the process, from conception until it reaches the audience. This is particularly hard to do when only certain aspects of the production process are entirely white. The fact that four blacks, Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, and Larry Wilmore, are in charge of every part of Insecure is obvious, from the dialogue to the fashion to the soundtrack to the locations.

Q: As a Spelman alumna, you’ve probably met women of color from different walks of life. Do you agree with Issa Rae about Hollywood’s representation of black women?

JJ: The first and most lasting lesson I learned at Spelman is that black women are not a monolith. At times there feels a societal need to put us in very rigid boxes: strong, maternal, angry, loud, etc. To me, Issa is saying that black women are those things but also friends and lovers, and awkward, and ambitious, and flawed. And because Issa is the creative force behind the show, and not just the main actor, it feels very real. The experiences of black women filtered through the white gaze feel very different than Insecure. It’s that authenticity that I think black women specifically recognize, respect, and enjoy it.

My second favorite thing about the show is the representation of black female friendship. I can’t think of another show (other than Girlfriends) that illustrates only black women who are true friends. When asked about this aspect of the show in an interview a few months ago, I love Issa’s response: “It’s so important to show that black women do have friends,” Rae says with a sarcastic edge. “We’re not all just fighting and punching each other and cursing each other out and ending up on the Shade Room together.”

Eunice Owusu is a sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs intern.

 

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My desk top

Sex gets used a lot of ways–and a number of them are not about shared pleasure and connection. I have written about political sex scandals and the way generations of youth get shamed about their sexual norms. Though it may be facile, I find myself noting “the more things change, the more they remain the same” — the issues change a little bit but the use of sex as a tool of power and control, not so much.

This is sex as political football. Sometimes the games have the veneer of lightness, like a game you play after Thanksgiving dinner. Today, though, I was writing about the use of rape as tool of war.

In 1996 the International War Crimes Tribunal focused on rape  in the Bosnian war, and prosecuted people involved. Discussion of one of those prosecutions was here, and this quotation gripped me:

In a reply to his accusers, Mr. Mejakic, who along with others under indictment remains safely in Serb territory, described Ms. Cigelj as being old and unattractive; he added that he wouldn’t have leaned his bicycle against her, much less raped her.

And then I looked at this, from 20 years later, last month:

Donald Trump on Thursday adamantly denied claims he forced himself on a People Magazine journalist more than a decade ago, responding to her accusation of sexual assault by saying, “Look at her … I don’t think so.”

That’s today’s brief reflection on normalization, 1996-2016.

abortion book coverThe thought of publishing a book is very seductive. A book offers the opportunity to explain ideas in detail. For some, it signifies an academic arrival. Once you publish a book, you are officially part of the knowledge production machine, you have a compelling way to engage the conversation. My book, on abortion politics [Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America], was meant to be that.

But this story is not about the intensity of the topic, but the intensity of the book. I love my book. I am proud of it. But the process stunned me. It took four years for my book to get published (from the initial submission to its publication) and I had almost no contact with my editor during the revision or publication process. I learned that the reality of publishing a book does not always live up to the Hollywood montage that plays out in our minds. This may sound obvious…but it surprised me.

When I am asked to give advice on writing a book, I answer: You need to be practical about your book. Here are a few things to consider when you get serious about moving a book from the montage in your mind to reality.

How your institution and department feel about books? When I arrived at Florida State University, I learned that my department was fine with my publishing a book. The provost at the time, however, was not. His part-true, part-disciplinarily parochial view was that books are just dissertations that publishers agreed to put in print, again. After I was done feeling disappointed, I realized I would have to be careful about when I published a book on the same topic as my dissertation. I didn’t want to spend years on a book that ultimately hurt (rather than helped) my career.

What are the publication expectations for promotion or just keeping your job? These vary dramatically by institution, but are important to your decision-making. If you are at an R-1, then your book might only count if it is published by a “top tier” press, which will be interpreted however the powers-that-be see fit. In this situation, you want to do the background work to figure out the prevailing definition of “top tier” and determine exactly what will make that book count. For example, some institutions want the book published and reviewed before they will count the book toward promotion. If you have more publishing leeway, think of the academic publishing universe as your proverbial oyster! There are a number of exciting academic presses that don’t have university in their title (think Routledge, Sage, Polity, and Ashgate) but are publishing great stuff. Use this opportunity to find a good fit for you.

How long can you wait to get reviews? How about for your book to come out?  You can hardly believe the variability in review times for academic publishers. I waited over a year for two reviews! I made good use of the reviews, and revised the book in less than six months. Then I waited another year for the contract. Others put in this kind of time and never got that contract. For me, I actually stepped up the pace by shopping my manuscript around to other publishers and obtaining competing contracts. Be aware, getting competing contracts can be tricky business, particularly since some of the big-wig publishers do not allow you to submit your manuscript elsewhere while it is under review. I also asked a friend to contact the editor on my behalf. It was tough: The top-tier press would help me with the promotion and raise I sought. But there were otherwise very attractive features to other publishers.

Do you really want to write a book? Think hard about whether writing a book will bring you pleasure. I (half) jokingly refer to academia as the “profession of pain,” and truly believe it is critical to find pleasure in our work where we can. I really enjoyed writing my book and, despite the lingering bad taste in my mouth about the process, I am really pleased with my final product. Writing, for me, is bliss. I love to get comments and rewrite (something, by the way, that you cannot always count on an editor to do). Others have observed that I get grouchy on the days I cannot write due to other professional obligations. This isn’t true for everyone. If writing the equivalent of ten papers in a row with minimal feedback doesn’t sound appealing, you should think seriously about creating a writing plan that doesn’t look or feel like torture, or put off writing that book for now.

We are awash in books. My home and office are crowded with bookshelves packed with the fiction and nonfiction books that I’ve read and want to read. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I had a romanticized understanding of the academic publishing industry. While I am sure that I still have much to learn, I am finishing up my second sole-authored book. The process is going much better. My editor is excited about the book and, even though the deadline is looming large, so am I.

Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology at Florida State University.  She is the author of Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America (2015). Learn more about Deana’s work at www.DeanaRohlinger.com.

Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)
Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)

Here’s what we know: Even with a college degree, young blacks still face lower employment rates and higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. I’ve shown previously that young blacks are entering and completing college at higher rates than in the past. The third report of my Young Black America series examined the employment and unemployment rates of young blacks and whites from 1979 to 2014, and I made a striking discovery: Employment gaps between blacks and whites have become worse since the onset of the Great Recession. The jobs recovery, apparently, is not colorblind.

From 1979 until the Great Recession, young blacks with college degrees had employment rates that were basically the same as their white counterparts. However, once the recession hit, employment rates decreased for all – even those with college degrees. At the same time, the gap between blacks and whites widened, with college-educated young blacks being 3.9 percentage points less likely to be employed than their white peers (see Figure 1).

figure 1 bucknor part 3In 2007, 87.2 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 88.3 percent of their white counterparts were as well. Both rates bottomed out in 2011, with a black employment rate of 80.3 percent and a white employment rate of 86.3 percent. This gap of 6 percentage points for college-educated young blacks and whites represents the largest racial employment gap since 1979.

In 2014, employment rates still hadn’t fully recovered, with young blacks having more ground to make up than whites. During that year, 83.3 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 87.0 percent of young whites, for a racial employment gap of 3.7 percentage points. Young blacks with college degrees had an employment rate that was still 3.9 percentage points below their pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees were only 1.3 percentage points below their pre-recession employment level.

The data on unemployment rates tell a similar story. Even with a college degree, unemployment is a fact of life for many young blacks. In 2007, the unemployment rate of young college-educated blacks was 4.6 percent, 2.8 percentage points above their white counterparts (see Figure 2). Black unemployment peaked in 2010 at 9.1 percent, more than twice the rate of whites (4.2 percent). In 2014, black unemployment dropped to 6.4 percent, still 1.8 percentage points higher than its pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, 0.8 percentage points higher than their unemployment rate in 2007.figure 2 bucknor part 3

Looking at young blacks overall can often mask the different experiences of black men and women. This is certainly true for unemployment rates during the recession and recovery. Black men were hit harder during the recession, and still have higher unemployment rates than black women. In 2007, young black men with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, and black women had an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. These rates peaked in 2010 at 10.7 percent and 8.0 percent for black men and women respectively, before falling to 7.1 percent and 5.9 percent in 2014.

By contrast, throughout most of the recession and recovery, white men and women have had virtually identical unemployment rates.

These numbers show that employment and unemployment rates of college-educated young blacks are still far from their pre-recession levels, suggesting that the economic recovery is incomplete. They saw their employment rate drop 6.9 percentage points during the recession, and have only recovered 3.0 percentage points. Their unemployment rate increased 4.5 percentage points, and recovered 2.7 percentage points. Despite the gains in educational attainment that I found in earlier reports in this series, there are still noticeable racial and gender differences in labor market outcomes.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

Tina Pittman Wagers is a clinical psychologist and teaches psychology at University of Colorado Boulder. August 2014 she survived a heart attack. September 2014 she first posted this column. The repost today is in connection with her presentation today at the Stanford MedX conference about her experience, insight, and new research agenda.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon one year and six weeks ago.
Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon one year and six weeks ago; then came the really difficult challenge.

I am new to this role as a heart patient. My heart attack was five weeks ago, and I am getting the feeling that I have just begun down the confusing maze of angiograms, CT scans, EKGs, medications (and lots of ’em), heart rate monitors, cardiac rehab classes and blood tests. Indeed, even the phrase “my cardiologist” is one I never thought would pass my lips. Here’s why: I am 53 (we’ll discuss the significance of this age in a moment). I am fit, active, slim, haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years and am a big fan of kale, salmon and quinoa, much to the chagrin of my two teenage sons. I live near the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, where I hike with my dog and often a friend or two, almost every day. I had completed a sprint triathlon two weeks before my heart attack. Ironically, this event was a fundraiser for women with breast cancer – it turns out that heart disease kills women with more frequency than breast cancer. But, hey, who knew?

My heart attack happened while I was swimming across a lake in Cascade, Idaho. I was about a quarter mile into the swim when I found that I couldn’t breathe, and was grabbed by an oddly cold and simultaneously searing band of pain about three inches wide across my sternum. My husband, Ken, was on a paddleboard nearby and helped pull me out of the water, and started paddling me back, stopping to allow me to vomit on the way back to shore. If you’ve never been on a paddleboard, it may be hard to imagine the balance it takes to paddle relatively quickly and keep the board from getting tipped over by the unpredictable movements of a heaving passenger in the midst of a heart attack. Suffice to say that I am grateful for Ken’s strength and balance in innumerable ways. An hour later, I was at a clinic in McCall, Idaho, where an astute ER doc was measuring my heart rate (very low) and heart attack-indicative enzyme called Triponin (rising) so I won an ambulance ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. I received excellent care there, queued up for an angiogram the next morning and was diagnosed with SCAD: a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, and, fortunately, a relatively mild one. Twenty percent of SCADs are fatal. Furthermore, I have none of the typical risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

I do have one of the main risk factors for this kind of heart attack, though: I am a woman. Eighty percent of these heart attacks occur in women. The average SCAD patient is 42, female and is without other typical risk factors for heart attacks. The current thinking about SCADs is that they are not as rare as originally thought, but are under- diagnosed because they happen in women who don’t look like typical heart patients.

Another related factor: I am menopausal. The majority of SCAD patients are post-partum, close to their menstrual cycle or menopausal – all times in women’s lives during which we experience significant fluctuations of sex hormones. Up until five days before my heart attack, I had been on low doses of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), in an effort to vanquish the hot flashes, sleep disruption and cognitive fogginess I was experiencing. I suppose HRT might have also represented an attempt to hang on to youth, in a youth-and sexuality-obsessed culture in which the transition to menopause often means a dysregulated and sweaty march into irrelevance.

Since I had my heart attack, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, but that’s another column) interacting with professionals in the cardiology world, trying to figure out what happened to me, and how I can avoid having another SCAD – the rate of recurrence in my population is about 20-50 percent. I have encountered some lovely people, but almost all of them are baffled about what to do with me. I am atypical, as they inevitably explain, but the medications, the treatments, the rehab programs that they have to offer are designed for typical patients. So, that’s what my doctors try, but there is a lot of “voodoo vs. science” as one cardiologist explained, because science doesn’t have the answers to my questions. (I would add that there is a cardiologist, Dr. Sharonne Hayes at The Mayo Clinic, who is doing a lot of the research and seeing the patients who’ve had SCADs. I hope to meet her one day. I imagine a scene something like my 13-year-old self meeting David Cassidy, only in an exam room in Rochester, Minnesota– it’ll be just that cool.)

One of the factors that contributed heavily to my medical predicament was no doubt my menopausal and HRT status. The American Heart Association points out that lower estrogen levels in post-menopausal women contributes to less flexible arterial walls, clearly a factor in SCADs. The question then arises: how might HRT help prevent another heart attack? However, as anyone who’s even scratched the surface of the HRT world, there is a lot of conflicting data about who should use HRT, who shouldn’t, what the benefits and risks are, and what the differences may be between different formulations and methods of delivery of HRT. One study, the Women’s Health Initiative study, was a large study started in the early 1990s, and was a valiant attempt to gather data about the effects of HRT on women’s health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the average age of the women in this study was 63 – 12 years older than the typical age of the American woman hitting menopause and considering HRT, so the results have been criticized for their poor generalizability to newly menopausal women.  The research on HRT since the WHI study has been scattered, often contradictory, and hard for the average woman to access.

Why do we know so little about women and heart attacks, why they happen, what the symptoms are, and what we can do about hormonal factors that contribute? A big part of the problem is that, until the National Institute of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act in 1993, researchers largely excluded female humans from their studies. NIH has just this year (2014!) decided to use a balance of male and female cells and animals in their research. Up until now, 90 percent of the animal research has been conducted on males. Animal research, which is often a precursor to clinical trials in humans, has been missing out on vast pieces of investigation related to the female body. I am living (fortunately) proof of the fact that the delays in including females in research have translated into significant gaps in clinically relevant knowledge related to women’s health. Well-meaning physicians and practitioners only have the “typical” approaches to try with their “atypical” patients. Why this appalling delay to include female subjects? Because female rodents as well as humans experience menstruation and menopause, which are frequently considered dysregulating nuisances to many scientists. As a consequence, we have an enormous amount of catching up to do in order to understand what factors affect female bodies and health problems in different ways than our male peers.

Emma Watson gave a great talk last week to the UN about feminism meaning equal access to resources. One of the most important resources we have is scientific knowledge that can be applied to responsible, effective and efficient clinical care. Let’s hope that women can start to be understood as typical research subjects and patients, not as inconvenient, fluctuating, atypical anomalies.

Women – and black women in particular – have seen significant improvements in high school completion rates since the turn of the century, almost cutting in half the black-white gap for women during that time, as I shared last month. But has that meant an increase in college entry and completion – especially since a college degree should demand higher wages in the labor market?

The second report in my Young Black America series of reports examined just that. I found that Figure 1young black women and men are entering and completing college at higher levels than in the past. Yet, these gains haven’t been enough to noticeably close the gap between them and their white counterparts.

From 1980 to 2013, women had higher college entry rates than men, with white women having the highest entry rates of all (see Figure 1). In 1980, 46.9 percent of 19-year-old white women had entered college (including community college). The college entry rate for white men was 41.0 percent and the rate for black women was 40.0 percent. Black men had the lowest entry rate of 25.9 percent, 14.1 percentage points lower than that of black women.

Since then, college entry rates have significantly increased, with most of the increases occurring between 1980 and 1990. During that time, entry rates for both black and white women increased about 20 percentage points, and rates for white men increased 22 percentage points. College entry rates for black men increased the most, rising 29 percentage points from 1980 to 1990.

Despite making the most progress in entry rates, young black men still lag behind black women and whites. In 2013, the entry rate of black men was 60.0 percent, 34.1 percentage points higher than their entry rate in 1980. However, this rate was still 6.6 percentage points less than black women, 9.0 percentage points less than white men, and 17.9 percentage points less than white women.

Figure 2But entry is different from completion. The data on racial gaps in college completion rates were even more striking. Although my analysis of high school completion rates showed a significant convergence between black and white women, the exact opposite is the case with college completion rates (see Figure 2). In 1980, 11.5 percent of 25-year-old black women had completed college with a bachelor’s degree or higher. During the same year, the college completion rate of white women was 21.3 percent, for a black-white gap of 9.8 percentage points.

Things got worse not better: In 2013, the gap in college completion rates between black and white women was 21.4 percentage points, with completion rates of 19.7 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively. The same is true among men. In 1980, the black-white gap in completion rates for men was 12.9 percentage points, and it increased to 17.6 percent in 2013.

These growing rather than shrinking gaps confirm that there’s more work to be done. Young blacks are 30 percentage points more likely to enter college than in 1980, with entry rates increasing 26.6 percentage points for black women and 34.1 percentage points for black men. These are significant improvements, but remain far behind their white counterparts. Young blacks also still lag almost 20 percentage points behind young whites in college completion rates.

But the growth—rather than continued decline—in black-white gaps highlights the need to examine why these racial gaps persist, and in the case of completion rates, continue to widen.

Increases in educational attainment are important, but not just for their own sake. College degrees should lead to higher employment rates, wages, and other labor market outcomes. However, large gaps in completion rates are likely to result in sizable racial disparities in these outcomes. Upcoming installments of my Young Black America series will examine whether that is in fact the case.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons

Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders “Are Students Really Asking?” for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.

As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).

There’s no obvious sexual script to follow in queer sex (e.g. “man pursues woman, begging to put his penis in her vagina”). Even what may seem like the most obvious case—sex between two gay men—is not obvious. The majority of sexual encounters between gay men in the US don’t involve penis-anus penetration but they usually involve 5-9 different sexual behaviors that occur in over 1,300 unique combinations. Even with anal sex, we still have to talk about who wants to “top” and “bottom.” So for us, communicating about what we want is less of a strange new requirement imposed by decree—Keenan’s word—of state legislature or university president than a normal matter of course.

Lest you write us queers off as weird and complicated, straight sex isn’t as simple as Hollywood would have us believe. Research on women’s orgasms by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty shows that straight college students also perform a wide variety of sexual acts in a wide variety of combinations. And, importantly, they highlight how un-communicated sexual expectations among straight partners lead to misunderstandings, unsatisfying sex, and even sexual assault.

One of the men Keenan interviewed was initially defensive, as if affirmative consent were an attack on men categorically as sexual abusers of women. Again, from my queer perspective this seems a bit silly. When two men have sex, we still need consent, and it has nothing to do with one of us being a “vulnerable woman” or the other being a “predatory man.” Even in heterosexual encounters, men are sometimes assaulted by women (albeit less often than the reverse). This highlights the real target of consent campaigns: people who feel entitled to sexual activity without regard for their partner’s willingness. (Entitlement and willingness are, of course, deeply gendered.)

I’m not trying to say communicating about sex is easy at first or doesn’t need to be learned/taught. But it’s really not so strange or new once we step outside strictly scripted heteronomative roles—roles that are too narrow even for most straight sex (let alone things like pegging). Likewise, concerns that consent campaigns are an attack on men only make sense within those narrow sexual scripts as well. If queer sex has taught me anything, it’s that communication, far from being an onerous burden, is a part of the fun.

Jeffrey Lockhart is the principal investigator of an international study of LGBTQ college students and a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He can be found tweeting at @jw_lockhart.

Often, when we see improvements by all (be it in educational attainment, income, health, etc.), we overlook the fact that gender or racial gaps still persist or have even gotten worse. There has been much attention given, and rightfully so, to all of the progress that women, and black women in particular have made. But, what about where women stand in relation to men? Or where black women stand in relation to white women? If significant gaps still persist, can we be satisfied with the progress we’ve made? Or is there still work left to be done?

As a young black woman, sociologist, and researcher at an economic policy think tank, I am particularly sensitive to this and make a point to address these issues in my work at CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research). It’s part of the reason why I began my Young Black America series of reports that strive to answer the question, “What’s going on with young blacks today?” An important goal of the series is to explore the intersection of race and gender while tackling the issues facing young people today.

From "Young Black  America" part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research
From “Young Black America” part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research

The first report in the series found that there is positive news on both the gender and racial dimensions in regard to high school completion rates. After decades of mostly stagnant and depressing numbers, both women and men have seen marked improvements in high school completion rates since 2000. Furthermore, throughout the entire period I looked at (1975-2013), women overall have achieved higher completion rates than men.

But, what I found most interesting was what happens when you throw race into the mix. In 1975, 88.7 percent of white women between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed high school with either a high school diploma or a GED. During that same year, the rate for black women was only 76.9 percent, for a black-white gap of 11.9 percentage points. Since then, white women have maintained this sizable advantage, which averaged about 11 percentage points through 2000. In 2000, the completion rates for black and white women were 79.0 percent, and 90.6 percent, respectively.

Fortunately, since 2000 there has been a significant convergence in completion rates for black and white women. The completion rate of black women has increased 10.4 percentage points since the turn of the century, reaching 89.4 percent in 2013. During the same time, the completion rate of white women increased at a slower pace and stood at 94.5 percent in 2013. The result was a much smaller black-white completion gap of 5.1 percentage points – 57 percent less than the gap in 1975.

Closing achievement gaps should be an important part of any economic agenda. While a lot of attention is given to racial and gender achievement gaps separately, the double burden of being both a woman and a racial minority can present a unique problem for black women.

So, yes, we should take a moment or two to celebrate these accomplishments. The high school completion rates of young women are at their highest ever, and remain higher than the rates of men. Although black women still lag behind their white counterparts, this gap has been trending downward for more than a decade and hopefully will continue to do so.

But as we all know, in order to realize racial and gender economic equality, education is just one piece of the puzzle. Increases in high school completion rates are important because they widen the pool of potential college entrants and graduates – with a college degree becoming increasingly necessary in today’s economy. However, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee labor market success, as my former colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at CEPR have shown. We must not ignore issues of racial and gender discrimination, or other structural issues that are at the root of many of the economic problems we face in this country. Subsequent reports in my Young Black America series will address these and other issues facing young blacks.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America.@cherriebucknor