A different version of this post was originally published at Timeline.

To get some perspective on the long term trend in divorce, we need to check some common assumptions. Most importantly, we have to shake the idea that the trend is just moving in one direction, tracking a predictable course from “olden days” to “nowadays.”

It’s so common to think of society developing in on direction over time that people rarely realize they are doing it. Regardless of political persuasion, people tend to collapse history into then versus now whether they’re using specific dates and facts or just imagining the sweep of history.

In reality, sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not true that society has a direction of change over a long time period. Some social trends are pretty clear, such as population growth, longevity, wealth, or the expansion of education. But when you look more closely, and narrow the focus to the last century or so, it turns out that even the trends that are following some path of progress aren’t moving linearly, and the fluctuations can be the big story.

Demography provides many such examples. For example, although it’s certainly true that Americans have fewer children now than they did a century ago, the Baby Boom – that huge spike in birth rates from 1946 to 1964 – was such a massive disruption that in some ways it is the big story of the century. Divorce is another.

The most popular false assumption about divorce – sort of like crime or child abuse – is that it’s always getting worse (which isn’t true of crime or child abuse, either). In the broadest sense, yes, there is more divorce nowadays than there was in the olden days, but the trend is complicated and has probably reversed.

It turns out, however, that the story of divorce rates is ridiculously complicated. For one thing, there is no central data source that simply counts all divorces. The National Center for Health Statistics used to divorces from states, but now six states don’t feel like cooperating anymore, including, unbelievably, California. Even where divorces are counted, key information may not be available, such as the people’s age or how long they were married (or, now that there is gay divorce, their genders). Fortunately, the Census Bureau (for now) does a giant sample survey, the American Community Survey, which gives us great data on divorce patterns, but they only started collecting that information in 2008.

The way demographers ask the question is also different from what the public wants to know. The typical concerned citizen (or honeymooner) wants to know: what are the odds that I (or someone else getting married today) will end up divorced? Science can guess, but it’s impossible to give a definitive answer, because we can’t actually predict human behavior. Still, we can help.

The short answer is that divorce is more common than it was a 75 years ago, but less common than it was at the peak in 1979. Here’s the trend in what we call the “refined” divorce rate – the number of divorces each year for every thousand married women in the country:

The figure uses the federal tally from states from 1940 to 1997, leaves out the period when there was no national collection, and then picks up again when the American Community Survey started asking about divorce.

So the long term upward trend is complicated by a huge spike from soldiers returning home at the end of World War II (a divorce boom, to go with the Baby Boom), a steep increase in the sixties and seventies, and then a downward glide to the present.

How is it possible that divorce has been declining for more than three decades? Part of it is a function of the aging population. As demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles have argued, old people divorce less, and the married population is older now than it was in 1979, because the giant Baby Boom is now mostly in its sixties and people are getting married at older ages. This is tricky, though, because although older people still divorce less, the divorce rates for older people (50+) have doubled in the last two decades. Baby Boomers especially like to get divorced and remarried once their kids are out of the house.

But there is a real divorce decline, too, and this is promising about the future, because it’s concentrated among young people – their chances of divorcing have fallen over the last decade. So, although in my own research I’ve estimated that estimated that 53% of couples marrying today will get divorced, that is probably skewed by all the older people still pulling up the rates. Typical Americans getting married in their late 20s today probably have a less than even chance of getting divorced. The divorce will probably keep falling.

Rather than a conservative turn toward family values, I think this represents an improving quality of marriages. When marriage is voluntary – when people really choose to get married instead of simply marching into it under pressure to conform – one hopes they would be making better choices, and the data support that. Further, as marriage has become more rare, it has also become more select. Despite more than a decade of futile marriage promotion efforts by the federal government, marriage is still moving up the income scale. The people getting married today are more privileged than they used to be: more highly educated (both partners), and more stably situated. All that bodes well for the survival of their marriages, but doesn’t help the people left out of the institution. If less divorce just means only perfect couples are getting married, that’s merely another indicator of rising inequality.

Putting this trend back in that long term context, we should also ask whether falling divorce rates – which run counter to the common assumption that everything modern in family life is about the destruction of the nuclear family – are always a good thing. Most people getting married would like to think they’ll stay together for the long haul. But what is the right amount of divorce for a society to have? It seems like an odd question, but divorce really isn’t like crime or child abuse. You want some divorces, because otherwise it means people are stuck in bad marriages. If you have no divorce that means even abusive marriages can’t break up. If you have a moderate amount, it means pretty bad marriages can break up but people don’t treat it lightly. And if you have tons of divorce it means people are just dropping each other willy-nilly. When you put it that way, moderate sounds best. No one has been able to put numbers to those levels, but it’s still good to ask. Even as we shouldn’t assume families are always falling apart more than they used to, we should consider the pros and cons of divorce, rather than insisting more is always worse.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

Monica C. sent along images of a pamphlet, from 1920, warning soldiers of the dangers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the lower right hand corner (close up below), the text warns that “most” “prostitutes (whores) and easy women” “are diseased.” In contrast, in the upper left corner, we see imagery of the pure woman that a man’s good behavior is designed to protect (also below).  “For the sake of your family,” it reads, “learn the truth about venereal diseases.”

The contrast, between those women who give men STIs (prostitutes and easy women) and those who receive them from men (wives) is a reproduction of the virgin/whore dichotomy (women come in only two kinds: good, pure, and worthy of respect and bad, dirty, and deserving of abuse).  It also does a great job of making invisible the fact that women with an STI likely got it from a man and women who have an STI, regardless of how they got one, can give it away.  The men’s role in all this, that is, is erased in favor of demonizing “bad” girls.

See also these great examples of the demonization of the “good time Charlotte” during World War II (skull faces and all) and follow this post to a 1917 film urging Canadian soldiers to refrain from sex with prostitutes (no antibiotics back then, you know).

This post was originally shared in August 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why did people march on January 21, 2017? As a team of sociologists interested in social movements, we know there are many possible answers to this seemingly simple question.

As a team of sociologists we have developed a multi-method, multi-site research project, Mobilizing Millions: Engendering Protest Across the Globe.* We want to understand why people participate in a march of this scale, at a critical historical juncture in our political landscape. Within weeks of discussion of the first march, there were already “sister” march pages national and internationally. While it is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of the project findings thus far, the predictability of the racial tensions visible in social media or the role of men, local opportunities and challenges we do offer some early findings.

In the project’s first phase, we had team members on the ground in Washington D.C.; Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA;  Portland, OR; Santa Barbara, CA and St. Louis, MO. We are currently conducting a survey about the motivations and experiences that brought millions of people to the marches worldwide. We recruited respondents from marches in the aforementioned cities, and online. This has resulted in responses from around the world. Our preliminary findings from the observations and survey highlight that 1) there were a range of reasons people attended marches and 2) across and within sites, there were varying experiences of “the” march in any location.

One striking similarity we observed across sites was the limited visible presence of social movement organizations (SMOs). For sure, SMOs became visible in social media leading up to the event (particularly for the DC march). Unlike at social movement gatherings such as the US Social Forum or conservative equivalents, the sheer number of unaffiliated people dwarfed any delegations or representatives from SMOs. Of our almost 60-member nation-wide team across sites only a handful had encountered anyone handing out organizational material, as we would see at other protest. This is perhaps what brought many people to the march—an opportunity to be an individual connecting with other individuals. However, this is an empirical question as is what this means for the future of social movement organizing. We hope others join us in answering.

Second, while the energy was palpable at all of the marches so was the confusion. As various media sources reported, attendance at all sites far exceeded projections, sometimes by 10 times. Consequently, the physical presence of the expanded beyond organizers’ expectations, which in many places required a schedule shifted. At all marches there were points where participants in central areas could not move and most people could not hear scheduled speakers even if they were physically close to a stage.  Across the sites, we also observed how this challenge stimulated different responses. In multiple locations, people gathering spontaneously created their own sub-marches out of excitement as happened in DC when a band started playing on Madison street and people followed. Or, while waiting, waiting participants chanted “march, march.” Still, in many locations, once the official march started, people created sub-marches out of necessity because the pre-planned march route was impassable. When faced with standing for an hour to wait their “turn” to walk or create an alternative, they chose the latter.

Creativity was visible in artistic forms as well. While there were professionally printed signs (and T-shirts), there was a wealth of handmade signs at the marches. As expected, a slew that referenced phrases the president-elect had said noting, for example, “this pussy grabs back.” Yet there was also a range of other signs ranging from simple text to complicated storyboards (see below).

Across sites, we also saw many differences: including which types of organizations sponsored (or “supported” or “ were affiliated with”) that march.

At the Austin, Texas march, marchers’ signs and chants reflected a wide variety of concerns, including women’s reproductive health care, Black Lives Matter, and environmental justice. The emotional tenor was frequently celebratory, though it varied from one point in the march to another across a crowd reported to be more than 40,000. Many speeches at the rally immediately following the march connected the actions of the Texas state legislature–on whose front steps the march began and ended–to the broader national context.

Photo of Austin, TX by Anna Chatillon-Reed.

The Los Angeles March numbers suggest it exceeded DC participation. There was a noticeable presence of signs about immigration and in Spanish, which is not surprising considering the local and state demographics.

Photo of Los Angeles by Fátima Suarez.
Photo of Los Angeles by Fátima Suarez

The Philadelphia, PA march was close to bigger cities of in New York and DC. Some participants noted that due to the location it was  “competing” for marchers.

Philadelphia photo by Alex Kulick.
Philadelphia photo by Alex Kulick.

The Portland, OR protest also exceeded attendance expectations as marchers withstood hours of pouring rain. Holding the “sister” marches on the same day worldwide emphasized the magnitude and assists in building collective identity. Yet it also meant organizers in different locations faced vastly different challenges. Factors such as weather that might not have existed if organizers had been scheduling based solely on local norms and contexts.

Portland photo by Kelsy Kretschmer.
Portland photo by Kelsy Kretschmer.

To help provide a preliminary sense of the motivations and continued engagement of marchers, we examined a sample of the ~40,000 tweets posted over two months. The analysis continues.

In the coming month, we are launching a separate survey to better understand a group social movement scholars are sometimes less inclined to study: people who do not participate in marches on January 21 (there are exceptions to this of course). As social movement scholars know, mobilization is actually a rare occurrence when we consider the range of grievances present in any society at any given moment. For a second phase of the project, we will conduct interviews with select survey participants.

Understanding the range of responses to grievances is critical as we move into this new era. If the first month of Trump’s presidency is any indication of the years to come, scholars and activists across the political spectrum will have many opportunities to engage these questions.

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*The team Faculty collaborators are Zakiya Luna, PhD (Principal Investigator, California, DC, LA,PH and TX coordinator); Kristen Barber, PhD (St. Louis Lead); Selina Gallo-Cruz, PhD (Boston Lead); Kelsy Kretschmer, PhD (Portland Lead). The site leadership was provided by Anna Chatillon (Austin, TX); Fátima Suarez (Los Angeles, CA); Alex Kulick (Philadelphia, PA & social media); Chandra Russo, PhD (DC co-lead). We are also grateful to many volunteer research assistants.

Dr. Zakiya Luna is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focused on social movements, human rights and reproduction with an emphasis on the effects of intersecting inequalities within and across these sites. She has published multiple articles on activism, feminism and reproductive justice. For more information on her research and teaching, see http://www.zakiyaluna.com.

Alex Kulick, MA, is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and trainee in the National Science Foundation network science IGERT program. Their research investigates social processes of inequality and resistance with an emphasis on sexuality, gender, and race.

Anna Chatillon-Reed is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently completing her MA, which investigates the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and feminist organizations.

The 2017 Super Bowl was an intense competition full of unexpected winners and high entertainment value. Alright, I didn’t actually watch the game, nor do I even know what teams were playing. I’m referring to the Super Bowl’s secondary contest, that of advertising. The Super Bowl is when many companies will roll out their most expensive and innovative advertisements. And this year there was a noticeable trend of socially aware advertising. Companies like Budweiser and 84 Lumber made statements on immigration. Airbnb and Coca-Cola celebrated American diversity. This socially conscious advertising is following the current political climate and riding the wave of increasing social movements. However, it also follows the industry’s movement towards social responsibility and activism.

One social activism Super Bowl commercial that created a significant buzz on social media this year was Audi:

The advertisement shows a young girl soapbox racing and a voiceover of her father wondering how to tell her about the difficulties she is bound to face just for being female. This commercial belongs to a form of socially responsible advertising often referred to as femvertising. Femvertising is a term used to describe mainstream commercial advertising that attempts to promote female empowerment or challenge gender stereotypes.

Despite the Internet’s response to this advertisement with a sexist pushback against feminism, this commercial is not exactly feminist. While at its core this advertisement is sending a fundamentally feminist argument of gender equality and fair wages, it feels disempowering to have a man explain sexism. It feels a little like “mansplaining” with moments reminiscent of the male “savior” trope. There is also a very timid relationship between the fight for gender equality and the product being sold. The advertisement is attempting to associate Audi with feminist ideals, but the reality is that with no female board members Audi is not exactly practicing what they preach. There are many reasons why ‘femverstising’ in general is problematic (not including contested relationship between feminism and capitalism). Here I will point out three problems with this new trend of socially ‘responsible’ femvertising.

1. The industry

The advertising industry is not known for its diversity nor is it known for its accurate representation women. So right away the industry doesn’t instill confidence in those hoping for more socially aware and diverse advertising. The way advertising works is to promote a brand identity by drawing on social symbols that make products like Channel perfume a signifier of French sophistication and Marlboro cigarettes an icon of American rugged masculinity. Therefore companies are selling an identity just as much as the product itself, while corporations that employ feminist advertising are instead appropriating feminist ideologies.

They are appropriating not social signifiers of an idealized lifestyle, but rather the whole historical baggage and gendered experiences women. This appropriation at its core is not for social progress and empowerment, but to sell a product. The whole industry functions by using these identities for material gain. As feminism becomes more popular with young women, it then becomes a profitable and desirable identity to implement. The whole concept is against feminist ideology because feminism is not for sale. Using feminist arguments to sell products may be better than perpetuating gender stereotypes but it is still using these ideologies like trying on a new style of dress that can be taken off at night rather than embodying the messages of feminism that they are borrowing. This brings us to the next point.

2. Sometimes it’s the Wrong Solution

Lets consider Dove, the toiletries company that has gained a fair amount of notoriety for their social advertising and small-scale outreach programs for women and girls. Their advertisements are famous for endorsing the body positive movement. But in general the connection between female empowerment and what they actually sell is weak. Which makes it feel insincere and a lot like pandering. Why doesn’t Dove just make products that are more aligned with feminist ideologies in the first place? If feminist consumers are what they want, then make feminist products. Don’t try to just apply feminist concepts as an afterthought in hopes of increasing consumer sales.

Dove is a beauty company that is benefiting from products that are aimed at promoting a very gendered ideal of beauty. The company itself is part of the problem so its femvertising makes me feel like Dove (and their parent company Unileaver) is trying to deny that they are playing a huge role in the creation of these stereotypes that they are claiming to be challenging. If you want to really empower women then don’t just do it in your branding start with the products you are making, examine your business model, and challenge the industry as whole. Feminist concepts should run through the entire core of your business before you try to sell it to your consumers. We don’t need feminist advertising, we need a system that is not actively continuing to increase a gender divide where women are meant to be beautiful and expected to purchase the beauty products that Dove sells. Using feminist inspired advertising doesn’t solve this underlying core problem it just masks it. Femvertising therefore is often the wrong solution, or really not even a solution at all.

3. Femvertising shouldn’t have to be a term

We really shouldn’t be in a situation where all advertising is so un-feminist and so degrading towards women that there is a term for advertising that simply depicts women as powerful. When the bar is set so low we shouldn’t praise companies for doing the minimum required to represent women both accurately and positively. We should be holding our advertising, media, and all other forms of visual representation to much higher standards. Femvertising shouldn’t be a thing because we shouldn’t have to give a term to what responsible advertising agencies should be aiming for when they represent women.

So as to not leave you on a depressing and negative note, here are three advertisements that should be acknowledged for actively challenge the norms:

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Nichole Fernández is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh specializing in visual sociology. Her PhD research explores the representation of the nation in tourism advertisements and can be found at www.visualizingcroatia.com. Follow Nichole on twitter here.

Flashback Friday.

A Google image search for the phrase “evolution” returns many versions of the iconic image of human development over time. The whiteness of these images — the fact that, unless they are silhouettes or sketches, the individuals pictured have light skin associated with white people — often goes unnoticed. For our purposes, I would like us to notice:

The whiteness in these images is just one example of a long history of discourse relating whiteness and humanity, an association that has its roots in racial science and ethical justifications of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. It matters in this context, above and beyond the the general vast overrepresentation of whites in the media and as allegedly race-neutral “humans,” because the context here is one explicitly about defining what is human, what separates humans from animals, and about evolution as a civilizing process.

By presenting whites as the quintessential humans who possess the bodies and behaviors taken to be deeply meaningful human traits, whites justified, and continue to justify, white supremacy. This is what white privilege looks lik: being constantly told by experts that you and people like you represent the height of evolution and everything that it means to be that incredible piece of work that is man (irony fully intended).

Originally posted in 2010.

Benjamin Eleanor Adam is a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he studies the American history of gender and sexuality.

“Manspreading” is a relatively new term.  According to Google Trends (below), the concept wasn’t really used before the end of 2014.  But the idea it’s describing is not new at all.  The notion that men occupy more space than women is one small piece of what Raewyn Connell refers to as the patriarchal dividend–the collection of accumulated advantages men collectively receive in androcentric patriarchal societies (e.g., wages, respect, authority, safety).  Our bodies are differently disciplined to the systems of inequality in our societies depending upon our status within social hierarchies.  And one seemingly small form of privilege from which many men benefit is the idea that men require (and are allowed) more space.


It’s not uncommon to see advertisements on all manner of public transportation today condemning the practice of occupying “too much” space while other around you “keep to themselves.”  PSA’s like these are aimed at a very specific offender: some guy who’s sitting in a seat with his legs spread wide enough in a kind of V-shaped slump such that he is effectively occupying the seats around him as well.

I recently discovered what has got to be one of the most exhaustive treatments of the practice ever produced.  It’s not the work of a sociologist; it’s the work of a German feminist photographer, Marianne Wex.  In Wex’s treatment of the topic, Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1984, translated from the German edition, published in 1979), she examines just shy of 5,000 photographs of men and women exhibiting body language that results from and plays a role in reproducing unequal gender relations.

The collection is organized by an laudable number of features of the various bodily positions.  Interestingly, it was published in precisely the same year that Erving Goffman undertook a similar sociological study of what he referred to as “gender display” in his book, Gender Advertisements–though Goffman’s analysis utilized advertisements as the data under consideration.

Like Goffman, Wex examined the various details that made up bodily postures that seem to exude gender, addressing the ways our bodies are disciplined by society.  Wex paired images according to the position of feet and legs, whether the body was situated to put weight on one or two legs, hand and arm positions, and much much more.  And through this project, Wex also developed an astonishing vocabulary for body positions that she situates as the embodied manifestations of patriarchal social structures.  The whole book organizes this incredible collection of (primarily) photographs she took between 1972 and 1977 by theme.  On every page, men are depicted  above women (as the above image illustrates)–a fact Wex saw as symbolizing the patriarchal structure of the society she sought to catalog so scrupulously.  She even went so far as to examine bodily depiction throughout history as depicted in art to address the ways the patterns she discovered can be understood over time.

If you’re interested, you can watch the Youtube video of the entire book.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Protestors march in the Woman’s March on Washington D.C. Jan. 21, 2017. The Capital Mall area was the starting point of the march, hundreds of thousands of people attended. (National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon, JTF-DC).

Waves of pink knitted hats and protest signs packed the streets of D.C. on January 21, 2017, just one day after President Trump’s inauguration drew average crowds. The Women’s March of 2017 was the largest protest in recent history, bringing together over 500,000 people in DC- the location of the flagship march, and over 2.9 million people nationwide. Protesters came from near and far to protect a diverse set of rights that are threatened by the incoming administration. Perhaps the Women’s March can be understood as a partial response to President Obama’s declaration in his farewell address that the most important office in a democracy is “citizen,” and, thus, citizens must work to improve our society, not just when there is an election or when their own narrow interests are at stake. The march was an example of what this kind of democracy looks like. Originally proposed on social media, the idea for the march took off and a groundswell of support emerged from independent individuals and those associated with organizations.  Despite this level of support, many have speculated about who attended the march, whether they voted, the goals of protesters and their level of civic engagement. Some have discounted the protesters as only forwarding the perspectives and issues of white women and eschewing those of other groups such as people of color and/or members of the LGBTQ community.

Combatting this new era of “alternative facts,” a research team led by Dr. Dana R. Fisher, Dr. Dawn M. Dow and Dr. Rashawn Ray from the University of Maryland, College Park provides data-supported facts about participants at the Women’s March. Teams of 2 surveyed participants throughout the march (full details of sampling and methodology available upon request) to understand who was protesting and why. In total, 527 people completed the survey (representing a 92.5% response rate).

Far from using protesting as a substitute for voting, as a recent tweet from Trump suggested, initial findings from this project show that the protesters at the Women’s March voted, and overwhelmingly for Secretary Hillary Clinton. Among respondents, 90.1% reporting voting for Hilary Clinton, 2.3% voted for a third-party candidate and .2% (one person) voted for Donald Trump. Among the 1.7% who explicitly said they did not vote, nearly half were non-U.S. citizens who are not eligible to do so.

Our findings also suggest that the Women’s March has potentially lit the political fires of a new generation of activists and reactivated the political activism of others. Indeed, a third of the participants reported that the Women’s March was their first time participating in a protest ever. For over half of the participants (55.9%), the March was their first protest in 5 years (including those who had never participated before).

Respondents were also asked to identify the issues that motivated them to protest.  Our data suggest protesters were unified by a range of distinct and overlapping priorities. Given the name of the march, it is not surprising that 60.6% of respondents cited women’s rights as a motivation for protesting.  However, other social issues were also at the forefront of protesters’ minds. Nearly tied for second place, protesters cited the environment (35.5%), racial justice (35.1%), LGBTQ rights (34.7%), and reproductive rights (32.7%) as motivations to attend. Other political issues were also well represented including equality (25.1%), social welfare (23.1%) and immigration (21.6%).  Indeed, rather than representing a narrow set of interests, protesters identified multiple and diverse motivations for participating.

Historically protests focus on one social issue such as equal pay, climate change, voting rights or same sex marriage. The Women’s March was different in that its protesters were seemingly engaged in intersectional activism–a version of activism that is sensitive to how race, class, gender and sexuality complicate inequality. Perhaps the Women’s March is distinct in this way because protesters were not just motivated by concrete issues, but they were also motivated by a desire to protect and reassert a vision of America that embraces diversity and inclusion as a strength rather than a threat. This vision of America is increasingly under attack by the Trump Administration. It remains to be seen how the energy from the march will translate into change locally across the country but recent protests suggest that citizens stand ready to protect their rights and the rights of others.

Dr. Dawn M. Dow is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park.  She received a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley and also earned a JD from Columbia University, School of Law.  Dow’s research examines intersections of race, class and gender within the context of the family, educational settings, the workplace and the law. Her work has been published in journals including Gender & Society, Journal of Marriage and Family and Sociology of Race & Ethnicity.  Follow her on Twitter here.

Dr. Dana R. Fisher is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on environmental policy, civic participation and activism more broadly. She has written extensively on activism and social protest in articles as well as in her second book Activism, Inc. (Stanford University Press 2006).  Fisher’s work on protest builds on data collected from around 5,000 protesters at thirteen protest events in six countries. For more information, go to www.drfisher.umd.edu.  Follow her on Twitter here.

Dr. Rashawn Ray is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ray obtained a Ph.D. in Sociology from Indiana University in 2010. From 2010-2012 he was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley/UCSF. Ray’s research addresses the mechanisms that manufacture and maintain racial and social inequality. His work also speaks to ways that inequality may be attenuated through racial uplift activism and social policy. Follow him on Twitter here.

 

Originally posted at Everyday Sociology.

When new students move into their residence halls to start their first year of college, they become a part of an institution. In many ways, it is a “total institution” in the tradition of the sociologist Erving Goffman: an organization that collects large numbers of like individuals, cuts them off from the wider society, and provides for all their needs. Prisons, mental hospitals, army barracks, and nursing homes are total institutions. So are cruise ships, cults, convents, and summer camps. Behemoths of order, they swallow up their constituents and structure their lives.

Many colleges are total institutions, too. Being a part of the institution means that students’ educational options are dictated, of course, but colleges also have a substantial amount of control over when students eat, where they sleep, how they exercise, with whom they socialize and, pertinent to our topic today, whether and under what conditions they have sex.

Thumbnail_Press - American Hookup_with frame_978-0-393-28509-3In my newly released book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, I show that hookup culture is now at the center of the institution of higher education. It’s thick, palpable, the air students breathe; and we find it on almost every residential campus in America: large and small, private and public, elite and middling, secular and religious, Greek- and sports-heavy and otherwise.My own research involves 101 students at two institutions who wrote weekly journals, tracing their trials and tribulations through a semester of their first year, but quantitative and comparative research alike supports hookup culture’s ubiquity. Anecdotally, too, students insist that it is so. “[Hookups are] part of our collegiate culture,” writes a student at the University of Florida. Up north at Connecticut College, a female student describes it as the “be-all and end-all” of social life. Oh, sure,” says a guy 2,500 miles away at Arizona State, “you go to parties on the prowl.” Further up north, at Whitman in Walla Walla, Washington, a female student calls hookup culture “an established norm.”

These comments reveal hookup culture’s pervasiveness, but these students are almost certainly overestimating the frequency of hookups on their campuses. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, a study of over 24,000 students at over 20 institutions, the average graduating senior has hooked up just eight times in four years; a third won’t hook up at all. In fact, today’s students boast no more sexual partners than their parents did at their age. But students can be forgiven for their misimpressions. Hookup culture is a powerful force, leading them to overestimate their peers’ sexual behavior by orders of magnitude.

The topic of my book, then, isn’t just hooking up; it’s hookup culture. Like other cultures, hooking up is a social reality that operates on several levels: it’s a set of widely-endorsed ideas, reflected in rules for interaction and the organization of the institution. Accordingly, hookup culture is the idea that casual sexual encounters are the best or only way to engage sexually in college, a set of practices that facilitate casual sexual encounters, and an organizational structure that supports them.

Students can and do opt out of hooking up, but few can escape hookup culture. Many of the students in American Hookup said so often and explicitly: Partying and hooking up, insisted one, “is the only way to make friends.” “Hookup culture = social life,” another concluded, simply making an equation. “If you do not have sex,” a third wrote forcefully, “you are not in the community.”

Being a part of the community means playing by the rules of hookup culture. It means bringing a certain kind of energy (up, drunken, and sexually available) to certain kinds of parties (dark, loud, and sexually charged). It means being willing to be careless about sexual contact and trying to care less about the person you hook up with than they care about you. It means following a hookup script that privileges male orgasm and a stereotypically male approach to sexuality. It means engaging in competitive sexual exploits: women against women, men against men, and men against women. And it means being stripped of the right to insist upon interpersonal accountability, enabling everything from discourtesy to sexual misconduct.

Some students thrive. About a quarter of the students in my sample truly enjoy hookup culture. Most do not. A third of my students opted out of sex altogether, deciding that they’d rather have none of it than follow hookup culture’s rules. Close to half participate ambivalently, dabbling with mixed results. More students decreased their participation over the course of the semester than increased it.

Almost to the last one, though, students were earnest, thoughtful, and good-humored. Few escaped hookup culture’s grasp, but they never failed to impress me with their insight and resilience. Hearing them tell their stories, it was hard not to feel optimistic, even when the stories did not lend themselves to optimism. I finished the book feeling hopeful. Today’s young people are open, permissive, genuine, and welcoming of diversity. They’re well-positioned to usher in a new new sexual culture.

But students need their institutions to change, too. Institutions of higher education need to put substantial resources and time into shifting cultural norms: they need to establish an ethic of care for casual sexual encounters and they need to diversify the kind of sexual encounters that are seen as possible and good. They also need to change the institutional structures that entrench the worst features of hookup culture, including those that give disproportionate power to the students on campus who most support, participate in, and benefit from it: white, class-privileged, masculine-identified, heterosexual men.

The neat thing about cultures, though, it that they exist only with our consent. We can change them simply by changing our minds. And because residential colleges are total institutions, ones that are bounded and insular, they are particularly responsive to reformation. The new sexual culture on America’s campuses can be improved—made safer, healthier, kinder, more authentic, more pleasurable, and more truly conducive to self-exploration—and faster than we might suspect. I hope that the voices in American Hookup help empower both students and administrators to do just that.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.