Cross-posted at Center for Love and Sex.

The Director of Center for Love and Sex, Sari Cooper, had the wonderful idea of doing a Q&A exchange. I recently wrote a book about sex in college, American Hookup, and she works as a therapist with young people in their post-graduation romantic and sexual relationships. I was curious to hear about the issues that millennials are grappling with once they get out into the working world and begin to date, and she wanted to hear more about my research regarding the state of hookups on campus.  So, we swapped questions and agreed to cross-post our answers.

Sari Cooper interviews Lisa Wade 

Given that hookups have been criticized in the larger American culture and media for some time now, I thought I would begin our conversation on a constructive thread.  What have you found are positive emotional. psychological and physical outcomes/by products reported by young adults engaging in hookups during their college years? 

Most students arrive on campus eager to experiment with casual sexual contact, even if just a little. They see sexual activity as a natural part of being human, are increasingly tolerant of a wide range of sexual orientations, and largely reject the idea that it’s okay to judge sexually active women more harshly than men. Thanks to the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation, the stigma of sexual activity has largely lifted.

In that environment, many young people enjoy “first times” — first kisses, first blow jobs, first one night stands — and honing new sexual skills. Many find it exciting to be participating in a part of life that is new to them (puberty was just a few years ago and 50% are virgins when they arrive on campus). It’s pleasurable to indulge one’s desires, to do new things, and to improve, no less with sex than with anything else in life.

Hookups offer these things to young people and, for a nontrivial minority of students, hookups are everything they want. For up to a quarter of students, hookups are incredibly gratifying. Research shows that students who claim to thrive in hookup culture really do: the more they hookup, the higher their self-esteem and sense of well-being.

What intersectionalities did you find in your research regarding status in terms of desirability with racial, gender and LGBTQ culture?  When research is done is it mostly skewed towards white, cisgender heterosexual sexual behaviors?

Students of color, women, and non-heterosexual students report more dissatisfaction with hookup culture and hooking up less than their counterparts, as do students who grew up poor or working-class. Non-heterosexual students often find that hookup culture is indifferent or hostile to their sexualities, so some avoid the hyper-heterosexualized spaces of hookup culture. LGBTQ students, especially if they are men, are much more likely to seek hookups off-campus.

Students of color simultaneously face a white supremacist standard of attractiveness and the possibility of being eroticized as “exotic.” This tends to play out differently for different kinds of students. Black men and Asian women are often fetishized, while black women and Asian men are often actively avoided. On average, then, white students hookup more than nonwhite students.

The other thing that I have found interesting in my work with clients is the vague aspect of the term hookup.  How did your research subjects define hookups?  And what behaviors were more frequently engaged in during hookups on campus?

Students generally agree that any sexually charged activity can count as a hookup, so long as there is no expectation of future sexual or romantic interaction. In practice, 40% of hookups include intercourse, 12% include only what we might call foreplay (nudity and some touching of genitals), 13% proceed to oral sex but don’t include intercourse, and 35% don’t go any farther than kissing and groping.

What were the most common emotions young people stated they experienced during and after a hookup?

Two psychologists -– Elizabeth Paul and Kristen Hayes -– asked students what emotions they thought their peers felt when they were in the midst of a typical hookup. Their respondents listed emotions as wide-ranging as excitement, embarrassment, regret, fear, anxiety, confusion, and pride, but the most common answer—mentioned by two-thirds of their sample—was lust. The next most common answer, though, wasn’t any of the other emotions listed, it was “nothing,” the absence of emotion. So, students tend to believe that their peers are feeling turned on, but not much else.

Of course, in practice students are experiencing all kinds of emotions — positive and negative, strong and weak, wanted and unwanted — but when they do they often feel bad about it. Believing that their peers are much better at having “emotionless sex,” they feel like they are failing at hookup culture.

What percentage of your study opted out of hookups entirely?  Did you have numbers on whether these young people remained celibate, and/or chose to be in longer-term relationships that involved emotions?

A third of students opt out, reporting zero hookups at graduation, but many of these students don’t end up in relationships instead. On college campuses today, most relationships form out of a series of hookups. Students hook up together once, then twice and then three times, and eventually they start breaking the rules of hookup culture (they begin to like each other and say so). At that point, students will often go on dates and consider beginning an emotionally committed relationship. For students who aren’t willing to hook up, this can’t happen, so relationships can be elusive.

Lastly, what percentage of those that participated in hook-ups reported being in the following states:

  • had had some alcohol,
  • felt drunk
  • had had no/minimal alcohol
  • completely sober

Most students are at least a little bit drunk when they hook up because inebriation is a primary way that they signal to one another that what they are doing is meaningless. Being drunk is a sign that they are being careless, both about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Sober sex, in contrast, is heavily weighted with meaning. As one of my students explained: “[If you are sober] it means you both are particularly attracted to each other and it’s not really a one-time thing. When drunk, you can kind of just do it because it’s fun and then be able to laugh about it and have it not be awkward or not mean anything. Many of my sexually active students, then, had actually never had sex sober.

Lisa Wade interviews Sari Cooper 

Many parents are worried that their children no longer value emotional closeness, committed relationships, or building a family life. Should they be worried that they’ll children will choose never to marry or have children?

This is a many-layered question. I actually think once young adults are out in the working world for a few years, some of these millennials are yearning for a close intimate relationship because they see how much they need the comfort and consistency of an ongoing partner. In my practice Center for Love and Sex, we see people in their mid to late twenties and early thirties who are either seeking a meaningful, emotionally close relationship or those that are already in a committed relationship but need help. But the meaning of commitment to this age group may look similar or different to their parents. In other words, some couples are committed to one another as primary bond partners but choose to have a non-monogamous agreement, or decide not to marry or decide to marry but live in different cities while building their careers.

I think parents need to ask themselves what value they place on their children having children, is it a desire to be a grandparent and have that experience, or is it that they think it’s the religiously, or traditionally correct thing to do? I have found couples who have discussed their desire to have children before getting married while also working with couples who are figuring out what neighborhood to live in together without discussing

a) what moving in together means in terms of their commitment to the relationship, or one another or

b) seriously whether each person is aligned with the other around having children in their future.

Lastly, I think many of the college-educated millennials I see in my practice are so focused on their careers that having children may be put on the back burner. These are the couples I see later on in their life when they have trouble with fertility and going through infertility treatments, or have children one right after the other and are struck by the huge toll raising small children while keeping up with both of their demanding jobs has on their romantic and sexual connection.

 What kind of sexual culture are young people out of college encountering? Is the hookup script still powerful? Is the dating script? Is monogamy still the assumed frame for emotional commitment? Or have polyamory and open relationships gone mainstream?

 For those millennials who have gone to college, the first few years on their own may still include hook-ups or casual dating as they are spending more time on establishing themselves professionally and/or living on a modest salary with their parents or roommates. However, the dating is pretty commitment-free and at times frustrating for those looking for a relationship since much of the app-driven “dating” is texting with someone for weeks on end before actually meeting. Some reasons might be that the texting over weeks provides a person with the banter or insight as to whether they actually want to devote time to an actual date (the equivalent of talking to someone at a bar or party for a while before asking or getting asked for a phone number). However, either while this chat-texting is going on the person may “ghost” you, that is, they may just stop texting back. While this no-show experience would happen in the pre-cell phone days, the “ghosting” may also occur after people have dated a few times, perhaps hooked up or even had intercourse together. The person being ghosted becomes more and more skeptical of what real attachment can really be gained from their next “match”.

I find that people don’t begin dating seriously till their later twenties. Monogamy is still the assumed frame of emotional commitment once the couple has had “the exclusion talk”. However the millennial cohort seems more open to talk about having alternative arrangements monogamy-wise. Navigating this agreement is a presenting issue with which couples come in to CLS to get help negotiating since they recognize it can bring up jealousy and are not sure how to establish boundaries that will work for both partners. While I don’t think it has gone mainstream, I do think that traditional agreements are being questioned.

Students say that the skills and strategies for negotiating hookup culture are essentially the opposite of the skills and strategies they need for negotiating committed relationships. After graduation, when students seek out more meaningful relationships, do you find that they struggle with emotional openness, closeness, and risk-taking?

I find the skills needed to develop relationships in the early stages are a bit different than the ones later on so I’ll answer these questions separately. I think because so much time in college is spent either opting out of the hook-up culture or participating in it usually under the influence of alcohol, emotional vulnerability with someone to whom you are also erotically attracted hardly ever occurs. However college students usually develop close platonic friendships.

 Some of these friendships can even develop into love relationships later on. However, they may never have been erotically attached to these partners. So some of these young adults may know how to be good partners, considerate roommates, and love one another but there is very little sexual fizz in that occurs. These couples come in as they’re about to become engaged, get married or decide to have a baby. They are what I call companionate couples and they are open about most everything except their sexual desires and so they are not having much if any sexual contact at all.

Since they haven’t had a lot of practice negotiating compromise over long periods of time, if someone does meet someone with whom they have sexual chemistry, they don’t know how to manage day-to-day conflicts like:

Can you shower before you come on to me?

Do you expect me to walk the dog every day you’re off on this bachelorette trip?

Why are you not saving more money?

If they haven’t developed constructive communication skills, these conflicts can head south quickly and then they may look at their partner and wonder where did my erotic attraction for them go? They may get scared and end the relationship before understanding that to get back into their erotic groove requires patience, openness to listen and practice empathy to come to a connection again. Hookups don’t help in the sustaining enough patience to feel like you’re going to come through it to the other side and find your partner attractive again.

 If they do, is this something to be overly concerned about? Do they learn these skills effectively despite their experience (or lack of experience) in hookup culture? Or are they inhibited from doing so in a way that they wouldn’t have been had they not adapted to this new college context?

 I would say that they’re just starting later and need more practice at the integration of emotional intimacy and sexual connection since they have begun later. For a portion of these millennials, their life online has become more primary to their face-to-face relationships or dates. Whether it’s swiping right or left as a self-esteem sport to see how many matches one gets, or masturbating to porn which doesn’t require expertise, courage to make mistakes or consideration of a partner’s needs/feelings, some young adults prefer to remain on their own as a protective expression against vulnerability, performance anxiety or rejection.

Do students in committed relationships struggle specifically with sexual intimacy? Some of my students worried that the imperative to make sex “meaningless” would later interfere with their ability to experience it as “meaningful.” Acts of tenderness — like cuddling, prolonged eye contact, and gentle kisses — are off script in hookup culture; many of my students had never experienced those things, despite being sexually active. Is it challenging for them to learn how to incorporate tenderness into their sexualities?

This is a good question. I should preface the answer that sexual intimacy is like beauty, it’s in the eye and body of each individual. I think that acts of tenderness can be challenging for some, especially if you’ve spent years compartmentalizing your emotions from your sexual practices. After the novelty of a relationship dies down, a couple really does need to dig deeper to find out what kinds of sexual activity they like and how they become able to enter the erotic zone. One can’t rely only on intrinsic horniness because for many reasons (stress at work, lack of sleep, hormone changes) this may not be as regularly available. So learning to practice intimacy (which is unique to each person) and relaxation as an entryway into erotic connection are skills that people can learn. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first (remember the first time you French-kissed?), but with practice incorporating emotional intimacy (which may or may not include some of the acts you described) into sexual connection can gradually feel more syntonic.

What is some of the most important advice that young people need to hear? If you could get a message to each and every young person transitioning out of college, what would it be?

I would say to the millennials to educate yourself about your erotic triggers to increase your Sex Esteem®. This education can be gleaned from this blog and the following sites: my webshow Sex Esteem® with Sari Cooper, Columbia University’s site Go Ask Alice, and the vast list of sites on Dartmouth University’s site, Gay Men’s Good Sex Guide, and the following books: Guide to Getting it On, Sex For One, She Comes First, The New Male Sexuality, Come as You Are, and SexSmart.

Sari Cooper, LCSW is a licensed individual, couples and AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist. She specializes in working on issues such as sexual disorders, sexual avoidance, couples communication, affairs, separation, depression, anxiety, and alternative sexual interests. She is the Founder and Director of Center for Love and Sex

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.

Originally posted at Work in Progress.

Why do people sometimes resist remediation of pollution in their own backyards? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that it is because they are afraid of losing their jobs, but my recent research in La Oroya, Peru, questions this dominant framework.

Photo by Pamela Neumann.

Since 1922, La Oroya has been home to three refineries for processing lead, copper, and zinc, and a lead smelter owned until recently by a company called Doe Run Peru. In the late ’90s, several scientific studies demonstrated dangerously high lead levels among the town’s children.

The findings drew extensive attention from the media, but not the kind that some residents appreciated. Tania, a local schoolteacher told me, “In the media there are these ideas that we are nothing but a bunch of slow, sick, contaminated people, but they don’t pay any attention to how some students are very high performing.” Elena, a 45-year old shop owner, agreed, saying: “Of course there are sick children everywhere, slow children, just like in your country [referring to the United States]. But we have children who are doing well, we have professionals, professors.”

School teachers and principals took pride in the achievements of their students, which they felt were ignored in the rush to paint La Oroya as nothing more than a town full of “mongolicos” (a local term for people who have Down’s syndrome or are disabled). In seeking to defend their town’s identity against a barrage of negative media coverage, some residents denied that the contamination was a problem at all. “Look at all the awards we’ve won,” one principal told me, pointing to a row of trophies on the wall. “We couldn’t have done this if the contamination was really a problem.”

In response to the media portrayals, many residents became reluctant to protest against the pervasive lead contamination because doing so affirmed negative stories about their town’s identity. Residents weren’t protective of their jobs, they were protective of their town and of their own reputation as “normal” and “good,” not a place full of “mongolicos.”

These findings suggest that heavy-handed exposes of polluted cities and towns might do harm as well as good. Environmental activists might be better served to find a balance between condemning pollution and uplifting the places and people who are its victims.

Pamela Neumann, PhD is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. A longer version of this post can be found at Work in Progress.

1Will Davies, a politics professor and economic sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, summarized his thoughts on Brexit for the Political Economy and Research Centre, arguing that the split wasn’t one of left and right, young and old, racist or not racist, but center and the periphery. You can read it in full there, or scroll down for my summary.

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Many of the strongest advocates for Leave, many have noted, were actually among the beneficiaries of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Small towns and rural areas receive quite a bit of financial support. Those regions that voted for Leave in the greatest numbers, then, will also suffer some of the worst consequences of the Leave. What motivated to them to vote for a change that will in all likelihood make their lives worse?

Davies argues that the economic support they received from their relationship with the EU was paired with a culturally invisibility or active denigration by those in the center. Those in the periphery lived in a “shadow welfare state” alongside “a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency.”

Davies uses philosopher Nancy Fraser’s complementary ideas of recognition and redistribution: people need economic security (redistribution), but they need dignity, too (recognition). Malrecognition can be so psychically painful that even those who knew they would suffer economically may have been motivated to vote Leave. “Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals,” writes Davies, “is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction.”

It was in this context that the political campaign for Leave penned the slogan: “Take back control.” In sociology we call this framing, a way of directing people to think about a situation not just as a problem, but a particular kind of problem. “Take back control” invokes the indignity of oppression. Davies explains:

It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.

Consider the cover of the Daily Mail praising the decision and calling politicians “out-of-touch” and the EU “elite” and “contemptuous”:2

From this point of view, Davies thinks that the reward wasn’t the Leave, but the vote itself, a veritable middle finger to the UK center and the EU “eurocrats.” They know their lives won’t get better after a Brexit, but they don’t see their lives getting any better under any circumstances, so they’ll take the opportunity to pop a symbolic middle finger. That’s all they think they have.

And that’s where Davies thinks the victory  of the Leave vote parallels strongly with Donald Trump’s rise in the US:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Some people believe that voting for Trump might in fact make things worse, but the pleasure of doing so — of popping a middle finger to the Republican party and political elites more generally — would be satisfaction enough. In this sense, they may be quite a lot like the Leavers. For the disenfranchised, a vote against pragmatism and solidarity may be the only satisfaction that this election, or others, is likely to get them.

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.

1Botox has forever transformed the primordial battleground against aging. Since the FDA approved it for cosmetic use in 2002, eleven million Americans have used it. Over 90 percent of them are women.

In my forthcoming book, Botox Nation, I argue that one of the reasons Botox is so appealing to women is because the wrinkles that Botox is designed to “fix,” those disconcerting creases between our brows, are precisely those lines that we use to express negative emotions: angry, bitchy, irritated.  Botox is injected into the corrugator supercilii muscles, the facial muscles that allow us to pull our eyebrows together and push them down.  By paralyzing these muscles, Botox prevents this brow-lowering action, and in so doing, inhibits our ability to scowl, an expression we use to project to the world that we are aggravated or pissed off.

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Sociologists have long speculated about the meaning of human faces for social interaction. In the 1950s, Erving Goffman developed the concept of facework to refer to the ways that human faces act as a template to invoke, process, and manage emotions. A core feature of our physical identity, our faces provide expressive information about our selves and how we want our identities to be perceived by others.

Given that our faces are mediums for processing and negotiating social interaction, it makes sense that Botox’s effect on facial expression would be particularly enticing to women, who from early childhood are taught to project cheerfulness and to disguise unhappiness. Male politicians and CEOs, for example, are expected to look pissed off, stern, and annoyed. However, when Hillary Clinton displays these same expressions, she is chastised for being unladylike, as undeserving of the male gaze, and criticized for disrupting the normative gender order. Women more so than men are penalized for looking speculative, judgmental, angry, or cross.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the recent viral pop-cultural idioms “resting bitch face.” For those unfamiliar with the not so subtly sexist phrase, “resting bitch face,” according to the popular site Urban Dictionary, is “a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.” This same site defines its etymological predecessor, “bitchy resting face,” as “a bitchy alternative to the usual blank look most people have. This is a condition affecting the facial muscles, suffered by millions of women worldwide. People suffering from bitchy resting face (BRF) have the tendency look hostile and/or judgmental at rest.”

Resting bitch face and its linguistic cousin is nowhere near gender neutral. There is no name for men’s serious, pensive, and reserved expressions because we allow men these feelings. When a man looks severe, serious, or grumpy, we assume it is for good reason. But women are always expected to be smiling, aesthetically pleasing, and compliant. To do otherwise would be to fail to subordinate our own emotions to those of others, and this would upset the gendered status quo.

This is what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotion labor,” a type of impression management, which involves manipulating one’s feelings to transmit a certain impression. In her now-classic study on flight attendants, Hochschild documented how part of the occupational script was for flight attendants to create and maintain the façade of positive appearance, revealing the highly gendered ways we police social performance. The facework involved in projecting cheerfulness and always smiling requires energy and, as any woman is well aware, can become exhausting. Hochschild recognized this and saw emotion work as a form of exploitation that could lead to psychological distress. She also predicted that showing dissimilar emotions from those genuinely felt would lead to the alienation from one’s feelings.

Enter Botox—a product that can seemingly liberate the face from its resting bitch state, producing a flattening of affect where the act of appearing introspective, inquisitive, perplexed, contemplative, or pissed off can be effaced and prevented from leaving a lasting impression. One reason Botox may be especially appealing to women is that it can potentially relieve them from having to work so hard to police their expressions.

Even more insidiously, Botox may actually change how women feel. Scientists have long suggested that facial expressions, like frowning or smiling, can influence emotion by contributing to a range of bodily changes that in turn produce subjective feelings. This theory, known in psychology as the “facial feedback hypothesis,” proposes that expression intensifies emotion, whereas suppression softens it. It follows that blocking negative expressions with Botox injections should offer some protection against negative feelings. A study confirmed the hypothesis.

Taken together, this works point to some of the principal attractions of Botox for women. Functioning as an emotional lobotomy of sorts, Botox can emancipate women from having to vigilantly police their facial expressions and actually reduce the negative feelings that produce them, all while simultaneously offsetting the psychological distress of alienation.

Dana Berkowitz is a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rogue where she teaches about gender, sexuality, families, and qualitative methods. Her book, Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America, will be out in January and can be pre-ordered now.

1To Post Secret, a project that collects personal secrets written artistically onto postcards, someone recently sent in the following bombshell: “Ever since we started getting married and buying houses,” she writes, “my girlfriends and I don’t laugh much anymore.”

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Her personal secret is, in fact, a national one.  It’s part of what has been called the “paradox of declining female happiness.” Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades and yet they are less happy than ever in both absolute terms and relative to men.

Marriage is part of why. Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.

Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman. Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.

The only reason this is surprising is because of the torrent of propaganda we get that tells us otherwise. We are told by books, sitcoms, reality shows, and romantic comedies that single women are wetting their pants to get hitched. Men are metaphorically or literally drug to the altar in television commercials and wedding comedies, an idea invented by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s (before the “playboy,” men who resisted marriage were suspected of being gay). Not to mention the wedding-themed toys aimed at girls and the ubiquitous wedding magazines aimed solely at women. Why, it’s almost as if they were trying very hard to convince us of something that isn’t true.

But if women didn’t get married to men, what would happen? Marriage reduces men’s violence and conflict in a society by giving men something to lose. It increases men’s efforts at work, which is good for capitalists and the economy. It often leads to children, which exacerbate cycles of earning and spending, makes workers more reliable and dependent on employers, reduces mobility, and creates a next generation of workers and social security investors. Marriage inserts us into the machine. And if it benefits women substantially less than men, then it’s no surprise that so many of our marriage promotion messages are aimed squarely at them.

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.

1Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

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So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Last month my neighbor and I mustered our emotional strength, gathered up our neighborhood cat, and drove to the SPCA to help her leave this earth in peace. He had named her Minou — French for kitty, a common term of endearment for cats in Cajun country — though I’m sure she’d had many names, which is why I’m posting about her here.

Minou is one of the tens of thousands of animals that were victims of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 15,500 were rescued, many more died, and some, like Minou, started a new life all on their own. Another of my neighbors, one who rode out the storm, remembers Minou showing up after the waters receded. The cat — tame, spayed, and quite clearly someone’s pet before Katrina — made my and my neighbors’ yards her home, supporting herself for 11 years on lizards and rainwater and the kindness of strangers.

When I showed up two years ago, she was the first to welcome me. I woke up one morning to find her snuggled up in bed. She had found one of the holes in my dilapidated house and climbed in. She left me dead things. She made me feel at home.

She was our little Minou. One of my neighbors fed her. We all gave her pets and treats. When she got sick, I was the one who could afford to take her to the vet, so I did. I bought her the medicine; a neighbor administered it.

She had always been a tough little survivor but, in the end, it was her time. She died in the arms of people she loved, who loved her.

As we drove to the SPCA to say goodbye, I was struck by how much she had done for us. She had brought us together by giving us a common friend and responsibility. She was the node in our network, more so even than our proximity. Often, she was why we talked to each other. Or we talked to each other over her. When one of us paused to give her some attention, it kept us outside long enough to run into each other. And since everyone stopped to give her a pet, we’d all be there together.

I knew, too, that the two of us who rode in that car together — we who had made and then carried out that impossible decision — would never be able to call each other strangers. Even in her last minutes, Minou forged a bond.

Sociologists are interested in community: the difference between those neighborhoods in which people feel a sense of togetherness and those in which they do not. I don’t know much about that literature, nor much about social networks, but I do know that, with noted exceptions, pets are on the fringe of sociological analysis. It’s an interesting oversight given that more than half of American households include at least one pet. And that’s not counting the strays.

But I do know that Minou is part of why my neighbors and I are a community and her final gift to us was to cement that bond. And when I memorialized her passing on social media, many people commiserated with similar stories of “neighborhood cats.” I bet there are stray cats all over America, bringing people together. I’m so grateful that she did that for us.

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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.

Originally posted at The Society Pages’ Discoveries.

Ten years ago, sociologist Penny Edgell and her colleagues published a surprising finding: atheists were the most disliked minority group in the United States. Americans said atheists were less likely share their vision of Americans society than were Muslims, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and a host of other groups — and that they wouldn’t like their child marrying one.

But that was a decade ago. Today, fewer Americans report a religious affiliation and, in the intervening years, many non-religious groups have made efforts to improve their public image.

So, have things gotten better for atheists? The authors recently published the findings from a ten-year follow up to answer these questions, and found that not much has changed. Atheists are now statistically tied with Muslims for the most disliked group in the United States. Despite an increased awareness of atheists and other non-religious people over the last decade, Americans still distance themselves from the non-religious.

Flickr photo from David Riggs.
Flickr photo from David Riggs.

This time around, the authors asked some additional questions to get at why so many people dislike atheists. They asked if respondents think atheists are immoral, criminal, or elitist, and whether or not the increase in non-religious people is a good or bad thing. They found that one of the strongest predictors of disliking atheists is assuming that they are immoral. People are less likely to think atheists are criminals and those who think they are elitist actually see it as a good thing. However, 40% of Americans also say that the increase of people with “no religion” is a bad thing.

These findings highlight the ways that many people in the United States still use religion as a sign of morality, of who is a good citizen, a good neighbor, and a good American. And the fact that Muslims are just as disliked as atheists shows that it is not only the non-religious that get cast as different and bad. Religion can be a basis for both inclusion and exclusion, and the authors conclude that it is important to continue interrogating when and why it excludes.

Amber Joy Powell is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include crime, punishment, victimization, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. She is currently working on an ethnographic study involving the criminal justice response to child sexual assault victims.