Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the intervention of the birth control pill. There is no doubt that the pill has had a huge influence on sexual attitudes, sexual activity, and how much control women had over their own fertility. The pill, although it may not be the right choice for everyone, should be celebrated for these reasons. But there is something else to consider here: how did the invention of the pill shape the way that women (and the medical community for that matter) view periods?

When you think of the pill, the first image that comes to mind is that iconic little container of pink and white pills that represents one menstrual “cycle.”

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic article, John Rock’s Error, Gladwell explains how the invention of the pill was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. One of the creators of the pill, a devout Catholic, wanted it to be viewed as “natural” since it used chemicals that naturally occur in the body to prevent pregnancy. It was necessary, then, for women to continue to have their period regularly to show that the pill did not interfere with a woman’s menstrual rhythm.

But, speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing natural about having a menstrual period every month because it is not natural to limit fertility. Our female ancestors spent a good portion of their reproductive years pregnant and not having a period. And, in fact, having a period every month can be dangerous. Every time a woman has a period, tissue lining sheds and new cells must grow to replace it. And every time there is cell regrowth there is a new chance for mutations to occur. This leads to an increased risk of cancer and cysts.

It may be healthier (and more natural), then, for women to suppress menstruation (the way pregnancy used to). But because the idea of a natural rhythm is now synonymous with monthly periods, introducing pills with alternative cycles has proven difficult. Pills that allow for four periods a year (like Seasonale, Seasonique, and Yaz) have come on the market. But instead of discussing the medical benefits of fewer periods, they are marketed in a woman-on-the-go sort of way, as a way for women to “take back” their lives by avoiding an inconvenience.

Marketing the pill in this fashion has created push back by women who think this method this pill is all about suppressing “natural” womanhood, but it is a falsely constructed version of womanhood to begin with.

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Planned Parenthood, WebMD, No Period, and Annals of Medicine. Originally posted in 2010.

Lauren McGuire interned for Sociological Images in 2010. See more posts from Lauren on social psychology and policing by race and the evolution of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Flashback Friday.

Joan Jacob Brumberg’s fantastic book, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, is an excellent example of the benefits of sociologically-inspired history.  Brumberg begins by explaining that girls who starved themselves have been recorded in many historical epochs, but the way in which societies have made sense of that starvation has varied.

Today we medicalize self-starvation; we call it a mental illness and we name it “anorexia nervosa.”

In Medieval Europe, fasting girls were labeled with the term “anorexia mirabilis”; these girls were seen as miracles, able to survive on spiritual devotion alone. During the Victorian Era, people would pilgrimage to these fasting girls and leave offerings.  A famous fasting girl could be a financial boon to a struggling family.

Fasting Girl Mollie Fancher in 1887:


During the nineteenth century, medical doctors and psychiatrists (who generally saw religion as a threat to their nascent authority) argued that the fasting girls were impossibilities, that no one could survive without food. The competition between medicine and religion became so intense that doctors became intent on proving that these fasting girls were not surviving on holiness, but were sneaking food. In several cases, doctors staked out fasting girls, watching her to make sure that she did not eat, and these girls, relentless in the illusion, sometimes died.

In any case, I thought of Brumberg’s book when I came across a story about Prahlad Jani, an Indian man who claims that he has not had any food or drink for 70 years, surviving on “spiritual life force” instead.

In 2003 and 2010, Jani’s claims were tested by physicians. In the latest round, Indian military scientists held him in a hospital, watching him to ensure he did not eat or drink.  Unlike the doctors in the Victorian era, however, who wanted the girls to fail, these doctors think Jani might hold a secret that will be useful for the military and they’re hoping that, by watching, they will be able to discover it.

They released him after 15 days. As they did in 2003, they said that his tests came back normal despite complete abstinence from food and water.

Originally posted in 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.

One of the major contributions of political scientist Benedict Anderson is the idea of an “imagined community”: a large group of people connected not through interaction, but by the idea that they are part of a meaningful group. In his book on the idea, he wrote:

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. I suppose the idea might apply as well to religions.

Last week was a special week for American Catholics. The Pope’s visit to the U.S. was energizing, arguably intensifying the connection Catholics feel to their religion and, by extension, each other. But what, really, do Catholics have in common?

I don’t know, but agreement on what is sinful is not one of them. A Pew Research Center survey of Catholics reveals, instead, quite a lot of disagreement. Some Catholics don’t believe in the concept of sin at all and the remaining don’t always agree on what is sinful.


According to the results of the survey, for example, there is considerable disagreement as to whether abortion, homosexual behavior, hoarding wealth, divorce, unmarried cohabitation, and harming the environment are sinful. Moreover, plenty do not ascribe to some aspects of Catholic doctrine: only 17% of Catholics, for example, think that using contraception is sinful.

So, what does it mean to be Catholic?

Anderson might argue that they are simply an imagined community: a group of strangers with widely divergent views and life circumstances who feel the same despite all the reasons to feel different.

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.

According to data presented by Pew Research Center, 51% of the last 20 years of fires at houses of worship were ruled “intentional.” In contrast, 10% of non-residential fires and 5% of residential fires are believed to be arson.

Overall, all types of fire incidents at churches and other houses of worship have been declining, but the proportion that are ruled intentional has been stable. In 1996, a House Judiciary Committee report found that arson attacks disproportionately targeted black churches in the South.

This is your image of the week:5

Play with the interactive data here.

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.

2Killing at the hands of an illegal alien spurs furious debate about closing borders and deporting the undocumented. It is the year before a presidential election and candidates denounce undocumented immigrants as the conveyors of Mexican violence into our country.

When Robert J. Sampson, Harvard sociologist and criminologist, wrote about this news, he was not writing about the death of young Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, but about murders in New Jersey in 2007. And he wrote to say that his research and that of others showed that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit murder and “that immigration — even if illegal — is associated with lower crime rates….” He had previously made similar claims in The New York Times and had gotten vituperation in response.

Popular skepticism toward Sampson might be expected given the media coverage of sensational crimes like the one on Pier 14 and of Mexico’s drug wars. But behind the headlines, the daily reality on the streets of the U.S. seems to be that immigrants bring less crime. Indeed, scholars like Sampson have suggested that the surge of Latino immigration, documented and not, may partly explain the great drop in violent crime in American cities since the 1980s.

Now, two presidential cycles since the Sampson article, we have new studies and more technically sophisticated ones on the topic. What do they say about the effects of immigration on crime and violence?

Immigration does not increase crime

The research I reviewed – several recent articles (see bibliography here) – is pretty consistent: Immigrants and concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower rates of crime and homicide. To be more cautious: at minimum, there is no connection between immigration and higher rates of crime.

Studies of individuals show that, as two experts summarize, “immigrants are less, not more, crime prone than their native-born counterparts.” Second- and third-generation immigrants start to look more like many-generation Americans in criminality (much as they do in other ways, such as diet and health behaviors). One study suggests that for adolescents the “protective” effect against criminality of being an immigrant may wear off after four years. But newcomers are notably less likely to commit crime than otherwise similar American-born youth.

Neighborhoods with many immigrants are not higher in crime

Many new studies compare neighborhoods, cities, or counties to assess the relationship between local concentrations of immigrants (or of Latinos) and rates of crime or violence. The general conclusion is that the higher these concentrations in a community, the lower the rates. A couple of studies find that the connection depends on the local context. In more impoverished neighborhoods or in cities with historically larger numbers of immigrants or with immigrant political power, additional immigration seems to push crime down yet more.

Complex statistical work suggests that this correlation reflects a causal connection: more immigrants arrive and violent crime fades. Why would that be so?

Sampson and others suggest that Latino immigrants have stronger families and community institutions, such as churches, than do the native-born. These provide more social control over youth. Researchers also propose that immigration has helped economically revitalize many U.S. cities and driven down crime that way, too.

Whatever the explanation, the general pattern is the reverse of the heated rhetoric: Overall, immigration goes with less criminal violence.

Claude Fischer is a sociologist at UC Berkeley and is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. This post originally appeared at his blog, Made in America, and was re-posted on the Berkeley Blog.

A Gallup poll of a random sample of Americans conducted in May finds that, for the first time, a majority of Republicans report that they believe that gay and lesbian relations are “morally acceptable.” This is your image of the week:


And this, showing that a plurality of Republicans — meaning more than not — think sexual orientation is inborn, not chosen or learned:


Now, to be fair, Gallup specifies a sampling error of ±4 percentage points. So, they’re 95% confident that at least 47% of Republicans now approve of gayness, but also as many as 55%. Also, I don’t know what “gay and lesbian relations” means — sexual relations? relationships? — and neither do the pollsters or the respondents, as far as I know, which is some interesting slippery question asking. Still, that’s the data. Here’s some skepticism, just in case you’ve got an eyebrow raised.

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.

Flashback Friday.

I recently came upon the Jewish greeting card section at Target, way down on the bottom row. I could tell it was the Jewish section because all of the dividers that tell you what kind of card is in that slot (birthday, anniversary, etc.) had a Star of David on them.

I was interested in what a specifically Jewish birthday card might look like, so I picked this one up. It draws on the idea that Jewish people are particularly prone to feeling guilty.


The inside said:

…but is cake and ice cream mentioned anywhere? I think NOT! It’s your day! Enjoy! Enjoy!

Mary Waters found that people often believe that ethnicity explains all types of behaviors that are in fact very widespread. She interviewed White ethnics in the U.S.; they often attributed their families’ characteristics to their ethnicity. Take the idea of the loud, boisterous family, often including a mother who is constantly trying to get the kids to eat more of her homecooked meals and worrying if they aren’t married. Many individuals described their family this way and claimed that their ethnicity was the reason.

People who identified their background as Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish, and others all believed that the way their family interacted was a unique custom of their ethnic group. Yet they all described pretty much the same characteristics. The cardmakers’ (and others’) allusion to guilt to signify Jewishness seems to me to fall into this category: take out the Stars of David and I bet a range of religious/ethnic groups would think it was tailored to them specifically.

So you take a card, say guilt in it, add a Star of David, and you’ve got a Jewish card. Take out the Star of David, maybe it’s a Catholic card, especially if you added a cross, since they’re often portrayed as feeling a lot of guilt. I’ve had friends who grew up Southern Baptist or Pentecostal joke about having felt guilty about everything, so you could market the card to them, too! I think it’s a good example of how we often treat characteristics or behaviors as somehow meaningfully connected to a specific ethnic background rather than being a pretty common way that people in general, across ethnic lines, behave.

Originally published in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

At the New York Times, Ross Douthat has called out liberals who think, and declare, that churches today are more focused on “culture war” issues like abortion and homosexuality than on poverty.

Ridiculous, says Douthat. Religious organizations spend only “a few hundred million dollars” on pro-life causes and “traditional marriage” but tens of billions on charities, schools, and hospitals. Douthat and his sources, though, lump all spending together rather than separating domestic U.S. budgets from those going to the developing world.  But even in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, abortion and gay marriage are largely legislative and legal matters. Building schools and hospitals and then keeping them running – that takes real money.

Why then do liberals get this impression about the priorities of religious organizations? Douthat blames the media. He doesn’t do a full O’Reilly and accuse the media (liberal, it goes without saying) and others of ganging up in a war on religion, but that’s the subtext.

Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude.

Actually, the media do not report on the sermons and homilies of local clergy at all, whether they are urging their flocks to live good lives, become wealthy, help the needy, or oppose gay marriage. Nor is there a data base of these Sunday texts, so we don’t know precisely how much American chuchgoers are hearing about any of these topics. Only a handful of clergy get media coverage, and that coverage focuses on their pronouncements about controversial issues.  As Douthat says, liberals are probably reacting to “religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts.”

Of his own Catholic church, Douthat adds, “You can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result.” Maybe he has done this reading, and maybe he does think that his Church does not let “those issues intrude.” Or as he puts it, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.”

But here, thanks to the centralized and hierarchical structure of the Church, we can get data that might reveal what the Church is worried about. As Douthat implies, the previous pope (Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger), was more concerned about culture-war issues than is the current pope.

How concerned? I went to Lexis-Nexis. I figured that papal pronouncements on these issues would be issued in masses, in official statements, and in addresses.  For each of those three terms, I searched for “Pope Benedict” with four “culture-war” terms (Abortion, Homosexuality, Condom, and Birth control) and Poverty.

3 2 2 (1)
Abortion was the big winner.  Poverty was referred to in more articles than were the other individual culture-war terms.  But if those terms are combined into a single bar, its clear that poverty as a papal concern is dwarfed by the attention to these other issues. The graph below shows the data for “mass.”

This is not the best data. It might reflect the concerns of the press more than those of the Church. Also, some of those Lexis-Nexis articles are not direct hits. They might reference an “address” or “statement” by someone else. But there’s no reason to think that these off-target citations are skewed towards Abortion and away from Poverty.So it’s completely understandable that liberals, and perhaps non-liberals as well, have the impression that Big Religion has a big concern with matters of sex and reproduction.Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.