sexual orientation

Dylan Matthews, blogging in the Washington Post, discusses a very interesting paper that provides evidence showing that politicians seriously underestimate the progressivity of their constituents.

David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, the authors of the paper, “surveyed every candidate for state legislative office in the United States in 2012 [shortly before the November election] and probed candidates’ own positions and their perceptions of their constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage, and federal welfare programs, three of the most publicly salient issues in both national-level and state-level American politics during the past several years.”  They then matched the results with estimates of the actual district- and issue-specific opinions of those residing in the candidates’ districts using a data set of almost 100,000 Americans.

Here is what they found:

Politicians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average… Comparable figures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal office holders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.

The following two charts illustrate this bias when it comes to universal health care and same sex marriage.


As Matthews explain:

The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.

The authors found a similar bias regarding support for welfare programs.  Perhaps even more unsettling, the authors found no correlation between the amount of time candidates spent meeting and talking to people in their districts while campaigning for office and the accuracy of their perceptions of the political positions of those living in their districts.

One consequence of this disconnect is that office holders, even those with progressive views, are reluctant to take progressive positions.  More generally, these results speak to a real breakdown in “the ability of constituencies to control the laws that their representatives make on their behalf.”

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Last month Jet — a magazine marketed to African-American population — featured their first gay male couple in their wedding announcements.  The announcement may be a sign that African-American attitudes towards gay marriage may be turning around.  While the group has typically endorsed gay marriage at lower rates than White Americans, the gap between Blacks and Whites has been narrowing.

The Pew Research Center reports that the percent of Whites opposed to gay marriage dropped from 51% in 2008 to 41% in 2012.  Among Blacks, the percent in opposition dropped from 63% to 49%.  African-Americans and Whites are now separated by eight percentage points instead of twelve.

The data above was collected in April of 2012.  In May, Obama announced that he supported gay marriage.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s modeling of a pro-gay stance will influence the opinions of the African-American community further.

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.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

…participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment:

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-lengthhair-whorltwin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

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

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

In Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family, released last month, authors Brian Powell, Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman look at how Americans conceptualize “the family” — that is, not what they think about their own families, but what they think counts as a family. Which groups or living arrangements do they include in the definition of “family,” and who is excluded?

Based on surveys conducted in 2003 and 2006, Americans still hold the stereotypical nuclear family (husband, wife, kids) as the gold standard — virtually everyone agrees that such a group counts as a family. Being legally married, or the presence of children, generally leads to acceptance of a grouping as a family — the overwhelming majority believed single parents and their children count as families, as do married heterosexual couples without kids, and even unmarried heterosexual couples who have children. But when couples are same-sex, or don’t have kids, Americans are much less certain that they can qualify as a family. In 2006, the percent of respondents believing gay or lesbian couples with kids are families was notably smaller than for those agreeing that single parents or straight couples count, though it had increased since 2003:

And notice the importance of children to definitions of family — only a minority of respondents thought that gay, lesbian, or straight couples without kids are a family.

The authors divided respondents into three groups, based on their answers: exclusionists (those with the most restrictive definitions of family), moderates, and inclusionists (those with the most expansive definitions). Looking at the words these groups used as the talked about their characterizations of family, we see clear differences. The words used most frequently by exclusionists highlight the centrality of marriage, as well as an emphasis on what type of people constitute a family (husband, wife, woman, man), and the explicit inclusion of religious-based elements in their ideas of what makes a family:

The language used by inclusionists emphasized emotional attachments rather than the legal institution of marriage as the basis for determining what counts as a family:

Women were more inclusive than men, in general:

The more educated respondents were, the more inclusive their definitions of family tended to be:

The Russell Sage Foundation released these and many other charts and tables from the book, so it’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in how Americans think about the family. Overall, the authors found that definitions of the family were becoming more inclusive. Presumably this trend has continued and even accelerated since the 2006 survey, given how attitudes have shifted on a number of issues involving gay and lesbian rights in the past few years.

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

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images in 2010. Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Bob Z. and Dmitriy T.M. sent us a link to a vintage collection of gun advertising, organized by decade, that shows some interesting trends.

In the 1900s and 1910s, gun advertising frequently simply touted the benefits of the gun itself, ignoring completely any indication as to what the gun was for:

In the ’20s and ’30s, gun advertising more frequently involved a hunting or pest-reduction theme:

This theme continued through the 40s, but alongside a new theme, war (i.e., World War II):

Then, in the 1960s, the war theme disappeared and the hunting theme continued, this time with a new twist. Instead of just hunting for food (and sport) or to protect your property, ads included the hunting of exotic game solely for sport:

Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a new kind of gun advertising in which self-defense is the selling point.  Interestingly, this new marketing strategy is designed to bring in womengays and lesbians, people of color, and kids.

Notably, if you are unfortunate enough to be assaulted, carrying a gun makes it more likely that you’ll be shot in the encounter.

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.

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. appears to have finally reached a tipping point regarding attitudes toward same-sex marriage. In polls from a variety of organizations over the last two years, more people supported same-sex marriage than opposed it, and in some polls an outright majority expressed support for marriage equality.

Data from the Pew Research Center poll provide more evidence for this fairly rapid shift in public attitudes:

However, those attitudes vary widely by region. Looking more closely at the Pew data, we see that support is highest in New England, where over 60% of those surveyed in 2012 favored making same-sex marriages legal, but most regions of the U.S. now show more support than opposition. In fact, only in the South Atlantic and South Central states did more respondents oppose marriage equality than support it. The South Central region was least supportive, with 56% of respondents opposing same-sex marriage:

Support for same-sex marriage has grown in ever region over the past 10 years. A decade ago, supporting same-sex marriage was clearly a minority opinion across the U.S.:


As the Pew Center post points out, it’s not that attitudes in the South aren’t changing, but they’re only now approaching where the rest of the country was on the issue a decade ago.

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

We’ve had some fun posting uses of the word “gay” before it meant what it means today. For example, the “gay nineties,” “to wake up GAY in the morning!,” and “I’ve robbed the rainbow to make you gay” (yes, really).

Here’s another fun one: a letter from Marilyn Monroe thanking the German Consulate General  for a bottle of champagne.  May we all be as gracious.

Thanks to Retronaut for the find!

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.

Earlier this month, voters in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington faced ballot measures on same-sex marriage. The measures in Maryland and Washington sought to repeal same-sex marriage rights passed by their legislatures, while Minnesotans voted on whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution — and rejected the change. These three unsuccessful measures were part of a long history of anti-gay ballot measures dating back to 1974, which I document in my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box. Meanwhile, in Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot.

In all four states, the campaigns to ban same-sex marriage developed political ads that suggest that same-sex marriage is a threat to individual religious freedom. One ad about a Gallaudet diversity officer whose job was temporarily suspended due to her support for a referendum on same-sex marriage was initially aired in Maryland before being pulled for copyright restrictions by Gallaudet University. This and similar ads warned voters that individuals who do not support same-sex marriage will be fined, imprisoned, or ostracized for their religious beliefs:


These ads draw from a documentary series called Speechless: Silencing the Christians, created by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, founder and president of the American Family Association, a national organization that has worked for decades to restrict same-sex marriage and other rights for LGBT individuals. The 13-episode series was produced in 2008 and published as a book in 2009:

This discourse of religious freedom relies on civil rights language rather than morality. It focuses on the ability of individuals to live lives of faith in the world and make decisions in all aspects of their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs.

This understanding of religious freedom has more in common with arguments about civil rights than ones about religious morality. Rather than arguing about a particular moral perspective (e.g., the immorality of homosexuality), religious freedom rests on an argument that all individuals should have the freedom to make decisions based on their religion and should not be obstructed in their daily lives in doing so. The ads present Christians as embattled victims of intolerance for their religious views.

The political ads also use many of the zero-sum arguments about civil rights that have been documented by scholars since the 1960s, with gains for one group seen as a loss for another group. For example,  a gain for African Americans through desegregation was constructed by some white citizens as an equally dramatic loss for themselves.

Thus, these political ads, which seem to emerge out of the individual politics of each ballot measure, are connected to a larger argument about same-sex marriage and a long history of arguments about civil rights.


Amy L. Stone is an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.