Photo by Tom Magliery, Flickr CC

According to a recent survey, Americans are having less sex — about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the 1990s. In fact, millennials are one of the groups who have sex the least often. If you’re wondering, those born in the 1930s were having sex the most. For anyone who has heard about young people engaging in “hookup culture,” this probably comes as a surprise. But, so what? Why should we care how often people are having sex or who their sexual partners are?

Studying sexual practice can reveal underlying norms and expectations, especially related to gender. For instance, a 2016 study linked egalitarian heterosexual relationships, where the couples share gendered household chores, to greater sexual frequency. In another study, researchers found that the number of women who report ever having had sex with both men and women or just women (and identifying as bisexual or gay) has increased; however, the same study reported same-sex encounters have not increased for men. The researchers speculate that this could be a result of differing norms for men and women where it is more acceptable for women to deviate from heterosexual gender norms.
Studying sexual behavior can reveal how identities are formed, as well. In recent years, research has explored why some people engage in same gender sex but still identify as straight. For some white men, sex with other men does not threaten their heterosexuality, but rather bolsters their masculinity and serves to reaffirm their identities as straight men. On the other hand, some women who had children with men felt that fact foreclosed their possibilities of claiming LGBTQ identities.
Inequalities also appear in sexual relationships. A sexual standard still exists for women in hookups, where men’s pleasure is central. While both men and women agree that women should be entitled to sexual pleasure in relationships, they do not agree that this is the case for casual hookups. Racial stereotypes also follow individuals into the bedroom. For instance, racially ambiguous individuals are often considered “exotic” by romantic interests. For some, women especially, this means they are viewed as more sexually exciting or only considered as hook ups. For some men, this means they are excluded from hook ups because they are considered “babymakers.”
Photo by the euskadi 11, Flickr CC

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the use of private prisons in the federal system. This move is welcome news to top corrections corporations such as CoreCivic, but human rights activists are concerned about this shift. Opponents claim that these corporations bring in large profits while their prisons remain rife with safety and healthcare deficiencies, as well as underpaid employees. While these concerns are important to consider, the private prison industry represents a small segment of the American correctional system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 17% of inmates in federal prisons and 7% in state prisons were held in private facilities in 2015.

During their initial inception, private prisons were believed to be a cost-effective option that could provide better services than government facilities. Despite these goals, much of the current evaluative research suggests that private facilities are no more cost effective than public facilities. Likewise, private prisons appear to perform worse in reducing recidivism than public correctional facilities and have similar (and sometimes worse) conditions than public facilities. In contrast, some evidence suggests that private prisons may be less overcrowded. Due to these ambiguities, scholars of the privatization debate are calling for more research into the qualitative differences between the private and public sector of prisons.
Regardless of their effectiveness, research suggests that the demographic composition of private prisons is racially disparate. In an analysis of adult correctional facilities in 2005, private prisons had significantly fewer white and more Hispanic populations when compared to their public counterparts. As to why racial and ethnic disparities exist, research points to the role of private prisons in immigrant detention, which has lead some scholars to argue that the private prison industry is just a small segment of a massive immigrant industrial complex. This line of research posits that this complex perpetuates the criminalization and stigmatization of immigrants, especially among Latinos, and as a result comes at a significant cost to immigrant families and communities.
Photo by Mike Beltzner, Flickr CC

Spring is here, and for many that means it’s time for a spring break! However, taking time off work can be a big deal, and taking a break can affect earnings and productivity. Research shows that vacation and leave time are largely shaped by a countries social and political context, but taking time off work can have serious consequences no matter where you live, especially for women.

To start, vacations take place in the context of larger structures of gender inequality and work/family policies. Mothers’ time in and out of work is shaped by institutional and cultural contexts, including paid-leave policies, state support for childcare, and cultural expectations around maternal employment. When women are supported by well-paid leave, affordable childcare, and a cultural expectation that mothers work, women with children ultimately work more weekly hours than those living in countries without these factors. Even so, time off is not without penalty. Country-specific policies also help predict the penalty women face for taking a break from employment to care for children. For instance, in a comparison between Germany, Sweden, and the U.S. — countries with distinct leave policies — researchers found that long leaves meant career penalties for all women. Unsurprisingly, in the U.S., a country known for lagging behind in parental leave, even short periods of time spent away from work can hurt womens’ careers.
When women take vacation days, they tend to take more than men, but this doesn’t mean that women are lounging on the beach or in the ski lodge while the men toil in the office.  Part of the reason for the gender difference is men use fewer vacation days because of anxieties about job security and supervisory responsibilities. Comparisons between nurses’ unions (mostly women) and firefighters’ unions (mostly men) shows that women prioritize negotiating scheduling, including vacation time, while men emphasize the importance of fairness in access to overtime among co-workers. Women who have unused vacation days tend to be more worried about the success of their families, but research shows that family concerns don’t necessarily lead women to take more vacation days.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

In response to the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, cities and universities all across the United States have declared themselves “sanctuaries” from the threat of deportation. One aspect of this has been a revival of the sanctuary church movement. Over 800 churches nationwide have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants who fear deportation since Trump took office. While it is technically illegal to harbor undocumented immigrants, immigration enforcement officials have typically avoided raiding “sensitive locations” like churches and hospitals to avoid disrupting institutions that provide social services. Social science shows that protecting sensitive locations like churches is key to providing essential social services to marginalized populations. 

This is not the first instance of religious institutions attempting to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation on moral grounds in the United States. In the 1980s, thousands of refugees fled political violence in Central America, many to the border states of Arizona and Texas. In response, hundreds of religious congregations declared themselves to be sanctuaries for Central American refugees. With the exception of a notable trial in Arizona in 1986 in which several activists were convicted for violating immigration law, most congregations suffered minimal, if any, legal reprisal for their efforts during this period.
Churches are unique from other types of sensitive locations like schools and hospitals because of their long history of offering sanctuary to people in need, a history that goes back to the 1600s. It was not until the late 20th century that states began intervening and requiring churches to hand over people they were protecting. In the U.S. today, churches are a critical resource for low-income, minority, and immigrant communities, especially in small towns and rural areas. They often serve as primary distribution sites for a number of rural social services including food aid, shelter, clothing, basic healthcare, and English language and employment tutoring.
Research studying the long-term effects of ICE raids on hospitals and clinics shows that immigrants stop seeking medical services when they no longer feel safe from law enforcement. If sanctuary churches are no longer recognized as safe from ICE raids, there is some concern that the same problem will make it difficult for churches to reach immigrants in rural places.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will stay out of churches, but social science shows that raiding these spaces could affect all immigrants, especially those in rural areas. And it may very well ignite an intense reaction from the churches and communities trying to keep people safe. 

Photo by K-Screen Shots, Flickr CC

For many Americans, anti-Semitism seems like a thing of the past, a topic for high school history classes and discussions of the Holocaust. But anti-Semitism has returned abruptly to the front page in recent weeks, with over 160 threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues since January. At times, such threats are paired with symbolic shows of force, as was seen when over 100 headstones in a Missouri Jewish cemetery were damaged or destroyed. For many this has been unexpected, but this is not necessarily true for social scientists who have been studying anti-Semitism over the last decade.

Recent survey-based studies have sought to assess anti-Semitic sentiments over time. Some scholars argue that anti-Semitism shifted into the more accepted form of anti-Israeli sentiments, with others arguing that the two issues are not necessarily related. However, most scholars seem to agree that public acceptance of anti-Semitism moved from the mainstream to smaller, more extreme groups throughout this period.
Social scientists have also looked at anti-Semitism using methods that look past publicly shared opinions, and these studies find slightly different results. Studies show that when questions focus on positive or “neutral” stereotypes, individuals are more likely to express them, possibly revealing that other, more negative  prejudices exist that they are less willing to share. This phenomenon helps explain why anti-Semitism seems to be increasing so quickly; as rhetoric against Jews and other minority populations becomes less stigmatized, people who quietly hold these views may feel more comfortable sharing their opinions. The  increase in hate crimes and threats within the United States and around the world may not reflect a cultural change in sentiment, but rather an increased willingness to share and act upon these previously held beliefs.

 

Photo by NASA, Flickr CC

With the recent discovery of numerous Earth-like planets orbiting the same star, Elon Musk’s promise to send citizens to the moon, and increased politicization surrounding the science of climate change, many Americans are looking to the stars for potential solutions and possible new homes. And the nascent NewSpace movement — made up of entrepreneurs and advocates looking to commercialize outer space — promises to push space exploration forward at a rapid pace. While it certainly requires rocket science to get to space, social science is beginning to weigh in on what it might mean for social life.

The privatization and commodification of public spaces is now moving beyond Earth as governments struggle over control of the atmosphere and outer space. And as new entrepreneurial space companies seek to privatize the sky and profit from new resources and new planets, some worry that existing structures of class and racial inequality will be repeated or even intensified with space colonization. Others, like anthropologist David Valentine, see potential for progressive re-imaginings.
Sociologists highlight how inequalities shape the way people are experiencing this increasing “humanization of the universe.” Wealthy elites relate to the universe as an object to dominate, funding new “space tourism” programs and hoping to extend the workings of capitalism to the Moon and beyond. Less wealthy and marginalized communities, however, experience the universe as a dominating and mystifying force, and many feel that space colonization will only make them more powerless.
Since women and people of color are still less likely to pursue careers in science or technology, they are less likely to have a voice in these new projects. But this is not the only thing keeping them from the conversation. For example, women have historically had a difficult time qualifying for space travel. Fears about menstruation, pregnancy, and hormones in outer space have significantly hindered research into how women’s bodies are affected by space travel. The result is that women’s bodies are constructed as problematic and essentialized in opposition to male bodies, keeping many women from successfully joining space missions.
Photo by Mark Fischer, Flickr CC

The election of Donald Trump has brought new people into politics and re-ignited activists. As people on the left aim to resist what they view as Trump’s dangerous and harmful policies, and people on the right try to sustain political engagement after the election, both sides are debating about the effectiveness of various political strategies. For example, Indivisible, a guide compiled by Congressional staffers on tactics for opposing President Trump, spread quickly across the internet as people grappled with how to effectively influence policy-making.

Contacting legislators is one of the most common forms of political engagement in the United States. Hearing from constituents, particularly in face-to-face meetings and phone calls, can influence politicians’ action on an issue. The greatest impact, however, is when the contact is outside of routine communications and part of a collective campaign. Social scientists have found that politicians are more likely to react to new information that indicates a change in the political landscape and ties their stance  to their electability. An organized effort can demonstrate that a group has powerful resources, such as volunteers and donations, which in turn can affect politicians’ ability to get re-elected.
Legislators are not always just responding to public opinion either. They are also influenced by lobbyists, political donations, personal political views, and party platforms. Nevertheless, popular opinion may play a larger role in shaping elected officials’ positions when it signals a dramatic shift and the public feels strongly on one side of an issue. Thus, political organizations and concerned citizens can influence policy by raising and changing public awareness, and then explaining these popular sentiments to politicians who learn about their constituents attitudes.
The effectiveness of contacting politicians also depends partially on the party and race of the official and the constituent. People are more likely to contact a politician from their own political party, so contacting leaders outside of one’s own party disrupts political norms — which is sometimes effective and sometimes discounted. The response of elected officials to the public is also shaped by racism. For example, a real-world experiment found that white legislators discriminate against emails and calls from black constituents.
Although calling and writing legislators has a role in democracy, historical research shows that sustained mass social movements are what drive major changes in society and politics. Large popular movements that use tactics like protests, boycotts and strikes can disrupt the status quo and garner public attention. For example, during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, sit-in protests increased the likelihood of desegregation in a city. The effectiveness of mass mobilization depends on the political and social context, but can transform political possibilities and lead to policy change.  
Photo by Falcon® Photography, Flickr CC

The United States and the United Nations have had a closely intertwined relationship since the organization’s founding in 1945. The UN deals with a broad range of issues around the globe, and its widespread influence is often controversial. However, the influence of the United Nation continues to be instrumental in promoting crucial human rights causes, and the reach of its aid is arguably beyond compare. Despite its numerous shortcomings, the UN plays a crucial role in promoting human rights norms across the globe.

Throughout the 1990s in particular, the United Nations took on a central role in the global justice process. It organized and funded international courts following episodes of mass violence, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and it made indictments for egregious crimes possible for the first time (including the crime of genocide).  Sociologists find that the existence of these courts have a global impact in providing justice, and the trials seem to have a positive effect in reducing human rights violations in the long run.
The judicial process alone cannot adequately address global human rights issues — humanitarianism and diplomacy also play key roles. The United Nation arguably plays the most dominant global role in these initiatives, with monumental campaigns addressing topics like hunger, refugee needs, and climate change. The UN has been criticized for showcasing Western ideals and not taking into account cultural contexts, such as early endeavors to reduce female genital cutting. However, the UN has made improvements and when programs are approached as an opportunity for partnership and not dominance, the outcomes can be quite positive. For example, the agency has taken great strides in promoting gender equality and access to education.
Photo by Democracy Chronicles, Flickr CC

President Trump and his administration have insisted that there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 election, although evidence has not supported this allegation. Instead, the evidence points  to significant issues surrounding voter suppression in the United States.

One contributing factor is felon disenfranchisement — when people with a felony conviction permanently lose the right to vote. Since the late 1860’s, U.S. states with the largest non-white prison populations have been more likely to implement voting restrictions for felons. Today, formerly incarcerated persons constitute the largest portion of the disenfranchised population, which also includes people with disabilities and those without valid forms of identification. Importantly, restrictive voting laws have actually altered political outcomes. For example, it is estimated that Al Gore would have won the 2000 presidential election if formerly incarcerated persons in Florida had been allowed to vote.
After the 2010 midterm elections, there was a wave of laws that seemed to bolster voting requirements, such as new ID laws and proof of residence. And while strengthening voter requirements may seem benign at first, these rules restrict access to people who are less likely to have identification and proof of residence — people of color, the elderly, and the poor. In essence, such laws make it harder for only some people to vote. Research suggests that Republican leadership and legislatures are more likely to push for these laws, an irony when we consider that the President Trump is alleging that there were too many votes.
Caracas (Venezuela), April 19, 2013. Photo by Cancillería del Ecuador, Flickr CC

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela is doing what many learn at a young age not to do — being a copycat.  Since Hugo Chavez seceded power, Venezuela’s current president lacks Chavez’s beloved “Chavismo.”  Maduro’s own brand of charisma and populist reform has not connected with the people as he expected, which has led him to use more extreme political measures in the hopes of garnering respect. This has led to unrest in Venezuela, highlighting the instability of charismatic-based politics.

As Max Weber famously described in his theories of social and economic organization, charismatic leaders are often able to create a unique bond with their citizens. But if that charisma fades, it can create instability. This is also evident when there is a transfer of power from a beloved charismatic leader to a new leader. 
Research finds that charismatic leaders are often good at mobilizing people to join social movements, but that the charismatic bond is often short-lived and unable to be transferred to other individuals. When charisma fails to motivate support, leaders often turn to more conventional measures to reach their political goals, which can lead to disenchantment and unrest among the citizenry.