Category Archives: In the news

Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Arthur Brooks’s worldliness is showing

Because the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which spends $9 million per year getting its message out, needs help getting its message out, its president, Arthur Brooks is on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review again this week. When he’s not spending rich people’s money to, for example, advocate for more military funding, Brooks takes time to promote a feel-good, post-materialist message for the rich-who-just-happen-to-be-rich.

But there’s a funny thing in the middle of today’s message to “love people, use things.”

Easier said than done, I realize. It requires the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies. Only deny love to things that actually are objects.

Wait, God? Why is God in the middle of this list of people we should love? You could say (as he has) that religious people are happier, and that loving God is part of an uplifting selflessness. But I suspect this is more a political nod. Brooks is making a name as a compassionate conservative, dedicated above all to free markets but making American conservatives nervous by dropping in the importance of “safety-net policies for the indigent” (definition of indigent obviously the question being begged).

His brand of right-wing politics is not practically separable from conservative religious groups and ideologies, so regardless of his beliefs (which I don’t know), he can’t exclude God. For example, the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), which at $19 million aince 1990 is one of the top contributors to AEI, and on whose board Brooks sits, gives millions to a mix of education causes (e.g., charter schools), religious organizations (e.g., the Israeli right wing and God’s World Publications), conservative think tanks (Hudson, Ayn Rand, Heritage), and Republican activists (FreedomWorks). It’s hard to get the God out of that mix, even if you wanted to.

It’s too easy to accuse people like Brooks of hypocrisy, so I won’t belabor this, but I also note that DCF in 2012 gave $125,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, which that year pursued a project the “strategic goal” of which was “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks” in their campaign to deny marriage to gays and lesbians. Isn’t love grand?

Other posts on American Enterprise Institute:


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New York City police killings: 1964 (life) – 1989 (art) – 2014 (life)

In July 1964, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, White New York City police officer Thomas Gilligan killed Black 15-year-old James Powell. After two days of peaceful protest, police and protesters clashed and six nights of violence followed. This is not James Powell being killed, just another guy being beaten:


In the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing featured the killing of Radio Raheem by White police — using the already-infamous chokehold — after they swept into the sweltering neighborhood, where a fight had broken out. The climactic incident sparked an explosive riot (watch the scene on Hulu with membership):


Now, another quarter century later, police on Staten Island have apparently choked 43-year-old Eric Garner to death after he refused to cooperate with whatever random demand they had, as captured on video (and posted by the Daily News):


Now the chokehold is against police department rules, but the number of chokehold complaints — a statistic the department keeps — has been rising and last year reached 233, only a “tiny fraction” of which are substantiated. In the Daily News video, Garner is heard saying, “I can’t breathe” many times.

UPDATE: Spike Lee has now produced a video splicing together the chokehold scenes of Eric Garner and Radio Raheem. It’s embedded on Indiwire here.


Filed under In the news

Border fences make unequal neighbors




There is one similarity between the Israel/Gaza crisis and the U.S. unaccompanied child immigrant crisis: National borders enforcing social inequality. When unequal populations are separated, the disparity creates social pressure at the border. The stronger the pressure, the greater the military force needed to maintain the separation.

To get a conservative estimate of the pressure at the Israel/Gaza border, I compared some numbers for Israel versus Gaza and the West Bank combined, from the World Bank (here’s a recent rundown of living conditions in Gaza specifically). I call that conservative because things are worse in Gaza than in the West Bank.

Then, just as demographic wishful thinking, I calculated what the single-state solution would look like on the day you opened the borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I added country percentiles showing how each state ranks on the world scale (click to enlarge).


Israel’s per capita income is 6.2-times greater, its life expectancy is 6 years longer, its fertility rate is a quarter lower, and its age structure is reversed. Together, the Palestinian territories have a little more than half the Israeli population (living on less than 30% of the land). That means that combining them all into one country would move both populations’ averages a lot. For example, the new country would be substantially poorer (29% poorer) and younger than Israel, while increasing the national income of Palestinians by 444%. Israelis would fall from the 17th percentile worldwide in income, and the Palestinians would rise from the 69th, to meet at the 25th percentile.

Clearly, the separation keeps poor people away from rich people. Whether it increases or decreases conflict is a matter of debate.


Meanwhile, the USA has its own enforced exclusion of poor people.

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons.

The current crisis at the southern border of the USA mostly involves children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They don’t actually share a border with the USA, of course, but their region does, and crossing into Mexico seems pretty easy, so it’s the same idea.

To make a parallel comparison to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, I just used Guatemala, which is larger by population than Honduras and El Salvador combined, and also closest to the USA. The economic gap between the USA and Guatemala is even larger than the Israeli/Palestinian gap. However, because the USA is 21-times larger than Guatemala by population, we could easily absorb the entire Guatemalan population without much damaging our national averages. Per capita income in the USA, for example, would fall only 4%, while rising more than 7-times for Guatemala (click to enlarge):


This simplistic analysis yields a straightforward hypothesis: violence and military force at national borders rises as the income disparity across the border increases. Maybe someone has already tested that.

The demographic solution is obvious: open the borders, release the pressure, and devote resources to improving quality of life and social harmony instead of enforcing inequality. You’re welcome!


Filed under In the news, Politics

Home stretch

Marriage equality may have rounded the last turn today in its race through the US legal system.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Jamison Wieser

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Jamison Wieser

When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals set up the question in Kitchen v. Herbert this way, there was no possible outcome other than a strong decision affirming the lower court, in favor of a right to marry for same-sex couples:

May a State of the Union constitutionally deny a citizen the benefit or protection of the laws of the State based solely upon the sex of the person that citizen chooses to marry?

Sure enough, the decision is a thorough trashing of the state of Utah’s defense of its same-sex marriage ban:

Having heard and carefully considered the argument of the litigants, we conclude that, consistent with the United States Constitution, the State of Utah may not do so. We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.

This is a federal appeals court — higher than the federal courts that have been overturning state laws left and right — and the first to rule that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. After this, it’s on to the Supreme Court. Here are some more highlights from the decision.

The decision states that the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision (which I discussed here) is “not directly controlling, but adds that “the similarity between the claims at issue in Windsor and those asserted by the plaintiffs in this case cannot be ignored.” That is teeing up the Supreme Court’s future decision for Windsor author Justice Kennedy, and confirming the conclusions of many that Scalia was right in his Windsor dissent:

As far as this Court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe. By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.

The decision today also explains that extending the right to marry to same-sex couples does not constitute creating a new right, but merely recognizing that the prohibition against arbitrary denial of rights to marriage — which has been expressed in broad terms in the past — applies to same-sex couples as well. For example, the Casey decision explains about Loving v. Virginia (which overturned interracial marriage bans):

[m]arriage is mentioned nowhere in the Bill of Rights and interracial marriage was illegal in most States in the 19th century, but the Court was no doubt correct in finding it to be an aspect of liberty protected against state interference by the substantive component of the Due Process Clause in Loving v. Virginia.

That is, Loving and other decisions described the “freedom of choice to marry” broadly enough that it can now be extended without a finding that the Supreme Court intended to extend it to same-sex couples: “the Supreme Court has traditionally described the right to marry in broad terms independent of the persons exercising it.” And they quote from a dissent in a prior case, Hernandez v. Robles: “Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.”

They also address Utah’s specious claim that marriage rights are really about the right to procreation by citing precedents that protect the right not to procreate (e.g., the Eisenstadt and Griswold cases on contraception), and the right of parents to raise their children (not just bear them), as in the Carey decision and others on parenting rights, and decisions protecting the rights of adoptive parents.

On the idea that Utah should be able to ban same-sex marriage because it has an interest in furthering the idea of procreation within marriage (which I discussed here), the decision is dismissive:

Among the myriad types of non-procreative couples, only those Utahns who seek to marry a partner of the same sex are categorically excluded from the institution of marriage. Only same-sex couples, appellants claim, need to be excluded to further the state’s interest in communicating the link between unassisted biological procreation and marriage. As between non-procreative opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples, we can discern no meaningful distinction with respect to appellants’ interest in fostering biological reproduction within marriages. The Equal Protection Clause “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Extending the benefits and protections of a civil society to some but not all similarly situated families violates this critical guarantee.

Interesting here the judges are not arguing about a couple’s right to marry, but rather about an individual’s right to marry someone of the same sex. That’s a harder right to deny.

And on the whole idea that gay marriage threatens straight marriage:

We emphatically agree with the numerous cases decided since Windsor that it is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.

On the comparison to no-fault divorce, which supposedly undermined marriage generally, an extended riff on hypocrisy:

We cannot accept appellants’ claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry is analogous to a law that permits married couples to divorce. The former causes an increase in the number of married individuals, whereas the latter decreases the number of marriages in a state. … Setting aside the implausibility of the comparison, we observe that Utah has adopted precisely the no-fault divorce regime that appellants decry in their briefing. … Through its no-fault divorce statute, Utah allows a spouse—the bedrock component of the marital unit—to leave his family whenever he wants and for whatever reason moves him. It is difficult to imagine how the State’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage undercuts in any meaningful way a state message of support for marital constancy given its adoption of a divorce policy that conveys a message of indifference to marital longevity.

Further, on the idea, so revoltingly disgorged by Hawkins and Carroll in the Utah case (as I discussed here), that gay marriage would make straight men love their children less:

We cannot imagine a scenario under which recognizing same-sex marriages would affect the decision of a member of an opposite-sex couple to have a child, to marry or stay married to a partner, or to make personal sacrifices for a child.

And finally, in the category of burying the Regnerus-Wilcox agenda to support with social science the bans on same-sex marriage in the name of children’s wellbeing (here’s the whole history):

We cannot embrace the contention that children raised by opposite-sex parents fare better than children raised by same-sex parents—to the extent appellants continue to press it—in light of their representations to this court. Appellants’ only reasoning in this regard is that there might be advantages in one parenting arrangement that are lacking in the other. On strict scrutiny, an argument based only on pure speculation and conjecture cannot carry the day. Appellants’ tepid defense of their parenting theory further highlights the looseness of the fit between the State’s chosen means and appellants’ asserted end.

I hope this means Regnerus and his ilk have cashed their last expert-witness check in this cause.

For us non-legal types, the writing judges do when they’re defending fundamental rights is surely their most compelling (and in this genre I highly recommend Judge Walker’s 2010 decision on California’s Prop 8). Overall, it’s an eloquent decision, and worth reading.

But, getting ahead of ourselves a little, it’s also worth pointing out that the 10th Circuit decision contributes to the de-radicalizing of the marriage rights movement with this quip:

Plaintiffs seek to enter into legally recognized marriages, with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities enshrined in Utah law. They desire not to redefine the institution but to participate in it.

Right! Wait… what?



Filed under In the news

Deciphering a well-told data story, cars are good for kids edition

Brad Wilcox has written up his best case for how marriage protects women and girls from violence. I discussed his initial post earlier, but the blowup has prompted me to provide more general advice for the critical data citizen — reader, writer, and editor — who has to decide what to believe when someone comes at them with a data story.

I have some tips about that at the end, but first this elaborate setup.

The information in this section is true

Consider three stories:

  • When Melanie Thernstrom’s toddler, Kieran, first ate cheese, he immediately had a massive allergic attack. His face swelled, his skin turned red and scaly, and he started gasping for breath. They jumped in their car and rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to save him.
  • Chicago mother Tynisha Hilliard had six children in the car when someone opened fire. “Mommy, I’m shot,” said her nine-year-old boy from the back seat. Hilliard immediately sped to the nearest hospital. “My reaction was to save my son. That’s all I can do, save my son,” she said. After emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the chest, the boy was expected to survive.
  • When Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis’s wife, Cindy, went into labor, they hopped in the car and headed for NYU hospital, normally a 35-minute drive. Despite racing through traffic with a police escort, they didn’t make it in time – the baby was born in the back seat – but they arrived at the hospital moments later, met by an emergency crew that whisked mother and child to care and safety in the hospital.

What do these stories have in common? Children’s lives saved by cars.

Is this part of a wider phenomenon? I know what you’re thinking: The pollution from cars hurts children, the vast resources devoted to infrastructure for cars could be spent instead in ways that help children, the need for gas causes wars all the time, and the individualism promoted by car culture contributes to social isolation instead of community efficacy.

Maybe. But let’s theorize a little. Here are three ways cars might be good for children’s health:

  • Kids whose families have cars can get them to doctors in an emergency. Considering that in modern societies a lot of what kills children is various kinds of accidents and medical emergencies, this could be a major advantage.
  • Say what you want about individualism, but it’s emerged as a modern character trait in tandem with the cultural shift that brought us the view of children as priceless individuals. Car culture is a major prop of individualism, so it’s reasonable to hypothesize that people who drive individual cars are more totally devoted to their priceless individual children’s well-being (rather than, say, the well-being of children in general).
  • Being able to transport oneself at will — any time, any place — may create a sense of self-efficacy, of mastery over one’s environment, which makes people refuse to accept failure (or illness or death), and thus devote themselves more confidently to their survival and the survival of their children.

Don’t take a theoretical word for it, though — let’s go to the data. Here are three small studies.

Cars and children’s health across countries

First we examine the relationship between the number of passenger cars per capita and the rate of child malnutrition in 110 countries (all the countries in the World Bank’s database that have measures of both variables in the last 10 years — mostly poor countries). The largest — India, China, Brazil, and the USA — are highlighted (click to enlarge).


This is a very strong relationship. This single variable, cars per capita, statistically explains no less than 67% of the variation in child malnutrition rates.

But, you liberals object, cars are surely more common in wealthier countries, so this relationship may be spurious. Sure, income and cars are positively correlated (r=.86, in fact). But when I fit a regression model with both per capita income and per capita cars, cars still have a highly significant statistical association with malnutrition (p<.001). (All the regression models are in the appendix at the end.)

Cars and child death rates across US states

Second, we take a closer look within the United States.  Here there is a lot less variation in both the number of cars and the condition of children. Still, there is a clear relationship between private cars per person and the death rate of children and teenagers: Children are substantially less likely to die in states with more privately owned passenger cars (click to enlarge).


Again, there is less variation in income between U.S. states than there is between countries of the world. But to make sure this is not just a function of state income, I fit a regression model with cars and a control for median household income. The statistical effect of private cars remains significant at the p<.05 level, confirming it is unlikely to be due to chance.

Car commuting and children’s disabilities within the US

Third, let’s go still further, not just comparing US states but comparing children according to the car-driving habits of their parents within the US. For this I got data on children’s disabilities (four kinds of disability) and the means of transportation to work for their parents using the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, with a sample of more than 700,000 children ages 5-11.

Sure enough, children who live with parents who drive to work are substantially less likely to have disabilities than those who don’t live with a parent who drives to work:


Again, could this be because richer families are more likely to include car-driving parents? The regressions (below) show that, although it is true that children in richer households are less likely to have disabilities, the statistical effect of parents’ commuting method remains highly significant in the model that includes household income.

In summary: Children are less likely to be malnourished if they live in a country with more cars per person; they are less likely to die if they live in a state with more cars per person, and they are less likely to have disabilities if they live with parents who commute to work by car. All of these relationships are statistically significant with controls for income (of the country, state, or family). These are facts.

One interpretation

Compare this analysis to the question of marriage and violence. In their piece for the Washington Post (discussed here), Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote about #YesAllWomen:

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

With the facts above I can accurately offer this parallel construction:

Some cars pose a real threat to the health and safety of children. But obscured in the public conversation about auto safety, pollution, and environmental degradation is the fact that some other cars are more likely to protect children, directly and indirectly, from threats to their health and safety: cars driven by their own, responsible, caring parents. The bottom line is this: Children in places with more cars — and in families where parents commute by car — are notably healthier than peers without cars.

At the end of his followup post, Brad concludes:

Of course, none of these studies definitively prove that marriage plays a causal role in protecting women and children. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Intact families with married parents are typically safer for women and children. … That’s why the conversation about violence against women and girls … should incorporate the family factor into efforts to reduce the violence facing women and girls.

I am equally confident in my conclusion:

Of course, my brief studies don’t definitively prove that cars plays a causal role in protecting children’s health and safety. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Societies and families with cars are typically safer and healthier for children. That’s why the conversation about children’s well-being should incorporate the car factor into efforts to reduce the harms too many children continue to experience.

Another interpretation

Both the marriage story and the car story are misleading data manipulations that substitute data volume for analytical power and present results in a way intended to pitch a conclusion rather than tell the truth.

When is a non-causal story “certainly suggestive”? When the person giving you the pitch wants you to believe the conclusion.

Please do not conclude from this that all data stories are equally corrupt, and everyone just picks the version that agrees with their preconception. Not all academics lie or distort their findings to fit their personal, political, or scientific conclusions. I may be more motivated to criticize Brad Wilcox because I disagree with his conclusions (and there may be people I agree with who use bad methods that I haven’t debunked), but that doesn’t mean I’m dishonest in my interpretation and presentation of evidence. Like a real climate scientist debunking climate-change deniers, I am happy that discrediting him is both morally good and scientifically correct (and I think that’s not a coincidence).

There are two main problems with both the cars story and the marriage story. First is selection into the independent variable condition (marriage and car ownership). People end up in these conditions partly because of their values on the dependent variable. For example, women in marriages are less likely to be raped on average because women don’t want to marry men who have raped them, or likely will rape them — the absence of rape causes marriage. In the case of children with disabilities, there is evidence that children’s disabilities increase the odds their parents will divorce (which means at least one of the parents isn’t in the household and so can’t be a car-commuting parent in the ACS data).

The other main problem is omitted variables. Other things cause both family violence and children’s health, and these are not adequately controlled even if researchers tell you they control for them. Controlling for household income (and other easily-measured demographics) does not capture all the benefits and privileges that married (or car-owning) people have and transfer to their children. For tricky questions of selection and omitted variables, we need to get closer to experimental conditions in order to provide causal explanations.

Tips for critical reading

So, based on Wilcox’s car story and my car story, here are practical tips to help you avoid getting hoodwinked by a propagandist with a PhD — or a data journalist looking at a mountain of data and a tight deadline. These are some things to watch out for:

Scatter plot proof

Impressive bivariate relationships; they may be presented with mention of control variables but no mention of adjusted effect size. That’s what I did with my scatter plots above. If you have adjusted results but don’t show them, it’s selling a small net effect with a big unadjusted label. (Wilcox examples here; Mark Regnerus does this, too.)

Axis truncation

A classic example is the Obama food stamp meme, but Wilcox had a great example a few years ago when he wanted to show the drop in divorce that resulted from hard times pulling families together during the recession. If you assume divorce is always going up (it fell for decades), this looks like a dramatic change (he called it “the first annual dip since 2005″):

No head-to-head comparison of alternative explanations

This is a lot to ask, but real social scientists take seriously the alternative explanations for what they observe, and try to devise ways to test them against each other. Editors often see this as a low-hanging fruit for removal, because cutting it both shortens the piece and strengthens the argument. In the rape versus marriage story, Wilcox nodded to the alternative explanation that “women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage” — which he called “part of the story” — but he offered nothing to help a reader or editor adjudicate the relative size of that “part” of the story. This connects to the next red flag.

Greater than zero proof

Sometimes just showing that something exists at all is offered as evidence of its importance. That’s why I included three anecdotes about children being saved by private passenger cars — it happened, it’s real. The trick is to identify whether something matters in addition to existing. Here’s a Wilcox example where he showed that a tiny number of people said they didn’t divorce because of the recession; here’s an example in which Nate Cohn at the NYTimes Upshot said that 2% of Hispanics changing their race to White was “evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans.” Neither of these provide any comparison to show how important these discoveries were relative to anything else — other reasons people delay divorce? other reasons for race-code changes? — they just exist. This is reasonable if you’re discovering a new subatomic particle, but with social behavior it’s less impressive.

Piles of studies

The reason I presented the car results as the three separate “studies” was to make the point that you can have a lot of studies, but if none of them prove your point it doesn’t matter. For example, in his post Wilcox linked to a series of publications about how children whose parents weren’t married were more likely to be sexually abused, but none of them handle the problem of selection into marriage I described above. Similarly, a generation of research showed that women who have babies as teenagers suffer negative economic consequences, but those effects were all exaggerated because people didn’t take selection into account (women with poor economic prospects are more likely to have babies as teenagers).

Describing one side of inequality as a social good

Let’s say that, in street fights, the person with a gun beats the person with a knife more than 50% of the time. Do we conclude people should have more guns? Some benefits are absolute and have no zero-sum quality to them. (I can’t think of any, but I assume there are some.) Normally, however, we’re talking about relative benefits. The benefits of marriage, or the economic benefits of education, are measured relative to people who aren’t married or schooled.

The typical description of such a pattern is, “This causes a good outcome, we should have more of it.” But we should always consider whether the best thing, socially, might be to reduce the benefit — that is, solve the problems of the people who don’t have the asset in question — rather than try to increase the number of people with the asset.

The benefit of cars that comes from being able to get to the hospital quicker may only be relative to the poor suckers stuck in an ambulance while your personal cars are blocking up Manhattan.

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Appendix: Regression results



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Movie dimorphism udpate: How to Train Your Dragon 2 edition

In the kids’ movie sexual dimorphism saga, we have a new entrant: How to Train Your Dragon 2.

The posts so far include Frozen and Brave (which includes data on real hand size differences), Tangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet. The objections to complaints, and some counter examples, are in this post.

In Dragon, the young hero, Hiccup, and his friend Astrid are about the same size:

dragon-kidsSo file that under not extreme dimorphism. But there isn’t a lot of romance between them. I wouldn’t have made an entry for the film if not for a few tender moments between Stoick the Vast and his wife, Valka (Hiccup’s parents).

stoick-valkaTrue to form, it is during the tender moments that the greatest sexual dimorphism is displayed. Here are their hands from the scene where their love is (spoiler alert) rekindled (sorry for the image quality – it was dark):


I actually don’t see how her tiny fingers can reach all the way across his hand like that. Ouch! Anyway, the point is the size difference. Please don’t say, “Of course his hands are huge, his name is Stoick the Vast”! It’s fiction. They could have done whatever they wanted. That’s why some of the Vikings have Scottish accents, and there are flying dragons (still not enough magic to get any people of color into the frozen North, though — except the foreign arch villain, Drago Bludvist).

Anyway, here are the previous pictures in the series:




Gnomeo and Juliet


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US teen birth rates remain high, and they’re not falling for the reasons you’ve heard

Everyone is excited by the decline in the teen birth rate in the US. But And here are a few things you should know about it.

This chart shows the birth rates for women ages 15 to 19 in 192 countries, plus the world and the UN-defined rich countries, for 1991 and 2011. Dots below the black line show countries where the teen birth rate fell. The red line shows the overall relationship between 1991 and 2011. Dots below the red line had greater than expected reduction in teen births.

teen births global

Source: My graph United Nations data.

The chart shows four things:

1. Teen birth rates are falling globally. From 1991 to 2011, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 19 fell from 65 to 46 births per 1,000 women worldwide.

2. US has higher teen birth rates than any other rich country. At 33 per 1,000, the US has more teen births than Pakistan (28), but fewer than India (36). For high income countries, by the UN definition, the rate is 19. The rate for the Euro area is 7.

3. The teen birth rate is falling faster in the US than in the world overall. The world rate fell 29% from 1991 to 2011, while the drop in the US was 44%.

In the US, there are a lot of factors related to falling teen births. But they’re mostly about how it’s happening, not why it’s happening. For example, Vox published a list of factors, as did Pew before them, that are reasonable: the recession, more birth control, more Medicaid money for family planning, cultural pressure, and less sex.

But to understand why this is happening, you have to stop thinking about teenagers as some sort of separate subspecies. They are just young women. Soon they will be in their 20s. The same women! So the short answer for why falling teen birth rates happening is this:

4. Teen birth rates in the US are falling because women are postponing their births generally.

You can see this if you line up teens next to women of other ages. Here are the changes in birth rates for women, by age, from 1989 to 2012.


Source: My graph from National Center for Health Statistics data.

See how the trend for the last decade is parallel for 15-17, 18-19, and 20-24? As those rates fell, birth rates rose for the 30+ community. The younger women are, the fewer births they’re having; the older they are, the more births they’re having. Teenage women are women! They do it for all the reasons it’s happening around the world: some because they are delaying marriage, some to pursue education and careers, some to see the world, and so on.

Here is another way to look at this. Here are the 50 US states, from the 2000-2012 American Community Survey. This shows that states with lower teen birth rates (those are per 100, on the y-axis), have higher birth rates for 25-34 year-old women relative to 20-24 year-old women. I’ll explain:


Teen births rates and the ratio of teen birth rates ages 25-34 / 20-24. US states, 2010-2011

Where more women have children ages 25-34 relative to 20-24, there are fewer teen births. So, in Alabama, about 3% of women 15-19 had a baby per year, and in that state the birth rates are about the same for women 25-34 as 20-24. Alabama is an early-birth state. But in New Hampshire, only 1% of teens had a baby, and women 25-34 were almost 2.5-times more likely to have a baby than women 20-24. New Hampshire is a late-birth state. What’s happening with teens reflects what’s happening with older women.

To some significant degree, it’s not about teenagers, it’s about women delaying births.* I would love it if reporting on teen births would always compare them to older women.

*Notice I didn’t just exaggerate and say, “it’s not about teenagers.” I added “to some significant degree.” That’s the difference between a post that is selling you (your clicks) to someone versus a post that’s trying to explain things as clearly as possible.


Filed under In the news

Misogyny and masculinity, less edited

One point of all this work that I do speaking about sociology to people who aren’t academic sociologists — teaching, blogging, writing a textbook, speaking to the news media — is to help our research have a greater social impact. When a public tragedy occurs, such the Santa Barbara mass murder, there is a chance to widen the conversation and include a sociological perspective.

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes I have the chance to do this even when my own research is not what’s most applicable. That’s great, but I try to be careful (and recommend that journalists speak to others as well). I hope I was right in this case. When Jessica Bennett – a journalist who writes incisively about gender and popular culture – asked me (among others) for a reaction, for what became this column, my first thought was about misogyny. I offered here these comments in an email:

There are two ways that misogyny could play into this case. The first possibility is that he simply hated women, a perspective that is highly accessible in US society. This is illustrated in a lot of pornography — rape or humiliation — and advertising, and articulated by a lot of men who objectify women and seek their conquest or abuse in order to express power or impress other men.

The other possibility is he was schizophrenic or otherwise disassociated from social reality. In that case, misogyny is just the vehicle his disordered brain latched onto. Paranoid people choose from the available entities when building up the fantasy of their persecution. The source of their persecution may not be real, but it is also not random. (The CIA may not be after you, but if it didn’t spy on and assassinated some people, schizophrenics wouldn’t be afraid of them.)

If a paranoid delusional young man believes women are persecuting him, he may be crazy but he is also picking up on the hatred and fear directed toward women that he sees around him.

No matter how you slice it, it is a tragedy that reflects the societal influence of hatred toward women. That is not the whole story of gender relations in our society, but it is definitely present and dangerous.

Then, when Bennett let me know she was interested in focusing the piece on masculinity, I added this (the excerpt she chose is underlined):

One issue is the narrow range of acceptable expressions of masculinity. This is one place where women have more flexibility than men (pants or dress). Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you [a] man? Maybe it’s violence.

The alternative many men/boys learn to deal with, of course, is just not being an ideal man. [as mentioned,] most men don’t kill people. Partly that means learning to be ok with not achieving the ideal. So that’s a coping thing many men need to develop, and failure to develop that could be evidence of a problem.

I’m not an expert on masculinity studies. In the quote on masculinity that Bennett used, I was thinking specifically of the chapter by Barbara Risman and Elizabeth Seale, in which they interviewed middle schoolers about gender, concluding:

We find that both boys and girls are still punished for going beyond gender expectations, but boys much more so than girls. For girls, participation in traditionally masculine activities, such as sports and academic competition, is now quite acceptable and even encouraged by both parents and peers. We fi nd, indeed, that girls are more likely to tease each other for being too girly than for being a sports star. Girls still feel pressure, however, to be thin and to dress in feminine ways, to “do gender” in their self-presentation. Boys are quickly teased for doing any behavior that is traditionally considered feminine. Boys who deviate in any way from traditional masculinity are stigmatized as “gay.” Whereas girls can and do participate in a wide range of activities without being teased, boys consistently avoid activities defined as female to avoid peer harassment.


The chapter appears in the reader that Risman edited, titled Families as They Really Are (keep an eye out for a new edition!). Someone posted a bootleg copy of the chapter here.

As I read my comments now, I realize there are a lot of other ways to be “a man,” but what I was trying to get at is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant (in the sense of power) way of being “a man” in a particular cultural context. Of course there other ways to be happy and a man without hanging it on sports, sex, or violence. In reaction to the #YesAllWomen Twitter movement, some people have responded with “real men don’t rape” (which is ironically similar to the old feminist perspective that “rape is violence, not sex”). It attempts to preserve the basic status (men, sex) as good while making the oppressive or violent part deviant, not of the essence. Here is one tweet to that effect, from Michelle Ray:

Feminists seem to have no idea what a man is. Men don’t rape. Sick people who never learned to be men commit violence to solve their issues.

If you say “men don’t rape,” that’s a nice way to try to make it cool to be a man against rape, to resist that image of masculinity. So I like it as an imperative. But as a description of society it’s not true, so there’s that. (A similar move happens in family discourse, sometimes, as when someone says about abuse within families, “real fathers don’t treat their children that way.” Of course, real fathers do good as well as evil — the questions are how and why, and what to do about it.)

Anyway, I would also recommend C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography, Dude, You’re a Fag, in which she discussed sex and masculinity with high school students. Here’s one excerpt:

If a guy wasn’t having sex, “he’s no one. He’s nobody.” Chad explained that some guys tried to look cool by lying about sex, but they “look like a clown, [they get] made fun of.” He assured me, however, that he was not one of those “clowns” force to lie about sex, bragging, “When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the eighth grade.”

And Pascoe concluding:

These practices of compulsive heterosexuality indicate that control over women’s bodies and their sexuality is, sadly, still central to definitions of masculinity, or at least adolescent masculinity. By dominating girls’ bodies boys defended against the fag position, increased their social status, and forged bonds of solidarity with other boys. However, none of this is to say that these boys were unrepentant sexists. Rather, for the most post, these behaviors were social behaviors. Individually boys were much more likely to talk empathetically and respectfully of girls. … Maintaining masculinity, though, demands the interactional repudiation of this sort of empathy in order to stave off the abject fag position.

That insight about interaction is crucial. To go above my pay grade a little (more), I might add that this division between the way one acts in “public” versus “private” is notoriously tricky and frustrating for people with some kinds of mental illness.

That’s just the tip of the masculinity-studies iceberg. Feel free to post other recommended readings in the comments.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Check that: Most marrying people are remarrying above age 31

The other day I wrote that the majority of people marrying over age 35 have been married before. That is true, but because of the way I handled the age categories it’s not specific enough. In fact, the majority of men marrying over age 30, and the majority of women marrying over age 28, have been married before.

Here are the details, in two charts, both using marital events data from the 2012 American Community Survey from The first shows the breakdown between first-married and previously-married people marrying at each age. It is not until age 40 for men, and age 38 for women, that previously-married people become the majority marrying at each age. These proportions reach two thirds in the mid-40s and surpass 80% by age 52:


But the percent remarrying at or above a given age is higher. Here is that pattern, showing that we enter majority-remarried territory at 31 for men and 29 for women:


The rates of remarriage at a given age maybe matter more practically, but this is a neat way to look at it.

Note there is no demographic reason that these patterns must hold. If remarriage were taboo or more restricted this would not be the case. Being ever married cannot be revoked (unless people lie to the Census Bureau), so the percent ever-married should never decline for a cohort (unless the ever-married have much higher mortality or emigrate more than the never-married, which is very unlikely). But ever-married proportions for the population don’t have to rise with age in a given cross-section, even if you don’t just look at people marrying right now. If marriage were becoming more common on a cohort basis, for example (which it is not), you could see higher ever-married rates among young people than among old people.


Filed under In the news