Tone policing: Am I allowed to put Regnerus, Wilcox, and Hitler in the same headline?


Sir, are you aware you were using a caustic tone back there? (photo: Thomas Hawk)

Nicholas Wolfinger reviewed my book Enduring Bonds for Social Forces (paywalled [why paywall book reviews?]; bootlegged). It would be unseemly of me to argue with a two-page book review instead of letting my life’s work stand on its own, so here goes — but just on one point: tone policing.

This is the opening of the review:

Philip Cohen has a lot of beefs. Hanna Rosen is an ”antifeminist” (p. 134) prone to “errors and distortions” (p. 146), and a “record of misstating facts in the service of inaccurate conclusions” (p. 185); W. Bradford Wilcox offers an “interpretation not just wrong but the opposite of right” (p. 76) and elsewhere gives a “racist” interview (p. 175); Ron Haskins, a “curmudgeon” (p. 175), presents a meme that’s “stupid and evil” (p. 47); David Blankenhorn is the author of a “deeply ridiculous” article (p. 80); Christina Hoff Sommers speaks in “[a] voice [that] drips with contempt” (p. 200) and is deemed to be an “antifeminist” (p. 155), even though she’s later identified as a
feminist (p. 197).*

He adds:

Also making the list: Paula England, for her “disappointingly mild” review of Cohen’s Public Enemy Number One, the “obtuse, semi-coherent” (p. 106) and “simply unethical” (p. 91) Mark Regnerus. Indeed, 29 of the 209 pages of Cohen’s book are spent excoriating Regnerus for two different studies.

This makes up his argument that, “Cohen writes so tendentiously that the useful bits get carried away in a torrent of ad hominem asperity,” and his conclusion, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Over my many years as a caustic person, I have heard this a lot, mostly from academics, bless their hearts. Which is cool, that’s my career choice and it would be unseemly to complain about it now, so here goes.

Listing the bad words I used doesn’t mean anything. And telling me I spent 29 pages on Regnerus (Wolfinger doesn’t mention that his frequent co-author, Brad Wilcox, is featured heavily in those 29 pages, or even that Wilcox is his frequent co-author), is not a meaningful critique unless you explain why these people don’t deserve it. I’ve heard, for example, that people have written very good whole books about specific individuals and the bad things they’ve done — including, off the top of my head, Hitler. The meaningful question is, am I wrong in those assessments, and if I am, why? In other words, you catch more flies by telling the reader why it would not be unacceptably harsg to write a whole book about Hitler but the same cannot be said about 29 pages on Regnerus and Wilcox. Or why it’s wrong to criticize Rosin, Haskins, Blankenhorn, Sommers and (lol) England in harsh terms.

If you want to enjoy a world where entire reviews are written about the use of harsh words, reviews that don’t even give a hint — not even a mention — as to the content of the issues and disputes that prompted those harsh words, then I can only suggest a career in academia.

Ironic aside

I tweeted a link to Wolfinger’s review, even though it is completely negative, because I’m scrupulous and fair-minded.


This led him to go on a multitweet journey, complaining that “he took words like ‘formidable’ out of context to suggest a much more positive review,” and exploring my motivations — responding to someone who said, “That was clearly a joke” with, “You see a joke, I see mendacity,” and concluding, “‘‘Just a joke’ is a weak, all-purpose way to cover up a fuck up like getting caught twisting the evidence.”

I hate to bring up Hitler again (not really), but the last time someone spent so much time pretending to not understand I was joking it was actual nazis, quoting a tweet where I joked that Jews were devoted to “eradicating whiteness and undermining its civilizations” (not linking, but you can google it). This led to a lot of online grief and some death threats, including posting my address on Reddit. So it irritated me.

The online nazi mob technique is to pretend things Jews say aren’t jokes, then pretend they themselves are joking when they talk about genocide. I’m sure many Jewish readers will recognize that failure to understand sarcastic humor is actually a common trait among rank-and-file anti-Semites — the people who have a hard time differentiating “New York” from “Jewish” — something that leading anti-Semites are very adept at manipulating. So that resonated with me.

(The above is labeled “aside” to make it boringly over-clear that I’m not saying Wolfinger is anti-Semitic.)

* Correction: Sommers is not “identified as a feminist” on p. 197, I just reported the name of her video series which is, absurdly, the The Factual Feminist.



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Wilcox plagiarism denial and ethics review

Recently I made the serious accusation that Brad Wilcox and his colleagues plagiarized me in a New York Times op-ed. After the blog post, I sent a letter to the Times and got no response. And until now Wilcox had not responded. But now thanks to an errant group email I had the chance to poke him, and he responded, in relevant part:

You missed the point of the NYT op-ed, which was to stress the intriguing J-Curve in women’s marital happiness when you look at religion and gender ideology. We also thought it interesting to note there is a rather similar J-Curve in women’s marital happiness in the GSS when it comes to political ideology, although the political ideology story was somewhat closer to a U-Curve in the GSS. Our NYT argument was not inspired by you, and our extension of the argument to a widely used dataset is not plagiarism.

Most of that comment is irrelevant to the question of whether the figure they published was ripped off from my blog; the only argument he makes is to underline the word notTo help readers judge for themselves, here is the sequence again, maybe presented more clearly than I did it last time.

Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger published this, claiming Republicans have happier marriages:


I responded by showing that that when you break out the categories more you get a U-shape instead:


Subsequently, I repeated the analysis, with newer data, using political views instead of party identification (the U-shape on the right):


This is the scheme, and almost exactly the results, that Wilcox and colleagues then published in the NYT, now including one more year of data:


The data used, the control variables, and the results, are almost identical to analysis I did in response to their work. His response is, “Our NYT argument was not inspired by you.” So that’s that.

Ethics aside

Of course, only he knows what’s in his heart. But the premise of his plagiarism denial is an appeal to trust. So, do you trust him?


There is a long history here, and it’s hard to know where to start if you’re just joining. Wilcox has been a liberal villain since he took over the National Marriage Project and then organized what became (unfortunately) known as the Regnerus study (see below), and a conservative darling since the top administration at the University of Virginia overturned the recommendation of his department and dean to grant him tenure.

So here are some highlights, setting aside questions of research quality and sticking to ethical issues.

Wilcox led the coalition that raised $785,000, from several foundations, used to generate the paper published under Mark Regnerus’s name, intended to sway the courts against marriage equality. He helped design the study, and led the development of the media plan, and arranged for the paper to be submitted to Social Science Research, and then arranged for himself to be one of the anonymous peer reviewers. To do this, he lied to the editor, by omission, about his contribution the study — saying only that he “served on the advisory board.”

And then when the scandal blew up he lied about his role at the Witherspoon Institute, which provided most of the funding, saying he “never served as an officer or a staffer at the Witherspoon Institute, and I never had the authority to make funding or programmatic decisions at the Institute,” and that he was “not acting in an official Witherspoon capacity.” He was in fact the director of the institute’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, which funded the study, and the email record showed him approving budget requests and plans. To protect his reputation and cover up the lie, that position (which he described as “honorific”) has been scrubbed from his CV and the Witherspoon website. (In the emails uncovered later, the president of Witherspoon, Luis Tellez wrote, “we will include some money for you [Regnerus] and Brad on account of the time and effort you will be devoting to this,” but the amount he may have received has not been revealed — the grants aren’t on his CV.)

This is covered under the Regnerus and Wilcox tags on the blog, and told in gripping fashion in a chapter of my book, Enduring Bonds.

You might hold it against him that he organized a conspiracy to fight marriage equality, but even if you think that’s just partisan nitpickery, the fact that the research was the result of a “coalition” (their word) that included a network of right-wing activists, and that their roles were not disclosed in the publication, is facially an ethical violation. And the fact that it involved a series of public and private lies, which he has never acknowledged, goes to the issue of trust in every subsequent case.


Here I can’t say what ethical rule Wilcox may have broken. Academia is a game that runs on trust, and in his financial dealings Wilcox has not been forthcoming. There is money flowing through his work, but the source and purpose that money is not disclosed when the work is published. For example, in the NYT piece Wilcox is identified only as a professor at the University of Virginia, even though the research reported there was published by the Institute for Family Studies. His faculty position, and tenure, are signals of his trustworthiness, which he uses to bolster the reputation of his partisan efforts.

The Institute for Family Studies is a non-profit organization that Wilcox created in 2009, originally called the Ridge Foundation. For the first four years the tax filings list him as the president, then director. Since 2013, when it changed its name to IFS, he has been listed as a senior fellow. Through 2017, the organization paid him more than $330,000, and he was the highest paid person. The funders are right-wing foundations.

Most academics want people to know about their grants and the support for their research. On his CV at the University of Virginia, however, Wilcox does not list the Institute for Family Studies in the “Employment” section, or include it among the grants he has received. Even though it is an organization he created and built up, so far grossing almost $3 million in total revenue. It is only mentioned in a section titled “Education Honors and Awards,” where he lists himself as a “Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies.” An education honor and award he gave himself, apparently.

He also doesn’t list his position on the Marco Rubio campaign’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board, where he was among those who “understand” that “Windsor and Obergefell are only the most recent example of our failure as a society to understand what marriage is and why it matters”

Wilcox uses his academic position to support and legitimize his partisan efforts, and his partisan work to produce work under his academic title (of course IFS says it’s nonpartisan but that’s meaningless). If he kept them really separate that would be one thing — we don’t need to know what church academics belong to or what campaigns they support, except as required by law — but if he’s going to blend them together I think he incurs an ethical disclosure obligation.

Wilcox isn’t the only person to scrub Withserspoon from his academic record — which is funny because the Witherspoon Institute is housed at Princeton University (where Wilcox got his PhD). And the fact of removing Witherspoon from a CV was used to discredit a different anti-marriage-equality academic expert, Joseph Price at Brigham Young, in the Michigan trial that led to the Obergefell decision, because it made it seem he was trying to hide his political motivations in testifying against marriage equality. Here is the exchange:


Court proceedings are useful for bringing out certain principles. In this case I think they help illustrate my point: If Brad Wilcox wants people to trust his motivations, he should disclose the sources of support for his work.

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Why aren’t female Charlies killing the name Charles?

Geena Davis as Charly in The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996

Geena Davis as the best female movie Charly (The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996)

Charles was a top-10 name for boys in the U.S. into the 1950s, and it has always been more than 99% male. American parents have shown no interest in breaking down that barrier. However, since the early 2000s, they have started naming their daughters Charlie, Charlee, Charleigh, Charli, Charley, and Charly. Last year 4,882 girls got one of those names, which is more than Anna or Samantha (and more than twice as many as were named Mary).

Near the start of that wave, the Disney TV show Good Luck Charlie — about a married, White couple with four children, the last of which was named Charlotte (nick-named Charlie) — debuted in 2010, and peaked in 2012, with 7.5 million viewers on one Sunday.

promo image from Disney show Good Luck Charlie

But Charlie has not become a girls’ name. As a I reported last week, Charlie is now the most common androgynous name (between 40% and 60% female), with 3,556 births split almost equally between boys and girls. The other variations are more female: All versions of Charlie together are 74% female.

So, with girls pouring in, are parents heading for the exits, as we saw with names like Taylor and Kim? Not yet. Charles is much less common than it once was, but it has not slipped appreciably since girls started picking up its nickname. Here are the trends back to 1880:


As girl Charlies have gained ground, in fact, even the spelling Charlie is rising in the rankings for boys, up to 218th last year from 306th a decade ago. Parents are now naming their boys Charlie at twice the rate they did in 1968. This figure zooms in on the Charlie wars for the last 50 years. (For this I combine all the spellings for boys, but 92% of them are Charlies.)


If Charlie follows the path of previous gender battleground names, however (see Tristan Bridges’ two posts on this from last week), we might still see a male crash, or a female crash, or both. Androgyneity has historically been unstable in this system, especially when (from parents’ point of view) femininity contaminates a masculine space.

If the collapse doesn’t come, maybe it will be because both sides have gender unambiguous reinforcements: Charles for boys (99.8% male), and Charlotte for girls (99.9% female). So parents who like the name Charlie, including those who may choose it precisely because of its androgynous image, also know they have a gendered space they or their children can retreat to if necessary.

Data for this analysis are from the Social Security Administration. The data files and my Stata code are available on the OSF, here.

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Taylor, Kim and the declining sex binary in names

I’ll get to Taylor and Kim, but first more general data.

How gender binary is the practice of naming babies in the U.S.? Very. In 2018, 76% of babies were given names that were more than 99% male or female, according to data from the Social Security Administration (which releases name counts for only two sex categories).an4

That looks extreme (kurtosis = 1.06!), but 76% is actually the lowest that number has ever been. Here is the trend in babies with >99%-typed names back to 1880 (note the y-axis starts at 70%):

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

How important are the trends in name binaryness?

In her New York Times article on the rise nonbinary gender identities among young Americans, and a follow-up, Amy Harmon interviewed nonbinary people named Flynn, Keyden, and Charley.  (In 2018, 85% of the babies given the name Charley were identified as girls at birth, compared with 0.2% of those named Charles and 52% of those named Charlie — the most androgynous spelling of the three).*

One notable development in the striking rise of nonbinary identities has been the supportiveness of some parents. But are such parents reacting positively to their children’s development, or — not waiting to be prompted — giving their babies more androgynous names at birth? Extreme sex-dominance of names has become less common, but still dominants. And truly androgynous names, say, between 40% and 60% associated with one sex, are very rare.

Over the long run, the U.S. is becoming a less sex-binary society, but that evolution is far from direct. From 1950 to 1975 (the period featured in Jo Paoletti’s book on the unisex movement in fashion), the percentage of babies given names that were less than 95% associated with a dominant sex almost doubled, to 7.4%. And since then it has increased to 13%. However, the percentage given names that are between 40% and 60% sex-dominant remains barely over 1%. Here are those trends, back to 1940, using data from the Social Security Administration.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

Are the parents giving androgynous names even doing it on purpose? I’m not sure how we can tell. Despite phonetic cues, which are guides but not rules, the gender of a name is ultimately determined by the gender of the people who have it. When names are very rare, it’s likely parents just don’t know the sex of the other babies getting the name. Maybe parents giving the names Charlie, Finley, and Dakota — the most popular androgynous names — chose them because they like their androgynousness. But others, like Justice or Ocean, probably just don’t have stable genders attached to them. And the conventional wisdom (from Stanley Lieberson and colleagues) is that androgynous names are not stable — they either swing toward one gender or fade away.

Here are the most common names between 40% and 60% sex dominant in 2018. Maybe blog readers can say something about the motives of the parents using these.


In that 2000 paper by Lieberson et al., which used data on Whites only from Illinois, through 1989 (how did people ever do sociology with such paltry data available to them?), they reported that the parents of girls are more likely to assign them androgynous names than the parents of boys are. That is consistent with the idea that the penalty for gender non-conformity is greater for boys than for girls, that femaleness is the contaminant more than non-conformity — which is why the move toward gender equality meant women wearing pants more than men wearing dresses. But now that may have reversed. Boys are now more likely to be given names that are less than 95% sex-dominant.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

I think this is a good avenue for exploring changes in gender attitudes, including regarding nonbinary identities and gender conformity. This will require looking beyond name count trends, obviously.

Kim and Taylor

Another avenue for research involves name contamination (another Lieberson idea, which Tristan Bridges and I have written about; see also earlier posts). From a wide angle, it’s easy to see that androgynous names usually don’t stay that way, or they disappear. But the specific mechanism may be that parents of boys are spooked by the rising femininity of a name and thus turn away from it.

In that Lieberson et al article they cite the case of Kim, which (among Whites in Illinois) was increasing among both boys and girls before Kim Novak burst on the scene in 1954, as a sexy female movie star. And they also observe the rise of Taylor, just beginning by the end of their dataset, in 1989. Now we can update that, and expand it to the whole country, to see the amazing similarity of the cases. Amazing similarity, that is, if you remember who Taylor Dayne is.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

Taylor Dayne was a big deal very briefly, at the end of the 1980s, with three gold singles, “Tell It to My Heart”, “I’ll Always Love You,” and “Love Will Lead You Back.” She was nominated for a Best R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for “I’ll Always Love You,” in 1988 (losing to Aretha Franklin). Did Taylor Dayne kill Taylor — right after giving us Taylor Swift (born 1989)? I’m open to other suggestions, but I think it fits. She was a big star briefly, and the music she made (no offense) didn’t turn out to be the most memorable of the period, which was awkwardly sandwiched between decades. There is a difference in scale between the cases, as Taylor peaked at the #6 most popular girls’ name and the 51st most popular boys’ name in the mid-1990s. Also, Taylor still ranks, and is still 18% male, while Kim virtually disappeared. So maybe the dynamic is a little different now.

Anyway, I love the idea that Taylor Dayne killed Taylor, because she isn’t even a real Taylor — she was born Leslie Wunderman (were any other Jews nominated for R&B vocalist Grammys?), and only chose the name Taylor in 1987, as it was already spiking upward. It also raises an issue relevant to the question of nonbinary-supporting parents: name changes. If gender identities are increasingly fluid, maybe names will be, too. In addition to being less sex-typed, names may also become less permanent. Just a thought.

* In the original version of this post I mistakenly wrote that 20% of Charles’s were girls, it’s actually 0.2% (I read .19 as a proportion instead of a percent).

Data and code for this analysis are on the Open Science Framework here:


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Naomi Wolf and sharing our lanes

Bruce Stokes /

The other day, in response to the Naomi Wolf situation, I tweeted in response to Heather Souvaine Horn, an editor at the New Republic:

After which she invited my to submit an essay to the site. It’s now been published as: Learn the Right Lessons from Naomi Wolf’s Book Blunder: Expertise matters. But lane-policing is counterproductive.

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Wilcox and colleagues plagiarized my work in the New York Times

In the New York Times yesterday, W. Bradford Wilcox, Jason S. Carroll and Laurie DeRose published an Op-Ed with the ridiculous title, “Religious Men Can Be Devoted Dads, Too.” In it they included this figure:


In 2015 I wrote a post titled, “That thing about Republican marriages being happier (isn’t true),” which included this figure:


There are trivial differences between these figures. Theirs is from the General Social Survey for 2010-2018, mine was for 2010-2014. Theirs used political views while mine used party identification. Theirs is just women, and controls for age, education, and race; mine included men and women while controlling for gender, and I also controlled for income and religious attendance. (And they used gray for the middle bar, instead of purple.) However, in a subsequent post, from 2017, I redid the analysis for the years 2012-2016, using political views instead of party identification, in a post titled, “Who’s happy in marriage? (Not just rich, White, religious men, but kind of).” The results are almost identical to theirs in the Times (on the right, here):


Did they know about my pieces? I am certain they did, though I can’t prove it. It’s relevant that my first post, “That thing about Republican marriages…” was a critique of a post by Wilcox and Nick Wolfinger, which had only reported that Republicans were slightly happier in marriage than Democrats, which they called “The Republican Advantage in Marital Satisfaction.” My post was a correction, showing the U-shape the emerged when you broke out the categories — the change Wilcox and colleagues have now adopted. My follow-up post was reported by Bloomberg (and carried in the Chicago Tribune), and the Daily Mail. Both of my posts were tweeted by popular journalists who work in this area. I expect that would claim they never noticed my little blog posts.

You also could split hairs on the definition of plagiarism to try to defend this unethical behavior. The relevant passages of the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics:

(b) In their publications, presentations, teaching, practice, and service, sociologists provide acknowledgment of and reference to the use of their own and others’ work, even if the work is paraphrased and not quoted verbatim.
(c) While sociologists utilize and build on the concepts, theories, and paradigms of others, they may not claim credit for creating such ideas and must cite the creator of such ideas where appropriate.

But no one can seriously argue they shouldn’t have referenced my work.

Wilcox has done much worse, of course, most importantly leading a conspiracy to gin up research to turn the Supreme Court against same-sex marriage and then lying about his role in that conspiracy (the subject of a chapter in my book Enduring Bonds). And this is not a very important idea (their explanation is very flimsy, and I have no real explanation or theory to explain the pattern.) But this one goes on the list somewhere.


Why do I care? Is this just petty partisanship and even jealousy because Wilcox paid himself $80,000 of right-wing foundation money in 2016, and continues to publish low-quality research in important outlets like the New York Times? Draw your own conclusions. Of course his views are noxious to me. But more than that, in the game of trust that is the research ecosystem, reputations matter a lot. Once someone is tenured, and funded by unaccountable political actors, our options for defending the system are limited. The norms of publishing, especially outside academia, don’t require research transparency (like their current report, made to order for conservative funders, not the research community or peer review). If someone says, “This is my finding,” publishers (like the Times) usually vet the researcher instead of the research. 

I don’t believe in lifetime bans, and I don’t care about atonement for research ethics. My question is, “Can we trust this person’s research?” Before we can answer that affirmatively, we need to have an accounting of past malfeasance that makes clear future work will be clean. Until then, I don’t mind spending a few minutes now and then reminding people that Wilcox (like Mark Regnerus) is not trustworthy.


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