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 not. To 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.
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.)
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.
In my review of Mark Regnerus’s book, Cheap Sex, I wrote: “The book is an extended rant on the theme, ‘Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?’ wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.”
Someone just reposted an old book-rehash essay of Regnerus’s called, “The Death of Eros.” In it he links to my post documenting the decline in sexual frequency among married couples in the General Social Survey. In marriage, Regnerus writes, “equality is the enemy of eros,” before selectively characterizing some research about the relationship between housework and sex. (Here’s a recent analysis finding egalitarian couples don’t have sex less.)
But I realized I never looked at sexual frequency in married couples by the relative education of the spouses, which is available in the GSS. So here’s a quick take: Married man-woman couples in which the wife has equal or more education don’t have sex less frequently.
I modeled sexual frequency (an interval scale from “not at all” = 0 to “4+ times per week” = 6 as a function of age, age-squared, respondent education, respondent sex, decade, and relative education (wife has lower degree, wife has same degree, wife has higher degree). The result is in this figure. Note the means are between 3 (“2-3 times per month”) and 4 (“weekly”). Stata code for GSS below.
OK, that’s it. Here’s the code (I prettied the figure a little by hand afterwards):
*keep married people
keep if marital==1
* with non-missing own and spouse education
keep if spdeg<4 & degree<4
recode age (18/29=18) (30/39=30) (40/49=40) (50/59=50) (60/109=60), gen(agecat)
recode year (1970/1979=1970) (1980/1989=1980) (1990/1999=1990) (2000/2008=2000) (2010/2016=2010), gen(decade)
gen erosdead = spdeg>degree
replace eros=1 if spdeg<degree & sex==1
replace eros=2 if spdeg==degree
replace eros=3 if spdeg>degree & sex==1
replace eros=1 if spdeg>degree & sex==2
replace eros=3 if spdeg<degree & sex==2
label define de 1 "wife less"
label define de 2 "equal", add
label define de 3 "wife more", add
label values eros de
reg sexfreq i.sex i.agecat i.decade i.degree i.eros [weight=wtssall]
reg sexfreq i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.eros##i.decade [weight=wtssall]
marginsplot, recast(bar) by(decade)
Note: On 25 Dec 2018 I fixed a coding error and replaced the figure; the results are the same.
Mark Regnerus, who has been an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin since 2007, will be promoted to full professor, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. That decision was made at the level of the central administration, overriding negative recommendations from both the Department of Sociology faculty and the College of Liberal Arts.
In terms of research productivity, Regnerus’s record is adequate for promotion at a leading research university. His early work was well-cited. His most recent book, Cheap Sex (the only one I’ve read) is atrocious (as I have written). But the real problem is ethics, and there the protocol is less clear. I previously wrote:
To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book [Enduring Bonds], or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).
So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.
He has not yet done either of those things.
I would vote against his promotion based on this record. Maybe the internal documents will come out and allow us to debate this more fully, but to me it’s not a hard decision.
So I think it’s bad for the UT administration to override the faculty recommendation and impose the promotion for Regnerus. With the stroke of that pen, they commit the university — barring unplanned events — to several million dollars worth of salary and benefits for him for the next several decades. And thousands of students subjected to his teaching. That’s money that could be spent on much more valuable things, including honest, ethical sociologists.
Comments will be moderated for length, repetitiveness, and obnoxiousness.
Update: My review was subsequently published in Men and Masculinities and is available here.
(Bad sign when a blog post has a prologue)
When I was invited to review Mark Regnerus’s book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, I agreed because it would give me a justification for reading the book. I already knew writing about it would scratch a number of my itches: research ethics, methods for studying sexuality and families, same-sex marriage (homogamy), the politics of academia, and Regnerus himself — whose work has been making me itch for years. But I had planned to set him aside after pulling the whole Regnerus Affair together for a chapter of my new book. Then I saw some people were treating the book normally (and, in the case of the one and only Anthony Giddens, who lavished 37 words of hyperbolous blurb on it, even seriously), so I thought it might actually be worth reading. And then I saw it was a terrible, awful book that no one should take seriously, much less read or buy, and that someone needed to say that, with evidence, so as not to allow its normalization. In other words, I got sucked back in.
So I took all these notes I wanted, and know I may as well share them, partly to protect myself and partly to help others for whom they might be useful. I have to be thorough when I do this, because I am afraid of making a mistake or missing something good so that my over-the-top attack boomerangs and makes me look stupid or petty or crooked. However, the journal has asked for only 1000 words (I’m not naming it in case they decide not to publish my review). So I’ll dump the notes here — which will be long — then write a formal review from these notes.
The first section is my attack on his ethics, and then I’ll get into the book itself. (Some readers may want to just read this section, then wait for the review.)
The Regnerus case
It is important to separate three problems with Regnerus’s academic work. The first is its poor quality, but that’s the least important. If it was just another pile of low quality sociological research it wouldn’t be worth getting this worked up over it. However, the fact that it’s so bad is important context for considering, for example, why Oxford University Press would publish it, or why the Wall St. Journal runs an excerpt.
The second issue is his repugnant, fanatical political and religious views. This is obviously a matter of taste, but there is no sense denying it as if I’m some sort of dispassionate methods or ethics vigilante. I care much more about taking on his work because of the bad he is trying to do with it in the world.
Those two issues will figure in the review, but the ethics issue will less so, so I’m getting into it here, with references. To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book, or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).
So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.
He has not yet done either of those things. If he ever comes clean and admit what he did, that would be a (welcome) sight to see. On the second option, he has made noises about openness. And with the anti-gay research project, he did make the dataset public (after he published with it), which allowed it to be picked at, and then thoroughly (paywall; sci-hub) debunked (open). Now, with the data collection he did for Cheap Sex, called Relationships in America, for which he was the principal investigator (again using private money), he may have learned his lesson. The website promises, “In an effort to allow others to build upon our work, and as part of our commitment to transparency in research, we are pleased to announce that the full data set will be made available in mid-2015” (this is on the website as of January 2018). The announcement of this sort of thing brings much of the benefit in terms of reputation, because credulous readers who think he seems cool don’t know that he’s lying.
I am writing to inquire about the availability of the Relationships in America data. I am interested in replicating the analysis by Mark Regnerus in Cheap Sex, and conducting additional analysis. Please let me know how I can obtain the data for this purpose.
After receiving no response, I resent the message a month later (and needled them on Twitter), and got a message back from Kevin Stuart, the executive director of the institute:
When the Relationships in America report was written, Professor Regnerus estimated he would finish his work with the data by late 2015. The book project was delayed, and subsequent analyses of the data are still ongoing. When those are finished, we will release the data and announce it on social media. Whether that is in the new year , or even late next year, I do not know. Should you wish to receive the data collection agency’s project report, which includes the survey instrument, we would be happy to provide it.
Obviously, “commitment to transparency in research” doesn’t mean you wait to share the data till you’re done with it. (Ideally, reviewers should have access to the data in the peer-review process, although this is often not practiced.)
As a reviewer, knowing Regnerus’s history of dishonest behavior and unethical research practices, no one can believe anything he says which can’t be independently verified. So it’s difficult to write a review of his work. Of course, it would be best if everyone’s research was open and transparent, so everyone was accountable, and we didn’t have to go through this evaluation of people’s ethical credentials. But that’s not the system we have. The approach I decided on was to not accept any of the facts he reports from his original research, but to discuss the methods he claims to have used as if they were real. I’m open to suggestions on how to handle this. I think it’s very important not to give dishonest researchers a pass as long as we’re stuck with this lousy system of unaccountability. Time passing is not sufficient to regain the public trust. (For more on the system we have, read this excellent review article by Jeremy Friese and David Peterson; and to help fix it get involved with SocArXiv.)
Notes on Cheap Sex
An interesting thing about “peer-reviewed” books in sociology is that the intensity of the review is highly variable, with some books receiving thorough reviews and some receiving virtually none at all. Hardly any, however, receive the level of scrutiny that articles in the prestigious journals (usually) get, with detailed, blow-by-blow critiques of their methods, findings, and interpretations. If the typical top-notch article receives maybe a dozen hours of reviewer time, repeated several times for revisions, how much attention should a peer-reviewed book receive? Relative to the scale of the research, it’s invariably much less.
The other thing about academic peer-reviewed book publishers is that they make their decisions to publish much more according to marketing considerations than do most academic journals. Although university (branded) presses are often non-profit, and may lose money for the institutions they serve, they need to sell books. Oxford, the biggest university book publisher, sells a lot of books and makes a lot of money. They are not non-profit, with reported profits of more than $100 million in 2017 (a down year). Prestige is their brand (they claim to have printed the very first book), but money is money, and they want books that sell, too.
Anyway, I did these notes as if I were peer reviewing the book, but more thoroughly than I normally would because I intended to make them public. (Question on the future of peer review: if people will read your reviews, and evaluate you based on their quality, would you write better reviews? I would.)
For some background, I have written previously about the “sexual economics” theory Regnerus got from Roy Baumeister, and its insane sexism, here; and about the Catholic stance on the gender binary to which Regnerus subscribes.
The notes are in sections rather than a single narrative. Here goes. From theory to methods, more or less.
Theory in a nutshell
It is common in a review to demonstrate you have read the material by summarizing it briefly. This is my summary: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free,” is the theory in a nutshell. The book is an extended rant on that theme.
24-25: “So men want more sex than women do, on average. Economically speaking – at least in the heterosexual world – women have what men want. … So in the heterosexual mating market broadly understood, there is demand – interested men – and supply: women.”
So, in heterosexual exchange, “men’s sex objectively [has] no value,” while women’s does (but only to men).
Because women want marriage and men want sex, there is a “split mating market,” and women are overabundant on the wanting-marriage side so they have a hard time getting married. You would think this means there is a shortage of women on the just-wanting-sex side, which would hurt men’s ability to have no-strings sex so cheaply. But actually “the modern mating market [plays] more to men’s advantage than to women’s – that is, he gets what he wants more readily and consistently than she does”? (27-28). Why? His explanation is that women in the marriage market are in such abundance that they have no choice but to cheapen their sex in the hope of getting a man – and any that holds out is undermined by the sluts (who in the old days would protect other women through their “cartel”). So it turns out the mating market isn’t split after all, because the sex-wanting side is flooded with women who want marriage but have no choice but to be sluts if they want any chance at marriage. If women would just hold out collectively – rebuild the cartel they had in the good old days of patriarchy – they could pull men over from the no-strings side of the market (and men would have to then work harder and be more ambitious generally to get sex), but women don’t do that because they are sluts.
“What is cheap sex? … Cheap sex is both an objective fact and a social fact, characterized by personal ease of sexual access and social perceptions of the same. Sex is cheap if women expect little in return in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it” (28).
Note sex is something that men buy and women sell, period.
The pill is the major technological shock that helps drive all this, with its associated “mentality.” Then porn, and online dating/sex services “created a massive slow-down” in marriage, which “put the fertility of increasing numbers of women at risk,” and “have arguably even taken a toll on men’s economic and relational productivity [I think that means marriage?], prompting fewer of them to be considered marriage material than even before” (11)
This was a large category of notes, into which fell claims and statements that seem theoretical, but either don’t make sense or are contradictory.
He goes from the fact that men want sex somewhat more than women do to that difference being the very definition of sex. “Heterosexual sex exhibits an exchange relationship wherein men access sex that women provide, typically in return for desired resources” (60). Question: how great an imbalance in sex drive would there have to be for it to be the defining characteristic of all sex? He doesn’t ask this question.
“Remember, sex is her resource, and in a consensual relationship she controls access to it. It doesn’t happen if she doesn’t permit it” (95). By definition (consensual) this is true of men as well. The fact that Regnerus says this only of women is very important: what is happening (society going down the tubes) is because women are opening their legs.
The theory is misnamed the “exchange model,” which implies that people exchange things in sexual relationships. But it’s actually only between men and women, heterosexually, what he calls “the supply of sex and the supply of resources” (46). “The exchange model is rooted in stable realities about male-female differences that are not socially constructed and will not disappear” (44). In other words, it doesn’t apply to same-sex sex (see below). “The exchange model can neither be reversed nor declared dead” (45). He pretends to base this on science (biology), but it is really a religious affirmation, representing the abuse of science by Catholic doctrine, the leaders of which have decided to embrace words like “natural” and “science” while imposing their preordained view of truth on them, especially with regard to gender (this is how they frame their opposition to marriage equality). Not only can it not be reversed or declared dead, but it “may bend but it won’t break,” and it “may be old fashioned but it is not faulty” (45).
For the model to fail, he lists a series of supposedly-impossible things that would have to happen: “Men would pine to stay at home longer with their infants. Women would play fantasy football. All unlikely scenarios” (45). However, in 2011, 21% of fathers were the primary caretakers for their preschool-aged children, meaning they provided more hours of care for them than any other person or arrangement (https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p70-135.pdf). Women are 29% of fantasy football players (https://fsta.org/research/industry-demographics/, 12/24/17).
Does “sexual economics” apply to homosexuality? He has a whole section about this, saying yes but answering no. The “sexual economics approach concerns the distinctive relational interests of men and women, whether they are gay or straight” (54). In his view, homosexuality is basically a behavioral malfunction that doesn’t change people’s God-given “relational interests.” There is no sexual exchange in same-sex relationships.
The definition of “cheap sex” is men getting sex for lower cost: “men have to do less wooing (fewer dates, less costly indicators of commitment, etc.) in order to access real sex. Hence, sex is cheaper” (11). It’s not clear why masturbation (whether or not with pornography) is also cheap sex. How are pornography and masturbation “the cheapest forms of sex” (107) if they don’t involve women exchanging anything with men? If a man masturbates alone, how is he getting sex from a woman? What is the definition of sex, to which a price may be attached, if it’s not being bought from anyone? E.g., he describes the increase in pornography as an increase in the “supply” of sex (11), totally against his own definition. It’s just not clear how, under his theory, masturbation and pornography consumption are sex.
“Women have plenty of agency, opportunity, and success … Women can openly pursue sex for its own sake in a manner utterly foreign to their great-grandmothers. They can try the demand side of the equation. Of course, they will succeed in their efforts” (26), by which he means men will gladly have sex with them, because they are sluts. What does “try the demand side” mean, though? He just said (24) “women never pay men for sex.” This caveat seems like a recognition that his theory is wrong, but he doesn’t incorporate it substantially.
He quotes Baumeister and Vohs: “Once women had been granted wide opportunities for education and wealth, they no longer had to hold sex hostage.” Although Regnerus says “hostage” is an overstatement, he endorses the narrative (46-47). But the economics here is incoherent. When women had no wealth or power, they completely controlled access to sex, and held it “hostage” to get marriage. Now that they have everything they need without a man, they give sex away for nothing. He says: “If women no longer need men’s resources … then sex simply becomes less consequential, easier to get or give away” (51). He returns to this: “The question to ask is why women demand so little of men in return for offering men what they want — what they are willing to sacrifice a great deal for. And the answer is economic: it is because many do not need what men can offer” (67). In reality, of course, poor women seem to “demand” marriage less than rich ones do, so this seems wrong. But further, what economics works like this? Sure, when buyers have no money sellers lower the price, but in this case why don’t they just keep it? If they can get the money they need from their jobs, and men aren’t giving them love or protection anyway, why do they “have” (give) sex for free? The only answer is they are stupid, and sluts.
Oddly, he says “Online dating’s superior efficiency works against relationship development … and positively rages against the goal of efficient marriage market ‘clearing’” (70). What is the definition of efficiency here? Usually it’s a combination of quality and quantity, but he uses “efficient clearing” to refer to the number of marriages period, regardless of quality. He acknowledges online dating could be a way of “maximizing the likelihood of locating a spouse who is more desirable,” which would seem to be “efficient,” but, “more often we are allowing ourselves to treat human being as commodities” (70). This is a non sequitur.
One good old days example he uses is his own marriage. His then girlfriend dumped him for “being distant, unpleasant, and uncertain about us,” and then she went on a date with someone else. But then because “the search costs [were] fairly tall” he decided to call her and “we were back together before the weekend was out” (70-71). Her role in the decision is not specified. (Why is this story here? Unclear how it fits his model.)
Is this an evolutionary theory or not? “Men can see more flesh in five minutes than their great-grandfathers could in a lifetime,” and “they can do that in seconds in a way unanticipated by their genetic material … In other words, humans are not evolutionarily familiar with the accessibility, affordability, and anonymity that Internet pornography offers” (107). I am pretty sure men saw more female nakedness in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness than our great-grandfathers did, too – especially in the million or so years between when we lost our fur and the development of corsets. Raising the fascinating question: what if you showed modern porn to Paleolithic men? Would they have stopped hunting and gathering if they didn’t need to demonstrate their physical prowess in order to see nakedness? Of course it’s true porn has changed sexuality, there are just a lot more useful things to read about that than this book.
Historical mythmaking. Describing respondent Carlos, who masturbates a lot even though his girlfriend wishes he wouldn’t: “There may have been an era in which Carlos would have had trouble retaining the sexual interest of a woman, but that era is no more” (111). When did it matter more that men were sexually desirable? With universal early marriage and no divorce? Is that when women were more free to dump a man they didn’t like? (No.)
Weird jag on the military and same-sex marriage (184). He is sure the military has turned away from supporting marriage because it allows same-sex marriage. How, though? All he can come up with is that because the military defines adultery only as heterosexual sex, “enforcing its own adultery codes would first require considerable revision before new prosecutions can move forward.” So they can’t police adultery with same-sex couples. OK, this would presumably only affect adultery among gay service members, though, so I don’t get it how he jumps to this: “I cannot imagine that [revision] occurring. Hence the armed forces’ recession from actively supporting marriage and generously benefiting married spouses leaves organized religion as the only obvious, active institutional supporter of marriage.” That is just nuts; the military is of course very supportive of marriage.
Deep sexism and the gender binary
In my book I organized the story of Regnerus around his determination to protect the gender binary. This is where he becomes most passionate, and irrational and religious (Catholic). There is a lot of this in Cheap Sex.
“I write, too, as a man, yet one who has concerns that are in historical alignment with women’s (and many men’s) long-standing relational interests — things like commitment, stability, monogamy, tranquility, and a family” (21). (Also file this under confusion caused by imprecision – does “many men’s” imply these are ALL women’s interests? Otherwise what is the distinction?)
Homosexuality is not real; this is a recurring, unstated but undeniable theme. Lesbian couples have less sex because they are women, and homosexuality can’t change their nature. His evidence is 52% of lesbians say they want more sex than they’re having. Why?
“Sexual economics provides an answer rooted in evolutionary psychology which suggests that just because someone self-identifies as something other than heterosexual does not mean they are able to just opt out of deeply embedded sexual differences in socio-sexual behavior…. The frequency [of lesbian sex] is lower due to the fact that the couple is comprised of women, who are historically sexual gatekeepers” (82).
Thus, they may “mimic the heterosexual exchange model. But mimicry it is” (83). So they cock block each other, I guess.
Reification of nature as juxtaposed to culture. He’s talking about contraception and ART as “a concerted accomplishment of synthetic technology undermining nature in the service of human consumption” (199). He also elevates “nature” with regard to marriage: “It will not be deconstructed, because it is not a mere social construction” (207). What’s most natural of all is the gender binary.
Everything nowadays is going against nature. And gay marriage maybe most of all. “The successful movement to ‘de-gender’ civil marriage in the West has reinvigorated efforts aimed at the general dismantling of gender and male-female distinction,” which is part of the feminist agenda “aimed at obliterating all sexual difference – that is, eradicating the truth of sexual dimorphism” (212). Thus he insists “sex is observed, not ‘assigned,’ at birth” (213). He approvingly quotes Dick Udry as saying, “A social engineering program to de-gender society would require a Maoist approach: continuous renewal of revolutionary resolve and a tolerance for conflict,” and Regnerus concludes: “And since it builds upon a theory of sex differences that is empirically groundless, it won’t work” (214).
Some weird sexist asides. E.g., holding the position that porn use is a deal-breaker for their relationships “would likely backfire on women (as many things tend to do in the domain of relationships)” (132). E.g., this is a list of “unintended consequences” of delayed marriage: “more living alone, more dual-earner families… more infertility concerns, more solitary sex” (173). Odd to include dual-earner families on that list.
Many examples of women causing problems. E.g., his slutty respondents don’t realize they are ruining it for other women. “What Nina and Sarah (and numerous others) do not realize, however, is that even wasted sex is priced – cheaply – and contributes to the socially discernible cost of sex in the surrounding mating market” (176). They are selling out other women. “In the domain of sex and relationships men will act as nobly as women collectively demand” (177). The assumptions here are that (a) men’s bad behavior is women’s fault and (b) men’s behavior used to be more noble (measured, presumably, by marriage rates).
“Who are the winners in this new relational regime? The easiest to spot, of course, are career-minded women, for whom access to the contraception that made sex far cheaper also enabled them to finish education and commence careers… in so doing fostering new structured patterns (and a culture of expectation) of career building. … There are other winners. Sexual minorities … sexually opportunistic men … the wealthy … short-term corporate profit … [and] America’s late modern capitalist economy” (194-195).
These “career-minded women” are in a list of decadent cultural parasites.
Confusion caused by imprecision in writing
Moving from theory and argument to more mechanical critiques of the book, there are a lot of passages – a lot – where the specific meaning is literally ambiguous, impossible to discern from the text; or where poor writing and editing creates logical contradictions. These are examples.
“In fact, the relationship histories that young Americans tell us about are growing increasingly predictable: plenty of sex, starting early…” Increasingly predictable means decreasing variance in experience, but that’s not happening; rather they are increasingly conforming to the narrative that he is describing.
“I am after answers to several important questions, including… Is marriage still perceived as a key goal, or is it increasingly perceived as optional” (13). These are not mutually exclusive.
“Men, on average, are more often principally drawn to the powerful physical pleasures of sex than women are” (22). In this sentence, “on average,” “more often” and “principally” are all imprecise modifiers just creating mud. And on the next page, “I know that women can and do like sex. Rest assured, though, that men—historically, and on average—tend to want sex more and pursue it with greater abandon and single-mindedness” (23). Why is “can and do”? Why do you need “on average” and “tend to”? etc.
“The bottom line is this: women are the sexual gatekeepers within their relationships. Men infrequently function as the ‘gatekeepers’ of sex in their relationships. (If they are, they are comparatively easier to convince)” (26). The first sentence is contradicted (in different ways) by the next two.
Regnerus writes, “most young adults still pay deferential lip service to marriage,” then later on the page, “most of them [Americans] – especially women – are still invested in monogamy and marriage” (32).
“The mating market in this ‘state of nature’ [before the Pill] was populated by roughly equal numbers of men and women, whose bargaining positions – averaged together – were roughly comparable and predictable, with men valuing attractiveness more than women, and women valuing productivity and economic promise more than men” (35).
What does this literally mean? What is the “average” of attractiveness and productivity, and how are they “roughly comparable”?
He concludes a section of speculation about how cheap sex is probably causing same-sex relationships by saying, “The bottom line is that as Americans’ sexual culture becomes less heteronormative, which appears to be the case, the effect of it on mating market dynamics is almost certain, but it is not simple to predict. For that reason alone, we ought to pay attention” (60). How is something “almost certain” “not simple to predict,” and what is “that reason”?
“In reality, the phrase [lesbian bed death] indicates a process by which lesbian couples are thought to diminish the frequency of sexual activity within a relationship over time, until their baseline average is well under that of gay men’s or straight couples” (81). Incorrect use of “baseline,” and apostrophes.
“Recall that Sarah delayed first sex until well after her adolescence was over, in step with a trend that the CDC data has long noted: from 1988 through 2013, the share of teenage girls who were sexually experienced declined from 51 to 43 percent, respectively. And yet that did not seem to matter much about what happened next. Over the course of her twenties, Sarah slept with numerous men” (85).
In addition to the redundant “respectively,” the “and yet” doesn’t follow at all, because the trend is about teens, so starting to have sex in her twenties fits perfectly. He probably means “the trend shows increasing chastity, and yet she was actually slutty.”
Ironically, just after saying his interviews “found men consistently inarticulate about the subject” of pornography, he writes this sentence: “Just like the psychiatrists debating the matter, these men are seldom prepared to label it a problem, but they also clearly display enough halting conversation about it that neither are they prepared to suggest that nothing is wrong or off-kilter” (127). You spend a lot of time reading this book knowing he’s saying things wrong but sort of knowing what he’s saying. If you won’t write better than this, get an editor.
Is masturbation becoming more prevalent? “While it is impossible to say for sure, the existing evidence supports the notion that masturbation has increased in frequency – recently – and is arguably at an all-time high” (138). Four pages later, “Pornography and masturbation … are surging in popularity” (142). He was right the first time – his evidence doesn’t support that unqualified conclusion.
“While genuine demand for masturbation could have naturally increased in 20 years, there’s no reason to think it would at this point in history, unless the technological and social fostering of sexual desire (and hence demand) has increased. And it has, revealing that male desire and arousal is not fixed; it is malleable and can and is being stimulated” (139).
Question, does technology cause “natural” increase? If not, what is “unless” doing here? What does “it has” refer to? “desire and arousal” are two things, so what specifically is “malleable and can and is being stimulated”?
“When more and more men are considered less and less marriageable, the resulting sex-ratio disparity in the pool of marriageable men tends to spell greater and greater problems for women in how they conduct their relationships” (152). Try again while pretending words have meaning.
What do the various uses of “it” refer to in this passage?: “Individuals may elect not to form marriages or families … but they are not capable of socially constructing monogamy out of existence. We are simply not free to write off fertility’s debt to love, its desire for exclusivity, and its idealization of marital union. It will resist and reemerge, if even only in wounded form” (184).
Contempt for respondents (and kids these days)
The book includes text which is said to be from interviews. There is no systematic analysis of the interviews or respondents. Who are they, how were they recruited? Who did the interviews? What was the interview schedule? He says he “limited the interviews to 100 overall” (14) but no general information is presented about them; and only a small number are quoted in the book. They serve two purposes: to repeat his conclusions back to him, and to be treated with contempt. In no case does he learn from them or tell us anything new from the interviews. He doesn’t learn from their experiences. I don’t like it when interviewers use their respondents as analysts instead of using their stories as data; maybe I’m too positivist.
When respondents restate his theory directly, and you wonder if they’re real or what
Alyssa (p. 49):
“I know in my mind, and from my feminist perspective, that sex is something that people come together for, that women and men should enjoy equally, and that there shouldn’t be any work on either part, there’s no trade-offs … But culturally, there’s definitely ingrained in me something that says it’s a gift that a woman is giving a man, and that he needs to deserve it.”
A 24-year-old woman who “waxed eloquent on the dating scene,” said men don’t ask women on dates. Regnerus provides his question, “Do you have thoughts as to why that is the case?” and her answer is a direct restatement of his thesis,
“I feel like the guys don’t do it because they don’t have to. I feel like the girls don’t make them… I feel like it’s just too easy for guys just to say ‘Hey, let’s you and I hang out and see what happens … And the girls aren’t saying, ‘You need to do this.’ You know, to win my affection, you need to take me out. You know, guys aren’t gonna do it, I guess, if we’re not making them” (65-66).
Ben, “28-year-old Denver-area man,” says relationship skills “have been cheapened with the advent of uh, I guess you could call it information-age sex. … I think it’s made sexuality a commodity in a huge way” (95). Totally authentic quote, dude.
25-year-old woman: “relationships are more casual than they used to be … So I think now that may, maybe it’s because women have taken on a stronger role in both relationships and, and pretty much everywhere that that might have something to do with it” (96).
“People from my generation, anyone who grew up with the Internet, get a lot of their ideas about sex from porn, and I think that sex didn’t used to be the way it is now … that seems slightly unnatural and out of line with my idea of kind of purpose and function of romantic sex in a traditional relationship” (118).
Showing contempt for his respondents, and kids these days in general
“Alyssa, a 27-year-old from Milwaukee, told us she had higher libido than her live-in boyfriend. While nearly everything about her past shouts ‘cheap sex’ and the problems that often accompany it…” (49). Nice.
Alyssa started having sex at 15 and has had “almost 20” partners, she “struggles with monogamy” (his term), and may be bisexual. “Despite all the sex-related problems she has endured and, in some cases (by her own admission) provoked, Alyssa has remarkable insight on sexual influence and, at age 27, hopes the future is more stable. She can even envision marriage, something she has seldom witnessed” (119). Wait, why should someone have insight “despite” having problems (of her own making or not)? And why is it surprising that she can “envision marriage”? And who has “seldom witnessed” marriage in the US?
“Wen, a bubbly 28-year-old Asian American from Austin” (150). Don’t call your Asian women respondents bubbly. Also, he doesn’t describe any of his respondents as White, but does describe three as African American (pp. 45, 50, 95).
“While Elizabeth’s high hopes for enduring marriage seem noble, her disdain for dependence upon a husband and her knee-jerk criteria for leaving nevertheless suggest the pure relationship mentality has profoundly altered how she understands marriage.” And then he quotes her: “Maybe one day my husband will fall in love with somebody else. What am I gonna do? Or he cheats on me or he hits me. You know, then I’m gonna have to get out” (159). Her “knee-jerk criteria” are cheating and violence. Nice.
This is unverifiable second-hand aspersion: “Kendalia, a 32-year-old African American woman from Milwaukee cohabiting with an unemployed man who spends most of his days playing video games and watching pornography” (50).
A respondent who thinks she “doesn’t even need marriage to enjoy a successful life … mistakenly equates elective decision-making about sexual and reproductive health with signals of deep human flourishing” (177). In other words, she doesn’t share his values.
Unsubstantiated imposition of his preconceptions
The jumps between what Regnerus claims as evidence and the conclusions he offers are ridiculous. The missing link is his preconceptions, which are always confirmed.
As “physical risks of sex” have decreased and “economic trajectories of women have soared … this new era has been remarkable for women in terms of career options and labor force success, but more challenging on them relationally.” This is presumably as defined by lower marriage rates, as no other evidence is given, but “the route to marriage – something the vast majority still holds as a goal – is more fraught with years and failed relationships than in the past” (43). So the 1950s marriages were not challenging “relationally” because they married young after a short search. Often pregnant. Not challenging at all. He elaborates that when women no longer need men’s resources, “the relationships are far more difficult to navigate because strong commitments and emotional validation are just plain less necessary (and thus slower to emerge) from men” (51). Is there less commitment and emotional validation now that divorce is an option? I’m skeptical, but there is no evidence presented on that either way. He returns to this in expressing disagreement with Giddens: “While Giddens was on target to hold that ‘sexual freedom follows power and is an expression of it,’ it simply does not spell the power to make relationships flourish and last” (51). But does it spell the power to end bad relationships? This is not important to him.
He believes homosexuality is not natural, but is the result of “sexual malleability” made possible by the Pill, etc. As an example he recounts a story he heard while “chatting with a friend of mine” whose sister is “in a same-sex relationship” and “eventually married a woman” (he does not call her a lesbian). He then descends into a pseudo-scientific jag about her, starting with how her coming out “coincided with early twenty-something difficulty navigating the relationship world of men as a tall, athletic woman. She didn’t fit in and was seldom asked out. I am not at all suggesting,” he says, while 100% suggesting, “this experience was a key reason for trending toward relationships with women” (58). So why bring it up? He goes on to mention that this “happened for Amanda in a historic period of political change around sexuality,” then mentions that Washington, DC is “a city known for having the worst sex ratio in the country” (58). On the second page of this speculation,
“We should expect that some share of women will respond to perceived mating market constraints and struggles by experimenting with same-sex-relationships. … This need not be the case for all or most self-identified lesbians or bisexual women [note he never concedes lesbians actually exist]. No matter. In Amanda’s case, she told her sister [says her sister?] that she very well could have ended up with a man had interest from such been expressed and received at critical times. But it did not happen.”
This is a belabored way of saying “relationship difficulty” made her “trend toward relationships with women” because she is definitely not naturally a lesbian. (Also, why use long anecdotes from friends when you supposedly did 100 interviews?)
He offers a two-page description of the 2012 American Sociological Review article by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty (only the first two of which he names), which analyzes the determinants of orgasm and sexual enjoyment among college students. He criticizes them for “elect[ing] to focus mostly on sexual technique, something they note was more apt to occur when sex partners liked each other enough to be in a relationship” (105), rather than focusing on relationship status and aspirations (which also affect the outcomes). Here he seems to substitute the term “sexual technique” for “oral sex” (which is what they measure but he never mentions) as something that is “more apt to occur” in relationships. Maybe he is afraid if he mentions oral sex – which has the largest effects in their models on both odds of orgasm and sexual enjoyment – he will give people the idea (like porn does).
Does porn make men gay? He could have studied this, but he didn’t. So he just speculates and offers a “hypothesis.” He says porn is an “influential teacher,” and
“some of its lessons … are learned, liked, and repeated. As an example of the hypothesis I am posing, straight men are glimpsing other men having sex (with women) in pornography – the ‘cumshot’ scenario in porn is not just common but listed as popular and desirable by straight men when queried about their own pornography preferences. In reality, then, straight men are attracted to the sexual pleasure of other aroused men. I am not suggesting here that porn use leads straight men to ‘turn’ gay. No. What I think is a reasonable interpretation, however, is that pornography is indirectly shaping (and increasing) the sexualization of situations, what people are willing to try, and what they come to desire sexually. … Pornography, then, is blurring the lines between sexual orientations, contributing to the growth of what is sexually attractive” (123).
So it’s making them want to have sex with men, but not to be gay. This is important because he doesn’t think anyone is naturally gay, so he needs reasons for why men would have sex with men. He returns to this later, referring to “the clear interest among straight men in the depiction of male pleasure and ejaculation” as part of a social context in which “more same-sex experimentation will occur” (208). He’s really stuck on the cumshot. What he misses about it, however, is that it might reflect not straight men’s attraction to male arousal, but how it makes erotic the degradation of women. Regardless, he has no evidence for this “hypothesis” except the fact that gay men watch more porn than straight men.
He thinks that men don’t have to work hard in general now because sex is cheap, but his history is off. “Previous cohorts of men who did not make ample wages were simply not considered marriageable and hence were unable to access sex with the regularity they craved. They worked for it, and some became marriageable” (173). It’s a great story of American greatness gone by, men pulling themselves up by their erections. But what is this history? From 1950 to 1980, about 90% of men were married by age 35. Did we not have low-earning men back then?
Regnerus argues against demons.
He calls the social change “over the last several decades”
“technology-driven social change. Recognizing this counters the simple and reductionist explanations like ‘social construction,’ ‘the right side of history,’ ‘liberation,’ ‘enlightenment,’ or ‘the triumph of rights and freedom over ignorance and bigotry’ for the new variations in social sanctioned intimate relationships” (12).
There are no references to any of these “simple and reductionist” thinkers.
“My claims have less to do with lawyers, doctors, and executives than they do with regular people farther down the socioeconomic ladder – the kinds of men and women social scientists often claim to represent but frequently overlook in their own research methods” (14).
Such a rebel.
“Though no economist, Anthony Giddens agrees that contraception altered the playing field. (I know of no serious scholar who denies it, but few discuss it)” (33). Why would one need to be an economist to see that? And “few discuss it” is hilarious. See Wu, Martin, and England 2017:
“What led to the decoupling of sex and marriage? A conclusive causal answer to this question will likely remain elusive, but many have argued, on plausible theoretical grounds, that advances in contraceptive technology and the introduction and diffusion of the birth control pill in particular were decisive factors by allowing women and couples far greater control over whether and when to become pregnant” (emphasis added).
My own textbook says, “Few innovations had a social impact to rival that of the birth control pill.”) Note, however, that his whole discussion of the Pill, which runs throughout the book, is about how it affects dating and mating for unmarried people, but one-third of people who use the Pill are married, and it’s improving their family as well as their work lives.
“As pornography increasingly saturates American private life, it is become scientifically untenable to maintain that porn doesn’t matter” (123). Who says porn doesn’t matter?
Funny / ridiculous
Before getting into methods, pause for some laughs.
“There is wisdom to the slower pace of science” (19), says the person who submitted a paper before data collection was even complete.
No shit: “I lean conservative in my own life and personal perspective” (20).
In the section on gays and lesbians, which is devoted to explaining how unnatural homosexuality is, he presents a figure he claims is from his Relationships in America survey, which shows women are least likely to be “100% heterosexual” in their late twenties. We “should not be surprised” about this, he says, because women “face a fixed fertility schedule” (57), so they become straighter as they age into their thirties. If he was being honest, he would admit it’s weird for this theory that women are least heterosexual during their peak fertility years. Instead, he pretends it’s not surprising they get out of their homosexual years just in time for the end of their “fertility schedule.”
Sloppy and slapdash analysis on porn effects
Sometimes he analyzes women, sometimes men, without explanation. This smells like effect shopping, consistent with this very selective and incomplete reporting on his analyses in general. But because the data aren’t available, we can’t investigate. For example, on porn, he reports use declines with age more among women than among men (115): “Why the greater attraction of pornography among younger women? Speculation is difficult to avoid.” (It might be hard to avoid, but you don’t have to publish it.) Anyway, the speculation that follows offers nothing for why this pattern would occur for women and not men (the proposed mechanisms all would apply to men as well). From there he goes to the effects of porn – on women, ignoring that men use it more, suggesting it “undermines long-standing ideas [and values] about marriage” (120). To support that, he discusses women who “say they never watch porn” (why this category, when he has a continuous measure?) who are “least likely” to cheat in relationships and “most likely” to disagree that “traditional marriage is outdated,” with no reference to the comparison groups, adding, helpfully “(results not shown”). He concludes: “It makes sense. Porn use thus appears to constitute a liberalizing force” (120-121). No reason why this discussion is just about women.
Later (123-126), he asks, “Does heightened porn use matter for fashioning political attitudes about marriage?” and answers, “It does among men.” There is no reason for why he doesn’t include women in this discussion or analysis. He says there is a “linear association” between pornography use and men’s support for same-sex marriage. The regression table (221) says it is OLS regression but doesn’t define the independent variable beyond, “Last pornography use (behavior, 0 = most recent”; or the dependent variable, beyond “support for same sex marriage.” Are these scales? There is no information on how they are measured or coded, needed to judge whether the use of OLS is appropriate. There is also no measurement specified for five control variables in the model (education, income, social media use, religious attendance, and importance of religion). (In all his tables he practices asterisk inflation, so * = p<.10, etc.)
Regnerus doesn’t like the GSS porn question, which is reasonable. But note I did a quick analysis of GSS and find that among both men and women, those who have watched an x-rated movie in the past year are more supportive of same-sex marriage rights, since 2006 when they started asking the question, controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, political views, and religious attendance. (This paper found porn increased support for same-sex marriage in GSS 2006-2010, but only among low-educated men.)
He finds this porn effect hugely significant. How could porn affect views on gay marriage? It’s not about men watching gay sex, but rather about porn’s “veritable fire-hose dousing of sex-act diversity … different positions, roles, genders, and varying numbers of participants — and that is basically where porn leads today: away from sex as having anything approaching a classic marital sense or structure” (125-126). He also cites evidence that porn users are more likely to identify as feminists.
Without any ability to assess the actual effect of porn on marriage equality attitudes (we can’t even judge the effect size in his model), it’s impossible to evaluate his bizarre conclusion:
“In the end, contrary to what very many people might wish to think, men’s support for redefining marriage may not be the product of actively adopting ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a passive byproduct of regular exposure to the diversity of sex found in contemporary porn” (126).
Quite a leap. (And again, why is this just about men?)
He also suspects that porn is encouraging some men to stay out of the marriage market, because they can just masturbate. To support this, he has a long quote from Milo Yiannopoulis (yes, really), one interview quote (“porn is one that uh, that I can’t get away from. … Sex you have to go look for, usually” ). Based on that evidence, he writes, “The question is not whether some men have exited the market, courtesy of porn. The question is how many” (130). (What does “courtesy of” mean?) Then he says Relationships in America shows that 29% of never-married men under 50 selected “haven’t really dated in the past year” (which he describes as “had not dated in the past year”), and of them, the majority are regular porn consumers. From this weak evidence, he concludes:
“It may be too much of an assumption to hold that such frequent pornography consumers who report no dating in the past year because they don’t want to or think they’re uninviting are off the mating market because of their pornography use, but I hold that their porn use may be undermining their participation” (131).
Since this is obviously a major question for him, why didn’t he design some research around answering it? (Also what does it mean to “hold” that something “may” be the case?)
There isn’t much for methods in the book. I don’t include the supposed 100 interviews under “methods,” but nothing about that effort, as reported, qualifies as research; he just talked to some people. He does have a few descriptive statistics and some regression tables that he says are from the Relationships in America data, inadequately described. I discuss them here.
For women, but not men, Regnerus says there is a relationship between political views and wanting more sex (77-80). Conservative women are less likely than liberal women to say they want more sex than they are having. He shows this table for percentage of women who want more sex, which he says derives from the Relationships in America survey:
Very conservative: 16%
Very liberal: 53%
These are the terrible research methods he then employs to investigate the question:
He says (but does not show) that this correlation is not found among men, a discrepancy which does not raise any questions for him, and to which he never returns, although the speculative theory he introduces could just as well apply to men as to women.
He treats this as a question of liberalism’s effect rather than conservatism’s effect, as if conservatives live in a natural state, so their views need not be explained; also as if women desiring sex is the condition that needs to be explained, instead of the reverse. So he says of the table, “It is obvious that more politically liberal women are apt to say they would prefer more sex. Why?”
To try to understand the liberalism effect, Regnerus says, “I discussed this conundrum with others, and a plausible, four-part path explanation emerged.” That path is laid out as follows: (a) liberals are less religious, (b) they “therefore are more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value” to life, but (c) they see sex as transcendent, so (d) “liberal women therefore desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life.” Some path.
To test this post-hoc theoretical speculation, Regnerus presents a logistic regression table, with odds ratios and no confidence intervals or standard errors, but with asterisks, one of which indicates a p-value of .10 or less (no reason is given for this non-traditional alpha level). The dependent variable is dichotomized, to indicate those who want more sex than they are having. The independent variable is labeled “political liberalism,” but it is not defined in relation to the five-point political views scale he describes in the text.
The logistic table has three models and an N for each of 1,387: the first has liberalism, age, race, education, and marital status. The liberalism odds ratio is 1.39** (which means p<.05). Is that for the difference between liberals and all others, or for each point on the political views scale? No way to know. The second model adds five controls for sexual behavior, orientation, and emotional well-being. Now liberalism’s odds ratio is reduced to 1.24* (p<.10). The final model adds three religion controls: importance of religion (odds ratio: .99), religious service attendance (odds ratio: 1.03), and “less religious than 10 years ago” (odds ratio 1.68**). Now the liberalism odds ratio is… the same, but no longer has a p<.10 asterisk.
Regnerus writes triumphantly of this result: “So I added religious service attendance, importance of religion, and a unique measure of having become less religious in the past decade to the regression model predicting wanting more sex, and – as theorized – becoming less religious predicts wanting more sex. And what is more, political liberalism no longer matters for wanting more sex.” If the coefficient doesn’t change, but the standard error increases, can you say it “no longer matters,” if that change happens to push it over the p<.10 threshold? No, you cannot.
He adds, “This theory about replacing the loss of the sacred (with a quest for sex) is a plausible one.” (Good to know.) “Unfortunately,” he intones, “something so immanent as sex will not – and cannot – function in the manner in which religion can, has, and does.” (He loves these, will not, cannot, can, has, does sequences.) After a little more of this, he concludes, “Maybe that is why very liberal women are also twice as likely to report being depressed or currently in psychotherapy than very conservative women” (there are no details provided; twice as likely as whom?). (In 2016 the GSS included the CESD depression scale, which seems to be the scale Regnerus used; my quick analysis of that, with basic controls, shows that “extremely liberal” and “extremely conservative” people (male or female) are more likely than people with moderate views to be depressed, but not significantly different from each other.)
Empirically false statements
I noted a handful of just false statements.
“There are now more women than men in the paid labor force” (11). This unattributed fact, presumably from Hanna Rosin, is not true and has never been true, as I explained in this blog post.
“Women never pay men for sex” (24). They do a lot less than men, obviously, but some do nonetheless (e.g., there is research on sex tourism in which rich-country women travel to poor countries for sex with poor-country men).
“In 1992, there simply was no online pornography” (139). There already was BBS porn in 1992.
“To be sure, things did not change overnight following [the Pill’s] debut in 1960. … But change things it did. The vagaries of less-reliable contraceptive devices or condoms, which men never much appreciated, could now be avoided. Marriage plans could be stalled. Careers could be developed without fear of interruption. Women could have two children instead of five or six” (33-34). The total fertility rate was below 3.0 before the Great Depression, and never reached 4.0 even during the Baby Boom.
Sex isn’t the only thing that motivates men. “(For example, men are powerfully motivated by competition in sports and business, but seldom over women anymore)” (153). Really, men “seldom” compete over women anymore? Is that because there just too many sluts to choose from? I’m skeptical.
Grammar and editing errors
Back to basics.
“In the world of sex, men and women often display differences, and it has significant and far-reaching consequences” (24). What is “it” (and what does “often display differences” mean?)
The third paragraph on p. 28 is out of place, starting with an “It” that does not reference anything in the previous passages and ending, bizarrely, with,“But you get the point.”
Incorrectly calls a difference between two percentages a “percentile gap” (90). Similarly, a woman “reported climaxing in her current relationship about half the time, but says that the 50th percentile is not a problem” (103). That’s not what a percentile is.
On 134-135, he says in the text that 24% of women and 9% of men say they have never masturbated, but the chart shows the numbers are about 27% and 13%.
The age of respondent “Elizabeth” changes from 26 to 25 (p. 25, 103, 156).
I’ve been working on my review of Mark Regnerus’s new book, Cheap Sex, in 10-minute power bursts. Here’s one funny thing I noticed: Hanna Rosin’s most prominent error from The End of Men apparently repeated telephone-style by Regnerus.*
In the Atlantic article, which led to her TED Talk and then book (full review), The End of Men, Hanna Rosin’s editor chose two dramatic statements that were wrong to lead with:
That year, 2010, women were not the majority of the workforce, and most managers were not women. And they still aren’t. What was true was that for 10 months women outnumbered men in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as the “nonfarm payroll,” from June 2009 to March 2010. In every month before and since, men have been the majority. Here’s that trend, by month:
a measure of the number of U.S. workers in the economy that excludes proprietors, private household employees, unpaid volunteers, farm employees, and the unincorporated self-employed. This measure accounts for approximately 80 percent of the workers who contribute to Gross Domestic Product.
It’s not “the workforce,” but it is a good indicator of shocks to the economy — private companies may lay people off immediately, while self-employed people still consider themselves employed even if they’re suddenly losing money. Anyway, in the BLS’s household survey that asks people if they are working, the Current Population Survey, there were about 10 million more people counted as employed, and men’s majority have never been threatened. This is a reasonably called “the workforce.” Note the time trend here is longer, and it’s annual:
The source of the wrong statement about managers is just Rosin combining managerial and professional specialty jobs into “managers,” which she also did in the TED Talk, which is just wrong. Professionals include a lot of women, like nurses and teachers. The managerial occupations have never been majority-female either. Both are important, but only one fit her narrative.
Anyway, the point of this is that Mark Regnerus picked up this meme — which Rosin popularized but lots of other media repeated — and stated it as current fact in his 2017 book. So powerful (among those not powerfully applying themselves) is the idea of automatic gender progress in one direction, that this is not the kind of thing they think they will ever have to check again. Once women pass a milestone, it’s passed, period. (That’s why Rosin’s full sentence was this: “Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs.” She was misapplying the clickbait concept of “tipping point” to imply that the change will now continue and accelerate in the same direction.)
This is why Regnerus apparently felt no need to recheck his facts when he wrote, “there are now more women than men in the paid labor force.” He didn’t cite Rosin (or anyone) for this fact, but it appears during a passage sandwiched between parts that cite her book, so I assume that’s what he was borrowing from, and maybe just changed “workforce” to “paid labor force” to sound different or sophisticated.
Anyway, Rosin doesn’t feature prominently in the Regnerus review (you’re welcome), but this was an interesting nugget, because for all their differences, there are some similarities between Regnerus’s fanatical religious anti-feminism and Rosin’s sophisticated postfeminist antifeminism. Both think feminism has gone too far, and both see the rise of women as resulting from a technological change — Rosin from deindustrialization and Regnerus from the Pill. Also, they both use facts not to learn from but to demonstrate things they think they already know.
Replication in sociology is a disaster. There basically isn’t any. Accountability is something a select few people opt into; as a result, mostly people with nothing to hide ever have their work verified or replicated. Even when work is easily replicable, such as that using publicly available datasets, there is no common expectation that anyone will do it, and no support for doing it; basically no one funds or publishes replications.
Peer review is good, but it’s not about replicability, because it almost always relies on the competence and good faith of the authors. Reviewers might say, “This looks funny, did you try this or that?” But if the author says, “Yes, I did that,” that’s usually the end of it. Academic sociology, in short, runs on a system of trust. That’s worth exactly what it’s worth. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I thought of this today when I read the book excerpt by Mark Regnerus in the Wall Street Journal. (I haven’t read his new book, Cheap Sex yet, although I called the basic arguments a “big ball of wrong” three years ago when he first published them.) Regnerus opens that essay with a single quote supposedly from an anonymous 24-year-old recent college graduate that absolutely perfectly represents his thesis:
If you know what girls want, then you know you should not give that to them until the proper time. If you do that strategically, then you can really have anything you want…whether it’s a relationship, sex, or whatever. You have the control.
(Regnerus argues men have recently gained control over sex because women have stopped demanding marriage in exchange for it.)
Scholars and readers in sociology don’t normally question whether specific quotes in qualitative research are real or not. We argue over the interpretation, or elements of the research design that might call the interpretation into question (such as the method of selecting respondents or a field site). But if we simply don’t trust the author, what do we do? In the case of Regnerus, we know that he has lied, a lot, about important things related to his research. So how do you read his research in a discipline with no norm of verification or replicability, a discipline naively based on trust? The fake news era is here; we have to address this. Fortunately, every other social discipline already is, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Of course there are complicated issues with different kinds of sociology, especially qualitative work. It’s one of the things people wrestled with in the Contexts forum Syed Ali and I organized for the American Sociological Association on how to do ethnography right.
That forum took place in the wake of all the attention Alice Goffman received for her book, and article, On the Run (my posts on that are under this tag). One person who followed that controversy closely was law professor Steven Lubet, who has written a new book titled, “Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters,” which addresses that situation in depth. The book comes out October 20, at a conference at Northwestern University’s law school. I will be one of a number of people commenting on the book and its implications.
I hope you can come to the event in Chicago.
Finally, regardless of your opinion on recent controversies in sociology, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read (and, if you’re in such a position, require that your students read) “Replication in Social Science,” by Jeremy Freese and David Peterson, in the latest Annual Review of Sociology (SocArXiv preprint; journal version). Freese and Peterson refer to sociology as “the most undisciplined social science,” and they write:
As sociologists, the most striking thing in reviewing recent developments in social science replication is how much all our neighbors seem to be talking and doing about improving replicability. Reading economists, it is hard not to connect their relatively strict replication culture with their sense of importance: shouldn’t a field that has the ear of policy-makers do work that is available for critical inspection by others? The potential for a gloomy circle ensues, in which sociology would be more concerned with replication and transparency if it was more influential, but unwillingness to keep current on these issues prevents it from being more influential. In any case, the integrative and interdisciplinary ambitions of many sociologists are obviously hindered by the field’s inertness on these issues despite the growing sense in nearby disciplines that they are vital to ensuring research integrity.
That paper has some great ideas for easy reforms to start out with. But we need to get the conversation moving. In addition developing replication standards and norms, we need to get the next generation of sociologists some basic training in the (jargon alert!) political economy of scholarly communication and the publishing ecosystem. The individual incentives are weak, but the need for the discipline to act is very strong. If we can at least get sociologists to be vaguely aware of the attention to this issue generated in most other social science disciplines, it would be a great step forward.
Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus lost in their attempt to turn the federal courts against marriage equality. The work they did culminated in a paper published under Regnerus’s name, and Regnerus is the name most associated with its bogusness, but it was Wilcox who led the effort to raise the money (some of which he kept), helped direct the study, and weaseled it into the journal by serving as a peer reviewer for its publication. (Two subsequent studies reanalyzed the Wilcox/Regnerus data, and thoroughly debunked its results — here and here; you can get the full story by following the links in this post.)
Although they failed in their quest to affect the Supreme Court, their work lives on in the very small, evil minds of anti-gay fanatics around the world, who continuously cite the original paper. One of those men is Judge Scott Johansen, a juvenile court judge in Carbon County, Utah (the state’s seventh district), who has cited unspecified “research” to justify his decision to take a one-year-old baby from the home of Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland, a married lesbian couple who are the child’s foster parents. With the approval of the baby’s biological mother and child welfare authorities — who did the routine thorough investigation and vetting that all adoptive parents (including me) have endured — the two were moving ahead with plans to legally adopt the baby when Johansen, a law graduate of the Mormon Brigham Young University, handed down his decision. The decision is set to take effect next Tuesday (November 17). His decision is not public, but he told the couple his own research showed it was better for children to be raised by a heterosexual couple. We don’t need to ask what research he has in mind.
If your research was used like this, what would you do?
So, this is the point of all the work Wilcox and Regnerus did. We must assume they wanted exactly this decision, but on a much larger scale; they wanted same-sex couples to be denied the right to adopt children, and children to be denied the right to have married gay and lesbian parents. They would apparently rather see a one-year-old child who has spent three months with a loving family ripped from that family rather than face the fate of having lesbian parents.
If I’m wrong, and I would be especially happy to be wrong in this case, then Wilcox and Regnerus should be the first experts lining up to convince Judge Johansen that he’s making a mistake, that the actual well-being of the child, and the civil rights of its parents, should come before slavish devotion to religious dogma. In fact, speaking up right now might actually do some good.
Wilcox has gone out of his way to sing the praises of the “deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage” in Utah specifically. But he doesn’t comment on this aspect of Utah’s holiness — the deep commitment that has led the Mormon church to announce a wretched, hateful policy under which it will not bless or baptize the children of gay and lesbian couples unless they denounce their parents.
Now might be a good time for Wilcox’s sham Institute for Family Studies — which has yet to ever use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” or “homosexual” on its web pages — to break its silence and take a stand for children and family well-being.
Taking questions onstage at the World Congress of Families, Mark Regnerus reportedly was asked whether he would support cutting welfare benefits to single mothers to encourage them to marry. The question is not on the video, but part of his answer is. I transcribe it below, but here’s the tape:
… lay of the land in terms of the attempts to stimulate marriage, how difficult that is – your policy, which is sort of associated with the idea of the marriage penalty for people who are on social welfare and not married to the father of their children. It’s possible, right? It’s one of those things where – my skepticism tends to – how do people act in certain situations – what should we expect of people. In that situation, it creates this entity where we have to identify who’s in the household, how often are they in the household, the relationship, etcetera. Your policy is not a bad one in terms of moving people toward marriage – we want to do that. Whether it will work – who knows? And, I’m totally not a policy analyst so I’m going to stop right there.
His trademark verbal incoherence makes this hard to follow, but it appears his only concern with such a policy is the problem of household-member surveillance. His callous disregard for poor single mothers is apparent — he’s not concerned with the principle of coercing people into marriage, or even with violation of rights associated with verifying household comings and goings. He’s just not sure it’s feasible.
The weird thing is he’s got it backwards. If you want to deny benefits to single mothers, why do you care if they have a boyfriend in the house? That’s the problem the government has when it tries to only give benefits to single mothers — when its afraid they’re concealing a man who is supporting them.
The policy of denying benefits to people who are single — but giving benefits to people who are married — is what Brad Wilcox and Marco Rubio are trying to accomplish with their convoluted and badly calibrated child tax credit reform (see this description by Matt Bruenig). Maybe Regnerus wants to do that, but also find a way to punish single mothers who are carrying on outside of marriage, but it’s hard to see how that’s part of the policy.
But then again, I’m not a policy analyst so I’m going to stop right there. If you think I’m not getting it, please enlighten me.
The news is nothing I have to say, but the new article, available in prepublication form, by Simon Cheng and Brian Powell, which methodically flays the infamous Regnerus paper, leaving nothing but a wisp of foul-smelling ill-will trailing from its remains. (The paper is here, where it is paywalled; feel free to email me. Follow the whole story at the Regnerus tag.)
Cheng and Powell reanalyzed the Regnerus data, the New Family Structures Survey (NFSS), and see what would happen if Regnerus had done the data processing and analysis right. This goes beyond the logical flaws and biases that were inherent in the study design (discussed here), to find the coding and analysis errors. A few examples:
So much for “raised by…” 24 of the 236 people coded as having a “lesbian mother” or “gay father” — because they reported one of their parents ever had a same-sex romantic relationship (I’ll use LM and GF here to refer to Regnerus’s codes, not reality) — never lived with the parent in question! We had known previously that a large number (138) had never lived with the partner in the romantic relationship, but this is a whole nother level of wrong. A total of 58 of the LM/GF sample were reported to have lived with the supposedly gay or lesbian parent for a single year or less.
Bad cases. The most ridiculous is the “25 year-old man who reports that his father had a romantic relationship with another man, but also reports that he (the respondent) was 7-feet 8-inches tall, weighed 88 pounds, was married 8 times and had 8 children.” Another reported being arrested for the first time at age 1. Real data collectors scrutinize cases like that and throw them out or find a way to fix them. (Really good data collectors stop the person — or the data entry — right when they say something outrageous, to see if they’re sure.)
Illogical cases. There are a lot of these, including the person who reported “having always lived alone but also claims to have always lived with mother, father, and two grandparents.”
Then there are a series of bad analysis and modeling decisions Regnerus made, such as coding people who refused to answer a question as 0 instead of missing, or using the wrong kind of statistical model for the particular outcome.
When they get done with it, there really is no reliable, significant negative outcome associated with having lived any appreciable amount of time with a parent who might have been gay or lesbian. There’s more to it, but I don’t want to discourage you from reading the paper.
Random error, correlated outcome
Some of the “misclassified or uncertain” cases also report serious problems in adulthood, exhibiting higher-than-average rates of suicidality, depression, drinking to get drunk, and having a poor relationship with their mothers. So those could be people whose difficult lives rendered them unable to complete the life history calendar correctly. But there is also a chance that, like the 7’8″ guy, there are people just answering some of the question at random. These were people taking the survey alone on a computer, with no supervision, and getting paid to be part of the sample. Clicking at random is not out of the question (one person only took 10 minutes to complete the lengthy survey).
Contrary to what you might assume, clicking at random does not always produce random results. I’ll illustrate this with an example. First, here’s another tidbit from Regnerus, which might fit this point. Speaking to some Franciscans in 2014, Regnerus (just after 9:00 of this video) was going on about sexual fluidity as a condition of modernity, when he dropped in this fact from the NFSS:
Despite comprising a mere 1.3 percent of the population, respondents in the NFSS [New Family Structures Survey] who said that their mothers have had a same-sex sexual relationship made up 15 [50?] percent of all the asexual identifiers in the NFSS. So, 15 [50?] percent of them come from 1.3 percent of the population. [I originally transcribed those as 50%, but on second listening I think he said 15%, but I can’t be sure.]
His raised eyebrow here is to indicate the deeply depraved nature of lesbian mothers — maybe it’s genetic, or maybe it’s child abuse — but… he lets the numbers speak for themselves. Lesbian mothers, asexual children.
Here’s how this works. If you are trying to find people in two rare conditions — for example, those with lesbian mothers and those who are asexual — and a small portion of your sample answers questions at random, not only will you have a relatively large number of false positives on your conditions, your rare conditions will also falsely appear to be correlated.
I’m sure I didn’t discover this, and I don’t have a mathematical proof for it, but it’s logical. And I confirmed it with an experiment, as follows.
Say you have a sample of 1000 people, and you’re studying two conditions that occur on average in one out of every 500 cases. I’ll call them “climbing Mt. Everest” and “going to the moon.” In your thousand cases, you will on average have 2 people who did each thing. The chances that the same person did both are probably really low (you do the maths). But, if just 1% of your sample — 10 people — answer those two yes/no questions at random, look out!
I created this scenario using Excel’s random-number function. With 990 people answering truthfully — that is, given a 1/500 chance of saying yes to each question — and 10 answering them both randomly, this is what I got: 6 people who had climbed Mt. Everest, and 8 people who had gone to the moon. But shockingly, there were 4 people who had done both — that is 67% of the mountain climbers and 50% of the moonshotters. You can’t know, from looking at the data, but I can, that all of the people who went on both adventures were in the tiny group of random answerers.
Here are the 1000 cases in random order, with green showing Everest-only cases, blue showing moon-only cases, and red showing positive answers to both questions. And here’s the statistic: in the total sample — 990 serious survey takers and 10 jokers — the correlation between climbing Mt. Everest and going to the moon is .53! Click to enlarge:
Maybe Regnerus is just an incredibly, irresponsibly bad researcher, who didn’t conduct the simplest data checks before rushing to publish his paper. Or maybe he is a diabolical genius, and he realized that high random error rates in both his rare independent variable and his rare dependent variables would produce results showing poor outcomes for children of gays and lesbians.
In the Cheng and Powell paper, their various procedures and corrections wipe out many of Regenerus’s negative outcomes for GF/LM respondents before they tackle the “misclassified or uncertain” cases. But when they do that, some of the last coefficients to fall to non-significance are indeed relatively rare: having suicidal thoughts (7%), not being “entirely heterosexual” (15%), having had an STI (11%), and having had forced sex (13%). Each of these becomes non-significant when the bad cases are controlled in the Cheng and Powell models. I haven’t worked out a proof (ever), but I reckon that the rarer they are, the more likely they are to be correlated with the rare independent variable (LM/GF) if some people are answering at random — which they apparently were.
Anyway, the Cheng and Powell paper speaks for itself. But I find it interesting that unchecked data error produces false positive (that is, negative) outcomes for marginal groups. Look out!
Note: Corrected May 3 to reflect that these documents are about post-tenure review, not promotion to full professor. The blogger regrets the error, and thanks the tipster.
The news, reported in The Daily Texan, with documents retrieved via public records request, is that, in the face of conflicting views about Mark Regnerus’s promotion to the rank of full professor post-tenure review, UT’s Dean of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, commissioned a report on the scandal by sociologist Marc Musick. The report is an excellent review and summary of the affair, and provides ample evidence for declining the promotion. And for the rest of us, it had the beneficial effect of flushing out Regnerus, who wrote his most detailed response yet to the accusations against him — a response he may or may not have realized would become public. (The new documents are linked in the Texan article; for my coverage, you can start here for a review with links.)
It’s difficult to try to draw a line, as Musick does, apparently at the dean’s request, between ethical misconduct and bad research. It’s really where the two are combined that Regnerus causes trouble. More on the promotion issue later.
Musick was entirely correct when he wrote:
Based on these [media] appearances and his [court] testimony, it is self-evident that Professor Regnerus has used his research in the debate over same-sex marriage in direct contradiction to the statements he made in the NFSS article and response to commentaries. When combined with clear evidence that he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, it leads to the appearance that the post-study behavior was an extension of the political work that was happening prior to the study. In light of all of this activity, it appears that the statements he made in the article could certainly be seen as misleading at best and an outright fabrication of his intentions at worst.
This is the heart of the ethics side of the complaint: his bad research was part of a covertly-organized political effort, and he lied about it to cover that up. Regnerus simply asserts this isn’t true, but to believe his self-serving description of his own intentions is to be made a fool of. It’s just not plausible that,
I did not intend to utilize the results for any political or legal purpose, and stated so when I completed work on the manuscript in late February 2012. My interests, from the outset of participation in this project up through December 2012, lay squarely in the social science question that gave rise to the study.
Only God can truly see into the unlit depths of Regnerus’s heart — but the rest of us can be pretty sure he’s lying based on his actions.
Regnerus claims that as he became immersed in the subject he grew convinced that same-sex marriage is a bad policy, and began “to worry about esteeming the systematic severance of children from their biological origins.” But he was part of the “coalition” (his word!) against gay marriage from before the study was even fielded. His email to Brad Wilcox, prior to conducting the study:
I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis [Tellez] and Maggie [Gallagher] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.
What pure interest in “the social science question” involves planning an “early report” with the leading activist against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher?
Lots of research is as poor quality as Regnerus’s. It’s in combination with the rotten ethics that we see the more serious problem — it’s how the research fits in with his diabolical political plans and his reprehensible moral views. That is, the research was not just bad, it was bad in a purposeful direction. That’s not discernible from a reading of the single, (not really) peer-reviewed article.
Cause and effect
The issue of causality is described in the report as one of methods, but I think it’s really an ethical issue.
Regnerus has been having this both ways from the beginning, and it highlights the challenge of (and for) public intellectuals who speak to multiple audiences. In the original paper he wrote, “I would be remiss to claim causation here.” So that is his cover (and he quotes again here). But in presentations to friendly audiences he is much less guarded. As I reported earlier, in a talk he gave at Catholic University:
He first described in some detail the “standard set of controls” he used to test the relationship between having a father or mother who ever (reportedly) had a same-sex romantic relationship and his many negative outcome variables. And then he proceeded to present bivariate relationships as if they were the results of those tests. He didn’t say they were adjusted [for the controls], but everyone thought the results he showed were controlling for everything. For example, to gasps from the crowd, he revealed that 17 percent of “intact bio family” kids had ever received welfare growing up, compared with 70 percent for those whose mother (reportedly) ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If you don’t realize that this is mostly just a comparison between stable married-couple families and single-mother families, that might seem like a shockingly large effect.
The causal story at that talk was hammered home in two other ways. First, he presented the results as evidence of a “reduced kinship theory,” under which parents care less about their children the less biologically related they are. Second, he said his “best guess” about why he found worse outcomes for children of women who ever had a lesbian relationship than for those whose fathers ever had a gay relationship was that the former group spent more time with their mothers’ lesbian partners. Both of these descriptions are based on a causal interpretation of his findings.
Anyway, on to the political machinations.
Regnerus lies about Brad Wilcox’s lies
Regnerus complains that Musick brings up the “tired ethical complaint” about Brad Wilcox, who, Regnerus claims, “held an honorific position with the Witherspoon Institute.” And he offers this: “In my interactions with him, he never acted with authority, only advice suggestive of his own opinion.” Regnerus no-doubt thinks he is using a clever legalism, as if Wilcox did not have literal signing authority for dispersing Witherspoon funds and therefore did not offer anything beyond “his own opinion.” But it’s clearly wrong.
Just to be clear how ridiculous this hair-splitting is, here is the email exchange that they no-doubt both now regret (which Musick quoted as well). Regnerus writing, Wilcox answering in bold caps:
Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.
We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES
We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES
Did I understand that correctly?
And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES
Regnerus may now say, indignantly, “Professor Wilcox did not — and does not — speak on behalf of Mr. Tellez,” the Witherspoon president, but he certainly understood Wilcox as speaking for Witherspoon in that exchange. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he ask Tellez these organizational questions directly?
In a 2012 blog post on the now-defunct (and deleted, but preserved) Family Scholars blog hosted by the Institute for American Values, Wilcox wrote that he never served as an “officer” of Witherspoon. He was, on the Witherspoon website as preserved by the Internet Archive, listed as “director” of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy from late 2008 to mid-2010. That program still exists on the website, incidentally, but it no longer mentions any director — Wilcox is the only director ever listed in the Internet Archive pages. As of last month, Wilcox’s CV doesn’t mention this position.* (I don’t understand the purpose of an honorific position if you’re not proud of it.)
And then there’s the Wilcox email where he refers to the study as “our dataset.”
Campaign, or coincidence?
Regnerus tells a story of coincidences. For example, Tellez may have (in his words) wanted the research done “before major decisions of the Supreme Court,” but that had nothing to do with Regnerus’s goals, which were to finish his report by January 2012 “for no other reason than I wished to finish it and move on to other projects.” At the time the research was funded, Regnerus says, he did not share Tellez’s political goals. Coincidentally, they both happened to want to project completed in the same time frame. And then, in another coincidence, Regnerus later came around to joining in Tellez’s opinion that same-sex marriage must be stopped. Is this a more plausible story than the simpler one in which Tellez, Wilcox, and Regnerus were all on the same page all along? The evidence for the conspiracy is pretty robust, considering Regnerus, Wilcox, David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher and other anti-gay marriage activists planned the research at a meeting in Washington hosted and paid for by the Heritage Foundation. On the other hand, the evidence for the coincidence is Regnerus’s solemn word. This conspiracy is a theory kind of like evolution is a theory — it’s the only plausible explanation for a known series of events.
In the coincidence story, the survey was delayed, so Regnerus would have to keep working on it beyond January 2012. However, he nevertheless just “decided to give a journal submission a shot” in November 2011 anyway. Not that he was aiming for Tellez’s Supreme Court deadline. Just because. So he “contacted [Social Science Research editor] Professor James Wright to ask if he’d consider reviewing a manuscript on a study like this one,” before the data were even collected. You social scientists out there — have you ever asked a peer-reviewed journal editor if they would consider publishing something “like” what you were working on before you even had the data collected?
In fact, this “give a journal submission a shot” idea came from Wilcox, who in the email mentioned above suggested sending it to SSR because Wright was (the late) “Steve Nock’s good friend” and “also likes Paul Amato,” whom they had secured as a consultant. In the end, Wright would use both Wilcox and Amato as reviewers.
The coincidences Regnerus speaks of also include the meeting he had in August 2011 in Denver with Wilcox, Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family, and Scott Stanley, after which (he wrote to Tellez at the time), “we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward” for “public/media relations for the NFSS project.” In his response to Musick, Regnerus now writes, “Denver was a convenient stop on the way back to Austin from the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, and I took the opportunity to meet socially with a few peers.” That includes Stanton, who “lived about an hour’s drive of where we met.” (I’m not sure why you need a “convenient stop” from Las Vegas to Austin, which is a short nonstop flight.)
See, no campaign. Sure, he also arranged for the study to be shared with “some conservative outlets” before publication, attended a “short function hosted by the Heritage Foundation” about the study just before it was published, and “another such function … at the offices of the Institute for American Values.” But he doesn’t even know, “frankly,” “how such groups came to be apprised of the impending study release.”
Then, after describing, literally, how he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, Regnerus concludes, “This hardly merits the accusation that I ‘colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study.'”
And oh, sure, on closer inspection (he actually says, “I see now…”) he did use the “media training” document that Heritage provided, which he has falsely testified he “largely ignored,” in his own promotion of the study. In his post on Patheos.com (here), he wrote:
Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?
A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families.
The Heritage talking points (from Musick’s report) included this:
Whether gay parents are worse than traditional parents.The study is not about parenting. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible traditional parents. The study is about outcome difference between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised by their own parent in intact families.
Well, he says now, “I very likely did use a few lines” from the document. “So be it.” Nevertheless, “to suggest I received extensive media training — and leaned on it in a comprehensive campaign — is out of touch with my lived reality.” (Who’s a phenomenologist now?) It’s tempting, after reading his response, to assume that whatever Regnerus specifically denies is exactly true.
On the labeling issue
I noticed something new in reviewing material for this post. If you’ve made it this far, bear with me here on this detail.
The infamous Regnerus article was published with the title, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” In the article he referred to the adult children who reported that their mother ever had a same-sex romantic relationship as “LM” for “lesbian mother,” along with “GF” for “gay father.” In the rebuttal to his critics, published later in 2012, he acknowledged these were the wrong terms:
Concern about the use of the acronyms LM (lesbian mother) and GF (gay father) in the original study is arguably the most reasonable criticism. In hindsight, I wish I would have labeled LMs and GFs as MLRs and FGRs, that is, respondents who report a maternal (or mother’s) lesbian relationship, and respondents who report a paternal (or father’s) gay relationship. While in the original study’s description of the LM and GF categories I carefully and accurately detailed what respondents fit the LM and GF categories, I recognize that the acronyms LM and GF are prone to conflate sexual orientation, which the NFSS did not measure, with same-sex relationship behavior, which it did measure.
But he insisted this was just a question of confusing terms, not an attempt to actually label these parents according to their sexual orientation. He added:
The original study, indeed the entire data collection effort, was always focused on the respondents’ awareness of parental same-sex relationship behavior rather than their own assessment of parental sexual orientation, which may have differed from how their parent would describe it.
This came up in the Mucisk report, and Regnerus responded:
As noted in Professor Musick’s assessment, the problem of locating an optimal acronym here is something to which I have already confessed … It remains a significant regret. And yet the distinction between a woman’s same-sex relationship (to use Professor Musick’s acronym) and a woman’s “lesbian” relationship (as I assert by using the MLR acronym) is no doubt a narrow one. As ought to be obvious, I use the term “lesbian” as an adjective here, not a noun [emphasis added]. It describes a relationship, not a self-identity.
But did Regnerus really intend to use “lesbian” as an adjective? No, he did not. I know this because, in the email exchange between Social Science Research editor James Wright and Brad Wilcox (in which Wilcox lied by omission and which Wright later misrepresented), we can see the original title of the article Regnerus submitted, which is not the title subsequently published. The original title was, “How different are the adult children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Clearly, Regnerus’s original intention was to describe the parents of the people he surveyed as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” — using nouns referring to the people, not adjectives referring to their romantic relationships. It was not a matter of confusion; it was an attempt to create a false impression of the study’s implications.
In our department, promotion to full professor requires “an exemplary record in research, teaching, and service” which has made the candidate “widely regarded as a scholar.” However, these terms are not defined, and no quantities of research or citations are included. These things are left vague, and much rides on the interpretation of the experts consulted, who are considered the best judges of academic merit. So, what if a professor brings scandal and disrepute to himself and the institution? What if he expresses views that are morally reprehensible? What if he lies about his work, including in his work?
I don’t envy my colleagues in the excellent department of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin (about this case — I do envy them in other ways). Their directory lists 39 professors, only one of whom is disgraceful in those ways. It’s not a simple matter, denying a tenured professor a promotion (even though this is only post-tenure review, it’s the promotion issue that looms). It’s a personnel decision governed by laws, and it’s wrapped up in the tenure system, which is important for academic freedom.
In the case of Regnerus I’ve already expressed my opinion.
Honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.
Based on that — more than based on the morally reprehensible views — I would vote against Regnerus’s promotion. But I am not privy to the process at UT, to their reviews and other materials, and I haven’t been asked for my opinion or advice.
* Is it unethical to take academic activities off our academic CV if they make you look bad? It emerged in one of the gay marriage trials that Brigham Young economist Joseph Price, testifying as an expert against gay marriage, took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV. In this case I don’t see that Wilcox ever had Witherspoon on his CV, but he was listed as a director on their website.