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.
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).
Working on the second edition of my book, The Family, involves updating facts as well as rethinking their presentation, and the choice of what to include. The only way I can do that is by making figures to look at myself. Here are some things I’ve worked up recently; they might not end up in the book, but I think they’re useful anyway.
1. Attitudes on sexuality and related family matters continue to grow more accepting or tolerant, but acceptance of homosexuality is growing faster than the others – at least those measured in the repeated Gallup surveys:
2. Not surprisingly, there is wide divergence in the acceptance of homosexuality across religious groups. This uses the Pew Religious Landscape Study, which includes breakouts for atheists, agnostics, and two kinds of “nones,” or unaffiliated people — those for whom religion is important and those for whom it’s not:
3. Updated same-sex behavior and attraction figures from the National Survey of Family Growth. For some reason the NSFG reports don’t include the rates of same-sex partner behavior in the previous 12 months for women anymore, so I analyzed the data myself, and found a much lower rate of last-year behavior among women than they reported before (which, when I think about it, was unreasonably high – almost as high as the ever-had-same-sex-partner rates for women). Anyway, here it is:
Everybody’s got a story. This is the story of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article called, “The Widening Gender Gap in Opposition to Pornography, 1975–2012.” The paper has now been published, and is available here in preprint, or here if you’re on a campus that subscribes to Social Currents through Sage.
Lucia Lykke, a graduate student in our program, and I began this project in the fall of 2012. We came up with the idea together. I did the coding and she wrote the text. Over the course of two years we sent the paper to four journals – once to Gender & Society, four times to Sex Roles, once to Social Forces, and twice to Social Currents, which finally accepted it in July 2015 and published it online on September 21.*
This story illustrates some endemic problems with our system of scholarly communication, both generally and in the discipline of sociology specifically. I discuss the problems after the story.
The gist of our paper is this: Opposition to pornography has declined in the U.S. since 1975, but faster for men than for women. As a result, the gender gap in opposition – with women more likely to oppose pornography – has widened.
That’s the finding. Our interpretation – which is independent of the veracity of our finding – is that opposition has declined as porn became more ubiquitous, but that women have been slower to drop their opposition because at the same time mainstream porn has become more violent and degrading to women. We see all this reflecting two trends: pornographication (more things in popular culture becoming more pornographic) and post-feminism (less acceptance of speaking up against the sexist nature of popular media, including porn). We could be wrong in our interpretation, and there is no way to test it, but the empirical analysis is pretty straightforward and we should accept it as a description of the trend in attitudes toward pornography. And for doing that empirical work we beg permission to tell you our interpretation.
The analysis is possible because the General Social Survey has, since 1975, asked a large sample of U.S. adults this question about every two years:
Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws: 1. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age. 2. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18. 3. There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography.
We tracked the rate at which people selected the first choice versus the others. It’s not very complicated (although we tried it half a dozen other ways, of course). Also of course it’s not perfect – it’s not a great question for today’s social reality, but it’s the only thing like it asked over such a long period. This is what’s great and what’s limiting about the General Social Survey. So, let’s agree to collect better data, and also use this. There, was that so hard?
Here is supporting detail on our particular saga. (We have left the typos from reviewers intact, because it makes us look smarter than they are. And these are selective excerpts to make various points – there was a lot, lot, more.)
Before and after
Just to be clear what the world gained by 13 reviews and two years of waiting, you can compare the abstract at the beginning to the one at the end. This was the original abstract:
In the last several decades pornography in the U.S. has become more mainstream, more accessible, and more phallocentric and degrading to women. Yet research has not addressed how opposition to pornography has changed over the past several decades. Here, we examine opposition to pornography and gender differences in anti-pornography attitudes, using the 1975-2012 General Social Survey. Our findings show that both men’s and women’s opposition to pornography have decreased significantly over the past 40 years, but men’s opposition has declined faster and women remain more opposed to pornography. This is consistent with both the growing normative nature of pornography consumption for men and its increasingly degrading content. We situate these trends within a cultural climate in which women are caught between postfeminism and pornographication – between cultural messages that signal the social acceptability of pornography and compel women’s acquiescence, on the one hand, and the increased presence of pornography many women consider offensive and harmful on the other.
And this was the abstract we ended up with:
In the last several decades pornography in the U.S. has become more mainstream, more accessible, more phallocentric and more degrading to women. Further, consumption of pornography remains a major difference in the sexual experiences of men and women. Yet research has not addressed how opposition to pornography has changed over the this period, despite shifts in the accessibility and visibility of pornography as well as new cultural and legal issues presented by the advent of Internet pornography. We examine gender differences in opposition to pornography from 1975 to 2012, measured by support for legal censorship of pornography in the General Social Survey. Results show that both men’s and women’s opposition to pornography have decreased significantly over the past 40 years, suggesting a cultural shift toward “pornographication” affecting attitudes. However, women remain more opposed to pornography than men, and men’s opposition has declined faster, so the gender gap in opposition to pornography has widened, indicating further divergence of men’s and women’s sexual attitudes over time. This is consistent with the increasingly normative nature of pornography consumption for men, increases over time in men’s actual consumption of pornography, and its increasingly degrading depiction of women.
The regression model we started with in 2013 had logistic regression coefficients showing a decline of .012 per year in the log odds of women favoring laws against the distribution of pornography, versus .022 for men. (That is, the decline has been almost twice as fast for men.) After all we went through with the other variables, we ended up with .012 and .023.
August 6, 2013: Submitted to Gender & Society
September 23, 2013: Rejected, with four reviews
Reviewer A was concerned about framing, and about the dependent variable.
if one takes this more complex and nuanced definition of postfeminism into account, the theoretical frame of does not work well for the paper … I also thought that the authors could have gone further in discussing broader cultural changes in sexuality in the media, especially the increasing sexualization and pornification in advertising and the media. …
an analysis of a GSS question concerning laws regarding the restriction of pornography, seem limited. In particular, that GSS question does not seem to get at the historical changes that have occurred in pornography distribution and consumption given its widespread internet usage.
Reviewer B was all about framing:
[I] appreciate your analysis of anti-pornography research and the effects of post-feminism on attitudes towards pornography … [but] I think the literature review needs to spend at least some time outlining feminist pro-pornography arguments. …
doesn’t it make sense to incorporate a discussion of the history of pornography regulation since the 1970s in the U.S? [… and …] While you bring up race in the analysis of your data, the literature review is surprisingly devoid of anything having to do with pornographic representations of gender and race.
Reviewer C thought we should have included a content analysis of pornography over time – done a different study, that is — and framed it differently:
Pornography needs to be defined … Cost, images and rejection of feminist view would clearly support a content analysis on pornography … The provided discussion of pornographication seems to more support the use of images and actual study of pornography, more so than people’s attitudes toward it … more justification to the existing literature needs to be added … Some legal gender studies should be included here … Gender is not one sided and the author should consider adding some agency to [men’s] role in the study and discussion.
Reviewer D concluded that the data weren’t good enough to support our interpretation:
The author, however, does not empirically demonstrate that the found decline in opposition is the result of either postfeminism or pornographication. … The General Social Survey is convenient, easy to access, and quick to run. This, however, does not necessarily make for good empirical evidence. … If the author wanted to investigate postfeminism and pornagraphication and the relationship to pornography, a much more nuanced empirical study would have needed to have been designed.
In a world with limited space for publishing research – which is not our world – this would be a good reason to reject the article.
October 7, 2013 (approximate): Submitted to Sex Roles
October 9, 2013: Returned by the editor
The editor, Irene Frieze, returned the paper almost immediately, saying: “major revisions are needed before we can move ahead in the review process.”
Some of what she asked for reflects the competitive climate of contemporary academic journals. For example, she asked us to pad the journal’s citation count: “If possible, either in this section or later in the Introduction, note how your work builds on other studies published in our journal.”
And she tried to make the journal seem more international:
Explain why your study is important to readers from many countries with a sentence or two. … Note what country each empirical study you cite was done in and explain how any cited studies done in other countries are relevant in understanding your sample.
She also asked for what appear to be standard requirements for the journal:
Add demographic information about the sample and explain more about how they were recruited. Add a table showing the demographic characteristics of the women as compared to the men in the sample in different time periods. … Add correlations computed separately for women and men as well.
And, the dreaded memo requirement: “Assuming you do wish to submit a revision, I would need a revised manuscript and a detailed list outlining the changes you have made in response to these comments.”
November 9, 2013: Resubmitted to Sex Roles, first revision
February 17, 2014: Revise and resubmit, based on one review (“major revisions”)
The reviewer had trouble with our statistical presentation:
I see that on Table 2, the difference between the women’s and men’s regression effect for year shows both women’s and men’s significant (-.012 and -.022). This suggests that for both female and male respondents the year is significant, but it doesn’t show statistically that men’s decline in opposition is steeper than is women’s. Where is the statistic showing a significant difference in slope? [The table had a superscript b next to the men’s coefficient, with the note, “Gender difference significant at p<.05.” Although we didn’t provide the details, that test came from a separate, “fully-interacted” model in which every variable is allowed to have a separate effect by gender.]
This reviewer – who stuck with this complaint for three rounds – also had trouble with the smallness of the coefficients:
Although the coefficient is twice as large for year among men than among women, it’s a very small percentage. With such a large sample size, almost anything will be significant. I’d like to see an effect size statistic.
She might have been confused because the variable here is “year” – a continuous variable ranging from 0 in 1975 to 37 in 2012, so the coefficient reflects the size of the average one-year change, which makes it look “very small.”
A common problem for authors responding to reviewers is the simultaneous demands for less and more. Sometimes that’s good – a healthy revision process. Here is a funny example of that: “There seems to be a much longer introduction than is needed for the findings, especially since what would be interesting to me is omitted.”
However she grasped the concise nature of the findings, which she somehow took as a weakness:
I would like to see how each of these control variables interacts with the changes over years. I believe that analysis is possible using time series analyses. The reader is left with only a few main conclusions: both men and women indicate less opposition over time to pornography, and that men’s opposition declines more than female’s, and men show less opposition to pornography control overall.
Exactly. Oh well.
May 17, 2014: Resubmitted to Sex Roles, second revision
July 8, 2014: Revise and resubmit, with two reviews
The editor now told us: “We were able to find a second reviewer, this time. We won’t continue to add new reviewers for additional drafts.” (This promise, sadly, did not hold.)
The dependent variable – that three-response question about laws regulating pornography – caused continuing consternation. The editor wrote:
none of us feels that the combining of the three categories of responses for the pornography acceptance variable is appropriate. You either need to omit one of the 3 categories from the analysis, or do something like a discriminant analysis to look at differences in those responding to each of the three categories.
And then this bad signal that the editor and reviewers did not understand the basic structure of the analysis:
Another issue that all of us agree on is that you have failed to provide statistical evidence supporting your assertion of evidence of a linear trend in support over time. Either do a real trend analysis, for women and men separately, or compare the data over several specific years using something like ANOVA by year and gender. This would also allow you to see if these is really the interaction you assert is present.
As you can see in the final paper – which was the case in this revision as well – we did a “real trend analysis, for women and men separately.”
We tried to make this as clear as possible, writing in the paper:
We use logistic regression models to test for differences on this measure between men and women across the 23 administrations of the GSS since 1975. We test time effects with a continuous variable for year, which ranges from 0 in 1975 to 37 in 2012. This coding allows for an intuitive interpretation of the intercept and produces coefficients equal to the predicted change in the odds of opposing pornography associated with a one year change in the independent variable (non-linear specifications did not improve the model fit). … The first model combines men and women, while models 2 and 3 analyze men and women separately, after tests showed differences in the coefficients by gender on six of the variables (marked with superscript ‘b’). … Comparison of Model 2 and Model 3 confirms that the decline in opposition to pornography has been more pronounced for men than for women, as the coefficient for the year variable is almost twice as large.
We thought that Reviewer 1, back from the previous round, was doubling down on misunderstanding what we did, and the editor thought this as well. The reviewer wrote: “I don’t agree that the years need collapsing in the analyses. I believe it is better to see the linear trend. Also, I don’t like to see data left out, in this case data from the individual years.”
In fact, we found out in the next round of reviews we found the she meant this is a disagreement with the editor! (“The authors misread my statement about collapsing the years. I was disagreeing with the editor who suggested collapsing the years. I did not suggest myself that the years should be collapsed. I agree that the years should not be collapsed. It’s not me who misread the paper, it’s the authors who misread my statement.”)
That said, she still did not grasp the analysis:
You state that ‘This coding allows for an intuitive interpretation of the intercept and produces coefficients equal to the predicted change in the odds of opposing pornography associated with a one year change in the indepenjdent variable.’ In the results section, please describe how your data fit an ‘intuitive’ interpretation and how the coefficients that are produced explain the one year change. There is a disconnect for me from this statement and the description of the data.
And she added:
Please carefully describe the statistical analysis and statistical findings that describe the difference between the declines in opposition for women vs. men. Is the beta for gender .78 and for year -.02, and how did you test for the difference in betas of -.01 vs. -.02? Mention the test you used to assess this. This doesn’t seem like much of a difference in slope. That one is twice as large as the other is fairly meaningless when it is .01 vs. .02.
And added again later: “P. 22, agvain when you say a coefficient for the year variables is “amost twice as large,” you are talking about .01 vs .02.”
The editor and Reviewer 1 had a long-running dispute about how to handle all of our control variables. The editor was sticking to the policy that we needed a table showing complete correlations of all variables separately by gender. And a discussion of every variable, with references, justifying its inclusion. The editor said in the first round:
You also need to explain each of the control variables you include in your regressions in the Introduction. Add at least a sentence for each variable explaining why it is important to the issues you are testing.
In response, we included a long section beginning with, “Various social and demographic characteristics are associated with pornography use and attitudes toward pornography, and we account for these characteristics in our empirical analysis below.”
But then Reviewer 1 said of that passage: “Much of the material in “Attitudes Toward Pornography” is not relevant. … Gender and gender differences are what you are studying.”
And in response to our gigantic correlation table of all variables separately by gender, Reviewer wrote: “I … strongly recommend deletion of Table 3. This is not a study of the correlates of attitudes toward pornography, and the intercorrelations of all the control variables are outside the range of your focus.”
Reviewer 2, the new reviewer, had some reasonable questions and suggestions. For example, s/he recommended analyzing the outcome with a multinomial logistic regresstion, which we did but it didn’t matter; and controlling for pornography consumption (“watched an x-rated movie in the past year”), which we did and it didn’t matter (in fact, basically none of the control variables affect the basic story much, but reviewers have a hard time believing this). S/he also had lots of objections to how we characterized various feminist authors and terms in the framing, and really didn’t like “pornographication” as a term, listing as a “major” objection:
the term ‘pornographication’ is problematic and should be removed from the paper in favor of a more academic description of increased access to sexualized media.
September 10, 2014 (approximate): Resubmitted to Sex Roles, third revision
October 11, 2014: Revise and resubmit, with one review
The editor now informed us that one reviewer just recommended rejecting the paper because we didn’t address her concerns, while the other called for “major revisions.”
Given this type of feedback, I would normally reject a paper already in its third revision. However, I would like to offer one more opportunity for you to make the requested changes. If you do resubmit, I may seek new reviewers and essentially begin the review process anew, unless it is clear that my earlier concerns are fully addressed.
Despite three drafts and as many memos, the editor still did not seem to understand that our outcome variable was a single question with three options. She wrote:
One of my basic requests has been that you consider the question about exposure of pornography to those under 18 as a separate dependent variable, or omit this entirely from the study. Conceptually, I feel this is quite different from the other two survey items and cannot be combined with them. This will require major changes in the analysis and rationale for predictions relating to each of these measures.
The reviewer, however, disagreed, voicing approval for our choice. The editor clarified, “If my requests conflict with those of the reviewer, it is my requests you need to follow, not those of the reviewer.”
They had no trouble agreeing, however, that they did not understand the linear time trend we were testing: “As the reviewer explains, we do need a clearer discussion of how the linear trend is being tested.”
Reviewer 1 wrote:
Regarding the analysis of the time trend, although the authors state [in the memo] that the starring of the coefficients on Table 4 demonstrate a significant linear trend, it was not apparent to the editor and reviewers. As one of the main points of the study, it should be made very obvious that there is a significant linear trend via statistics. If this means being more explicit in the text of the results section, it would be important to do. If there’s this much confusion, the statistical analysis needs clarification.
You can look at the table in the final publication for yourself to see if this remains unclear. And then the reviewer added:
As I previously mentioned, though significant, a change of -.02 vs .-.01 is not substantial. Thus, the authors should refrain from concluding one is twice as large as the other.
We decided to take our business elsewhere rather than submit another revision.
November 4, 2014: Submitted to Social Forces
December 29, 2014: Rejected, with two reviews
Reviewer 1 only had concerns about framing, such as, “expand their discussion of the broader cultural changes in sexuality in the culture,” and discuss “changes in gay and lesbian identities and visibility during this period.”
Reviewer 2 simply thought we couldn’t answer the questions we posed with the data we had:
The paper is motivated by a largely assumed cultural ‘pornographication’ process linked to post-feminism. Neither concept seems well-suited to explain public opinion formation or change, and greater specificity about these concepts would likely outstrip the operational capacity of the GSS to model how gender and sexuality attitudes may influence shifts in beliefs about pornography.
There were some other technical issues about specific variables that aren’t very important. Again, this is very reasonable basis for making the ridiculous judgment forced by the system of publishing in the limited pages of a print journal.
January 16, 2015: Submitted to Social Currents
April 9, 2015: Revise and resubmit, based on three reviews
The editors, Toni Calasanti and Vincent Roscigno, wrote:
While stated differently in each case, the overriding sentiment across the reviewers is that the paper needs better framing. … the potential contribution of this study is not realized because the theoretical framework is lacking, limiting your ability to discuss the implications of your findings.
Reviewer 1 wanted the “post-feminism” discussion put back in the front: “It’s not until the conclusion of the manuscript that we learn about a potential contribution to ‘postfeminism’ and current work there.”
Reviewer 1 also attempted to lead us into a common trap. S/he wrote:
The hypotheses don’t necessarily derive from a particular theory in sociology or test a specific argument about gender, public opinion theories, and pornography per se. Rather, the project is descriptive (divergence of male/female support for legal control, rate of change over time, etc.). That isn’t fatal. But a project that makes a more direct connection to advancing current theoretical work in feminism and sexuality studies, or current theorizing about the importance of public opinion and values about pornography, would strengthen the overall contribution of this research.
Making the paper more theoretical is not a bad suggestion, but in this context – since the data are so limited – it’s a sure setup for a future reviewer to complain that you have asked questions you can’t sufficiently answer with your data.
The three reviewers’ other concerns by this point were quite familiar to us. For example, “perhaps a line or two to strengthen the validity of measure could be added based on some of the studies cited.” And a worry about about collapsing the dependent variable into two categories. And the need to acknowledge debates within feminism about the meaning of “pornographication.” We dutifully beefed up, clarified, and strengthened. And wrote a memo.
May 20, 2015: Resubmitted to Social Currents, first revision
July 18, 2015: Accepted
WHAT’S WRONG HERE
Some of the problems apparent in this story are common to sociology, some are more general.
Sociologists care way too much about framing. Most (or all) of the reviewers were sociologists, and most of what they suggested, complained about, or objected was about the way the paper was “framed,” that is, how we establish the importance of the question and interpret the results. Of course framing is important – it’s why you’re asking your question, and why readers should care (see Mark Granovetter’s note on the rejected version of “the Strength of Weak Ties”). But it takes on elevated importance when we’re scrapping over limited slots in academic journals, so that to get published you have to successfully “frame” your paper as more important than some other poor slob’s.
The journal system gets in the way. When journals reject you they report the low percentage of papers they accept. This is supposed to make the rejected authors feel better, but it also shows the gross inefficiency of the system: why should you bounce from journal to journal with low acceptance rates – in our case, asking our colleagues to write 13 reviews – instead of being vetted once by a centralized system with reviewers who work to a common standard? The answer is because that’s the way they did it in the Dark Ages, when physically printing research papers at high cost was the only way of distributing scholarly output.
The system is slow. As a result of these and other systemic problems, we do a terrible job of advancing knowledge. From the time of our first submission to the publication date was 776 days. For 281 of those days it was in our hands, but for the other 495 days it was in the hands of editors, reviewers, and the publisher. Despite responding to 13 reviews, with a lot of tinkering, the basic result did not change from our first submission in August 2013 to our last submission in May 2015. The new knowledge was all created two years before it was published.
The system is arbitrary I don’t want to make Social Currents look bad here, with the implication that they are a lower quality journal because they published something rejected by three journals before. After all, Granovetter’s paper was rejected by American Sociological Review before getting 35,000 citations as an American Journal of Sociology paper. I also like the example of Liana Sayer and Suzanne Bianchi’s paper on economic independence and divorce, which was rejected by the Journal of Marriage and Family, the flagship journal of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), before promptly winning NCFR’s best-paper award after it was published in the Journal of Family Issues. That is, one small group of reviewers deemed it unpublishable in a top journal, and the next declared it the best article of the year. That’s a very wide spread. The arbitrariness of the review system we have now creates cases like this – and who knows how many others. It’s not a systemic problem that Sex Roles has a reviewer that won’t let you say .02 is twice as large as .01. The problem is that could happen anywhere – and cost people their careers – at the same time that bad stuff gets through for arbitrary (or pernicious) reasons. There is too much noise in the current peer-review system to trust it for quality control.
WHAT TO DO
Consider an alternative system, for example, in which the paper – having passed a very low bar of basic quality – had been published after the first set of reviews and then subjected to post-publication review and discussion in the field. Another alternative is publishing it before any formal review process, and allowing post-publication review to do the whole vetting process.
Models exist. Sociology doesn’t have a central working paper system, but there are smaller systems. In my neck of the woods, the California Center for Population Research has a working paper archive, which houses papers from six population centers. Math types have arXiv, which has more than a million papers, with each new one “reviewed by expert moderators to verify that they are topical and refereeable scientific contributions that follow accepted standards of scholarly communication.” They also use a system of member endorsement to cut down on junk submissions. If papers are subsequently published the arXiv version is updated to link to the published version. Sociology should make something like this.
Another step in the right direction is rapid-response, open-access peer-review, with quick up-or-down decisions. In sociology this includes Sociological Science, run by an independent team and supported by author fees (often paid by university libraries or grants); and Socious, run by the American Sociological Association and subsidized by the for-profit publisher Sage in an attempt to pacify open-access advocates. These work more or less like PLOS One, which “accepts scientifically rigorous research, regardless of novelty.”
I’m happy to publish in such outlets, but many of us worry about the career implications for our students who risk having their CVs seen as sketchy by old-fashioned types. We need them to be institutionalized.
In the meantime, those of us in position to conduct peer review can do our part to be better reviewers (see this excellent advice). And we can make explicit decisions about which journals we will review for. The system runs off our discretionary contributions, and we shape it through our actions. That argument is for a separate post.
* We did the research together — and Lucia did most of the work — but blame me for the content of this post.
Or, why your important editor friend should publish my book reviews
I love writing book reviews. In fact, one occupation I really aspire to is “essayist.” How do I get that job? (Wait, I think I figured it out.) Getting a book review assignment is what makes me read a whole book carefully, something I always enjoy but rarely do.
My latest is a review of the excellent Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti, published online by Boston Review. And they found this great example of unixex fashion from the 1969 Sears catalog:
Here’s a taste of the review:
But if fashion has a hierarchy, it also has a social context. In the newly released book Sex and Unisex, Jo Paoletti tries to understand that context as it gave rise to a revolution that almost was—the unisex fashion trend that, in hindsight, appears awkwardly sandwiched between the conservative, gender-conformist 1950s and the Disney princess tidal wave of the 1990s. For a brief time, little boys and girls wore the same cowboy shirts tucked into identical blue jeans, some men and women wore the same ponchos and turtlenecks, and male and female TV space travelers wore identical outfits.
To the Rick Santorums of today’s culture wars, the 1960s were, in Paoletti’s words, “self-indulgent and aimless—just a bunch of free-love hippies waving protest signs and getting high.” But the unisex moment that era begat was actually “emblematic of a very complicated—and unfinished—conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality.” That conversation encompassed freedom and individualism, yes, but also civil rights, sexual orientation, and the emerging science of gender identity. In Paoletti’s telling, the unisex movement generated unprecedented clothing options for women, men, and children as well as a fascinating series of lawsuits in which the wayward enemies of conformity—mostly men—put their feet down against the arbitrary, controlling ways of an establishment that was temporarily back on its heels.
Help an essayist out
Writing book reviews, especially as part of my job, is a real privilege. If a friend of yours is the editor of another important periodical that publishes book reviews (or if you are such an editor), I hope you’ll recommend me. Here’s a list of the ones I’ve done, to help the cause.
Magazines (or their websites)
Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti (Boston Review | link)
A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (Boston Review | link)
The Richer Sex, by Liza Mundy, and The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin (Boston Review | link)
The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, by Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann (The Atlantic | link)
On the blog
The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith | link
What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan Last | link
The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz | link
One point of all this work that I do speaking about sociology to people who aren’t academic sociologists — teaching, blogging, writing a textbook, speaking to the news media — is to help our research have a greater social impact. When a public tragedy occurs, such the Santa Barbara mass murder, there is a chance to widen the conversation and include a sociological perspective.
Sometimes I have the chance to do this even when my own research is not what’s most applicable. That’s great, but I try to be careful (and recommend that journalists speak to others as well). I hope I was right in this case. When Jessica Bennett – a journalist who writes incisively about gender and popular culture – asked me (among others) for a reaction, for what became this column, my first thought was about misogyny. I offered here these comments in an email:
There are two ways that misogyny could play into this case. The first possibility is that he simply hated women, a perspective that is highly accessible in US society. This is illustrated in a lot of pornography — rape or humiliation — and advertising, and articulated by a lot of men who objectify women and seek their conquest or abuse in order to express power or impress other men.
The other possibility is he was schizophrenic or otherwise disassociated from social reality. In that case, misogyny is just the vehicle his disordered brain latched onto. Paranoid people choose from the available entities when building up the fantasy of their persecution. The source of their persecution may not be real, but it is also not random. (The CIA may not be after you, but if it didn’t spy on and assassinated some people, schizophrenics wouldn’t be afraid of them.)
If a paranoid delusional young man believes women are persecuting him, he may be crazy but he is also picking up on the hatred and fear directed toward women that he sees around him.
No matter how you slice it, it is a tragedy that reflects the societal influence of hatred toward women. That is not the whole story of gender relations in our society, but it is definitely present and dangerous.
Then, when Bennett let me know she was interested in focusing the piece on masculinity, I added this (the excerpt she chose is underlined):
One issue is the narrow range of acceptable expressions of masculinity. This is one place where women have more flexibility than men (pants or dress). Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you [a] man? Maybe it’s violence.
The alternative many men/boys learn to deal with, of course, is just not being an ideal man. [as mentioned,] most men don’t kill people. Partly that means learning to be ok with not achieving the ideal. So that’s a coping thing many men need to develop, and failure to develop that could be evidence of a problem.
I’m not an expert on masculinity studies. In the quote on masculinity that Bennett used, I was thinking specifically of the chapter by Barbara Risman and Elizabeth Seale, in which they interviewed middle schoolers about gender, concluding:
We find that both boys and girls are still punished for going beyond gender expectations, but boys much more so than girls. For girls, participation in traditionally masculine activities, such as sports and academic competition, is now quite acceptable and even encouraged by both parents and peers. We fi nd, indeed, that girls are more likely to tease each other for being too girly than for being a sports star. Girls still feel pressure, however, to be thin and to dress in feminine ways, to “do gender” in their self-presentation. Boys are quickly teased for doing any behavior that is traditionally considered feminine. Boys who deviate in any way from traditional masculinity are stigmatized as “gay.” Whereas girls can and do participate in a wide range of activities without being teased, boys consistently avoid activities defined as female to avoid peer harassment.
As I read my comments now, I realize there are a lot of other ways to be “a man,” but what I was trying to get at is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant (in the sense of power) way of being “a man” in a particular cultural context. Of course there other ways to be happy and a man without hanging it on sports, sex, or violence. In reaction to the #YesAllWomen Twitter movement, some people have responded with “real men don’t rape” (which is ironically similar to the old feminist perspective that “rape is violence, not sex”). It attempts to preserve the basic status (men, sex) as good while making the oppressive or violent part deviant, not of the essence. Here is one tweet to that effect, from Michelle Ray:
Feminists seem to have no idea what a man is. Men don’t rape. Sick people who never learned to be men commit violence to solve their issues.
If you say “men don’t rape,” that’s a nice way to try to make it cool to be a man against rape, to resist that image of masculinity. So I like it as an imperative. But as a description of society it’s not true, so there’s that. (A similar move happens in family discourse, sometimes, as when someone says about abuse within families, “real fathers don’t treat their children that way.” Of course, real fathers do good as well as evil — the questions are how and why, and what to do about it.)
Anyway, I would also recommend C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography, Dude, You’re a Fag, in which she discussed sex and masculinity with high school students. Here’s one excerpt:
If a guy wasn’t having sex, “he’s no one. He’s nobody.” Chad explained that some guys tried to look cool by lying about sex, but they “look like a clown, [they get] made fun of.” He assured me, however, that he was not one of those “clowns” force to lie about sex, bragging, “When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the eighth grade.”
And Pascoe concluding:
These practices of compulsive heterosexuality indicate that control over women’s bodies and their sexuality is, sadly, still central to definitions of masculinity, or at least adolescent masculinity. By dominating girls’ bodies boys defended against the fag position, increased their social status, and forged bonds of solidarity with other boys. However, none of this is to say that these boys were unrepentant sexists. Rather, for the most post, these behaviors were social behaviors. Individually boys were much more likely to talk empathetically and respectfully of girls. … Maintaining masculinity, though, demands the interactional repudiation of this sort of empathy in order to stave off the abject fag position.
That insight about interaction is crucial. To go above my pay grade a little (more), I might add that this division between the way one acts in “public” versus “private” is notoriously tricky and frustrating for people with some kinds of mental illness.
That’s just the tip of the masculinity-studies iceberg. Feel free to post other recommended readings in the comments.
In case you haven’t been following the research on this, my understanding is that there is some evidence that women in several cultures are more likely to wear red-related colors when they are trying to look sexually attractive. We know that from the article “Women Use Red in Order to Attract Mates” in the journal Ethos. That’s all well and good, but to make it really interesting, we’d like to know that women are especially likely to do that when they are in the most fertile time in their menstrual cycle. Because, you know:
Unfortunately, that paper from Ethos did not find that red-wearing was associated with menstrual cycles. But, Beall and Tracy were able to find that link. Their conclusion:
Our results thus suggest that red and pink adornment in women is reliably associated with fertility and that female ovulation, long assumed to be hidden, is associated with a salient visual cue.
As Kim Weeden pointed out when I mentioned this on Twitter, Andrew Gelman used that paper as an example of how researchers have many opportunities to slice findings before settling on those that support their hypotheses.
Fortunately, Beall and Tracy set out to replicate their finding. Unfortunately, when they attempted to replicate the results, they were not successful. Fortunately, they realized it was because they were being confounded by the weather. As they have now reported, this is important because in warm weather female humans don’t need to resort to red because they can manage their attractiveness by reducing the amount of clothing they wear (and then, who cares what color it is?). Thus:
If the red-dress effect is driven by a desire to increase one’s sexual appeal, then it should emerge most reliably when peak-fertility women have few alternative options for accomplishing this goal (e.g., wearing minimal clothing). Results from re-analyses of our previously collected data and a new experiment support this account, by demonstrating that the link between fertility and red/pink dress emerges robustly in cold, but not warm, weather.
And here it is. Happy, Gelman?
Confirmatory classroom exercise
Since I am teaching love and romance in my family course this week, I thought we should add something to the conversation. I only did one exercise, and I am reporting the full results here. Nothing hidden, no tricky recodes, no other questions on the survey, no priming of the respondents (it was at the start of the lecture).
I have 80 students in the class, which means 53 were there in time for the exercise, 29 men and 24 women. I gave them this two-part question:
Because red and pink are both associated with fertility (see the baboon), I combined them in the analysis (but it works if you just use red, too). And these were the results:
The statistical test for the difference between date and family event for women is significant at the level of p<.035. This is not research, it’s just a classroom exercise (which means no IRB, no real publication). But if it were research, it would be consistent with the women-wear-reddish-to-attract-mates theory (although without the menstrual cycle question, its contribution would be limited).
Most sociologists might not go for this kind of stuff. Maybe it’s a slippery slope that leads to unattractive conclusions about gender inequality in the “natural” order. My perspective is that I don’t care. Of course this is not really evidence that evolution determines what American (or, in the case of the Ethos paper, Slovak) students wear on dates. But it doesn’t refute the theory, either.
More importantly, I am confident that we could, if desired, through concentrated social engineering, eliminate the practice of women wearing reddish on dates if we thought it was harmful — just as we have (almost) engineered away a lot of harmful behaviors that emerged from the primordial past, such as random murder, cannibalism, and hotmail. After all, they did it in China:
Sorry, wrong picture:
For previous posts in the series, follow the color tag.
I’m sorry this is so long. If you’re in a hurry, some of the funny parts are toward the end.
In an animated video rant against sexual liberation, Mark Regnerus gives the 10-minute version of an essay he published in the journal Society in 2012 (with a Slatecompanion piece) — using professional drawing hands and narrators. Since it has received more than 80,000 views, and some fawning in the conservative press, I wanted to comment a little.
The video asserts that in the market for sex, women sell and men buy.
On average, men initiate sex more than women, they’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women. No one’s saying this is the way it ought to be. It’s just the way it is! Women, on the other hand, are likely to have sex for reasons beyond just simple pleasure. Her motivations for sex often include expressing and receiving love, strengthening commitment, affirming desirability, and relationship security. So in an exchange relationship where men want sex more often than women do, who decides when it will happen? She does, of course. Sex is her resource.
Let me just stop here for a minute. If I grant you that, on average, contemporary American men want sex with women more than the reverse, does the size of this difference matter at all? In a response to Regnerus, Elaine Hatfield and colleagues remind us that difference within the genders are greater than the differences between them (which, in turn, are shrinking over time). If the difference between men’s and women’s attitudes toward sex were observable but tiny, would it still be true that the system is one in which women sell and men buy? Of course not. The difference has to be big enough to drive the whole system. No one can say how big it is, or needs to be, because the crackpots running this theory don’t care. They are just spinning out the why-pay-for-milk-when-the-cow-is-free analogy without regard to the specifics of the model.
Anyway, what is the “price” women charge for sex? It’s “a few drinks and compliments,” or “a month of dates and respectful attention,” or “a lifetime promise to share all of his affections, wealth and earnings with her exclusively.” So, which will it be? To explain why we have too much casual sex and not enough marriage nowadays, Regnerus turns to an inadvertently comical lesson on supply and demand, starting with this figure.
“When supplies are high, prices drop,” the narrator says, “since people won’t pay more for something that’s easy to find. But if it’s hard to find, people will pay a premium.” Cow, milk, etc. The reason this figure is funny (and how it differs from real supply/demand curves) is that it also shows that rising prices lead to lower supply. But whatever – the point is, feminism is bad.
To Regnerus, the falling marriage rate (the only fact offered as evidence for this) means the supply of sex has increased and its price has fallen. The narrator asks, “So how did we get here? How did the market value of sex decline so drastically?” Answer: the Pill, which “profoundly lower[ed] the cost of sex.” From there the video goes on to blame women for abandoning their centuries-old cartel, which restricted the supply of sex, thus propping up the price. The video says:
In the past, it really wasn’t the patriarchy that policed women’s relational interests [because isn’t that what you thought patriarchy was all about?], it was women. But … this unspoken pact to set a high market value of sex has all but vanished. But in a brave new world where sex no longer means babies, and marriage has become optional, the solidarity women once felt toward each other in the mating market has dissolved. Women no longer have each other’s backs. On the contrary, they’re now each other’s competition. And when women compete for men, they tend to do so by appealing to what men want.
So, women have sold each other out. As a result, they’ve lost their leverage and men have an advantage they don’t deserve, given their randy minds. To conclude, the narrator declares:
Today the economics of contemporary sexual relationships clearly favor men and what they want. Even while what they are offering in the exchange has diminished. And it’s all thanks to supply, demand, and the long reach of a remarkable little pill.
I assert that if women were more in charge of how their romantic relationships transpired—more in charge of the ‘pricing’ negotiations around sex—we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts by men, fewer hook-ups, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on (and perhaps even at a slightly earlier age, too). In other words, the ‘price’ of sex would be higher: it would cost men more to access it.
Yes, that does contradict the point earlier about how women always decide when they will have sex, because it’s inherently their resource. But who cares, feminism is bad.
This is all tricky to reconcile with the common lyrical formulation, in which both men and women “give it” to each other (though not in the same song). So Tom Petty fits the theory, trying to lower the price to zero:
It’s alright if you love me / it’s alright if you don’t / I’m not afraid of you running away / honey I’ve got a feeling you won’t
There is no sense in pretending / your eyes give you away / something inside you is feeling like I do / and we’ve said all there is to say
First, what about actual economics? If women sell sex and men buy it, and women set the price by how slutty they act, there is still the issue of the value of what men have to offer — to women. Like Hana Rosin, who bemoans the cardboardness of today’s man — unable to respond to changing times — Regnerus assumes unchanging men. When it comes to sex, that’s presumably because it comes from God, evolution, or (in Regnerus’s Catholic view) God acting through evolution. But even if all they care about is sex, the value of what they have to offer for it — relative to what women have and need — has surely changed a lot. So, as the relative value of the men’s lifetime promise of wealth and earnings falls toward the value of a couple drinks and compliments, it’s only natural that women will be less and less able to distinguish the two.
As Paula England notes in her (disappointingly mild) critique of Regnerus, his theory has a problem explaining why marriage has declined so much more for the less-than-college-educated population. Among those men and women, the male/female ratio has grown markedly as women flee for higher ground. So, with the relative shortage of women, they should be in command — so they could demand marriage.
But if women insist on marrying a man with a job, as I just showed recently, they actually face a shortage of men. In the video’s terms, they’re back in this situation:
But that’s only because women insist on a man with a job. In other words, the value of what men have to offer (relative to what women need) matters. (England argues against this “it’s the economy, stupid” perspective, for reasons I don’t find convincing.) So why doesn’t Regnerus talk about actual economics?
In the Society version of this video Regnerus says he gets this sexual economics theory from Baumeister and Vohs (and the video resource guide links to several of Baumeister’s papers), including the basic story that sex is something women sell and men buy, and the thing about how feminism dissolved female solidarity.
Interestingly, however, Baumeister and his several co-authors are much more keyed in to the economics questions that Regnerus all but ignores. While Regnerus focuses on the Pill, they write in the 2004 paper he relies on that one of the “preconditions of market exchange” in sex is that, “In general, men have resources women want.” It’s not just the Pill that has changed things, in other words, it’s also the end of men: “Once women had been granted wide opportunities for education and wealth, they no longer had to hold sex hostage.”
Regnerus really does the theory a disservice by leaving all this out. In another recent article, Baumeister and Mendoza reiterate:
According to sexual economics theory, when women lack direct or easy access to resources such as political influence, health care, money, education, and jobs, then sex becomes a crucial means by which women can gain access to a good life, and so it is vital to female self-interest to keep the price of sex high.
The real problem now, according to the intellectual godfather of Regnerus’s version of this theory, is gender equality, but Regnerus doesn’t want to say that. Baumesiter and Mendoza write: “when women have direct economic clout, they do not need to use sex to bargain for other resources, and so they can make sex more freely available.” Thus, they show that casual sex is positively associated with a measure of gender equality across 37 countries. I’ve made a figure from their findings. This is the percentage of people in an international online sex survey who say they ever had sex with someone just once (on the y-axis), by the level of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum (on the x-axis):
The logic here is approaching random. Get this: When women were poor, they needed to withhold sex to get money. Now that they have more money — and are less dependent on men — they don’t need to withhold it, so they give it away. Wait, what? If they don’t need to sell it anymore, and we already know they don’t want to “have” it (that is, do it), then why don’t those Scandinavian women just keep it, for f#cks’ sake? (Amanda Marcotte made a similar argument about Baumeister)
It seems likely the differences between Regnerus and Baumeister are of emphasis rather than principle. Believe it or not, Regnerus’s explanation, focusing only on sex and the Pill, would be stronger if he latched on to this crazy economics argument. But I reckon he stays away from that because taking a stand against women’s equality is a political and cultural nonstarter, and Regnerus’s ambition is social influence.
You asked for it
If you’ve read this far, you deserve some insanely sexist quotes. Because Baumeister has no such qualms about offending women. Besides representing what I think Regnerus really thinks, Baumeister and Vohs are also much more entertaining than Regnerus (in this piece, anyway). In their response to Regnerus, they blame women’s sexual permissiveness for just about everything. That’s because, “Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.”
Did you get that? Women giving away sex is literally ruining the culture. If I knew my classics I’m sure I’d know the analogy here. I’m thinking of the early Christian adaptation of the Greek sirens, which sometime before A.D. 700 changed them from magical creatures to vile humans, “prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.” If that seems overdramatic, it’s just because you haven’t read the whole essay.
In the feminist era Baumeister and Vohs describe, rather than just marriage in exchange for sex, women have upped their demands: “Women, meanwhile, want not only marriage but also access to careers and preferential treatment in the workplace.” (I’m not sure how this fits with the idea that women have lowered the “price of sex,” but logic isn’t the point here, hating feminism is.)
Here are some key snippets:
The giant trade thus essentially involved men giving women not only easy access but even preferential treatment in the huge institutions that make up society, which men created. Today most schools, universities, corporations, scientific organizations, governments, and many other institutions have explicit policies to protect and promote women. It is standard practice to hire or promote a woman ahead of an equally qualified man. Most large organizations have policies and watchdogs that safeguard women’s interests and ensure that women gain preferential treatment over men. … Nobody looks out for men, and so the structural changes favoring women and disadvantaging men have accelerated.
All of this is a bit ironic, in historical context. The large institutions have almost all been created by men. … Even today, the women’s movement has been a story of women demanding places and preferential treatment in the organizational and institutional structures that men create, rather than women creating organizations and institutions themselves. … All over the world and throughout history (and prehistory), the contribution of large groups of women to cultural progress has been vanishingly small. …
Indeed, the world of work is a daunting place for a young man today. Feminists quickly point to the continued dominance of men at the top of most organizations, but this is misleading if not outright disingenuous. Men create most organizations and work hard to succeed in them. Indeed, an open-minded scholar can search through history mostly in vain to find large organizations created and run by women that have contributed anything beyond complaining about men and demanding a bigger share of the male pie.
Warning, the excerpts grow more and more offensive from here on…
Why have men acquiesced so much in giving women the upper hand in society’s institutions? It falls to men to create society (because women almost never create large organizations or cultural systems). It seems foolish and self-defeating for men then to meekly surrender advantageous treatment in all these institutions to women. … Because of women’s lesser motivation and ambition, they will likely never equal men in achievement, and their lesser attainment is politically taken as evidence of the need to continue and possibly increase preferential treatment for them.
But this pattern of male behavior makes more sense if we keep in mind that getting sex is a high priority for men, especially young men. Being at a permanent disadvantage in employment and promotion prospects, as a result of affirmative action policies favoring women, is certainly a cost to young men, but perhaps not a highly salient one. What is salient is that sex is quite readily available. As Regnerus reports, even a man with dismal career prospects (e.g., having dropped out of high school) can find a nice assortment of young women to share his bed.
The male who beds multiple women is enjoying life quite a bit, and so he may not notice or mind the fact that his educational and occupational advancement is vaguely hampered by all the laws and policies that push women ahead of him. After all, one key reason he wanted that advancement was to get sex, and he already has that. Climbing the corporate ladder for its own sake may still hold some appeal, but undoubtedly it was more compelling when it was vital for obtaining sex. Success isn’t as important as it once was, when it was a prerequisite for sex.
(Did I mention I’m not making this up? I’m sorry to just keep excerpting, but this stuff just writes itself.)
Unfortunately for society, women taking over the economy has a real downside:
Still, replacing male with female workers may bring some changes, insofar as the two genders approach work differently. Compared to men, women have higher rates of absenteeism, seek social rewards more than financial ones, are less ambitious, work fewer hours overall, are more prone to take extended career interruptions, and identify less with the organizations they work for. They are more risk averse, resulting in fewer entrepreneurs and inventions. … Women are less interested in science and technology fields. They create less wealth.
And finally, “the implications of the recent social changes for marriage could fill a book.” (Really, a whole book?) In that book (which we’re really quite happy to wait for), casual sex is also ruining marriage because it’s increasing the crushing depression that naturally follows from female-dominated marriage:
The female contribution of sex to the marriage is evanescent: As women age, they lose their sexual appeal much faster than men lose their status and resources, and some alarming evidence even indicates that wives rather quickly lose their desire for sex. To sustain a marriage across multiple decades, many husbands must accommodate to the reality of having to contribute work and other resources to a wife whose contribution of sex dwindles sharply in both quantity and quality—and who also may disapprove sharply of him seeking satisfaction in alternative outlets such as prostitution, pornography, and extramarital dalliance.
Yes, in their zeal to describe the sexual disaster of modern marriage, they forgot to even nod to the ideal wife’s housework and child rearing contributions.
We speculate that today’s young men may be exceptionally ill prepared for a lifetime of sexual starvation that is the lot of many modern husbands. The traditional view that a wife should sexually satisfy her husband regardless of her own lack of desire has been eroded if not demolished by feminist ideology that has encouraged wives to expect husbands to wait patiently until the wife actually desires sex, with the result that marriage is a prolonged episode of sexual starvation for the husband. … Today’s young men spend their young adulthood having abundant sex with multiple partners, and that seems to us to be an exceptionally poor preparation for a lifetime of sexual starvation.
Yes, that was a third “sexual starvation” reference in one paragraph. (I am completely above making a joke about this, but The Onion isn’t.)
Regnerus cites this guy Baumeister up and down. If all Muslims have to personally disavow Bin Laden, I think it’s only fair that we expect Regnerus to comment on this.
What about lesbians?
Oh, that. When Regnerus wrote his post in Slate, Belle Waring wrote a nice piece about it, which included this:
Please note also that under the economic model, lesbians can’t exist, since they have nothing of value to exchange for sex, except for…um…sex? And since women only use sex as a means to an end, and exchange it with men; and since further, sex has been explicitly devalued to something cheap, well, hm. I submit that if you propose a model of human sexual behavior, and it positively forbids the existence of a whole class of people who nonetheless actually exist, then maybe there’s a problem with the theory? Just a thought.
I promise I’ll stop now, but Regnerus actually has talked about lesbians recently — though not to explain how they have sex without a buyer. This from a speech just last month at Franciscan University of Steubenville, at which he implied homosexuality emerged partly because of the Pill, too, based on his reading of Anthony Giddens’ Transformation of Intimacy. He said: “Giddens draws an arrow from contraception to sexual malleability to the expansion of homosexuality.”
So, if he thinks lesbians are an unnatural creation of modern sexual plasticity, then I guess it’s not surprising that he also believes (at about 9:10) that lesbians produce asexual children:
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.*
The hatefulness of this is what’s most important (you have to see the smirk when he jokes to the Franciscans that asexuality might be “convenient” for people pursuing celebacy). But for what it’s worth, I also interpret this as further evidence that his data is garbagey. When a substantial number of respondents answer questions at random or incorrectly — as was the case in the Regnerus/Wilcox NFSS data (see p. 333 here) — then highly skewed items will be unreasonably correlated (e.g., if 3 percent fill it out the question at random, and the actual asexual population is 1 percent, then most of the people counted as asexual will be random; and if the same happens for mothers’ sexual history, then the two variables will have a surprisingly large overlap.)
It would be tempting (and more enjoyable) to simply ignore Mark Regnerus forever. His record of scientific manipulation and dishonesty in the service of the movement to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians is well documented, and social scientists of good will won’t trust him again unless he comes clean. I wish that he and the people of good will could just agree never to interact again. But he’s young and ambitious, and it’s likely that he’ll be back. So we should keep an eye on him.
* On listening to this again, it’s hard to tell, but I think he says 15%, not 50%, as I first transcribed it.
Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.
Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:
It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.
Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:
The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.
In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:
The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:
Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.
Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):
Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.
My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.
… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.
For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.
In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.
The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”
But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).
So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.
This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.
There is no one answer to the question, “How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?” But demographer Gary Gates, who works for the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law, has compiled the results from nine surveys that attempt to measure sexual orientation — five of them from the U.S. He estimates that 3.5% of the U.S. population identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while 0.3% are transgender. Here is the breakdown for the different surveys:
He also points out that bisexual identification is generally more common among women than among men. Among women, more than half of the lesbian/bisexual population identifies as bisexual; among men more than half identify as gay.
As is the case with race, we may rely on self-identification when it comes to sexual orientation. But criteria external to individuals’ identities may matter as well. These include the perceptions or actions of others (such as cross-burning or job discrimination), as well as qualities measurable by impersonal means (such as phenotypical traits or genes). In the case of sexual orientation more than race, these externally-measurable qualities include behavior (such as the gender of those one has sex with). The interpretation of these qualities, and their measurement, necessarily are highly contingent on social constructions.
In the case of sexual orientation, the questions are not usually asked, so the answers are not bureaucratically normalized. If the government and other data collectors were to start asking the question regularly, the results would probably settle down, as they have with race. In Michel Foucault’s terms, you might say the population is not disciplined with regard to sexual orientation as well as it is with race. (Of course, the public is unruly when it comes to measuring race as well, especially outside those outside the Black/White dichotomy, as “Asians” and “Hispanics” often offer national-origin identities when asked to describe their race.) Settling down doesn’t mean there would be no more changes, just that variability between surveys would probably decline.
Because of this complexity, it is interesting to compare results when people are asked about their sexual behavior, and their sexual attraction. Here surveys find much higher rates of gayness. As Gates shows, for example, 11% of Americans ages 18-44 report any same-sex sexual attraction, while 8.8% report any same-sex sexual behavior.
Whether demographers, or the public, or anyone else, considers these experiences and feelings to define people as gay/lesbian or bisexual is not resolved. For example, as Gates notes in a much longer law review article that describes the methods behind his report – and the reactions to it – some media simply ignored the self-identified bisexual population, and those with same-sex attraction or behavior, declaring that the gay and lesbian population was less than 2% of Americans. Others concluded that the commonness of bisexuality implies most gays and lesbians in fact have a “choice” about their sexual orientation.
I recommend the law review article for Gates’s in-depth discussion of “the closet” issue with regard to surveys, and the problem of measuring concealed identities — which vary according to social context and sometimes change over the course of people’s lives.
I’m grateful that Gates has pursued these questions, and taken a lot of grief in the process. He concludes:
These are challenging questions with no explicitly correct answers. The good news is that strong evidence suggests that, politically at least, the stakes in this discussion are no longer rooted in an urgent need to prove the very existence of LGBT people. This progress hopefully provides the space to more critically and thoughtfully assess these issues in an environment where a sense of urgency is not paramount. Today, the size of the LGBT community is less important than understanding the daily lives and struggles of this still-stigmatized population and informing crucial policy debates with facts rather than stereotype and anecdote.
As with race, measurement of sexual orientation may be essential to legal and political responses to inequality and discrimination — even as the process helps solidify fixed identity categories we might rather do without.