Monday, November 14, 2005

Raising Boys Without Men (Part One)

In Raising Boys Without Men, Peggy Drexler praises a group of “maverick moms” – lesbian couples, single mothers by choice, and a variety of single mothers not by choice – for raising the next generation of “exceptional men.” The core of the book is Drexler’s study of 16 boys raised by lesbian couples in San Francisco in the 1990s. She then supplemented this dissertation work with interviews with another 60 single mothers, half who had chosen to raise sons alone, half who had not. The lesbian couples, who make up the bulk of the analysis and examples in the book, are white, educated, white-collar, older women in stable relationships.

Drexler, a long-married mother, approaches the issue with some rather old-fashioned questions. Will boys raised by women only be sissies? Will boys raised by lesbians be gay? Sociology in the fifties and early sixties was concerned that over-mothered boys would not be manly enough. That question was largely laid to rest in the decade or so following. Likewise, research from the seventies and eighties found that children of homosexual parents were no more likely than average to be homosexual themselves, though they were more likely to be liberal in their attitudes toward sexual orientation.

Drexler did find that these boys were normal boys in most respects. They were typical boys in their interests and their play. I was pleased and a little surprised to find that Drexler expected this, as she agrees that much of the gendered activity of children is hardwired, and not simply the result of social convention and socialization.

Indeed, Drexler’s stronger claim is that the sons of lesbian couples are more sensitive to emotions and social relations than average boys are. Far from being morally retarded by growing up in a female-run household, Drexler seems to be saying that this small group of boys is morally superior to the average lad. She also seems to be making the same claim for the sons of the single mothers she studied, though it is hard for me to be certain about this as there are no real quantities reported here.

Drexler sets out to answer a too-easy question: Is it possible for lesbian couples and single women to raise good boys and men? It is practically a sociological truism that it is possible for good individuals to arise from any social circumstance, no matter how risky. The more difficult sociological question is, are lesbian couples and single mothers as likely to produce good boys and men as stable heterosexual couples are? Drexler’s sample is much too small, and much too select, to answer that question. Moreover, other research makes me think that she is mixing apples and oranges. Stable, two-parent couples generally produce better outcomes for kids than single parents do, regardless of any other factors. Calling lesbians couples, single-moms-by-choice, and women who become single mothers by divorce, widowhood, or inadvertent never marrying all “maverick moms” obscures very large differences among those groups.

Peggy Drexler did, I think, demonstrate her main point – sons of lesbian couples grow up to be regular guys. There are other questions, though, that her study raises, but does not fully answer.


Anonymous said...

This is a very difficult topic to write on because entering it one intends to uncover a new world and usually finds answers to be exactally as one might expect (the simple has very little difference to the norm). I find when I worte a paper on Lesbian couples that I had very little to say that would be interesting to hear. Because homosexuals are a stigmatized group, and that we know very little about the biological causes of homosexuallity (if the causes are biological) we asume that what we are looking for will be new and different from the norm. Sociologist quickly learn this is not so.

Anonymous said...

As a practicing non-sociologist, I am more interested in how such researchers define a 'good' man. In this case, (or from your account of it) Ms. Drexler bases part of her definition of goodness on the acceptance of polymorphous sexual/marital arrangements. Would a man who chooses a life of solitary celibate contemplation (say, a Trappist monk) be 'good'? This life is certainly not 'normal' by American standards.

Anonymous said...

There is another interesting point embedded here that I will borrow from Judith Harris’ book "The Nuture Assumption" which postulates that the influence of peer groups matters more than individual parenting in determining a child’s personality and character later on in life. Perhaps boys raised solely by females are also placed around different peer groups than boys raised by a heterosexual couple. In some cases, maybe a single mother would make effort to expose her son to male influences, consciously or not, to provide him with a more gender-balanced social experience. Or in other cases, maybe the sons of lesbian couples purposefully seek out different, more male-centered peer groups in school. If peer groups play such a large influence on how children turn out, then it would be interesting to know if children of female-only parenting make different selections than children of heterosexual couples when it comes to choosing their friends and social surroundings outside the home.

Gruntled said...

Drexler does not tell us much about what she means by "the next generation of exceptional men." She notes that she used William Damon's "Social-Cognitive and Moral Judgment Interview," but gives us no details of what that instrument asks or shows. I think you are right, Ken, that "accepting all family arrangements" is probably part of the instrument. Nor is there anything like a control group.

Mostly, though, I think Peggy Drexler is a nice mom who had a great time hanging around with these little boys. That is the basis of her estimate that they will become good men.

Doug, I think (as I wrote about in part two), the key fact about the lesbian couples is that they are stable, mature, economically comfortable couples who love their son and try to provide everything he needs. I think most sons of such couples, composed in any way nature makes possible, would be nice boys.

S. Kimbro, I have wrestled with The Nurture Assumption. My difficulty is not really relevant to this case, but to the effects of birth order, which Harris disputes. Since these boys are mostly only children, we don't see much birth order effect. In this case, I think the mothers are more attentive than most parents to their kid's peer groups, because they are attentive, well-heeled urban moms in San Francisco. Moreover, Drexler has only seen these boys as boys. The teen years is when the peer group comes into its own.