Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Post-Feminist Generation Takes the "Gender Gap" Facts Well

I have been teaching Warren Farrell's Why Men Earn More this week. He debunks the myth that women earn less than men because of discrimination. He concludes, in fact, that "while men still earn more for different work, women now earn more for the same work." The book is written as a self-help book for women. He shows 25 things that lead to higher pay that men are more likely to do, that women could do. He also notes the main reason for the gender gap in pay is that women are more likely to choose family and a more balanced life than working for more pay, whereas men are more likely to support their families by working for that higher pay.

My students, to their great credit, took this study calmly, assessing his empirical support. I mentioned that when and where I went to college -- I am Swarthmore '82 -- there would have been protests for even raising the idea that the gender pay gap has more to do with women's choices than men's oppressiveness. They were puzzled by the idea of protests against ideas, and one bravely asked why anyone would do that.

It is somewhat like the generational differences in reading the meaning of the presidential election. The network we were watching had the Baby Boomer commentators talk at length about the racial significance of Obama's victory. They then asked one of the 30-something experts, who said, somewhat diffidently, that to people of his generation, Senator Obama was primarily a leader, to be measured against other leaders, rather than a symbol in a giant racial drama.

The low-drama, fact-based reaction of my post-feminist students, women and men, to the realities of sex and gender differences is a heartening measure of progress.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Puzzle in Racial Intermarriage

Racial intermarriage is rising. The more educated people are the more likely they are to marry across racial lines. Blacks and White are the least likely to marry out of their group, but the numbers of those who do grow year by year. Hispanics (treated as the equivalent of a racial group) and Asian Americans are much more likely to marry out. Whites overwhelmingly marry whites (well above 90%), in part because there are so many more whites than all other groups combined that the great majority of potential partners for white men and women are also white. African Americans are also overwhelmingly (90%+) likely to marry within the group. Hispanics and Asian Americans, by contrast, show much more variation in intermarriage by education.

Moreover, women usually marry men who are more educated than they are. Intermarried couples involving a white partner (the most-studied kind of pairing) usually involves a white woman and a non-white man. In those couples, she typically marries a man more educated than she is.

A student recently brought to class an interesting study from a decade ago by Zhenchao Qian (in Demography, May 1997). His focus was on the overall pattern of racial intermarriage that I describe above, and how that changed from 1980 to 1990 (it got more so). I was struck, though, by this interesting anomaly. For Hispanics, intermarriage goes up significantly as education increases (following the usual pattern). For Asian Americans, though, intermarriage goes down as education increases. This pattern holds for men and women, though to different degrees.

Thus, for Hispanics the intermarriage rates in 1990 were:
Men, less than high school: 24%; college-plus: 36%
Women, less than high school: 22%; college-plus: 38%

For Asian Americans, though, the opposite pattern holds.
Men, less than high school: 100% (very small group; h.s. grads = 79%); college-plus: 48%
Women, less than high school: 86%; college-plus: 67%

Zhenchao Qian does not analyze this anomaly much. And we should not miss the important fact that most Asian American women at all educational levels marry out, as do a majority of Asian American men at the college level and below.

I think what is going on here is that most highly educated people are in a minority in their racial group. They have a more limited pool of similar mates than others in their race do, so are somewhat more likely to look outside the group. Among Asian Americans, though, being highly educated is the norm. Most of the other Asian Americans that highly educated Asian Americans meet are also likely to be highly educated. Sharing both characteristics makes marriage more likely, as well as easier, on the whole.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

She Wants to Know Who Her Donor Father Is. No.

A women in British Columbia is suing under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that she has a right to know who her sperm-donor father is. She claims she is entitled to valuable health information, since all she has been told is that her father was a healthy medical student with type A blood. I can see that other physical health information, such as a family history of heart attack, cancer, or genetic disease, should also be passed on to her, if it had been collected in the first place.

The BC woman is also claiming that she suffers from psychological distress from not knowing who her father is. I agree that this is a real problem. Elizabeth Marquardt is studying this very subject, and I look forward to the publication of her research.

Nonetheless, when the donation was made and accepted, the rule was that that was the end of it. You can debate whether that should be the rule in the future, or whether sperm donor or mother should have accepted those terms. But they did. So to this questing woman I say "No." You can try to change the rules for other people in the future. But there is a larger principle of being able to trust the rule of law that trumps even your psychological distress.

In sperm-donor court, I would be a hanging judge.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Middle-borns Follow Peers More

A student recently brought up an interesting Human Nature article by Catherine Salmon comparing middle-born children with firsts and lasts. She found that middle-born college students were less oriented toward family, and more oriented toward peers.

This small study suggests a partial solution to a puzzle in birth-order studies. I follow Frank Sulloway's argument that birth order has a big effect. He argues that siblings are in a Darwinian competition for parental attention. First-borns get first choice, and they usually choose to be parent-oriented. The middles get next choice, which might be to pick up a secondary parental interest, or another niche not occupied by the first. Last-borns are "born to rebel" because by their turn all the good parentlike niches have been taken; they are open to experience and are most likely to try new things.

I have to take seriously the challenge that Judith Harris raises in The Nurture Assumption that birth order does not have a big effect because kids are more peer-oriented than parent-oriented anyway.

Both Sulloway and Harris have empirical support for their positions, especially Sulloway's massive historical studies. The way I had reconciled their contradictory findings is to say that parents have a strong direct effect on children when they are little, which varies by birth order. Peers have a stronger influence during adolescence. Parents get the last word, though, because they have an indirect influence on which peers their children hang out with -- an effect that varies by birth order.

Salmon's finding adds another piece to the puzzle. If middle-borns show a stronger peer orientation, this would mitigate the parent effects that Sulloway found, and bolster the peer effects that Harris found -- for some kids.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Red Sex, Blue Sex, Middle Sex

The New Yorker has an excellent article by Margaret Talbot on "Red Sex, Blue Sex." She starts with the puzzling fact that evangelical teenagers talk the best game about saving sex for marriage, but actually have premarital sex and premarital babies at higher rates than kids in other groups do.

Part of this problem is that many people talk the talk of evangelicalism in general, but don't walk the walk. Evangelical teens who are the most religious and the most embedded in strong church families and strong religious communities really do have lower teen sex rates.

In many communities, though, especially in the small-town South, born-again talk is just conventional. Kids with conventional premarital sex lives -- that is, they have some premarital sex -- will also talk the conventional anti-premarital sex talk, especially to grownups. This doesn't prove that evangelicals are especially hypocritical, but rather that most people are conventional. It is like people in "tolerant" communities actually being very intolerant of people unlike them (such as evangelicals). Most people are conventional. Most communities have some conventions that conflict with one another. Therefore there will necessarily be a group of inadvertent hypocrites who follow one convention at one point, and another convention at another.

The "blue sex" group is also interesting. Blue states have lower teen pregnancy and divorce rates than red states. The key seems to be the later average age of marriage in blue states. This reflects the fact that people in blue states have, on average, more education, which delays marriage. Later marriage doesn't delay sex much, but it does delay marriage. And some people who delay marriage arrange whatever sex they have to produce fewer non-marital babies - enough to significantly improve statewide averages. The risk of later marriage, though, is infertility or, worse, unhappy never-married life.

The most interesting group to me were the kids who did successfully avoid teen pregnancy and too-early marriage, without utterly avoiding or condemning sex. Mark Regnerus, the sociologist whose work on religion and teen life is the heart of Talbot's article, found that the most successful middle way was practiced by teenagers who had big plans for their lives that they actually followed. Those who had high ambitious and had mastered the basic bourgeois skill of deferring gratification were the most likely to avoid teen pregnancy -- and avoid addictions and reckless accidents. They lived carefully because they had bigger things they wanted to do with their lives.

Going beyond what Talbot and Regnerus show, I think I see in these plan-ahead kids a more proportionate sense of the importance of sex. Some kinds of religious conservatives treat sex as bad. This position is not nearly as common as it used to be -- it seems to exist more in liberal fears about "fire and brimstone" preaching than in the actual sexual attitudes of evangelical Christians. More common, though, is to find religious arguments for marital sex as a unique and transcendentally wonderful form of intimacy. You should save sex for your spouse because no one else deserves something so wonderful. This seems to me to elevate sex beyond what it can really deliver. On the liberal side, there are still some sensualists who treat sexual passion as the door to Deep Truth, but they are about as common as fire-and-brimstone preachers. More common are liberals, secular and otherwise, who treat sex as a fun game - so why not play it with whoever is good at it? This, too, seems to me an erroneous estimation, too shallow rather than too deep.

The middle sex view is neither too transcendent nor too flippant. The middle group that Regnerus points to see sex as a good thing that is best done in marriage, but is not bad in relationships that might lead to marriage.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Our study group read Lolita. Last night I saw the old film, with James Mason as the pedophile Humbert Humbert, and this afternoon the group saw the newer film, with Jeremy Irons as Prof. Humbert.

The book never portrays Humbert as anything less than pathetic, and doesn't hold back from showing him to be a monster. It is not a sympathetic portrayal. We debated why Nabokov wrote the book. The best sense I can make of it is that he saw the project of making a pedophile intelligible as a great challenge to his skill as a writer. It is magnificently written. The book is also full of the kinds of puzzles that English majors enjoy.

Still, the moral trumps the literary for me. Nabokov said he was not trying to prove a moral, but I will look for one, anyway. Humbert has what I gather is the usual pedophile's dream of finding a child who is a willing participant in his sexual fantasies. Humbert finds that dream child. Yet he is not fulfilled, or happy, or satisfied. His life is not made meaningful. In fact, his consuming lust seems more ridiculous and humiliating to him because it is regularly satisfied, and yet still does not fill the void in him.

I was surprised at my reactions to the films. I had not seen either before, but had heard that the James Mason/Stanley Kubrick version was better. For one thing, Nabokov himself collaborated on the script. Yet I thought the show was stolen by Peter Sellers as the mysterious Clare Quilty, who occupies a larger part of the story than he should. And the decision to cast a Lolita who looked 16 - not 14, as she was supposed to be in the film, nor 12, as she was in the book -- undermined some of the necessary loathesomeness from the outset. The new version, directed by Adrian Lynn, had much more of the book in it, and was visually much richer. Jeremy Irons was about perfect as Humbert Humbert, and Quilty had a more proportionate role.

Both girls cast as Lolita have had a rough life afterwards. Sue Lyons turned into a famous mess, and has retired, hermitlike, with her fifth husband. Dominque Swain, who was 16 when she made the movie, was already a drug addict and alcoholic by 21. This story is not uncommon for child stars, and neither blames "Lolita" directly. Still, Natalie Portman says she is glad she turned down the role when it was offered to her.

The moral creepiness of Lolita endures.