What Good are “Crippled” Children?

I commonly teach an introductory sociology course each semester to approximately 200 students. I run it mostly as a lecture, although I regularly ask them questions—including opinion questions—in part because I want them to participate but also because I’d like to know what and how they think. On the first day of class I typically spend about half an hour talking about the kinds of questions we’ll cover over the course of the semester. Among those questions are ones like these:

  • Who do we trust? Who are your authorities?
  • Why is it so hard to change the way things are?
  • What or who determines what is “normal?”

Students (and I as well) often like to hear others’ answers to these questions. And then to introduce the idea of stratification—to be touched upon later in the semester—I pose this dilemma to them:

If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbageman, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the others, which person should we choose?

I then walk around the classroom asking particular individuals for their response and the logic behind it. Different semesters have produced different clusters of answers to the question, which makes sense. But I pressed this group a bit longer than average. Some didn’t wish to weigh in; others said they ought to “draw straws.” One nobly—in my mind, at least—said simply that it should be a male, which led to a discussion of whether complete egalitarianism is optimal in emergencies or whether “women and children first” ought still hold. (They didn’t seem much into tradition.)

Plenty, however, did offer their opinion. The modal answer is always “crippled child.” The female doctor is never chosen. The other three tend to be selected in roughly comparable numbers. I ask them for their rationale, and it typically consists of this:

  • A crippled child cannot survive on its own.
  • A crippled child isn’t productive.
  • A crippled child’s future isn’t as bright as that of the others.

They often dislike hearing themselves say such things, but nor do they wish to actively deny them. The first “crippled child” response almost always used to generate grumbling among other students. It hasn’t for the last several semesters, if my memory serves me. While I don’t consider that there are obviously right answers to the question, some answers and logics seem more or less concerning to me. (And the simple existence of stratification is understood.)

The value of a university education is, of course, increasingly tied to credentialing, the promise of a good job, a lucrative career, etc. Economic productivity. Indeed, a career path is an assumption made of all students. To hear someone say they’d like to be a stay-at-home mother is now unheard of, even if some—a decreasing minority—will still elect that pathway in the future.

And that reminded me of Wendell Berry, who could use a bit of better press among conservatives than he earned the other day. Generally I much respect his perspective. When once criticized for noting that his wife helped him edit his work, and was not in the paid labor force, he struck back:

…what appears to infuriate them the most is their supposition that she works for nothing. They assume—and this is the orthodox assumption of the industrial economy—that the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.

I worry about my students, about the world they’ve inherited from their parents, the one they are reproducing. Dignity is a foreign word, and personhood nearly as much. A strong egalitarianism will come with a hefty price tag. I fear many won’t be productive enough to afford it.

The Naked Truth about Self-Esteem?

About a week ago a curious story began to make the media rounds. Apparently porn stars’ lives aren’t nearly the mess they are often presumed to be. Instead, the news cycle declared, they display greater self-esteem and deeper “spirituality” than the average woman. These were two of the findings from a study published in the Journal of Sex Research, a fair journal in which yours truly has appeared a few times.

I skimmed the actual article, which is interesting. Despite some misgivings with their comparison sample, the science seems OK, although I couldn’t tell from the published article what “spirituality” actually meant or how it was measured. (Something tells me it’s not a measure of church attendance…).

No, what’s wrong is the interpretation of the results as largely constituting good news, which is what the authors did (to an extent) and the media built upon.

But the results themselves reveal plenty of dysfunction. Here are some quotes from the article itself:

…porn actresses were approximately 3 to 9 times more likely to have tried each of…10 drugs.

…porn actresses have tried many more different types of drugs compared to the matched sample.

On average, porn actresses had more sexual partners in one year than a typical woman has in a lifetime. (My note: these are not work-related partners.)

While there may have been “no difference” statistically between porn stars and the comparison sample on their self-reported frequency of “childhood sexual abuse,” the sad stat here is the frequencies themselves: 36% of the former and 29% of the latter said yes when asked if they’d ever experienced such abuse. It’s a higher overall self-report than the 11% cited among 18-39-year-old women in the population-based New Family Structures Study. (NOTE: they posed the question a bit differently than I did, and question wording matters, as does sampling strategy.) But let me get this straight: about 30-35 percent of these women report being abused sexually as children, and the most important story for public consumption is that there is “no difference” between the two samples?

And as for their greater self-esteem…

It is likely that low levels of embarrassment are experienced among porn actresses, and being able to be completely naked in front of others might be associated with an elevated self-esteem.

Huh. Go figure. Who knew that getting naked in front of a camera is all it takes to generate self-esteem among young women? And I thought sexting photos was a bad idea!

Seriously, though, I didn’t interpret the article as telling us good news about porn stars’ lives. And yet that’s what the headlines proclaimed.

Liberal Women Wish for More Sex. Why?

OK, I’ve been at it again, meaning that I’ve been exploring associations between various measures in the New Family Structures Study (the NFSS). I realize I’ve treated readers to blog entries like this before, including here, here, and here, but I can’t help myself. Such are social science data nerds. I’ve come across another puzzle worth sharing with you.

At the risk of sounding blunt, crass, and insensitive, the NFSS data clearly reveal that—for whatever reason—more politically liberal 18-39-year-old women report wanting more sex than they’ve been having. (No such association appears among men. In keeping with nearly all research on sexuality and gender, men display less variance on most matters sexual.)

Here’s how we know. The NFSS posed this question to respondents:

Are you content with the amount of sex you are having?

Respondents could answer in one of three ways: (1) Yes; (2) No, I’d prefer more; or (3) No, I’d prefer less. Now, before you throw around claims of misogyny, take some comfort in knowing that I don’t think answer #3 is somehow inherently more correct than #2. Good grief. My job here is interpretation.

Here are the simple numbers: 16% of “very conservative” women say they’d prefer more, compared with 29% of conservative women, 31% of moderates, 47% of liberals, and 50% of “very liberal” women.

It’s generally linear, with the most notable bump between moderates and liberals. More politically-liberal women are quite clearly apt to say they’d prefer more.


And, remarkably, it isn’t much affected by how much sex they’ve actually had recently. That is, while greater recent frequency of sex predicts less desire for more sex, it does nothing to diminish the link between political liberalism and wanting more sex. And women of all political stripes report statistically-comparable frequency of sex.

In regression models, the measure of political liberalism remains significantly associated with the odds of wanting more sex even after controlling for the frequency of actual intercourse over the past two weeks, their age, marital status, education level, whether they’ve masturbated recently, their anxiety level, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms, and porn use. Many of these are significant predictors of wanting more sex. And still the political thing matters.

I realize I’m a geek for statistics in this domain, but that is interesting, and begs for interpretation. I’ve said elsewhere—in Chapter 6 of my second book and blogged about here, here, and here—that measures of political conservatism or liberalism are clearly reflecting more than just Republican or Democratic Party affiliation or voting habits. No, they’re about people’s embedded-ness in distinctive worldviews and sets of meanings.

With regard to sex and sexuality, being more liberal means being more likely to value sexual expression as a good-in-itself, not only a means to an end or contingent on the context (such as being in a relationship, or being married). Talk of “sexual health” is also more common among them and typically assumes acts of sexual expression. In this perspective, persons have almost a moral obligation to express their sexuality in actions of their own choosing; pleasure is reached for, and should be. Sexual expression among them is perceived in personal terms at least as much as it is in relational ones (I’m thinking of how people talk about their sex life.) Note, for example, how the Lena Dunham political ad mightily aggravated conservative sentiments about sexuality. Obama twentysomethings generally thought it was clever and cute.

All that may be true, but I’m still not sure it explains why liberal women want more sex, regardless of how much they’re already having.

I floated this to a female friend, an economist, who offered this four-part theory:

1. More liberal women are less likely to be religious. (In the NFSS and other datasets, she’s correct in this).

2. Given that, more liberal women are therefore more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value to aspects of life such as their work, relationships, children, and daily tasks. Some scholars speak of this as “sanctifying daily life.” In other words, liberal women are less apt to conceive of mundane, material life as imbued with or reflecting the sacred.

3. Nevertheless, most people experience sexual expression as–in some significant way–transcendent, or higher-than-other-experiences.

4. More liberal women therefore want to have more sex because they feel the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it’s sensible to desire more of it.

Basically, liberal women substitute sex for religion. (A data-less argument of sorts toward that end was serendipitously made on CNN.com yesterday.)

So I added religious service attendance to the regression model described earlier, predicting wanting more sex, and—wouldn’t you know it—political liberalism finally went silent as a predictor. Barely.

Other theories are welcome…


Why David Petraeus Cheated

Yet again the media is alive with speculation about why men in positions of power cheat on their spouses, often at great risk to their careers—indeed, greater risk than men a generation or two ago when cheating seldom became the scandal it does today. Why is this so, given the fact that we’re further than ever from having clear public norms around acceptable sexual behavior? Indeed, it’s odd that the more marriage becomes de-institutionalized in America, the more publicly problematic extramarital dalliances have become. It would seem to be exactly the opposite of what one would expect.

A colleague and friend asserted that one key reason for the rise in sex scandals is because talking about sex has become easier, and hence more public. For sure. (This blog would be technologically and socially impossible 50 years ago.) When a Kennedy or Eisenhower bent the far-clearer rules around marriage, they did so in an era that did not speak of sexuality publicly without trepidation. Their dalliances weren’t winked at. They were just not thought to be publicly discussable. In this way, it’s a little bit like the problem I noted in a previous blog, about when Joe Paterno came under fire. He was a member of a generation that didn’t like to talk about sex, of any sort. And young adults today—indeed, pretty much anyone under 60—just plain don’t understand that.

But on to Petraeus. While journalists and experts will rack their brain for some new explanation of why men in power take risks that women in power do not, I think it’s a n0-brainer. It points out very old, very stable notions about the sexual exchange itself. Men are the demand side, and women are the supply side. Women could demand sex (and some do), but they’re apt to be remarkably successful when they do. Men can only hope for sex.

David Petraeus didn’t cheat because Ms. Broadwell was so stunningly beautiful that he couldn’t resist her advances. (I don’t frankly know whose idea the affair was.) Certainly this is true of Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s mistress. It’s not about beauty. It’s about sexual availability and men’s excess sexual desire. My favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, one of the few realists writing in a domain—the study of sexual behavior—dominated by idealists, observes:

A man in love may feel sexual desire for a specific, particular woman, but most men also have plenty of free-floating sexual interest in other women, all women, any woman, at least in the broad set of “reasonably attractive” ones (e.g., the top 90% of women in their twenties, etc.).

This is the elephant in the corner that is inexplicably unacknowledged. Most men who stray do so because they like sex. Perhaps “like” is not a powerful enough word to describe it.

Women don’t work the same way. I’m so tired of hearing from people that they do. But it’s just not true. Men are far less discriminating then women.

Baumeister continues:

Before we condemn men as hopeless sinners, however—and I suspect many men regard themselves as such, at least when they reflect on their attempts to come to terms with the inner sexual beast—we might feel a moment of sympathy for their unrewarded successes….He doesn’t get any credit for all the times he stifles his desires, despite all the struggle and sacrifice that they cost him. Daily he wrestles with the beast, and mostly he keeps it controlled….Mostly he succeeds in restraining himself. Out of every thousand times he has to deny himself and stop himself from acting on his feelings, once or twice he slips up, and these can be enough to shame him….(indeed) could ruin him, costing him his career, his marriage, his happiness, even his freedom.

Interesting perspective—one not often noted. Ah, realism. No, male self-control has not changed a great deal over human history. What has grown dramatically is sexual opportunity and what has declined precipitously is social restraint.

At bottom, sex scandals involve men because men want sex more than women do. If the classic sex-for-resources exchange model works—and I hold that it still does, despite the fact that men offer less (and women need fewer) resources than in the past—then women with significant authority and power should rarely find themselves in sex scandals. Why? Because they don’t need the resources. They already have them. The scandals will almost always be about men, because while they’ve got more than enough resources, it’s the sex that remains elusive, just out of reach. Until it’s not.