The Invisible Crisis

By Jeremy Adam Smith | April 21, 2009 | 0 comments

I just returned from the annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, which consisted of a series of briefings and discussions about cutting-edge research into the family. Highlights:

• Clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft started off talking about her work with "gender variant children"—boys and girls who, from a very early age, decide to embrace identities as the opposite gender—and their families. Many parents, Ehrensaft said, struggle to get their boys to be boys and girls to be girls, with especially intense pressure on boys. The problem, she argued, is that there is a clear link between the mental health of the child and support of parents for the identity the child embraces. Ehrensaft tries to help parents form what she calls a "transcendent" family, which doesn't attempt to impose rigid gender roles.

• Sociologist Barbara Risman and colleagues spent a year studying gender identity in a racially diverse Chicago middle school. Findings: Girls felt really free to play sports and didn't feel they had to play dumb to get a boyfriend. This is a big change from the past. However, they focused obsessively on the body—painting nails, dieting, etc.—and were often hyper-sexualized.

• Risman's findings about boys: Boys police each other's masculinity and sexuality ferociously. Part of this involved objectifying girls' bodies, even though they were not interested in actual sex (i.e., these boys were still very much children)—this is a form of play, albeit of a negative kind. So girls could do boy things, but boys couldn't do girl things, according to Risman's study. She used the example of a boy in the school named Marcus, who was not gender variant but was good at gymnastics and decided to be a cheerleader. As a result, he was teased, bullied, and so forth. The middle schoolers, both girls and boys, generally sanctioned the bullying. (Note that Risman's conclusions echo those of another study run by University of Puget Sound sociologist C.J. Pascoe, reported in her 2007 book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.)

• On the other hand, psychologist Braden Berkey reported that he's seeing vastly more confident and mentally healthy lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth. So what, the audience asked, is going on with middle school boys? Ehrensaft proposed a partial answer: Middle school is a very particular developmental stage characterized by extreme rigidity. Gender nonconformity in girls has accrued a fair amount of cultural support, she suggested; boys, it seems, are still on their own and are reacting to ambiguity with inflexibility. Of course, it is not the boys (and girls) reacting this way on their own; they are in part echoing the responses of parents, teachers, and the culture at large.

• According to a new study by Bob Drago, coupled mothers do twice as much childcare and are half as likely to work; at the same time, coupled mothers make almost three times more money than single moms. White women are twice as likely to have access to paid maternity leave than black and Latina women; meanwhile, only one in ten American fathers has access to any paternity leave, paid or unpaid. Drago tried to figure out what would happen if paid paternity leave were offered to men in traditional families, based on survey responses and analysis. Answer: It would make a dramatic difference for moms in terms of work and care balance.

• Black marriages, reported University of Kansas sociologist Shirley Hill, tend to be more stressful and more likely to result in divorce; black couples are also least likely to embrace traditional gender roles. At the same time, however, African Americans are more likely than other groups to say they favor marriage and traditional gender roles. The answer to this paradox, according to Hill, is that black women have had more economic resources than black men (which is not the case in other American families) and are picky and hardheaded about whom they marry—often looking for men who can be providers, when only a minority have historically been able to perform that role. Thus the black historical experience is at odds with black-community ideology, according to Hill; this can contribute to stress, which in turns hurts marriages.

• I ran a panel on "gender convergence"—that is, the phenomenon of men and women growing increasingly similar in terms of how they behave and what they want out of life. The discussion turned controversial when the first panelist, sociologist Reeve Vanneman, suggested that the forty-year trend of gender convergence is now over. He noted a substantial decline in media coverage of feminist activism; a spike in men's earning relative to women; a slight decline in mothers' labor-force participation; and increasingly conservative cultural shift, as documented by surveys. Most of the other panelists, and many audience members, disputed Vanneman's interpretation of the numbers: For decades, the pace of change was staggeringly fast, with more and more women going to work; while it has leveled off during the past ten to fifteen years, the evidence shows that the behavior of men and women continues to converge. Vanneman saw the leveling off as a cessation; most researchers at the conference saw it as a slowing down, and in some areas of male behavior, the pace has actually picked up. University of Oxford researcher Oriel Sullivan, for example, noted increasingly high levels of male caregiving and housecleaning in the U.K. and the U.S.

After the gender convergence panel, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Philip Cowan told me that "everything everybody on the panel said was true." We live in a time when many things are happening simultaneously and many of the trends seem to contradict each other.

Later, psychologist Joshua Coleman suggested that the baton of the gender revolution, carried by women for so many decades, is now passing to men—in other words, men will be changing more rapidly than women. (This is actually one of the arguments of my book The Daddy Shift, though I don't put it in those terms.) The apparent consensus by the end of the conference was that masculinity is in what one speaker called an "invisible crisis," in which men are confused about where to draw the lines of intimacy and respect, as well as of violence. This invisible crisis will likely be the topic of next year's Council on Contemporary Families conference.

For a summary of new and surprising findings that came out of this year's conference, see CCF's new report, "Unconventional Wisdom."

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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