Masculinity & Violence, and the Violence of Masculinity*

By Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

Mass shootings have become a regular part of our news cycle. Research shows that there are more of them and that they have become more deadly over time. They’re horrifically senseless tragedies, and the aftermath follows what has become a well-worn path. We come together to mourn the loss of life, we collectively grieve for the victims, families, and communities, we get the generic “thoughts and prayers” statement from political leaders, and we all try to make sense of why it happened. We learn a lot about the killers, less about the killed, and the most clicked stories are those that attempt to make an argument about motive.

This month, the most recent mass shooting (as of November 15th, 2017) was committed in Northern California by Kevin Neal. He killed his wife before going on a multi-site shooting spree, killing people seemingly at random. Less than a week prior, Devin Kelley walked into a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas wearing black tactical clothing. He had on a ballistic vest, and armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle he opened fire. He killed 26 people, among them an 18-month old child. And he did it with a gun that he’d used as his Facebook profile image. Just one month prior, in October of 2017, Stephen Paddock blew out the window of his high-rise hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip and opened—fire with a collection of similar weapons—on thousands of people attending a music concert, killing 59 people and injuring over 500 others.

In the meantime, we learned of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults that span generations of women in Hollywood. We learned about the great lengths he went to keep his victims silent and of the collusion necessary to pull this off. The Weinstein scandal fell on the heels of news of the serial sexual assaults committed by Bill Cosby. And as survivors came forward to tell their stories, other high-power men across all manner of political, economic, and cultural life have been identified as serially and criminally abusive. And all of this is happening in the United States, a society who elected as president a man with a long history of sexual harassment and assault.

All of these events transpired when the full story of Tim Piazza’s death during a fraternity hazing ritual at Penn State in February of 2017 was reported. Footage shows Tim’s desperate battle for life, surrounded by a collection of young men—his new “brothers”—who either ignored or further injured Tim while he was dying. Had they simply taken Tim to a hospital, doctors testified, he very well could have lived. A grand jury report recommended over 1,000 separate criminal charges against the 18 fraternity brothers and the social organization itself.

Monstrous men, it appears, are everywhere.

The sheer number of moral crises that men are producing is tough to keep up with. If you care about these issues, you have to continually shift your focus from sexual assault, to fraternity hazing, to mass shootings, and on and on and on. Lately, it feels as if we have to consider a new moral outrage almost daily. And in the tumult, it can appear as though these crimes are unrelated. But they’re not.

Sociologist Lisa Wade (2016) drew a connection between the high profile sexual assault by Brock Turner and Omar Mateen’s mass shooting at Pulse night club, and she came to a similar conclusion. These are disparate events and we’re not suggesting they are the same crime or have had equivalent impacts or consequences. But sociologists identify patterns; it’s what we do. And the pattern here is the same as Wade suggested last year. The people committing these acts exist across our society, but they share something in common—they’re men heavily invested in a really toxic idea: masculinity. “The problem,” as Wade (2016) put it, “is men’s investment in masculinity itself.”

Masculinity, as it is currently constructed, relies on a sense of superiority and enactments of dominance. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe (2017) argues that men continue to abuse power and people (women in particular) because of what she calls the “sustainability of patriarchy.” And as Tristan and C.J. Pascoe (forthcoming) argue, systems of inequality as durable and adaptive as gender inequality are so pernicious precisely because of this quality—this “sustainability.” Men’s collective investment in masculinity, that is, is a social problem.

Men heavily invested in demonstrating masculinity commit the gross majority of violence across our society and around the world. In Wade’s (2017) more recent essay on masculinity in the era of Donald Trump, she suggests that part of how we ended up with a president wreaking havoc across the globe is that “we have been too delicate in our treatment of dangerous ideas.” “The problem,” Wade argues, “is not toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic… It’s simply not compatible with liberty and justice for all.”

Perhaps we gender sociologists should consider being a bit more indelicate. We need to stop trying to redefine what men turn to when they feel the need to “man up.” There’s something deeply male-supremacist about the whole discourse surrounding “real men,” “manning up,” and the like no matter how it’s deployed. There’s a divide among scholars studying masculinity as to whether there are elements worth salvaging or not. How we can help men achieve “healthy masculinities” is the focus of a great deal of social scientific research, social work, and social justice activism. It’s time now to find ways of asking men to “man down.”

Donald Trump, Stephen Paddock, Devin Kelley, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, the fraternity brothers of Tim Piazza, Omar Mateen, Louis C.K., Brock Turner, Mike Oreskes, Dylann Roof, Clarence Thomas, Elliot Rodger, Seung-Hui Cho, Roy Moore… The list goes on and on and on. It’s not that we are failing to identify these men as part the worst humanity has to offer. It’s that we seem to continue to collectively fail to identify them as part of something larger than any of these men individually. Each of these perpetrators is most often framed as a bad individual, rather than identifying them as the worst parts of a toxic system. But masculinity isn’t just a part of this system; it is this system.

Sociologists of gender don’t need reminding that the horrific enactments of violence discussed here are the work of men. Whether masculinity is something we should consider salvageable or bankrupt ought to inform our scholarship and our politics. And on these issues, we’re with Wade. Masculinity is the malignant tissue connecting these seemingly disparate events. It’s time to man down.

*This essay originally appeared in the ASA Sex and Gender Section (November 2017) newsletter.

Visualizing Gendered Change

In the 1800s, admirable men in the U.S. weren’t referred to as “masculine”; they were called “manly.” And the distinction is more important that you might realize. Words are important. While “manly” and “masculine” are used more or less interchangeably today (with the former perhaps sounding a bit more dated than the latter), the history of each is a powerful story of gendered change. The shift from talking about “manliness” to talking about “masculinity” was no accident. It didn’t happen due to vagaries of fashion–it’s not, for example, similar to the move from “brah” or “bruh” in popular teen masculine vernacular (or “brocabulary”).

At the turn of the 20th century, “manliness” and “masculinity” were used to convey different kinds of information about (and confer different types and levels of status to) different categories of people. And by mid-century, masculinity began to eclipse manliness and we’ve been living with masculinity ever since.

C.J. Pascoe and I wrote a bit about this shift in our introduction to the “Historicizing Masculinities” section of Exploring Masculinities, and our discussion draws heavily from Gail Bederman‘s research of this social shift in Manliness and Civilization: The Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. We visualized this shift using a chart from Google Books NGrams and it’s a really powerful illustration of a dramatic linguistic shift (see below).


I reproduced the Google NGram figure C.J. and I use in the text (above) to talk to my class this week about these issues. I think it’s such an interesting illustration of a piece of Bederman’s argument charting uses of “manliness” alongside “masculinity” in English publications over the course of the last two centuries. It shows precisely what Bederman suggested.

Experimenting with NGram figures, I also charted the frequencies of use of each term as relative proportions for lecture. In other words, what proportion of the use of “manliness” and “masculinity” in English publications was associated with “manliness” or “masculinity”? And how has that changed over time? Here, the battle between these two historical ideologies of gender appears even more stark.


The turn of the 20th century was a time of incredible social transformation in the U.S. Industrialization was in full swing. The urban population was growing at an incredible rate. Technological innovations were changing the very nature of “work” and “home.” And it was one of those historical periods during which men (middle-class men in particular) seem to have become unusually obsessed with something to do with manhood. This is a period historians and social scientists sometimes labeled as undergoing a “crisis of masculinity” (though that concept has been theoretically challenged for some time now). Regardless, something was happening with manhood–something related to men and gender felt like it was on the move and shifts like this provoke a lot of anxiety (especially for members of a socially dominant group).

In the 1800s, “manliness” referred to a subset of qualities and characteristics associated with manhood to which not all men had equal access. Qualities like a strong character, the ability to provide, entrepreneurship and business savvy and acumen, along with other qualities like sexual restraint had worked throughout much of the 1800s to comfortably situate middle and upper-class men as “manly” beyond reproach. They didn’t have to necessarily “do” anything particularly special for this status, but it worked as a social and symbolic mark of distinction between themselves and other men–men of lower classes, non-white men, etc.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, these qualities slowly and structurally became less secure, particularly for middle-class men. Social and economic transformations shifted the ease of access to “manliness” for large swaths of middle-class American men. As a noun, “masculinity” was only starting to be used in the 1890s. At the time, compared to “manliness,” “masculinity” was a concept and identity category more devoid of meaning. It was used to suggest that all men were somehow different from women. We started relying on “masculinity” right as feminist and gender rights activists and advocates started calling these very ideas into question. As Bederman writes:

As the adjective “masculine” began to take on these new sorts of connotations, people began to need a noun to mean “masculine things in the aggregate,” a word they hadn’t needed before “masculine” began to carry such powerful freight. It is probably not coincidental, then, that in the mid-nineteenth century, a new English noun was adopted from the French and very slowly made its way into popular usage–“masculinity.”

By the 1930s, “masculinity” had already started acquiring a different meaning in the U.S.  It started to refer to things like aggressiveness, physical force, appetites for particular kinds (and frequencies) of sexual behavior. And Bederman suggests that over the course of the first half of the 20th century in the U.S., masculinity effectively eclipsed manliness. You can see it on the figure; right around 1940, it shifted. It’s a powerfully simple illustration of how gender relations shift as forms of gender inequality are made public, called into question, or challenged by social structural changes (like economic transitions, dramatic political shifts, or victories on the part of social movements and activists).

Challenging historical ideologies of “manliness” were important. These structural shifts put privilege on stark display, and it’s during moments like those when the character of gender inequality and the behavior of gendered shifts are often most apparent. Within that moment was embedded the potential for more egalitarian understandings of gender and moves toward more equal relations between women and men. But that moment of “gender vertigo” (as Raewyn Connell puts it) failed to achieve the potential embedded in such moments.

It’s why examining history and historical shifts closely matters. As Bederman put it:

“At any time in history, many contradictory ideas about manhood are available to explain what men are, how they ought to behave, and what sorts of powers and authorities they may claim, as men. Part of the way gender functions is to hide these contradictions and to camouflage the fact that gender is dynamic and always changing. Instead, gender is constructed as a fact of nature… To study the history of manhood, I would argue, is to unmask this process and study the historical ways different ideologies about manhood develop, change, are combined, amended, contested–and gain the status of “truth.”

Understanding the historical dynamics at play in gendered change is a worthy project for anyone who cares about gender equality. Pretending that masculinity is anything other than a social construction–a historical, ideological project and process–whose effects most often work in ways that justify inequality and injustice is an old issue. And coming up with simple ways of calling these “truths” into question is an important scholarly and political goal.

Kate Millet and the Politicization of Sex and Gender

I just learned that Kate Millet passed away.  She was an absolutely pivotal voice in gender and feminist theory and politics in the “second wave” in the U.S.  She was educated in the humanities, but her influence has gone on to impact an interdisciplinary collection of fields.  Her most influential book was Sexual Politics, a book considered by some to have been a manifesta associated with the second wave of the Women’s Movement.  I remember reading Sexual Politics for the first time and looking up the author online.  The first image I came across Alice Neel’s portrait of Kate that ended up being used on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1970 for their issues on “The Politics of Sex.” That cover story started:

These are the times that try men’s souls, and they are likely to get much worse before they get better. It was not so long ago that the battle of the sexes was fought in gentle, rolling Thurber country. Now the din is in earnest, echoing from the streets where pickets gather, the bars where women once were barred, and even connubial beds, where ideology can intrude at the unconscious drop of a male chauvinist epithet. This week, marking the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, the diffuse, divided, but grimly determined Women’s Liberation movement plans a nationwide protest day against the second sex’s once and present oppression. (here)

In just three short years, we’ll witness the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. And this quote feels as appropriate today as it must have felt in 1970. And that is sad. Kate Millet played a critical role in politicizing sex and gender. Like many influential feminist women in the 60s and 70s, she was both popularly celebrated and vilified. And she remained a complicated figure in Women’s Liberation. She played a critical role in providing a language for studying the ways that everything surrounding sex and gender was political. Everything. And we’re still relying on it today.

At the beginning of her chapter outlining her theory of sexual politics in Sexual Politics, Millet defined “politics” as “power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another” (1969: 23). It’s a simple description. What made her thesis in Sexual Politics so outrageous to so many is that she applied this simple description to gender–to the relationship between women and men. This is what she meant when she said gender is political. She wasn’t trying to create a politics where one didn’t exist; she was shedding light on a world-historical politics, and suggesting we uproot it. These unequal gendered arrangements were tied to the structure of society in a way Millet found intolerable–and it is for these reasons and more that Millet and her work have come to be seen as among the foundations of the second wave of Women’s Liberation. Millet was among those queer voices Friedan labeled “the lavender menace” and part of the collection of queer feminists who reclaimed that label toward different ends.

When I learned Millet had died, I couldn’t help but think of how relevant her work published almost half a century ago is today. We daily rely on Millet’s insights as we discuss the politics of sex and gender today and organize to resist gender inequality in all its various forms. It’s an important piece of our activism and the politics embedded in the ways feminist sociologists of sex and gender study the world around them and, sometimes, endeavor to provide tools for those pushing to change it.

In her postscript in the original edition of Sexual Politics, Millet concluded with a healthy skepticism about what needed to be done to achieve gender justice.  She wrote:

It may be that a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination–and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity. It may be that we shall even be able to retire sex from the harsh realities of politics, but not until we have created a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.

We’re back in the desert today and there’s much work to be done. I’m starting by rereading Sexual Politics and celebrating a revolutionary who gave everything to a movement for social justice.

Trump and the Politics of Fluid Masculinities

by James W. Messerschmidt and Tristan Bridges
Originally posted at Democratic Socialists of America

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protector of all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protector hegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity(see here, here and here) — involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

  1. Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.
  2. Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.
  3. Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).
  4. This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.
  5. So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.
  6. Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics).  And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.

2016 GSS Update on the U.S. LGB Population 2.0

I’ve been following a couple different data sets that track the size of the LGB(T) population in the United States for a few years. There’s a good amount of evidence that all points in the same direction: those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and possibly transgender too are all on the rise. Just how large of an increase is subject to a bit of disagreement, but the larger trend is undeniable. Much of the reporting on this shift treats this as a fact that equally blankets the entirety of the U.S. population (or only deals superficially with the really interesting demographic questions concerning the specific groups within the population that account for this change).

In a previous post, I separated the L’s, G’s and B’s because I suspected that more of this shift was accounted for by bisexuals than is often discussed in any critical way (*the GSS does not presently have a question that allows us to separate anyone identifying as transgender or outside the gender binary). Between 2008 and 2016, the proportion of the population identifying as lesbian or gay went from 1.6% to 2.4%. During the same period, those identifying as bisexual jumped from 1.1% to 3.3%. It’s a big shift and it’s even bigger when you look at how pronounced it is among the groups who primarily account for this change: women, people of color, and young people.

The thing about sexual identities though, is that they’re just like other kinds of meaningful identities in that they intersect with other identities in ways that produce different sorts of meanings depending upon what kinds of configurations of identities they happen to be combined with (like age, race, and gender). For instance, as a sexual identity, bisexual is more common than both lesbian and gay combined. But, bisexuality is gendered. Among women, “bisexual” is a more common sexual identity than is “lesbian”; but among men, “gay” is a more common sexual identity than “bisexual”–though this has shifted a bit over the 8 years GSS has been asking questions about sexual orientation. And so too is bisexuality a racialized identity in that the above gendered trend is more true of white and black men than men of other races.

Consider this: between 2008 and 2016, among young people (18-34 years old), those identifying as lesbian or gay went from 2.7% to 3.0%, while those identifying as “bisexual” increased twofold, from 2.6% to 5.3%.  But, look at how this more general change among young people looks when we break it down by gender.
Picture1Looked at this way, bisexuality as a sexual identity has more than doubled in recent years. Among 18-34 year old women in 2016, the GSS found 8% identifying as bisexual.  You have to be careful with GSS data once you start parsing the data too much as the sample sizes decrease substantially once we start breaking things down by more than gender and age. But, just for fun, I wanted to look into how this trend looked when we examined it among different racial groups (GSS only has codes for white, black, and other).Picture1Here, you can see a couple things.  But one of the big stories I see is that “bisexual” identity appears to be particularly absent among Black men in the U.S. And, among young men identifying as a race other than Black or white, bisexuality is a much more common identity than is gay. It’s also true that the proportions of gay and bisexual men in each group appear to jump around year to year.  The general trend follows the larger pattern – toward more sexual minority identities.  But, it’s less straightforward than that when we actually look at the shift among a few specific racial groups within one gender.  Now, look at this trend among women.Picture1
Here, we clearly see the larger trend that “bisexual” appears to be a more common sexual identity than “lesbian.” But, look at Black women in 2016.  In 2016, just shy of one in five Black women between the ages of 18 and 34 identified as lesbian or bisexual (19%) in the GSS sample! And about two thirds of those women are identifying as bisexual (12.4%) rather than as lesbian (6.6%). Similarly, and mirroring the larger trend that “bisexual” is more common among women while “gay” is more popular among men, “lesbian” is a noticeably absent identity among women identifying as a race other than Black or white just as “gay” is less present among men identifying as a race other than Black or white.

Below is all that information in a single chart.  I felt it was a little less intuitive to read in this form. But this is the combined information from the two graphs preceding this if it’s helpful to see it in one chart.Picture1What these shifts mean is a larger question. But it’s one that will require an intersectional lens to interpret. And this matters because bisexuality is a less-discussed sexual identification–so much so that “bi erasure” is used to address the problem of challenging the legitimacy or even existence of this sexual identity. As a sexual identification in the U.S., however, “bisexual” is actually more common than “gay” and “lesbian” identifications combined.

And yet, whether bisexual identifying people will or do see themselves as part of a distinct sexual minority is more of an open question. All of this makes me feel that we need to consider more carefully whether we should be grouping bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when reporting shifts in the LGB population. Whatever is done, we should care about bisexuality (particularly among women), because this is a sexual identification that is becoming much more common than is sometimes recognized.


If you’re interested in these shifts, I recommend examining more than one single survey.  I also have a series of posts on Gallup’s survey tracking shifts in the U.S. LGBT population since 2012 (see here and here for my most recent posts).

Gender Gap in Name Popularity – 2016 Update

I initially posted on shifts in the gender gap in name popularity a little over a year ago.  In that post, I was interested in charting the proportion of babies born in the U.S. with a top 10 name since 1880.  Popular boys names have, throughout American history, always been more popular than popular girls names – almost twice as popular in 1880.  That popular names are less popular than they used to be is something accounted for by what Stanley Lieberson refers to as the “moderization theory” of name trends.  The idea is that as institutional pressures associated with names decline (like religion or naming practices associated with extended family for instance), we see a proliferation of more diverse names.  Simply put, popular names become a whole lot less popular.

But, it’s not just that popular names used to be more popular than they are today.  In 1880, boys and girls born were both very likely to be given a top 10 name.  But, boys were much more likely than girls to receive one. Indeed, in 1880 there was an 18% point gap between the proportions of girls given a top 10 name (22.98%) and the proportion of boys given a top 10 name (41.26%).

Name Popularity Gender Gap

I’ve been watching the gap since I first graphed it when 2014 were the most recent data available.  The 2016 name data were just recently released and the gap has continued to shrink.  Never since we’ve been measuring it have the top 10 most popular girl names accounted for a larger share of all girls born than the share accounted for among boys by the top 10 boy names.  But the gap is smaller today than it has ever been.  7.63% of boys born in the U.S. in 2016 were given a top 10 boy name and 7.62% of girls born in the U.S. in 2016 were given a top 10 girl name.  The gap has shrunk to 0.01%.  The lines have never crossed yet.  But 2017 might just be the year.

2016 GSS Update on the U.S. LGB Population

The 2016 General Social Survey was just recently publicly released. Lots of stories have already hit the news about Americans’ opinions about all manner of issues related to social inequality as the data were being collecting as the presidential race was getting organized.  As of 2008, the GSS started including a demographic question on sexual identity.  You can answer: “gay, lesbian, homosexual,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual or straight,” or “don’t know.”  Different surveys include this question in different ways, making comparisons across instruments difficult.  But, it is interesting to consider these trends alongside the recently released estimates from Gallup on the LGBT population (see HERE and HERE for summaries of Gallup’s population estimates).

The results that Gallup shared combined lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into a single figure, making it difficult to assess how much of any changes we saw between the two years of data collection (2012-2013 and 2015-2016) were due to shifts in the L’s, G’s, B’s, and/or T’s.  But, my suspicion was that bisexual identifying people accounted for a lot of this shift.  The GSS does not have a question currently that enables people to identify as transgender on the survey.  But, here, I’m examining shifts between those identifying as bisexual compared with those identifying as lesbian or gay by a number of different factors.

The data that Gallup shared showed that the LGBT population increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, from 3.5% to 4.1% of the U.S. population (or an estimated 8.3 to 10.052 million people).  That’s a big change for a short period of time.  And the majority of that change could be accounted for by large increases among young people, women, the college-educated, people of color, and those who are not religious (you can see Gallup’s data graphed HERE if you’re interested).

Data from the General Social Survey, too, found an increase in the LGB population (again, transgender persons are not included here).  The GSS is a much smaller survey than Gallup.  So, it might not be surprising that they produced a smaller number.  Here, however, I’ve charted shifts in those identifying as lesbian and gay alongside those identifying as bisexual.  Bisexual identification increased at a much steeper rate.


Some of the GSS results suggest that many of the trends suggested by the Gallup results are primarily explained by those identifying as “bisexual.”  For instance, Gallup showed a growing gender divide in LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016.  LGBT identification among women grew at a faster rate than among men.  But, looking at GSS data, that seems like it might be explained by bisexual identifying women.  In fact, in 2016, equal proportions of men identified as “gay” as women identifying as “lesbian” on the GSS survey–2.4%.

GSS LGB Gender

Similarly, Gallup showed a growing age gap in LGBT identification with Millennials dramatically above other age cohorts.  GSS data too show that age and LGB identification are related with young people more likely to self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  But, it is young bisexual people who account for the gap between the young and the old.


The findings from GSS on the proportion of the LGB population of different racial and ethnic groups does not conform to Gallup’s finding.  White people are marginally less likely to identify as LGB than are Black people, the real finding from GSS is the small proportion of Other racial and ethnic groups identifying as lesbian or gay.  And while Whites and Other racial and ethnic groups are more likely to identify as bisexual than as lesbian or gay, that relationship between bisexual vs. lesbian or gay identity appear much less relevant among Black Americans in the GSS sample.


Gallup also discovered that education became much less predictive of LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016.  The college+ educated had the smallest proportion of LGBT identifying people in Gallup’s 2012-2013 sample, but education levels converged in their 2015-2016 sample.  The GSS sample shows similar conversion by level of education, but, lesbian and gay identifying individuals with less than a high school education do not appear to follow the larger trend toward increasing numbers.

GSS LGB Education

While Gallup reported income levels and found that LGBT persons are largely concentrated among those earning less than $36,000 annually.  I charted LGB people in the GSS sample against their subjective class identification and discovered roughly similar findings (though, bisexuality among those identifying as upper-class took a nose dive in the 2016 sample).


The Gallup report also reported data on where LGBT people in the U.S. are living, both at the state and region level.  And Gallup discovered, not particularly surprisingly, that smaller proportions of LGBT identifying people are found in regions known for being more politically conservative.  GSS region data cover larger areas, but also discovered a similar trend with larger proportions of LGB persons in the west and northeast U.S.  Though, the smaller proportions of LGB people in the south appears to be largely due to a lack of lesbian and gay identifying persons, as bisexual identifying people in the south are in much greater supply.

GSS LGB Region

Finally, I charted LGB identified persons in the GSS sample by political party.  The findings are not all that surprising. Democrats and independents are much more likely to identify as LGB than are Republicans.  And bisexual identifying people outnumber lesbian and gay identifying individuals in each political identification.  But, that trend appears exaggerated among Republicans.


Why should we care?  Bisexuality is a less-discussed sexual identification. But, as a sexual identification, it remains more prevalent than gay and lesbian identifications combined in the U.S.  Whether bisexual identifying people see themselves as part of a distinct sexual minority or grouping is an interesting question.  Thus, we may not know what precisely the political utility of this growing population is in terms of organizing on behalf of the rights of sexual minorities.  For instance, whether it makes sense to group bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when we report on demographic shifts in the LGB population is something that deserves more discussion and justification.

We should care about bisexuality, though, because that is a sexual identity that is seriously on the move.