The Battle of the Campus Rape Statistics

Sexual Assault on campusA new report issued by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics provides wildly different estimates of sexual assault than the Obama administration’s frequently cited 1-in-5 statistic. That number, which was calculated in a 2007 Justice Department study on sexual assault, has been offered as justification for a recent intense focus on addressing campus sexual assault, largely under the terms of federal Title IX legislation.

How do campus rape statistics from the surveys compare?

Justice Department Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA): 20% of female students 

Justice Department National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS): 0.6% of female students

No, that is not a typo! The same government department has produced one estimate 33 times higher than a different estimate. Naturally, partisan opinionators on both sides of the issue have been quick to defend whichever stat fits their narrative best. Some tout the “new,” low estimate as proof that campus rape is a myth while others stand by the original figure and insist campus rape is an epidemic.

Who’s right in the Justice Department?

I was so baffled by this discrepancy that I waded into the weeds to compare the methodology and findings for each report. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that this is very much an “apples and oranges” comparison. In the interest of increasing understanding of what is really happening among college students, I offer an objective analysis.

The objectives of the surveys are distinctly at odds.

The objectives of each of the reports are very different. In anticipation of this, each addresses the other, saying that the CSA addresses sexual assault on college campuses from a public health perspective, while the NCVS uses a criminal justice perspective, with the primary aim of comparing students and non-students in the general population, rather than establishing precise estimates of sexual assault and rape.

The NCVS provides a more detailed explanation:

“The NCVS is an omnibus survey designed to collect information on experiences with a broad range of crimes. It is likewise presented to respondents as a survey about criminal victimization.

…The NCVS collects information on nonfatal personal crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, and personal larceny) and household property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and other theft).

Because victims of rape or sexual assault may not consider their victimization a crime, this context could discourage or suppress recall and reporting of those incidents. Additionally, because the NCVS covers a wide range of criminal victimization, the number of screening questions related to rape and sexual assault are limited.

Methodological differences that lead to higher estimates of rape and sexual assault in the CSA should not affect the NCVS comparisons between groups.”

In contrast, the CSA study focused exclusively on sexual assault in depth:

“The CSA Study was undertaken specifically to document the prevalence of distinct types of sexual assault among university women (with “types” defined by how the assault was achieved, such as the use of physical force or incapacitation of the victim due to drugs or alcohol), as well as the context, consequences, and reporting of distinct types of sexual assault among a large sample of undergraduate women from two large universities.

In the CSA Study, sexual assault includes a wide range of victimizations, including rape and other types of unwanted sexual contact (e.g., sexual battery).”

The Definition of Sexual Assault differs in the two surveys:

The CSA definition of sexual assault:

  • forced touching of a sexual nature (includes forcible kissing, fondling, and grabbing)
  • oral sex
  • sexual intercourse
  • anal sex
  • sexual penetration with a finger or object

The NCVS definition of sexual assault:

Rape: Penetration with force or threat of force against someone’s will. Includes vaginal, oral or anal penetration.

Sexual Assault: Attacks or attempted attacks with unwanted sexual contact.

  • Includes forcible fondling and grabbing, but not forcible kissing.

Only the CSA addresses incapacitation.

Both surveys include “unwanted sexual contact due to physical force.” Only the CSA measures “unable to provide consent due to incapacitation.”

It should be noted that this includes not just voluntary drinking, but also the deliberate administration of alcohol or drugs to render the other party incapacitated for the purpose of having sex, e.g. roofies, Everclear punch. This behavior is not captured in the NCVS.

The surveys word the questions very differently.


The NCVS specifies that it is gathering crime data and asks two questions re rape and sexual assault as part of the larger interview:

1. Other than any incidents already mentioned, has anyone attacked or threatened you in any of these ways: any rape, attempted rape, or other type of sexual attack?

2. Incidents involving forced or unwanted sexual acts are often difficult to talk about. (Other than any incidents already mentioned), have you been forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity?

Note that no specific definitions of sexual assault or rape are offered – it is left completely up to the respondent.

If the answer is affirmative, then the NCVS asks for the following details:

  • Physical injuries sustained
  • Presence of a weapon
  • Offender characteristics
  • Reporting to police


The CSA identifies as a survey about public health and “uses behaviorally specific questions to ascertain whether the respondent experienced rape or sexual assault. It asks about an exhaustive list of explicit types of unwanted sexual contact a victim may have experienced, such as being made to perform or receive anal or oral sex.”

CSA Initial Questions:

1. Has anyone had sexual contact with you by using physical force or threatening to physically harm you?

2. Has anyone attempted but not succeeded in having sexual contact with you by using or threatening to use physical force against you?

 3. Has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep? This question asks about incidents that you are certain happened.

4. Have you suspected that someone has had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out,
drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep? This question asks about events that you think (but are not certain) happened.

For example, a woman whose boyfriend has forced her to perform anal sex may or may not classify that activity as rape or assault on the NCVS survey. In contrast, in the CSA survey she would respond “yes” to that specific question, and it would be included in the tally for sexual assault.

In short, the NCVS allows the victim to dictate whether a crime has been committed, whereas the CSA makes that judgment call. We can see a very similar dynamic in the work of David Lisak, who has extensively studied sexual assault from the male’s perspective. He found that men will not describe themselves as rapists, but willingly admit to performing behaviors that clearly constitute rape:

Lisak avoided the use of terms such as “rape,” “assault,” and “abuse,” instead describing in detail the behavior in question, without applying labels that the perpetrators might not identify with.

Although the situations described are legally rape, Lisak found the men were not reluctant to talk about them, seeing them as sexual conquests to brag about, and did not think of themselves as rapists; according to Lisak, such men are narcissistic and “like nothing better” than to talk about their “sexual exploits.”

Here are the questions Lisak asked:

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on drugs or alcohol) to resist your sexual advances, (e.g. removing their clothes)?”

Similarly, in the CSA we see that many of the women whose experiences clearly constituted sexual assault or rape did not perceive it that way. This is evident in the responses women gave for not reporting their experiences:

Unwanted sexual activity while incapacitated Unwanted sexual activity via physical force
Fear of reprisal 55% 18%
Not serious enough to report 67% 56%
Did not have proof 79% 26%
Unclear crime was committed 35% 35%
Did not think police would take seriously 58% 22%
Didn’t think anything could be done to assailant 40% 23%
Didn’t want anyone to know about substance use 53% 8%
Didn’t want anyone to find out 29% 42%
Felt responsible for being attacked 50% n/a

However, in the NCVS many victims who clearly identified as crime victims also did not report their attacks:

Sexual assault or rape
“It’s a personal matter” 26%
Fear of reprisal 20%
“It’s not important enough” 12%






This suggests that women and men both need better education in the area of sexual assault, so that both fully understand what behaviors constitute a crime.

It is also clear that women are extremely reluctant to take their accusations – and stories – public, for many reasons. 

The methodologies varied widely in other ways.


  • Cross-section data collection of 6,800 undergraduates (F=5,466, M=1,375)
  • Two large public universities (one in the South, one in the Midwest).
  • Anonymous web-based survey of 15-20 minutes duration.

The CSA had a low 42% response rate, which they address here:

“The overall response rates for survey completion for the undergraduate women sampled at the two universities were 42.2% and 42.8%, respectively. It is logical to surmise that students who did not participate in a survey about sexual assault may differ from those who did participate.

However, the reasons for nonresponse could affect prevalence estimates in opposing ways. Some nonrespondents (nonvictims) may have chosen not to participate because they felt that they had no relevant experience, whereas other respondents (victims) may have chosen not to participate because they anticipated that taking the survey might be upsetting to them…Other modes of data collection would not have given respondents the same degree of anonymity and privacy…which are associated with more accurate reporting of sensitive behaviors.

…To reduce nonresponse bias and increase sample representativeness, weights adjusting for nonresponse were developed using a Generalized Exponential Model. Cohen’s effect size was used as a measure of the magnitude of the bias, and we added weights for university, gender, year of study, and race/ethnicity, which reduced bias to negligible levels.”


  • Nationally representative sample of households, sample size not provided.
  • Includes both students and non-students. Students included those enrolled in colleges, vocational schools and trade schools.
  • 7 interviews per person over 4 year period.
    • First is in-person and 6 follow-ups are conducted by phone every six months.

The overall response rate was 74%. The NCVS acknowledges the difficulty of non-anonymous, in-person reporting:

“The NCVS may be more subject to interviewer effects than the CSA.

…Victims may not be willing to reveal or share their experiences with an interviewer. The level and type of sexual violence reported by victims is sensitive to how items are worded, which definitions are used, the data collection mode, and a variety of other factors related to the interview process.”


Each of the surveys has its strengths and weaknesses.

1. The CSA was designed to better understand sexual assault on campus and recommend policy initiatives for combating it.

It takes the lack of education around sexual assault into account by defining assaultive behaviors.

The NCVS report splits off two questions from a much larger survey about various types of crime, and does not provide legal information.

2. The CSA was not nationally representative.

It may be that different types of colleges or schools in different areas could have different rates of assault.

3. The NCVS required the reporting of highly sensitive and personal information in a face-to-face interview, and continued over a period of 4 years.

Given the reasons women do not report sexual assaults, it seems likely this would have suppressed reporting considerably.

4. Many (including myself) would argue that “forcible kissing” does not belong in the same category of assault as rape.

Unfortunately, I was unable to retrieve CSA data pertaining to this specific accusation, so we don’t know what portion of assaults fall into this category.

5. Given the indisputable fact that alcohol consumption on campus increases sexual assault, it is reasonable to address it in any study of SA on college campuses.

The CSA wording specifies the victim being “unable to consent” or “stop what was happening.” In that sense, it appears to eliminate sexual encounters where both parties may be drunk but still capable of decision-making.

In contrast, the NCVS study does not include assaults committed after victims are plied with drugs or strong alcohol to render them incapacitated, a common practice at fraternity social events.

6. It is important to determine whether a crime has been committed even if the victim does not perceive it as such.

If a woman feels guilty after being raped while blackout drunk, has she not been victimized? If a woman is reluctant to report her long-term boyfriend for forcibly penetrating her anus, has she not been raped? These assaults would have been likely to be reported in the CSA, and very unlikely to show up in the NCVS.

The goal of the CSA study is to determine the prevalence of assault, which is completely different from the prevalence of discipline for assault. It is well understood in both studies that most victims do not report sexual assault.

In addition, setting incapacitation as the bar for sexual assault likely means that men on campus are certainly being assaulted by women, even though such reports by men are extremely rare.

Wandering into the murky waters of who was incapacitated vs. who was drinking but not incapacitated is unlikely to yield good or workable policies. In my view, the only solution is to stop binge drinking, something schools (and students) have little stomach for. One step that could be taken immediately is the outlawing of any drinks using Everclear or other potent alcohols, which are always offered in order to get girls drunk.


Neither of these surveys stands alone as a comprehensive estimate of the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. The NCVS was not designed to do so, and is informative in an extremely limited way. Conversely, the CSA is too inclusive, and should at the least split out more serious offenses from less serious ones like forcible kissing.

By the way, there are three red herrings showing up in partisan articles about this subject, all of which should be dismissed here. The first is the finding that reported sexual assault has been decreasing over time. That is true, but we don’t know why. It may be part of a trend of decreasing violent crime. It may also be that victims feel so hopeless about receiving justice they don’t bother. Until there are systems in place for investigating claims fairly and disciplining offenders, we can’t really use reporting data to measure sexual assault. This is especially true in view of the NCVS interviewing techniques.

Other articles are quick to point out that non-students are assaulted more than students, proving that campus rape is a myth. Again, this is not relevant to the comparison. The NCVS was designed to compare students and non-students, while the CSA focused only on students. (And the two surveys defined students differently.)

My own sense is that sexual assault is certainly not limited to college campuses. Hookup culture and fraternity parties may encourage it, but there may be other forms of encouragement in the non-student population. That’s something we don’t yet know.

Finally, the issue of false rape claims is irrelevant to both of these surveys, as neither of them deal with the consequences to attackers.

Casual Sex Is a Prevalent Long-Term Mating Strategy

college coupleA recent article in Scientific American features the recent work of The Kinsey Institute’s Justin García, an evolutionary biologist and protege of Helen Fisher. Various surprising findings are discussed that rock the evo bio foundation of understanding casual sex as a mating strategy.

Study I

“Hook-up behavior: A biopsychosocial perspective:”, 2008, n = 507

1. 72% of subjects had attempted to hook up during college.

  • 80% of guys
  • 65% of girls

2. 64% had hooked up.

  • 51% of these did it “to initiate a traditional romantic relationship.”
  • There were no differences between guys and girls in this motivation.
  • A third of girls and guys expected nothing more from a hookup.

3. 33% said the hookup was unintentional.

  • Likely due to use of alcohol and/or drugs.

4. 36% had never hooked up.

  • 75% of these never wish to.
Who had sex with whom?
Males Females
Romantic partner 50% 72%
Friend 34% 26%
Acquaintance 38% 23%
Stranger 20% 8%
No one 19% 14%


What to make of these findings?

Despite his background and expertise in evo bio, Garcia sees clear evidence today rebutting Sexual Strategies Theory, which holds that men generally prefer short-term mating strategies while women prefer long-term mating strategies.

“Hook-up behavior does not easily fit the traditional evolutionary approaches to human mating strategies. Data shown here do not support the expected patterns of sexually dimorphic motivation, expectation, and behavior.

This does not suggest that this plentiful body of literature should be altogether abandoned; sexual strategies theory (Buss & Schmitt, 1993) has spawned an array of research with fascinating and useful results.

…It is not surprising that on college campuses, where sexually mature, pre-reproductive individuals live in residence halls with access to others and minimal “adult supervision,” there exists a high frequency of sexual activity.

That the normative expression of this sexual activity has become the hook-up, however, requires explanation in the face of the apparent conflicts with existing predictions of evolutionary theory.”

He notes that both sexes are equally willing to engage in short-term mating with the express hope of establishing a committed relationship, and suggests that culture and societal structure play a key role:

“The findings shown here suggest that young adults today desire both emotional and physical fulfillment, consistent with neuroscientific suggestions that both are intrinsic to the evolved human brain.

Ultimately, the desire to be in a traditional romantic relationship is a powerful motivator of hook-up behavior for young adults in college environments, even though many of them don’t actually expect such a relationship to follow.”

…Understanding how young adults manage their cravings for sexual gratification while also addressing urges for partnership and attachment elucidates the very nature of these reproductively-relevant processes.”

Garcia cites the rising age of marriage as key – the lag between puberty and marriage is historically unprecedented –  but popular culture plays a key role as well:

“While its true that most television series and reality shows will never show you a breast or buttocks, you will be exposed to a complete display of casual sex as if it were something normal, positive and desirable, regardless of gender.

The messages the media and society are sending to young people today about casual sex are very different from those expressed decades ago, a factor that’s contributing to the expansion of hookup culture and the shrinking difference in attitudes between women and men.

“One of our most significant discoveries was the small difference in attitudes between the sexes,” explains García, referring to polls indicating that men’s and women’s views toward casual sex were much more similar than they had expected. It seems there is a growing number of women seeking sexual satisfaction without commitment, while more men say they desire an emotional component connected to casual sex.

As an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, García argues that our sexual instincts are strongly conditioned by natural selection, but he also recognizes that evolutionary logic is tremendously simple and fails to fully explain the diversity and complexity of sexual behavior in western societies.”

Study II

Touch me in the morning: Intimately affiliative gestures in uncommitted and romantic relationships., 2010, n = 500

During their last hookup, they were actually hoping the encounter would lead to a steady relationship:

  • 45% of guys
  • 65% of girls

They openly discussed that possibility with their lover after the hookup despite its supposedly casual nature.

  • 41% of guys
  • 52% of girls

Study III

García also cites a survey carried out in 2010 (Garcia, Reiber, Merriwether, Heywood, & Fisher), n = 681:

“63% of college-aged men and 83% of college-aged women preferred, at their current stage of life or development, a traditional romantic relationship as opposed to an uncommitted sexual relationship.

Although there is a proportional sex difference, note that a substantial majority of both sexes would prefer a romantic relationship, despite their particular developmental stage of emerging adulthood.”

According to García, three out of four planned sexual encounters labeled as strictly casual lead to a longer-term relationship.

Interestingly, a new study at Acadia University in Canada of 1,000 students reveals very similar findings:

Males Females
Would prefer a relationship to a hookup 70% 78%
Rarely hook up 69% 73%
Hook up occasionally 6% 8%
Hook up frequently 25% 19%


Student Reed Power-Grimm said with two-thirds of participants saying they rarely if ever hook up, “that dispels a lot of the myths people might have about us crazy university students.”

Power-Grimm said it’s easy to watch people dancing and making out and then leaving together, and it looks rampant, “but the statistics didn’t support that at all.”

All of this is very much in keeping with the considerable body of research of the sexual behavior of college students.

  1. There are minor differences between sexes employing mating strategies in college.
  2. The hookup is serving as the mechanism by which many college students form long-term relationships.
  3. A minority of students of both sexes prefers no-strings sex to committed relationships, and hooks up freely and often.

Clearly, a casual sexual encounter is an unnecessary risk for two people who wish to enter a relationship in any case. The variance between what college students expect and what they hope for is a clear indication that people are assuming this risk needlessly, taking their cue from popular culture and media depictions of casual sex.

Here’s to improving communication among students and correcting misimpressions. Improved outcomes are inevitable if students seeking emotional intimacy with a partner require it before physical intimacy.

What do you think? Are you surprised? Do you believe the word is getting out to college students as colleges conduct and publicize their own surveys? How can we break the vicious cycle of distorted representations of adolescent sexual behavior in the media?

What To Do If You Had Sex Too Soon And It’s Got You Feeling Insecure

LoveFactually-Final-CoverBLURBS LFauthorimage28Today I’m pleased to offer a guest post by Duana C. Welch, PhD. Duana writes the blog Love Science: Research-Based Relationship Advice for Everyone. She’s a psych professor in Austin, TX and I’ve been a fan of her work for some time. She has a new book coming out next month: Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do. You can get the first chapter for free here.

By Duana Welch

Have you ever had sex too soon in the relationship, noticed the guy cooling off~and wondered how to deal with that?  So did ‘Denise’, who wrote me:

“I met ‘Mike’ on Valentine’s Day, and we really hit it off. He is an amazing kisser, a complete gentleman, a very successful businessman, and he really admires me and my pursuit of my career. Problem is, we couldn’t resist having sex on only the SECOND date, which was this past Saturday!  The next night, I saw that he had logged back onto the dating website.”

Ugh!  What a terrible, insecure feeling.

Why the double standard?

Where do these concerns come from?  After all, women don’t penalize men for their sexual ease!

Although it’s not fair, science finds that it’s true: Men tend to think that if you had sex with them quickly or easily, you’ll continue making yourself available to other men.  In fact, guys are so hard-wired to avoid genetic oblivion through unwittingly rearing other men’s offspring, they’re biologically protected against it: Dopamine, a biochemical men must have in order to fall in love, drops if a woman has sex before he’s become really attached.   (The evolutionary psychology argument continues that we women, who always know the baby is our genetic slam-dunk, don’t have to worry about men’s clear and present sexual availability; it’s meaningless to whether or not we cast our own genes, aka children.)

In other words, most of men’s double standard isn’t even conscious.  They’re literally wired up to protect themselves against putting all their energies into a woman who might not put all of her eggs in his basket.

Sound unreasonable?  Maybe.  But in studies of these things, it turns out that how quickly a woman has sex with a guy is the single biggest predictor of whether she’ll cheat later on.

What can you do?

Yet there is something Denise can say to Mike to ratchet things down. Here’s what I advised for her~and, if you’re a woman in her shoes, for you.

At the beginning of the very next date, at a point when you two are in no danger of having sex (such as in the middle of dinner in, one hopes, a public locale), say something along these lines:

“I like you, but I barely know you, and I’m not ready to date you exclusively; sex makes a relationship exclusive and serious too quickly, at least for me. So let’s just keep getting to know each other, and leave the sex out of it until we’re both really sure we don’t want to date others. Okay?”

(He might say he’s ready…you can then smile sweetly and say that you’re not there just yet.)

What this short speech does for you:

—It’s honest.  Most women can’t continue dating around while having sex with a guy, and if you’re in the sex-too-soon situation, you’re not ready for a mini-marriage/monogamous commitment to this man.

—It keeps you from wasting a lot of time and emotion being prematurely committed to a guy who could be wrong for you.  Again, you don’t know him non-Biblically yet, yet studies show that 3/4ths of women can’t remain emotionally detached once having sex….and 3/4ths of guys can.  Time to take things back to a level appropriate to your true level of intimacy.

—It prevents him from being convinced he’s got you, and thus prevents his thinking that he doesn’t have to pursue or court you anymore.  Note Mike’s behavior; he went right back online just when a man in love shuts down his dating profile.

—It puts you one-up, because you’re effectively saying that not only aren’t you having more sex with him (yet), you’re back on the mating market and open to dating other men.  Which you should be.
Men are born, raised, and work in lives permeated by hierarchy.  Studies prove it; where women ‘tend and befriend’, men look for their place in the pack, even if it’s merely a pack of two.

At the start, if you’re one-down, kiss anything goodbye that’s worthwhile and long-term.  On the other hand, your being one-up lets him figure out whether he emotionally connects with being lucky to have you, and whether you’re worth polishing the antlers and doing battle for.

—It reassures him of two things nearly every man wants to know: You’re a good paternity risk, and you’re high-status.

This speech effectively says that you don’t sleep around, and that this is atypical of your usual behavior.  Plus, it shows you’re high-status because you can afford to say “not now” to him.  He’s already high-status, so you can bet your sweet bottom he’s status-driven and won’t settle for less than someone he knows to be a total catch (as indeed he should not!).

—It gives you your power back. Which feels oh-so-much more secure than waiting for someone you barely know to “lend” it back to you, right?

Denise could have blown it if she had clung to Mike like an ivy vine, but she didn’t. She bolted, which was the thing to do. And with the repair advice above, she turned this around. She did the seemingly impossible: She un-rang the sexual bell.

So when you meet someone great, try to hold off on the sex until you’re sure he’s in love.  But if you didn’t wait, it might not be too late.

Susan: What do you think? Have you ever tried this? How do you think men will respond? Would you feel guilty saying no to sex after you’d already consented once? Why? I think Duana has come up with a very interesting strategy – let’s discuss!

How Location Affects Your Career and Relationship Prospects

One of the first tasks in developing an effective dating strategy is conducting an environmental assessment of your local dating market – the pond you compete in. What is the sex ratio where you go to school or live? What is the local dating culture? How easy is it to meet other singles? Which online dating app is most popular in this locale? All of these things affect your relationship prospects.

Taking stock of the local dating scene is critical, and may even be the basis for a decision on whether or where to move.  Social Explorer is a new census tool that provides information about Americans age 18-34, from 1980 to now.

It’s a treasure trove of information that sheds light on what Millennials are up against and how that might affect their life decisions, including career and marriage. The economic picture has not been encouraging:

The first thing to note is that the young adult percentage of the population is decreasing:


Median earnings vary dramatically by location:


And unemployment among Millennials is 35%:


Although we constantly hear that a record number of young people are still living with their parents, that number has only increased 7% since 1980:


The percentage of 18-34 year-olds who have never married largely reflects the trend of more of them earning a college degree:

The Atlantic has drilled down into the data to reveal some interesting information relevant to work and single life in their article Where to Move If You Want a Job, More Money, or Lots of Single People.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 12.06.13 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 12.06.38 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 12.07.52 PM

You’ll notice that my own city of Boston looks like a great place to date, and for the most part I think that’s true. But it’s also got a high cost of living. Very few Millennials here could afford to buy a home.

Another Atlantic article, Why It’s So Hard for Millennials to Find a Place to Live and Work explains how “The best cities to get ahead are often the most expensive places to live, and the most affordable places to live can be the worst cities to get ahead.”

“It’s a…dilemma for young workers and, in particular, young couples looking to buy a home, raise children, and achieve the American Dream. The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing.”

Bottom 10 Cities for Social Mobility, Ranked by Affordability

Bottom 10 social mobility


Top 10 Cities for Social Mobility, Ranked by Affordability

Top 10 social mobility

What to do? Before you pack your bags for Peoria, consider this:

“The American Dream begins with a good job and place to live that you can afford. But today, those two halves of the American Dream are living apart. The good jobs and high wages are in unaffordable cities. The affordable homes cluster in the cities with lower wages and less upwardly mobile families.”

Clearly, the best bets are Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. My personal advice would be to prioritize a good job over affordability in the short-term. You’re far more likely to benefit via upward mobility in a thriving local economy, and you can always relocate to somewhere more affordable once you’ve had a chance to build your resume. Choosing to live somewhere affordable without upward mobility is a financial dead end.

Of course, economic opportunity isn’t everything. NYC ranks high on that score, but is notorious for its toxic non-dating culture.

Understanding your local environment, or “market” will help you to make good choices that can have a very profound effect on your future. That doesn’t mean you have to go where the money is, or where the singles are, but at least you’ll know what you’re up against.

Are you happy with the dating scene where you live? Have you considered making a move to get a fresh start? How tied do you feel to the place where you grew up, even if the economy is bad there?


Egalitarian Marriage is Driving Down the Divorce Rate

“It’s just love now. We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.”

Economist Justin Wolfers

The mainstream divorce narrative in the U.S:

  • Half of all marriages end in divorce.
  • The divorce rate is rising.
  • Fear of divorce depresses the marriage rate, especially among Millennial kids of divorce.

This picture is extremely inaccurate, so why does it perniciously live on? Is it that social conservatives enjoy doomsday scenarios? The miserably divorced love company? It’s a convenient weapon in the anti-feminism arsenal? Continuing sloppy standards in the mainstream media? All of these?

“When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” this year, ABC News said it was the latest example of the out-of-control divorce rate, “50 percent and climbing.”

When Fox News anchors were recently lamenting high poverty levels, one of them blamed the fact that “the divorce rate is going up.”

And when Bravo introduced its divorce reality show, “Untying the Knot,” this summer, an executive at the network called it “a way to look at a situation that 50 percent of married couples unfortunately end up in.”

But here is the thing: It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce. It has not been for some time. Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.”

Whatever the reasons, the Upshot blog at the New York Times shares encouraging new data in The Divorce Surge is Over, But the Myth Lives On. During the last 30 years, the divorce rate has dropped steadily, a cumulative decline of 24%.

In 1981, there were 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people. That dropped to 4.7 by 1990 and to 3.6 by 2011, the most recent data available. But this data also reflects fewer marriages. Here’s a graph showing the divorce rate as a percentage of marriages. Couples married for eight years today have just a slightly higher divorce rate than couples married in the 1960s!


According to economist Justin Wolfers at the University of Michigan (and formerly at Wharton), if current trends continue, the divorce rate will fall to about a third of all marriages.

Why are divorce rates falling?

Many factors contribute to the improvement.

Fewer marriages

As you can see in the graph above, the rate of divorce is falling as a percentage of all marriages, so in one sense the marriage rate is irrelevant. On the other hand, it appears that a drop in the marriage rate has mostly occurred among couples who would have divorced. Today their breakups happen outside the legal institution of marriage.

Later marriages

College educated couples in particular tend to marry later, and the 7-year divorce rate for those who married in the 2000s is just 11%. Those without college degrees divorced at a rate of 17%.

Apart from education, marrying later results in more stable marriages, because older couples are more mature.

Tough times for uneducated males

Those without a college degree are more traditional in their attitudes about gender roles, but also less likely to be able to succeed with one breadwinner.

“Working-class families often have more traditional notions about male breadwinners than do the college-educated — yet economic changes have left many of the men in these families struggling to find work. As a result, many wait to achieve a level of stability that never comes and thus never marry, while others split up during tough economic times.”

Richard Reeves writes in How to Save Marriage in America:

“The bitter irony is that those most likely to disdain female breadwinners (the least educated men and women) would be helped the most by dual-earner households. The men who want to be breadwinners are very often the ones least able to fill that role.”


Educated couples have adopted a model where both parties remain in the work force, giving them tremendous economic advantage:

“As the middle of our labor market has eroded, the ability of high school-educated Americans to build a firm economic foundation for a marriage has been greatly reduced,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.” “Better-educated Americans have found a new marriage model in which both spouses work and they build a strong economic foundation for their marriage.”

Reproductive technology

Birth control and abortion mean far fewer “shotgun” weddings, which were often unstable, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Where shotgun weddings are most prevalent – the South – divorce rates are the highest in the nation.


This is ironic, because the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Movement are generally credited with a huge spike in divorce during the 1970s. However, social scientists today note that since women initiate 2/3 of divorces, a fall in the rate reflects a change in female attitudes.

“Ultimately, a long view is likely to show that the rapid rise in divorce during the 1970s and early 1980s was an anomaly. It occurred at the same time as a new feminist movement, which caused social and economic upheaval. Today, society has adapted, and the divorce rate has declined again.”

The rise of the love match

As noted in the quote above, men no longer seek homemakers, and women no longer seek a good earner. Here’s the change in male priorities since 1939. (There is no equivalent graphic for women):

“Women entered the work force, many of their chores in the home became automated and they gained reproductive rights, as the economist Betsey Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers have argued in their academic work. As a result, marriage has evolved to its modern-day form, based on love and shared passions, and often two incomes and shared housekeeping duties.

The people who married soon before the feminist movement were caught in the upheaval. They had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed. Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.”

The love matched couple is also focused on raising children. Reeves:

“American marriage is not dying. But it is undergoing a metamorphosis, prompted by a transformation in the economic and social status of women and the virtual disappearance of low-skilled male jobs. The old form of marriage, based on outdated social rules and gender roles, is fading. A new version is emerging—egalitarian, committed, and focused on children.

There was a time when college-educated women were the least likely to be married. Today, they are the most important drivers of the new marriage model.”

The not so good news

Divorce trends reflect income inequality.

Much has been written about marriage becoming an institution reserved for the elite.

Wolfers notes that the dramatic decline in divorce overall masks the increase in “gray divorce.”

“It’s a depressing demographic certainty that every marriage eventually ends; the only question is whether it is in death or divorce. If medical progress continues to succeed at helping fewer marriages end in death, more may end in divorce.

This (mostly happy) pattern largely explains the one clear rise in divorce that we do see: the so-called gray divorce, among couples like Al and Tipper Gore who separate at later ages. As life expectancy continues to increase, gray divorce will most likely continue to rise, even if divorce at earlier ages continues to decline. You can think of the two trends as part of one larger trend, in fact. Gray divorce may rise precisely because so many marriages are surviving longer.”

A forecast for the future of marriage

Reeves offers a likely explanation for the ongoing mythmaking around American divorce. To those who wish to restore the pre-feminism marriage model with “bring backery” he says:

“Attempting to restore this kind of marriage is a fool’s errand. The British politician David Willetts says that conservatives are susceptible to “bring backery” of one kind or another. Many conservative commentators on marriage fall prey this temptation: To restore marriage, they say, we need to bring back traditional values about sex and gender; bring back “marriageable” men; and bring back moms and housewives.

It is too late. Attitudes to sex, feminist advances, and labor market economics have dealt fatal blows to the traditional model of marriage.”

Instead, Millennials will continue to participate in a new model of marriage:

“The central rationale for these marriages is to raise children together, in a settled, nurturing environment. So, well-educated Americans are ensuring that they are financially stable before having children, by delaying childrearing.

They are also putting their relationship on a sound footing too—they’re not in the business of love at first sight, rushing to the altar, or eloping to Vegas.  College graduates take their time to select a partner; and then, once the marriage is at least a couple of years old, take the final step and become parents.

Money, marriage, maternity: in that order.”

In my view, the goal should not be to eliminate divorce entirely. There are many scenarios where divorce is the least harmful option. Waiting out a bad marriage till death really does part you is becoming a more onerous chore as our life expectancy increases.

A better strategy is to focus on creating a climate – cultural and economic – where marriage is within reach for all couples who wish to have a family. Recent upturns in key economic indicators may be grounds for some optimism.