Get Real! Why Am I So Paranoid About Sex?

Heather Corinna

It's not paranoid to be concerned about pregnancy with sexual activities which can result in pregnancy. It's not paranoid to worry about pregnancy happening when it isn't what you want or are ready for.

alsexnikkah asks:

I’m 13. I want to have sex really bad but I still don’t have a
boyfriend and blah blah blah. I KNOW how to not have sex with a guy
that I JUST met. I like to go out with a guy for awhile before I do
anything like sex. But when I do have a boyfriend for like a year I
would like to have sex. But I am always freaking out about getting
pregnant! But I can’t wait if I find someone that I like for awhile and
stuff! And like I would like to do oral. But I am scared if I will get
herpes or something. I’m always so paranoid about this! :|

Heather replies:

I dig in here, I want to make clear that I don’t think there is any one
right age, right time, or right kind of relationship for everyone when
it comes to what makes sex right or best. That varies from
person-to-person a lot, and isn’t usually based on something as simple
as only how old we are. I do think — and working with people and their
sex lives for as long as I have, feel comfortable saying I know —
there are some core things that tend to make for best sexual choices
with people of every age, though, so I want to address some of those
with you. I also want to present some things which are going to
be more challenging for you with partnered sex at your age, things
which often won’t be as challenging just a few short years from now.

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I hope you’ll know that my interest is in doing what I can to help people figure out what’s right for them
sexually, not what I or anyone else thinks is right for you. I want
everyone to have a sex life — whenever they have it, and at every
stage of your life — that’s beneficial to you, that’s healthy, and
that’s about where you’re at right now and who you are right now.
here’s hoping I can help you figure that out for yourself.

First let’s unpack in this is the idea that worrying about sexually
transmitted infections has anything to do with paranoia. It doesn’t.

To be paranoid about something means to have irrational or
delusional concerns. If I was worried that penguins from Mars were
going to sneak into my house at night to do experiments on my pug, that
would be paranoid. Being certain I was going to become pregnant via
oral sex or from a toilet seat are also things we could say are
paranoid, since pregnancy can’t happen those ways.

Sexually transmitted infections are very real and very common,
especially among young people: those under 24 have the fastest rising
rate of STIs. That’s because of where you’re body is at with its
development and because young people so often go without safer sex,
don’t get tested and treated for STIs too often — and the younger
someone is, the more likely it is safe behaviors don’t happen — and
tend to switch partners more frequently than many older people do. All
that while at the same time, young people often come to sexual
partnerships assuming they’ll be lifelong and singular even though
that’s rarely the case. While STIs are far more often transmitted via
vaginal or anal intercourse, some STIs can also be transmitted orally,
such as Chlamydia, HIV and, yep, Herpes.

Pregnancy is also very real. It’s not paranoid to be concerned about
pregnancy with sexual activities which can result in pregnancy. It’s
not paranoid to worry about pregnancy happening when it isn’t what you
want or are ready for. You absolutely should be concerned with both
these things, and do what you can to prevent them if you don’t want
those outcomes, either by taking a pass on the kinds of sex where they
are potential results or by doing things like using safer sex and
reliable methods of birth control.

Age-in-years, all by itself, is not usually the best way to figure
out if someone is ready, or in a good place in their life, for
partnered sex. But even though age-in-years isn’t all there is to these
choices, let’s also not kid ourselves.

13 is very young when it comes to partnered sex,
especially genital sex like oral sex or intercourse. Just so you have a
sound idea about the sex lives of others your age, especially since a
lot of young people aren’t honest with each other about sex, in the
United States, less than 13% of teens under 15 have had sex with a
partner. For those who have intercourse, most teens do so for the first
time around 17. What’s best for your peers may or may not be best for
you, but those figures are smart to consider: there are reasons most
teens wait until they’re older than 13 to have sexual partners.

Very few countries — and no states in the United States — have an
age of consent that is as low as 13. Many states provide a window in
which some or all sexual activities between same-age partners below the
age of consent are lawful, but there are usually still some
restrictions even then. In the United States, it is not lawful in most states for you to terminate a pregnancy
without a parent being notified or giving their permission. While you
or I may or may not agree with some or all of these laws and policies,
they are what they are, regardless, and can impact you or any sexual
partners you may have.

At 13, you probably don’t have the resources you need to get your
own sexual healthcare and contraception by yourself, or to manage an
accidental pregnancy (not to mention dealing with the emotional and
practical aspects of that). Even just getting transportation to those
services may be tricky for you. At 13, you’re probably having a tough
time with the family you’ve got: some sex does pose risks of pregnancy,
and dealing with a kid on top of your family is likely more than you
can handle or want to handle. Let’s also be frank: at your young age, a
pregnancy could pose some serious risks to your health. At 13, you
probably won’t feel able to be honest with your folks or even some of
your friends about having sex, which would make it a secret: not a good
recipe for a healthy sexuality. Sex can present challenges and hard
feelings sometimes even without unwanted outcomes, and to have a
healthy sex life, we usually need some good support from people we
aren’t having sex with.

At 13, you and your friends are just getting used to having sexual feelings
about one another, and have usually barely gotten started learning how
to manage those feelings, let alone enact them with genital sex. You
may find that partners or friends are without the maturity
to handle you being sexual with kindness and care: some people can be
very cruel to the youngest people when they’re sexually active, and
that can really hurt and become very isolating. You and partners also
may not even feel that comfortable with your bodies all by yourselves,
yet: if we rush in to intimacy, we can wind up feeling very overexposed
and insecure. Many people your age don’t have the communication skills
yet for a sex life that’s healthy, safe and equitable. You may not feel
able to be assertive enough with every partner, for example, to make
clear that you want to reduce your risks of STIs and need a partner to
use safer sex with you. (And since a lot of people assume that the
youngest teens are easy to take advantage of sexually, you may need
those skills even more than someone older does.) Developing that kind
of confidence and assertiveness, especially with sex, tends to be
something that takes young people some time, and which few people at 13
are very good at just yet. A lot of women still aren’t great at it at
30, but they also usually have better resources than you do. While an
STI, unwanted pregnancy or having a partner tell friends you’re a slut
isn’t something anyone wants, older people won’t tend to find their
lives, well-being or health as derailed by things like that as someone
your age can.

One other thing we know statistically is that the younger a person is, the more unrealistic
their expectations of sex tend to be. So, when younger teens say they
want sex, they usually have an idea of what it is that doesn’t resemble
reality or meet those expectations. Statistically, the younger someone
starts being sexually active — when we’re talking about genital sex
like oral sex and intercourse — the more often they later report it
was either unwanted or unpleasant for them. In other words, we don’t
hear from many young women your age who are sexually active in that way
where everything is awesome: quite the opposite, really. With anything
in life, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try something that can carry
a lot of risks unless we’re pretty sure it’s going to be worth it. And
if your expectations aren’t sound, we can’t assess that very well.

When your expectations are more realistic, for example, you’ll know
that just being with someone for a certain amount of time and having
sexual feelings about them isn’t enough to decide if someone is a good
choice in a sexual partner. The quality of the relationship you’re in
with someone matters a lot, so, when we’re considering a partner, we
usually pay attention to how they treat us and others, we listen to how
they talk about sex to know if they have the maturity for it, we see
how they deal with other parts of life and our relationships which
require a lot of care and responsibility.

Lastly, as I’ve also talked about here at the site before, it’s
really tough for us to know what sexual activities we might want to do
in the abstract. For example, I like oral sex a lot, and do know what
it’s like, but that doesn’t mean I am going to want to do it with just
anyone, or with every partner at any given time. And there have been
things in my life I wanted to try in the abstract, expecting I’d like
them, but discovered I didn’t, or didn’t in a certain context or
relationship. There have been things I didn’t think I’d like or have
interest in which I’ve discovered I did. One thing we know about sex
and sexuality is that it often tends to surprise us.

I think in some ways, you’re putting the cart before the horse. You
CAN wait for partnered sex, of any and every kind, until it’s something
both you and whomever else you have it with are both ready for it,
including until a relationship has all of what you want and need in it.
And if you really, truly feel you can’t — if you feel you cannot
control your own actions — then that’s a sure sign that sex right now
would be a very poor choice for you. For sex with others to be healthy,
the people involved need to be able to have a good deal of
self-control, as well as the ability to think clearly and not too

What I hear you saying through your question is that you’re feeling
very scared about unwanted outcomes with sex, and that you also have
yet to find yourself in a relationship which has what you need in order
to be okay with sexual partnership. Additionally, you make clear that
you are feeling sexual desires very strongly, which you’re having a
tough time with and I also hear you saying that you worry you can’t
control your own sexual actions or choices if you meet someone you like.

To me, all that suggests that the best thing for you when it comes
to genital sex right now is probably simply to masturbate. Masturbation
is something we can all do — and the majority of all people do
masturbate — to meet our own sexual needs, to answer our own sexual
desires, to experience a release of those pent-up sexual feelings that
can make us feel so antsy sometimes. It’s also a great way to get to
know your own body and sexual responses, which is valuable to you, but
also will be valuable when you do have sexual partners. Extra bonus?
Unless you’re masturbating with hands or other objects that aren’t
clean, you don’t have to worry about STIs. You also don’t have to worry
about pregnancy or about someone else’s sexual wants and needs. When
we’re not feeling ready for or up to all that partnered sex requires,
or who we’d choose as partners aren’t, masturbation is a great answer,
whether that time of not having all we need for good, healthy sex with
partners happens when we’re 13 or 33. And it will tend to happen more
than once in our lives. Too? Most men and women do not reach orgasm for
the first time, and learn to be orgasmic, with a partner, but with

The idea, should you have it, that sexual needs can only be met by
sexual partnership isn’t sound. Plenty of people in sexual partnerships
find their sexual needs are not met, even when those
partnerships have some things they want and need, such as a given level
of commitment or having what they need to take care of their health.
It’s also very common for younger women to find they have a
particularly tough time getting both emotional and physical needs met
in early sexual relationships, especially if they happen too soon for
them or their partners. Masturbation meets most people’s physical needs
when it comes to sex, as well as many emotional needs. It is different
from partnered sex in that a) there are some things you really can’t do
only by yourself, and b) there are emotional wants and needs, like
having companionship, that can’t be met with masturbation. However,
this is another area where very young people’s expectations are often
unrealistic. If you think partnered sex is, sexually, RADICALLY
different than masturbation is — especially physically, where it’s
most similar — chances are that your ideas about what partnered sex
can or will provide are off-kilter.

Plus, it doesn’t sound like you’re not currently with someone you
are interested in a sexual relationship with, so it doesn’t make sense
to get too hung up on making sexual choices with partners just yet. And
when all of this is abstract — it’s not about another person you
actually are involved with and know well — none of us can know what we
want in a real way: we can only know what our fantasy is about what sex
could be like.

Way back at the top of the page, I mentioned that in even just a few
years, this is likely to be a pretty different situation. That might
seem hard to fathom, because it’s so easy to feel like the way we are
is how we’ll always be, but know that in the teen years, we change a
LOT and often very quickly and unpredictably. Who we are at 13 is often
very different from who we are at 16. What we’re capable of handling
and what kinds of skills and resources we have at 17 usually differs
from what we’ve got going on at 14. Later on in life, we don’t see such
big changes from, say, being 35 to being 40. But in a lot of ways,
adolescence is all about enormous changes happening all the time, and
every single year often bringing a world of differences with it. The
fact of the matter is that based on all we know, sex with a partner for
you now is way less likely to be something you both enjoy and that is
healthy for you all around than it is in a few years.

Don’t forget that for most people, sex is something progressive. In
other words, rather than leaping right to oral sex or intercourse, more
young people will spend months or years with things we call
"outercourse" like kissing and making out, dry sex (people rubbing
their bodies together while clothed) or petting ("feeling up"):
activities where there is not direct, unclothed genital contact. That
often makes sense, especially when all of sex is new, because spending
time with those things helps you and a partner get to know one another,
get practice communicating about sex with lower-risk activities, and
helps you make good choices about if a given partner is someone you
even want to do more with.

For now, you can certainly take the time you need to find out about
how to protect yourself as best you can from unwanted outcomes like
STIs, and how you can talk about that together with a potential partner
to make agreements. Reducing the risk of STIs is about practicing safer
sex with partners, not about being with someone for a certain amount of
time. That means a combination of behaviors you both do which include
using latex barriers and getting tested. To find out more about how to
practice safer sex and what it entails, check out the links I’ll give
you at the end of this page.

You also can research reliable methods of birth control now, and
find out how to use them right. If we’re going to have intercourse with
someone, using reliable methods of birth control consistently and
correctly is what reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancy, just like
practicing safer sex massively reduces the risk of STIs. You can also
take formative steps now to choose healthy relationships where you’re
not only cared for and treated with respect, but where everyone is on
board and committed to sex and everything around it being healthy and

I’d encourage you to trust your instincts in this. Often, when we
feel really nervous about something, or fearful, it’s for good reason.
Fear is how our minds and bodies give us cues about what is and isn’t
safe. I think right now a lot of why you’re feeling fearful now is
because sex would probably be too much, too soon for you. When it
isn’t, and when you’ve also been with someone who you care for and have
had time to build some trust with — as well as time to find out about
how to prevent unwanted outcomes of sex — I think you’ll feel a lot
better and less freaked about all of this.

Last but not least, I’d encourage you to talk to an adult in your
life you trust and who loves you about all of this in-person, rather
than just interacting with someone like me who doesn’t know you or your
life: you could talk to a parent or guardian, an older sibling, a
doctor, a teacher, a counselor, a coach, a mentor. Someone who knows
you is going to have a better idea of what you probably are and are not
ready to handle, and can probably better help you suss out your own
unique needs than I can. I also will again say that if anything at all
in our lives has to be a huge secret from the people who love us, it
usually isn’t good news. I know it can be intimidating to talk to
adults about sex, but it usually is worth taking that plunge so you
have someone who cares for you and has some perspective to connect with
about this.

I’m going to leave you with some links to look at, to figure out
your real readiness right now and to get a handle on what you’ll need
to do with things like managing risks of pregnancy and sexually
transmitted infections. So, look things like this over, then be sure to
give yourself the time and space to digest and process them.
Opportunities for sex really don’t go away, and as I like to remind
people of all ages, the good stuff that feels good on all levels is
always worth waiting for, especially since the substandard stuff not
only can be a real bummer, it can also result in some rough unwanted
consequences, too.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.