SEX, TRUTHS AND VIDEOTAPE
A CONVERSATION WITH
UW SOCIOLOGIST PEPPER SCHWARTZ

by Rose Pike


Pepper Schwartz. Photo by Mary Levin.

UW Sociology Professor Pepper Schwartz strides into the last session of her "Sex, Gender, and the Family" seminar bearing an overstuffed briefcase, books and papers. Diminutive even in high-heeled pumps, Schwartz commands attention despite her physical stature. Her students -- mostly nurses working on advanced degrees -- are far from intimidated by her reputation as an author and media commentator. Through their light banter, it is clear they feel an immediate rapport with her.

One of the students says she recently helped examine a Muslim woman who had undergone a genital circumcision. This prompts an animated discussion of the controversial procedure, considered genital mutilation in many Western cultures but a common coming-of-age and religious ritual elsewhere.

During the give-and-take, Schwartz continually nudges the students with provocative questions, drawing on her knowledge of history, psychology, medicine and sociology. Employing the same authoritative, accessible style she has developed over the years as a lecturer, writer and TV commentator, she deftly ties up the loose ends of the quarter's work.

Schwartz is so focused on the subject at hand that you would hardly believe the humming pace of her everyday schedule. In addition to her duties as a full-time professor, she and her husband, architect Art Skolnik, are raising two pre-teen children, Ryder and Cooper.

Directly after this class, Schwartz will catch a red-eye flight to New York for a one-day business trip. Two mornings a week she appears on a Seattle television talk show to answer questions about relationships, and she also tapes regular news commentaries for the same station, KIRO.

She writes a monthly column, "Sex and Health," for Glamour magazine, with long-time sociology colleague Janet Lever of California State-Los Angeles. In addition, Schwartz serves as president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex and is an active member of the American Sociological Association.

The core of her professional life, however, is her research and teaching on sexuality and relationships that is the basis for her most recent book, Peer Marriage, and for numerous scholarly and popular books and articles over the past two decades.

Like most academic researchers, she finds that one project tends to beget the next, especially if the investigator is on to a particularly sexy subject to begin with. The idea for a study of "democratic" marriages came out of work that she and the late UW Professor Philip Blumstein did for the 1983 research study, American Couples. For that opus, Schwartz, Blumstein and a small army of staffers sent out and evaluated 12,000 surveys and interviewed 600 married or cohabiting couples, both heterosexual and homosexual.

The Couples research, writes Schwartz in her new book, unearthed "many same-sex couples with an egalitarian relationship but very few such heterosexual couples. ... My curiosity about their success at this aspect of their relationship, plus my admiration for the few egalitarian heterosexual couples in the study, made me want to know more about how married couples get past traditions of gender and construct a relationship built on equality."

Beginning with 30 such wedded pairs from the original study, Schwartz came up with a "snowball sample" (one in which one person recommends the next and so on), eventually interviewing married pairs in six major American cities. Each person answered questions separately, and then as part of a couple, about the details of their lives: economic, social, parental, sexual.

What emerged, says Schwartz, were several characteristics that define the "peer couple." First, "there was generally not more than a 60-40 traditional split of household duties and child raising." Second, "each partner believed that each person ... had equal influence over important and disputed decisions." Third, the "partners felt that they had equal control over the family economy and reasonably equal access to discretionary funds," and last, "each person's work was given equal weight in the couple's ife plans."

At first glance, the glossy cover and a breathless tagline ("How Love Between Equals Really Works") give Peer Marriage the air of a book written for a popular audience. But while the anecdotes gleaned from the interviews appeal to general readers, they possess a depth and breadth that make them equally compelling to professionals such as marital therapists.

Schwartz herself describes the book as a "monograph that incorporates some practical suggestions. I wanted to show the costs and benefits of the different kinds of marriage and, for people who are looking for a model, the practical aspects of these couples' lives that could be applied to their own relationships."

These couples' personal stories provide a window into Schwartz's comprehensive view of relationships, love and marriage. "You can't take a laser-surgery approach to constructing a peer marriage," she says. "A self-help book might suggest that if you just add faith or perhaps a certain kind of intimacy, everything else will fall into place." But 'Peer Marriage' takes into account structural factors, personalities, a couples' histories, family economics--what she describes as the "intriguing mix of what makes life complex, frustrating, and sometimes triumphant."

When writing her new book, Schwartz says she didn't want to make the same mistake she made with Couples, in which the team's findings were presented in straight sociological reportage.

"When American Couples was published," she recalls with bemusement, "I was asked to come to the Reagan White House to talk about it." A liberal and a feminist since childhood, she thought, "Why would I be invited to talk to them?" Because, she realized, there was "a lot in the book about how work might cause problems in marriage, and someone in the Reagan administration thought, 'Well great, we have this book that shows that women shouldn't work.' "

Schwartz says that she and Blumstein had neglected to include detailed public policy outcomes or other pragmatic implications of their material. "We learned," she says, "that we couldn't depend on the findings themselves to unambiguously convey our ideas. "

Her pragmatism can be found in another corner of her professional life, as a Glamour magazine columnist and a regular commentator on Seattle television. In print or in front of the camera, Schwartz has learned to tone down the academese and play to audiences eager to hear her message. "'Sex and Health' is one the most popular columns in the magazine," says Lisa Bain, her editor at Glamour. "We get tons of reader mail about the column, almost all positive. I think that's because it's frank information that women don't necessarily get in other places."

Schwartz and her co-author answer questions from the magazine's late-teens to mid-30s female readership, and summarize relevant research data. Readers ask about everything from nuts-and-bolts sexuality to the pitfalls of romance: Is it okay to have sex during pregnancy? What does it mean when your boyfriend won't make eye contact during love-making? How do you deal with a mediocre lover?

"I'm really proud of the column," says Schwartz. "Because we're able to clear up misunderstandings about sex and get out information that might not have been picked up elsewhere."

Her Glamour pieces, occasional articles for the New York Times and other national publications, and television appearances have helped put sociology -- and the UW -- on the media map. According to Carla Howery, an officer of the American Sociological Association, "Her colleagues see Pepper Schwartz as an extremely positive force for the profession. She communicates well with a lay audience, and she's precise and careful about the way she reports on data -- her own and others'." In addition, Howery notes, Schwartz's and Blumstein's work on sexuality has had a major influence on sociology research. "Their work legitimized the topic," she says, "and convinced people that sexuality is a valuable subject for study, especially using survey designs."

Schwartz has occasionally been criticized for the opinions she expresses about sexuality and gender issues. Following a Seattle Times feature story on Peer Marriage last fall, scads of readers wrote in to chastise her because they thought Schwartz was presenting her own marriage as a peer model. (She wasn't.)

That's one of the perils of being in the spotlight, a place where Schwartz is obviously comfortable. "I've always been front and center," she explains. "Even as a kid, I was very opinionated and vocal and undaunted by reactions. I come from a family that believes that's what makes you a good person." To wit, with parental approval she organized a sex education group in her basement when she was 10, and she was once sent to the principal's office for arguing with a teacher that the House Un-American Activities Committee was itself un-American.

At the beginning of her academic career, she recalls, "being in the public eye was not a wise thing to do, but it was what I wanted." She went to her department chair and laid out her views on the subject. "I got a very supportive response," she says. "A lot of people who take the course I've taken are pushed out of academia or remove themselves. But I want to be published in Glamour and in The Journal of Sex Research."

Indeed, Schwartz believes that research sociologists have a responsibility to disseminate their findings outside the academic world. "We have an obligation to make our research available," she says, "to a public that is desperately in need of information. Most academics shy away from that, because they don't want to be glib, but if you present data only in a traditional academic format, no one will read past the first line."

In the realm of public policy, Schwartz adds, "I think my profession has ceded the public role to the psychiatrists and psychologists, and for that matter, to the economists. I want to be a force in the cultural dialog, whether it's on letting women in all-male schools like the Citadel [a military college in South Carolina], or sexual harassment, or moms who kill their kids."

Teaching provides another opportunity for Schwartz to influence discourse on sexuality and gender issues. "There's nothing as much fun as talking with motivated students," she says. "I can always be an adequate teacher, but I can never be a great teacher unless I've got somebody on the other side who is giving their interpretation and questioning me."

Like most teachers, she finds that classes vary enormously from year to year, and that students are not the same as when she came to the University in the early 1970s. "People are coming into class with tougher lives now," she believes. "More students work, there are more single parents, and some of them have horrible crises to deal with. They're not prepared to learn because life has really got them by the neck."

There are times, says Schwartz, when she feels like a primary school teacher "who says, I've got to have a child who's ready to learn. If the child's not eating or the parents are beating them up, I can't teach them. Well, higher education has been changed by those kinds of social conditions, too. And some of these young people are just flying through undergraduate school to get it done. They're not getting educated and they wonder why they're doing it at all."

Because she is such a voracious reader in many disciplines, she worries that her students are too narrowly focused and don't investigate ideas outside their own interests. "In sociology," she says, "you have to look at anthropology, sociobiology, biology -- it's all these things together that tell us how to factor in evolutionary and biological traits, how much is a human given and how much is socialization. If you're not reading in all the disciplines, then you're not really educated."

Schwartz concedes that she, too, is not the person she was when she arrived at the University. "I was very angry and anti-marriage back then," she recalls with some chagrin. "I didn't have children, and much of my writing on relationships and family was very critical of marriage. When you're ticked off about so much, it's all noise in the system that keeps you from thinking straight or being creative about ideas. Now, I certainly incorporate marriage and children in my analytic model. I'm still curious and critical about gender and family issues, but I'm not angry anymore."

The refinements in her researcher's view of the world derive from "reading more of other people's work and fitting new realities into my thinking," says Schwartz. "You take in the changes in your personal life, and you watch other people age and experience regret. You think you know all about their marriages and this and that, and you find that you don't. You get experience and you get humility."

When she cadges a moment or two from her daunting schedule for self-reflection, Schwartz says that she thinks of herself as "a bank -- putting all this stuff in -- your own life, other people's lives, the research, corrections of previous research." Eventually, the deposits in that information bank yield ideas worth serious sociological investigation. For Schwartz, that's the ultimate payoff for a work-filled life. END

 Rose Pike is a Seattle-based free-lancer who specializes in social issues.

LECTURES, BOOKS, TV, TRAVEL: PRESENT AND FUTURE SCHWARTZ

Just as American Couples led to Peer Marriage, Pepper Schwartz's most recent study left several ideas percolating in her head. She is already working on a monograph on sexuality and gender, and she's considering several possible book projects for general audiences.

"One would concern the complexities of the modern woman's life," she says, "and another would be about how the discourse on contemporary sexuality and what we actually know about it don't line up." The latter project would deal with the complex interaction of gender politics and sexuality research and might also involve a public television tie-in.

Despite her schedule, Schwartz is participating in two events aimed at UW alumni and the general public. In April she will give a three-part talk on "The Changing Roles of Men and Women" for the UW Alumni Association Spring Lecture Series. The topics include: April 12, The Changing Family in the West: From the 17th Century to the Present; April 19, Intimate Relationships: Love, Sex and Power; and April 26, Communication Between Men and Women. Lectures start at 7:30 p.m. in 220 Kane Hall . Series tickets cost $25 for UWAA members and $30 for non-members. To register, call (206) 543-3839.

In July she hosts a UW Alumni Association cruise of the Mediterranean, "The Land of Gods and Heroes." Ports of call include Athens, Olympia, the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini, and Istanbul. For more information about the 10-day cruise, contact Pauline Ranieri at (206) 685-9276.

Not surprisingly, Schwartz has interests outside the sex-gender-marriage realm. Throughout her career, she reveals, "I've collected material on family businesses. It would be fascinating to look at the intersection of love and ambition and money and kin, and why some family businesses stay together and others break up. I might want to focus on loyalty, or use business and money as a motif."

Another intriguing prospect: "I've thought of writing about how some people maintain parallel identities, such as gay men who are married, or leading citizens who have a darker life someplace else. How do people live coherent lives when they are playing two roles that are in direct conflict?"

Ideas are easy to come by, notes Schwartz, but commitment to a particular project must involve passion as well as intellectual frisson. "It's a very personal thing, what grips you, what makes you say, I want to spend night and day thinking about this for the next how-every-many years. It's like a marriage. You say, well this is very interesting person, but am I going to find him interesting for the next 20 or even 50 years?"

We can't answer that question for you, Pepper, but you can bet we'll read the book. -- Rose Pike

Send a letter to the editor at columns@u.washington.edu.

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