Politics, Sex, and Sexuality: The Growing Gender Divide in American Life

Findings from the March 2022 American Perspectives Survey

April 27, 2022 | Daniel A. Cox, Beatrice Lee, Dana Popky

An illustration of the side profiles of four people. From left to right: a young white man with blond hair, an older Black woman with short, curly Black hair, a young woman with tan skin and black hair with a blue streak, an older man with darker tan skin with curly grey hair and a mustache.

In American society, the debate over the degree to which men and women are different continues to serve as a cultural and political flash point. While some differences between men and women are readily apparent, the nature of gender differences has been a source of enduring debate. Some of the evident differences are likely culturally prescribed, while sources of others may lie more in distinct biological or physiological traits. Recent research suggests that Americans remain divided over the sources of gender differences, suggesting that the issue is likely to remain contested.[1] But even as we wrangle over why men and women approach politics, sex and sexuality, and relationships differently, there is evidence that in some places the gender gap is growing larger.

Certain differences, such as habits and hobbies, are not difficult to identify. Men spend more time playing video games and report a greater interest in politics, while women are more likely to pick up a book or meditate.

Men and women also differ in how often they report personal insecurities. Women—and young women in particular—express greater feelings of insecurity about how they look and how they feel about themselves than men do. Women also spend a greater part of their day thinking about God and the amount of suffering in the world.

Despite these enduring differences, what it means to be a man or woman in American society has evolved. Notions of masculinity and femininity are changing, and so is the importance Americans place on embodying traditional masculine or feminine types. For example, young men today care less about being viewed as masculine than their fathers and grandfathers do.

Popular understanding of the nature of gender discrimination has also changed. Research continues to show that in most circumstances, women are far more likely than men to experience discrimination.[2] But an increasing number of men believe they are just as likely as women to be subject to discrimination based on their gender.

One of the most essential ways men and women differ is in their approach to and understanding of sex. Men think about sex far more often than women do and report somewhat lower levels of satisfaction with their sex lives. Men are also much more likely to consume pornographic content—possibly to their detriment. Americans who watch pornography more often report greater feelings of social isolation and loneliness, lower levels of self-confidence, and less satisfying sex lives.

When it comes to sexual attraction, the differences between men and women are notable and growing larger. Young people express increasing fluidity in feelings of physical attraction, but these generational differences are much more prevalent among women. Compared to women, men are far more likely to be attracted to exclusively women, while for women, physical attraction is more likely to include both genders. But this is most evident among young women; just over half of young women say they are attracted to only men.

Finally, gender differences are increasingly evident in our politics. Over the past couple of decades, women, particularly college-educated women, have become more Democratic in their political preferences. Conversely, men without a college degree have become more supportive of Republicans, although the shift has not been as pronounced.

The Gender Divide in American Life

In their personal pursuits and hobbies, men and women spend their time quite differently. More women report reading a book for pleasure, while men are more likely to say they spend their time playing video games. Women are more likely to meditate regularly or think about God, while men report greater predilection for politics.

Whom men and women spend their time with illustrates an even more significant divide. Most friendship circles are at least somewhat gender-segregated, with both men and women reporting they have more same-gender friendships.

The Gender Divide in Friendships

It is fairly common for both men and women to say their close friends are of the same gender, but men’s friendship groups are generally more likely to include someone of the opposite sex. More than half (52 percent) of women report that most if not all of their close friends are women, while 40 percent of men say most or all of their close friends are men. Women are about twice as likely as men to report having no close friends of the opposite sex (13 percent vs. 6 percent).

Patterns of friendship change over time, often as a result of major life events, such as getting married or having children.[3] Notably, men and women differ in how their friendship patterns evolve. Men appear to reach gender parity in their friends as they age. Just over half (51 percent) of young men (age 18–29) say most if not all of their close friends are men, while only 32 percent of senior men (age 65 and older) say the same. A majority (54 percent) of senior men say an equal number of their close friends are women and men.

Conversely, women typically have more male friends when they are younger and become more exclusive as they get older. Less than half (45 percent) of young women report that their closest friends are mostly or only women. For older women, close friends include significantly fewer men; 57 percent of women age 65 or older say their close friends are mostly if not all women.

Pastimes, Practices, and Pursuits

How men and women spend their time varies significantly. Playing video games has become an increasingly common pastime; one in three (33 percent) Americans report having played video games in the past week. But this activity is more popular among men than women: 38 percent of men report having played video games in the past week, compared to 29 percent of women.

The gap is even wider among young adults. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of young men say they played video games in the past week, including nearly half (48 percent) who played one in the past 24 hours. In contrast, only 38 percent of young women report playing video games in the past week.

While men express more interest in video games, women report spending a larger share of their free time reading. Thirty-nine percent of women say they have read a book for pleasure in the past week, compared to 27 percent of men. Young men are the least likely to read for pleasure; only 19 percent say they have done this in the past week. Twenty percent of young men say they have never read a book for personal enjoyment.

Frequency of reading also varies significantly between those with more and less formal education. Half (50 percent) of college-educated women and four in 10 (40 percent) men with a college degree say they have read a book in the past week.[4] Women with no college education (34 percent) are about as likely as college-educated men to have read a book in the past week. However, only 15 percent of men without a college education say they have read a book for pleasure in the past week.

Women are somewhat more likely than men to report meditating. Roughly one in four (26 percent) women say they meditated in the past week, compared to 19 percent of men.

But larger differences emerge across educational attainment. Two-thirds (67 percent) of women with a four-year college degree and nearly six in 10 (59 percent) college-educated men say they meditated at some point in their lives. In contrast, only 40 percent of men without a college degree say they have ever meditated.

More than half (52 percent) the public report that they have exercised in the past week, with only modest differences between men and women. A majority (55 percent) of men and half (50 percent) of women say they exercised in the past week. Notably, younger men and women are not more likely to exercise than are older men and women. In fact, senior women are more likely to say they have exercised in the past week than young women are (52 percent vs. 43 percent).

Men consistently report greater interest in discussing and paying attention to politics, even if they are slightly less like to vote in elections than women are.[5] Seven in 10 (70 percent) men say they follow news about national politics somewhat or very closely, compared to 57 percent of women. More than four in 10 (42 percent) women, including 60 percent of young women, report that they do not really follow news about national politics.

The Prevalence of Pornography

In the internet era, online pornography has become ubiquitous. Roughly six in 10 (58 percent) Americans report having watched pornography at some point in their lives, including more than one in four (27 percent) who have watched it in the past month. But there are massive gender differences in the consumption of pornography. Men are four times more likely than women to report having watched pornography in the past month (44 percent vs. 11 percent).

Men in their 30s and 40s report the most frequent use of pornography. A majority (57 percent) of men age 30–49 report having watched pornography in the past month, and 42 percent say they have watched it in the past week. In contrast, 44 percent of young men and only 26 percent of senior men say they have watched pornography at some point during the past month.

Even if most Americans do not report engaging in this activity regularly, exposure to pornography is much more common today than it was in the past, particularly among women. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) women age 65 or older say they have never watched pornography, while less than half (44 percent) of young women say the same.

The Pornography Problem

The widespread availability of pornography online has made it easier to access. Most young adults say they have watched pornography at some point in their lives. But regularly watching pornography is associated with a number of negative social outcomes and personal experiences. This association is more pronounced for men than it is for women.[6]

Men who report having watched pornography recently—that is, in the past 24 hours—report the highest rates of loneliness. Six in 10 (60 percent) men who watched pornography in the past 24 hours say they have felt lonely or isolated at least once in the past week. In contrast, fewer than four in 10 (38 percent) men who have never watched pornography and 49 percent of men who have watched it but not in the past 24 hours say they have felt lonely in the past week.

Americans who regularly watch pornography also report more frequent feelings of dissatisfaction with their personal appearance. Again, this effect is particularly notable for men. Nearly eight in 10 (78 percent) men who have watched pornography in the past 24 hours say they have felt unhappy about their appearance in the past week. Less than half (44 percent) of men who have never watched pornography and 58 percent of those who have not watched it recently say they have felt unhappy with how they look in the past week.

Men who watch pornography regularly are also more likely to report they frequently feel insecure: 74 percent of men who report having watched pornography in the past 24 hours say they have felt self-conscious or insecure in the past week. Only 45 percent of men who say they have never watched pornography say the same.

Pornography may also contribute to men feeling less satisfied with their sex lives. Only about a quarter (26 percent) of men who report having watched pornography in the past day say they are completely or very satisfied with their sex lives, compared to 41 percent of those who say they have never watched pornography.

The findings here are not conclusive evidence that pornography is causing these problems. Rather, these results show a strong relationship between pornography use and a variety of negative social conditions and circumstances. But it’s quite plausible that Americans who are lonelier or feel less confident in their appearance more readily turn to pornography than do those with stronger social ties and greater self-confidence. Results could also be due to confounding variables—such as age, gender, or social class—that are associated with both pornography use and these particular outcomes.

To account for these potentially confounding variables, we ran four separate logistic regression models predicting the following: feelings of loneliness, feelings of personal insecurity, satisfaction with one’s appearance, and satisfaction with one’s sex life. We find that pornography use remains a significant predictor in each of the four models, even when controlling for important personal characteristics such as age, race and ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, and education.

The Shrinking Religious Divide Between Men and Women

Past scholarship has found that women are generally more active in religious pursuits than men are.[7] However, these gender differences are less evident among young adults, indicating that over time the gender gap in religiosity may narrow or even disappear.

Overall, roughly one in four (27 percent) Americans attend religious services at least once a week. About as many Americans (29 percent) report that they never attend religious services. Men report attending at lower rates than women do, but differences in weekly service attendance are modest (23 percent vs. 29 percent). Additionally, men are more likely than women to say they never attend worship services (33 percent vs. 24 percent).

At nearly every age, women report more frequent religious attendance, with one important exception: young adults. Young men and women are about equally likely to say they never attend services (33 percent vs. 31 percent).

Not only do women attend services more often than men do, but they are also more likely to believe in God and express certainty in that belief. A majority (55 percent) of women say they believe in God and do not have any doubts, while less than half (46 percent) of men say the same.

Despite overall differences in religious belief between men and women, young people are about as likely to report being completely confident in their belief in God. Roughly four in 10 young men (40 percent) and young women (39 percent) report that they believe in God with complete certainty. Older Americans are far more likely to affirm this belief, but the gender gap is especially large among seniors. More than six in 10 (63 percent) senior women and slightly more than half (53 percent) of senior men report believing in God without any doubts.

Women are also significantly more likely than men to say they think about God in their daily lives. More than six in 10 (63 percent) women say they think about God every day or most days, compared to 50 percent of men.

Again, gender differences are more pronounced among older Americans. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) senior women say they think about God most if not every day, compared to 55 percent of senior men. An identical number of young women (48 percent) and men (48 percent) report that they regularly think about God in their day-to-day life, suggesting women may be experiencing a greater decline in religious belief than men.

Suffering in the World

Perhaps because women exhibit a greater inclination to engage in religious pursuits and more certainly in their religious beliefs, they express more concern about the amount of suffering in the world. However, the gender gap in how often men and women contemplate suffering in the world is if anything larger than the religion gap: 63 percent of women and less than half (43 percent) of men say they think about suffering in the world every day or almost every day.

Notably, Americans who spend more of their time thinking about God report focusing more of their attention on suffering in the world. Among Americans who say they think about God every day, 68 percent say they spend every day or most days thinking about suffering in the world as well. In contrast, only 39 percent of Americans who never think about God say they think about suffering most days or every day.

Young men appear the least attentive to the idea of suffering in the world. Less than one-third (32 percent) of young men and more than half (51 percent) of young women say they regularly think about suffering in the world.

Older Americans are much more likely to say they think daily about suffering in the world. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of senior women and approximately six in 10 (61 percent) senior men report thinking about suffering in the world every day or most days.

The Growing Gender Gap in American Politics

The gender gap has been a consistent feature of American politics. However, there are signs that the political divide may be growing wider, as women’s political preferences have shifted significantly over the past couple of decades. Since the mid-1990s, women have grown more Democratic and less Republican; a majority of women now identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.[8]

In 1998, women with a college degree accounted for only 12 percent of all Democrats. Today, more than one-quarter (28 percent) of Democrats are college-educated women. While men without a college degree have not experienced this massive realignment, the share of men without a college education in the Republican Party has also increased somewhat, rising to 22 percent today from 17 percent in 1998.

One possible source of the growing gender divide in American politics is the increasingly distinct views of college-educated women. College-educated women have become among the strongest supporters of the Democratic Party, a trend that predated Donald Trump’s political ascendance. Their views on a variety of political issues are more liberal than college-educated women or women without a degree. And they stand in stark contrast to the political opinions of men without a college degree.

The Values Gap Between Educated Women and Less Educated Men

On a range of political issues, the views of college-educated women and men without a college degree differ dramatically. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of college-educated women believe it is more important to prioritize protecting the environment even at the cost of slower economic growth and some job loss, a view held by less than half (45 percent) of men without a college degree. Rather, a majority (51 percent) of men with no college education say we should prioritize economic growth and job creation, even if the environment suffers to some extent.

The divide over abortion is also considerable. More than seven in 10 (72 percent) college-educated women say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Less than half (43 percent) of men without a college education agree; more than half (54 percent) say abortion should be illegal in most if not all cases.

Donald Trump is largely unpopular among the public. But while men without a college education are not overly enamored with him, he is far more popular among this group than he is among college-educated women. Less than half (48 percent) of men without a college degree say they have an unfavorable view of Trump. College-educated women are much more likely to express a negative opinion of the former president: Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) have an unfavorable view of Trump. Fifty-nine percent of college-educated women have a very unfavorable view of Trump.

Most Americans believe that diplomacy is a better way to ensure peace than through the use of military force. However, there is a wide gap between men without a college degree and college-educated women. Eighty-five percent of college-educated women believe good diplomacy is the best peacekeeping measure. Only 57 percent of men without a college education say the same.

Masculine and Feminine Identity and Experiences

When it comes to how American men and women assess how much they approximate traditional notions of masculinity or femininity, most do not describe themselves as being very masculine or very feminine. Fewer than four in 10 (39 percent) men say they are very manly or masculine. Roughly half (48 percent) of men say they are somewhat masculine, and 11 percent say they are not too or not at all masculine.

Women have a similar view of themselves when it comes to femininity. Thirty-seven percent of women say they would describe themselves as very womanly or feminine, while roughly half (48 percent) say they are somewhat feminine. Fourteen percent of women say they are not too or not at all feminine.

Self-perceptions of masculinity and femininity among both men and women vary significantly by age. Young men are less likely than senior men to say they are very manly or masculine (32 percent vs. 43 percent). The age gap is even larger among women. About one in three (32 percent) young women say they are very feminine, compared to nearly half (48 percent) of women age 65 or older.

Republican men are far more likely than Democratic men to identify as traditionally masculine. A majority (54 percent) of Republican men say they are very manly or masculine, compared to one-third (33 percent) of Democratic men. Notably, women across the political spectrum are roughly as likely to identify as feminine. Roughly four in 10 Democratic women (42 percent) and Republican women (39 percent) say they are traditionally feminine.

White men are less likely to see themselves as very manly compared to Black and Hispanic men. Only 36 percent of White men would describe themselves as very masculine. A majority of Black men (55 percent) and Hispanic men (52 percent) say they are very manly or masculine.[9]

Being Viewed as Masculine or Feminine

Most Americans say being viewed as masculine or feminine is not an important priority for them. Less than half of men (44 percent) and women (46 percent) say it is either somewhat or very important that people see them as masculine or feminine.

Older women are much more likely than younger women to say that being viewed as feminine is important to them. Half (50 percent) of women age 65 or older say being seen by others as feminine is at least somewhat important, while less than one-third (32 percent) of young women say the same. Notably, men are no more likely to say being seen as masculine is important to them as they age.

Being viewed as masculine is generally more important among Americans with conservative views. A majority (55 percent) of conservative men say it is at least somewhat important that they are viewed as masculine, compared to only 30 percent of liberal men.

Among women, the ideological divide is somewhat smaller: 55 percent of conservative women say being viewed as feminine by others is important to them, compared to 39 percent of liberal women.

Men with lower levels of educational attainment express more interest in being viewed as masculine or manly than do those with a college degree. A majority (54 percent) of men with no college experience say it is very or somewhat important that people see them as masculine, compared to 38 percent of college-educated men.

Not Being Masculine or Feminine Enough

Roughly equal numbers of men and women report that they experienced criticism growing up for not being appropriately masculine or feminine. About one in five (22 percent) men say they were criticized during their childhood for not acting like a man or not being masculine enough. Similarly, 21 percent of women also report that they faced criticism for not acting like a woman or being feminine enough.

There are massive generational divisions in the number of men and women who say they were denigrated for not conforming to masculine or feminine ideals. Although young adults report being criticized more often than older Americans, young men are especially likely to report these experiences. Thirty-seven percent of young men say they were criticized for not acting like a man or being masculine, compared to only 6 percent of senior men. Three in 10 (30 percent) young women say they experienced criticism for not acting like a woman or being feminine enough, while 11 percent of senior women had this experience.

Men who faced criticism for their perceived lack of masculinity faced different forms of social pressure and abuse, but common themes emerged from these experiences. When asked to describe these experiences, some men reported that participating in activities that were viewed as not sufficiently masculine or failing to pursue masculine activities, like sports, resulted in teasing or bullying. A 32-year-old man said: “I was bullied in school for being part of the choir program and doing music.” Another man said his uncle accused him of being too feminine because he liked to cook and spend time with his mother.

Other men report being mocked for their physical appearance or demeanor. A 41-year-old man reported that he was “bullied for being effeminate as a kid.” Another man reported that “people would call me a sissy boy because I wasn’t as big as them or as strong.” A 28-year-old man said that he was called “gay” and “feminine” for being “naturally hairless” and being on the swim team. For other men, criticism came from more basic mannerisms, such as the way they crossed their legs.

Finally, some men report that they were criticized for expressing emotions or not being assertive. A 68-year-old man said: “I didn’t stand up for myself enough as a child. Many friends thought I should get in more fights.”

Physical Attraction, Romantic Expectations, and the Gender Divide over Sex

American conceptions of sex and sexuality have changed drastically in recent years. According to Gallup, the number of Americans who identify as something other than heterosexual has more than doubled in the past decade. Much of that increase is attributable to the rising number of young people identifying as bisexual. Consistent with these results, younger Americans are much more likely to report being physically attracted to men and women. But there are considerable differences between men and women, with young women significantly more likely than young men to report feelings of attraction to men and women.

Generational Changes in Physical Attraction

Most Americans are attracted exclusively to people of the opposite gender, but feelings of physical attraction are changing for both men and women. Women in particular report more flexibility in their feelings of physical attraction. Overall, 86 percent of men report they are physically attracted to only women. Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) women report they are attracted to exclusively men. Notably, men are more likely than women to say they are attracted to only the same gender (5 percent vs. 2 percent).

Patterns of physical attraction are considerably different across generations, especially among women. Three-quarters (75 percent) of young men say they are attracted to only women, compared to 91 percent of senior men. The generation gap is even larger among women: 56 percent of young women report being attracted to only men, compared to 83 percent of senior women.

Young women express considerable flexibility in whom they feel attracted to. Nineteen percent of young women report being attracted to mostly men but women too. Nine percent say they are physically attracted to both men and women equally. Three percent say they are attracted to mostly women but men as well, and 4 percent say they are attracted to exclusively women.

Expectations of Romantic Partners

Most Americans believe that people have unrealistic expectations when it comes to looking for a romantic partner. However, both men and women say that more men have unrealistic expectations than women do.

Overall, nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans believe that when it comes to dating, most men have unrealistic expectations, including nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of men and three-quarters (74 percent) of women. A majority (57 percent) of Americans also say that women have unrealistic expectations for men. More than half (53 percent) of men and nearly six in 10 (59 percent) women say that women have unrealistic expectations when it comes to finding a romantic partner.

The Sex Divide Between Men and Women

There are yawning divisions between men and women over how often they think about sex and sexual activity. Nearly half (47 percent) of men report that they think about sex most days or every day. In contrast, only about one in five (19 percent) women report thinking about sex this frequently.

Although sexually suggestive or explicit content is frequently featured in advertising, television programs, and movies aimed at young people, young men actually are less likely to report thinking about sex than are men who are somewhat older.[10] Four in 10 (40 percent) young men say they think about sex most days if not every day. In contrast, a majority of men age 30–49 (56 percent) and men age 50–64 (51 percent) report that they think about sex most days or every day. Thirty-six percent of senior men say they think about sex this often.

Across the board, women report spending far less time thinking about sex, and generational divisions are somewhat different. Fewer than one in four (24 percent) young women say they think about sex most days or every day. Similar numbers of women age 30–49 (27 percent) report that they spend time thinking about sex regularly—at least most days. Women age 50–64 (18 percent) and age 65 or older (8 percent) report thinking about sex less often.

Men who describe themselves as more masculine report thinking about sex and sexual activity more often. A majority (54 percent) of self-described “very masculine” men say they think about sex most days if not every day, compared to only 39 percent of those who say they are not masculine. Notably, women who describe themselves as more feminine do not report thinking about sex much more often than those who do not (23 percent vs. 16 percent).

Educational differences are evident in how often men think about sex. A majority (54 percent) of men with a college education say they think about sex most days or every day. In contrast, only about four in 10 (42 percent) men without a college degree report that they think about sex this often. Educational attainment does not appear to have any bearing on how often women think about sex.

Views About Premarital Sex

While most Americans do not believe it is important to wait to have sex until you are married, a large minority support this view. Nearly four in 10 (39 percent) Americans say it is important to abstain from having sex until one is married.

Opinions of premarital sex differ only modestly between men and women. More than four in 10 (42 percent) women say it is important to wait, compared to 35 percent of men.

Americans with lower levels of educational attainment are much more likely to say it is important to abstain from sex until one is married. Close to half (48 percent) of women without a college degree—and 41 percent of men without a degree—say it is important to wait. Only about one in three college-educated women (35 percent) and men (31 percent) say the same.

American attitudes about premarital sex also differ significantly between those who are married and those who have never been married. Nearly half (48 percent) of married women say it is important to wait to have sex until marriage. Four in 10 (40 percent) married men also agree. In contrast, fewer than three in 10 never-married women (29 percent) and never-married men (29 percent) believe it is important to hold off.

There are massive religious differences in views about premarital sex. A majority (69 percent) of White evangelical Protestants and Black Protestants (54 percent) say it is important to wait to have sex until after marriage. Fewer than four in 10 (39 percent) Catholics—including identical numbers of White and Hispanic Catholics—and approximately one in three (34 percent) White mainline Protestants say waiting to have sex until marriage is important. Only 13 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe it is important to abstain from sex until one is married.

The Sex Lives of Married and Single Americans

Perhaps not surprisingly, single Americans— that is, those who have never been married and are not currently in a committed romantic relationship—report having sex much less frequently than married Americans do. Nearly half of married men (48 percent) and women (47 percent) say they had sex in the past week.[11] In contrast, fewer than one in 10 single men (9 percent) and single women (5 percent) say they had sex in the past seven days. Roughly four in 10 single men (38 percent) and single women (38 percent) report that they have never had sex.

Differences between married and single Americans emerge in not only frequency of sex but also overall satisfaction. In general, married Americans report having more satisfying sex lives than do those who are single. Both married men and women report higher levels of satisfaction. Forty percent of married women and 36 percent of married men say they are very or extremely satisfied with their sex lives. Single men appear particularly unhappy with their sex lives: Only 16 percent of single men report they are satisfied. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) single men say they are not too or not at all satisfied with their sex lives.

The greater feelings of dissatisfaction among single men about their sex lives are particularly notable given that single men are not less likely to report having sex than single women are. Roughly two-thirds of single men (65 percent) and single women (66 percent) report that they have not had sex in the past 12 months.

What About Unmarried Americans in Relationships?

Not all unmarried Americans are single. Americans in committed romantic relationships, but who have never been married, report having more frequent sex than married Americans do. Roughly six in 10 (58 percent) Americans in a committed romantic relationship say they had sex in the past week, compared to 47 percent of married Americans.[12]

Unmarried Americans in committed romantic relationships also report being somewhat more satisfied in their sex lives than married Americans do. Slightly less than half (46 percent) of Americans who are in a relationship say they are completely or very satisfied with their sex lives, compared to 38 percent of Americans who are married.

Masculinity, Gender, and Changing Gender Roles in Society

American society is debating over and revising many long-held social norms and gender roles. Although most Americans do not appear overly alarmed at the prospect of these impending social changes, some Americans register greater concern. More than half of men believe that society is becoming too feminine, and many express concerns about the extent to which White men are being blamed for society’s woes. Conversely, young women are most likely to embrace changing gender roles and social norms as positive signs of progress.

Discrimination Against Men

Despite little evidence that men experience persistent discrimination,[13] roughly four in 10 (41 percent) Americans say that discrimination against men has become as big a problem as discrimination against women. Most (57 percent) Americans disagree with this statement.

There is a predictable gender divide in views about the pervasiveness of discrimination against men in American society. Nearly half (48 percent) of men say discrimination against men is equally prevalent among men and women, while about one-third (36 percent) of women say the same. The gender gap in perceptions of discrimination against men is largest among young adults. Young men are more than twice as likely as young women to view discrimination against men and women as equally problematic (52 percent vs. 25 percent).

Overall, more than four in 10 (44 percent) Americans agree that White men are too often blamed for problems in American society today. A majority (55 percent) of Americans reject this statement.

Views differ starkly along racial lines. Half (50 percent) of White Americans, including 57 percent of White men and 43 percent of White women, agree that White men are too frequently criticized for problems in American society. Fewer than four in 10 of Hispanic (39 percent) and Black Americans (27 percent) say the same.

The view that White men are unfairly blamed is particularly pronounced among Republican men. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Republican men and 60 percent of Republican women believe White men are too often blamed for problems in American society. Only about one-quarter (26 percent) of Democratic men and one in five (20 percent) Democratic women share this view.

Is American Society Too Feminine?

Americans are somewhat divided over whether modern society has become “too soft and feminine.” Close to half (45 percent) of the public believe American society has become too feminine, while a majority (54 percent) reject this idea.

Men are more likely than women to see American society as too feminine. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of men compared to 40 percent of women agree that American society has become too soft and feminine. A majority (58 percent) of women disagree with the statement.

Men who consider themselves very manly or masculine report being much more concerned about these shifts in American society. Roughly six in 10 (61 percent) very masculine men agree that society today is too soft and feminine, compared to about half (48 percent) who consider themselves somewhat masculine and roughly a third (34 percent) who say they are not too or not at all masculine.

There are sharp partisan differences in views about whether American society has become too soft and feminine. Seventy-eight percent of Republican men and 65 percent of Republican women agree with this statement, compared to only 25 percent of Democratic men and 20 percent of Democratic women.

Changing Social Norms and Practices.

Americans generally feel more upbeat than discouraged about changing gender roles in American society, although a significant proportion of the public believes these changes will make little difference. About a third (34 percent) of Americans say more fathers staying home with children so their spouses can work full-time is good for society. Roughly half (53 percent) say this won’t make much difference, and about one in 10 (11 percent) would characterize this as a negative development.

Americans are somewhat more positive about the rise of women serving in the military. Roughly four in 10 (41 percent) say that more women serving is a positive trend, while roughly half (47 percent) feel neutral about this change. Only 10 percent of the public sees the increase of women serving in the military as negative.

Americans overwhelmingly support men becoming more comfortable publicly expressing their feelings. Seven in 10 (70 percent) Americans say that men becoming more comfortable expressing their feelings and emotions is a positive development. About a quarter (26 percent) say this change does not really make much difference, while only 3 percent say this is a negative development.

Americans feel less positive about the rising number of gay and lesbian parents. Only 14 percent say more children having gay or lesbian parents is a positive societal development. About half (54 percent) say it doesn’t make much difference, and roughly three in 10 (31 percent) say this is a negative trend. Views are somewhat less negative today. In 2015, four in 10 (40 percent) Americans said the rising number of gay and lesbian parents was a negative trend.[14] However, Americans are not any more likely today to say this is a positive development.

Republican men are uniquely concerned that more children have gay and lesbian parents: 62 percent of Republican men say this is a negative change in American society. Less than half (44 percent) of Republican women agree. Significantly fewer Democratic men (22 percent) and Democratic women (14 percent) say the growing number of children raised by gay and lesbian parents is bad for society.

Young women appear uniquely optimistic about changing gender norms and roles in American society. The vast majority (86 percent) of young women say it is good that men are becoming more comfortable expressing their feelings and emotions. Majorities of young women also say it is good for more men to stay home with children (56 percent) and to have more women serve in the military (55 percent). They are also over twice as likely as the general public to say it is good for more children to have gay or lesbian parents (35 percent vs. 14 percent).

Loneliness, Life Satisfaction, and Personal Happiness

Two years of quarantine, illness, and loss have undeniably taken their toll on the American public. Even so, many Americans do not believe they are in worse shape today than they were before the pandemic. But the prevailing feeling among the public is not overly upbeat. Americans express general feelings of satisfaction with their health and personal life, but feelings of insecurities and frustrations persist.

Pandemic Life Changes and Personal Happiness

Even as most Americans no longer believe COVID-19 is a critical issue facing the country, a significant portion of the public has not recovered from the pandemic’s social or financial toll.[15] Nearly one in four (24 percent) Americans say their lives today are worse than they were at the start of the pandemic. Notably, roughly as many (28 percent) Americans say they are in better shape than they were two years ago. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans report there has been no change in their lives since the start of the pandemic.

Most Americans generally believe they are about as happy as they could expect to be given their current situation. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans say they are about as happy as they expect to be. Six percent say they are happier than they should be given how things are going, and 28 percent say they are less happy than they ought to be.

Women are generally more likely to believe they are less happy than they should be given what’s happening in their lives. Roughly one in three (32 percent) women and one-quarter (25 percent) of men say they feel less happy than they should.

Women who have never been married are among the most likely to feel this way. Forty percent of never-married women and 32 percent of never-married men say they are less happy than they should be. The gender gap is also evident among married Americans, although overall they are less apt to feel this way. One in four (26 percent) married women say they are less happy than they should be, compared to 19 percent of married men.

Feelings of Satisfaction: Life, Health, and Sex

Americans are largely split on how they think things are going in their lives. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say they are very or completely satisfied with the way things are going in their lives. Forty-three percent report feeling somewhat satisfied, while roughly one in five (18 percent) say they are not too or not at all satisfied.

Americans express similar feelings of satisfaction with their personal health. Roughly four in 10 (37 percent) Americans say they are very or completely satisfied with their personal health. Forty-one percent are somewhat satisfied with their personal health, and 21 percent say they are not satisfied.

Americans are somewhat less upbeat about their sex lives, although feelings are more polarized. About one-third (35 percent) of Americans report being very or completely satisfied with their sex lives. Three in 10 (30 percent) Americans report being somewhat satisfied, and nearly one in three (32 percent) say they are not satisfied.

Women are somewhat more likely to report feeling satisfied with their sex lives than men are (38 percent vs. 32 percent). Notably, frequency of reported sexual activity is closely associated with feelings of satisfaction with one’s sex life. However, this relationship is considerably stronger among men than women.[16] Nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) men who say they have not had sex in the past 12 months report being unsatisfied with their sex lives, compared to less than half (48 percent) of women who report the same.

The Connection Between Personal Satisfaction and Satisfaction with Country.

Few Americans report feeling satisfied with how things are going in the country today. Only 4 percent say they feel very or completely satisfied, 20 percent say they feel somewhat satisfied, and three-quarters (75 percent) say they are not satisfied with the present state of things.

Despite widespread feelings of pessimism about the state of the country, for many Americans, these feelings barely affect how they feel things are going in their own lives. However, among liberals, there is a stronger connection between how they feel about what’s happening in the US and their personal feelings of satisfaction with their lives. Half (50 percent) of liberals who report feeling completely or very satisfied with their personal lives are also at least somewhat satisfied with how things are going in the country. In contrast, even conservatives who feel completely or very satisfied with their personal lives feel strongly negative about the state of the country.

Personal Insecurities.

Many Americans report regularly struggling with feelings of insecurity or report feeling unhappy with their physical appearance. About four in 10 Americans say that in the past week they have felt self-conscious or insecure (37 percent) or unhappy about how they look (40 percent) at least a few times.

Women are more likely than men to report feeling self-conscious or insecure. More than four in 10 (44 percent) women say they have felt self-conscious or insecure at least a few times over the past week. Thirty percent of men report feeling the same. These feelings are especially acute among young women. A majority (56 percent) of young women say they have felt self-conscious or insecure multiple times in the past week; 44 percent of young men say they have felt this way as often.

Women also report experiencing feelings of unhappiness with how they look far more than men do. Half (50 percent) of women say they have felt unhappy with how they look at least a few times in the past week. Less than one-third (31 percent) of men say they have felt this way.

Young women are especially likely to feel unhappy about their appearance. A majority (56 percent) of young women say they felt unhappy with how they looked at least a few times in the past week—and nearly one-third (32 percent) say they felt this way every day or nearly every day.

Notably, young men also report feeling dissatisfied with their appearance: 39 percent of young men say they were unsatisfied with their looks at least a few times in the past week.


About the Authors

Daniel A. Cox is the director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.

Beatrice Lee is a research assistant at the Survey Center on American Life.

Dana Popky is a research assistant at the Survey Center on American Life.


Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,007 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between March 11 and March 20 2022. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.

Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop and internet service provider connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.

The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 2.4 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.2.


Notes

[1] Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, and Renee Stepler, “On Gender Differences, No Consensus on Nature vs. Nurture,” Pew Research Center, December 5, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/12/05/on-gender-differences-no-consensus-on-nature-vs-nurture/.

[2] Kim Parker and Cary Funk, “Gender Discrimination Comes in Many Forms for Today’s Working Women,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/14/gender-discrimination-comes-in-many-forms-for-todays-working-women/.

[3] Daniel A. Cox, “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss,” AEI Survey Center on American Life, June 8, 2021, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/the-state-of-american-friendship-change-challenges-and-loss/.

[4] For the purposes of this report, “college educated” refers to Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree, while “those without a college education” refers to those with a high school diploma or less. Respondents with some college education, a degree from a vocational school, or those with a two-year degree were excluded from this report.

[5] Ruth Igielnik, “Men and Women in the U.S. Continue to Differ in Voter Turnout Rate, Party Identification,” Pew Research Center, August 18, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/18/men-and-women-in-the-u-s-continue-to-differ-in-voter-turnout-rate-party-identification/.

[6] Because men are disproportionately likely to report watching pornography and limited sample sizes of women frequently report watching pornography, we limit our analysis in this section to men. Comparing the correlations between frequency of pornography watching and reported feelings of loneliness and isolation, insecurity, and unhappiness with appearance, we find that pornography is much more strongly correlated with these variables for men than for women.

[7] Caryle Murphy, “Q&A: Why Are Women Generally More Religious Than Men?,” Pew Research Center, March 23, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/23/qa-why-are-women-generally-more-religious-than-men/.

[8] Pew Research Center, “Wide Gender Gap, Growing Educational Divide in Voters’ Party Identification,” March 20, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/03/20/1-trends-in-party-affiliation-among-demographic-groups/.

[9] The sample includes fewer than 100 male Black respondents (N = 92).

[10] Tom Reichert, “The Prevalence of Sexual Imagery in Ads Targeted to Young Adults,” Journal of Consumer Affairs 37, no. 2 (Winter 2003), https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=googlescholar&id=GALE|A112133125&v=2.1&it=r&sid=AONE&asid=c3039a36.

[11] In this analysis, “single” refers to those who have never been married and are not currently in a committed romantic relationship. 

[12] Americans who are never married and currently in a committed romantic relationship are not analyzed by gender because the sample size is too small.

[13] Parker and Funk, “Gender Discrimination Comes in Many Forms for Today’s Working Women.”

[14] Kim Parker et al., Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers, Pew Research Center, June 11, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/.

[15] Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies, “Study #220137: NBC News Survey,” NBC News, March 2022, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21554083-nbc-news-march-poll.

[16] There is a much stronger positive correlation between frequency of sexual activity and reported feelings of satisfaction among men (R = 0.49) than among women (R = 0.33).

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