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Race plays a role in the pace of some romances

Wed, 11/23/2011 - 7:21am
Cornell University

Among young American adults, relationships between white men and minority women move into sexual intimacy and from sex to cohabitation significantly faster than white-white couples or minority-minority pairings, reports a new study by a Cornell demographer.

Despite rising intermarriage rates in recent decades -- a sign of declining social distance between race groups in the United States -- the new paper suggests that racial hierarchies remain an influence on the pace and durability of young adult relationships.

The paper, by Sharon Sassler associate professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology, and Kara Joyner, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, is published in the September issue of the peer-reviewed journal Social Forces (90:1). Unlike previous studies on interracial relationships, which have focused predominately on married couples, it is one of few papers to investigate the tempo of key transitions in more informal unions -- from romance to sex and from sex to marriage, cohabitation or splitting up.

Sassler and Joyner examined data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth and the 2002 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health -- two nationally representative samples -- to understand the characteristics of relationships among heterosexual youth ages 18-24. They used respondents' self-designations as white, black, Hispanic and Asian.

Controlling for such factors as religion and family background, the researchers found that, on average, white male-minority female couples advanced to sex within one month of dating -- nearly twice as fast as white-white couples. Such couples also moved in together more quickly than with same-race partners. The pace of cohabitation for white women, on the other hand, does not differ significantly by the race of their partner. Nor do minority men progress any more quickly (or slowly) with white partners than with minority partners. The accelerated pace into sexual involvement and then shared living occurred only in white male-minority female couples.

The researchers found evidence for the persistence of so-called "status-caste exchanges," which scholars have long perceived in interracial marriages. Generally, the theory holds, in interracial couples, one partner trades elevated socio-economic status in exchange for the other's greater racial status. But, they write, earlier studies have discounted the "resources that women may bring to [such] relationships, such as physical attractiveness, sexual access and domestic services."

In this case, Sassler and Joyner found that in white-male minority-female pairings, the women were more likely to be rated attractive by interviewers than women in every other type of couple. Furthermore, the earnings in these couples were most disparate, especially when the minority women were from lower socio-economic backgrounds, compared with other couples.

No doubt chemistry and emotional attachment are key to all relationships, Sassler said. But, she added: "Our study provides evidence that white men still have an advantage in the partner market, and that women continue to trade off their attractiveness for men with the best economic traits. Exchange is alive and well in today's dating and mating world, and race, attractiveness and economics continue to play an important role."

The findings, which build on earlier research by Sassler and Joyner on relationship progression, shed light on why some pairings may be more prone to failure and such outcomes as unintended pregnancy. While noting that fast-moving relationships may inhibit all couples from assessing partner compatibility, they note that such challenges may be particularly salient for interracial couples, as they generally perceive less acceptance of their relationship from family and friends. Thus, it may leave them "less able to weather the challenges that all relationships face," the authors write.

The study was funded in part by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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