More Americans Consider Pets Family, But Not Gay Couples

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What makes a family? Do pets count? Same sex couples? Unmarried heterosexual couples? Anybody who lives together? According to a new book out Sept. 15, more Americans think pets count as family members (51%) than same-sex couples (33%). And 38% believe that neither pets nor same sex-couples should be counted as family.The book Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and America’s Definitions of Family (Russell Sage Foundation) draws on two surveys done in 2003 and 2006. Brian Powell, the book’s lead author, also released results from a 2010 survey in conjunction with the book’s publication. The surveys are cross-sectional: about 800 people from all walks of life were interviewed about what they considered a family, using different people each time.

The results suggest that while acceptance of same-sex couples is growing, more people are still opposed to gay marriage (52%) than are in favor of it (48%). Despite this, when asked if legally married same-sex couples count as family, 59% of people say yes. Since he started doing the surveys, Powell, who’s a professor of Sociology at Indiana University, has seen an 11% drop in the number of Americans who take a narrow or “traditional” view of family (married couples with children only), a statistic he calls “remarkable for both the size and the rate of change.”

The pet figure, which seems the most remarkable of all, did not change much between 2006 and 2010. There are still about 30% of people who believe pets count as family but gay couples do not. This may be influenced by the way the question was phrased, however. It asked “whether pets should be counted as family members,” which might have made people think of their own situation rather than offering an objective assessment of a family unit. (Then again, there was that university that offered employees pet health insurance before it offered domestic partners insurance.)

The presence of children also makes a huge difference to the way people see families. More than half of those surveyed felt that a same sex couple with children were a family, while only about a quarter felt that same sex couples without children were. And just a third felt that an unmarried heterosexual couple who lived together but had no kids should be considered a family. Almost 10% of people, who may have been watching too many Friends reruns, think housemates are family.

“What counts as family has real meaning,” says Powell. “It affects people who are hospitalized, estate rights and adoption law. Where people areĀ  in their views on family correlates with what happens in policy.”

The survey tracked other interesting changes too. People’s beliefs about the source of obesity have moved in the opposite direction from their belief about the source of homosexuality. Fewer people than in 2003 now believe that a person’s sexuality is caused primarily by their parenting rather than their genetic makeup. But more people than in 2003 believe that a person’s weight problems are caused by their parenting rather than their genes. Will we need an overweight-rights movement?

And while most of the demographic makeup of the groups who hold each view is predictable, men are still more likely to believe that sexual orientation is most influenced by a child’s upbringing than women are. Powell’s explanation? “Women are more aware of the limitations of parenting.”