Toward Understanding the Dynamics of Non-Traditional Consumers: an Exploratory Consideration of Lesbian Couples in America

Robert E. Wilkes, Texas Tech University
Debra A. Laverne, Texas Tech University
ABSTRACT - Decades of family research have focused on traditional households while non-traditional households have been ignored. In this exploratory look at lesbian dyads, three areas are examined: communication, allocation of domestic tasks, and financial responsibilities and sharing. Using a convenience sample of 35 couples, the research reveals high levels of verbal and nonverbal communication. Household tasks are generally allocated evenly, though this does not mean each task is shared equally. Responses are highly congruent across partners. Although there is no clear gender dichotomy, we found evidence of task allocation according to gender identity, i.e., responsibility for certain tasks appears to be related to higher levels of self-ascribed femininity and/or masculinity. We found higher levels of pooling of financial resources than has been reported in one or two previous studies, but still substantially lower than is the case for heterosexual couples. In terms of the sharing of household expenses, we found the dominant model to be based on ability to pay rather than partners contributing equally as previous literature has shown.
[ to cite ]:
Robert E. Wilkes and Debra A. Laverne (2002) ,"Toward Understanding the Dynamics of Non-Traditional Consumers: an Exploratory Consideration of Lesbian Couples in America", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 421-427.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 421-427


Robert E. Wilkes, Texas Tech University

Debra A. Laverne, Texas Tech University


Decades of family research have focused on traditional households while non-traditional households have been ignored. In this exploratory look at lesbian dyads, three areas are examined: communication, allocation of domestic tasks, and financial responsibilities and sharing. Using a convenience sample of 35 couples, the research reveals high levels of verbal and nonverbal communication. Household tasks are generally allocated evenly, though this does not mean each task is shared equally. Responses are highly congruent across partners. Although there is no clear gender dichotomy, we found evidence of task allocation according to gender identity, i.e., responsibility for certain tasks appears to be related to higher levels of self-ascribed femininity and/or masculinity. We found higher levels of pooling of financial resources than has been reported in one or two previous studies, but still substantially lower than is the case for heterosexual couples. In terms of the sharing of household expenses, we found the dominant model to be based on ability to pay rather than partners contributing equally as previous literature has shown.


Although decades of research have examined the family as an element in consumer purchase behavior, this body of literature has been narrowly focused on heterosexual couples. Non-traditional relationships, especially gay and lesbian couples, are virtually invisible in the marketing and consumer behavior literature. This is puzzling in light of the fact that the traditional nuclear family (i.e., husband and wife with their progeny) is itself a minority family form in the US (Rubin 1995), yet gays and lesbiansCreferred to by Johnson (1993) as the 'Dream market’ and Kahan and Mulryan (1995) as "an untapped goldmine"Care estimated to number up to 25 million persons wth annual spending exceeding $500 billion. As competition in mass markets intensifies, the appeal of specialized consumer groups like gays and lesbians will only grow. However, the lack of information on these consumers will be a major limitation to marketers hopeful of tapping into this so-called goldmine.

A collection of papers by Wardlow (1996) provides a broad-brush overview of gays and lesbians as consumers, principally from a cultural perspective. Kates’ (1998) ethnographic study offers a glimpse of gay men’s consumption, at least with respect to self concept and community dynamics. On balance, however, as DeLozier and Rodrigue (1996) emphasize, "The very difficult problem is that we have very little research on gays and their purchasing behavior" (emphasis in the original). Therefore, the principal purpose of this paper is to help de-mystify this important, but largely neglected by consumer researchers, group of consumers. In this exploratory study, we concentrate on lesbian couples. We have identified three topics that are of importance in enlightening our understanding of the consumer behavior of these particular dyads: communication within the dyad, allocation of domestic tasks, and sharing of financial responsibilities.



Decisions about a wide variety of household activities inevitably, repeatedly, and commonly require communication between and among members of the household group. Indeed, much of the research into household decisions focuses on husband-wife-child interactions in purchasing decisions, i.e., how members reach decisions, how family members attempt to influence one another, how information is transmitted within the group, etc. Thus how effective household members are in expressing their thoughts is a vital factor in determining the overall quality of these relationships. With respect to communication in lesbian dyads in particular, however, very limited evidence is available. According to Mackey, et al. (1997, p. 73), for lesbians, "reflecting upon and learning from their interpersonal experiences, including decision making, was central to the viability of their relationships." Making decisions mutually would thus require effective communication between partners. These researchers conjectured (p. 67) that communication was the "thread that connected partners and a vehicle for making decisions."

Division of Household Labor

The allocation of responsibility for domestic tasks within heterosexual households has been consistently linked to gender, with wives performing the bulk of these duties (Oerton 1998; Dunne 1999). In contrast, research on lesbian couples has so far revealed an equitable division of household tasks (Blumstein and Schwartz 1984; Johnson 1990; Weston 1991). Peplau nd Cochran (1990) found that if any specialization exists in this allocation of responsibilities, it is usually based on individual skills and interests. However, Weber (1998) points out two methodological concerns of studies of the division of household tasks in lesbian households. First, some studies obtained responses from only one partner in the relationship. Second, many studies asked about participants’ feelings about the division of household tasks, rather than ascertaining who actually did what.

Of course, there are no clear gender guidelines to follow within lesbian relationships for deciding which partner is responsible for what tasks. Overarching this consideration is the finding from a growing number of studies that lesbian relationships embody at least the perception of egalitarianism across a variety of dimensions, e.g., finances, residence location (Mackey, et al. 1997; Weber 1998). However, the perception of equity may not be consistent with the reality of task allocation. Support for this contention comes from Reilly and Lynch (1990), who reported that while 90% of their sample of lesbian couples agreed that both partners should have equal say in decisions, only 45% agreed that this was actually the case for their own relationships.

Does the lack of an absolute gender dichotomy in lesbian relationships mean that gender identity is not relevant to their division of responsibility for household tasks? In one of the very few studies to examine this issue among lesbian households, Kurdek (1993, p. 137) concluded that "linking the performance of household labor to personal power and gender role orientation works only for married couples." Kurdek employed the Bem Sex Role Inventory (Bem 1974) to measure gender identity. Using a simple split of butch vs. femme self identification by respondents, Weber (1998) found that gender identity is related to some household task allocations. Respondents self-defined as femme were more likely to perform cooking tasks but less likely to perform yard work. The butch/femme identity was weakly (and negatively) related to scrubbing/cleaning chores, planning meals, and grocery shopping. In neither of these two studies were one participant’s responses matched to her actual partner’s responses.

There is a difference of opinion among researchers with respect to employment of a butch-femme perspective in researching lesbian relationships. Weber (1998) argues that lesbians in large numbers identify themselves as either butch or femme, but further notes that these cannot be extrapolated to "butch equals male" and "femme equals female." According to Reilly and Lynch (1990), however, most researchers note that butch-femme role playing has become minimal in lesbian partnerships. Dunne (1997) also observes that butch/femme relationships appear to be fairly uncommon among lesbian couples.

Financial Arrangements

We focus on two areas under this general topic: pooling of resources and sharing of financial obligations, i.e., paying bills. With respect to the former, what evidence is available suggests that this is not widespread among lesbian couples. The majority of respondents interviewed by Weber (1998) did not pool financial resources. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that the likelihood of financial resource pooling increased with the length of the cohabiting couple’s relationship.

There are, of course, very good reasons why lesbian (and gay) couples would choose less frequently than has been reported for married heterosexual couples to pool their finances. According to Blumstein and Schwartz (1983), most states in the US are community property states.Given that lesbian couples are not accorded community property rights, pooling financial resources could prove disastrous. Second, married heterosexual couples are guided by tradition to pool resources. Lesbians lack such traditional guidance. Other researchers (Dunne, 1997; Mackey, O’Brien and Mackey 1997) echo another basis suggested by Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) for the reluctance by lesbian couples to pool resources, i.e., preservation of autonomy. According to Mackey, O’Brien and Mackey (p. 89), for women, "independence and autonomy within relationships were highly valued," what Dunne refers to as 'co-independence.’

With respect to payment of bills, previous research here is also rather limited. Lesbian dyads in Weber’s (1998) sample shared bills as follows: rent/mortgage (59%), utilities (61%), groceries (66%), and entertainment (61%). Individual partner economic resources were unrelated to bill sharing in her study. According to Mackey, O’Brien and Mackey (1997, p. 89), "issues of money were part of the process of resolving themes related to power, autonomy, mutuality and fairness." Peplau and Cochran (1990) suggest that domination in lesbian relationships may be related more closely to emotional investment by the partners than to economic factors. As we previously noted, however, egalitarianism has been shown in several studies to be a valued dimension of lesbian relationships (Lindsey 1990).


In stark contrast to the open nature of heterosexual couples in American culture, the closeted nature of gays and lesbians significantly increases problems for interested researchers. Absent a pool for random sampling, researchers often employ snowball sampling. We wanted to identify a source of potential respondents that would be sufficiently large, but not be obviously skewed demographically. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) is a worldwide ministry that specializes in providing religious services to the gay, lesbian and trans-gendered community. With the endorsement of the minister, we recruited participants at a Sunday service. Partners in current lesbian relationships of two years or longer were asked to participate. This qualifier was imposed to assure that respondents had dealt with certain household issues, e.g., division of household labor, bills payment, etc. Survey packets were distributed following the service during a refreshment period. Each packet included two surveys (one for each partner), two medium-sized envelopes (one in which each partner could seal her completed survey), and one large envelope with postage affixed for returning the two sealed envelopes. Partners were instructed verbally and in writing to fill out the surveys independently. Since most participants in this research completed the survey under the discreet observance of one of the authors in a quiet and comfortable room provided by the church following the service, we are reasonably confident that responses across partners are independent. The remaining surveys were returned by mail within one week. One couple’s responses were omitted from the results reported here because only one partner mailed back a completed survey. The survey required an average of forty minutes to complete. Whereas almost all previous studies of lesbians randomly designated respondents as either Partner 1 or Partner 2, we were able to match answers of partners within the dyad. Results reported here are based on responses obtained from a judgment sample of thirty five couples.

A full demographic profile of the lesbian population of the US is, of course, not aailable. Several researchers have reported that lesbians, as a group, are more highly educated and have higher disposable incomes when compared to the US population (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Reilly and Lynch 1990). A survey of readers of a magazine that targets lesbians reported a median household income of $47,700; 77% of the readers had college degrees (Alsop 1999). Yankelovich (1994) did not find gays and lesbians to have incomes above the average for heterosexuals, however. Respondents in the study reported here reflected both relatively higher incomes and education: 54 out of 70 were college graduates; just under half had either an advanced degree or some graduate credits. Eighty percent of our respondents reported an annual household income of at least $50,000. Couples in this research had been in their current relationship an average of 9.3 years. Eighty six percent were between 30-49 years of age.



We assessed respondents’ communication practices through the Primary Communications Inventory (PCI), which was developed by Locke and Wallace (1959) and later modified by Navran (1967). There are two parts of this inventory of self-reported practices of communication: (a) verbalCassesses the pragmatic, problem-solving aspects of nonsexual-related relationship development and maintenance; and (b) non-verbalCassesses sensitivity to gesture, tones, and cues. Coefficient alphas reported by Yelsma (1986) in his assessment of marriage vs. cohabitation couples were .85 for the verbal component and .56 for the non-verbal component. Respondents indicated how often they communicated in the way suggested by each item on a 5-point scale from 'Never’ to 'Very Frequently.’

That respondents in the present study felt they had good verbal and non-verbal communication within the dyad is indicated by the following mean scores:

                         Partner 1    Partner 2

Verbal                  4.1                4.2

 Non-verbal         4.2                4.2

Allocation of Household Tasks

We asked respondents in this study to indicate who had responsibility for ten fairly common domestic tasks that range from ones often associated in heterosexual relationships as more feminine (e.g., cooking, doing the laundry) to more masculine (e.g., lawn care, outside maintenance). On a 5-point scale, possible responses ranged from 'Always me’ to 'Always partner.’ We discuss three topics concerning the division of tasks: (a) who does what, (b) how congruent are these perceptions across partners, and (c) whether sex role identity is related to these allocations.



Who Does What Tasks? Table 1 provides the perceptions of boh partners after we collapsed the two end points on the scale to produce three categories: Me More, Equal, and Partner More. Do respondents perceive equality to exist with respect to the allocation of these domestic tasks across partners? In general, we think that the answer is yes, they do, although this does not mean that all task are done equally by both partners.

In fact, only two tasksChousehold repair and bill paymentCwere seen as 'Partner and me equally’ by at least half of our study participants according to at least one partner. Across all dyads, there are five tasks (washing dishes, household repair, dusting/vacuuming, cleaning floors, and paying bills) that at least one-third of the couples (according to either Partner 1 or Partner 2 responses) view as equally shared. For the remaining couples, there appears to be an allocation of responsibility to one partner or the other, in roughly equal amounts for most tasks, on some basis that couples apparently find acceptable. Note that for the other five tasks, three are allocated more to one partner than the other, with the remaining two being allocated just the opposite. Which three tasks are so allocated depends on whether answers from Partner 1 or Partner 2 are considered.

Congruence. How congruent are these perceptions? We adopt the procedure proposed by Douglas and Wind (1978) and shown in Figure 1. This approach collapses the initial 5-point scale of perceived responsibility into a 3-point scale, on the assumption that the difference in end points (i.e., 'Partner always’ vs. 'Partner mostly’) are not crucial in this context.

Table 2 shows that there are few instances of highly incongruent responses (i.e., partners claim opposite responsibility for a task). Rather, perceptions of responsibility across partners appear to be rather consistent. Of the four tasks that exhibit at least 80% agreement across partners as to responsibility, three are generally seen by society as more feminine (doing the laundry, cooking, dusting/vacuuming) and one is generally seen as more masculine (lawn work). Perceptions about responsibility for these tasks are consistent across partners at least at the 70% level for six of the ten tasks included in the study; 69% of the respondents agree about who is responsible for doing the dishes. We note that congruence never drops below 60% for any task.

Sex Role Identity. We have noted that certain domestic tasks are likely in American heterosexual culture to be seen as either more masculine or more feminine in nature, e.g., wives traditionally do the cooking, the laundry, and the dishes, while husbands traditionally take care of household repairs and mowing the lawn. We have also noted that there is no clear gender dichotomy in lesbian households. This begs the question of whether partners in lesbian dyads manifest gender identities that can be linked to the set of domestic tasks explored here in a fashion at all similar to that of heterosexual households in which gender is clearly demarcated. We utilized the Bem Sex Role Inventory as modified by Stern, Barak and Gould (1987). This streamlined version contains two ten-item multi-trait indices, one for masculinity and one for femininity. Using a 5-point scale, respondents here indicated how well a trait described themselves, from 'Does not describe me at all’ to 'Describes me exactly.’

How do these indices relate to the allocation of domestic tasks for lesbian couples in the present research? Recall that we match partners within the dyad. As Table 3 reveals, for the task of washing dishes, the perceptions of Partner 1 are that as her self-ascribed femininity increases, she is more likely to be the one doing the dishes, not her partner. Perceptions of Partner 2 show that as that partner’s self-ascribed masculinity increases, her partner is more likely to be doing the dishes, not herself. Similarly, for outside maintenance, higher self-ascribed femininity by Partner 1 is positively correlated with this task being allocated to her partner, not herself; for Partner 2, higher self- ascribed masculinity is negatively associated with the task being assigned to her partner. Negatively correlated masculinity scores from Partner 2 with household repairs also indicate that Partner 2 is more likely to perform this task.

These results, when considered along with those reported by Weber (1998), suggest that sex role identity does bear a significant relationship to the allocation of some household tasks within lesbian households, even though no clear gender dichotomy exists. This is a matter worthy of additional research.

When we examined the correlations across partners for the femininity and masculinity indices, we noticed an interesting relationship that we also briefly discuss here. Stern, Barak and Gould (1987) reported a correlation of .34 (p<.05) between these two indices in their sample of males and females. No correlation was reportedCnor would there have been any reason for them to have done soCbetween the masculinity or femininity indices across husbands and wives.

Given the uncertainty attached to gender and sex role identification in gay and lesbian couples, however, our curiosity prompted us to examine these cross correlations. In the present study, correlations across partners for these two indices are shown in Figure 2.

We note that while the two indices are not significantly correlated for either Partner 1 or Partner 2, the correlations between femininity and masculinity are significantly and positively correlated across Partner 1 and Partner 2. That is, higher levels of femininity for Partner 1 are significantly related to higher levels of masculinity for Partner 2. Again we note that responses of partners within dyads were matched, not randomly assigned as in previous work. We are not suggesting that these associations signify a butch/femme framework for lesbian couples. Our research results simply do not allow us either to claim or to refute such a framework. To our knowledge, however, this is the first evidence (by dyad) that lesbian couples manifest a correlated feminine-masculine identity across partners.











Financial Arrangements

Because of the exploratory nature of this paper, as well as the page limit associated with this conference, we restrict our consideration of this general topic to two specific areas: are resources pooled and who pays what bills. With respect to pooling, we found that study participants arrange their checking and savings accounts as follows:

                                     Partner 1        Partner 2a

                            Single    Joint     Single   Joint

Checking account         19       16         18         16

Saving account              19       16         17         17

    aOne missing

For 100% of the joint accounts, the other name on the account was the dyad partner. This represents higher levels of resource pooling (48%-49%) than was reported by Weber (1998) (32%-39%). Although this difference may be sample specific, it may also be due to the fact that the average length of the current relationship in Weber’s sample was three years compared to just over nine years in the sample reported here. Recall that Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) reported that, among cohabiting partners, the likelihood of pooling savings accounts increases with the length of the relationship. The proportion of lesbian couples with joint checking accounts in this or Weber’s study is substantially below the rate of joint accounts reported for married heterosexual couples ( 2001):

One joint checking account and two separate checking accounts      22%

Only one joint checking account     66%

Two separate checking accounts     8%



Who Pays What? We asked respondents to indicate how contributions to a set of eight common household expenses are handled within the relationship, using the following scale: I Pay, My Partner Pays, We Split Based On Ability To Pay, We Split Evenly. As Table 4 reveals, dividing expenses equally is clearly not the operational model for handling bills among the lesbian couples in the present study. Rather, the dominant model used by partners within the dyad for making financial contributions to these household bills is the ability to pay. Considering both partners’ responses across the eight types of expenses, an average of 24 of the 35 couples in our research indicated that expenses are handled in this way. Only 10 of 35 couples, on average, indicated that these household expenses are split evenly. This finding contrasts sharply with results reported by Weber (1998). Across four bills (rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries, entertainment), from 59% to 66% of her respondents indicated that they share such expenses equally. Weber did not give her respondents an option of indicating a split based on ability to pay. Had this option been available, it is possible that Weber’s results would have been different. Clearly the lesbian couples in our research have negotiated, evolved, developed, a procedure for handling household expenses that seems to re-define egalitarianism in their relationship to refer to equal ability to pay rather than to equal amounts paid. We also note that partners’ perceptions of financial contributions were in perfect agreement an average of 84% across these expenses.

Our results in this respect might be less significant, perhaps, if partners in the couples sampled in this research were essentially even in terms of financial ability to pay. While we did not assess financial wealth, we did ask each respondent to indicate what proportion of household income she provided. Figure 2 provides a plot of the proportion of income each partner within the 35 dyads claims to contribute to the relationship. These plots reveal two characteristics about the relative incomes of partners in our sample. First, there is substantial variation in the proportion of income provided, i.e., partners clearly do not bring equal levels of income to the relationship. Second, partners exhibit cloe agreement as to the claimed proportions. Note how consistently the lines plot for each dyad, i.e., as the plot for Partner 1 decreases, the plot for Partner 2 increases by the 'correct’ amount. Thus we have reasonable confidence in our interpretation with respect to ability to pay vs. equal sharing regarding household expenses.


The increased media attention being focused on lesbian (and gay) consumers presents firms with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the buying potential of these generally upscale consumers is economically appealing. On the other hand, relatively little is known about these persons as consumers, e.g., how they will react to marketing and advertising targeted specifically to them (Kahan and Mulryan 1995), nor how more traditional markets will react if these non-traditional segments are incorporated in mainstream marketing efforts.

We have shown in this exploratory study that lesbian couples manifest high levels of communicationCboth verbal and nonverbal. We have also shown that lesbian couples manifest a strong sense of equity in their relationship that extends to the allocation of responsibility for household tasks. We have demonstrated the high levels of congruence that partners within a dyad manifest with respect to their perceptions of these responsibilities. We have also provided evidence that gender identity is a factor in these decisions, thus giving support to Demo and Allen’s (1996) contention that gender is socially constructed through interactions. We have provided evidence that the pooling of financial resources within lesbian dyads, while considerably lower than in heterosexual couples, is substantial. Finally, we have shown that when it comes to sharing household expenses, it may not be the ethic of 'pay equal amounts’ that guides lesbian couples who are in longer-term relationship as much as it is 'pay what you are able to pay.’

From a theoretical perspective, there is no question that lesbian and gay families challenge dominant theories of family structure and process (Demo and Allen 1996). As Mackey et al. (1997, p. xiii) emphasize: "As social scientists, we are committed to understanding the human condition in its many forms and shapes." From a practical perspective, there is too little research about lesbians (and gays) as consumers, with the consequence that marketers are often not informed as to strategies for responding to the needs of these groups. Alsop (1999, p. B1) notes that "few national advertisers are reaching out to lesbians, and some of the pioneers are finding them tough to reach." Stereotyped perceptions of these consumer groups are especially problematic. Much further research is obviously required.


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