June 26, 2007

Hate Crimes Hit 1 in 5 Sexual Minorities

Posted at 12:05 am (Pacific Time)

What percentage of sexual minority adults in the United States have experienced hate crimes because of their sexual orientation?

Every year, the FBI reports the number of hate crimes tallied by local law enforcement agencies during the previous 12 months. Those statistics are useful but, as I explained in an earlier post, they only include crimes that victims reported to the police. Data from the National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) indicate that about 58% of crimes based on sexual orientation went unreported between July 2000 and December 2003.

In addition, the FBI and NCVS data only tell us about the number of hate crimes committed during a particular period. They don’t yield information about the prevalence of such victimization among sexual minorities — that is, the proportion of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population that has been targeted for criminal victimization because of their sexual orientation.

Until recently, hate crime prevalence had to be estimated from community-based samples. Those data were tremendously useful but, because of the study designs, none of the samples could be assumed to be representative of the national population of sexual minority adults.

Now, however, prevalence data are available from a survey conducted with a national probability sample. And they show that such victimization is alarmingly common: About 1 in 5 sexual minority adults report they have experienced a crime against their person or property based on their sexual orientation.

I conducted the survey in 2005 with a nationally representative sample of 662 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Participants reported their experiences with violence, property crimes, and harassment based on their sexual orientation since they turned 18. A paper reporting the survey results has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2008.

Here are some key findings:

  • 13% of respondents said they had been hit, beaten, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted because of their sexual orientation.
  • 15% had been robbed or had their property stolen, vandalized, or purposely damaged.
  • Combining these two groups, 21% had experienced either violence or a property crime.
  • 14% said someone had tried to attack them, rob them, or damage their property, but didn’t succeed.
  • 23% had been threatened with violence.
  • 13% had an object thrown at them.
  • 49% had been verbally insulted or abused because of their sexual orientation.

The risks for victimization weren’t uniform throughout the sample. Gay men were significantly more likely than lesbians or bisexuals to be victimized.More than one third of the gay men had experienced one or both types of crimes, compared to between 11% and 13% of lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Gay men also reported higher levels of harassment and verbal abuse than the other sexual orientation groups.

These patterns are consistent with previous research. Data from the FBI and NCVS indicate that men are generally more likely than women to be the targets of most kinds of violent crime, especially crimes perpetrated by strangers. This pattern seems to hold in antigay hate crimes as well. Among the men in the sample, those who were gay were more open about their sexual orientation than those who were bisexual, and this greater visibility probably further increased the gay men’s relative likelihood of victimization.

Despite variations within the sample, the survey findings show that hate crime victimization is an all too common experience among all sexual minorities.

Other research has shown that gay and lesbian survivors of hate crimes show higher levels of psychological distress for a longer time period, compared to sexual minority victims of other kinds of violent crime. The data from the new survey indicate that a substantial number of Americans are at risk for this kind of victimization and its often debilitating consequences.

More information about the study is available on my website.

Data collection was made possible by a grant from the Gill Foundation.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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December 27, 2006

Relationship Science

Posted at 10:33 am (Pacific Time)

An early episode of the old TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was titled “Love Is A Science.” In it, Zelda Gilroy introduced Dobie to the concept of propinquity as a source of romantic attraction.

Propinquity refers to physical proximity. Because of their last names, Dobie and Zelda regularly experienced it, thanks to Central High School’s alphabetically arranged student seating charts.

As it happens, social scientists who study relationships have indeed found that propinquity is often a precursor to attraction. In fact, researchers have learned quite a bit about romantic relationships during the decades since Dobie and Zelda’s first on-camera meeting in 1959.

For years, that research focused on heterosexual couples. In the late 1970s, however, Dr. Anne Peplau, a respected social psychologist and relationship researcher, began to study the intimate relationships of same-sex couples with the goal of broadening scientific understanding of all close relationships.

Three decades later, Prof. Peplau is still a leading scholar in relationship science. With new challenges to state marriage laws now proceeding through the Maryland, Connecticut, and Iowa courts, the recent publication of her newest review of the scientific literature on same-sex couples is especially timely.

The article, by Dr. Peplau and her UCLA graduate student, Adam Fingerhut, appears in the 2007 volume of the Annual Review of Psychology, a widely-cited source of authoritative and analytic reviews of current research on a variety of topics.

Titled “TheClose Relationships of Lesbians and Gay Men,” the article summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge about same-sex relationships. It also highlights recent research trends and discusses how the growing body of research on same-sex couples has contributed to scientific understanding of close relationships in general.

Here are some of the main research findings discussed by Peplau and Fingerhut:

  • Lesbians, gay men, and heterosexuals seek similar qualities in their romantic partners. “Regardless of sexual orientation, most individuals value affection, dependability, shared interests, and similarity of religious beliefs. Men, regardless of sexual orientation, are more likely to emphasize a partner’s physical attractiveness; women, regardless of sexual orientation, give greater emphasis to personality characteristics.”
  • Traditional heterosexual marriages are organized around a gender-based division of labor and a norm of greater power and decision-making authority for the man. By contrast, same-sex couples appear to place greater value on achieving a fair distribution of household labor that is not linked to traditional roles and they often strive for power equality. However, like many heterosexual couples that espouse equality, not all same-sex couples actually achieve equal sharing of day-to-day household responsibilities or power equality.
  • Heterosexual and same-sex couples display “striking similarities” in their reports of love and relationship satisfaction. “Like their heterosexual counterparts, gay and lesbian couples generally benefit when partners are similar in background, attitudes, and values” and when they both “perceive many rewards and few costs from their relationship.”
  • “Among same-sex and heterosexual couples, there is wide variability in sexual frequency and a general decline in frequency as relationships continue over time. In the early stages of a relationship, gay male couples have sex more often than do other couples…. Lesbian couples report having sex less often than either heterosexual or gay male couples.”
  • While having a sexually exclusive relationship tends to be associated with satisfaction in lesbian and heterosexual couples, this pattern is less common among gay male couples. Gay men are less likely than lesbians or heterosexuals to believe sexual exclusivity is important for their relationship, and are more likely to engage in sex with someone other than their partner. Gay male couples often explicitly negotiate the extent to which they will or won’t be sexually exclusive.
  • “Lesbian, gay male, and heterosexual couples report a similar frequency of arguments and tend to disagree about similar topics, with finances, affection, sex, criticism, and household tasks heading the list.” The problem-solving skills of lesbian and gay couples appear to be at least as good as those of heterosexual couples. “As with heterosexual couples, happy lesbian and gay male couples are more likely than are unhappy couples to use constructive problem-solving approaches.”
  • As with heterosexual couples, three main factors affect gay and lesbian partners’ psychological commitment to each other and the longevity of their relationship: (1) positive attraction forces, such as love and satisfaction, that make partners want to stay together; (2) the availability of alternatives to the current relationship, such as a more desirable partner; and (3) barriers that make it difficult for a person to leave the relationship, including investments that increase the psychological, emotional, or financial costs of ending a relationship, as well as moral or religious feelings of obligation or duty to one’s partner.

Of course, these conclusions are based on aggregate data and refer to general patterns in the population at large. Every couple — gay, lesbian, or heterosexual — is unique and doesn’t necessarily conform to all of the patterns described here.

As for Zelda and Dobie, propinquity apparently was important after all. They appeared as a married couple in the 1987 reunion movie Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis.

In real life, however, events took a different turn. The role of Zelda was played by Sheila James, now the Honorable Sheila James Kuehl, state senator for California’s 23rd District. When she joined the California Assembly in 1994, Sen. Kuehl became the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature. She has been a leading advocate for children, civil rights, the environment, and women’s issues.

* * * * *

Peplau and Fingerhut’s Annual Review of Psychology article has been published on-line (access is restricted to subscribers) and will be available in print in January.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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November 3, 2006

LA Times on Lesbian/Gay Parents: He Said/She Said?

Posted at 11:37 am (Pacific Time)

I didn’t plan my October 30 posting about parenting by same-sex couples to coincide with an article on the same topic in the Los Angeles Times.

But there it was in last Monday’s edition — the story by Kevin Sack, titled “Do Children of Gay Parents Develop Differently?“, a sidebar to his 3-part series on a gay male couple attempting to have children.

The headline’s question was answered — sort of — in the sub-headline, which read “Research suggests there’s no distinction. But the field is a young one, and studies are often colored by politics.”

The questions raised by that “but” prompted me to write this post.

To begin, it’s important to note that the Times accurately characterized current knowledge in many respects:

  • It reported (correctly) that experts generally agree that no empirical basis exists for concluding the children of lesbian and gay parents fare worse or better than those raised by heterosexual parents.
  • It (correctly) summarized the conclusions of sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz in their 2001 literature review published in the American Sociological Review: “Almost uniformly, they wrote, the research found no systematic differences between children reared by a mother and father and those raised by same-sex parents.”
  • It quoted Dr. Charlotte Patterson, one of the leading researchers in this field (whose recent paper I summarized in Monday’s posting), as saying the children of lesbian and gay parents display “pretty positive adjustment.”
  • And it noted (correctly) that major professional organizations with relevant expertise — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association — have endorsed the conclusions summarized by Dr. Patterson.

In discussing the limitations of current research, however, the article raised three questions that may have left many readers doubting the validity of this entire area of research.

Question #1. Is the research definitive?

I’m sure everyone working in this area would agree that more research is needed on parenting and sexual orientation. In making this point, however the Times adopted what struck me as an accusatory and dismissive tone that cast undue doubt on the findings to date:

“Despite three decades of research on gay parenting, social scientists cannot conclusively determine whether children raised by homosexuals develop differently, for better or worse, than those raised by heterosexuals. Though the early consensus is that they do not, even the investigators acknowledge the field is too young, the numbers too few, the variables too many and the research too values-laden to qualify as definitive.”

The message seems to be that the lack of conclusive findings is damning. In truth, however, social scientists lack “definitive” findings on practically every topic we study. The investigators are usually the first to acknowledge this fact.

Yes, we need more research on parental sexual orientation and its effects (or lack of them) on children. Yes, that research should be conducted with bigger and better samples. But the published studies now number more than two dozen. Over time, the measurement techniques and sampling strategies used in this research have grown increasingly sophisticated. Recent studies have reported findings from a representative sample of the US population.

On the specific questions of (a) whether the children of gay parents are less well adjusted than the children of heterosexuals, and (b) whether their parents are less fit, we actually know quite a lot, especially about families headed by lesbians. The research to date has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents, and their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents. The burden of proof rests with those who claim that being raised by lesbian or gay parents harms children.

As more data become available, our understanding of parental sexual orientation and child development will become even more extensive and nuanced. We’ll be better able to describe the entire population of kids with sexual minority parents. But scientists’ reflexive caution and our oft-repeated mantra that “more research is needed” hardly mean we know nothing in this area today.

Question #2. Do scholars disagree about how some of the data should be interpreted?

The Times quoted Dr. Stacey, who questioned researchers’ interpretations of some of their findings, echoing the comments she and Dr. Biblarz made in their 2001 paper.

Drs. Stacey and Biblarz agreed there are clearly no deficits in the psychological or social adjustment or intellectual abilities of children raised by sexual minority parents. However, they hypothesized that those children might differ from kids with heterosexual parents in other areas, namely, conformity to traditional gender roles and sexual attitudes and behavior. They discussed a few studies that reported such differences, and speculated that other studies might also have found significant differences if the researchers had recruited larger samples or used different statistical techniques.

I reviewed the latter studies myself and, for the record, I respectfully disagree with Drs. Stacey and Biblarz about most of them, as I noted in my 2006 American Psychologist paper. But the questions Drs. Stacey and Biblarz raised are legitimate and useful.

This is how science works. Researchers report their data in detail so other scholars can examine the results, debate them, and build on them in future studies.

However, it’s important to stress that, while Drs. Stacey and Biblarz proposed alternative interpretations of the data, they didn’t equate differences with deficits. Rather, they concluded:

“Most of the differences in the findings discussed above cannot be considered deficits from any legitimate public policy perspective. They either favor the children with lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent ‘just a difference’ of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.” (p. 177)

Nor did they question the researchers’ honesty or integrity. Such accusations have been the province of the Christian Right. This leads to the final question raised in the Times article.

Question #3. Do the researchers in this area lack integrity? Are they merely pursuing their own political agenda?

This charge came from Timothy J. Dailey, to whom the Times implicitly accorded the status of social scientist. Dailey, however, isn’t a scientist. He’s a representative of the Family Research Council, a Christian Right organization with an unabashedly antigay political agenda.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that Mr. Dailey also wrote the FRC’s report claiming child molesters and pedophiles are disproportionately likely to be gay men; see my October 7 posting.)

Dailey’s allegation (quoted by the Times) is that much of the existing research on sexual minority parenting has been “compromised by methodological flaws and driven by political agendas….”

Moreover,

” ‘openly lesbian researchers’ — he named Patterson specifically — ’sometimes conduct research with an interest in portraying homosexual parenting in a positive light….’ To do so, Dailey wrote, ignores ‘the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial, which testifies that the best way for children to be raised is by a mother and a father who are married to each other.’ “

Although the Times article gave voice to Dailey’s ad hominem attack on Dr. Patterson’s work, it didn’t note that her research has been subjected to extensive peer review and published in the most highly regarded professional journals in the field. Unlike the FRC, scientific reviewers base their evaluations on the quality of the research, not the researcher’s personal characteristics or claims about “the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial.”

+++++++++++++++

On balance, the Times mostly got it right. However, by granting unwarranted legitimacy to the FRC’s claims, the article probably led some readers to dismiss the research in this area as simply “colored by politics.” If so, this is unfortunate.

Empirical research can’t reconcile disputes about core values, but it is very good at addressing questions of fact. Policy debates will be impoverished if this important source of knowledge is simply dismissed as a “he said, she said” squabble.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 30, 2006

Parents’ Love, Not Sexual Orientation, Is Key to Kids’ Well-Being

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Does a parent’s sexual orientation affect her child’s development? And if so, how?

These are the questions posed by Prof. Charlotte Patterson in her article in the newest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a highly respected academic journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Papers in Current Directions are intended to be “concise reviews spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications” that are “written by leading experts in terms that are accessible outside of the realm of research subspecialties.”

Consistent with these criteria, Dr. Patterson’s article doesn’t report new data. Rather, it reviews previously published research and synthesizes the findings for other professionals.

Noting that most studies have focused on lesbian mothers rather than gay fathers, Dr. Patterson highlights two eras in contemporary research on sexual minority families.

In early studies — conducted mainly during the 1970s and 1980s — researchers examined children who were born to a married mother and father but were subsequently raised by their lesbian mother after a divorce or separation. They found few significant differences between the children with a lesbian mother and children whose divorced mothers were heterosexual.

Because these children began life in the context of a heterosexual marriage, however, the question of how their early experiences might have affected their long-term development remained open. What would be the outcome for, say, infants adopted by same-sex couples or children conceived by same-sex couples through donor insemination?

More recent research has addressed this issue by studying children raised from birth in families headed by a same-sex couple. For these studies, children and parents have been recruited through a variety of strategies. Some researchers have located participants through friendship networks and word of mouth, while others have sampled specific groups that included both heterosexual and lesbian parents (e.g., sperm bank clients). Still others have used probability samples that are representative of the entire population.

Regardless of how participants were recruited, all of the studies converge on similar conclusions. In Dr. Patterson’s words,

“Does parental sexual orientation have an important impact on child or adolescent development? Results of recent research provide no evidence that it does. In fact, the findings suggest that parental sexual orientation is less important than the qualities of family relationships. More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.

Thus, if you want to know which children are most likely to be developing in a healthy way, don’t focus on their parents’ sexual orientation. Instead, find the children who have warm and affectionate relationships with their parents.

Dr. Patterson’s article, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” appears in the October 2006 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

In addition to her many scholarly publications on this topic, Dr. Patterson has also written a summary of research findings on lesbian mothers, gay fathers, and their children that is available on the website of the American Psychological Association.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 12, 2006

New Census Data: More Same-Sex Couples in the US

Posted at 12:33 pm (Pacific Time)

The 2000 US Census had special importance for sexual minorities because it yielded data on the number of households headed by someone in a cohabiting same-sex couple.

Now a newly released analysis of data from the Census Bureau has found that the number of such couples increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation, Law, and Public Policy at UCLA. Gates examined data on same-sex couples from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS).

Unlike the decennial Census, which attempts to count every person living in the United States, the ACS is an ongoing survey conducted every year with a sample of households representing roughly 2.5% of the US population. By 2010, it will replace the Census long form. The 2005 ACS, the first to be conducted on a national basis, sampled 1.4 million households.

Here are some key findings from Dr. Gates’ analysis:

  • The number of cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S. grew from nearly 600,000 in 2000 to almost 777,000 in 2005. This is an increase of more than 30%.
  • Based on the 2005 data, 53% of same-sex couples consist of two men while 47% consist of two women.
  • The rate of growth isn’t uniform across the country. Of the ten states with the largest percentage increases, 8 are in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana). Their rates of increase ranged from 54% to 81%. These states had fairly small percentages of same-sex couples in 2000.
  • Also on the top ten list are New Hampshire (106% increase) and Colorado (58% increase).
  • Six states with a 2006 ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin — experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of same-sex couples in their population, even more than the national rate.

How to explain these huge increases between 2000 and 2005? Although some of the change may result from more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people cohabiting in committed relationships, Gates suggests that this factor is unlikely to account for the magnitude of growth documented by the ACS. Rather, it is probably the case that more same-sex couples are reporting their relationships to Census Bureau researchers.

This greater visibility could result from several factors, including more widespread awareness of the Census data about same-sex couples and a greater willingness to be out of the closet. That increased willingness to disclose may reflect a sense that sexual stigma has declined and it is now safer to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Coming out may also represent a decision to take a stand against antigay groups and ballot campaigns.

The Census only counts same-sex couples, and only those who are living together and in which one partner is the household head. Because it doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, the Census doesn’t tell us how many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Using data from another large-scale survey, however, Gates estimated that 4.1% of US adults identify as a sexual minority. This translates into an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Applying this estimate to the ACS data, Gates came to some additional interesting conclusions:

  • In terms of absolute numbers, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois have the largest sexual minority populations, along with the District of Columbia.
  • New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have the largest sexual minority populations among metropolitan areas.
  • Ranking states by the percentage of the adult population who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts and Maine come out on top.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland (OR), and Tampa have the highest percentages of sexual minority residents.
  • Same-sex couples are found in all Congressional districts in the U.S.

The full report, Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, and other analyses of Census data are available at the Williams Institute Web site.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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September 29, 2006

Hidden Minorities

Posted at 12:46 pm (Pacific Time)

Researchers have long known it’s difficult to count and classify men and women on the basis of their sexual orientation. Because homosexuality is stigmatized, many people are reluctant to disclose that they’re attracted to others of their same sex, or that they’ve had homosexual sex.

Two recently published studies offer interesting data relevant to this problem.

In a study conducted by Preeti Pathela and colleagues (reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine) nearly 4200 New York City men were interviewed by telephone and asked 130 questions about health-related matters. Embedded in the demographic questions midway through the survey was a question about the man’s sexual orientation. Later, at the end of the survey, each man was asked about the number of men and women with whom he’d had sex during the previous 12 months.

Of the men who labeled their sexual orientation and reported having sex in the past year:

  • 85.8% identified as straight and reported sex only with women
  • 3.3% identified as gay and reported sex only with men
  • 1.1% identified as bisexual and reported sex with men, women, or both.

But:

  • 8.9% identified as straight and reported sex only with men
  • 0.7% identified as straight and reported sex with women and men.

Combining the last two groups, nearly 10% of the men identified themselves as straight but had at least one male sexual partner in the previous 12 months. About 70% of these men were married. Nearly all reported having sex with only one partner in the past year.

In their published report Dr. Pathela et al. acknowledge various ways in which the phrasing or ordering of the questions might have affected the results. Nevertheless, their data underscore the fact that the labels people use for their sexual orientation, such as gay and straight, don’t always fit neatly with their actual sexual behavior. A significant minority of self-identified straight men in New York engage in sex with other men.

Based on another recently published paper, the New York data might actually understate the case.

In Public Opinion Quarterly, Maria Villarroel, Charles Turner, and their colleagues report data from a large-scale telephone survey conducted with a national sample and a Baltimore (MD) sample. The participants (age 18-45 years) were asked questions about their sexual behavior and attractions.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Either they were interviewed by a “live” person or they completed most of the survey using a computer-automated system in which they responded to questions by using the buttons on their touch-tone telephone. The researchers expected people to be more candid in reporting about their sexuality when they didn’t have to speak to a live person.

Sure enough, those who were “interviewed” by the computer were significantly more likely to say they were attracted to people of their same sex (17.8% vs 12.8% of those interviewed by a live person). They also were more likely to report having sex with a person of their same sex (14.2% vs 9.1%).

Follow-up analyses revealed that the computerized interview was especially likely to get more reports of homosexual behavior in less tolerant locales — outside large cities and outside the Northeast and Pacific Coast. The computer also elicited more reports of same-sex behavior from people who might be particularly cautious about revealing such information — those who were currently married and had children in their home.

Together, these studies underscore the difficulties inherent in obtaining reliable data about stigmatized sexual behavior. Many people are reluctant to disclose information about their same-sex attractions and behavior, and many men (and probably women too) who call themselves straight have nevertheless had same-sex sexual partners.

For the full reports, see:

  • Pathela et al. (2006). Discordance Between Sexual Behavior and Self-Reported Sexual Identity: A Population-Based Survey of New York City Men. Annals of Internal Medicine, v. 145, pp. 416-425 .
  • Villarroel et al. (2006). Same-Gender Sex in the United States: Impact of T-ACASI on Prevalence Etimates. Public Opinion Quarterly, v. 70, pp. 166-196.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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