All the Single Ladies

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

In their 1983 book, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory, which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them; that is, they have greater “dyadic power” than members of the sex in oversupply. How this plays out, however, varies drastically between genders.

In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.

One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life. Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.

In 1988, the sociologists Scott J. South and Katherine Trent set out to test the Guttentag-Secord theory by analyzing data from 117 countries. Most aspects of the theory tested out. In each country, more men meant more married women, less divorce, and fewer women in the workforce. South and Trent also found that the Guttentag-Secord dynamics were more pronounced in developed rather than developing countries. In other words—capitalist men are pigs.

Also see:

The Return of the Pig
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Are We not Men?
Down the ladder from Playboy to Maxim.

I kid! And yet, as a woman who spent her early 30s actively putting off marriage, I have had ample time to investigate, if you will, the prevailing attitudes of the high-status American urban male. (Granted, given my taste for brainy, creatively ambitious men—or “scrawny nerds,” as a high-school friend describes them—my sample is skewed.) My spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment.

Take the high-powered magazine editor who declared on our first date that he was going to spend his 30s playing the field. Or the prominent academic who announced on our fifth date that he couldn’t maintain a committed emotional relationship but was very interested in a physical one. Or the novelist who, after a month of hanging out, said he had to get back out there and tomcat around, but asked if we could keep having sex anyhow, or at least just one last time. Or the writer (yes, another one) who announced after six months together that he had to end things because he “couldn’t continue fending off all the sexual offers.” And those are just the honest ones.

To be sure, these men were the outliers—the majority of my personal experience has been with commitment-minded men with whom things just didn’t work out, for one reason or another. Indeed, another of my anecdotal-research discoveries is of what an ex calls “marriage o’clock”—when a man hits 35 and suddenly, desperately, wants a wife. I’ll never forget the post-first-date e-mail message reading: “I wanted to marry you last night, just listening to you.” Nor the 40-ish journalist who, on our second date, driving down a long country road, gripped the steering wheel and asked, “Are you The One? Are you The One?” (Can you imagine a woman getting away with this kind of behavior?) Like zealous lepidopterists, they swoop down with their butterfly nets, fingers aimed for the thorax, certain that just because they are ready for marriage and children, I must be, too.

But the non-committers are out there in growing force. If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace—and of course it is—today we’re contending with a new “dating gap,” where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players. For evidence, we don’t need to look to the past, or abroad—we have two examples right in front of us: the African American community, and the college campus.

In August I traveled to Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a small, predominantly African American borough on the eastern edge of Pittsburgh. A half-century ago, it was known as “The Holy City” for its preponderance of churches. Today, the cobblestoned streets are lined with defeated clapboard houses that look as if the spirit’s been sucked right out of them.

I was there to spend the afternoon with Denean, a 34-year-old nurse who was living in one such house with three of her four children (the eldest is 19 and lived across town) and, these days, a teenage niece. Denean is pretty and slender, with a wry, deadpan humor. For 10 years she worked for a health-care company, but she was laid off in January. She is twice divorced; no two of her children share a father. In February, when she learned (on Facebook) that her second child, 15-year-old Ronicka, was pregnant, Denean slumped down on her enormous slate-gray sofa and didn’t get up for 10 hours.

“I had done everything I could to make sure she didn’t end up like me, and now this,” she told me.

It was a clear, warm day, and we were clustered on the front porch—Denean, Ronicka, and I, along with Denean’s niece, Keira, 18, and Denean’s friend Chantal, 28, a single mother whose daughter goes to day care with Denean’s youngest. The affection between these four high-spirited women was light and infectious, and they spoke knowingly about the stigmas they’re up against. “That’s right,” Denean laughed, “we’re your standard bunch of single black moms!”

Given the crisis in gender it has suffered through for the past half century, the African American population might as well be a separate nation. An astonishing 70 percent of black women are unmarried, and they are more than twice as likely as white women to remain that way. Those black women who do marry are more likely than any other group of women to “marry down.” This is often chalked up to high incarceration rates—in 2009, of the nearly 1.5 million men in prison, 39 percent were black—but it’s more than that. Across all income levels, black men have dropped far behind black women professionally and educationally; women with college degrees outnumber men 2-to-1. In August, the unemployment rate among black men age 20 or older exceeded 17 percent.

In his book, Is Marriage for White People?, Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford, argues that the black experience of the past half century is a harbinger for society at large. “When you’re writing about black people, white people may assume it’s unconnected to them,” he told me when I got him on the phone. It might seem easy to dismiss Banks’s theory that what holds for blacks may hold for nonblacks, if only because no other group has endured such a long history of racism, and racism begets singular ills. But the reality is that what’s happened to the black family is already beginning to happen to the white family. In 1950, 64 percent of African American women were married—roughly the same percentage as white women. By 1965, African American marriage rates had declined precipitously, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famously declaring black families a “tangle of pathology.” Black marriage rates have fallen drastically in the years since—but then, so have white marriage rates. In 1965, when Moynihan wrote with such concern about the African American family, fewer than 25 percent of black children were born out of wedlock; in 2011, considerably more than 25 percent of white children are.

This erosion of traditional marriage and family structure has played out most dramatically among low-income groups, both black and white. According to the sociologist William Julius Wilson, inner-city black men struggled badly in the 1970s, as manufacturing plants shut down or moved to distant suburbs. These men naturally resented their downward mobility, and had trouble making the switch to service jobs requiring a very different style of self-presentation. The joblessness and economic insecurity that resulted created a host of problems, and made many men altogether unmarriable. Today, as manufacturing jobs disappear nationwide (American manufacturing shed about a third of its jobs during the first decade of this century), the same phenomenon may be under way, but on a much larger scale.

Just as the decline of marriage in the black underclass augured the decline of marriage in the white underclass, the decline of marriage in the black middle class has prefigured the decline of marriage in the white middle class. In the 1990s, the author Terry McMillan climbed the best-seller list (and box-office charts) with novels like Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which provided incisive glimpses of life and frustrated romance among middle-class black women, where the prospect of marrying a black man often seemed more or less hopeless. (As she writes in Waiting to Exhale: “[Successful black men have] taken these stupid statistics about us to heart and are having the time of their lives. They do not hold themselves accountable to anybody for anything, and they’re getting away with murder … They lie to us without a conscience, they fuck as many of us at a time as they want to.”) Today, with the precipitous economic and social decline of men of all races, it’s easy to see why women of any race would feel frustrated by their romantic prospects. (Is it any wonder marriage rates have fallen?) Increasingly, this extends to the upper-middle class, too: early last year, a study by the Pew Research Center reported that professionally successful, college-educated women were confronted with a shrinking pool of like-minded marriage prospects.

“If you’re a successful black man in New York City, one of the most appealing and sought-after men around, your options are plentiful,” Banks told me. “Why marry if you don’t have to?” (Or, as he quotes one black man in his book, “If you have four quality women you’re dating and they’re in a rotation, who’s going to rush into a marriage?”) Banks’s book caused a small stir by suggesting that black women should expand their choices by marrying outside their race—a choice that the women of Terry McMillan’s novels would have found at best unfortunate and at worst an abhorrent betrayal. As it happens, the father of Chantal’s child is white, and Denean has dated across the color line. But in any event, the decline in the economic prospects of white men means that marrying outside their race can expand African American women’s choices only so far. Increasingly, the new dating gap—where women are forced to choose between deadbeats and players—trumps all else, in all socioeconomic brackets.

The early 1990s witnessed the dawn of “hookup culture” at universities, as colleges stopped acting in loco parentis, and undergraduates, heady with freedom, started throwing themselves into a frenzy of one-night stands. Depending on whom you ask, this has either liberated young women from being ashamed of their sexual urges, or forced them into a promiscuity they didn’t ask for. Young men, apparently, couldn’t be happier.

Also see:

Love, Actually
How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture. By Caitlin Flanagan

Are You There, God? It's Me, Monica
How nice girls got so casual about oral sex. By Caitlin Flanagan

According to Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell who has written on supply and demand in the marriage market, this shouldn’t be surprising. When the available women significantly outnumber men, which is the case on many campuses today, “courtship behavior changes in the direction of what men want,” he told me recently. If women greatly outnumber men, he says, social norms against casual sex will weaken. He qualifies this by explaining that no matter how unbalanced the overall sex ratio may become (in either direction), “there will always be specific men and women who are in high demand as romantic partners—think Penélope Cruz and George Clooney.” But even Cruz and Clooney, Frank says, will be affected by changing mores. The likelihood increases “that even a highly sought-after woman will engage in casual sex, even though she would have sufficient market power to defy prevailing norms.” If a woman with the “market power” of a Penélope Cruz is affected by this, what are the rest of us to do?

Whether the sexual double standard is cultural or biological, it’s finding traction in the increasingly lopsided sexual marketplace that is the American college campus, where women outnumber men, 57 percent to 43 percent. In 2010, The New York Times ran a much-discussed article chronicling this phenomenon. “If a guy is not getting what he wants, he can quickly and abruptly go to the next one, because there are so many of us,” a University of Georgia co-ed told The Times, reporting that at college parties and bars, she will often see two guys being fawned over by six provocatively dressed women. The alternative is just to give up on dating and romance because “there are no guys,” as a University of North Carolina student put it.

Last year, a former management consultant named Susan Walsh tried to dig a little deeper. She applied what economists call the Pareto principle—the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects—to the college dating market, and concluded that only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether. (Surprisingly, a 2007 study commissioned by the Justice Department suggested that male virgins outnumber female virgins on campus.) As Walsh puts it, most of the leftover men are “have nots” in terms of access to sex, and most of the women—both those who are hooking up and those who are not—are “have nots” in terms of access to male attention that leads to commitment. (Of course, plenty of women are perfectly happy with casual, no-strings sex, but they are generally considered to be in the minority.) Yet the myth of everyone having sex all the time is so pervasive that it’s assumed to be true, which distorts how young men and women relate. “I think the 80/20 principle is the key to understanding the situation we find ourselves in—one in which casual sex is the cultural norm, despite the fact that most people would actually prefer something quite different,” Walsh told me.

I became aware of Walsh this past summer when I happened upon her blog, HookingUpSmart.com, and lost an evening to one of those late-night Internet binges, each link leading to the next, drawn into a boy-girl conversation to end all boy-girl conversations. A frumpy beige Web-site palette and pragmatic voice belie a refreshingly frank, at times even raunchy, dialogue; postings in the comments section can swell into the high hundreds—interestingly, the majority of them from men. I felt as if I’d stumbled into the online equivalent of a (progressive) school nurse’s office.

A Wharton M.B.A. and stay-at-home mother of two, Walsh began her career as a relationship adviser turned blogger six years ago, when her daughter, then a student at an all-girls high school, started dating. She began seeking counsel from Walsh, and liked what she heard, as did her friends when she told them; in time, the girls were regularly gathering around Walsh’s kitchen table to pick her brain. Soon enough, a childhood friend’s daughter, a sophomore at Boston University, started coming over with her friends. Walsh started thinking of these ’70s-style rap sessions as her own informal “focus groups,” the members of one still in high school, those of the other in college, but all of them having similar experiences. In 2008, after the younger group had left home, Walsh started the blog so they could all continue the conversation.

In July, I traveled to Walsh’s home, a handsome 19th-century Victorian hidden behind tall hedges in a quiet corner of Brookline, Massachusetts, to sit in on one of these informal roundtables. I came of age with hookup culture, but not of it, having continued through college my high-school habit of serial long-term relationships, and I wanted to hear from the front lines. What would these sexual buccaneers be like? Bold and provocative? Worn-out and embittered?

When Walsh opened the door, I could immediately see why young women find her so easy to talk to; her brunette bob frames bright green eyes and a warm, easy smile. Once everyone had arrived—five recent college graduates, all of them white and upper middle class, some employed and some still looking for work, all unmarried—we sat down to a dinner of chicken and salad in Walsh’s high-ceilinged, wood-paneled dining room to weigh in on one of the evening’s topics: man whores.

“How do you all feel about guys who get with a ton of girls?,” Walsh asked. “Do you think they have ‘trash dick’?” She’d run across this term on the Internet.

One of Walsh’s pet observations pertains to what she calls the “soft harem,” where high-status men (i.e., the football captain) maintain an “official” girlfriend as well as a rotating roster of neo-concubines, who service him in the barroom bathroom or wherever the beer is flowing. “There used to be more assortative mating,” she explained, “where a five would date a five. But now every woman who is a six and above wants the hottest guy on campus, and she can have him—for one night.”

Also see:

Hard Core
The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women. By Natasha Vargas-Cooper

As I’d expected, these denizens of hookup culture were far more sexually experienced than I’d been at their age. Some had had many partners, and they all joked easily about sexual positions and penis size (“I was like, ‘That’s a pinkie, not a penis!’”) with the offhand knowledge only familiarity can breed. Most of them said that though they’d had a lot of sex, none of it was particularly sensual or exciting. It appears that the erotic promises of the 1960s sexual revolution have run aground on the shoals of changing sex ratios, where young women and men come together in fumbling, drunken couplings fueled less by lust than by a vague sense of social conformity. (I can’t help wondering: Did this de-eroticization of sex encourage the rise of pornography? Or is it that pornography endows the inexperienced with a toolbox of socially sanctioned postures and tricks, ensuring that one can engage in what amounts to a public exchange according to a pre-approved script?) For centuries, women’s sexuality was repressed by a patriarchal marriage system; now what could be an era of heady carnal delights is stifled by a new form of male entitlement, this one fueled by demographics.

Most striking to me was the innocence of these young women. Of these attractive and vivacious females, only two had ever had a “real” boyfriend—as in, a mutually exclusive and satisfying relationship rather than a series of hookups—and for all their technical know-how, they didn’t seem to be any wiser than I’d been at their age. This surprised me; I’d assumed that growing up in a jungle would give them a more matter-of-fact or at least less conventional worldview. Instead, when I asked if they wanted to get married when they grew up, and if so, at what age, to a one they answered “yes” and “27 or 28.”

“That’s only five or six years from now,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t that seem—not far off?”

They nodded.

“Take a look at me,” I said. “I’ve never been married, and I have no idea if I ever will be. There’s a good chance that this will be your reality, too. Does that freak you out?”

Again they nodded.

“I don’t think I can bear doing this for that long!” whispered one, with undisguised alarm.

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Kate Bolick is a writer in New York.

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