But What About Single Men?

What do we really know about single men?

Posted Jun 25, 2008

When I was preparing to write Singled Out, I wanted to study the stacks of scientific studies based on thousands of people who filled out questionnaires. I did, but then I wanted more. I wanted to read rich and textured accounts based on in-depth interviews of single people who talked for hours about their lives, sometimes over the course of many years. Books like that about single women are not hard to find, and they have been around for decades.

Trying to find similar intensive studies of the lives of single men, though, was a whole different story. There just wasn't much out there.

The same thing happened when I tried to find scholarly writings about single people. Single women are of interest to academics, but as for single men - not so much.

Just say the word "single" and your listeners will probably make a quick mental leap to "single women." When my agent was shopping my proposal for Singled Out to publishers - a proposal that described myths specifically about single men - one editor said that I was trying "to write a book that will appeal to a market of singles who are a diverse population of women." Another said that his imprint had already published two books about single women and he was not interested in another.

Before I started doing systematic research of my own, I liked to ask people who they thought had it harder when it came to living single in a society so preoccupied with couples. I don't think anyone ever said it was men. Their reasoning made a lot of sense. The "extra" man, they would say, was always welcome at social events, whereas the "extra" woman was seen as a nuisance. The women I asked would point to all the wedding fantasies peddled to them from their babyhoods (filled with stories about princesses) to their adulthoods (dotted with sparkly bridal magazines and syrupy "reality" TV shows such as The Bachelor).

So when Wendy Morris and I designed our studies of the stereotyping of single people, we thought the single women would be singled out for special disparagement. They were disparaged all right, but so were the single men - and usually to about the same degree. There were a few qualified differences here or there, but not the big blatant divergences we expected.

I now think that there are differences in the particular ways that single men and single women are derogated, but the different myths translate into roughly equal doses of condescension and dismissiveness. Here's how I summarized the myths about single women and single men in two of the chapter titles of Singled Out.

Myths about single women:
"Your work won't love you back and your eggs will dry up. Also, you don't get any and you're promiscuous."

Myths about single men:
"You are horny, slovenly, and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals. Or, you are sexy, fastidious, frivolous, and gay."

Pundits strut their singlism unselfconsciously. Consider, for example, a recent discussion on the TV show Hardball of one of the hottest political topics - who will snag the Vice-Presidential slots on the 2008 tickets? The guests were asked to consider the possibility that McCain would choose Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a single man. Roger Simon of Politico said of Crist: "He'll probably get engaged soon," then added that the engagement "will probably help put him on the ticket."

I'm on the listserv of a group called Smart Marriages; it's self-described goal is "strengthening marriages and families through marriage education." On their website, they tout much of the research that I debunk in Singled Out. Under their list of quotes, they include this one from Franz Kafka. I noticed it because it was also included in a recent mailing to the listserv.

Bachelor's Ill Luck
"It seems so dreadful to stay a bachelor, to become an old man struggling
to keep one's dignity while begging for an invitation whenever one wants
to spend an evening in company, to lie ill gazing for weeks into an empty
room from the corner where one's bed is, always having to say good night
at the front door, never to run up a stairway beside one's wife, to have only
side doors in one's room leading into other people's living rooms, having to
carry one's supper home in one's hand, having to admire other people's
children and not even being allowed to go on saying: "I have none myself,"
modeling oneself in appearance and behavior on one or two bachelors
remembered from one's youth.

That's how it will be, except that in reality, both today and later, one will
stand there with a palpable body and a real head, a real forehead, that is,
for smiting on with one's hand."

So this, in the year 2008, is what passes under the banner of "strengthening marriages and families through marriage education."

Perceptions of single people (the stereotypes) aren't everything. What about evidence of discrimination? There's plenty of that, too (though singlism is less vicious than other isms such as racism or heterosexism). In one important domain, there are clear indications of greater discrimination against single men than single women: Single men are paid less than married men, even when their accomplishments are the same. The patterns for women are less consistent. (References are in Singled Out; or you can ask me for them.)

Now here's what's truly remarkable: Despite all the stereotyping and discrimination, most single men (and single women) are doing just fine. Take happiness, for example. In every study I've read, the average happiness level of single men (and single women) is solidly on the happy end of the scale. And no, they would not become even happier, in any lasting way, if only they married.

Of course, I'm not saying that every last single person is happy. There are more than 42 million single men and more than 49 million single women, so some of them are going to be unhappy. But a study that has been ongoing for 20 years suggests that, on the average, they would not become any happier if they did marry (except perhaps for a brief honeymoon effect).

So here's the puzzle: Why is there such a disconnect between the negative perceptions of single men and the actual life experiences of those men? I'll take that on in a future post.