The Escalating War Against Single Men: What’s It About?

In a tizzy about single men? Don’t be.

Posted Mar 01, 2011

"...the single young man can live in pig heaven - and often does."

That's just one brief excerpt - and not an unrepresentative one - of a Wall Street Journal essay based on the latest book by Kay Hymowitz. I've used the picture of the book cover to illustrate this post. It is hard to know which is more insulting - the picture of the man-boy who is not wearing any pants at all (and perhaps no underwear either) or the book's title: Manning up: How the rise of women has turned men into boys.

Hymowitz is describing young single men (in their 20s or so). "Our boy rebel," she says, "is a creature of the animal house." These "boys" can be found, she continues, watching

"movies with overgrown boy actors...cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks."

Over and over again, in the few pages that the Journal reprinted, Hymowitz reminds us that the age at which people first get married has been increasing. She calls it "astonishing" that 55% of Americans under the age of 30 have always been single. This is troubling to her, because she believes that

"Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers."

[I debunked that claim in Singled Out and in a series of posts you can find here.]

Following up on all of the unappreciative feedback she received about her WSJ essay, Hymowitz published another piece yesterday at the Daily Beast. This one was titled (apparently without irony), "Why are men angry?"

Readers conversant with singlism will be shocked, shocked to learn that Hymowitz sees these single men not just as angry but also bitter. That bitterness, she maintains,

"has nothing to do with outsourcing, the Mancession, or any of the other issues we usually associate with contemporary male discontent. No, this is bitterness from guys who find the young women they might have hoped to hang out with entitled, dishonest, self-involved, slutty, manipulative, shallow, controlling - and did I mention gold-digging?"

Not all scholars agree with that characterization. Jeff Arnett, for example, is a contemporary researcher who has studied and written extensively on what he calls "emerging adulthood." When I interviewed him previously for this blog, he said:

"What's really striking is how much less sexist, racist, and homophobic young guys are now than in the past. Most want an equal partner in a romantic and sexual relationship, not just someone who will serve them. Most have friends who are of different ethnic groups, and most have gay or lesbian friends and don't make a big deal out of it. What's more, rates of every type of "guy problem" have declined sharply in the past 30 years among emerging adults-including alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex. So the assertion that the typical young guy today is a drunken porno-mad potential rapist is nonsense. It's untrue and unfair."

Back then, Arnett and I were discussing another book, Guyland, with a similarly disparaging take on young single men. Guyland, explains author Michael Kimmel,

"can be explained by what guys do for fun. It's drinking, sex, and video games. It's watching sports...It's television - cartoons, reality shows, music videos, shoot-em-up movies, sports, and porn - pizza and beer."

Even in other books that are not primarily about single-male-bashing, the same unapologetic put-downs of single men appear. For example, in Hannah Seligson's book, A Little Bit Married, one of the chapter titles is, "Dating Peter Pan. You're ready to register at Pottery Barn and he's playing Grand Theft Auto."

My purpose here is not to debunk the accuracy of the nasty claims about single men. I've done that before, and anyway, the authors are so unabashed in their bashing that their statements sometimes seem like self-parodies.

Instead, I want to ask a different question: What's going on here?

In her WSJ essay, Hymowitz asked this about young single men: "What explains [their] puerile shallowness?" I am looking at this open season on single men, declared by Hymowitz, Kimmel, and others, and asking, "What explains their condescending, disparaging, and caricaturing attitude toward young single men?"

I sense anxiety - not in the single men who are getting sullied, but in the authors throwing the mud. Society is changing - they are right about that. One of the most dramatic changes is the increase in the number of people who are single. The escalating age at which people first marry - if they marry - is just part of it. The number of singles is increasing even beyond those young adult years.

Marriage used to anchor adult life. All of the singles-trashing authors will tell you that. Their next step is to opine about how confusing it must be to single people not to get married and have kids right away.

I'm headed in a different direction. What I wonder about is how unnerving the rapid social changes must be to the authors who are writing about single men's supposed "puerile shallowness." Why is it that, when they scrutinize the least sexist, racist, homophobic, drunken, and sexually irresponsible cohort of young single men the nation has seen for decades, what they think they see are immature laggards who refuse to grow up?

The current frenzy is focused on single men, but women are not exempt, either. Remember Lori Gottlieb telling single women that we should marry that rude, stinky, creepy guy since we're not perfect either?

Previously, I wrote a series of posts (here and here and here) about why people cling to mythologies about marriage. I don't doubt that there are some young singles - perhaps a small minority - who are clinging to adolescence. But I also wonder whether there is a growing cadre of writers and pundits who are clinging to a version of marriage that has long since left the station. Maybe some of them need to, shall I say, grow up?

[Thanks to Melissa, Jeanine, and Jason for the heads-up about the WSJ article. Also, our friend Wiebes has a question and he'd love to hear from Living Single readers. Check it out and post your suggestions here at my All Things Single blog.]