Sex and the Census

Sex and the CensusPost-revolution data on toxic bachelors, choice, and children

Singles, according to the latest Census Bureau data released in May, are still on the march. People living alone were the fastest-growing category of households in the 1990s and, for the first time, now outnumber married couples with children. This trend is not due to widowed seniors living longer--people over 65, in fact, were no more likely to live alone in 2000 than in 1990. Rather, more young people are marrying later or not at all.

Is this merely a fact of life or a manifestation of cultural decline--a "titanic loss of family values," as the title of a column in The Washington Times put it? Some conservative social critics, most notably George Gilder--starting with his 1974 book Naked Nomads: Unmarried Men in America--have focused on the perils that dangerously unstable, undomesticated, unattached males pose to themselves and others. (The latest evidence suggests that growing ranks of single men can, after all, coexist peacefully with dropping crime rates and other positive social indicators.) More recently, though, it's the single woman who has become the focus of concern.

According to the now-famous arguments of Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty) and Danielle Crittenden (What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us), the post-sexual-revolution landscape is really a free-for-all for men, who don't need to buy the cow when they can have the milk for nothing. And it's a bleak and arid place for women who, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote in a 1999 essay in The Atlantic, "forever remain girlfriends or ex-girlfriends." Sympathy for the plight of the single woman is just another variation on a familiar neotraditionalist theme: The liberation of women from traditional paternalistic restrictions, in this case on sexual behavior, has hurt women themselves.

Much of the evidence marshaled in support of these polemics comes from popular culture--from the obligatory how-to-get-him-to-commit features in women's magazines to single-girl angst in novels such as Bridget Jones's Diary and television shows such as Ally McBeal and Sex and the City.

In real life, of course, the vast majority of women do eventually tie the knot (in 1990, only 10 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women had never been married). On the single-girl TV shows, relationships have to fail because keeping the girls single is essential to the show's raison d'etre. (When one of the characters on Sex and the City, the romantic Charlotte, actually got married, her husband was promptly supplied with an embarrassing sexual problem that just as promptly led to a separation.)

What's more, playing up the harshness of the contemporary mating system is probably inherent to these shows' concept. In one Sex and the City episode, the thirty something women were seen perusing the wedding announcements in Sunday's New York Times and fuming that the oldest woman in any of them was 27. That's dramatic license: On a typical Sunday, about half of the brides are in their 30s and at least one is over 50.

There is no question that today's sexual marketplace, in which both men and women tend to stay single longer (the average age at marriage in the U.S. is now 25 for women and 27 for men, up from 20 and 22, respectively, in 1960) has its psychological costs. Multiple relationships and breakups can leave scars and breed cynicism, though presumably they can also help people develop a greater appreciation of true love once they find it. It is also worth noting that the sexual revolution changed the behavior of single women much more than it did that of single men, who were never really expected to abstain from premarital liaisons.

The conservative critique of post-sexual revolution mores incorporates its own version of the "men are pigs" mentality for which feminists have been often taken to task. Men, in this view, have little interest in love, relationships, or families if they can get free sex; the only way to "tame" them is for women to withhold sexual favors until they have obtained commitment.

Most stereotypes have at least a grain of truth; both studies and everyday observation certainly suggest that men are more interested than women in sex without strings. But the same surveys in which men express greater enthusiasm for casual sex also find that most men still regard finding one special person as their highest priority. In a 1990 Virginia Slims poll, 70 percent of single men and women alike hoped to marry some day. And most men do continue to wed, despite the availability of free milk. Indeed, a 1994 New York Times/CBS poll of adolescents found that more girls than boys, 73 percent to 61 percent, thought they could have a happy life even if they never got married.

That female complaints about "toxic bachelors" have become such a cultural staple may seem to validate the conservative social critique. But maybe there's more to the single girl than meets the eye. Occasionally, the same women s magazines that spend so much time deploring male fickleness will also recognize the existence of women with cold feet. In the 1993 book, He's Scared, She's Scared, Steven Carter and Julia Sokol suggest that some women use the male-fear-of-commitment cliche to avoid confronting their own anxieties about being locked into a relationship: They keep selecting the wrong men and rejecting "good ones," and then complain the loudest about the shortage of good men.

Indeed, the single-girl genre often explicitly acknowledges the ambivalence of its heroine. In an early Ally McBeal episode, a man Ally is interested in drops her because, he says, he doesn't think she'll ever be content with what she has: "You go through people, you'll--you'll go through me." Later on, Ally tells a woman friend about "a little game I play when I get lonely." Think of "the perfect guy," she says, and imagine your wedding--"the suit, the smile, the night back at the hotel." (The friend sighs blissfully.) Then "think of that man in his entirety," with all of his habits, his likes, and dislikes--and "think of having to live with him every single day for the rest of your life." (The other woman s response quickly changes to a disgusted grimace.) Ally sums up: "We're not only wired to want what we can't have, but we're wired to want what we really don't want. We're women.

This is, of course, a comic exaggeration. But if the typical single American woman at the turn of the millennium does not shrink in revulsion at the thought of spending her entire life with her beloved, there is one thing that she is emphatically unwilling to do, and that is to settle for a man she doesn't love. In a 1965 survey, more than three out of four college women said that they would marry a man they didn't love if he met their criteria for an ideal mate in every other respect. Men were actually the romantics, with two-thirds insisting that they would only marry for love. By 1991, about nine out of 10 college students, women and men alike, said they would not marry someone they didn't love.

Ironic, isn't it, if declining rates of marriage are less a reflection of moral corruption than of greater idealism about marital love? Of course, the main reason for this idealism is that women today are simply able to afford it, both financially and socially.

In some ways, the conservatives have a point when they note that delayed marriage carries higher risks for women. For professional women, the pool of potential mates conventionally defined as available shrinks as they get older and more successful. That's because women still show a marked preference for "marrying up"--though whether this preference is genetic and whether it's unchangeable is a question that's hardly resolved. (This pattern also means that men with less-than-spectacular careers find themselves at a disadvantage as they get older.) The "biological clock remains a reality as well, and one that sometimes forces women in their 30s to reconsider their attitudes about "settling" and about what constitutes an "eligible" mate.

As always, when people have options, some of them will be dissatisfied with the roads they take. Some women, and some men, will bitterly regret missing out on marriage and parenthood; in a world of fewer choices, some would have bitterly regretted being pressured into early marriages.

In their much-publicized recent book The Case for Marriage, author Maggie Gallagher and sociologist Linda Waite cite a host of data showing that married people on the whole lead happier, healthier, better lives than those who remain single. But the cause-and-effect relationship in such matters inevitably remains murky. If people who weren't able to find Mr. or Ms. Right decided to marry Mr. or Ms. Good-Enough, would they have been happier? Or would many of them have filled the ranks of divorced men and women who make up the other half of Gallagher and Waite's misery index?