Headlines all over the Internet have every single-and-tired-of-looking woman with her bachelor’s degree spooked—and it’s not because Halloween is around the corner. The uncovering of not-so-new statistics has breathed life into the proverbial monster under the bed: marriageable-man scarcity. They call it the “man deficit,” cleverly coined by Jon Birger in his much-buzzed-about book, Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game.
“What if the good men are taken?” Birger proposes. “What if a disproportionate number of the single guys still out there really are incorrigible commitment-phobes just looking for a good time?”
It’s not that there are too few men to go around, period. It’s that there are not enough men out there whom college-educated women find marriageable. For many women, marriageable men are considered to be college-educated—and also looking to settle down.
The theory Birger proposes in Date-onomics is that the modern dating climate works like a game of musical chairs. According to Birger, there is a 4-to-3 ratio of college-educated women to men in their twenties. A 5-to-4 ratio exists for post-grad women ages 30 to 39. Sadly, that means when the music stops, the ladies are left standing.
As horrifying as this sounds, there is something about Birger’s theory that’s a relief to the unhappily single, college-educated woman. See, you might think, I knew it wasn’t my fault.
But before you get too carried away in your “Ha!” moment, remember that Date-onomics is one man’s theory, and it’s not without holes. The biggest hole, in my opinion, is the claim that a shortage of marriageable men begots the blight of the noncommittal hookup culture—not the other way around.
Many do link the decline in new marriages among millennials, and the generally shittastic dating situation women find themselves in, to to the noncommittal hook up mentality bred in our college campuses. But Birger theorizes that the lack of men on our campuses is the reason for the noncommittal behavior to begin with.
“. . . the college and post-college hookup culture, the decline in marriage rates among college-educated women, and the dearth of marriage-material men willing to commit are all by-products of lopsided gender ratios and a massive undersupply of college-educated men.”
Apparently it’s an oversupply of women that causes college-educated men to act like monsters and causes college-educated women to lose the upper hand when it comes to what they want most: commitment.
Or at least that’s what Birger would have us believe.
“What if the hookup culture on today’s college campuses and the wild days of the big-city singles scene have little to do with changing values and a whole lot to do with lopsided gender ratios that pressure 19-year-old girls to put out and discourage 30-year-old guys from settling down?”
The only solution to this problem, Birger insists, is to infuse college campuses with more men. Let’s get more of these “incorrigible commitment-phobes” who are “just looking for a good time” into the classrooms and dorm rooms.
Really? That will help single women out? Birger assures us that his ratio revelation is not meant to scare women. Rather, it should be “of comfort to educated women who blame themselves for the failure to find Mr. Right.”
Well, forgive me if I don’t find Birger’s “it’s not that he is just not that into you; it’s that there aren’t enough of him” theory all that comforting.
Pawns in the Game of Love
Birger’s big hook is that this lopsided ratio breeds a “sexual nirvana for heterosexual men.” Census research bears this out. Since 1970 college-educated men ages 30 to 44 are more likely to have college-educated wives than women are to have college-educated husbands—37 percent of men had college-educated wives in 1970, compared with 71 percent in 2007, and 70 percent of women had college-educated husbands in 1970, compared to 64 percent in 2007.
So, to follow Birger’s logic, the highly sought-after college-educated men get to set the dating norms. If we women want a chance with a book-learned man, we need to play along. Cue the “loosening of sexual mores” among heterosexual college-educated men and women, the decline in marriage rates for collegiate women, and the dearth of marriage-material men willing to commit.
There is power in numbers, right? So if women held more of the power in terms of quantity (meaning that men were more equal to us in number), we would be less amenable to casual sex. Men would have to settle down and commit if they wanted any action. Birger’s theory is essentially saying that the majority of men are sex-crazed opportunists, and women are only pawns in the hookup culture.
I don’t buy it.
We Aren’t Victims of Ratios
The truth is, everyone—regardless of college education—has been conforming to looser sexual norms long before anyone was holding out for a Rhodes Scholar. The way that both men and women view sex began to change in the 1960s alongside the introduction of the pill. Some even contend that sexual mores had begun to relax as early as the 1950s, even before the pill made its debut and long before women began to outpace men in college.
Furthermore, lopsided gender ratios for the college-educated minority do not explain why marriage rates have been plummeting for men and women, college-educated and non-college-educated alike, since the 1960s. It doesn’t explain why the decline in marriage rates has been steepest for the least-educated, especially men, and smallest for college graduates, especially women. It doesn’t explain why non-college-educated women are less likely than college-educated women to get married and more likely to conceive a child outside of a committed relationship. And it doesn’t explain why the majority of all single men and women say that they want to get married but don’t.
It’s not lopsided gender ratios for the college-educated minority that make “Hookup Island,” as Birger calls it—harking back to Hanna Rosin’s comparison of the hookup culture to an island in The End of Men—dangerous for women. Rather, it’s that women want to move off Hookup Island, whereas a larger population of men think they’re better off continuing to sip their metaphorical mai tais.
Let’s not pretend that women are helpless victims of bad ratios and that, if given a better hand, we would suddenly start demanding commitment before sex. Women have been at the forefront of the movement for the “loosening of sexual mores” since the beginning. Many women truly believe that casual sex makes them freer and happier. Many women have been enjoying the noncommittal nature of the hookup culture just as much as men.
So Birger’s suggestion is that college-educated women move out west where there are plenty of educated single men (although no word on higher marriage rates). Or he suggests that women should choose schools and careers with better ratios and not hold out for a college-educated husband. But what if ratios aren’t the problem? What good is a potentially several-thousand-mile (and dollar) move going to do for you?
Women Can Take Back Their Power
Why squabble over a problem of the chicken or the egg? Because ignoring the influence that noncommittal sex has on those of us who hope to marry is distracting from the real solution.
I know that for me, one of the most empowering moments in my life, and the most comforting, was when I asked myself the question: Is this what I really want? Is this really what is going to make me happy?
My answer was no. Meaningless flings and the pursuit of “not now but maybe later” was not going to make me happy. I wanted an education, a career, and lasting love. I knew that I had to live my life in a way that oriented toward these goals, and following the hookup script wasn’t going to get me there. It took a while for me to break bad habits and date with intention. If I hadn’t started to orient my sexual relationship with men toward commitment back then, who knows, I could still be trying to figure things out now.
It’s not a shortage of men that is making women feel a squeeze. It’s the idea that there is only one narrative for women to live by. There is nothing wrong with questioning the noncommittal lifestyle. If you think you want to marry and one day have a family, seriously consider the impact that spending time on Hookup Island has on that goal. Will your current lifestyle and behavior attract men who want to one day marry as well? There is no need to apologize for your education or to compromise your desire for lasting love and commitment.
If we want, we can console ourselves with Birger’s lopsided ratios and insist that it’s just the numbers that need to change. But the only way we are going to see a change in the number of marriageable men is if we ask ourselves what it is that we really want—and then start acting like it.