Saturday, February 07, 2015

"war on men" ... maybe some men have resisted finding out what their "sexual market value" actually is and it's substantially lower than they hoped?

In a breath-takingly long feature years ago, Katie Bolick at Atlantic Monthly wrote "All The Single Ladies".

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

Not that this was exactly a huge epiphany but the nuclear family of the sort some social conservatives would like to see resurgent was a historical freak of statistical trends. 

Bolick's article emerged in the wake of Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men" and while Bolick noted that women had more options about managing fertility and family life it seemed that these newly available options were available chiefly to women above a certain threshold of economic stability.  Put simply, while a lot of new options are available for some women those options would be available by way of economic and social privilege. 

As noted elsewhere in the Atlantic, "marrying down" is less common and less acceptable as a goal.

While historically men have "married down" when the tables are turned there are some statistical reasons why a woman marrying down is probably a dangerous idea, literally dangerous.  The people most likely to be physically abusive partners are males who have "married up" to a woman who has higher economic, educational and social status and who has a more conventionally traditional view on masculinity.  When conflicts emerge a woman with a higher status than her partner may find the male tries to "even the field" by resorting to physical force.  So the reasons for a woman to "marry down" are few and there may be significant risk in at least some cases.  But since the "mancession" the "available pool" from men without higher education gets smaller, or so the articles linked above suggest.  Throw in spiraling educational expenses and debt and college education seems like a set of diminishing returns out of proportion to the debt being incurred.  But, and here may be where the socio-economic double bind may kick in, where's the job market for "unskilled labor" again? 

Having more people in the United States get more education won't do any good if there isn't a job market to absorb them.  During the three years I was unemployed it turned out that a majority of the options for continuing education hinged on having brought a child into the world.  Marriage, family, even divorce, or military service.  If you had none of the above theoretically you "could" go back to school but in reality financial help didn't exist and if you'd already managed to land an undergraduate degree grad school was basically a waste of time in advance. 

As Bolick proceeded:
Some even believe that the pair bond, far from strengthening communities (which is both the prevailing view of social science and a central tenet of social conservatism), weakens them, the idea being that a married couple becomes too consumed with its own tiny nation of two to pay much heed to anyone else. In 2006, the sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian published a paper concluding that unlike singles, married couples spend less time keeping in touch with and visiting their friends and extended family, and are less likely to provide them with emotional and practical support. They call these “greedy marriages.” I can see how couples today might be driven to form such isolated nations—it’s not easy in this age of dual-career families and hyper-parenting to keep the wheels turning, never mind having to maintain outside relationships as well. And yet we continue to rank this arrangement above all else!

Well, this might presuppose the nuclear family, which not every social conservative would necessarily affirm as the ideal or the historic norm.  If ours is an age in which the pair-bonded marriage that sees itself as a cohesive entirety rather than part of a broader social system then, okay, it may be that our conception of romance is virulent enough to be a problem.  When Mark Driscoll used to admonish singles to not be selfish it was hard to shake the sense that the way dating and mating work in American culture is that people go on a series of entertaining consumeristic ventures; once people have spent enough time together figuring out they like to play together they take a stab at actually working together and that's what gets called marriage. 

When Bolick got to this paragraph:
Now that women are financially independent, and marriage is an option rather than a necessity, we are free to pursue what the British sociologist Anthony Giddens termed the “pure relationship,” in which intimacy is sought in and of itself and not solely for reproduction. (If I may quote the eminently quotable Gloria Steinem again: “I can’t mate in captivity.”) Certainly, in a world where women can create their own social standing, concepts like “marrying up” and “marrying down” evaporate—to the point where the importance of conventional criteria such as age and height, Coontz says, has fallen to an all-time low (no pun intended) in the United States.

It was hard to avoid a gut reaction, that if that's the aim of and basis for pair-bonding then in some sense the game has been called, and the aim of pairing in contemporary American culture is as the ultimate self-actualizing consumer/luxury experience regardless of socio-economic status.

The suggestion that autonomy and intimacy are mutually conflicting goals, however, seems like a good way to put things.

People both want to be needed and resent being needed. 

Well, as debates and discussions about status and privilege go, that's been rambling along.

While useful when used properly, the privilege framework, as overused now in public discourse, is an obstacle to dialogue and understanding more often than it is an asset. What people mean when invoking "privilege" varies dramatically, adding imprecision to exchanges that unfold with buzzwords rather than plain language and specific claims. And like "structural oppression," which also shape-shifts enough in its actual usage to permit all manner of rhetorical imprecision and mischief, the privilege framework makes many conversations much less accessible to the majority of people who aren't acculturated into academic social-justice jargon.

Even when these rhetorical obstacles are overcome, there is no faster way to short-circuit cooperation than treating overall degree-of-privilege and degree-of-victimization as vital questions to adjudicate before identifying or addressing specific problems.

The idea that there will ever be "progress" in how the sexes relate can seem optimistic.  Not that men and women should not work to get along and build a shared life together, it's more that, well, having been a single guy for life and not anticipating that changing it can be strange to read those with sex lives speaking about rights because it seems that unless you're a rapist all sexual intercourse is a negotiated privilege and that privilege has been conferred on the basis of a status assessment.

The mating/dating game patterns associated with time in schools seems to have gone a long way to define how we see our role in society.  And yet the teenager we take for granted is, as a socio-economic trend, not even a century old yet.  Yet, cue Ribbon Farm:

There are many “mirrors”—novel sources of accurate information about the self—in our twenty-first century world. School is one such mirror; grades and test scores measure one’s intelligence and capacity for self-inhibition, but just as importantly, peers determine one’s “erotic ranking” in the social hierarchy, as the sociologist Randall Collins terms it. Of the school sexual scene “mirror,” he says:
…although the proportion of the population whose sex lives are highly active is small, this prestige hierarchy nevertheless has an effect on persons ranked throughout. Particularly among young persons living in public sexual negotiation scenes, there is a high level of attention paid to erotic stratification criteria, and acute awareness of who occupies what rank in the community’s ratings….

The popular crowd is the sexual elite. Being in the center of attention gives greater solidarity, closer identification with the symbols of the group, and greater self-confidence. Conversely, those on the outskirts of the group, or who are excluded from it, manifest just the opposite qualities. Being part of the sociable/erotic elite produces an attitude of arrogance; the elite know who they are, and the enclosed, high-information structure of the scene makes visible the ranking of those lower down as well.
(Interaction Ritual Chains, p. 253; citations omitted; emphasis mine.)
There are many more “mirrors” available to us today; photography in all its forms is a mirror, and internet social networks are mirrors. Our modern selves are very exposed to third-person, deflating information about the idealized self. At the same time, say Rochat, “Rich contemporary cultures promote individual development, the individual expression and management of self-presentation. They foster self-idealization.”

The reason inequality will never be eliminated is because it's always going to exist.  Easy though it may be to look at the past as somehow failing to recognize inequality, what if the metaphysical/social crisis in American culture is that we would prefer to not talk about inequality and would prefer to only acknowledge status differences as though they were to be ignored?  Years ago I had a conversation with a guy who declared he thought of it as sinful to think of any woman as out of his league.  Well, you say that, but ...

There are some guys who seem to think there's a war on men.  Highly unlikely, that.  What is more likely is that there are some of the guys who decided that nobody should be deemed "out of my league" have, at length, discovered what their real "sexual market value" is and it's not nearly as high as what they thought it was. 

1 comment:

Gabriel Wheeler said...

Hi there,

I've been reading your blog recently and there's an upcoming event with Walter Brueggemann at the Eastside Community Church in Bothell on March 12th that I think could be beneficial to your readers and former members of the Mars Hill Church, especially the men. I just thought I'd bring it to your attention.

Here's a link to the event's facebook page:

Thank you for your wonderful blog!