Men Are Lonely. But Women Are Being Attacked.
Male loneliness is not a woman's problem to solve
I was reading a book at a bar when a man sat beside me. “What are you reading?” He asked.
The answer was that I was reading Louise Penny. And I’d come to the bar to get a drink and some fries; to escape to a place where I didn’t feel like I had to fold clothes or wash floors. And to give some of my money to my favorite restaurants. I love reading in bars because I work and live in the same place. So sometimes I escape to a favorite coffee shop or restaurant to be around people in the noise of their presence. Even now, as I type this, I wonder why I feel like I have to justify existing in public.
I told him I was reading a book about a man getting murdered and went back to reading. He kept talking. I told him I hoped he had a lovely evening, but I really just wanted to read.
He kept talking.
“It’s so hard to meet people,” he said. “I go to therapy. I am on dating apps. But women are always taking their issues with men out on me.”
“Sir,” I said. “I just want to read a book.”
He didn’t stop talking until I got up and left.
Men aren’t having sex as much as they used to. Men have fewer friends. Men are lonely. So say any number of articles that warn of a growing crisis among men. This rise of male isolation is alarming and does seem to contribute to violence.
But it isn’t happening in a historical vacuum. It’s happening in the context of the historic reversal of reproductive rights for women and a rise in state-level legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ children, explicitly targeting trans peopleand making them more vulnerable to violence. It’s happening as there is a rise in young women reporting sexual violence.
According to the Washington Post, “Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they seriously considered suicide — up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago — according to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 15 percent of teen girls said they were forced to have sex, an increase of 27 percent over two years and the first increase since the CDC began tracking it.”
It’s happening as 65 percent of women report having experienced sexual violence and harassment on dates. It’s happening as the wage gap continues to stagnate. It’s happening as 62 percent of Republican men say that feminism has done more harm than good and 46 percent of Democratic men agree with that sentiment.
A friend who is a trans woman recently told me that she recalled having felt frustrated when presenting as a man. “Men are taught that sex is the only culturally appropriate form of intimacy for them. So when they don’t have it, they feel frustrated. It’s a losing cycle.” She’s right. But the solution isn’t more intimacy from heterosexual sex with women. My friend suggested that one possible solution is normalizing other outlets for intimate interactions and friendships among men.
It never ceases to amaze me how often the proposed solution to problems in economics, politics, and life is to make women do more unpaid labor. Problems with child care or the social safety net? Call on women. (Not forgetting that public school teachers and nurses and childcare workers are overwhelmingly women — and overwhelmingly underpaid.)
Are men sad and dissatisfied? Women, date more!
This answer piles yet more responsibility on women, who are already overworked, underpaid and burned out. In a recent interview with Ester Perel, the renowned sex therapist noted that our recent cultural shift from marriage as an economic arrangement to an arrangement of the heart puts too much pressure on the relationship — pressure that no one relationship can withstand. She wisely notes:
I believe even more today this notion that you can’t ask one person to give you everything. But it’s not just that — it’s that you absolutely need diversification of relationships. You need friends to bitch about your partner with.
People in intimate relationships are often isolated. They see fewer people, they do fewer things. And there are many people who have a better life when they’re not in an intimate relationship because they have a very wide social life. So we have to stop thinking that if you don’t have a romantic relationship, you’re incomplete.
She is correct, of course. But it’s also worth noting: Who is asking too much? Which subgroup of people is expecting too much? It’s a case, as Rebecca Solnit points out, of the missing perpetrator. The use of the word “people” here obfuscates the fact that it’s cis men asking too much of cis women, and women in turn are dissatisfied. Grace Wetzel, a Rutgers sociology researcher and advocate for orgasm equality, explains. “The orgasm gap has implications for women’s pleasure, empowerment, sexual satisfaction and general well-being. Importantly, this is a gender equality issue. Women are learning to expect and be satisfied with less in their sexual interactions with men.”
This isn’t a new situation. Shere Hite discovered this in her surveys of American women in the 1970s. One woman she quoted could be the voice of so many: “I have given heart and soul of everything I am and have…. leaving me with nothing and lonely and hurt, and he is still requesting more of me. I am tired, so tired.”
It’s worth pointing out that there is a gap in who benefits from marriage and sex. Sex is good. But women are experiencing less pleasure than men. Relationships can bring benefits for people’s physical and emotional health. But research seems to indicate that the health benefits of a marriage favor men in particular. And women only benefit when the relationship is good. Men benefit when a relationship exists.
A recent study showed that 63 percent of men view dating as a self-improvement exercise. An exhausting situation for their dates, who went out expecting a negroni and wound up giving free therapy. Additionally, study after study shows that women receive less satisfaction from sex than men. The well-documented orgasm gap is part of a cycle where women, who are having heterosexual sex with men, learn to expect less; to lower their bar for satisfaction and happiness.
Meanwhile, the men who are having heterosexual relationships with women have learned to expect them to provide everything: emotional support and intimacy, yes, but also child care, house cleaning, reminders to buy ketchup, the scheduling of medical and dental appointments, which grocery store aisle has the green chilis, and where the socks are.
So it’s not just “people” expecting too much of their “partners.” Let’s be clear: It’s very specifically cis men expecting too much of cis women.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment at the bar. Specifically because of the man noting that he’d been going to therapy. I am trying, he seemed to be saying. Which is good! And I am glad. I wish him the best. I am just tired. Tired of being expected to give everything. Being offered nothing.
I do not think this is a reason to give up on the whole enterprise of romantic partnership.
In her essay on this same topic, Minda Honey writes that her own experience as a single Black woman has taught her not to give up on romance, but to reinvent it — in her friendships; with herself; and with the world. “I want ease. I want tenderness. I want those moments that are the wordless answer to the mystery of why we’re alive and what we’re here for,” she writes. “Whether I make them for myself, with my friends, or the man of the moment.”
Sex is good. So is love. Don’t stop talking to people in bars. (I often do talk! Just not all the time. Look at me, once again feeling like I have to justify the need to not talk. Being a woman is exhausting.) But I do think it’s important to walk back the idea that the female labor of romantic partnerships are the solution for these epidemics of loneliness and social isolation in which we find ourselves.
A previous version of this newsletter misquoted my friend, whose actual insight was far more wise than I originally credited her as saying.
I’m running a sale through the end of February. So if you’ve been thinking about moving to a paid subscription, now is the time.
Shani Silver, a podcaster and writer, who talks about her life as a single woman has a really great analysis of modern dating advice that I think about a lot. It’s an Instagram story.
Also, to quote Meg Conley:
In a live chat from last year, someone asked Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax about this very issue, noting, “This is probably too big a question for a chat, but why do you think we, as a culture, idealize marriage, love, relationships, so much? Marriage, if you look at it realistically, seems to make so many people so unhappy (any of today's couples, for example), and yet people hold it in the highest regard, believing it capable of adding the greatest happiness and meaning to our lives. I struggle with the dichotomy, and am curious your thoughts.”
Whoo. Good one. Really good. And I say any really good question is worth trying to answer on the fly.
I'll guess ... two main factors. Three. I'll add as I go. 1. Erasure of many of the historic non-romantic reasons for marriage. 2. Widespread detachment from cultural traditions. 3. Mass-media replacement of 1 and 2 with romance narratives. 4. Via rise of the car, suburbia, the replacement of village- or community-type living with nuclear-family-centric living. Four factors. (And I'm sure more--I read a lot but don't study this.) Anyway, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = way too much pressure on marriage to carry our entire emotional lives.
Some trends are already working hard to push marriage back into a more reasonable place; increases in single households, a still-high divorce rate, and falling birth rates have a story to tell. So do questions like yours in forums like mine. We're giving this a lot of thought, rightly so. (More societal churn! Awesome. But what can you do.)
Open to other ideas.
Also, Moira Donegan wrote about the backlash to feminism for this newsletter last year.
Trans women are women and laws that attack trans people are an attack on women.
It’s worth noting a lot of the research into the benefits of heterosexual marriage in particular does show that women can benefit in measures of reported happiness and health outcomes. But the research also shows that men tend to benefit more. It’s a complicated and nuanced field of research. And I don’t want to be flip here and just be like, “Women don’t benefit.” They do! They can. And often married couples with kids see a dip in happiness levels only to see them rise later in life. This is just a really complex field of research and a very short newsletter and I think Susan Faludi does a good job assessing some of it in Backlash.
If the Shani Silver link isn't working try this one! https://www.instagram.com/s/aGlnaGxpZ2h0OjE3ODYwOTAxOTUxMzU0NTE2?story_media_id=2505277307687841724_5634235&igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
I'm single by choice. A male acquaintance insists that "girls like me" are the reason men are so unhappy... I should just get into a relationship (with him, I believe is the unstated) and I'd improve both my life and that of the man. When I state that my life is already pretty damn good, he says I'm disillusioned 😁. When I ask for a list of five things that would improve in my life by making the change he suggests, he cannot do it. 🤷♀️