Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Going steady

Is it true that men are afraid of commitment while women dream of a first date who'll show up ring in hand? Clearly not--women break up with men who are serious about a relationship they themselves are unsure of, and vice versa. It's far more socially acceptable for a man to claim to not want to be tied down, and for a woman to express interest in being married 'one day,' than vice versa, but is there any difference in how either gender actually behaves? When he decides a relationship isn't working, a man may give as a reason his need for freedom, while a woman may emphasize her need to be with a man she could see herself marrying, or who's ready to marry in X months from now. But ultimately, men and women both settle down when they meet the right person. The difference is in the justification given when yet another relationship doesn't work out. So it feels like men and women want different things, but... not so much.

Which brings up the Kay Hymowitz article Rita just wrote about. For some reason, every discussion of singles or young-people-today starts from the premise that all things equal, women wish to marry while men do not. When women do not wish to marry, goes the argument, it's because there are no willing, appropriate male partners. When men do, it's from societal pressure. It's also generally assumed that men are innately programmed to pursue as many women as possible, as though what has historically stopped women from going from one man to the next had nothing to do with the likelihood of unwanted (and dangerous) pregnancy. Hymowitz speaks of "frustrated young women," forced to deal with men unwilling to start families at 25... as though these women wanted to do so themselves. Which, as she even admits, they do not. If men's interest in videogames makes them like teenagers, what does that make women whose interests include stilettos and pink cocktails?

The truly frightening thing for social conservatives is not premarital sex or prolonged adolescence but rather the blurring of gender roles. As long as the narrative remains 'boys will be boys,' and as long as single women--even middle-aged, sexually active single women--are presumed to on some level dream of white weddings, there can be articles about 'young people today' that end on a hopeful note. If it turns out that neither men nor women are as marriage-focused as was once the case, but most men and women will nevertheless eventually tie the knot, well, this scenario is scary. It means there's a chance that men and women are not approaching these matters from terribly different perspectives. Even if 99% of the population ended up in a heterosexual marriage, this outcome would still be a disaster from a social-conservative perspective if men and women were entering into the institution as undifferentiated (except in some important ways) partners.


Withywindle said...

Consider the following counter-argument: "The truly frightening thing for social liberals is not premarital chastity or the end of adolescence but rather the solidity of gender roles."

Unconvinced? Unsurprising. Such psychoanalysis is not argument; but rather an unpleasant and unpersuasive attempt to avoid it.

Phoebe said...

Is replying with the opposite of what I argued an argument? Both your counterargument and my argument might be true in certain respects. But I am arguing that while the justifications surrounding relationships and their demise differs according to gender, I don't see any real discrepancy in how men and women behave. Which makes me wonder, if you are in fact offering up the counter-argument you provide, where you find evidence (anecdotal is fine), in the example I give of how men and women talk about dating versus how they act, of the solidity of gender roles.

Withywindle said...

My point is to avoid using the argument "X isn't really arguing about N; he's actually frightened of M." You have no idea what's going on in X's mind, the whole "he's really frightened" schtick is an attempt to make you feel good about yourself because you're not subject to such sad frailties, and when you talk like so, you are avoiding talking about N. Make your argument without saying your opponents are really frightened about something else. You're probably slandering them, and you're avoiding the subject at hand.

Phoebe said...

No. I'm making an argument about what I see being reacted to, and in what way. I am responding to writers' responses to cultural phenomena, to what bothers or does not bother these writers, and speculating. There's no slander, just speculation.

Anonymous said...

Withywindle here, away from home:

If you were speculating, rather than asserting, then the sentence "The truly frightening thing for social conservatives is not premarital sex or prolonged adolescence but rather the blurring of gender roles." would have benefitted from the insertion of "perhaps" at the beginning. Strangely enough, I thought you were discussing the issue at hand, not the discussants; perhaps you were doing both and thereby muddying both subject matters. So, it's speculation, not slander, to say that people really aren't thinking about, and concerned with, what they say they're thinking about and concerned with--really, they're sublimating a fear of something else altogether? I suppose I am repeating myself--I find this mode of argument repellent, not least because it rejects the minimal respect of taking people's arguments and beliefs seriously on their own terms. I do wish you could find other modes of speculation.

Phoebe said...

OK, for the last time:

I was (and am) trying to figure out what broader themes are motivating much of the contemporary discussion of young men, young women, and marriage (or lack thereof). I noticed that the constant appears to be that some see it as good and right if gender roles remain rigid, and often report instances of them being just that, whereas the other side, as it were, considers these roles to be over-exaggerated.

More or less, but this is a blog post, not research, thus "unsupported social commentary" among the tags. I also speculate, without proper evidence, about why Russian women are considered attractive.

All told, agree or disagree with the post, fair enough, but "repellent" strikes me as extreme.

Miss Self-Important said...

I also don't see the maintaining gender roles issue as being primary here, so I'm not sure that it's accurate to see it as the fundamental premise of social conservatism. Maybe maintaining traditional gender roles is of more concern to Christian conservatives, but I don't know enough about that to say. The decline in family life--that is, low initial marriage rates, delayed marriage, high divorce rates, and delaying or avoiding childbirth--is the fundamental problem.

Educating and employing women is not in itself problematic; it only becomes problematic when it contributes to the erosion of the family, for which educated and employed women are not alone responsible. Traditional gender roles were one way of promoting marriage and parenthood (though those also flourished within a broader set of traditions that favored these behaviors as well), but a wholesale return to them would probably be economically disastrous and socially untenable at this point, and it's also not what most secular conservatives are promoting. They do for the most part believe in innate differences between the sexes--whether biological or so deeply culturally ingrained as to be unchangeable in any case--and their arguments for marriage rely on this assumption, but I think if you read writers like the Kasses on this question, you'll see an argument for marriage rooted in philosophy, not just in historical precedent. And, moreover, you'll see an argument for the marriage of equals, though not likely one that's familiar to the Left's understanding of gender equality.