If you are an adult and you don’t have a kid with you, a Los Angeles city councilman wants to ban you from entering playgrounds. Los Angeles is not the sole offender; in some other major cities, including New York, the ban is already in effect, with the result that people have been ticketed “for sitting on playground-adjacent benches to eat donuts or play chess.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board just published a thoughtful, well-reasoned argument against the proposed ban, calling it “fear-based policy making at its worst.” The board recognized concerns that are legitimate, such as drug-dealing in playgrounds, but pointed out that such problems can be addressed with laws that are already on the books. So, they asked, “why should the city assume that every adult without a child is a pedophile?”
That question underscores one of the most obvious, blatant affronts of the proposed law. But there’s more. That such a law has been proposed in Los Angeles, and passed elsewhere, reminds us of some sobering realities of the place of single people in America. (The law does not solely impact unmarried people. Married people with children who want to spend time on their own near a playground are affected, too, and single people who go to the playgrounds with children are unaffected. But single people, especially those with no children, are likely to be disproportionately affected.)
Here are a few of the disturbing implications:
- Stereotypes of single people are alive and well. The proposed law seems mired in the stereotype that single people – especially single men – are creepy and dangerous.
- Over and over again, stereotypes of single people have been debunked by data. But the stereotype-defying realities of single people and single life rarely make it into the media or become part of our conventional wisdom. (At the end of this article is an excerpt from Singled Out critiquing the myth of the supposed criminality of single men.)
- Stereotypes of single people are often perpetuated without awareness or apology. That’s one of the main ways that singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) differs from other more familiar isms such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. When public officials make racist, sexist, or heterosexist statements, they are often called on it and asked to apologize. Or they know better than to make such statements in the first place. Not so with insults and slurs slung against single people. It was heartening to see the Los Angeles Times editorial board recognize and challenge the indefensible equating of solo adults with pedophiles. The sad part is that such awareness is so rare.
- One of the reasons that other forms of prejudice and discrimination are not practiced quite so openly and unapologetically is that the relevant groups have organized and amassed some power. Unmarried Americans have not yet become a recognized and potent political force.
- The proposed bans stand in the way of access to an important public good that can be scarce in cities – green spaces. Research from the social sciences has shown that being in nature “can make you kinder, happier, and more creative.” That gateway that nature provides to better physical and mental health should not be patrolled by politicians trying to turn back adults with no children.
- In many cities and towns across America, efforts are underway to carve out more green spaces. Those projects should be designed to include all adults (who are not violating any laws), and not just those who have kids in tow.
Here’s an excerpt from Singled Out critiquing the supposed criminality of single men (pages 162-165):
Decades after sociologists described bachelors as “a social problem,” evolutionary psychologists outlined their understanding of the link between marriage and mayhem. Like the sociologists, they too believed that single men might run amuck, and needed to marry in order to be pacified. To this thesis, scholars such as Robert Wright added a potent motive. Single men are murderous, Wright claimed, because they are fighting for their genetic lives. 29
What men really want, according to Wright, is access to women – fertile ones, specifically. Married men already have that access, and so their genes have ample opportunities to skip merrily into successive generations. To seize similar potentialities for themselves and their genes, single men kill the competition. Literally. Wright noted that “an unmarried man between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five years of age is about three times as likely to murder another male as is a married man the same age.” 30
A single man does not stop at killing other men, said Wright.
“He is also more likely to incur various risks – committing robbery, for example – to gain the resources that may attract women. He is more likely to rape. More diffusely, a high-risk, criminal life often entails the abuse of drugs and alcohol, which may then compound the problem by further diminishing his chances of ever earning enough money to attract women by legitimate means.” 31
So what are the implications?
“It is not crazy to think that there are homeless alcoholics and rapists who, had they come of age in a pre-1960s social climate, amid more equally distributed female resources, would have early on found a wife and adopted a lower-risk, less destructive lifestyle.” 32
One reason “female resources” are not being distributed more equally these days, Wright believes, is the high rate of divorce. According to his analysis, when a high-status man first marries, he monopolizes the fertile years of his young wife. If he then divorces, he moves on to another young woman. By then, he has monopolized more than his share of female fertility, and has left a less fortunate man wifeless.
Therefore, claims Wright, “a drop in the divorce rate, by making more young women accessible to low-income men, might keep an appreciable number of men from falling into crime, drug addiction, and sometimes homelessness.” 33
It is easy to make fun of the notion that a man can walk up the aisle a homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted, woman-groping thief, rapist, and murderer, pause at the altar long enough to say “I do,” and return an upstanding citizen and CEO. Maybe too easy. So I had better put a few disclaimers up front.
I’m not challenging the evolutionary perspective on human behavior. It is not as if I think some intelligent omnipotent creator put the world together in a matter of days, then sat back to admire the design. Instead, I want to point out some of the ways in which single men have been subtly disparaged in Wright’s analysis and probably in others like it.
Let’s start with the murder statistic: “An unmarried man between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five years of age is about three times as likely to murder another male as is a married man the same age.” Murder is, fortunately, a very rare event. Far rarer than, say, problem drinking. Annual rates vary over time, but for the United States, one homicide for every ten thousand citizens would not be a bad guess. 34 If single men really were three times as likely as married men to commit homicide, the difference in real raw numbers would not be all that big. Ultimately, no matter how you frame it, very few single (or married) men are murderers.
Notice, though, that Wright’s claim is not that single men are three times as likely as married men to murder people. It is far more specific. One particular age range is selected: twenty-four to thirty-five. And, only male victims are included. Wright is arguing that men are killing the competition for fertile women, and other men are the competition, so the sex restriction is appropriate as far as it goes.
But by the time Wright offers up his parting prediction, that “making more young women accessible” to men “might keep an appreciable number of [them] from falling into crime,” he no longer seems to be limiting the lawlessness to crimes against men.
So let’s look at crimes against women. In November, 2000, the National Institute of Justice released the findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Here is the key finding, based on responses from 8,000 American women and a comparison group of 8,000 men:
“Violence against women is primarily intimate partner violence: 64.0 percent of the women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date.”35
In any given year, that amounts to about 1.8 million American women who experience violence by intimate partners. (Among men, 16.2 percent who were targets of violence were victimized by an intimate partner. That’s about one million per year. 36)
Remember that scare story from the 1980s about how women who reached the age of forty and had not yet married were more likely to be hit by a terrorist than to find a husband? It was false. But perhaps a different version is true. Once a woman does find an intimate partner, she is more likely to be harmed by him than by a terrorist.
Of course, not all intimate partners are partners in marriage. Maybe the high rates of intimate partner violence can get pinned on partners who are not officially married. Rates of violence are in fact higher among co-habitors than among married spouses. 37 Perhaps that is because cohabiting partners who are violent are especially unlikely to go on to marry – which to me, sounds wise. 38
When intimate partner violence is compared across different marital status categories at one point in time, the results are similar to what we have seen for problem drinking in this chapter, and health and happiness in Chapter 2. Violence is most common among those who were once married and are now separated and divorced, and not among those who have always been single. 39 A woman who leaves her husband to live elsewhere is especially at risk. She is far more likely to be tracked down and murdered by her husband than her husband is to be slain by her if he leaves. 40 Again, though, overall rates of homicide are low.
The most compelling approach to the study of the pacifying effect of marriage on men is to follow men over time as they transition out of bachelorhood and into marriage. For twenty-five years, starting in 1940, a team of researchers did just that. They started with a group of 500 delinquent fourteen-year old boys, and a comparison group of 500 same-age non-delinquents. Did the delinquent boys who married become less lawless than they had been before? Actually, they did, gradually. But only if their marriages were good ones, meaning that their relationship “evolves into a strong attachment.” 41 The delinquents whose marriages were not so good often got into even more trouble than they had as bachelors.
I have one more bone to pick with Wright. (Well, actually, I have lots, but I will limit myself to just one.) It concerns his claim that single men are more likely to commit robbery “to gain the resources that may attract women.” 42 I don’t understand this. Is robbery supposed to make a man more attractive? Or is Wright assuming that women are too stupid to recognize when they are being wooed with stolen goods?
Author Katha Pollitt has a name for the arrangement that Wright and others describe, in which women are expected to step in and deliver a man from delinquency by marrying him. She calls it a “barbarian-adoption program.” 43 She has a question, too: What’s in it for the women?
[End of excerpt from Singled Out]
[Notes. (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) Thanks to Cynthia Cohen for sending me the link to the LA Times editorial and suggesting that I wrote about the issue for this column. (4) For links to previous columns, click here.]
About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.