Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a reversal took place throughout the Western world in the ratio of single men to single women among people of reproductive age. This sex ratio slipped from male scarcity to parity and then to a relative excess of males, due to a decline in male mortality and an increase in divorce and remarriage by older men with younger women (Pedersen, 1991). The imbalance seems to have steadily worsened. In Germany, single men now outnumber single women up to the age of 60 (Glowsky, 2007).
This demographic reversal has elicited little comment over the past thirty years. Even with the recent spate of discussion in the blogosphere, the typical reaction among older commenters has been one of disbelief. Sorry guys, you just aren’t trying hard enough …
Did anyone see it coming? In 1983, the looming wife shortage was briefly mentioned by Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord in their book Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question. Using the 1980 U.S. census, they predicted that a shortage of potential partners would start to hit young men in the 1980s, “increasing by 1990 to about 116-118 men for every 100 women from 23 to 28 years of age” (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 179). This analysis of the latest census is not discussed elsewhere in their book and seems to have been added as an afterthought.
When the two authors discuss wife shortages at other times and in other places, the reader initially gets the impression that there is nothing to worry about. When women are scarce, men become more responsible:
In a nutshell, when women are scarce and men are readily available, a protective morality develops that favors monogamy for women, limits their interactions with men, and shapes female roles in traditional domestic directions. But when men are scarce and women are readily available, no such protective morality arises to favor monogamy for men. Instead, the traditional protective customs and practices pertaining to women and the pressures on them to fulfill domestic roles weaken or disappear. Men have multiple relationships with women and become less willing to commit themselves in marriage to one woman. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, pp. 231-232)
The authors are careful to add, however, that female scarcity is socially beneficial only if there are limits on women’s sexual freedom:
Remember that the background conditions under which imbalanced sex ratios have had their effect have been relatively constant from the time of classical Greece until the advent of the twentieth century. Earlier we called attention to the importance of the fact that structural power—economic, political, and legal—has invariably been in male hands. This condition has prevailed in every high and low sex ratio society that we have examined in detail. What this means is that sex ratio imbalances might well have radically different effects in a society where women had appreciable structural power. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 233)
In most high sex ratio societies of the past, where women held dyadic power because of their scarcity, this power was effectively neutralized by many legal constraints. Given contemporary Western customs, when young women are scarce, they are able to use their dyadic power to their advantage as long as they remain single.
… Young single women are not confined to the home and have much experience with the opposite sex. They make their own decisions about male friends or the choice of a husband. Either party to a marriage can now get a divorce if they want one. These changes that free young single people to choose their own mates and loosen the marriage bond favor the gender that is in short supply. In a word, structural constraints that have in the past neutralized dyadic power, particularly that of women, have disappeared. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 239)
The book Too Many Women? came out when the marriage market was just starting to flip from male scarcity to male surplus. Since then, this subject has been largely addressed by baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s or early 1970s. For them, male scarcity is the problem. They often blame it for the sexual revolution of that era and for various social pathologies among African Americans—who have continued to have a low sex ratio among individuals of reproductive age (because of high male mortality, high male incarceration, and low sex ratio at birth).
Hence, Pedersen (1991) predicted that the new regime of high sex ratios would deliver many positive outcomes: lower divorce rates; greater commitment by males to provisioning and parenting; less illegitimacy; and higher birth rates. He foresaw only one negative outcome: increased risk of male violence.
Bennett et al. (1989) concluded that the lower sex ratio of African Americans accounted for their lower rate of marriage and higher rate of marriage dissolution. Messner and Sampson (1991) similarly found that the low sex ratio of U.S. cities correlated with female-headed households and violent crime. They argued that “low sex ratios impede family formation and contribute to marital instability. The sex ratio therefore should be inversely related to indicators of family disruption.”
In a cross-cultural analysis, Barber (2000) compared 70 countries and found that societies with low sex ratios had less paternal investment and marital stability.
In practice, low-sex-ratio societies are characterized by hostility between the sexes and by marital instability … Moreover, in countries having a low sex ratio for 15- to 19-year-olds, young women are more likely to become pregnant in the teenage years… Evidently, if females cannot expect to make a favorable marriage, many gravitate to early reproduction without the economic contribution, and parental investment in general, provided by husbands. Crime rates are also higher, at least for women who have higher theft rates in low-sex-ratio societies, possibly reflecting reduced economic support from men. … These findings can be seen as supportive of the evolutionary theory of socialization according to which a pattern of antisocial and undisciplined behavior is elicited by a conflictual rearing environment. (Barber, 2000, p. 266)
These arguments are repeated by Wilson (2004) when he disagrees with the authors of Bare Branches in their contention that the growing number of single males in China and India will have harmful effects:
The authors neglect one offsetting benefit of having more young men than young women. In the U.S., a high sex ratio is statistically associated with high rates of marriage and low rates of illegitimate births. This argument, first made by Marcia Guttenberg and Paul Secord and amplified in other studies—and in my book, “The Marriage Problem”–arises from the laws of supply and demand.
If there are a lot of men for young women, then the women will trade sex in exchange for what they value, which for most women is a stable relationship–that is, marriage and two-parent child care. But if men are scarce and women abundant, then women will lose their bargaining power and exchange sex for whatever is available: one-night stands, illegitimate children or even prostitution. In the U.S., African-Americans have a very low sex ratio, and the consequences of that fact are obvious.
The above writers have shaped current thinking on the new marriage market, i.e., an excess of single males over single females at all reproductive ages. In general, their optimistic conclusions have gone unopposed. It is little wonder that few alarms have been sounded about this massive demographic shift.
Is the optimism warranted? All of the above authors cite Guttentag and Secord’s Too Many Women?, even to the point of chastising sex-ratio pessimists for ignoring its findings. Yet, as Guttentag and Secord themselves pointed out, those findings were based on societies that forbid female promiscuity. If women are allowed to be promiscuous, and if the marriage market is biased in their favor, they too will postpone commitment and try to play the market as long as possible. They too will ‘sow their wild oats.’
Indeed, over the past thirty years the new marriage market has failed to deliver its presumed benefits. Divorce rates have gone up, not down—because more women are filing for divorce. Illegitimacy has gone up, not down—because more women are voluntarily having children out of wedlock. And more women are postponing marriage or rejecting it altogether. True, men are participating more in family life, but this has not offset the overall withdrawal from family life by women. And true, the birth rate has gone up in the last few years, but for the rest of the past thirty years it was trending downward. The current boomlet probably has other causes.
These negative outcomes could have been predicted. Why weren’t they? The main reason seems to be an assumption that women are naturally monogamous and will remain so even when legal and cultural restraints are removed. It was a naïve assumption. To the extent that women are predisposed to monogamy, this predisposition is likely conditional on certain cues in the social environment, notably being in a parenting relationship. This cue is absent in a population that practices contraception and is voluntarily childless. Willingly or unwillingly, we have leveled the behavioral playing field between men and women.
Other criticisms could be leveled at the above studies. Do African Americans exhibit less paternal investment because their sex ratio is low at reproductive ages? Such sex ratios were, after all, typical for Euro Americans until the 1970s. They have also long been typical for most European societies, as seen in such practices as the sending of girls to nunneries and the giving of dowries at marriage. Moreover, sub-Saharan African societies typically have high sex ratios among individuals willing to mate (because the high polygyny rate dries up the supply of marriageable women). These societies nonetheless show the same pattern of low paternal investment.
And if we look at Barber’s cross-cultural study, its findings are almost wholly an artefact of population differences. Societies with low sex ratios are generally of sub-Saharan African descent. Barber failed to control for this confounding factor. He also erred in assuming that the population sex ratio closely matches the sex ratio among individuals willing to mate. This is not the case in Western societies and is especially not so in sub-Saharan Africa, where 20% to 40% of all marriages are polygynous and where the relatively low population sex ratio does not create a poor marriage market for women. In fact, the reverse is true: there is typically a surplus of marriageable men—because of the high polygyny rate.
So what is the optimal sex ratio of single males to single females? If we wish to have a society with no double standard, i.e., equal limitations on male and female sexual freedom, the optimum would be parity at all reproductive ages. This is something we have not had for thirty years now, and it would take an act of political will to bring it back. We would have to scrap no-fault divorce and make joint custody the norm. We would also have to lower the sex ratio at birth, probably through incentives for the birth of daughters.
It could be done and probably will be. The question is how bad things will get before action is finally taken.
Barber, N. (2000). The sex ratio as a predictor of cross-national variation in violent crime, Cross-Cultural Research, 34, 264-282.
Bennett, N.G., D.E. Bloom, & P.H. Craig. (1989). The divergence of black and white marriage patterns, AJS, 95, 692-722
Davis, K. & P. van den Oever. (1982). Demographic foundations of new sex roles, Population and Development Review, 8, 495-511.
Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61
Guttentag, M. & P.F. Secord. (1983). Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, Beverly Hills: Sage
Messner, S.F. & R.J. Sampson. (1991). The sex ratio, family disruption, and rates of violent crime: The paradox of demographic structure, Social Forces, 69, 693-713.
Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior, Human Nature, 2, 271-291.
Wilson, J.Q. (2004). Sex Matters. Will too many boys make China and India aggressive militarily? The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 13, 2004