Opinion | Less Marriage, Less Sex, Less Agreement

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I wrote a column recently lamenting the decline in marriage rates, noting that a record half of American adults are now unmarried. As a long-married romantic myself, steeped in statistics suggesting that marriage correlates with happiness, I found that sad.

My readers, not so much.

Many women readers in particular dismissed heterosexual marriage as an outdated institution that pampers men while turning women into unpaid servants.

“Marriage is generally GREAT for men,” declared a woman reader from North Carolina whose comment on the column was the single most liked, with more than 2,000 people recommending it. Wives get stuck with the caregiving, she added, and “the sex that receives the care is gonna be happier than the sex that doesn’t receive the care.”

The second most recommended reader comment came from a woman who said that when she and her women friends get together, “We all say, ‘Never again.’ Men require a lot of care. They can be such babies.”

I think these skeptics make some valid points — we men do need to up our game! — even as I remain a staunch believer in marriage for both straight and gay couples. But put aside for a moment questions about marriage. The deluge of annoyance among some women readers intrigued me because while it’s anecdotal, it aligns with considerable survey evidence of a growing political, cultural and social divide between men and women throughout the industrialized world.

A poll across 20 countries by the Glocalities research group found “a growing divide between young men and young women” in political and social outlook, while The Economist examined polling across rich countries and likewise found that young women are becoming significantly more liberal as young men are becoming somewhat more conservative.

A study by Pew found that compared with never-married women, never-married men in the United States are 50 percent more likely to align with Republicans.

One gauge of the rightward drift of young men: In 2014 men ages 55 to 65 were the most conservative group, according to the Glocalities data, while now young men are more conservative than older ones.

The backdrop is that boys and men are lagging in education and much less likely than women to get college degrees. Many of these less educated men struggle in the job market, and increasingly some of them seem to blame their problems on feminism. Young men are more likely than older men to tell pollsters that “advancing women’s and girls’ rights has gone too far”; women of all ages disagree.

A remarkable 45 percent of young men ages 18 to 29 say that in America today, men face discrimination. Older men are less likely to feel that way.

The upshot, polling suggests, is that men are becoming grumpier and more resentful of women’s success, and more drawn to conservative authoritarian populists, from Donald Trump to misogynist internet personalities like Andrew Tate.

The Glocalities survey concluded that around the world the “radical right increasingly finds fertile ground among young men, which is already impacting elections.” Representative Matt Gaetz suggested that it doesn’t matter if Republicans antagonize female voters because they can be replaced by male voters.

The gender gap is easiest to measure in politics, but the Brookings Institution warned last week that it “also appears in measures other than politics and points to some deeper and potentially even more concerning issues among young people.”

“The social bonds of previous generations appear to be eroding among young people, and this has serious consequences for coupling, future birthrates and social cohesion,” Brookings said.

One of the most discussed chasms between the sexes is in South Korea, where nearly 80 percent of young men say that men are discriminated against, and where (male) President Yoon Suk Yeol was elected in 2022 in part on an antifeminist platform. Women have their own complaints, including how unhelpful their husbands are in the house. Some Korean feminists have created the 4B movement, which promotes no marriage, no babies, no dating and no sex. South Korea’s total fertility rate has plummeted to one of the lowest in the world, with the average woman now having just 0.7 children.

Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, suggests in a recent book on marriage that the gender divide in South Korea and other Asian countries may offer a glimpse of what is coming to the United States. He estimates that perhaps one-third of today’s young Americans will never marry, with couples living together not replacing marriages. More people, he says, are simply detached and on their own.

Some women in America have publicly proclaimed that they are distancing themselves from men, abstaining from sex or going “boy sober.” Nearly 70 percent of breakups of heterosexual marriages in the United States are initiated by the wife.

One window into gender tensions is a viral meme on TikTok in which women discuss whether they would rather encounter a bear in the woods or a man. Many go with the bear.

Young people are not only marrying less and partnering less; they’re also having less sex. Traditionally, older folks worried that young people were too promiscuous; now perhaps we geezers should fret about youthful celibacy.

Perhaps this gender divide will reverse and fix itself. Or perhaps, as some of those women commenters suggested, it’s not a problem, or else it’s a problem for men alone. But polling finds that both young men and young women across the Western world are deeply unhappy at a time when they seem to be drifting apart and increasingly report that they are “unpartnered.” I’ve written enough about the epidemic of loneliness to be troubled by these divides; social isolation is estimated to be as lethal as smoking.

To me, the fundamental problem is the struggle of men to adapt to a world in which brawn matters less than brains, education and emotional intelligence. That’s an important topic that we haven’t addressed enough, despite alarm bells like Richard Reeves’s 2022 book, “Of Boys and Men.”

Reeves and others have proposed many ideas, including recruiting more male teachers, adding more recess and holding boys back so they start school later than girls. Vocational training programs like career academies and Per Scholas help, too.

I worry that gender frictions may grow and add tension to modern life, leaving more people facing the world alone with no one to snuggle up to and provide long-term comfort. I fear that I’m a romantic in a world that is becoming less romantic.