Every so often journalists and others will write articles whose import I think of as a blended idiom, something like the Blind Men and the Elephant in the Room. It’s a strange phenomenon. Smart people, aware of all the facts, who for various reasons either cannot see what is in front of them or perhaps can, but (maybe subconsciously) choose only to talk about the trunk or tail or ears of the elephant.
Two such pieces, grasping firmly at the throbbing, powerful trunk and the firm, thick tail appeared recently in The Guardian and The New York Times, titled respectively “Why a shortage of Mr Rights means single mothers hold the key to the falling birthrate” and with a little more brevity, “Have More Sex, Please!”.
The cat is out of the bag on the facts—which I won’t belabor here with my typical graphs and charts as on Twitter—people are far lonelier, having fewer children, later and having them far less often, than ever. And as the mix of unrestricted internet access, 7th grade biology pamphlets, and intuition could teach any young’un, one thing that can end both loneliness and childlessness is sex.
It’s in this spirit that Magdalene J. Taylor writes in the NYT:
Americans, in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, are not having enough sex. Across almost every demographic group, American adults old and young, single and coupled, rich and poor are having less sex than they have had at any point in at least the past three decades.
And she’s right. Right? Well. Sort of. Here’s an article saying that single people have more sex than married people, ultimately relying on a study that used GSS data from 1989 to 2014. But here’s an article pointing out that, no, actually, it’s married people who have more sex than single people, and in every age group, also using GSS data (though, this time, from 2010 to 2016.) What gives?
Well, if you’ll just click into yet another article, there’s another possible perspective: The post-War liberalization of everything in the modern world, everything in society, touching everything from how we dress in public and style our hair or speak to our elders, to the artistic license given to creatives, didn’t just break down all the barriers, it broke all the guardrails and sign-posts.
For the first generations, the tail end Silents and Baby Boomers, who had inherited experience with the unbroken millennia of expectations about how things are supposed to be, this meant everything from orgies in the mud on Yasgur’s Farm while Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix played, to breaking all the norms of social respectability in politics from military reverence just after WW2, to color barriers…but becoming the generally still pro-American, largely married, Nixon and Reagan blow-out election voting populations who to this day have granted Red States victories on Law and Order, Family Values, and Big Business.
That’s not exactly how it’s been going for their kids, and their grandkids, and great grandkids in the GenXer, Millennial, and Zoomer cohorts. Where their ancestors knew what all the rules and schedules were, but got the freedom to improvise and break them, while still arranging themselves to be ready for the next act, the younger kids get an ever fuzzier and less detailed script, with scenes changing all around them when they don’t know to expect it. They’ve had to reconcile an unchanged, ancient biological set of instructions, during an increasingly chaotic fight between competing social mores, with ever more pressing economic diktat. Babies born in the year 1950 to a pair of 25 year olds (let’s say), who were 18 in 1968, had childhoods where they likely knew their grandparents, and those grandparents were parents to their parents back in 1925.
Think about what that meant for their lives going into the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
When our little 50s babies were in their 20s and 30s, going from hippie to yuppie, in the 1970s and 1980s, the older and elderly people who were not just their parents and authority figures in youth, but who provided the upper bounds of expectations in their society were from quite a vintage compared to today.
Here’s an example that I hope makes the point—we’ll get back to sex, I promise.
That is former US Senator Thad Cochrane, who died recently in 2019. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1978 at the age of 41 years old. Which means he was born in 1937. Our little 1950 baby, 73 now, was all of 28 then. But that’s nothing. Thad’s president pro tempore in the Senate was Senator Strom Thurmond, who was 76 that year…himself was born in 1902. He only retired from Senate in 2003—you know, the year Finding Nemo came out?
What I want to emphasize is that despite the (perhaps surprisingly) strong degree of continuity between past and present in terms of lives consciously lived, the cultural boundaries and expectations which govern the ‘life script’ of each cohort of 20 somethings across the decades had very different pressures.
Who were the adults setting standards of discipline, behavior, instruction, including by example, in your life? Were they people who received the norms of what their own lives should come to look like in part from the 1970s or the 1890s?
Notes Magdalene in the New York Times:
Between 2014 and 2019, the decrease in time people spent with friends was greater than it was during the pandemic. And during the pandemic, many Americans spent more and more time alone, with neither friends nor romantic partners. Younger Americans are, infamously, less likely to have sex than their parents’ generations — and when they do have sex, they’re doing it with fewer partners.
But we now know better. That’s not even the important thing—it’s the context, it’s the whole object of sex, it’s what “romantic partners” even are and how we find them that shifted, not just the mere fact of the frequency of PiV S-E-X.
From this vantage point, the simple prescription “just have sex!” is revealed as well-intentioned but missing the point. Pornstars have lots of sex. Prostitutes have lots of sex. As Magdalene herself notes, the sexlessness of young men and young women is not created equally, and as various artifacts like the “Are We Dating The Same Guy” Facebook groups with tens of thousands of women in every major city concluding that they are over just several hundred guys attest, it’s not like there isn’t any sex happening in the US. The incels are basically right.
It’s just not happening how it’s supposed to happen. How’s that? And why’s that?
Where the Slacker GenXers and Failure to Launch Millennials might have had an extended adolescence, Zoomers seem to have a prolonged childhood. But that’s a perfectly rational response to the digital panopticon and insane social culture they now live within. If opportunities to take such risks and assume responsibility, and their rewards, were all still there, they would. They aren’t.
Magdalene, to her great credit, understands this isn’t just a problem for the caricatures of maladjusted internet men with a gruesome hatred for women:
It’s easy to brush these men off as anomalies, or to label their state as a result of personal failings or even the consequences of modern masculinity. But..If a lack of sex is affecting the cultural and social participation of these young men, it’s likely to be affecting the rest of us, too. A lack of sex can easily translate into less socialization, fewer families and a sicker population.
That’s the only mention family gets in the piece, whose thesis is basically:
Our current societal loneliness — and sexlessness — is a result of social and cultural shifts, while its continuation perpetuates those shifts further.
So, anyone capable should have sex — as much as they can, as pleasurably as they can, as often as they can.
Very rarely do we get to see a genuine Begging the Question in its full glory, as it’s almost always only raising the question. But this is it. This is the Begging.
The whole problem is a core biological function—having sex—has become rare. Unless we fix why it’s become so, we can’t actually get to the point where it’s not.
A strong clue to what’s happening is found in a small factual mistake:
Not everyone who wants to have more sex is easily capable of doing so. Disabilities, religious objections, asexuality and any set of day-to-day restrictions and responsibilities curtail or close off sex for many.
One of those conditions does not actually close off sex. Can you guess which?
It’s the one which is intimately related to the way humanity used to make the guidelines and signposts—now all destroyed—governing sex and marriage.
Yep. That’s right. Surveys of the literature confirm what you might expect; religious people marry more often, have kids more often, report more satisfaction, etc. What Magdalene prescribes requires a more religious world.
Hoping that it was good for Miss J. Taylor, too, we now proceed, sweaty, flushed, out of breath to Martha who leads with one of the best ‘grafs ever in the Guardian:
Birthrates are falling in the rich world and this leaves us with an unsolved puzzle. Women who want children are not having them. Why? Surveys tell us that, on average, women and men in rich countries would ideally like two children – near the coveted “population replacement rate” of 2.1 – but birthrates are falling far short of this. Women have more money and choices than ever, but are for some reason not able to have as many children as they would like. Why not?
My mild emphasis is added.
In Zentralfriedhof, Vienna is buried Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist and philosopher, the intellectual father of what we now call Statistical Mechanics. Carnot noticed it, Clausius formalized it, Gibbs measured it, but Boltzmann defined it—Entropy—the degree to which a system is mixed up, disordered. How unworkable something is, how little potential for physical work or motion it has.
The equation is simple: S = k. log W It is gilded just like that on his gravestone.
The S is entropy, the k is a constant (Boltzmann’s), the logarithm is taken of W. What’s W? W is the number of microstates. It’s the number of ways molecules of a gas, or a collection of numbers, or the choices in our lives, can be arranged. If you have more of them, if W gets bigger and bigger, so does S, per the formula.
Ideal outcomes are a subset of possible outcomes. We can’t expect them to be achieved as frequently if we increase the number of possible outcomes and reduce the number of constraints, increasing the states available to a system. Or more bluntly; Women are people. Given choices, they can in fact make mistakes. Given more and more choices to make, they can make more and more mistakes.
Martha acknowledges and dismisses the wealth argument;
…compare the situation of today’s young to almost any group other than their boomer parents and our theory falls apart. Millennials in the modern rich world live in far greater luxury than their child-popping contemporaries in poorer countries. Even within millennial groups in the US and Europe, it is among the middle and upper classes where birthrates are mostly falling.
And that’s true. In fact, a very curious thing is seen with income and wealth:
This pattern holds true for all races in the US, and it’s likely true for every industrialized society. Until truly enormous wealth-freedom is achieved (by a small few), people have fewer and fewer kids the more they earn, and are otherwise only above replacement rate fertility when they are in relative poverty. This graph is basically the midwit-mountain meme, where the very rich and the very poor have a revealed preference for having kids, but the middle of the IQ Bell Curve insists on doing things like financing BMWs and travel while ‘responsibly’ waiting to have children, if they have any at all.
But after Martha dispenses with the idea of wealth obstacles to children,
…so it’s about social structures, then? Lack of childcare, unequal parental leave and career penalties for mothers. Not so – or not primarily. In our fecund recent past, remember, career penalties for mothers were even higher. Mothers still suffer a career penalty almost everywhere, but attempting to remove it doesn’t seem to alter their decisions that much. Since 2008, amid unequalled progress in gender equality and some of the most generous parental support schemes on the planet, birthrates in Sweden, Norway and Iceland have fallen precipitously. Nordic countries are, comparatively, parental utopias, yet birthrates tick along slightly above the EU average and still well below the replacement rate.
Again, I have not altered Martha’s own words, I have simply added emphasis. One feels perhaps like frustrated Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, so close, but so far from saying “By George, she’s got it!”. Now while I do think Martha could in fact get it, she hasn’t just yet. She continues on in this vein:
…falling birthrates track with just one metric: a rise in female empowerment itself. The right to contraception and abortion allows women not to have children they don’t want and life offers them a greater range of interesting choices outside motherhood. That accounts for a lot but it doesn’t explain why women with all these increased choices are having fewer children than they would like.
It does. The ability to order Domino’s Pizza on every delivery service and dedicated app, delivered in 30 minutes or less, allows people not to be without two five-topping pizzas for just five ninety-nine each, and it also explains why people with such increased choices aren’t as slim as they would like. That’s the real reason. That’s an explanation. Recall our meanderings on entropy above.
There just aren’t many women who set out to be childless and unhappy at 30, any more than anyone of them who are also fat and unhappy intended to do that, either. Humans are imperfect and make many decisions in the moment which come to catch up with them. The perpetual +20 lbs of a somewhat overweight person isn’t a fixed mass or a sudden addition. It accretes over time, with decisions about what to eat or not. Life is like that. Disorder, entropy, is like that.
Martha then commits an act of solipsism I insist must be viewed in the original:
But she follows it up with something we can dig into more productively:
…“just not being able to find the right man” is a fairly recent luxury for women. Their grandmothers and great-grandmothers who didn’t find the right man would probably at some point simply have had to pair up with the wrong man – single life, or “spinsterhood”, was just too miserable and poverty-stricken. Women spending this Valentine’s Day alone should consider that in ages past they would probably have been married by now, happily or not.
All true. Except, their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were happier for it.
Martha actually uses the word ‘fecund’ to describe the recent past in which women in the workplace had society think of their role as mothers as being more important than a career. But she could have used ‘happy’, too. This trend has been noticed by everyone at this point, including in fact, The Guardian. It might be bewildering to other observers, but not you, for the fact that you are now psychologically inoculated against the idea that more freedom and more possible outcomes necessarily means achieving idealized outcomes reliably.
Martha then takes a sharp left turn into what the solution could be, devoting only a closing paragraph to the statement in the title:
But there’s another more radical solution to all this. Single women may not want to pair up, but they can still have children alone. Yet single motherhood is still offputtingly tough and to some extent socially penalised. In China, single mothers have only just got the same rights as married ones. Policymakers would do well to think about how they could better support single mothers. Target them and watch birthrates rise.
My guess is Martha doesn’t try to construct an argument or provide a defense to her position because she knows that it’s indefensible. Why is single motherhood socially penalized even mildly today? Why wasn’t it regarded as just as desirable as married motherhood from the get-go? Could there be something bad about it?
Yeah ¹ ² ³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶ ⁷ ⁸ ⁹. There’s a lot that’s bad about it and everyone even if they don’t read decades of careful literature on studies about it, knows it’s not great, especially for kids but also the single parents (often single mothers) themselves. Having not only our current generation of increasingly fatherless children, especially boys, but deliberately creating more and more single-parent homes is an insane idea and we shouldn’t do it. But Martha is correct to notice “Women spending this Valentine’s Day alone should consider that in ages past they would probably have been married by now, happily or not.” That’s very true.
From Allen Downey, emeritus at Oberlin - Millennials are not getting married:
You can ask the question, for women born in each decade “how many marry by 28?” The data says 87% for those born in the 1940 down to 31% for the 90s babies.
We cannot simply suggest single women – or indeed single men, who are making many of these choices – alter their expectations when they have freely decided that they would rather pay the price for not doing so.
Can’t we? If the decisions people make, like, perhaps, to eat too much pizza, or not be careful with their credit card usage, etc., lead to adverse outcomes (say, being overweight or being in debt), we can’t suggest they alter their expectations about what clothes they’re going to fit into or what loans they’ll be approved for.
We have in fact run exactly this experiment already—Senator Moynihan noticed it in 1965—when the illegitimacy rate among Black Americans was three times lower than it is today, “only” 25%. It’s not good, okay? It hasn’t benefitted the Black community to have a 75% illegitimacy rate, and absent Martha’s proposals, the illegitimacy rate has skyrocketed across the Western world.
We do have a fertility crisis, we do have cratered social relations—the solution isn’t “just have sex” (people should be having sex, though), nor is it instituting degeneracy as policy, it’s clearly doing what worked before: the ‘fecundity’ of yesteryear Martha describes, the pre-21st and 20th century social relationships that Magdalene indirectly acknowledges didn’t have these problems. The only fix, is prioritizing family formation, marrying young men and young women earlier so they can (indeed, via sex) start families in which they aren’t alone.
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The solution is quite simple, but will never be implemented.
What are the current social pathologies afflicting the West, particular America? Open borders (those poor immigrants), street crime (those poor incarcerated people), social promotion in school (those poor kids), crap teachers (those poor teachers [the dumbest cohort in any college - look it up]), drugs (those poor druggies need free needles), homelessness (those poor people), able-bodied people on welfare (those poor people), trannies (those poor men).... and, of course, below-replacement fertility. ALL - 100% - of these are traceable DIRECTLY to empathy and, hence, to women's suffrage. Add in anti-feminine "feminism" and the workplace and what do you get? You get "Mean Girls" running a matriarchy - and NO matriarchy - EVER - has succeeded in all of history.
You want to "fix" the housing problem? Kick women out of the workplace and a married family will be able to raise their kids on a single salary, with mom at home keeping an eye on the schools and housing prices will be within the reach of a single-family income.. as they were until the mid-late-60s.
We've had the experiment for a century: We can have a free, fair, open, educated society in which women and kids aren't threatened every time they walk a street or attend a school, or we can let women vote and participate in the workplace. But we cannot have both. OBVIOUSLY.
It is NOT the love of money that is the root of all evil. It is the love of empathy that is the root of all evil. Back to fertility - if women are in the workplace and in the politics, empathy is the way to their bed - and their bed is the way to the future of the human race. But empathy is THE MOST destructive force in ANY society.
So we need to decide: Do we want women safe, able to compete in sports with peers, do we want affordable homes? Good education? Safe streets? Prosperity? A BORDER?
Or do we want universal suffrage?
It's really THAT simple.