One of the nice things about writing a newspaper column is that you get free magazines so you don't have to spend a lot of extra money at the supermarket to find out what's on America's mind, or at least the part of it that's on the rack. My own recent informal survey of articles shows that we are fascinated by money, frightened by sex and deeply worried about relationships.
Relationships are, in fact, becoming big business. Bookstores now devote full blocks of shelves to books about what's wrong with male-female relationships, and authors are earning permanent seats on the best-seller lists by discovering new ways of analyzing why we fall in love with various losers. (Actually, people don't fall in love with losers anymore. They have addictions.)
Intimacy has replaced real estate as the topic du jour at dinner parties, which would have been understandable had the interest rates remained high, but is especially revealing of a deep malaise when interest rates are comparatively low. One can only conclude that investments in real estate must carry a lot less risk than investments in relationships, and thus make for less compelling conversation.
The war between the sexes goes back to the beginning of time, of course, but we seem to be studying it and analyzing it as never before. This may be a luxury of an advancing society or it may be the frantic rethinking of a polarized society. In any event, it would be a grave mistake if we approached those matters as though we were the first generation or the first society to find sexual cohabitation even more impossible than sharing the planet with the Russians.
The emotional mine fields of relationships have always been the special province of women, probably going back to the hunter-gatherer cultures. (Jean Auel got herself at the top of the best-seller lists three times with her Earth's Children series of books, and the hunting scenes in those were not the best parts.) Men and women, according to prevailing wisdom, are driven by different elemental forces that are connected to the perpetuation of the species. Thus, men do not want to commit monogamously, they want to perpetuate pluralistically. Women, wishing to protect themselves and their young, want monogamy. In modern times, this has boiled down to women wanting marriage and men wanting freedom. The two are irreconcilable, and thus the battle is joined.
Shere Hite, the pop sex researcher, has recently reentered the scene with a tome that is essentially a compilation of every female complaint ever uttered toward the male of the species. Her book has been roundly criticized as thoroughly unscientific. Hite took voluntary responses to a mailed questionnaire, stuck some percentages on the responses and called it research. She's also been making funny phone calls and acting strange on her book tour, which hasn't helped her credibility. Nevertheless, the inescapable conclusion one has to reach from browsing through the book is that there are a lot of women out there who are deeply unhappy and who are retreating from men and relationships.
Now, The New York Times Sunday Magazine has weighed in with an article in which the author traveled around the country interviewing several dozen men in their thirties and forties who have never married. The article, entitled "Why Wed? The Ambivalent American Bachelor," was written by Trip Gabriel, who summed up his finding this way: "Grown-up American men in the full swim of life say they're scared stiff of getting married."
Gabriel came up with some startling observations. The men he interviewed were not obsessed with chasing women, and a number were leading almost chaste lives. Some were deeply involved with sports: "Some bachelors seem to have effected a simple exchange: the vicissitudes and uncertainties of a single man's sex life for the known payoffs of athletics."
Some of the men felt they were still growing up, all of them worried that they had not married, and many wondered about being alone in their old age. They had been hurt in past relationships, and many he talked with are "simply shutting down emotionally, not so red hot to risk it with someone new."
Sound familiar? Women, cast early as the keepers of the hearth, have been talking along these lines for a good while. What is changing is that men are talking, too. They are choosing alternatives and wondering out loud if they're being wise. They're retreating, perhaps, but they are also revealing fears, ambivalence, pain and unrealistic expectations. Who knows? We may be entering a period of glasnost in the epic struggle between the sexes.