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The Descent of Men

October 27th, 2005 by dk

Forgive me for saying so, but men are in trouble.

The number of children born out of wedlock rose last year to a record high, and the largest increase was among women in their twenties. These are not women unable to make a commitment to a man, but unwilling.


(even more)

Women first learned they needed men, and maybe marriage, when humans discovered the biological necessity of having two sexes. Most experts relate this discovery to animal husbandry — “sex plus time equals offspring” — but they dispute how soon humans figured out it was no different for them. Others claim there’s no record of the connection until Onan was said to have “spilled his seed” rather than impregnate a woman. Those writings are dated at perhaps a millennium or two before the Christian era.

So men and women have had distinct and sex-specific roles for no less than 3,000 years and no more than 10,000 years, give or take. Five millennia seems a round enough number.


For 5,000 years, men have earned their keep in familiar ways. We could be counted on to:

  1. lift and move heavy objects…
  2. throw said heavy objects, protecting the woman from unwanted pregnancies (by him or by other men)…
  3. apply corporal punishment to said children (“Wait until your father gets home!”)…
  4. arrive at said home with the bacon by working for “The Man” (yes, it was always male)…
  5. receive also from said “Man” a retirement benefit, paid to both partners…
  6. die soon after he begins receiving said retirement benefit.

Somebody thought to put little wheels and a handle on suitcases, allowing women for the first time to negotiate airports with all their luggage and not a male to do the lugging.

“The pill” was introduced in the United States in 1960, giving women control over their fertility for the first time. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that men cannot prevent their wives from taking “the pill.”


We no longer bring home bacon, and if we did (Atkins aside) nobody would dare eat it. Our children are no longer spanked. We work less and less for The Man, and the benefits seldom last to the grave anymore.

Women who wanted time to themselves could count on getting it after retirement. No more. Life expectancy has increased as retirement ages have decreased.

In 1950, the average male died at age 65.5. The average retirement age was 67. Women outlived their spouses by 5.5 years to 71.0.

As of 1997, men typically reach age 73.6 and women hang on to 79.4, or an additional 5.8 years.


At the same time, Monthly Labor Review estimates that the typical retirement age for a man dropped from 67 in 1950 to 62 in 2000.


In other words, women didn’t spend much time with their retired spouses in 1950 — many died with their proverbial boots on. But today, a typical man has about a dozen years after retirement, often needing care from the apparently better-designed female model of the species.

More and more women are wondering whether men are worth the trouble.

Let’s face it. Whether it was homophobia, or male-controlled birth control, or the illegality of abortion, or scarlet letters, or male-only voting, or a subsistence economy, or the lack of Social Security — the playing field has been tilted severely in favor of men for a very long time. Women stayed with us because they had no choice.

But times, they are a changin’.

The question is whether men can change their brutish ways that has served them very well for 5,000 years and has only become a matter of grave concern for the last 50.

Academics have begun to notice.

Last week, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield told students that the sexual revolution may not have served the best interests of young women. Instead, it had merely “lower[ed]” us to the crass level of men, who pursue sex thoughtlessly and without hopes of marriage. In a talk titled “Feminism and the Autonomy of Women,” he suggested that men who grow used to “free samples” in the bedroom are going to leave women high-and-dry when it comes to committed relationships.


Academics raised the same alarm almost a decade ago.

When … marriage happens to them, they enter upon it guardedly and suspiciously, with prenuptial agreements, no common surname, and separate bank accounts.

Cheap and effective female birth control—the pill—… for the first time severed female sexual activity from its generative consequences. Thanks to technology, a woman could declare herself free from the teleological meaning of her sexuality—as free as a man appears to be from his.

Woman on the pill is thus not only freed from the practical risk of pregnancy; she has, wittingly or not, begun to redefine the meaning of her own womanliness. Her sexuality unlinked to procreation, its exercise no longer needs to be concerned with the character of her partner and whether he is suitable to be the father and co-rearer of her yet-to-be-born children. Female sexuality becomes, like male, unlinked to the future. The new woman’s anthem: Girls just want to have fun.


As if the picture’s not bleak enough, Maureen Dowd’s new book, due out next month is titled “Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide”


Women without men? It’s almost become a fad. Women gather together to teach one another the skills they used to rely on men for. Either that or they’re swapping the cell phone number of the best pool boy. I can’t be sure which, because those are not meetings to which I’ve been invited.

Meanwhile, are men supporting one another in the same way? Eewww, no.

Nobody helps men figure out their feelings, nobody reassures them that the boss was wrong … again, nobody helps them find the missing tie, nobody tells them whether this tie “goes,” nobody teaches them how to cook when it’s not a slab of meat on an outdoor grill.

Truth is, men can barely stand to be around other men for very long, unless it’s in a stadium, and even then, beer is required.

Sperm has now been frozen in sufficient supply to sire the next several generations, making actual men hardly essential. Science has had less luck replacing women. After a few days in a petri dish, a fertilized egg still requires a womb (i.e. a woman) to carry the child.

Fortunately, men still function well as fashion accessories, suitable best for making other women jealous — something for a woman to have on her arm when a handbag just won’t do the trick.

The question is, will that be enough? It kept alligators around longer than anyone might have guessed, so there’s reason to hope.

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  • 1 michele Nov 22, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Hey Don, I looked up your blog after reading yesterday’s opinion article in the paper. Your article on the Descent of man…I wonder, were you serious? This article (as always) was well written and insightful, but is it healthy?

    If men believe they are indispensable and withhold the instinct to comfort, help or protect the women they encounter when they sense that that is needed, then they are subtracting from the quality of those women’s lives as well as from their own lives. Do good men believe that the only needs a woman has are sexual, financial or fix-it related?

    There is a hollowness in our lives when we don’t have meaningful connection with the opposite sex. There are basic human needs that (usually) the other sex is quite good at fulfilling…comfort, protection, understanding, and on rare occasions, love…(or is that out of fashion?) Even the strongest of women (at least the ones I know) admit that the presence of men in their lives is important to balance and contentment. Women can live without men, and men live without women, but why would one want to?

    Perhaps men are afraid to offer comfort and friendship because they fear women will mistake it as an overture for “more”…and “grab“, causing misunderstanding and embarrassment. Can men realize that their presence is a gift that, given freely and without reserve, would enhance the lives of most women they encounter? When friendship is offered more freely, it may assuage the needs of those desperate women who scare men off by their “neediness” If a child needs holding or a hand on the shoulder, do we “withhold” for fear of being labeled a pedophile? Hopefully, common sense prevails, we heed our instincts and offer comfort …In so doing don’t we better our lives as much as those we offered comfort to?

    Sorry if I’ve belabored the point, but your observances are symptomatic of an oft unspoken and perpetuated thought that I don’t believe benefits humanity. Best wishes to you for a warm and wonderful winter. Did you know that a somewhat eerie and beautiful light silhouettes the peak of your roof through the pre-dawn fog?
    In friendship, …… Michele