The Chi Files had a great podcast the other day on the perennial complaint that Christian women aren’t marrying so often because there are just no good marriageable men in the church these days. (Check it out here; it’s well worth your time.) They approach the issue by asking the same question I always ask when software I maintain suddenly stops working: “What changed?” The more complex the system, the less you’ll be able to simply follow cause and effect from beginning to end and find the problem. So knowing what changed can give you a great starting point for analysis. I once had to debug a problem that occurred inside a top-secret environment for which I had no clearance. I could not see their computers, test with their data, or even direct a user while troubleshooting–all I had to go on was a very generic description during a phone call that the user had to make from outside the environment. But I was nevertheless able to fix it once I learned that they had recently changed the drivers on their printers.
So what changed in the Christian marriage market? It’s a fascinating discussion, but they conclude that the biggest change is that Christian men are generally less attractive to Christian women then they were in the past. They examine a variety of the social factors which contributed to this change before concluding that the only way out of this is for Christian men to make themselves more attractive–and recommend learning Game as a way to do this (The followup podcast in which they unpack what exactly that means is also well worth listening to.)
I think that’s an excellent short term solution. While one could certainly contend that the situation is unfair (and people certainly do a lot of that these days), complaining about the unfairness of life doesn’t really get you anywhere. Learning about Game is advice that I would pass on to an unmarried Christian young man because it’s something that can help him right now. A person needs to adapt themselves to the world in which they live rather than pinning their hopes on someone changing the world for them first.
At the same time, it got me thinking about longer-term solutions to the issue. After all, becoming more attractive has more limited potential for men in general than it does for one hypothetical man. Consider, for example, the recent OK Cupid data which showed that the women on their site found a mathematically impossible 80% of men to be below average in attractiveness. It’s not unreasonable for an individual man to try to aim for that top 20%, but, by definition, most men cannot find themselves there.
Regardless of how seriously you take that specific data, female attraction remains inextricably tied to social status. It’s not the whole of it–abs are abs whether or not they’re on a nerd–but it’s always a part of it. Sexually barbaric women tend towards hypergamy–their preferred form of promiscuity is to always seek out and trade up to higher-status men because that status is what they find most attractive. But status is relative, so by definition, most men cannot actually be high-status.
But this isn’t necessarily an intractable problem because sexual attraction is more plastic than we might think. We often treat it as indelible (i.e. “you can’t help who you love!”) but in the long-term it really isn’t. We can actually be civilized in our sexuality.
Admittedly, some parts of attraction never really change. Men will always be attracted to physical signs of health/fertility in women. Women will always be attracted to signs of provider status and social esteem in men. But within these elements, culture nevertheless plays a huge role. Even what’s considered a healthy/attractive weight fluctuates with food availability and other cultural factors. I remember doing crunches in the gym at seminary when a student from Africa asked his friend why I was doing it. Someone explained to him that it was for getting a flatter stomach. He was shocked because where he was from, having a modest gut was actually a status symbol. So if culture plays a role in how we perceive the body, how much more, then, does it play a role in the ways we perceive things like provision and social status?
But although attraction is more plastic than we think, it also changes more slowly than we’d like. So the question is whether we can change things in the long-run. Or, in other words, is there anything Christians can do to adjust the ways that things like provider status and social esteem are perceived by Christian women in general? I think there are; here are a few suggestions that could have modest but positive effects:
1) Be honest about the terrible effects of single motherhood on children and society.
These effects are clear and well-documented (you can find a good summary from Stephen Molyneux here), so I’m not going to go into the details right now. But suffice to say, kids genuinely need their dads. Sure, they can survive without them, but losing a parent should be seen as more akin to losing an arm or a leg–a grievous injury that a person can live with and work around, but never fully recover from.
There’s a flip-side to the way Christians laud single moms. It necessarily skews our perception of fathers towards mere labor-saving device for mothers. In other words, the perception is that parenting is harder for single moms the way its harder to do your dishes by hand than it is to use a dishwashers. The truth, however, is that children need their fathers on a far more fundamental level than they need an extra pair of hands in the household or an extra deposit in the bank account. Recognizing that truth adds an explicit element of provision to our perception of men in general.
And yes, I know… we don’t want to discourage single moms, and if we’re too harsh towards them, they’ll be more tempted to murder their babies instead of raising them. We don’t want that, and we do need to be cautious. But at the same time, we can’t let the feelings of single moms hold our families hostage in this manner. So tell the truth with gentleness and respect, but never lie. If the person you’re speaking to comes away thinking that you’ve said single moms are perfectly adequate in every way, then you’ve probably lied.
2) Start showing respect to men–particularly to good fathers–in the Church.
Christians have a really big problem with treating men with contempt. It’s fundamentally because we’re embarrassed by the anti-feminist elements of Scripture and consequently scared of being called misogynists by the world. So we try to overcompensate by regularly taking pot-shots at men. Worse, we refuse to preach the parts of the law which condemn what has become everyday behavior from women. So when women destabilize their families by usurping the father’s authority or obliterate their families by divorcing faithful husbands, we go out of our way to find ways of blaming men for these sins.
How do you think this plays into the way men’s social status is perceived by women? When we regularly paint normal Christian men as contemptible in our churches, should we be surprised that normal Christian women don’t find normal Christian men attractive?
We should change course on this simply because its the right thing to do. But if Christian men begin to hold one another in esteem and deliberately recognize earned respect, it’s going to have a positive effect on the way their status is perceived by women.
3) Make marriage an expectation for your daughters
(For your sons too, but that’s less directly applicable to this subject.) Again, this is the Biblical prescription for most people. Some are called to celibacy, but most to marriage, and so we ought to treat the pursuit of marriage as something highly valuable and teach our children the same. But this comes with a blessed side-effect in that when women are deliberately pursuing marriage because they’ve learned to desire it, they’re more likely to see the qualities that make good husbands and fathers as something desirable. On the other hand, when the attitude is that marriage will simply happen to them when the vaguely right time intersects with peak romantic feelings while they deal with more important matters… well, that’s when they wait around for a tall, cut prince riding up on a white motorcycle to sweep them off their feet. If marriage is just a superficial accessory to “real” life, then its only natural to select one superficially and lazily.
4) Learn to regulate and limit media consumption and teach our children to do the same.
In many ways, television, movies, and the like are perceived by the mind as a kind of surrogate experience. We may know that its all fiction, but at the same time, it’s what we’ve seen happen. It has a kind of normalizing affect on our perception by telling us what to expect from people and situations–especially when we don’t have real experiences to fill in the blanks. Naturally, this has a huge influence on the way our sense of attraction develops. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in The Screwtape Letters:
It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely.
In an age of mass-media, it’s all but impossible to cut yourself off from that small circle that determines fashion. Nevertheless, you can limit their access to your mind by being judicious about the media you consume. You can also balance it out by consuming media from different times and places which directed attraction along different trajectories. Read old books. Watch old movies. Spend more time unplugged. The more we do this, the more we find that our sense of attraction becomes considerably less skewed than the surrounding culture’s.
There are probably a million more small changes like this which could likewise have a small positive effect, but I’ll stop here. To be sure, young men cannot simply wait around for changes like this to happen. These are long-term changes, and they’ll miss their chance at marriage by waiting on them. If there’s even going to be a long-term, it will be because Christian men rose to the current challenge and overcame it to have families of their own. Nevertheless, it makes sense to consider sowing seeds now for what we’ll need to harvest later. As the saying goes, civilization depends on men planting trees in whose shade they’ll never live to sit. If female attraction changed in a way that makes Christian men less desirable, then it can also change in ways that make them more desirable. We just need to be as diligent about building a healthy culture as our forbears were about tearing one down.