My 12-year-old son and I play paintball about once every three or four months. (If it was up to him, it’d be every other weekend.) For a morning, we are mimicking soldiers—although without much strategy other than a “You go that way, and I’ll go this way”—attempting to win battles and avoid getting shot. Paintball is a unique social event—apart from the mild fear of being smacked in the head or neck by balls of tinted mineral oil sailing along at 300-feet-per-second —because it’s one of the few venues in my social life where I’m nearly completely surrounded by men doing what they largely perceive to be a masculine thing. I say “nearly completely” because it’s not entirely comprised of men, and there’s no rule about it. Typically in a crowd of, say, 40-50 paint-ballers there will probably be 2-3 women. 20-to-1, of course, is quite a sex ratio, unmatched in most other social activities. (Such a radically-skewed ratio reminds me of the film Paint your Wagon, which details, in a very fictionalized way, life during the Gold Rush with oodles of men and few women).
While boyfriends or husbands often accompany the participating women—so far as I can tell—the women’s presence is noticeable simply for what it does to the other men. They perk up. They’re aware of the women. And they’re often more deferential and complimentary to the women. In other words, they notice. And it doesn’t much matter whether the women are 10s, 7s, or even 4s (to use a gross measure of attractiveness employed by another University of Texas faculty member). When something desirable—the company of a woman—is rare, it becomes more valuable just because. While a male-heavy sex ratio functions a little like “beer goggles,” the latter wears off with sobriety. The former does not, unless the ratio changes. A 6 seems like a 9 when few or no other women are present. If that’s how men perceive and treat women in a very temporary setting of scarcity, how much more so in a more sustained setting of scarcity, like the military.
Thus it comes as no surprise that women soldiers—not exactly considered the pinnacle of femininity—marry on average at earlier ages than do their civilian counterparts. It’s not that female soldiers necessarily want to marry earlier; it’s that they can if they want to, and that makes all the difference. Indeed, sociologists Jennifer Lundquist and Herb Smith noted several years ago that this was the case: women in the military marry earlier (and even have more children) than their civilian counterparts, and they tend to marry fellow soldiers.
This is no longer the case in the wider civilian population, not because the overall sex ratio has changed much—it hasn’t and won’t—but because the marriageable (or eligible) sex ratio has changed. Many women consider fewer men to be marriageable than in generations past. The marriageable sex ratio, defined as the number of marriageable men to marriageable women, has diminished as a direct result of women’s heightened earning power, career trajectories, and general independence. Whereas before such women often needed a man, even a less-than-stellar one, in order to economically and socially survive, such is not the case today. Their standards have risen, but they still—on average—want to marry.
Unfortunately, the marriageable sex ratio is a very latent concept, and not conducive to easy measurement. How would we measure male marriageability? (Note: I will not solve this here.) If a college education was a good proxy for being considered marriageable—it’s not the best, but it’s not the worst, either, given the flight from marriage among the least-educated Americans—then the ratio of college-educated men to women in any given year could be one way of measuring the eligible sex ratio. In 2011, there were 0.8 college-educated men in the marriage sweet-spot (ages 25-34) for every woman of the same sort; in other words, eight men for every 10 women. On the flip side, data on unmarried, childless Americans ages 18-39 reveals that 74 percent of all those who never graduated from high school are men. It’s pretty hard these days to make the claim that men who drop out of high school (and don’t finish a GED, etc.) are marriageable; women vote with their feet. A few decades ago, such men could probably get by (think Ford, John Deere, or farming, etc.) and be considered marriageable and actually get married. Not likely today, which reduces the pool among them, which makes marriageable men more attractive because they’re rarer, which they come to realize, which means they become more apt to pursue relationships on their terms (not hers), which means…ahh, you’ve already heard this before.
It’s another indicator of the increasingly tenuous position of marriage in modern society. It’s too bad, because marriage is good for people—on average—and very good for their kids, if they can get over the fact that marriage is not actually about them, personally. Calls to mind a C.S. Lewis quote, taken way out of context here, but I think you get the point: “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
All that from a paintball example…