Despite the return of feminism, culminating in the film Suffragette, premiered in London this week, it is now becoming fashionable to shift our sympathies away from women and towards blue-collar men. Whilst Sisters Uncut were protesting on the red carpet, drawing attention to the lives of women at the bottom of the ladder, politicians at party conferences, on both the Right and the Left, have been highlighting the problems facing the poorest men in our society: those left behind by globalisation and new technologies. However, as a feminist, and as someone who grew up with precisely the kind of men in receipt of this sympathy, I’m getting tired of well-meaning and well-educated men looking kindly upon their brothers at the bottom. Whilst poor, unskilled men have certainly lost out in the income stakes, many have received a bonus that matches that of any banker: it is a bonus paid in sex rather than money, and it’s not only women who are footing the bill, it is also hard working men paying their taxes – taxes which are being used to clear up the mess left by men who are not, like themselves, taking responsibility.
In many ways, it is difficult to disagree with the notion that there has never been a better time to be a woman – that femisnism might be on the way out and that a male equivalent might be on the way in. Compared with Edwardian women, the women of today look like they “have it all”. Perhaps no one could better sum up what society once thought of women than could Alfred Doolittle, in the film My Fair Lady, where he announces that “the gentle sex was made for man to marry – to share his nest and see his food is cooked”. Listen a little longer, however, and what this musical reveals is that the society which gave birth to suffragettes was not one in which men got something for nothing. When Doolittle jokingly remarks that “with a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, you can have it all and not get hooked”, he is very well aware that it was difficult for a man to have the benefits of female company without also making some form of long-term commitment.
To put it bluntly, the past was a world in which men and women exchanged marriage for sex. That’s not to say that sex before marriage did not exist, but that there was an expectation that should pregnancy result, the father-to-be would rather quickly be popping down to the local jewelers for an engagement ring. It is the kind of world in which men could not easily have their cake – and eat it. We all know what Audrey Hepburn’s character, Eliza Doolittle, meant when she said “I’m a good girl, I am”. Today, life for women is very different, and, at least in one vital sense, not necessarily better. Unlike in the past, men can have what they want, leaving women and the state to pick up the pieces.
When it comes to relationships, women have always faced a serious problem. Sex, in its natural form, is an unequal exchange: it leaves the woman with a risk of pregnancy. No matter how much feminism has taught women that they can enjoy intimacy as much as men, it is still an activity which, overall, brings greater net benefits to a man than it does to a woman. The dice are loaded in one direction, a direction that can leave women facing heavy costs, and not only now but forever after.
In small societies, of the kind we human beings formed at the beginning of time, men had little choice but to stick around and contribute to their children’s upbringing. Sex did not place women in the same kind of vulnerable position that it did in Eliza Doolittle’s Edwardian London. However, as societies expanded beyond small tribes and as people became more mobile, the risks facing women increased: there was little other than moral obligation to ensure that a father helped to deal with any consequences. Where women were locked out of income earning possibilities, leaving them financially dependent upon men, this was a particular problem. Sex brought a real risk of destitution for a woman unless it came with a long term commitment – or, at least, the expectation of one!
Marriage can be thought of as a commitment device, one invented by society in an effort to help even out the exchange. Without it, men would have been able to shirk their responsibilities, making survival for women and their children – both male and female – somewhat precarious. Whilst not all men would have taken the benefits of sex and left the women involved bearing the costs, that certainly cannot, unfortunately, be said of every man. Without a long-term commitment, enforced by social expectation, the human race would have soon been at risk of dying out through the hunger and starvation of mothers and their children. In a world in which humans moved beyond small groups, marriage therefore helped to ensure continued survival, enabling civilisation to march ever forward. In other words, if a man wanted the benefits of intimacy, there was an extent to which he had to give something in return. The marriage certificate was a woman’s security and was, as a result, placed in her hands alone. Sex was certainly not cheap.
In recent years, marriage has been on a declining trend. At the same time, sex outside of marriage has increased, as have births to unmarried parents. Births outside of marriage are close to eclipsing those within marriage, and a large number of them are unplanned. This change in family life has not been without costs to society, something which has been central to the most recent analyses of social mobility and inequality, including the work of Robert Putnam. Economists are now having to open their eyes to the fact that developments in society matter for the economy.
Numerous hypotheses abound to explain the declining popularity of marriage and the rise of unmarried parenthood. However, at the most basic level, it must clearly have something to do with the fact that sex no longer leaves a woman as vulnerable as it once did. With it, the need for long-term commitment has declined. With modern day birth control technology, women’s employment and the welfare state, sex no longer involves the same sorts of costs as it once did in days gone by. The risk of pregnancy is significantly reduced and, in the event that pregnancy does occur, a woman is no longer as reliant on others. With women in a less vulnerable position, the costs and benefits of sex have become more even on both sides. Women are free to enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy and, for men, there has been a big bonus: sex has become much “cheaper” than it ever was before.
Birth control combined with the strengthening position of women in the labour market has enabled sex without commitment, whether that be within relationships or in the form of one night stands. Sex and marriage have been decoupled. Women are now becoming sexually active sooner, but, at the same time, the average age of marriage has been rapidly increasing, to 30 in the UK. In fact, for the average woman, it is now a whole fourteen years between starting sexual activity and getting married.
For educated women, this decoupling has not created particular problems. In fact, as an educated woman myself, it’s easy to see only the good that has come of this societal change: the ability to pursue a career before marriage and motherhood later on in life. However, for many other women, this new era hasn’t been quite as liberating. Sex before marriage still does not leave a woman entirely risk-free. Whilst women might feel that they are protected from pregnancy, the reality is that all too many end up pregnant without intention. Women are falling into the trap of assuming that the costs of sex are lower than they really are. And, having come to expect something for nothing, the fathers involved are not always willing or financially able to step up to the mark in the way that they might have been in decades gone by. The result is that a great divergence has opened up between women: a career followed by a happy and stable marriage for educated women at the top, and a precarious life as a single mother for far too many women at the bottom. When it comes to sex before marriage, “men without means” are able to take the benefits, leaving lower income women and the welfare state with the costs.
In fact, it is the very men for whom there has recently been an outpouring of sympathy – the low paid and unskilled – who are the winners in this new post-marriage society. Respectable men who are working hard and taking advantage of opportunities to skill up are, through the tax system, along with the mothers involved, effectively subsidising the sexual activity of lower income men. Sex has simply become too cheap. Or, perhaps I should say, cheap for certain men, and expensive for everyone else.
When it comes to income inequality and social mobility, we must remember that those who, on the face of it, seem to be losing out are experiencing a life that their male predecessors would have dreamed of, one of sex without commitment. It’s just a life that economists don’t measure. Perhaps if it wasn’t for that life, if sex was more “expensive”, then there would be more of an incentive for men to make the kinds of sacrifices that are required to rise upwards, such as working hard at school, getting on your bike to find a job outside of your local area, or taking full advantage of training opportunities. If sex requires working hard and skilling up so that you can help support a family, it’s a no brainer. If you can have your cake and eat it without the effort, how can your incentives not be blunted?
So, let us remember that not every man at the bottom deserves our sympathy and not every man at the top is, as Jeremy Corbyn might like to think, an oppressor. It is poor women – not poor men – who most deserve our help. Until we have done more to help women at the bottom, feminism is here to stay.