Peter McGraw invites Meghan Daum into the Solo Studio to discuss her work creating a space for women to discuss challenging ideas and personal truths that go against the grain. As part of their conversation, Meghan discusses how women are beginning to speak out about an emerging crises of men and boys–one that is affecting women’s dating and mating prospects.
Listen to Episode #190 here
Speaking the Unspeakable with Meghan Daum
Frequent readers know that I’m interested in understanding why people are single for many reasons. There are lots of singles by choice but in this episode, I suspect we’re going to wade into some of the reasons people are single by chance. My guest is Meghan Daum. She is an author, essayist, journalist, and cultural critic. She’s widely published. She is a mutual friend of Paul Shirley who’s appeared on the show. He introduced me to her work. I’ve got her book sitting right here in front of me. She has kindly agreed to come to the Solo studio to meet. Welcome, Meghan.
Peter, thanks for having me.
It’s overdue, it feels like. You’re in Denver doing a one-day retreat called The Unspeakeasy. I have readers who would be interested in it, especially because you’re taking this on the road.
Yes. We do retreats all over the country.
What is it? What motivated it?
The origin of The Unspeakeasy is that I am a writer and an author. I’ve been a freelance writer for many years and I teach writing. I started noticing a funny thing a couple of years ago. I was writing a lot about culture war issues and complicated topics. That’s something I’ve always written and talked about but it’ll come as no surprise to you that a lot of issues that were standard are verboten.
What is verboten?
It’s off the table or not allowed. It’s forbidden or verboten.
The topic is off the table.
I’ve taught at Columbia and I’ve taught writing in different places but I teach private workshops primarily. It’s mostly women. I teach memoirs, a first-person narrative nonfiction. I was getting women coming into the writing class who didn’t even necessarily want to have their pages workshopped. It would just come up that they wanted to be in the class so they could sit in a room. They knew they could talk about certain issues because they had listened to my podcast The Unspeakable where we talk about these things and they’d read my books.
Whether it was the new gender movement, school lockdowns around COVID, free speech issues, censorship in the arts, or whatever it was, they had some times of a book club incident, let’s say. Something had imploded in their book club because somebody wanted to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and somebody else didn’t. Nice liberal ladies who were once perfectly in accord are suddenly finding themselves at odds in a very uncomfortable way.
They were coming into my class and wanting to talk about these things. At the same time, I was constantly getting people emailing me, getting in touch with me, and saying, “Thank you so much for having these conversations on your podcast and for writing about them because I feel so alone. I feel like I’m crazy. Thanks to your podcast. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way but there’s something going on in the world. I’ve lost friends.” All these culture war issues are tearing people apart.
I hear from men and women but there was something particular going on with women around these issues where they were reluctant to speak up. I noticed that there was something going on with their friend groups and there was an in-group out-group dynamic that came up around cancel culture and all these sorts of things. Women were not engaging in certain dialogues. They were censoring themselves because they were afraid of getting ostracized from their peer group. They didn’t want to hurt their kids for instance.
There were a lot of women that were saying, “There are so many things that I want to talk about but I can’t even bring them up because I don’t want my child to be also ostracized.” It sounds made up but this was happening. I thought, “Why are we taking writing classes? We should be having discussion sessions instead of wasting all this time reading your pages.” I also noticed that in a lot of the podcasting communities like The Fifth Column, Blocked and Reported, and Persuasion. There’s a whole ecosystem of free speech, anti-censorship, heterodox-minded podcasts. It’s very male audiences, especially their listener communities.
They are very libertarian and often very right of center.
No. I would not say right of center, certainly not the ones I mentioned. Those tend to be classical liberals who are feeling disenfranchised by the extreme left. These are people on the left whose positions have stayed the same but the extreme side of the left has made it seem like they are moving to the right.
However, they’re not. They haven’t changed. There is a phenomenon where if you don’t agree with the far left, you get branded as being on the right even though your politics are not.
It was a lot of that. I thought, “Maybe we should have a women’s community,” which is hilarious because I’m the last person to ever start a women’s community.
Why is that?
I don’t like groups. It’s hilarious that I did this.
You’re like Groucho Marx.
I am and this is very germane to your show because I’ve always been a freelancer. I’ve always been independent. I haven’t worked in an office or with other people for a long time. It was a little bit surprising that I did this but it became so clear that they were all these women all over the country and world. They wanted a way to come together and talk about issues in an honest nuanced way.
I took about nine women whom I sort of knew or knew of from all over the country. We went out to Joshua Tree in the summer of 2022. They were from all areas like education and law. One was a theater actress, public health, religion, or the non-secular world. We talked about all kinds of things for three days. We had an idea for a vacation.
It was a sanity spa and it was so remarkable. It was obvious that this needed to grow. I started leading women out on retreats. We talked for four days or so. We have guest speakers. It’s all ages. They range from their twenties to up. We had an 80-year-old retired anesthesiologist and we have what I call the sanity spa. Sometimes I call it the women’s shelter for the politically homeless.
You said that to me and that popped off the page.
We have an online community and we’ve done about eight retreats so far. Our online community is a private membership-based community. The idea is not just that we complain and vent but that we develop tools to go back into our real lives and be able to raise issues and speak our minds in a productive way, not threatening, and bring people in. It’s been an incredible endeavor.
Your guest speaker for the one here in Denver is Jennifer Sey. She’s a former Levi’s business executive. She’s an accomplished person.
She’s amazing. A lot of our guest speakers have been guests on my podcast The Unspeakable. Jen was a CMO and then Brand President at Levi’s. Before that, she was an elite gymnast and athlete.
She came to be part of this cultural war around her questioning lockdowns and so on that created a lot of strife within her professional life. The Unspeakeasy is a community for free-thinking women who crave honest conversations about subjects that don’t come with easy solutions. You’re in the muck dealing with these things.
Designed in the spirit of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, it’s an underground world full of intellectual curiosity, good-faith debate, and real humor, which appeals to me and will appeal in many ways to the types of readers who are drawn to this show. I have to ask you about these retreats. There have to be some ground rules or agreed-upon standards of communication and so on.
They’re small. Part of the magic of the retreats is they’re capped at about eighteen. We would certainly not have more than eighteen. Usually, it’s 12 to 15. You have to apply. We ask, “How did you find us?” If they listen to the podcast or they know what we’re about. Mostly, I want to know what they’re interested in. If they tell me that they’re interested in gun control, COVID, and censorship, then I keep that in mind. If they can’t end up coming, I’ll design a discussion schedule around the issues that people are interested in.
I’m curious. Besides picking the right people, the curation process probably takes care of a lot of these things but how is it that you develop or reinforce that this is about curiosity and good-faith debate? How do you keep a bit of comedy beyond the fact that you’re modeling it? I’ve listened to your podcast enough to know that you model these things.
We’ve gotten lucky. No fights have broken out. It’s all off the record. We don’t reveal the names of participants. There’s no social media. It’s not recorded. Nobody’s Instagramming. No selfies. We’re not tweeting. You come into this environment. We have plenty of downtime. We have fun. We laugh and everything. We’re there to talk about things.
Often, the participants themselves will have an interesting story and belly the discussion. We had a woman at one of the retreats who had been in a mass shooting a couple of decades ago and was injured pretty seriously. She has had permanent effects from this, yet she had very libertarian ideas about gun control. She did a whole talk about her experience with that and the evolution of our thinking. It was fascinating. We did not all agree with her but it was riveting to hear her speak.
We did every treat in Minneapolis and we had a woman who was a cop. She talked about what it was like to be in law enforcement in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 with George Floyd. It was fascinating. We have people who are CEOs of companies, small-town librarians, stay-at-home moms, and every possible kind of woman.
We’re going to end up probably returning to these culture wars and this notion that there seem to be some topics that you’re not allowed to talk about. Also, sharing your beliefs or wanting to talk about them is enough to get people to push you away.
Even asking questions about something like, “I want to know more. What are the facts around this?” Even that will set people off.
I’m a behavioral economist. I started my career studying morality. One of my mentors and co-authors was Phil Tetlock. One of the most interesting things that he would put forth is that not only is there a series of beliefs you’re not allowed to have but you’re not even allowed to contemplate having them. People find that to be outrageous and morally repulsive that you’re not immediately like, “No, that’s wrong.” Even if you engaged in the standard reasoning that great philosophers have advocated, it’s inappropriate.
Was he having these ideas before the current iteration?
Yeah. These were back in the ’90s.
What would be an example of one of those things?
This is a very benign one but let’s say I offered to buy someone’s wedding ring, for example. Even if they came to know that if they contemplated what would be the right price to sell it, people would find that to be morally objectionable.
I don’t understand.
The idea is that if you have a married person and you say, “I love your wedding ring. I’d love to buy it from you.” That would be an example.
That is like a certain social norm that doesn’t exist.
Not only is it that it’s inappropriate to sell your wedding but it’s morally wrong to sell your wedding ring. If you do not answer that question quickly, “No, it’s not for sale,” and you’re like, “How much would you sell it for,” people become outraged by the fact that you’re even contemplating this moral break.
What if somebody offers you $1 million? This is like an indecent proposal.
What I’m saying is he was doing what he calls taboo trade-offs where the secular and the sacred meet, especially in a marketplace. He had this realization about contemplation that you’re suggesting. Asking legitimately curious questions is seen as repulsive in domains.
It’s easily weaponized by the other side. That’s the big anxiety.
That’s a new thing because social media wasn’t a thing in 1997 when Phil and I were starting to talk about these ideas. Let’s get to know you a little bit. Are you single?
Yes, I’m divorced.
Can I say congratulations?
Yes. When I got divorced I came up with the word condolulations. It was condolences combined with congratulations.
I know not to immediately say congratulations to people because not everybody feels that it’s a celebratory thing. Some people are deeply wounded and embarrassed but some people believe it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.
I get along great with my ex-husband. We’ve never gotten along better. We’re very lucky that way.
You’re not a mother and never wanted to be.
No. I love not having kids. People say, “No one ever woke up every morning and said, ‘Thank God, I don’t have kids.’” It’s not true.
You and Chelsea Handler.
She and I have talked about this. We had a production deal at The Unspeakable at one point. We’re going to make a half-hour comedy series.
Are these in the form of essays?
I can see Chelsea Handler playing you in a movie.
She wasn’t going to play me if she was going to executive produce. I feel strongly about the way people talk about this issue. I edited a collection of essays by writers about the choice not to have children. It came out in 2015. Part of the reason I did that was because I felt like people who had chosen not to have kids have bad PR. The messaging around it was so counterproductive.
It was a lot of like, “I would rather have an expensive boat or shoes than have kids. My kid has four legs and eats out of a bowl on the floor.” Talk about taboo. It was so somehow scary and unacceptable to say, “It’s not for me. It’s not something I want to do,” that somehow it was more acceptable to say, “I’m a selfish shallow jerk.”
The people who take aim at folks who decide to not have children or of their own volition decide to not have children, their judgment, bias, and evaluation are misguided. The person who says, “I don’t want to have kids,” we should thank them for not having kids. They’re not doing this thing that’s not right for them and that maybe they’re not well-suited for. What I always like to point out is those are the great contributions that single people and childless people make to the world because they’re not too busy raising their kids.
I always see it as a way of paying respect to the institution of parenting or the process of parenting. People say, “How can you be so selfish? Don’t you know how important it is to be a parent and how hard?” I say, “Yes. I do.” Saying this is an important hard job that should only be done by people who want to do it is a way of respecting parents. Talking about that book, I was amazed at the number of people who are like, “I never thought of it that way.”
The other thing is it ignores the bad people which are the bad parents. Just because you have a kid doesn’t mean you’re doing good.
Also, you’re not selfish. There are plenty of selfish parents.
You have kids because you believe having kids will make you happy.
There are a lot of reasons people have kids. There’s a pro-creative urge that is biological. It’s interesting. I wonder what you think of this because that book came out in 2015. The thinking was still that the world was overpopulated. That was fairly unquestioned at least for the layperson. What we know is that we’re not at a replacement rate and there is a crisis.
There was an opinion piece in The New York Times by a demographer pointing this out. Also, having a model that shows that in the same way that we went up so fast, we’re going to go down so fast. Elon Musk is helping battle it.
He also has at least ten kids.
I have a Solo Thoughts episode where I talk a little bit about depopulation. I feel like I need to revisit it because my beliefs are evolving. The one thing I can say is that when I give talks about single living and the rise of singles, I will often get a question, “What about the threats to humanity about depopulation?” I can be a little bit flippant when I respond to that because one thing I say is, “Many years ago, we were all up in arms about the opposite problem and that hasn’t happened so let’s wait and see whether this is a problem before we start diagnosing it as a problem.” That’s my first one.
Paul Ehrlich has been debunked.
Yeah, The Population Bomb. The second one is we have more proximal threats to humanity. If you’re not up in arms about nuclear arms, don’t come to me about depopulation. That’s my second one. The third one is this. I don’t feel comfortable telling individuals to do things that are not right for them to benefit society or some future humanity. That’s been done a lot in the world and it hasn’t necessarily served women and a lot of people in that way, sacrificing your well-being for the goodness of humanity, especially when we’re not sure, point number one, that’s the right sacrifice.
I also think need to think about it in terms of it’s not a matter of convincing people to have kids if they don’t want to. It’s a matter of allowing people to have more kids if they want to. There are a lot of people who maybe have 1 and they would like to have 3 but the forces of the economy and all kinds of structural things make it hard. We need to let the people who want to do it and leave the other people alone.
Also, help them do it well. I’m happy to support you. I don’t mind paying taxes as long as the taxes are done right.
The other thing is it’s important for kids to grow up in a society where they see that there are all kinds of ways to be an adult. Kids should see adults who don’t have kids in their midst. A lot of people grow up in suburbs and everyone is a family. They had never seen an adult who was not some of this mom or dad. It does take a village. It’s a cliché.
When we hearken back to the good old days, there is something good about those corporate families and extended families because there were uncles around and other adults. Those families were a lot stronger in case someone died or got divorced. There’s still a male figure in the household, for example.
The role of aunts, Elizabeth Gilbert has talked about this.
I had Melanie Notkin on.
I’m sure you’re friendly. I would be amazed if you didn’t DM-ed each other.
We’re friends. We were texting.
I have a pet project. I’m working on a children’s book about single adults.
When you know you think about it, not only is the case that children are insulated and surrounded by families and don’t see this other world that’s a huge world. Almost half of American adults are single. They’re not where the kids are. They are in cities and so on. This tendency is reinforced by parents. Parents say, “When you have children, you’ll understand.” I had a previous guest who talked about this. He changed the way he talks to his daughter and son about what their futures would look like to not just default to the fact that you’re going to have kids and be married someday in that sense. There’s a lot of educating around parents that can be done.
Have you noticed that people with adult kids are saying more, “I’m not sure my daughter or son will have kids? I understand why.” Maybe they’re saying that to me because I talk about this stuff but I feel like it’s starting to change between climate anxiety and everything. It’s less surprising to people.
Especially for these younger generations, there’s an affordability crisis. Some of it is real and some of it is perceived. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to South Korea. South Korea is seeing this also as not an individualistic country that is keeping up with the gang and Joneses feels impossible. Also, even regular run-of-the-mill dating is so expensive that some young South Koreans, Americans, and so on are opting out of doing this kind of courtship procedure.
It’s emotionally expensive too.
It’s a lot, yes. Are you very comfortable with your singlehood?
Yeah. I love being single. I love living alone. I need a lot of alone time.
It supplements the lifestyle you have. You spend a lot of time creating. You do a lot of writing and speaking. You’re on the road.
I’m very social. Especially since I have The Unspeakeasy, I’m leading groups a lot. There are things where I’m very on. It’s not like I’m lonely or lacking social stimulation.
We have this tendency to think about connection too narrowly and what’s very clear is that you have community. You have not just friends but a broader community.
I’m constantly talking to people. I have two podcasts. I treasure my alone time. I can’t imagine living with somebody. I like living by myself.
There are people reading this going, “Amen, sister.” I feel the same way. I don’t want to say never but I’ll never have a child. I know that. It’s fairly comfortable to say I’ll never get married. I have no intention to ever live with someone. I used to feel embarrassed and scared to say that. Now, I say it proudly.
Sometimes people are like, “Don’t say that publicly because then nobody will ever want to go out with you,” but I don’t care.
First of all, you should not make yourself small to be more appealing.
I know, especially because I don’t even have time to go out with anybody. It’s like a reflex. “I shouldn’t say that because it’s going to make me seem unappealing.” We still go to that even if we’re not even interested in that. It’s natural instinct.
I had a guest, Kerri Baillie on and she’s a member of the community. She’s an Aussie. She’s just a fantastic person. She’s got all these tattoos. She dyes her hair candy color and people are like, “That’s brave but I don’t think guys are going to like that.” She goes, “I do this for me.” She’s not changing the way she is or who she is to impress some random guy.
A lot of guys do like that. People used to tell me that driving a Subaru was repelling men but not in Colorado. Everybody drives a Subaru here.
It’s 1 out of 3 cars.
In Los Angeles, it’s signaling something.
I find that the sexiest thing about someone is that they know who they are and that they’re comfortable with who they are.
Nobody’s telling me that. It’s these all-important strangers.
My second response to whoever is telling you to not say it is you’d be surprised how many people are also hiding that. I’ve had numerous circumstances where I become more appealing because I say that. Not less. In some ways, it’s polarizing in a way that I wanted to be polarized.
I like the idea of living down the street.
It’s a different building.
What’s funny is I like the idea of either long distance or next door. For some reason, it seems easier. Long distance is great. Even in my twenties, I enjoyed the long-distance relationship and I’ve written about that because it’s great. You have huge chunks of time to do your thing and have your own life, and then the person comes. It’s like a little vacation and you’re forced to stop working.
I have these different types of singles. There are the someday singles. You would call them normies. They are the very traditional hopelessly waiting for their person. There are the just mays who are independent. They are solos as I call them but they want something traditional but if it doesn’t happen, that’s okay. There’s no way. These are people who are not interested in dating or relationships. It sounds like you’re at least partially in no way.
I’m in the no-way phase because of because of work stuff.
That’s common. Also, there are new ways and these are people who are doing it non-traditionally. For example, living apart together. You’re sort of a no way-new way depending on the time of year project.
The last couple of years have been extremely professionally intense. Getting in a relationship would feel like taking on another job. I already have seven jobs.
For someone who has a women’s only online community and hosts women’s only retreats, you care a lot about men’s issues.
It’s fascinating what’s going on. I mostly find it interesting. I care about what’s going on with men because it affects women. I have a whole theory. I talked about this with Christine Emba on my podcast. I have a whole theory about single. It’s single women who are concerned about these issues with men because it affects them.
Is Christine Emba a WashPo writer?
Christine Emba is a Washington Post columnist. She had a book come out that had to do with the relationship between the sexual revolution and consent. She writes a lot about these issues of masculinity crisis but she’s not a Jordan Peterson type, although she’s sympathetic to many of his ideas as am I.
She’s a Millennial and a Princeton-educated Black woman. She has an essay that some people found rather provocative called Men Are Lost. Here’s a Map Out of the Wilderness. That certainly cut through the clutter.
It was a great piece. It’s very comprehensive.
You had her on The Unspeakable Podcast.
I’m curious about what you think about this because even back when we would talk about “men’s rights,” that movement was filled with all kinds of shady unfortunate characters but I thought there was so much truth within it, and things in terms in terms of custody disputes and that kind of stuff that was a couple decades ago.
What we have is a female-dominated culture. What can you say? That women are getting educated at higher rates. As soon as you gave women rights, they sprung way ahead. That’s good but it’s also resulted in a pretty big class of men who were demoted within the culture and haven’t figured out a way to catch up. It’s caused a mating crisis.
You said it’s fairly obvious but there are people reading who don’t agree with that. They don’t think that it’s fairly obvious that this is a women-dominated culture. You mentioned education. I’ve talked about education before. It’s in my book. Sixty percent of college students both at the undergraduate and graduate level are women. That is a shocking change from the 1960s when there were almost no women in college. We see this major change. However, if you were going to make the case for the curious versus cautious to agree with you, what is the case for why this is a women-dominated culture?
It starts as early as elementary school. The values of school are sitting still, paying attention, and focusing. Girls are better at that than little boys. They’re doing better in school from the get-go. The institution of school favors stereotypically women’s traits. We’re talking in the aggregate. There are plenty of girls who are hyperactive and run around. There are plenty of boys who sit still. That’s a given.
The majority of high school valedictorians are girls. I don’t have the numbers there but it’s pretty dramatic. We’ve lost manufacturing jobs or the kinds of jobs that working-class men, the men who did not have higher education, the kinds of jobs that they could support a family on in the past have gone away. We have this professional-managerial class. We have jobs that involve thinking, using computers, sitting still, and doing things that in the aggregate girls and women have done better. People get confused because, at the very highest levels, it’s still men who dominate.
They’re making the laws but the fact is that the number of people who are Fortune 500 CEOs is miniscule. Do most of them happen to be men? Yes, and there are a lot of reasons for it that we could talk about. The fact is in the general population, in the aggregate, women and girls are doing better than men. We also have this phenomenon of women wanting to marry somebody or partner with somebody who is at their status, education level, or higher. By definition, the pool is getting smaller. People are not pairing up.
There are a few other statistics. What you’re saying for a lot of people doesn’t make sense or compute.
If you’ve been married for 20 to 30 years, there’s no reason you would notice this unless your kids are dealing with it.
You might very well might be. There’s all the data about incarceration, homelessness, suicide, and mental health. The other one is one we don’t ever talk about and I bring it up a lot. It’s longevity. The average American woman gets 5.7 extra years than men.
I want to be clear. With drug use and suicide, more men are dying deaths of despair. I don’t even know what the numbers are.
It’s way out of whack in that sense. The tendency is you look up to these powerful folks who aren’t always well-behaved and aren’t always acting in the best interest of women with the latest stuff with the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade. The patriarchy is still very real in that sense but it also doesn’t give a crap about poor men.
The fact is the wage gap is a motherhood penalty. That’s another thing people don’t think about it. It’s not true that women make $0.74 on the dollar. It’s a female-dominated culture. It’s a culture where we talk about feelings. A lot of this is good.
This show exists in part because of the rise of women. You give women educational and economic opportunities, and they take them. You’ve alluded to one problem, which is they take them and then they look around and they can’t find a good partner. Heterosexual women can’t find a good partner but some of them never want to find a partner or have kids anyway. They don’t get forced into a marriage that they used to be forced into.
A marriage originally was an arrangement. A woman went from her father’s home where he was the head and master and into her husband’s home where he was the head and master. Except for a few spirited spinsters who could make their way, you either stayed your life under dad’s roof or your husband’s roof. Now, marriage has become much more egalitarian as they become love marriages or even all-or-nothing marriages as Eli Finkel calls them. You don’t have to do marriage anymore. It’s an option rather than mandatory.
What’s the percentage of children born out of wedlock again?
I don’t know the data per se but that’s on the rise. I had a mother who wasn’t educated. Divorcing her husband was a big deal and she had to re-enter the workforce. She was ill-equipped for that. I like the fact that my sister went through a divorce but she was well-equipped to be able to walk away from this and still be a good mom and so on. This is not a situation where the cause of this is necessarily bad.
There are unintended consequences. I wonder how many people don’t want to be partnered and have kids. The book I edited in 2015 is called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It wasn’t my title but it’s a good one. I used to think, “There are so many people out there who would rather not have kids or be single.” There’s not that many. It’s a significant minority but we’re outliers.
I’m biased because I constantly interact with those folks and I’m one of those folks. I was questioning it at sixteen whether I wanted to get married and I’ve never wanted to have kids. I thought I might have them especially because there were women I loved who I thought I would marry and I knew that kids were part of the package so to speak.
We’re seeing that more in younger generations for the reasons we already talked about. What ends up happening is even if it wasn’t someone’s intention at the beginning, at some point, it becomes their intention. For example, you end up having an abusive relationship and then you go, “This may not be the panacea I thought it was going to be.”
Otherwise, you have trouble finding good partners and you end up crafting a life that’s a wonderful partner. You realize, “I don’t need to do this. It’s not going to be better on some other side.” Statistically, still, most people partner up and most of them have children but the numbers are going down in that sense and you’re seeing this rise. Some people are staying single longer. Some people are opting out altogether. There’s also another thing. People aren’t necessarily remarrying at the same rates. It used to be the case that if you got divorced, you immediately remarried.
Especially men but I don’t know the gender breakdown of not remarrying. The rates of remarriage are also going down while the rates of divorce are going up. All it takes is the right kind of divorce for you to say, “I’m never doing that.” Your point is good and I want to get back to it. Most people at some point in time in their lives are still looking for, at the very least, a pair-bonding experience, if not to ride the relationship escalator, which is unusual people.
I used to be that way. I always wanted to get married.
You were there. Getting back to our conversation and what you and Christine are pointing out at the same time, the nice way I put it men are unpopular. The not-so-nice way is the vitriol focused on them, which is women looking around going, “I can’t find a good man.” That’s creating conflict. Is your argument causing this conversation? It’s not the suicide rates, incarceration, or the fact that men are twice as likely to live with their parents. It’s that there aren’t good mates.
It’s all of the above. We have people like Richard Reeves who in his book Of Boys and Men talks all about this. He has an organization to study these issues. He’s somebody who’s been able to thread the needle. He’s a liberal and not a men’s rights activist. He’s taking it very seriously and is not seen as a right-wing ideologue as far as I know.
It has to be women who are leading the conversation because otherwise, it’s going to look like male tears, unfortunately. I started writing about this a lot. I started noticing around the fall of 2013 the feminist blogosphere. There were Jezebel and Everyday Feminism. There are all these blogs. Jezebel especially was brilliant, funny, hilarious, and made fun of women’s magazines.
It’s airbrushing and all the stuff. It was very irreverent and hip. Suddenly, it was making fun of men, talking about how toxic they were and what losers they were. “I drink male tears,” and all this kind of thing. I thought, “Why is this acceptable?” We also have a thing where you can’t punch down. We’re not into bullying anymore.
The rule of comedy is you punch up power.
It was like, “You girls are punching up at these guys. You can say horrible things about men, humiliate, and embarrass them, and go on Tumblr and talk about all the embarrassing things like ways men humiliate themselves on dates. It’s a horrible thing.” If men did that to women, it would be unthinkable but these women were doing it because they were punching up to men and the patriarchy. I’m thinking, “You have more power than those guys. The power dynamic is not that way anymore. By acting this way and calling it punching up, you are putting men on a pedestal that they’re not even on. Congratulations. You have artificially elevated them and it’s so counterproductive.”
It started a lot there. We got into this default setting in the discourse that men are so powerful, especially White men. No matter how down and out, they’re still White men at the end of the day so by definition, they have more power than a woman CEO and then we can have this conversation. It’s been very hard for men to speak out. They’ve been silenced. They’re embarrassed. It’s a bad look. It’s become women, especially women who are single and are trying to date these guys who are noticing and speaking up.
I want to know who these women are. Christine, Melanie Notkin, you are one of them. What is interesting is you pointed out Richard Reeves. Is it Brookings?
Yeah, he was at the Brookings.
He’s left-of-center and progressive.
He is also British so he can get away with some things.
The accent says a lot. This is something that you have talked about and I’ve noticed is the men who are speaking out tend to be very disagreeable types and more libertarian.
They are the manosphere guys.
They are the real crack jobs who are in the manosphere or MGTOW, Men Going Their Own Way. The men’s rights activists are terrible spokespeople.
The incels are inarticulate, misguided, sometimes gross, and misogynistic. It’s not clear if they love women. The men who are out there like Andrew Tate to Jordan Peterson, I feel like these guys don’t give an F. You almost have to not care what people think about you because it gets a lot of backlash.
Jordan Peterson cares deeply about this issue and he had great things to say until about a few years ago. Men talk about how he saved their lives. He has pulled people out of the alt-right and moved them back into civilization. He’s touched a lot of people and men in a way that he doesn’t get credit for because the bananas stuff he does gets more attention.
He’s not an ideal figure for a movement that’s designed to try to help.
He’s not ideal but I can think of worse also.
I named some of it but there is a vacuum on the left. Barack Obama is not talking about this. To me, he would be the perfect person to talk about this.
To talk about everything like race, identity, and all of it.
He’s articulate and likable. He walks the talk. He would be the ideal person to do it. I’m sure there are others but there is a void over there on the left side. You’re saying that it’s women who are stepping in and talking about it. Who are some of these other women?
Christina Hoff Sommers has been talking about this for a long time. Hanna Rosin had The End of Men. She was talking about the economic forces, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and all that kind of stuff. She was talking about that in purely economic terms pretty far back. There are a lot of women on the left or at least, in the center who’ve been talking about this in very good faith and quite rigorously for a long time.
We can take this back to Camille Paglia. She showed up in the early ’90s with Sexual Personae. She was an academic. She’s lesbian. She is incredibly vivacious but she talks about art and the history of art. She brings all these things together. She’s always talked about how men, especially working-class men built this country and that there are fewer opportunities for men to be heroic or protective and do the things that come innately to them.
I can imagine women and others rolling their eyes as I say this but I would ask people to stop and think about what’s wrong with thinking about it in those terms. We have Louise Perry who’s a brilliant thinker. She’s in the UK. She has a book called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. She comes at it from a pretty feminist perspective. The other thing too is it is younger women who are speaking up about it because they’re the ones that are having to deal with this entirely new sexual and dating landscape. The ubiquitous pornography was not around when I was even in my 30s.
I remember getting ahold of an actual nudie magazine when I was a teen and that felt like a treasure.
It’s because you sought it out. You earned that.
I had to keep it hidden.
A lot of older people don’t realize how bad it’s become. If you don’t know about this, then good for you. I only know about it because I’m so interested in these issues, the way this intersects with the new gender movement, and how people are thinking about their identities as human beings. This is stuff that I like to think about but older people, if they haven’t been in the dating market using apps with people who are addicted to pornography and think that choking is a normal thing to do in the first make-out session, then they’re not going to know what’s going on.
I alluded to this at the beginning and I call it single by chance. You want to find a good partner and hear this all the time. I go out on dates on occasion and women speak to me. If you’re married, you don’t get to see this because you’re not boots on the ground in terms of heteronormative dating but to me, it’s very clear especially because of my show and my approach to dating. I get opened up to a lot. People drop their defenses so they tell me about their struggles trying to meet someone that they connect with, the socioeconomic status side or even the right manners, can dress right, and these kinds of things. I saw and experienced that. At times, I benefit from it because I have many of those things.
You’re well dressed.
Thank you. I try.
You have a nice apartment.
I’ve done a lot of hard work to get there, which is something a lot of young men don’t understand. For the ones who have some upward mobility, you have to put in the effort. There’s another thing that I’ve been noticing because I went out of the country for a while. I did a little bit of dating outside of the country. I came back with fresh eyes. I have noticed that some of these very same women who are looking for a partner don’t like men and can’t even hide it in a sense. This came to a head when I saw on a dating app a woman wrote, “Misandrist sometimes.” It was jaw-dropping. I like to use the standard which is, “Let’s just reverse.”
Can you imagine if a guy was like, “A friendly neighborhood misogynist,” a Scorpio?
These are very real tensions. This is a very long setup to a question for you because you’re listening and talking to these people much more than me. Talking about it and acknowledging that it’s a problem is a good first step but what are we to do?
I’m amazed at the women who are more around my age if they’re still single and want to have a rich guy. They’re talking about this and it’s almost like they’re doing a Sex and the City reenactment or something like that, which is a whole other thing. That was a show ostensibly about single heterosexual women that was created by gay men. Those women were proxies for gay men. Let’s put that to the side.
I have an episode of Solo about Sex and the City that people might get a kick out of. It’s not as critical probably as you would want it to be.
That’s the perfect topic. Why do they hate men?
What do we do?
The app certainly doesn’t help. This hypergamy thing where women want to make a cross or up is going to have to stop. Women who are college-educated are going to have to partner with men who are in trades. Those guys probably make more money than a lot of college-educated men.
I have a nephew who I’m trying to convince to become an electrician because he’s not well-suited for college and he’s a sweet young man. This hypergamy idea is a foreign concept to most people. My understanding is that it came to prominence out of the manosphere.
I thought it came from the Sociology department.
That’s where it was talked about but it’s the thing that brought it into the vernacular. It’s a math problem. It’s simply that if you desire from a socioeconomic standpoint that someone who’s equally or better educated has an equal or better job profession, and has income equal or above, if those are your preferences, the higher you get, the fewer people are above you or you’re competing for those people.
A lot of women are competing with a very small group of men.
There was a time in 1960 when nearly everybody got married and men were much more likely to go to college and be the breadwinner. Also, have those socioeconomic status or markers. There were more of those men but in a world where only 40% of college students are men, it creates an imbalance. It makes women who regardless of how they feel about men as a gender find it difficult to find a good match by those standards. You’re suggesting that they may have to change those standards.
I don’t know the answer. I was talking about this with somebody. Maybe there should be mandatory services like AmeriCorps or something. In Israel, everybody goes into the Army in some way and young people meet each other in real life. They meet people who they wouldn’t meet otherwise. I can imagine that in some hypothetical universe, everybody has to do 1 or 2 years of service somehow and be out in the real world interacting face-to-face with people. Maybe you meet somebody that way but then you have to convince people to settle down with somebody they meet when they’re twenty.
That much has its set of problems.
I have a cynical friend who off-handedly said, “We used to have wars that took care of this problem. You send all the men.” It was only men who went to war and a bunch of them died. All the other ones who survived came back as heroes and thus were appealing. That’s a very dark way to view this but even the sexual revolution of the ’60s and stuff in part was a response to the fact that maybe the gender imbalance got a little out of whack.
A lot of people are revisiting the sexual revolution. This is a huge conversation. You’ve got the trad movement, the traditional. A lot of women who were very elite educated and liberal grew up as feminists. They have a child for instance and they’re like, “I do want to be with this child. I’ve been programmed to be a master of the universe and devalue motherhood but I don’t feel this way. I want my husband to be the breadwinner. I want to stay home. What do with that?” This conversation is burbling up.
It’s fascinating. I’ve heard about it and I went out on a date. I met her on an alternative app. These are not people who are necessarily looking to ride the relationship escalator.
Is this Feeld?
There was a New Yorker piece about it.
This woman has a professional job. She was in a traditional relationship. The relationship was over. She has made a decision that she’s going to move to the Midwest and find a husband. She is going to have a child and stay home with the child. In the meantime, she’s exploring her kinky side on the app. She was open to stuff.
I was very curious about this because she was resolute. She said, “Yes, I’m good at the professional stuff and it agrees with me enough but I want to be a mom. I want to be a full-time mom. I want to find someone who will support that in that way.” I can tell you this. I’ve been single most of my life. I’ve done my fair share of dating. I’ve never ever heard someone articulate it quite that forthrightly.
The sexual revolution is not that old. This is the thing. The birth control pill has been around for many years. That’s a split second when you think about human civilization. This is a work in progress. We’re figuring this out.
One of the things about civilization is that it has changed so dramatically in the last 150 years. The amount of change that has happened dwarfs the previous thousand years.
Within that, I’d say the last few years, even more so.
In part, because of phones.
Also, technology, AI, and what we know about the brain. We are in the Golden Age of Neuroscience. Not me personally. I don’t know anything about anything but what we are understanding about the brain and what people are doing with psychedelics and this whole stuff. I don’t know anything about it but it’s changing very fast.
I’m not a Luddite. I’m bullish about the future in general.
That’s good you don’t have kids. You can’t afford it.
It’s easy to be and I could point to lots of positives. We talked at length about the rise of women with regard to education, economics, freedom, and liberty. I have a show called Solo that is largely about liberty. At the very least, it’s about contemplating possibilities not defaulting to societal norms. That’s very exciting.
I do agree with you. It’s not clear what the solutions are to these very complex problems that we were dancing around. One of the best starting points is if you don’t believe it’s a problem, it’s worth doing some more investigating. Also, to recognize that maybe what the traditional narrative that you’re hearing and seeing. As you pointed out in the beginning, what your book club believes may not be completely accurate.
Especially with COVID, we’re in a legitimacy crisis. There are strains of it that lead down conspiracy theory paths and can be destructive and overwhelming.
The joke is what once seemed like a conspiracy is true. We’re living in that world.
It’s hard too because you can say something that is a pretty straightforward question about something and it will sound to somebody’s ear like you’re a conspiracy theorist. If I talk about the origin of COVID, that’s something that’s evolving and that conversation has changed. It probably did come from a lab and The New York Times has reported as much. I was like, “What are you going to do? Will you get your tin foil hat on? What’s next? Moon landing.” That’s a legitimate conversation. That has been moved into the “legitimate, we can talk about this category” while you weren’t paying attention.
I have a final question for you. I feel very comfortable saying that you’re going to agree with me here. The one thing that we can do is pursue intellectual curiosity, good-faith debate, and perhaps have a bit of humor when it comes to these conversations, as we explore this stuff. The last question. You’re a fellow Gen X-er. You talk about how you like being Gen X. No one cares about us. No one’s listening to us.
They never. Our parents didn’t care about us.
Why is it so good to be a Gen X-er?
I think of it in terms of a bank robbery. I feel like I was in a line at the bank as we used to do back in the day. You go to the bank and get in line. I do my transactions. The minute I’m walking out the door, a bunch of gunmen come in. I slip out the door and they hold up the bank. Everything’s chaotic and I’m looking through the glass of the bank. I’ve done my transaction right here.
Everybody’s down on the ground. They’re splayed out. These guys are holding everybody hostage and I got out just in time. I can’t necessarily go back to the bank because there’s no more money. I feel like we experience the analog world. It’s a tremendous privilege. The fact that we didn’t have to come of age sexually in the dating app world or the porn world is a tremendous gift.
Also, we were not cocoons.
We rode our proverbial bikes around until sunset and then we came home. That was the model.
You described my childhood.
Even if somebody had parents that didn’t let them do that, they were still an emotional long leash. I would never tell my parents my problems ever and that’s a great boundary to have internalized. My feeling about being a Gen X is as much as I hate getting older, being a Gen X makes up for it. If you’re going to be Gen X, you have to get older. That’s part of it. You have to be old. I don’t like being middle-aged but if that’s the price you have to pay for not being a Millennial, I’m okay with it.
We’ll take it. You felt like we had a little bit of a sweet spot.
Definitely. It makes it harder. I’ve talked about this. There are ways in which it makes it difficult career-wise and all kinds of things but I love my fellow Gen X-ers and I’m grateful.
Meghan, thanks for doing this.
It’s such a pleasure, Peter. Thank you for having me.
It’s so overdue. Cheers.
- Meghan Daum
- Paul Shirley – Past Episode
- The Unspeakeasy
- The Unspeakable
- White Fragility
- The Fifth Column
- Blocked and Reported
- Jennifer Sey – The Unspeakable Podcast Past Episode
- Solo Thoughts episode – Past Episode
- The Population Bomb
- Melanie Notkin – Past Episode
- Kerri Baillie – Past Episode
- Christine Emba – The Unspeakable Podcast Past Episode
- Men Are Lost. Here’s a Map Out of the Wilderness – The Washington Post article
- Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
- Of Boys and Men
- Everyday Feminism
- The End of Men
- Sexual Personae
- Louise Perry – The Unspeakable Podcast Past Episode
- The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
- Sex and the City – Past Episode
About Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum founded The Unspeakeasy in 2022. She is the host of The Unspeakable Podcast and the co-host, with Sarah Haider, of the podcast A Special Place In Hell. She is author of six books, most recently The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars, a New York Times Notable Book for 2019.
Her collection of original essays, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, won the 2015 Pen Center USA Award for creative nonfiction. A Los Angeles Times opinion columnist from 2005 to 2016, she has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Vogue.
Meghan is the recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts grant. She has been on the adjunct faculty of the Writing Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and also teaches private workshops in personal essay, memoir, and op-ed.