- Historic Sites
Violence In America
What Human nature and the California gold rush tell us about crime in the inner city
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Children from disrupted families are less likely as adults to become or stay married. This fact has tremendous implications for the social order, because families of procreation, like families of origin, constrain behavior. Married men, as the sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out, benefit from salutary discipline. Monogamy controls and focuses their sexual energy; children make them mindful of their example; the material needs of their families encourage regular work habits and self-sacrifice.
Married men lack the sense of expendability that plagues bachelor communities, in which the prospective loss of life is often regarded relatively lightly. They are also likelier to be better nourished and healthier than single men. In societies where marriage is the accepted way for adult men to gain the fruits of women’s work, the bachelor is at a serious disadvantage. He is, as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, “really only half a human being.” “He that hath not got a Wife,” declared Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard, “is not yet a Compleat Man.”
Here is the prejudice against single men distilled into a single sentence. We usually think of discrimination in American history as centering on race, ethnicity, and gender, but in fact many of the deepest and most unthinking prejudices have involved marital status. Single men have at times been forced to live in segregated neighborhoods and dormitories. Like blacks, they have had their own restaurants and railroad cars. They have consistently earned less and have paid for their singleness through double poll taxes, higher land prices, steeper insurance rates, less generous credit, longer prison terms, and smaller compensation for job-related disabilities. In hard times they have been laid off before married men, and in dangerous ones they have been placed in the front lines. Over time these roles and expectations have become internalized. Social marginality has reinforced single men’s senses of superfluity and contributed to the psychology of expandability found in bachelor groups.
What we know about the effects of family on men is consistent with what we know about arrest rates for men in their teens and early twenties. Though physical and hormonal changes are partly responsible, this is also the age range in which men are typically between households. Leaving or having already left their families of origin, they have not yet entered the self-disciplinary regimes of their own families of procreation.
Men who have become stuck in bachelorhood or who have reverted to it are much more susceptible to violent and disorderly behavior. They have more often killed themselves and others, become insane or drug-dependent, or succumbed to illnesses, like tuberculosis, associated with malnutrition and squalor. Consequently their lives have been shorter. In New York State in the early twentieth century unmarried men could expect to live less than forty-four years; those who were married, sixty years. Although life expectancies for both groups have since increased, there is still a significant mortality gap between married and unmarried men.
This gap is caused partly by the selective nature of courtship. Men who start out undisciplined, unattractive, obnoxious, impoverished, inebriated, or otherwise socially or physically impaired find it harder to acquire spouses, and these same traits may result in shorter lives or trouble with the law. But various studies have shown that marriage has a protective effect of its own. Marriage gives men a sense of identity, self-worth, and mastery that translates into greater resistance to mental and physical illnesses. The behavior of married men tends to be more circumspect and healthful, especially if children are present.
For most of its history America has had a higher proportion of itinerant young single men in its population than the nations from which its immigrants, voluntary or otherwise, came. The proportion of men to women among transported convicts was four to one; among slaves, upward of two to one. The proportion among indentured servants, numerically the most important group of colonial immigrants, was three to one during the seventeenth century and increased to nine to one during the eighteenth. Their nineteenth-century successors, Chinese laborers indebted for their passage, were almost all male. In 1890 America contained twenty-seven Chinese men for every Chinese woman—"more monks than rice porridge,” as some of them described the situation.