Last spring, only one thing seemed certain: After a year-plus of being socially distanced, single people everywhere were going to hit the streets—and the sheets—like some mixture of the pre-menopausal Sex and the City women and the randy castaways of Love Island. Everywhere you looked, experts and reporters were predicting a "slutty summer," a "hot vax summer," and an eruption of raw carnal desire not seen since the heyday of the sexual revolution.
But those predictions fizzled faster than a horrible first date. "There's a bar on every single corner in New York City, not everybody's an alcoholic," explains Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of many books on love and sex, including Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. "Just because things are available, people don't change who they are and what this pandemic did was it just made all these singles grow up. They are really, as you were just saying, they're now looking for something stable. Yes, looks still count, but not the way they did."
Fisher is the chief science adviser to the dating site Match.com, a senior fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and one of the authors of Singles in America, an annual survey of 5,000 representative people of all genders, races, ages, and sexual orientations. Over its 11 years of collecting data, Singles in America has charted the growth of what Fisher calls "slow love," or an extended vetting process in which people, especially women, are far more choosy and intentional in picking romantic partners. The hot vax summer didn't happen, says Fisher, because for decades, we've been trending away from bad boys and crazy girls and more toward stable, serious relationships that fit in with work commitments.
"It's amazing how Americans are so dedicated to their career," says the 76-year-old researcher, especially younger people. "I'm calling them the new Victorians. I mean, they have much less sex than we did in my generation."
Fisher says that as women have gained equality in education and the workplace, they've started to exercise much more discretion when it comes to pairing off and deciding whether to have children. "This year in the Singles in America study, we asked, are you ready to settle down right now? Forty-two percent of men said yes and 29 percent of women said yes. Women spend much more time raising tiny babies before the age of four. So they're the picky sex."
The Singles in America survey finds that men overwhelmingly want a partner with an equal or superior career. That's the so-called Clooney Effect, named for the Oscar winning actor whose wife Amal is a highly regarded human rights lawyer.
In other words, a more libertarian world in which men and women have many more options due to dating apps and much more equality due to social and economic changes, is turning out to be less libertine. Fisher stresses that, as an anthropologist, she isn't in the "good-bad business," but she's convinced that the contemporary world is one that allows for greater individual fulfillment.
"Women aren't stuck in the home," she says. "Men aren't stuck with sole responsibility for the good economic health of the family. We live in a world now where you can really be who you want to be. You can jump class, get yourself an education, move into the job market at a different level. This is all good. We're living longer! It's a more exciting time than any time on the planet."
Editing by Regan Taylor, interview by Nick Gillespie
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Music: "Lover Please Stay," by Shtriker Big Band