February 03, 2006

Thoughts on the bachelor pad

Amanda has, as usual, a great post this morning, on cleanliness and the line that women 'just have higher standards' than men. She talks about men who live without women for a couple paragraphs:

Sure, there’s the stereotype of the bachelor pad–messy, beer cans everywhere, a testament to men’s “inherent” slovenliness. But that stereotype is understood as a temporary condition, and that such men who live like that will soon be married and living in hygenic conditions once they have wives to clean up after them. Instead of looking at the stereotype of how men live without women in temporary circumstances, look at the stereotype of men who live permanently without women and another picture emerges.

The most obvious men who live permanently without women are gay men, and the stereotype of the permanent bachelor is about as different as you can get from the stereotype of the temporary bachelor. Gay men are stereotyped as neat and fussy, which is a stereotype of femininity on a certain level but also speaks volumes about what we think men do want long-term–they want cleanliness, and if they aren’t going to have a woman to do it for them, they will bite the bullet and do it themselves. The neatness stereotype is also applied to straight men who live alone for a long time. Witness Jerry Seinfeld. Or your stereotypical priest, for that matter.

I have two things to say about this.

First, as an unmarried man who's shared many an apartment with another unmarried man, I think the stereotype is basically accurate -- but, like many such stereotypes, it needs to be fleshed out. In my experience, it's true that men aren't going to put in the effort to clean their living space, but they will appreciate someone else doing the work. For one example, none of the three men (just to be clear, this includes me) in my last place in Chicago ever did more than clean the toilet, wash the dishes, and sweep up big spills; the one woman mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors every other month. The men noticed, and were appreciative, but none of us were ever going to be bothered with mopping ourselves or, and this is important, so much as casually suggest to her that the floors needed to be mopped again.

So here's how I'd reformulate the stereotype: bachelor men enjoy living in a clean home as a bonus they don't have to pay for.

My second point is that this formulation brings out the injustice of the situation even more. The direct effect of this attitude is that men will sit back and watch their female roommate, girlfriend, or wife scrubbing floors, and refuse to help because he's fine with the floor not getting scrubbed -- indeed, he might even appeal to the stereotype to explain the situation. But our duty to help others isn't limited to situations (I) where we desire the end result, or even (II) where the end result is a benefit to us; we have a duty to help others accomplish their goals even (III) when we are completely indifferent to those goals. This is especially the case when the other person is someone we're close to -- a good friend or romantic partner.

From an economics perspective, a clean house is an externality to the stereotypical man: he doesn't pay for it, but he gets to enjoy the benefits of having it; indeed, he gets to enjoy it precisely as much as the person who did pay for it. Externalities are important in environmental analyses. Consider a pristine body of water, owned by the public, and located next to a paper mill. Without the stick in the hands of the EPA, the mill and its owners get to enjoy all the benefits of the body of water -- a convenience source of material for use in production, and a convenience place to dump waste -- without having to foot the bill -- some level of government will be responsible for paying to keep it clean.

We then arrive at remarkably parallel rationalizations. The mill to the community: "If you want clean water, you pay for it." The slovenly man to his girlfriend: "If you want a clean home, you pay for it." The common wisdom of our day seems to be that the first is idiotic -- the mill is at least partly responsible for getting the water dirty, it's at least partly responsible for cleaning it up -- and yet the second is perfectly fair -- even though he's at least partly responsible for getting the home dirty.


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I have a Gay men friends are stereotyped as neat and fussy, I think that it is so complicated but the story is so interesting,clean house is an externality to the stereotypical but it is so cool!!

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