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Report on experience

Is New Zealand’s “man drought” a real thing or a media beat-up?

Camel In Desert

In criticism, a text that deals with mostly white, educated, middle-class women is most often seen as a failing. But it is a strength of Hannah August’s No Country For Old Maids? – or maybe an inevitability. The latest in BWB Texts’ series of “short texts on big ideas”, it tackles New Zealand’s “man drought”.

The fact that “man drought” is not only a recognised phrase but also constitutes a “big idea” is testament to how entrenched the concept has become. It’s been 10 years since demographer Bernard Salt, who coined the term, reported that 34-year-old heterosexual women had as much chance of finding a male partner their own age as an 85-year-old did.

In the decade since, the gender imbalance has worsened – with around 66,000 more women aged between 25 and 49 than there were men at the time of the last census – and the hand-wringing in the media has taken on a new urgency.

My favourite was Fairfax’s data map of “worst man drought spots” that took into account the “males aged between 15 and 19” demographic – one assumes for the benefit of those women who have accepted that a teenager in a rural backwater might be their best shot at love.

August’s book is an even-handed rejoinder to both those reports and the general “wisdom” that those women affected by the man drought are thirsting for relationships rather than reconciled, even happily, to singledom.

The book shares the experiences of 22 women, mostly in their thirties, who responded to August’s call for heterosexuals aged between 25 and 49 who had some form of tertiary education and who had spent more than half the past decade unpartnered or “not in a relationship that they considered significant”. (Ouch. No wonder interviewees’ names were changed.)

With the man drought affecting heterosexual women exclusively and educated women disproportionately, August is quick to check her interviewees’ privilege, but notes that identifying as straight and holding a tertiary qualification “does not automatically mean that my interviewees were affluent or Pakeha. A number of the women I spoke to were neither.”

It’s a fair point, but she undermines it somewhat by not being specific about the number – of 22 people, it can’t be many. And that’s even without accounting for the “women who belonged to a religious minority, or who had found their lives derailed by illness, or who had left another country to make a life in New Zealand”. How many religious minorities could be represented in such a small sample size?

But that’s a side issue, and August limits its impact by presenting her interviewees’ individual stories as just that – their own, not to be construed as or conflated with any others’.

With subject matter as mythologised as this, it would be easy to discuss it in broad brushstrokes and generalisations. August makes the necessary point that although the man drought affects one demographic more than others, within that group of women are myriad experiences of singledom, sexuality and relationships, and it elevates No Country For Old Maids? far above most of the coverage of the issue.

But that wouldn’t be hard, as August makes obvious, pointing out the flaws in news stories on the man drought in such detail as to be almost beside the point. A 2011 Dominion Post headline, “Sorry ladies, there’s a man drought”, was “little more than a way of diverting readers’ attention to a dry article about statistics”. Surely no one took it for anything else?

No Country For Old MaidsIf the book has a failing, it’s that it grounds itself in other, often flawed coverage, not only online news but predominantly a 2011 working paper by economist Paul Callister and his research assistant Zoë Lawton. The book is structured around fleshing out or disproving their findings of “how the man droughts might continue to change behaviour”, a section that August says delicately “sits uncomfortably within a paper that is otherwise informative and rigorous in its statistical analysis”.

You can certainly understand the compulsion to reference it. Some of Callister and Lawton’s conclusions are almost parodic in their absurdity, such as the suggestion that women seeking men overseas would use those “handful of websites” that facilitate “a foreign husband from various countries in the former Soviet Union”, with no other mention of online dating. But the effect is framing No Country For Old Maids? as an academic response to that paper, rather than the definitive discussion of an issue that, separated from the media hype, is made up of the lived experience of tens of thousands of women.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MAIDS?, by Hannah August (BWB Texts, $14.99).

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