Singles bars flourished in the 1970s, reflecting the sweeping changes that followed the Sexual Revolution and the attempted passage of the Equal Rights Movement. Commonly referred to as "meat markets," singles bars acted as an open setting in which men and women felt free to engage one another. Statistics cited by sociologist Nancy Netting revealed that by 1980 the rate of premarital sexual intercourse for American college-age women equaled the rate for college-age men. This was a significant change, as the rate for women having premarital intercourse between 1930-1965, studies showed, was 30 percent lower than that of men. One change that resulted from all of these factors was that bar patrons were no longer exclusively male.
Singles bars have a popular image as hotbeds of frenzied, sexual activity, but there is some evidence to suggest that this presumption may be somewhat exaggerated. Despite the promiscuous conduct that many assume occurs, the singles scene operates upon some rather traditional gender roles: men initiate contact, and women flirt as passive objects of desire. By pursuing a female in this environment, the male places his self-assessment at risk, since "rejection may signify that he has miscalculated and is less desirable than he had assumed," concluded a 1991 ethnographic study of singles bars. Another study, published by two psychologists in 1978, found that men avoid the most attractive women because they fear rejection. The study also found that attractive women responded just as positively to researchers as unattractive women. In this respect, the study concluded, "men's anxieties about attractive women may be unfounded."
If a conversation is struck, the talk is likely to be about generalities, wrote Jamie James in Rolling Stone :
They talk about the weather, football (year-round), the latest big murder trial ("Do you think he's guilty?" "Of course he's guilty. But he'll get off"). They talk about everything but what's on their minds. The clincher comes in its own good time: "This place is so noisy I can hardly hear you. Listen, my place is just a few blocks away.…"
The 1991 study showed that the micro-order of the singles bar is a fragile one and can fracture when the male "presses forward, failing to accept (the female's) rejection and the chance to save face." The female's rejection can take the form of a polite refusal, a rejection not final ("maybe some other time"), or an excuse: "I'm married," "I have a boyfriend," or "I can't dance in these shoes." Fracturing occurs when the male insults the female to "even the score," or by ignoring her suggestion and continuing his pursuit. When this occurs, the ethnologists noted changes in the female's demeanor through a stiff posture, or sharper tone: "concern with softening the blow is jettisoned for the overriding concern of extricating oneself from the situation."
Faced with excusing oneself, what could possibly serve as refuge in a noisy singles bar? The study noted:
The most common refuge for escape from unsolicited encounters appeared to be the women's restroom. One of the authors tested this observation by remarking to a queue of women in a restroom that she guessed she wasn't the only one avoiding a man. She was answered by an affirmative nod by a number of women.… Women can plan future strategies to avoid male approaches or escape from the necessity of performing these strategies through retreat into an all-female world.
The need to parry male advances is one explanation for findings that show that most women are usually accompanied by at least one other woman at the bars.
An element of danger exists in encountering people who are strangers. This risk was portrayed in the sensational 1975 novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in which a single woman picks up a stranger in a bar, only to be murdered in her own apartment. "Everybody who hangs out in these places is acutely aware of the intrinsic creepiness of the (singles) scene," explained a woman to James. "It's sort of demeaning, but there has to be some way for us to meet, you know." The one commonly acknowledged taboo among singles is "never go to bed with a stranger."
Although singles bars remained a primary way for singles to meet, other alternatives appeared in the 1980s. Those who desired more control used the screening process of a matchmaking service or did their own screening through newspaper personal ads. More adventurous singles opted for singles cruises, a marketing device that successfully contributed to the boom in cruiseship trips during the 1990s. After AIDS became a serious concern during the 1980s, screening and refraining from risky sexual activity became important for health reasons. In a survey conducted at a college in British Columbia, Canada, the number of students who reported having one-night stands decreased by over 50 percent between the years 1980 and 1990.
Cory, Christopher T. "The Seven-Second Singles Scene." Psychology Today. December 1978, 32.
James, Jamie. "Houston After Dark." Rolling Stone. May 31,1979, 35-40.
Netting, Nancy S. "Sexuality in Youth Culture: Identity and Change."Adolescence. Winter 1992, 961-976.
Rossner, Judith. Looking for Mr. Goodbar. New York, Simon &Schuster, 1975.
Snow, David A., Cherylon Robinson, and Patricia L. McCall. "'CoolingOut' Men in Singles Bars and Nightclubs: Observations on the Interpersonal Survival Strategies of Women in Public Places." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. January 1991, 423-450.
Spradley, J. P., and J. Mann. The Cocktail Waitress: Woman's Work in a Man's World. New York, Wiley, 1975.
Wuethrich, B. "Evolutionists Pick up on One-Night Stands." Science News. July 3, 1993, 6.