The XX Factor

Oodles of Single Men May Not Be as Awesome as You’d Think

Small town life may sound romantic, but male-dominated small towns aren’t so great for single women.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Young, single ladies: America is worried about you. You just keep going to college, moving to urban areas after graduation and finding yourselves outnumbering, sometimes dramatically, the available men of your demographic. How will you ever get married? How will you ever go from being the subject of one kind of magazine cover to being the subject of another

Clearly the best thing to do is stay back on the farm to live in a male-dense rural area, where the marriageable boys are there for your picking. Or it was, until Tuesday, when an enterprising New York Times journalist named John Eligon reported on a small oil town in North Dakota—“An Oil Town Where Men Are Many, And Women Are Hounded,” per the headline. There are 1.6 single men for every single woman in Williston, and Eligon found out that the lopsided gender ratio is less a great opportunity for the ladies than it is a stifling and scary environment. 

Many said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth.

The problem isn’t simply due to the gender ratio. It’s also a result of the heavily transitory population that comes with oil fields and the highly conservative culture of rural North Dakota, where men feel entitled to treat women like garbage in a way they don’t feel—or can’t express, at least—in places where “feminism” is actually thought to be a good thing. 

Though Eligon’s piece is all about Williston, it actually serves as a stark reminder for exactly why young single women flock to cities, despite all the dire warnings about the cat-laden terminal spinsterhood that awaits them. (She was dead in her apartment for six weeks before anyone even realized she was missing.) I’m sure North Dakota is beautiful, but there are upsides to living in a place where independent women exert a great deal of influence over the culture. Having to deal with flaky artist types is better than having to deal with this: 

Here, men talk of a “Williston 10” — a woman who would be considered mediocre in any other city is considered a perfect 10 out here.

“I’ve noticed my standards dropping,” said Ian Hernandez, 24, who moved to Williston from Chicago a couple of months ago.

It’s not surprising that women would rather have fewer opportunities for dates than have dates that talk about them like this. In big cities, it’s easier for women to simply avoid the places where gross misogynists hang out, but in small towns with only one bar and two restaurants, the only escape is to become a hermit.

Eligon did find one group of single women that was happy about the gender-ratio situation: sex workers, who have flocked to the area after hearing about how much money they can make there. Then there was a recently divorced 31-year-old named Barbara Coughlin, who said she felt like she had to restrict her movements and her clothing choices to avoid attracting attention, and hopes to get out of Williston as soon as possible. 

“Will I stay for very long? Probably not,” she said. “To me, there’s no money in the world worth not even being able to take a walk.”

Maybe Coughlin, like so many young single women, will end up in a city, where she can wear all the skirts and glitter eyeliner she wants and no one will say boo about it. Sure, she might go a few days only talking to the deli guy, but for a lot of women, that trade-off is well worth it.