Where have all the childfree men gone? Now there’s a question Pete Seeger didn’t think to ask.
It is a question my fearless collaborator and husband Lance has asked. Writer Amanda Marcotte asked it too. Childfree dating sites optimistically assumed childfree men were somewhere out there but, sadly, such sites haven’t (yet) managed to find them; instead these sites seem to launch with optimism and even a bit of fanfare and then quietly fade away.
As a sociologist of gender who has interviewed dozens of childfree men and women, I’ve too wondered about the absence of men from public discussion of the childfree. It’s as if we have no idea that the XYs among us play any role in the production or rearing of new humans. Or that they might have something to say about their involvement (or non-involvement) in said activities.
Until recently, scholarly inquiry has matched public discussion in that men who choose not to have kids have been largely absent from studies of the childfree. Thankfully, that’s changing. In one recent study, Absent Non-Fathers: Gendered representations of voluntary childlessness in Swedish newspapers, sociologist Helen Peterson searches for signs of childfree men in the media and offers up an analysis of what their absence means.
Who Gets Covered, and How?
Peterson analyzed representations of “voluntary childlessness” (a.k.a., childfree) in Swedish newspapers between 2000 and 2010. She conducted a media frame analysis of all eighteen articles from that period that explicitly include childfree people as narrators in the story. She wanted to discover how the Swedish news media frame the childfree and their lifestyle.
In contrast to coverage in other nations, Peterson notes that coverage of childfree couples in Sweden frames them as happy and carefree. The Swedish articles also portray childfree couples’ relationships to children and parents differently from coverage in the US and UK. Rather than emphasizing conflict between parents and the childfree, Peterson notes that Swedish news presents childfree couples in a sympathetic light.
While childfree couples are framed positively by Swedish media, Peterson found that articles about childfree women were much more somber in tone. Negative stereotypes of selfishness and unnaturalness came up often when an article’s focus was on childfree women. For example, in the category of if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-explode, Peterson shares the following quote by philosopher and neuroscientist Germund Hesslow from one such article:
[Women] “must be odd if they feel comfortable with a life without kids. Many women chose careers before children in the 70s. Something they have regretted bitterly.”
It appears childfree women the world over get demonized for their choice.
Childfree men, on the other hand, are largely absent from news coverage. Peterson concludes that men’s absence “reflects society’s expectations of women’s and men’s different attitudes to children, parenting and sexuality.”
Women who don’t have children are perceived to be deviating further from some essential component of what makes them women while, for men, the choice not to parent is not framed as a reflection on them as men. In fact, it is not framed at all.
When childfree men are covered, it is as members of heterosexual couples. Even in such stories, men are less visible than women but their mere presence does, says Peterson, have a positive effect on how women are framed.
As Peterson notes, the one thing that allows a childfree woman to be framed in a positive light is the “presence of a man by her side.” Unlike much coverage of childfree couples in the US, Peterson finds that heterosexual childfree couples in Sweden “are portrayed as responsible, reflexive and rational.” She explains that this framing may be in part due to the fact that although such couples do challenge pronatalist norms, they conform to heteronormative ideals in most other respects.
Peterson concludes with the observation that representations of the childfree in Swedish news media reflect many of the stereotypes about them. While coverage of the childfree may on the one hand offer support and a reference group for other childfree people, Peterson calls for “more nuanced representation of voluntary childlessness,” including representation of chlidfree men, in order for stereotypes to really be challenged.