by Eric Ginsburg

When Bekah Hilburn-Trenkle recently saw a cute guy at Westerwood dive bar, she asked a mutual friend if he was single. She should’ve anticipated the response: “Of course not.”

And Hilburn-Trenkle, a 26-year old who works at Crafted in Greensboro, isn’t exactly alone in this experience.

The refrain is so common among single, straight women that it could be the Triad’s unofficial motto: There’s a huge lack of eligible bachelors here. The perceived imbalance between straight women and men, particularly among those in their twenties and thirties, is frequently described as a seismic rift; it’s practically a truism.

But is it actually true? And why is it that some women talk about the need for a few good men like they’re an endangered species, most of whom are already locked down in captivity?

A disinterest in sex, relationships, marriage and reproducing that’s swept Japan — as chronicled in comedian Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Love — scared the government so much that it began investing in solutions to bring singles together. Some have suggested a similar concern should preoccupy local municipalities, particularly Greensboro, prompting ideas like a singles bus shipping in charmers from the Triangle and Queen City. But before that happens, let’s explore some theories about the root problem here, take a look at relevant data, hear from single, straight women experiencing it firsthand and see what a few single, straight men have to say in their defense.

Some acknowledgments up front: For the sake of narrowing down to a particular phenomenon, this exploration is limited to people seeking heterosexual relationships. That leaves out a significant number of Triadians, whose experiences are no less valid, but nonetheless unique. It is also limited to those who were open to talking about their experiences and a relatively small pool of formal interviews, though countless conversations over many years pertaining to this alleged dating reality informed the piece. And for simplicity’s sake, we’re talking about folks looking for lasting monogamous relationships, which may not be what Triadians want.

 

Theory: A lack of single dudes

Before diving into what might be wrong with the pool of single guys in the Triad, there’s a more elemental possibility to consider: Is the pool itself too small?

The short answer in Greensboro is yes. According to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, there are 97 single men per 100 single women in the Greensboro-High Point metro area, though it isn’t clear how much the Third City is dragging down Greensboro’s numbers. That may not sound like much of a difference, even when considering that this came out to 29,869 single adult men and 30,680 single adult women for the metro area. But it looks more imbalanced when compared to Winston-Salem, where there are 109 single men for every 100 women, or nearly 2,000 more in total.

The Pew Research Data is flawed for several reasons. For starters, it’s analyzing Census data, which means that it defines “single” as unmarried. So most of those single men in the Triad might be in long-term relationships. The data makes no differentiation between respondents’ sexuality, so there’s no way of knowing if a larger portion of the single men don’t identify as heterosexual. And it only takes into consideration those between 25 and 34, cutting off singles on both ends who are looking. That said, it does provide some foundational understanding and evidence that — at least in Greensboro — the pool may in fact be too small.

There’s more evidence that single women outnumber men: the colleges.

Excluding the Triad’s community colleges, more women were admitted to every local college or university for the fall 2014 semester, with the exception of Greensboro College, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Add to that the students at Bennett and Salem colleges, two women’s institutions, and female students far outnumber their male counterparts.

These figures don’t factor in trans or gender non-conforming students, but there’s enough of a gulf to extrapolate. At almost every college, women dramatically outnumber men — here are the figures for admitted students for Fall 2014 (the most recent figure available):

Greensboro: Guilford College enrolled 1,009 women to 857 men; NC A&T University compared 2,350 to 1,683, UNCG had 4,218 to 1,879, Greensboro College, the outlier, listed 303 women to 404 men and Bennett College admitted 1,432 women.

Winston-Salem: Wake Forest runs 2,040 to 1,786, UNC School of the Arts had 230 to 145, Winston-Salem State placed 1,934 to 733 and Salem College admitted 556 women.

High Point University followed the trend too, with 3,775 women to 2,167 men.

Oh, and of those students, women generally graduate at higher rates. Take UNCG for example, home to the highest admittance difference, where an average of 57 percent of female students graduate compared to 52 percent of men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The gap is worse at some schools too, such as Guilford College (66 percent of women and 55 percent of men).

That means not only more female students, but also more educated women than men in the dating pool.

Considering that the Pew Research Center’s analysis of Census data excludes anyone from 18 to 24, the overall disparity between single, straight men and women is likely even higher, particularly in college-heavy Greensboro.

Other factors contribute to the balance or imbalance in population, most notably the availability of employment. That sort of analysis is beyond the timeframe of this piece, but is certainly worth exploring and undoubtedly a considerable component. Incarceration rates also figure into the equation, and though it isn’t immediately clear how many local residents are in prison, it’s undoubtedly more men than women.

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Theory: They aren’t eligible

But a smaller pool can’t be the entire problem — after all, the abundance of unmarried men should more than offset any imbalance in Greensboro or High Point. (Or at least it would stand a good chance with a better public transit system between the cities, but the lack of infrastructure as an inhibitor to dating is another conversation altogether .)

Maybe there’s just something wrong with the guys here. That’s what several single women suggested, and there are many stupid surveys to back it up.

Only recently did people stop referencing a 2009 ranking published in local newspapers listing Greensboro as the No. 4 on totalbeauty.com’s “Eight Cities with the Ugliest Guys.” Never mind the fact that nobody’s ever heard of this website, the ranking analyzed educational stats, exercise habits, obesity and smoking rates and sales of contraceptives and erotica.

It doesn’t help that three years earlier, Old Spice named the Gate City to its list of sweatiest American cities. And then, like clockwork, another random site listed Greensboro as No. 54 on “The top US cities for douchebags” (Winston-Salem came in at No. 72). The ranking is kind of hilarious, judging men’s Facebook interests including an interest in things such as Nickelback, Tosh.0 and Bluetooths. Greensboro ranked highly thanks especially to men liking Ed Hardy, Axe body spray and mixed martial arts.

The list of complaints from single women is seemingly endless, but 31-year-old Janna Swartz put it most bluntly.

“I think that there’s definitely single guys, but with Greensboro, they have so many more options with pretty girls,” said Swartz, who lives in Greensboro but has worked in Winston-Salem. “It’s like a service-industry job; you know if you lost one today you could have another one tomorrow. That’s kind of how guys view dating.”

Guys don’t take things seriously, and Swartz broke things off with one guy who still had the Tinder dating app on his phone.

Lindsay Burkhart, 29, has run into the same problem.

“Overall it’s hard to meet single guys in this city,” she said. “I’ve met a few cute ones, but after a few dates they either have another girl they are dating or are moving to another city for a job.”

Hilburn-Trenkle has also encountered several men who likewise don’t seem to know what they want. A few have pursued her, overcoming her initial disinterest or skepticism until she gives them a chance only to back out and say things like, “I haven’t been honest with myself,” and get back with an ex. It speaks to a larger social trend of complacency in a city where it’s easy for anyone to remain in a sustained state of immaturity, she said.

Heather Jaynes, a 31-year-old in Greensboro, said that like Swartz, she’s run into the problem, and dated someone in the Gate City who “had no intention of moving out and adulting” but would rather keep living with his parents.

It isn’t just that this guy lived at home — Jaynes lives with her dad — but his lack of ambition. She’s dated guys in Winston-Salem, High Point, Greensboro and Kernersville, and similar issues arise.

Burkhart and Hilburn-Trenkle both raised another significant factor: Some men appear to be intimidated by their female peers.

“Most of the single girls I know are the smartest, most ambitious women you could imagine,” said Burkhart, who works at UNCG. “Is that scaring men away?”

In some cases, yes. At least that’s what several guys have told Hilburn-Trenkle. She’s independent, smart and has it together, more than one potential suitor has told her, and apparently that’s threatening.

That attitude would contribute to a significant disconnect.

Remember the Pew Research Center data that there are 97 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women in Greensboro-High Point? Well, there are only 71 employed men for every 100 employed women in the two cities (and the same is true in Winston-Salem). And the education gap between men and women who have never married has risen dramatically over time — as of 2012, the only educational level where men outnumbered women was “high school graduate or less,” and the gap at the top has risen, according to Pew.

This could be creating a two-sided problem; if women define eligible men as those with a similar level of education, employment or income, some will inherently be in for a disappointment (more on that later). And if men are threatened by women who don’t need them (but want them), they too won’t find what they’re looking for, either.

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Theory: It’s true everywhere

Maybe none of this is unique to Greensboro or the Triad. Indeed, former residents who’ve left for cities including Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia reported similar experiences. One Guilford College grad who moved to the capital said her female friends regularly cite the same mantra about the lack of a few good men. Another Quaker graduate pointed out that the demographics are opposite for cities near him in the Pacific Northwest, where men outnumber women much more dramatically than women do in Greensboro.

The Pew Research Center ranked the 10 worst large metros for single, employed women from 25 to 34 to find men of the same pool. Memphis topped the list and the Charlotte area actually came in fourth, followed by the Philly area. Nashville and New Orleans appeared as well.

But Greensboro-High Point and Winston-Salem were too small to be considered, and given that both were 71:100 as of 2014, both Triad dating markets are on par with Detroit, which came in third.

Still, the experiences of local women could be part of a national phenomenon.

“Nationwide, single young men outnumber their female counterparts,” senior researcher Wendy Wang wrote for the Pew Research Center. “The overall male-to-female ratio is 115:100 among single adults ages 25 to 34. But when we limit the young men to those who are currently employed, the ratio falls to 84 employed single men for every 100 single women.”

Are you a single, straight woman looking for something more serious? Wang suggests you try San Jose, Calif. or Denver. And despite one Guilford grad’s qualms about the DC area, Pew ranked it as No. 7 on its 10 best list (along with San Diego, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, Pittsburgh and Orlando, in case you’re wondering).

There may be a national trend, but Triadians believe it’s worse here. Bekah Hilburn-Trenkle said if she lived in a bigger city, she’s pretty sure she wouldn’t be single, an estimation borne out by her experience being hit on while visiting friends in cities such as Chicago.

Heather Jaynes has dated people in five cities crossing three states in the last decade, and the “worst is here, hands down.” She suggested it may have something to do with how men are raised here.

“Down south, everyone is taught to lie or present better versions of themselves because that’s what their loved ones do to cope with whatever,” she said, adding that she found people who were more honest in New York City. And while finding a date in Greensboro may be easier than Wilmington, where she also lived, the quality is better in the coastal city.

Plus, Jaynes said, men in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach of all places are more physically attractive then men in Greensboro.

Jaynes wondered if higher drug use or alcoholism rates might also disqualify more men than women in the Triad. While detailed information isn’t immediately available, a cursory check suggests otherwise; according to a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report from the US Department of Health & Human Services, illicit drug use is lowest in the South of any region, and dramatically lower than the West (8.3 percent compared to 11.8). The same study did find that in general, men use illicit drugs more than women overall (11.5 percent to 7.3 percent) and outpace women in each individual drug category as well.

 

Theory: Technically eligible, but hiding

What if there are more eligible men than women realize, but they’re just not easy to find?

Peyton Smith, who owns Mission Pizza Neopolitana in downtown Winston-Salem, is so consumed with running his business that he doesn’t have much time for dating. Plus, running the infant restaurant requires him to be there during hours that other people would typically go on dates.

Smith, who is 40 and who’s never been married, said the problem is exacerbated by his age, and while he isn’t against dating a divorcee or someone with kids, he wants to avoid it if he can.

“I don’t see many of those types of people in Winston-Salem at all,” Smith said, adding that he’s looking for a woman who is 35 or older. “If I had a different job, Durham might not be too far, but at this stage of the business, I need to be there all the time.”

Like single women, Smith wondered aloud how he is supposed to meet people.

Lindsay Burkart said something similar.

“I’m 29, which is a weird age for dating,” Burkart said. “Most of the guys downtown seem too young for me and if you go to the more low-key, ‘sophisticated’ bars it’s all married men. I know cute single guys between 26 and 36 exist in Greensboro but I can’t figure out where they hang out.”

Bekah Hilburn-Trenkle said she and her friends often assume they know what kind of people hang out where, admitting that it’s an isolating approach that leads her to go out where she’s comfortable and runs into the same people rather than exploring new places. In a bigger city, she said, that might not happen as easily.

Kevin Smith, a 30-year-old freelance photographer and videographer who lives in Greensboro (no relation to Peyton Smith), also said he believes that dating in other cities would be easier, calling Greensboro insular.

“I find it incredibly easy to meet people while traveling,” Smith said. “I guess there is some rhythm to life in Greensboro that favors small social groups that are tough to navigate. I usually end up dating people in Winston and [the Triangle] for some reason. I have friends who feel the same way.”

Smith said he doesn’t use dating sites much, and Swartz, 31, said she is too old for them. But for others, they dramatically change the dating landscape.

Dating sites like OkCupid enable men to bombard women with obnoxious, lurid messages. (Don’t believe it? Ask a single female friend on the site and ask to see her inbox.) Apps like Tinder allow for some filtering, as both parties have to “swipe right” on each other before a conversation starts, but that doesn’t weed out all the disgusting and overly forward men. Those guys who stay in women’s faces contribute to the idea that the entire dating pool is gross, Hilburn-Trenkle said, adding that on the flipside, there are plenty of “self-proclaimed ‘good guys’ that use the label as an excuse to make inconsiderate decisions.”

In other words, plenty of dudes that might otherwise be eligible bachelors are blatant jerks or manipulative dicks (not her words, but the likes of which could be easily overheard at plenty of bars on a Friday night).

Bumble, a dating site that also involves matching like Tinder but only lets women initiate conversation, might help. Burkart said so few people use it that she swiped a few times and had exhausted all her options, but Jaynes said she had a date set up via the site over the weekend.

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Sean Bueter, a 31-year-old reporter at 88.5 WFDD FM, the Winston-Salem public radio station, has exclusively used online dating to meet women since moving to the Camel City last August. He sees a lot of single women on different sites, but said they aren’t necessarily good matches for him.

“While I’ve seen a lot of folks available, there might be a lot of personality mismatch,” he said, adding that 90 percent of the time he doesn’t hear back from women he’s already matched with on Tinder or Bumble. But overall, the outlook is better here than Fort Wayne, Ind., where he moved from, and Bueter said he’s hopeful that a site like Bumble will help cut out some of the noise in the future.

“Dating is hard and it’s probably hard anywhere,” he said, “but I am finding this area to be more hopeful than northeast Indiana.”

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Theory: You’re too picky

What if the problem isn’t men at all, but women’s expectations?

Peyton Smith suggested that women should be more proactive.

“Women sit around and wait for guys to talk to them,” he said, adding that if women broke with convention and approached men more often, they would be more likely to find someone.

Bekah Hilburn-Trenkle countered if women behaved the way men do, they’d be painted as crazy. Plus, guys often like to think they can take care of women, she said, and she is forced to walk the line between showing interest and avoiding the perception that she’s overly eager to settle down or define the relationship.

There is data, however, that suggests that in general, women are pickier than men when it comes to dating, and may be defining who is “eligible” much more narrowly.

Pew Research Center asked never-married adults about the traits that would be “very important” in choosing a spouse or partner in a 2014 survey and found that in nearly every category, women had higher expectations.

Men and women said having “at least as much education” would be very important at equal rates — 28 percent — but considering the education gap explained above, this is bound to create problems. Higher percentages of women ranked “same moral and religious beliefs” and “similar ideas about having and raising children” as very important than men, but the biggest gap arose around the question of “a steady job.” A whopping 78 percent of women said it’s very important, while less than half of men — 46 percent — said the same.

One could argue that high expectations are a good thing. A counterpoint could be that women are setting themselves up for failure, and that men are more open-minded. Though very few never-married adults said finding someone of the “same racial or ethnic background” was very important, women did outnumber men in this category too, 10 percent to 7. Could a portion of the problem be that some of these desires are classist and racist?

Janna Swartz said she doesn’t have a rule about employment, and has dated people who didn’t make as much money as her. And Swartz, a part-time college student, said she’s dated people who hadn’t finished high school but who were “super smart in other ways.”

“Intelligence and street smarts is important,” she said, adding that it’s “more about holding an intelligent conversation” and that she looks for people “who work hard to be where they are” like she has.

Hilburn-Trenkle said Greensboro’s affordability can allow some people to abort their dreams, drifting around in limbo with stunted ambitions. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with her premise that Greensboro is a city people leave, generally, rather than moving to, except maybe once they’ve already found someone they want to start a family with.

But some women narrow the existing pool of eligible bachelors — people they might genuinely like, or could feasibly end up with — because of their friends.

“I have a strict rule about not dating and/or sleeping with someone who has dated or slept with someone I know and at least consider a friendly acquaintance,” Heather Jaynes said, “so that could be diminishing my pool.”

Burkart said that she will match with the same guy on Tinder as a friend, which causes problems.

“If they are talking to a specific guy that I’ve matched with, that makes some of the guys off limits, so the pool gets even smaller and/or I’m talking to two guys on Tinder that are friends and it all falls apart,” she said. “Or I can’t get to know a guy because last year he rejected one of my friends after a date or two. Most of the time, my friend will go on a date with a guy and I won’t know who it is until all of a sudden I’m planning on going on a date with a guy and we realize it’s the same person. Then I get all the scoop before the date and usually cancel.”

That’s part of the reason Swartz is excited when she meets someone interesting from an outlying town like Randleman — everyone won’t already know his business, and it’s less likely that she’ll feel like she’s recycling dates with friends.

Hilburn-Trinkle said that incestuousness might be one of the biggest problems with dating in the Triad.

“You don’t get the luxury of meeting someone and not hearing anything from someone else,” she said, adding that it diminishes the getting-to-know-you process. “There’s no clean slate.”

 

Theory: A little bit of everything

In reality, these are all factors that contribute to the perceived lack of eligible bachelors. Though aspects of dating in the Triad may not be as dire as some feel, at least in comparison to the rest of the country, there are very real reasons that the idea Greensboro in particular lacks eligible bachelors persists.

Even if the idea weren’t inherently true — let’s discount the studies claiming Gate City residents are excessively ugly or have an inexplicable fondness for Ed Hardy or wear too much Axe body spray — it affects reality. Swartz and Hilburn-Trenkle said they know women here who stay in relationships they aren’t happy in because it seems like there aren’t better options nearby. In a bigger city, those couples might split up and more people would be on the market; instead, some women settle.

There are probably countless additional reasons that dating sucks for single, straight women in the Triad. But straight, single men aren’t exactly celebrating their odds either, even the ones many would consider a catch.

Take Kevin Smith, for example; how would he rate the dating scene for single straight guys in the Triad? “I give it three mehs,” he said.

“It’s definitely not a strength of the Triad’s,” Smith said. “I just got back from Miami last week so I saw the contrast. Will Smith was right about Miami.”

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