A rise in the number of unmarried men means an increase in crime, violence and substance abuse - according to new American research. Cayte Williams reports on the delinquent male

IF THERE IS ONE scapegoat for modern society's ills it is the single mother. The latest attack came earlier this month, when an Association of Chief Police Officers report claimed that children brought up by young, single mothers were more likely to turn to crime. But that's only half the story. In the March issue of the American Economic Journal, George Akerlof, an eminent economist at the University of California, parallels the soaring rise in crime, drug and alcohol use with the increase in single men.

According to research in the States, the number of men between the ages of 25 and 34 who remain single has climbed from a third to three-fifths, while in Britain the number of single men in the same age group increased by 7.7 per cent between 1991 and 1995. In 1995, 50 per cent of men between the ages of 25 and 34 were single and the number is increasing. And it's not making them happy. Men who never marry, suggests the American research, are seven times more likely to serve a prison sentence and four times more likely to be the victim of violent crime. Not only that, but 74.8 per cent of married men are in full-time work, against only 61.6 per cent of single men.

Other research suggests that men are happier and healthier when they are married. "Married men in general live longer than single men," explains Dr Yoav Ben-Schlomo, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology at Bristol University. "Also, research recently done in Holland found that men who had never married had about a four times higher risk of suicide than married men."

However, commitment does not sit easily on modern man's shoulders. Young People And Crime, a 1995 Home Office report, discovered that young offenders under the age of 25 are shunning responsibilities in all areas of their lives. While young women tend to settle down when they find a job and gain economic independence, a career has no effect on young men at all. They are far more embedded in a criminal lifestyle and it is thought that the macho life of drinking and bravado, and the increasing use of drugs, are to blame.

"The transition to adulthood from childhood has become more risky," says one specialist in juvenile crime, "and men seem to have found it harder to deal with than have women. Twenty years ago you left school, got a job, found a home, found a woman and had children. Now it can be the other way around. You could be living at home with your parents, have no job, but be a father yourself. There are structural changes in their rites of passage such as limited access to the employment market or housing," he continues, "and it is much more difficult to form your own family than ever before. It clearly has had an effect on young men."

The Home Office's report claims that once embarked on a "deviant" lifestyle, it is very difficult for young male adults to change direction, and little to encourage them to do so. The burden of guilt for one-parent families, in particular, falls to the woman. A young man may walk out on a pregnant girlfriend and feel that the child is her responsibility alone. "In the new world... of sexual freedom and of easily available abortion," says George Akerlof, "the boyfriends feel a reduced responsibility to marry their girlfriends in the event of pregnancy since, with abortion, the woman no longer has to give birth simply because of pregnancy."

Some single mothers might decide that struggling on their own with government hand-outs is better than living with a man involved in petty crime who takes no responsibility for the situation. "There is possibly a new family structure of mother, baby and government official," explains Kate Fox, a social anthropologist and director of the Social Issues Research Centre. "We are reverting to a 'mammalian' system where mother and child are the main focus of society and the males are peripheral. Women may be using men as sperm donors and retreating into the mother/baby unit. Men may feel a sense of failure of not being able to provide, which is their traditional role. They end up feeling functionless and think 'Why should I sit around and have that staring me in the face?'"

But it's not just mammalian systems and a freer society that makes young men go off the rails. According to the evolutionary biologist and co-author of Baby Wars Robin Baker, it is instinctual. "There have always been gangs of young men in society," he explains. "In primates, there are gangs of young males roaming around the forest, young adolescents who are not particularly experienced and who don't have a lot to offer a female. The only chance they have of beginning their reproductive lives is to go around in groups where they can attack a female or get rid of other males."

But as men develop, things get a bit complicated. "There is an internal conflict in men in their evolutionary psychology," says Kate Fox. "There are advantages to an individual male in remaining at liberty to spread his seed, but there are also advantages in being around to see their own children grow and reproduce themselves."

Men are torn between two evolutionary factors: those which make them run from commitment and those which make them want to protect their partner and children. So how does a woman tell whether a prospective partner is of the flight or fight variety? According to evolutionary Baker, she should look down his trousers. "There is a difference in testes size between men who don't settle down and those who do have partners. Men who settle down tend to have smaller testes. There are different types of men - those who reproduce with as many females as they can and never invest anything in the offspring and those who want one woman and become possessive of her." According to Baker, it is natural for most men to settle down after they get over their wild adolescent days - even though modern man may be very reluctant to admit it. "As males get older, they start wanting to guard and protect a female," he explains. "The trend towards women reproducing later is a novel factor. This means that men in their mid to late-twenties who would, in the past, be fathers at this point, now are in no position to do so because women are deciding they want to have children at 30. One possibility is that it leaves a gap in their lives and they might not know what to do with themselves."

Such a gap is filled by an extended period of immaturity where men, in the absence of providing for a family, revert to their teenage years. "We're all living longer than

we used to and we're all enjoying longer and healthier life-spans," says Kate Fox, "and this has resulted in a prolonged adolescence for both sexes. Women are choosing not to have children until much later in their lives, and men don't have the bargaining power they used to. Their traditional role as the provider has eroded and women are getting much more choosy. Women have always had a civilising influence on men so it's not surprising they are more unruly now for longer."

As the possibility of finding a mate becomes less commonplace, so the cult of Laddism increases to hide male unease. However, some men have managed to take their responsibilities seriously and still go off the rails from time to time. "Although I'm married I like to think that when I go out I can still do the drugs and come home at 7am in the morning," says Aaron Stott, a 27-year-old chef living in South London who got married last year. "We bought a house together a couple of years ago and that was real commitment. I don't want to be working when I'm 50, I want to be semi-retired.

"I'm not pulled between going out and responsibility because my wife is not really one for asking what time I'm going to be home. She's always let me do what I wanted. I was 20 when I met her and she was 26, and she knew that I wanted to experiment. I liked it that she professionally knew where she was going. She had direction and I found I looked up to that. I don't feel that our marriage is a trap at all.

"My friends look up to me in a lot of ways," he continues. "They are quite envious. They want this kind of relationship but are still fighting to make any commitment. They're sick of clubbing and drugs, but they won't admit it. Men tend to drift around and believe their own hype, but deep down it doesn't make them happy. Some of the people I know go out and do five or six Es a night, but the come-down can't be nice, especially if you're in a flat with a bunch of blokes. It's a lonely thing."

Traditionally, men have always made a great deal of fuss about losing their freedom as they are dragged kicking and screaming into marriage. But with psychologists and economists blowing the whistle on men who are reluctant to marry, it seems the idyllically happy perennial bachelor might just be a myth. As the original James Brown - a man not known for his sense of responsibility - once said, "It's a man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl." The question is, will he ever find one who wants him? Without the love of a good woman, it seems it's society which pays the price.