« Previous | Home | Next »

The Pig Picture

Are all guys who aren’t gay gross slobs? So often, when a guy’s invited me over after the second or third date, I’ve discovered such a disgusting disaster area that I wish I’d worn hip-high wading boots. The specifics: dirty, wadded-up towels on the floor, a week’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink, decades of crud on the fixtures, and a bathroom so vile that I put off using it until my bladder’s ready to burst. Do guys simply not see this stuff? Do they see it and just not care? And does it not occur to them that a woman might be turned off by such slovenliness and filth?

--Totally Repulsed

It isn’t that guys don’t notice the filth, it just takes them a little longer -- like until the crud impedes access to the bathroom or the fuzz on the dishes evolves to the point where it hisses at the dog.

Now, not every straight guy is a slob, and not every gay guy is fastidious, but there’s a reason the TV hit was “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” and not “Straight Eye For The Queer Guy” -- the home makeover show to help all the gay men whose living spaces have been featured in “Architectural Digest.” And, sure, there are squalor-dwelling chicks out there, but when a woman apologizes for her “disaster area” it’s likely she’s telling you she’s run out of color-coordinated Kleenex and forgotten to pick up fresh flowers.

Because many women can’t imagine that a man would think differently than they do (thanks, in part, to the toxic mold that is radical feminism) they often take it personally when a man invites them into what looks to be a one-bedroom/one-bath Petri dish decorated in a landfill motif. The perceived insult may be magnified if he’s a guy who typically looks shaved and bathed, and like he picked his clothes out at a department store, not out of a dumpster. I mean, jeez, in honor of your presence, couldn’t he have at least hosed the place down?

The truth is, as you suspected, straight guys just don’t have the filth and disarray vision that women and gay men do. Studies show gay men’s attention to environmental detail is similar to that of straight women, but in general, “the female brain takes in more sensory data than does the male,” writes brain researcher Michael Gurian in “What Could He Be Thinking?” How much more visual detail does the female brain take in? Well, in an object recall test by York University psychologists Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals, women remembered the name and placement of 70 percent more items than the men did. At that rate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a guy doesn’t notice the dog hair, beer cans, and Taco Bell wrappers -- at least, not until they start blocking his view of the game.

Men can be obsessive about detail, explains Gurian, but their mental and visual attention is usually single-minded and achievement-oriented. Gurian gives the example of a man’s meticulousness in building a model ship in a tiny glass bottle. “He is focused on doing whatever it takes to succeed in reaching his goal,” but in his day-to-day life, “he doesn’t experience the mess in the house as a challenge over which to triumph.” (There’s still hope somebody will come up with a Pro-Am tournament of housekeeping.)

According to Silverman, Eals, and other researchers, a guy’s tendency to let his home become a pizza crust wilderness refuge probably traces back to our hunter-gatherer past. Men’s current visual and attentional strengths correspond to what would’ve made them successful hunters: the distance vision and mental focus needed to track and bring home dinner -- instead of being eaten by what was supposed to be dinner. Women’s superior peripheral vision and ability to process detail would’ve helped them spot the family’s favorite edible plants in a big tangle of vegetation -- while making sure the children weren’t playing in wildebeest traffic.

Culture or training may mitigate the modern man’s natural crud-blindness. My German friend Thomas, for example, can be awakened from a deep sleep by a lone crumb in the middle of the counter. If you’re a clean freak, find a guy like him. Otherwise, if a guy’s a slob, but a quality slob, maybe resign yourself to living alone and having him come over to your place. If you must live with him, keep in mind that he probably isn’t leaving a trail of trash because he’s a bad guy, but simply because he’s a guy. To keep the peace, hire a good cleaning person -- hard to find but nowhere near as scarce as really great men you click with. When you find one, why let a little thick, green bacteria keep you apart?

Posted by aalkon at April 4, 2007 2:12 AM


Testing, testing.

Note: comments on my columns will no longer require approval. I'm not quite sure why they ever did!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 4, 2007 3:04 AM

Ironic that I read this today: last night I was at my boyfriend's house. Now, his house is shockingly clean - not lots of clutter, the toilet isn't radioactive, only a few dishes in the sink. BUT there is a layer of grime, dirt and dust on the kitchen floor and the stairs that rivals the rubble at a demolition site. I bought him a Swiffer a while back. When I asked him, gently and non-offensively, if he had used it lately, he proudly declared "Yeah I try to sweep the floor once every other month or so!" All I could do was laugh. He tries really hard and does a good job, but there is just some inherent difference that are tough to overcome - I sweep the kitchen every other day.

At least I have him washing his sheets once a week, though. That's what's important b/c his sheets touch more square area of my body than his kitchen floor does. Well, most nights anyway.

Posted by: Gretchen at April 4, 2007 10:08 AM

Jesus X! I swear, the more I read about how men typically think vs. the way women typically think, I swear, I must be a man trapped in a woman's body. Or, rather, a man who is thoroughly and perhaps a bit too lasciviously enjoying living in a woman's body. ;) Of course, I'm thinking that a lot of that task-focused obsessiveness comes from being a visual artist. In fact, I'd love to see this same study done on just artists. I focus laserlike on drawings and paintings, but my housework goes to hell in a handbasket when I'm on a deadline. I wonder if this is typical of artists regardless of gender.

I am Art's bitch.

Posted by: Melissa G at April 4, 2007 10:54 AM

We thought you were Law's bitch. Different Melissa?

Posted by: Crid [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 11:10 AM

I do give some credence to the evolutionary origins of an average man's inattention to clutter and filth. But also, what about the socialization factor, where girls are more likely to be taught to clean house and mothers, those in traditional female roles, think nothing about cleaning up after their husbands and children--therefore propogating and reinforcing the expectation that womean clean up after men? Or is this socialization a byproduct of the biologically-ingrained tendencies?

I say all this based on my own experience and my observations of families I've encountered and people I've known. So, there's my disclaimer that none of the above is based on hard statistical fact. From what I've seen, it's the women who clean up after the men, and I really don't think this trend is all that difficult to reverse. And I don't think men are so blind to mess that they can't be taught to identify it and do something about. Look at what extraordinary strides have been made in male hair removal and personal grooming!

Posted by: Wendy at April 4, 2007 12:10 PM

[quote]"I focus laserlike on drawings and paintings, but my housework goes to hell in a handbasket when I'm on a deadline. I wonder if this is typical of artists regardless of gender. "

I would say "Yes." When I have a deadline, NOTHING else gets done.

Granted, I'm a guy and don't do a lot of housework anyway. I have my assigned household duties and do them, (assigned by the wife) I guess that makes me trained...

It's not that we don't SEE the mess, we just don't see it AS a mess, or at least not one that merits attention. I had two roommates (years ago) and our kitchen was so bad you litterally had to run through it before the smell brought you to your knees. So we ran... it was that easy. Overflowing ashtrays? Obviously we just needed bigger ashtrays... Dust balls under the TV were not an issue unless we deemed it a potential fire hazard.

CLEANING??? We just never even thought about it...

Posted by: Morbideus at April 4, 2007 1:21 PM

Is the younger generation of women losing its ability to be repulsed? My 20-year-old stepson's bedroom is every bit as gross as anything described here, plus his dog craps in there and he'll go days before picking it up. But he'll bring a girl in there, they'll come out hours later and her nose isn't even wrinkling.

It's not that he's found one exceptionally filth-tolerant girl; this has happened with at least three, all in their late teens.

Posted by: Rex Little at April 4, 2007 1:30 PM

Crid-- I'm Melissa G, the other Melissa, artist and not Amy's lawyer. :)

Posted by: Melissa G [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 3:04 PM

It's not that he's found one exceptionally filth-tolerant girl; this has happened with at least three, all in their late teens.


Why is your 20 year old stepson having "girls in their late teens" stay in his room for hours at a time?
I hope you're referring to the 18 and up age bracket.

Posted by: Jaime at April 4, 2007 3:59 PM

I am female, and normally not a very good housekeeper except when I'm being paid to keep things nice at someone else's place. In my own home, my crud-tolerance goes way up with each beer that I drink.

It sometimes goes dramatically down when stoned, though - it's the only time I'll get really obsessive about cleaning.

Another weird thing - sometimes I let my room, aka my "lair", get really cluttered in order to keep people OUT. Sometimes boyfriends get the "I wanna move in" syndrome and I am a firm believer in separate apartments, always. If my laundry's piled to the ceiling, they can't come in as an occupying force. (Maladaptive, yes... and satisfying too!)

Recently I realized that I rely mostly on my memory of where things are in order to locate them, rather than using my eyes, especially in low-light situations where I can't see all that well. I have literally gone bananas when my roommate moved something three feet over to one side! There it was in plain sight but I couldn't find it! Very embarrassing.

Posted by: Red Ree at April 4, 2007 4:40 PM

Stuff that socialization excuse. My brothers and I did the cooking, cleaning, laundry, lawnmowing, etc. (and not these sissy Cali yards) and we were much the same until my brothers married. I still am- but although my place is cluttered, it is clean. Ish.

Maybe "maintaining" doesn't register as a goal like replacing a bike crankshaft; at least the months accomplishing a specific task will eventually end. And then I can relax.

Posted by: sps49 at April 4, 2007 9:41 PM

I wonder if this is an ancient version of specialization of tasks: Instead of Adam Smith's description of a nail factory where one person works the forge and another person sharpens the points, we have (as the goddess repeatedly tells us) the male role of bringing back meat, and a female role of maintaining the cave and minding the children. To the male mind (at least to this one, anyway), the female propensity for cleaning and decorating sometimes comes across as unnecessarily fastidious. Females, I would guess, often find the physical aggressiveness of males equally strange. A lot of what males do in their stereotypical beer sodden football watching is an involved ritual of status competition. Apparently females do the same status seeking with each other by the way they dress, talk with each other, and present themselves via their lodgings.

Or to put it more simply: To the male, it's nice to come home to a clean place and a hot meal, but we don't think a lot about doing it ourselves. Perhaps this expectation of having a female do these things for us is hard wired, or perhaps it is a cultural norm from the days of early marriage and fewer singles.

Posted by: Bob G at April 5, 2007 12:06 AM

It plays out in another piece I posted today on my blog -- http://www.advicegoddess.com/archives/2007/04/johnnys_got_a_s.html -- which echoes studies I've read about little girls gravitating to dolls and little boys gravitating to transportation equipment (although this piece is about little boys liking guns). People are so determined to swear men and women are the same (Lawrence Summers was fired because of it), and they're wrong.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 5, 2007 7:29 AM

And P.S. There are men who are more like women and women who are more like men in some ways. I am not naturally neat, and when I have a deadline, nothing else matters.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 5, 2007 7:29 AM

Cleanliness has always been a big issue in the battle-of-the-sexes thing, but I don't think that a person's tendancy towards filth or retentiveness is determined by gender. Personally, I keep the house spotless because I get irritable when it isn't, and cleaning is kind of therapeutic. However, my sister is n absolute slob, whose mess comforts her in the same way that it irritates me. I don't mind the incidental mess of having friends over, and I do relax the clean standards a little when I have men, especially, over, but I find that with a little prodding, most people will comply (hanging towels back up, throwing trash in proper receptacles) out of politeness. I have seen many manpartments in my day, all ranging from toxic waste dump to startlingly clean. I don't think it is a gender thing, just a personal preference.

Posted by: Jessi at April 5, 2007 9:54 AM

I also think there is a bit of "get it done once" for men. You can fix the bike crank shaft, and then it's finished. Build the little ship model in the bottle, and it's done, with all the satisfaction that comes with completing a task and signing off on it.

Dishes, laundry, and housecleaning are jobs that have no end. There will always be more tomorrow, and probably later today. It's never really done, so it's a little harder to find joy in those kinds of tasks. Plus, those jobs tend to not need too much technology. A ride-on tractor mower is way more fun to use than the new dish sponge with the soap in the handle.

My husband has been lobbying for a Roomba vacuum for months. And I'm just about ready to get one. If it would get him to vacuum, then maybe the price is justified.

Posted by: Robyn at April 5, 2007 12:22 PM

I'm a woman who was brought up in a house with a housekeeper. I had a clean, tidy room without really ever having to do anything to keep it clean and tidy (which allowed me to spend all of my time studying, and man, did I study).

So, now I'm an adult, and I like living in neat areas...but I'm not used to the must-redo-it-all-the-time nature of housework. So, I have a housekeeper who ensures that the place stays clean (as in not dirty), and I pick up the night before she comes so that the clutter is occasionally organized. But I'm never going to be fanatically neat (like, say, my mother is).

So, training does play a role...but my *awareness* of dirt and messiness is high. I just don't have the usual "if you want things to be clean, you must clean them" association in my brain.

Posted by: marion at April 5, 2007 3:43 PM

Another artist here - I'm obsessed with every detail of my work, but my house can - and does - go to hell when I'm working on a project (which is almost all the time). When it gets to the point that it distracts me from my work (and that level is variable), I clean. Otherwise, I work.

Posted by: soleil at April 5, 2007 7:11 PM

I am in the same boat as marion. I was raised in a fastidiously clean environment, but I never had to do anything myself. My mom was obsessive compulsive about cleaning (vacuumed my bedroom at 3 am with me in it, that kind of thing).

I have learned from scratch how to do everything, and keep things in reasonably clean condition, but can live in less compulisively clean conditions than a lot of my female friend.

When I was married I refused to do any housework because my husband wouldn't, so we lived in filth and squalor. It grossed me out, but a woman has to stick to her principles! Fortunately the marriage ended and I could clean again.

Posted by: Chrissy at April 7, 2007 7:39 AM


If you're turning off the moderation feature on your board, you might just want to monitor the responses a little bit over the next few days. You certainly don't want to deal with a flood of trolls and spamsters.

There were some great lines in your response:

"Because many women can’t imagine that a man would think differently than they do (thanks, in part, to the toxic mold that is radical feminism) they often take it personally when a man..."

This is certainly not the kind of line that would endear you to the editors of the LA Times (besides, you're not Brian Grazer). I prefer to complete this line in a more comprehensive fashion:"...they often take it personally when a man behaves any differently than they would".

"Men can be obsessive about detail, explains Gurian, but their mental and visual attention is usually single-minded and achievement-oriented."

That's an excellent point. It's a mistake to presume that men are not detail oriented. If that were the case, there would not be so many men who are terrific engineers and computer scientists. The difference, as Gurian notes, is that men *focus* their detail-attention on specific goals, like killing tonight's dinner or building a computer, not tasks they consider to be everyday and routine, like making another bracelet or cleaning the shower.

One of the most famous mathematicians who ever lived was a guy named Paul Erdos, who died just a couple of years ago. Erdos developed mathematical models without which we wouldn't have had the basis for many subsequent real-world patents in physics, science, and engineering. But he was also the most practically incompetent man anybody ever met. In spite of his brilliance, he never gained a university professorship because he just couldn't deal with the day-to-day tasks of organizing courses and developing a syllabus, never mind the Byzantine rigamarole involved with qualifying for tenure.

So he spent his career working as a (usually highly endowed) guest lecturer at the top universities in the world. And he never bought a house, so he would just live with professors at various universities where he taught. And that's not even the best of it. He never bought or even learned to drive a car, he never went shopping for his own food or clothing, and he *certainly* never learned to clean up after himself.

The dinner table was typically populated by Erdos, the professor who was hosting him, and half a dozen or so graduate students. And whenever the conversation turned to anything other than mathematics, he immediately fell asleep!

And yet he was considered as brilliant a mathematician as Stephen Hawking. Talk about attention to detail!

I guess the bottom line is that nature and millennia of functional practicality have resulted in the fact that men and women really are different, and the exceptions don't invalidate the rule.

Posted by: Fester Bestertester at April 7, 2007 5:35 PM

Thanks, Fester! And I have spam moderation -- and they usually just hit old entries anyway.

I've been banned from the LA Times for a number of years for a line about my breasts in the story about my stolen car: "When you're a girl, it pays to go to the police station in person; like, 'Hi, I have big breasts, will you help me find my car?'" The women in features told my editor "It'll be a long time before her breasts are in the paper again." I've been trying to get in for years, to no avail, but they haven't managed to stop me yet!

Regarding ERdos, there are those people in the world who aren't good at the mundane stuff of life. Smart bosses and companies find a way to retain them and cut through the crap that needs to be cut. (There are very few companies like that.)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 7, 2007 7:42 PM

I think everyone has a place in the tribe. People are naturally obsessed with different stuff. Some are collectors, or fishermen, or hunters, gardeners, even shaman. Me, I'd keep the tribe supplied with eggs and would tend the animals all day, happy as hell.

Posted by: Chicknlady at April 7, 2007 10:51 PM

My problem - one of them, anyway - is not that I am untidy or dirty, but that I collect stuff. In fact, if you collect stuff you have to be tidy. But I am beginning to think that I need to let it go. Collecting stuff is classed as a typical male behaviour. Any advice?

Posted by: Norman at April 8, 2007 8:26 AM

It seems to me that the biggest difference between men and women with respect to cleanliness is not that men don't care and women are neatniks - it's that men aren't embarrassed by mess because no one judges them if their home is a sty!
My husband is aware of clean and neat and even paid a cleaning lady when he was single - but he thought nothing of having friends in on the night before "cleaning lady day" and never thought to rinse out the sink or wipe off the toilet seat because no one would think it odd if a single guy in his 20's/early 30's had a less than pristine bathroom.

Posted by: Sandra P at April 9, 2007 3:43 PM

Re-read an old Andy Rooney column - "Women over 40". It took me 40+ years, 3 sons and 3 long-term marriages/relationships to come to peace with men as slobs and partners (and I am very far from being a neat freak. With my current (hopefully my last) male live-in male a partner of 3 yrs we have stated the following rule at the get go: whoever gets irritated first gets to take care of it. Yes, I end up doing more laundry and dishes, but then I do not worry about cars, lawn care/mowing, snow blower parts etc. It sounds like a pretty traditional, pre-feminist (oh, horror!) division of labor, except that we both have been successful professional and single parents, that my partner as a much better and a more adventurous cook and does more cooking than I do, and that we seem to get along so much better than in any of previous pairings either of us had had.

Posted by: Woman over 40 at April 14, 2007 6:50 AM

I once cleaned up my place to the point of obsession for a date. It backfired. She thought I was too neat. So it goes :(

Posted by: Andrew A at April 22, 2007 11:11 PM

I saw one of those country comedians a while back--maybe Jeff Foxworthy..and he has a routine that asserts that men simply do not see things. He says that a man will step over a piece of trash in his way forever and never pick it up because it doesn't register. I laughed and asked my husband if it was true. (I suspected it was and that HE would KNOW) He did, and said it was. You can see something on the floor and even think it ought to be picked up--but your brain says that somebody else will do it. I have had the same experience, but I always end up picking it up whatever it is! He sure doesn't! He and his brother and my son are alike though--they will suddenly decide that some one thing is dirty and will spent hours getting this one thing perfectly clean. Then think they have done that for life and never do it again---sigh. However it is useful for the time being....

Posted by: Betsy at May 27, 2007 8:13 PM

In my life, it seems like being tidy vs. being messy is about the "somebody else's problem" phenomenon. Until I was about 25, I somehow never saw a mess as my problem. It didn't register as a mess, it didn't register as anything. And then I had two roommates (one male and one female, neither gay) who sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that it IS my problem. They went to great lengths to POINT OUT to me things that were my problem. They assigned me tasks and gave both positive and negative reinforcement. (All the things that some people's parents do.)

Now, I can actually see messes! I'm certainly no neat freak, but the "somebody else's problem" fog has lifted so I can actually see. Now, I see cleaning as a success and attack a pile of dirty laundry with a kind of enthusiasm that I previously reserved for playing video games. And when I'm done I feel "success!" there was a problem that was my responsibility and I solved it!

I've also noticed that things are different in Mediterranean Europe. Many men there see a messy house as a sign of being a failure in life, and strive to keep up the appearance of success. That's how they get rid of the "somebody else's problem" issue there.

Gay men, even those in the US, are pretty much forced to maintain tidyness. They get no breaks in that area! A gay guy that isn't tidy isn't going to get a second date, and that's final.

Sadly, women in the United States (not those in Europe) put up with these messy men. They don't take the time (and it is time consuming) to make sure that a guy understands that it is his problem.

I think that years and years of believing that objects around you are "somebody else's problem" can make a person have a very poor object memory, as shown in the tests sited in the article.

Having changed my ways at age 25, I think I might be the oldest convert from messy to tidy. Anyone else have a story of conversion at an older age?

Posted by: gennette at November 5, 2007 9:52 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)