“The single women I know are far, far more eligible than the men. By a miiile. By a country mile!” says Lindsey, a gamine, dark-haired 31-year-old who works in corporate sales. Her friends Laura and Michelle—equally accomplished, equally attractive—are sitting in a booth at Earls, a restaurant–cum–pickup joint for Toronto’s Financial District crowd.
That lament is old by now, inspiring Atlantic cover stories (Kate Bolick’s “All the Single Ladies” was anthemic) and drunken rants: we work hard and succeed in ways our grandmothers could never have hoped to, figuring love and family will eventually come, should we want them. But, for women seeking men, the stats are not favourable.
Cities are, after all, where the educated and ambitious tend to go to make their careers, and the educated and ambitious are increasingly female. We account for 59.5 percent of university graduates in Canada, outnumbering men significantly in fields like the humanities, health, law and education. Women now make up 52.4 percent of Torontonians aged 25 to 34. Ottawa and Halifax are 51.4- and 51.3-percent female, while Vancouver hovers around 51 percent. Montreal and Winnipeg ring in at 50.8 and 50.7 percent, respectively.
“It’s not ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ anymore,” says Lindsey, back at Earls. Instead, it’s half-assed come-ons. If you don’t engage, Michelle adds, “they’ll go to the next booth. It’s like a factory.” Laura gestures at the table next to us. “You should interview those guys,” she says. “I saw them evaluating us.”
The table in question is occupied by James and Chris, two ordinary-looking men dressed in business casual, and Greg, wearing a black T-shirt and a gold chain. “It’s so much easier to be a single guy than a single girl in Toronto,” says Chris. “I get away with so many things that I probably shouldn’t get away with.”
By now, three women, a little more done up than Lindsey, Laura and Michelle, have encircled Greg, delivering hugs and shots. I ask Chris what he gets away with. “He gets laid a lot,” says James.
Chris and James work in banking, but the same pattern abides among the so-called sensitive types: writers, artists, people with humanities degrees, 64.9 percent of whom are female. After Earls, we head to the hipper Dundas West strip. There are plenty of cute girls around, in toques and vintage furs—plenty of cute guys, too. As last call encroaches, we finally get hit on: a man invites us to admire his attractive wingman, pointing out that his own face resembles that of “a toilet salesman”; a soused Australian buttonholes me by the bar and, without so much as offering me a drink, asks whose bed we’re off to.
All of this makes me a little resentful. I once believed that if I kept becoming a better and more accomplished person, I would at least find the mate I deserved; at best, I’d have my pick of cute, funny guys for a lifetime or a month or a night, which, to be fair, is the subtext of every teen movie I’ve ever seen. At 27, my romantic life consists mainly of odd hookups (odd because it’s bizarre to have sex with someone you wouldn’t want to stand naked in front of with the lights on); unconsummated dates that usually just waste my beer money; and noncommittal sexual friendships. It’s way better than languishing in a bad relationship, and my life is rich in other ways. But it can be lonely. Work can’t stroke your hair when you’re waiting on medical results, much less tear your clothes off.
While I’m sometimes lonely, I’m far from alone. When an acquaintance of mine, Sofi Papamarko, started her Toronto matchmaking service, Friend of a Friend, she was deluged with so many female applicants that she had to temporarily close registration for women and start hustling for guys.
Papamarko’s female clients tend to be “dazzling across the board,” she says, while many of the men “don’t have their lives nearly as together.” Yet her male clients often seek traditionally feminine virtues: young and pretty over successful. Even a sense of humour can be seen as a liability in a woman. In low moments, it can seem like women seeking men face a choice between self-actualization and contentment; by staying in the city, we’ve opted to pursue our own dreams rather than find someone to share them with.
Therein lies the appeal of somewhere like Fort McMurray, the notorious oil-boom town with the highest percentage of men per capita in Canada. Fort McMurray, where—in response to the most recent census figures—Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley suggests that women seeking men consider moving. A place whose hungry young men are the stuff of legend, where a woman can make $200,000 a year and still get married, or just laid by someone well-built and gainfully employed.
Fort McMurray, which a friend and I once joked about as a destination for sex tourism. But does the fact that there are more men than women there actually mean I’ll find one who’s right for me? To find out, I get on a plane to Fort McMurray.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which encompasses Fort Mac, has seen its population more than double from 2000 to 2012, for reasons that are—if we’re being honest here—distressing, considering the huge environmental and human health costs of extracting oil. But for many Canadians, it’s the only place to make a living wage.
The municipality’s 116,407 residents are 57-percent male. The same demographic abides in Fort McMurray proper, population 72,944, where the bars and restaurants are, and where most people live. In worker camps, the skew is more dramatic: 82.9-percent male, according to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s most recent census.
The stereotypical Fort Mac story goes something like this: young man from Ontario or Newfoundland heads west, makes $150,000 a year and blows it all on toys (trucks, quads), blow (which exits the system faster than weed, making it prudent in the face of on-site drug testing) and women. These men exist. But more are there to pay off debts and save for the future. The city is somewhat diverse, and since there’s not much going on, individuals from different backgrounds seem to actually associate with one another. There are lots of young families, and people who grew up there have the confidence you get being from somewhere everyone moves to.
But it’s a hard place to be a single dude. From my preliminary interviews, the men in Fort Mac sounded a bit like the women in Toronto: they put up with bullshit, they lower their standards, they bury themselves in work. “The dating scene is horrible out here,” says Jamie, a 27-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., who has worked in the oil patch for six years. “Women are brutal, for the most part. They want to know what you’re making, and if you’re not making enough, they’re cheating on you with some other guy who is.”
“A phenomenon I see here that I don’t see anywhere else is the volume of guys eating nice dinners by themselves,” says Liz, a 26-year-old yoga instructor from Ottawa. Theresa, 47, who runs the blog McMurray Musings, had been hit on near the dairy case of Safeway the morning I called her. “It’s not an unusual thing to have happen,” she says, and frequently the men are younger—the average age in town, across the board, is 32. (In Toronto, it’s 39.) Katrina, 27, a dance-school administrator with long dreadlocks, says the selection of “gorgeous guys” threw her off at first. She’d been through the wringer with men in Vancouver, then met a commitment-minded guy in Fort Mac—but she’s not ready to settle down. “He said, ‘It’s funny, because you’re like the man in our relationship, and I’m like the woman. I want to settle down, and you just want to have sex and be my friend.’ Well, yeah.”
Lisa, 30, moved from Toronto to Fort Mac for a guy she met on Tumblr. “I came up here and got an awesome job, one I would have killed for back home,” she says. But she eventually grew sick of the guy (and the online flirtations he continued to engage in with other women after she moved there), so they broke up.
By the time Lisa picks me up at the airport, she’s “totally over it” and ready for her first single girls’ night out in her adopted city. We’re joined by her coworker Salem, 27, a native Fort McMurrayite, and Shana*, 24, an environmental sciences graduate from Newfoundland, also single, who acknowledges that while the scene is better in Fort Mac than back east, it’s definitely not the promised man-land its demographics might suggest.
We start the night at Earls. The mood here is more casual than in Toronto, and the female servers are wearing less. There are plenty of men around, likely as wealthy as their Bay Street counterparts but wearing ball caps and jeans. I abandon my pizza to chat up a few carpenters, in town from camp for the night. One is married; another barely speaks (“You don’t” is all he offers when I ask how you pick up a woman in Fort McMurray); but Kevin, a polite 53-year-old with a pencil moustache and a bouncing inflection, has plenty to say. The women in camp are very independent, he explains. They have their pick of men, and they have their own money: “It’s almost like women act like men used to. Men don’t know what the hell to do.” Kevin has been married twice and badly wants to fall in love again, but he concedes it’s not likely to happen in Fort McMurray.
Back at our table, a high-school acquaintance of Salem’s—Trevor, a warm, burly guy with glasses and a beard—has joined our party. I ask if he has a girlfriend. “I don’t,” he says. “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
Salem argues that we’re failing to account for a home-field advantage accruing to men who grew up here: their wider social networks mean more potential partners to choose from. “But I was born and raised in Toronto,” Lisa says, “and I was lonely in Toronto. How is that different?”
“You shouldn’t feel lonely here,” says Trevor. “I’d take you out for dinner tomorrow.” I ask him how he’d go about picking up a girl at Earls. “I’d probably get her number and call her the next day,” he says.
So you call her the next day,” I say, “you take her out, and then—”
“She’ll probably not talk to me again, and I go on my way.”
Before we leave, Kevin asks for my number. He looks like he could play in my dad’s band, but he seems thoughtful and good-natured, so I give it to him. He calls the next day.
While Salem drives us to Boomtown Casino, a joint with a fairly rough reputation, I ask Shana more about the local dating scene. Despite the fact that women are in short supply, she tells me that guys often still just want to “hit it and quit it.” She continues: “They’ll say things like, ‘I’ve never been with a black girl before.’”
“It’s really hard to find someone with the same politics, same education, same values,” Lisa explained earlier. “The typical oil rigger is a big dude who comes home covered in bitumen [the semi-solid form of oil extracted here] and drives a big truck with gold balls hanging out the back. Not really the sensitive, artsy, educated guy you’d find in Toronto.” (Not that sensitive, artsy guys are necessarily all that sensitive.)
I’m weaving through slot machines when I happen upon a woman wearing a rhinestone mini-dress, fishnets and waist-length dreads, a sort of Fort Mac Mae West, smiling big. Her name is Roxy; she sings for Huge Fakers, the cover band playing tonight.
“The men who approach me are expecting me to be like, ‘F— off, buddy. I can buy my own drink.’ But they’re also surprised if you give them a slight amount of friendliness,” Roxy, 36, tells me. “I guess they think you’re gonna marry them.”
While we’re talking, an older man offers to buy us drinks. “I’ll come and see you in a bit,” she tells him. “I’ll get you someone to dance with, too.” Sure, there are lots of men in Fort Mac, Roxy says, but most aren’t making permanent homes here. As a result, she theorizes, many are only looking for casual arrangements.
It’s nearly last call by the time we reach Showgirls, Fort Mac’s most popular strip club, and we still haven’t experienced the deluge of come-ons we’d expected. It’s a surprise, to be sure, but I don’t know whether we’re really missing out: Shana and I wait in line behind a man who has shaved his hair into a three-dimensional dragon and dyed it red, Lisa having been snatched up by a girl gang in search of shots. Their apparent leader is Amanda, a long-haired blonde in a toque. She’s 25, and she makes $150,000 a year overseeing day-to-day operations at a refinery. “I’m kind of the boss,” she explains, before handing a wad of cash to a female friend who wants a lap dance.
From her perspective, it’s definitely easier for women seeking men in Fort Mac: “There’s just so many dudes here, way more than girls.” The men she meets all seem to want relationships. “You hang out with them for two f—ing days, and they’re like, ‘OK, let’s start dating,’” she says. Amanda is not interested. “Right now, I just want to be me and do whatever I want.”
Onstage, the last dancer of the night rolls a sheet of paper into a cone. I watch as a gawky, grinning man with a bald spot tosses loonies at her crotch. This is when we meet Aaron, who approaches with an A-for-effort joke about my glasses. (My frames are thicker than average here.)
Aaron is 22 and back in Fort McMurray, where he grew up, after studying film in Vancouver. He’s raising the funds to make his own movie, “about an actor who’s superbly talented but really bad with women, who realizes he can use his acting ability to get them into bed.” In the end, the actor must choose between true love and his career. He chooses career.
“Dating in Fort McMurray is exceptionally difficult,” Aaron says. It’s partly scarcity, and partly the fact that he’s a city guy at heart, interested in the kind of woman he’d find easily back in Vancouver. Aaron has dreams. He wants a woman with dreams and her own income (not a “gold digger,” a bogeywoman who recurs in my interviews here), who will push him toward his dreams and whom he can push toward hers. Maybe it’s sympathy or empathy or the $6.25 Budweisers I’ve been hammering back, but I realize that Aaron is my type: tall, hefty, dark-haired. I turn off the tape recorder. When he asks for my number, I give it to him and actually hope he’ll call.
He does. The next night, we go for beers at Boston Pizza. He asks how I’m liking Fort McMurray, and I tell him I’m a little stung by the lack of male attention. “You’re not the Fort Mac type,” he says, and it occurs to me that maybe I should have worn contacts. I marvel that the one guy in town drawn to my “look” happened to find me at a strip club at 2 a.m.
Later, we run into a friend of Aaron’s from high school on the street, and then we’re cabbing to a sizable house in the suburbs, notable only for the fact that its owner is 22. We play beer pong, eat pizza and drink a lot of beer.
At the end of the night, I’m surprised when Aaron doesn’t make a move—in Toronto, not sleeping with a guy who so much as buys you a drink can feel like not tipping your bartender. Instead, he offers to pick me up the following morning. We spend the day driving around in his cluttered car, drinking Tim Hortons and listening to Phoenix. He shows me the river where he once crashed his snowmobile and the street where he had his first kiss. We meet Lisa and Salem for brunch at Ms B’s, a Newfie restaurant known for its thick hollandaise sauce. After we eat, I reach for Aaron’s bill, figuring that since he’s offered to drive me to the airport, the least I can do is pay for his meal. “That’s weird,” he says, so sharply that I don’t protest.
By the time Aaron drops me off, the sun is setting and I’m starting to like him. He’s thoughtful and forthright, both ambitious and attractively at ease in his hometown. I try to conjure up a romantic fantasy—maybe we’re made for each other!—but I think the fantasy is mostly based on scarcity. He’s the only artsy, sensitive guy I’ve met in Fort McMurray, and there aren’t many artsy, sensitive girls around.
We’re caught in an awkward moment right now, between social evolution and cultural adjustment. In a few years, Aaron will be living in Vancouver or New York or Los Angeles, where he’ll have the life he wants and, most likely, the partner he wants to share it with.
If, like the actor in his screenplay, I have to choose between career and relationship, I’ll grudgingly stick to the former. Although other options exist, I’d rather be the type of person I’d like to date.
*Name has been changed at the subject’s request
Editor: Maureen Halushak.