March 23, 1981 12:00 PM

Ah, images of the single life. Freedom. Sex. Time for yourself. Sex. Extra money. Sex. Lack of responsibility. Kissing (you have to rest sometime).

Alas, the images are only myths, according to a recent survey comparing the behavior and attitudes of singles and married people. The study was conducted in, of all places, Dayton, Ohio. But the Wright State University professors of sociology who conducted it—Leonard Cargan (never married) and Matthew Melko (married 25 years)—insist their results apply to the nation as a whole. Their sample of 400 subjects was scientifically selected (63 percent were married, 37 percent were single, as in the general U.S. population), and Dayton’s status as a “typical American city” has been certified by pollster George Gallup.

Singles everywhere may therefore profitably, if ruefully, take note of the professors’ findings. To wit: Married people usually have more money than singles, and singles are much more likely to be depressed, take amphetamines, get drunk and attempt suicide. As for their reputation as sexual prodigies, 55 percent of the study’s singles (80 percent of whom were under 40) said they had had three or fewer sex partners in their lives. The study’s conclusion: “that marriage does involve a heavy investment of time, that it is less fun to be married, and that sexual fantasies are less likely to be fulfilled. But the married are less lonely, need to take less thought for the morrow and in general are happier.”

Cargan and Melko did find positive aspects in single life. Singles more often work in community service (maybe because they have few commitments), and they’re as likely as married people to be warm and open with others. And they do swing a little more (only 21 percent of the marrieds surpassed the three-partner mark). Still, says Cargan, “The Playboys and Penthouses would have us believe we’re all out there jumping from one bed to another. It’s inaccurate to categorize all singles as being real swingers when at most less than a third are.” Then, too, he points out, six out of 10 singles hoped to be married within five years.

Cargan, 51, rarely indulges that hope for himself anymore. Raised in Detroit, he worked in newspaper circulation until at 23 he used his Gl Bill from Korean war service to go to college. He finished his doctorate at Wayne State University in 1968 and then taught at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. (“Try wearing that name tag at a conference,” he says.) The preoccupations of his late-blooming second career are one reason he’s never even been engaged, he says. He has gone steady a couple of times and even had one semiserious romance. “I goofed it,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking of anything except living hand to mouth and finishing school.” He moved to Wright State in 1970 and later founded a singles discussion group that inspired his study with Melko.

Melko, 51, came to Wright State in 1976 with advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the London School of Economics—and with wife Nellie, a nurse he met as an undergraduate. They have three children and typical problems. “I come home on weekends,” he says, “and my wife’s got all sorts of things for me to do—work around the house, go to church. I think, ‘While I’m doing this, Len Cargan is out walking his hiking trails, working in his garden, doing whatever he feels like.’ ”

Cargan, demonstrating how life sometimes imitates sociology, offers the balancing view of an inveterate, vestigially sexist single. “What you don’t realize is that I’ve got to cook, to wash clothes, and if I want to go out I’ve got to call somebody up and risk rejection,” he carps. “You just go home and say, ‘Nellie, let’s do something.’ ”

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