The revelation that almost half of single men don’t change their bed sheets for up to four months conjures memories and smells from my former life as a slob, although I doubt many of today’s bachelors are as bad as I was. At 22, I didn’t need to change sheets because I slept on a bare mattress. I did very little laundry, in part because each week I bought five pairs of socks for a pound from Primark and tossed them into the bin, which I rarely emptied, after one wear.
At the same time, I knew this behavior wasn’t healthy, and I don’t believe anyone really wants to live in filth. I felt embarrassed by my untidiness without addressing it. Towards the end of my first year at university, there were room inspections at our halls of residence and I was told, in front of my flatmates, that mine was disgusting. I had 24 hours to fix the problem, pending a second inspection, so I ran around Leeds, buying disinfectant, air fresheners and sheets, feeling sick with shame.
Twenty years later, I have not completely left behind bad hygiene. Recently, I had to scrub my office chair (I work from home) after my wife found me at my desk after I’d been running. I had become distracted en route to the shower, fall down an internet rabbit hole and was sitting there reeking of sweat. I suspect one of the reasons single men don’t change their sheets is that to yourself you never smell truly awful.
It’s not a woman’s job to fix a man, and Silvia Federici and others have written important feminist critiques of the politics of housework, but I dread to think where I’d be if I were single. When my wife goes away for a night or two, I regress. “Might as well relax while I’m the only one here,” I think, and soon there are greasy plates piling up, fingerprinted tumblers on the coffee table and, yes, an unmade bed. It’s a long road to zero slobbery and you need to be vigilant. As that sage of male solitude Henry David Thoreau said: “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”
Before judging these single men we should remember that changing sheets is difficult, especially for one person: you tuck in a side, walk around the bed, try to secure the bottom corner and the opposite one comes undone. It is much easier for a couple but, even so, my wife and I growl at each other every other Sunday: “Pull it tighter!”
How come then 62% of single women change their sheets fortnightly? Perhaps there’s a whiff of male entitlement, of the quaintly disheveled variety, at play. I doubt Boris Johnson changes his sheets often, or at least he wouldn’t if he didn’t have somebody else to do it for him. I laughed at the scene in Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim, when the protagonist burns his bedsheets with a cigarette then hides them from his host, without considering who would clean up afterwards. In The Bachelor Home Companion, meanwhile, the late American humorist PJ O’Rourke advised: “Sheets can be kept clean by getting drunk and falling asleep with your clothes on.”
Looking back on my years of squalor, it strikes me that I never thought it was worth making my environment pleasant for myself. I lacked self-respect, but over the years I gained some by changing my habits. So much of life is about habit. Once you get into good ones, it becomes easier. But you must remember that bad habits are always lurking beneath the surface, or in this case beneath the covers.