Singlehood and Seduction: A Mea Culpa (by Rachel O’Neill)

The following text is a shortened version of the keynote speech given by Rachel O’Neill at the launch event for the Research Network of Singlehood Studies that took place on 16-17 December 2019 in Tampere.

In January 2018, I submitted the final proofs for my book Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy. An ethnography of the London seduction industry, the book explores why men take up the particular system of expertise this cultural formation makes available. Against the prevailing assumption that seduction amounts to little more than a curious subculture, I argue that it instead serves to evidence the extent to which neoliberalism — as an economic system and cultural rationality — is reorganising intimate life on a much broader plane.

A few weeks after submitting the proofs, I attended a talk by Kinneret Lahad at Birkbeck, University of London, titled: ‘Singlehood is a Feminist Issue!: Reflections on Singlehood, Time and Temporal Agency’. Lahad provided a fascinating analysis of singlehood’s socio-temporal construction, arguing that the tendency to frame singlehood as a kind of interim period or transitional state inhibits our ability to grapple with its political character. Speaking with Lahad afterwards, I told her about my research and recently completed manuscript. She responded, reasonably enough, by assuming that singlehood must be a central category in a project such as mine; I was embarrassed to have to admit that, despite its obvious relevance, it was something I’d scarcely considered.

What follows, then, is something of a mea culpa.

Without wanting to stray into the realm of apologia right from the outset, it’s worth considering why it failed to occur to me to interrogate singlehood. After all, my research cohort comprised an otherwise diverse group of heterosexual men whose main unifying feature was their singledom. To some extent, my oversight may be attributed to the general inattention paid to singlehood within sociology, where it has “only rarely been considered as an analytical concept deserving of sociological attention” (Lahad 2012: 163). Singlehood, is, moreover, conspicuously gendered both within academic literature and in the wider cultural imaginary; it is overwhelmingly women who function as “carriers of the cultural tag” (Lahad 2017: 7).

What might it mean, then, to take up singlehood as a post hoc analytic in research such as this? What import might this have in understanding the seduction industry, and what might this particular case study tell us about contemporary constructions of the category? I will offer two suggestions.

First, seduction provides an instructive example for thinking about the patterning of singlehood — at the level of identification and experience — by wider political and economic forces. Within this industry, being single is generally understood as an opportunity and indeed impetus to invest in the gendered and sexual self. For many of those who participate in this sphere — whatever the content of their intimate ambitions on entry — sexual experience comes to understood as something to be accumulated, on the basis that it confers value in the present and can be mobilised to secure a desired future. In a sense, sex is cast a means of capital appreciation, with the acquisition of sexual partners said to offer men various kinds of advantages vis-à-vis women and other men.

This framework of thinking can provide a certain amount of reassurance for those who might otherwise be discomfited by their single status. Indeed, many interviewees spoke of the relief they felt on entering a male-dominated realm in which there was no need to pretend to be ‘good with women’, precisely because the desire for greater competency was a common denominator among all participants. Moreover, because seduction frames singlehood as a means to accrue value, the outcome of any particular encounter is made to matter less. Undertaken not as an end in itself but in service to a larger goal, the prospect of approaching dozens of women in a day is not quite so daunting. While an individual interaction may be frustrating or disappointing or simply uninteresting, it provides experience all the same.

Problems can arise for those who accord to this dictum. While such discontent manifests in a number of ways, a common thread is the sense of cutting off from one’s own feelings and those of others. By engaging a heavily choreographed mode of intimacy composed of apparently spontaneous yet highly programmatic scripts and stage cues, seduction obviates extemporaneous affect. The more its steps are rehearsed, the more the routine comes to substitute for feeling. A number of men I spoke to found themselves, almost inexplicably even by their own reasoning, giving up valued relationships so as to continue honing their skills as seducers. Others described pursuing casual encounters in the absence of any desire to do so, again in an effort to preserve an achieved aptitude for a game they no longer wanted to play.

This sense of compulsion suggests that, for some, singlehood may come to function as a site of alienation not because it means being alone or unpartnered, but rather because it is increasingly imbued by an imperative to be productive. To the extent that it comes to be understood as an opportunity for achievement of some kind — within the seduction industry but also elsewhere — singlehood cannot simply be inhabited as a more or less innocuous state or circumstance. Instead, something must be done with it; singlehood must be seized and made serviceable. What the example of the seduction industry demonstrates, then, is that the alienating effects and affects commonly associated to singlehood may in part stem from the extent to which is is currently being imbued with and overtaken by market values.

A second insight this case study offers relates to the question of how and for whom singlehood comes to be regarded as a problem. Because the couple norm is so pervasive, singlehood is very often a fraught category — though one whose distribution is highly uneven. For most of the men I spoke with and circulated amongst during my research on seduction, being single was not regarded as a problem in itself. Certainly, they wanted more control in their intimate lives; but this was more often about attaining a higher ‘quality’ or ‘calibre’ of sexual partner — casual or committed — rather than being partnered per se. As such, singlehood was an acceptable state, provided it was properly made use of and capitalised upon.

At the same time, many men felt that the fact of their singlehood, combined with that of other men they met via the seduction industry, signalled some kind of social problem. Discussing why men need his services — and articulating this quite emphatically as a need — one trainer told me: “They’re completely normal guys … so it just goes to show, there’s something not right in wider society”. The unspoken culprit in this conversation and the many others like it I had was feminism, a term rarely invoked directly but continuously alluded to through all manner of synonyms. At times halting and at others assured presenting their claims to a female researcher, interviewees argued that ‘equal rights’ and ‘emancipation’ have led women in the UK and elsewhere to become unreasonably demanding and deeply unfeminine.

Problematising their own singlehood and that of other heterosexual men in this way, the political bent that underlies seduction in theory and in practice begins to reveal itself. As much as these men seek to achieve their own ambitions, they do as in concert with other men. Despite its promises of personal transformation, seduction is not simply a matter of self-making but also of world-making. Those who participate in this setting attempt to realise a certain masculine disposition and thereby instantiate the kind of gender order they wish to see on a much larger scale. Sex becomes politics by another means, a way to redress a perceived imbalance between women and men, one that is perceived most acutely and protested most vigorously in the intimate sphere.

The seduction industry is far from the only setting in which singlehood among heterosexual men is consider a problem or the symptom of a problem. In recent years, the category of ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) has entered the public arena, having for some time existed in the ‘manosphere’, a digital terrain of which the seduction industry is a constituent part. For the largely heterosexual men who gather under this descriptor, singledom and the supposed lack of access to sex it entails represents a serious predicament. Unlike those who participate in the seduction industry, however, incels don’t see a viable way out of their situation. The resultant nihilism this gives rise to has deadly effects, as evidenced by attacks carried out in North America under the auspices of incel ideology, included the Isla Vista shootings of 2014 and the 2018 Toronto can attack.

These men’s violence is heinous, their actions deplorable in the extreme. In the wake of such attacks, it is additionally injurious and deeply disdainful to witness an array of commentators line up to provide what amount to explanations verging on excuses for their fury, alongside frankly offensive suggestions as to how it might be curbed. The problem, as they identify it, is not that incels espouse a pernicious entitlement to women’s bodies and over women’s lives — to the extent that some commit and many more condone the murder of women — but rather that something is awry in the gender order. Thus we see proposals for ‘sexual redistribution’ and musings on ‘enforced monogamy’ published in the New York Times, as if reductive economic models of ‘supply and demand’ could allay these senseless tragedies and grave injustices.

That we are having such discussions evidences this rising tide of cultural and political masculinism across a wide variety of national contexts, the networked affordances of digital media ensuring borders pose no barrier to circulation. In thinking about how to counter this tide, it is important we recognise the close imbrication of masculinism and ethnonationalism, which have long tended to operate in tandem. It is also crucial that we accurately discern the underlying affective structure of masculinism in this moment. To my mind, it is not a backlash, as angry rejoinders to feminism have often been called. It is instead something much more assertive and assured, even if many of its foot soldiers loudly proclaim their woundedness.

At the event I attended in 2018, Lahad put forward a compelling case as to why singlehood must be taken up as a feminist issue. I believe a consideration of the seduction industry, alongside adjacent formations such as incel ideology, lends further weight to her argument. These examples unequivocally demonstrate just how high the stakes can become when singlehood is crudely politicised by those who seek to recast aggrieved entitlement as legitimate concern and righteous outrage. Against this kind of instrumentalism and opportunism — a new cover for very old forms of misogyny — feminists must continue to offer up more expansive visions for being and relating. If our efforts are to succeed, we must all begin “moving beyond the dichotomous and essentialist thinking of misery/happiness, togetherness/loneliness, and success/failure” (Lahad 2017: 132).

Biography

Rachel O’Neill is a Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. Her research centres questions of gendered subjectivity and social inequality, primarily in the contemporary UK context but with an awareness of and interest in transnational circulations of culture and capital. She is the author of Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy, published in 2018 with Polity.

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