Politics of singlehood are a matter of relevance to the majority of people, as most experience singlehood at some point in their life course. As being such a multidimensional issue, singlehood also serves as a fruitful starting point for wide-ranging sociological and feminist conversations. Singlehood can be studied as a social category, an identity, a temporary phase or, more broadly, a way of being which shapes an individual’s societal position, relations with other people and the sense of self. As the manifestations, implications, meanings and experiences of singlehood differ in different socio-cultural, political and economic contexts, we invited individuals worldwide to join our Summer Session ‘Singlehood and Companionship: Challenges and Opportunities for New Frameworks’ and to learn more about the subject.
The session took place between July 27th and August 1st as part of the Nordic Summer University (NSU) 2020 Summer Session, Study Circle Hospitality and Solidarity: Feminist Philosophy in Thought, History and Action. The session was carried out in the form of a reading group, which was facilitated virtually and included three meetings. It brought together people – many of whom were involved in singlehood studies – from different contexts such as Australia, Denmark, India, Syria, Finland, Italy, UK, Spain, Brazil, France and Lebanon. The assigned readings were meant to reflect such a diversity: Roseneil (2005) explores living and loving beyond the boundaries of the heteronorm in the 21st century in the west, Lahad (2017) explores singlehood for heterosexual, cisgender, white, Jewish, middle-upper-class, able-bodied single women in Israel, and Lim and Tang (2018) examine the position of singlehood through analysing fake marriages carried out by lesbians and gays in China.
We, nonetheless, are aware of other aspects worth exploring, and of a great value to the conversation, which remain widely marginalised due to power imbalance in knowledge production and dissemination. Relevant consideration includes, but is not limited to, the perspectives of people living under the influence of violent state systems and in conflict zones, as Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation and its apartheid system; stateless people, refugees and human trafficking; racialized people living in racist systems of oppression; gender nonconforming and transgender people and people with disabilities living in societies where binary understanding of gender and able-bodiedness are unspoken norms. Hence, as our reading group contributes to the overall discussions in the field of singlehood studies, we recognise the importance for more inclusive, intersectional and relational approach, and encourage our audience to share their critical reflections.
Language as an Entry Point
Child-adults, Miss Doctors and beached whales – different terms, similar cultural connotations
As we learn about and construct realities through words, one key entry point to analyse the politics and social understandings of singlehood is language. It is noteworthy that language can shape and become a part of a bodily experience – words are not just words. By drawing from our lived experiences in our discussions, we mostly referred to the position of a female single living in different parts of the world. Some differences became very clear, raising our awareness on the importance of noticing the varied definitions of terms ”single” and ”singlehood”. We also learned that despite the differences in cultural contexts and geographical locations, the status of a single woman in different cultures has a lot in common.
One common lingua-cultural tendency is the social devaluation attributed to female singlehood. In the Levant, for example, people tend to use the word Bent (girl) to refer to a young woman who has never been married. The reference is meant to indicate her virginity and produces infantilization. Once women pass a certain age (usually over 40) the word changes to A’nes (spinster). Although the same word (A’nes) also refers to men, men are rarely, if ever, called that. Another example was the Portuguese term ‘encalhada’, referring to both single women and beached whales – a powerful image of how female singlehood is perceived in Brazil. Long-term singlehood, as it appears, remains largely an inviable option for women, and those who choose that path may be considered outcast, desperate, undesired, and difficult. Such prejudicial emphasis on women’s marital status seems to govern not only the social but also the institutional and legislative spheres/ arenas.
One of the clearest examples of this is the English use of titles. Titles are gendered in English (as in many other languages) in such a way that females are determined by their marital status ‘Miss, Ms, Mrs.’ whereas males are not. Such gendering of titles is not neutral nor innocent – it is rather a reflection of societies’ obsession with women’s sexuality and limiting her existence to her relation to men and to the normative family unit. A title, therefore, is indicative not only of status but also of value. One way to go around that for some of us, as pointed out in our conversation, is to use ‘Dr.’ as a liberation from irrelevant marital status. And yet there is still someone who would ask: ‘Dr? So, a Miss Dr or a Mrs Dr?’.
Intersectionality, Singlehood and Time
The disparities between different stages of singlehood suggest hierarchies within hierarchies. Not only is female singlehood perceived as less valued than couple-relationship (singlehood as a state of negation; a lack, an absence of partnerships), but also power imbalance exists within singlehood itself. To be single while considered young is perceived less negatively than late singlehood, as the former is understood as a transition process and part of the normative life-course. Late singlehood, a concept developed by Lahad, refers to singlehood as a socio-temporal phase that exceeds the socially constructed parameters of acceptable ways of living. The concept of time; age and singlehood is something Lahad has discussed in length. She explores “how patriarchy and heteronormativity overlap and intersect with other structures of domination such as singlism and ageism, and are carried out through gendered configurations of time” (Lahad 2017, 3). Lahad (ibid.) goes on to point out that “singlehood is a contingent notion which varies according to gender, age, class, religion, ethnicity, ableness, sexual orientation, or other axes of social differentiation”. This means that it is impossible to talk about singlehood as a homogeneous category.
Reflecting on the multiple impacts of singlism – the discrimination against single people – on people’s lives with varied positionalities, our discussion raised many important issues related to wellbeing, division of care labour, access to services and benefits, and even changes in social circles. Significant facilitations are offered to the family unit in terms of tax reduction and other benefits that remain widely unavailable to single persons. Poor single older women in Australia, for example, struggle with attaining housing. The question of care for single elderly who have no children is hence a major concern for many, especially in, but not exclusive to, contexts with inadequate social welfare policies. The examples raised in our discussion also included singlehood after divorce or losing a partner and single with children or without. The ways in which parenthood (or lack thereof) affects the position of single people remains an issue even in individualistic societies as those in the west. Relevant to that is the responsibility of care for elderly parents pushed to the single members of the family. In other contexts, like in India, gender discrimination entwine with a long-heritage of colonialism, negatively impacting further variation of families. Similarly, Lim and Tang’s text (2018) describes a social and institutional phenomena where gays and lesbian in China are engaged in performative act of marriage to maintain the image of heteronormative family unit. As such, these examples, and many others, are best examined within the general structural inequalities that render older, childless, poor, disable, queer, women, people of colour and other identity aspects (and their intersectionalities) more potent to discrimination.
Moreover, changes within social circles seem to occur at times of transactions from singlehood into other positions, like marriage or widowhood. Singlehood, as it appears, may open some social circles and close others. During the discussion, it became clear that it is not uncommon to lose friends upon breaking off a couple-relationship. This brings up tensions and ambivalence with regard to how particularly single women are valued and seen: the sexualisation of single women, with intersecting differences on who is perceived as sexual and who’s not, produces affective atmospheres of “threats” and “prospects” around single women, while some are seen as uninteresting “leftovers”. This has much to do with the control over female sexuality and how the value of a woman becomes defined by her relationships to men. As Lahad (2017, 4) points out, the condemnation of long-term singlehood may also lead “some women [to] remain in unhappy and even abusive relationships”.
The way forward: alternative perspectives to singlehood and companionship
Our reading group was inspired by Roseneil’s approach to close relations which questions the dominant position of romantic relations in personal lives. Published already in 2005, her article Living and loving beyond the boundaries of the heteronorm acknowledges the life-defining and significant role of friendship, in a way that shifts the understanding of companionship beyond either/or, single/couple. Still, the normative role of the couple-relationship seems to stick tightly, almost unchanged, in the social imaginary worldwide. Furtherstill, the sociological study of personal life has not yet sufficiently taken into account such close relations that fall outside the category of romantic and sexual couple relationships and nuclear family, as Roseneil pointed out already 15 years ago.
In our discussion, we struggled to find many strong emerging alternatives to the dominant role of the couple-relationship and marriage in our cultural contexts. However, it is interesting and important to acknowledge and study the alternatives that are not only novel inventions but can also be found in history. Lim and Tang (2018) raise an interesting example from Chinese history: the case of self-combed women. Mainly from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, these women were “sworn spinsters” who dedicated their life to skilled and well-paid work and regulated their hair in a way appropriate for married women. We also found some interesting examples in contemporary popular culture which challenge the norms of couple-relationship. A BBC drama series “Trigonometry’, for instance, seems to genuinely challenge a monogamous couple style as a definite basis for forming a family.
It is worth noting that while in some contexts, like in Nordic countries, the status of marriage has significantly weakened during recent decades, the institution of marriage continues to be an enormously strong status in many cultures worldwide, posing several norms and demands on individuals. As Lim and Tang (2018) argue, the oppressed position of a homosexual single person in China circulates a lot around the issue of not being married. In some cases, as Lim and Tang (ibid.) show, fake marriages become a solution. This raises questions about the possibilities of queering the singlehood in general: Broadening the norms in a way that different lifestyles and identities can fit into them may be crucially beneficial to minorities and oppressed groups. At the same time, oppression and normative understandings can be left unchallenged. Saying that, this is not a call to get rid of existing forms of companionships but rather to open up spaces for others.
The dilemma of categorisation continues to emerge in academia: how to grasp social relationship norms in research practices? How to deal with categories like “singlehood” in a way that would not limit or cause segregative classifications or strengthen the couple norm and dichotomic understandings of single/relationship? We suggest that more recognition of alternative kinds of companionships and forms of commitments should be made in sociological study, social politics as well as in popular culture to demolish the normative ideals of a couple-relationship as an essential cornerstone for a respectable and good life.
Finally, we want to thank once again all the participants of our session for the inspiring and valuable thoughts and perspectives. We also want to express our gratitude to the Nordic Summer University and especially to the Study Circle Hospitality and Solidarity: Feminist Philosophy in Thought, History and Action for providing a platform for us to get together, and to The Research Network of Singlehood Studies for co-operation and support.
Lahad, Kinneret (2017) A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time. Manchester University Press.
Lim, Kok Wai Benny & Tang, Sum-Sheung Samson (2018) Queering Singlehood in Mainland China. JOMEC Journal 8(12), 70–81.
Roseneil, Sasha (2005) Living and loving beyond the boundaries of the heteronorm: Personal relationships in the 21st century. Families in society: Boundaries and relationships. 241–258.