The world stomps on single people, not only socio-culturally, but also in law, finance, and business. The U.S. federal code alone has over 1,000 laws that privilege married people over unmarried people. In a 2013 Atlantic article, my colleague and I calculated that this institutionalised “singlism” costs the average unmarried American at least one million dollars more in their lifetime than their married peer, because of discriminatory laws governing Social Security, taxes, retirement accounts, insurance, and more. The injustice is clear. Yet as we’re buffeted by the waves of racism and sexism rolling across the U.S. in the wake of the Trump administration, my fellow singles’ advocates and I discuss whether we should focus on these weightier “Isms,” instead of on singlism. I say no–we should fight even harder against singlism. Coined by social scientist Dr. Bella DePaulo, the term means discrimination against un-partnered people. Singlism isn’t as blatantly horrific as racism and sexism; its power comes from its insidiousness. Some of the most progressive people I know have told me singlism isn’t real, or that I’m “just bitter” about coupled people’s (ostensible) happiness–similar arguments as were made in the early days of feminism, and which are still made about racism today (the awful “post-racial world” argument). Singlism fuels all the other bad Isms: not only sex/genderism and racism, but also ageism, ableism, class-ism, and heterosexism.
The most familiar instances of singlism show up in pop culture and parties: The single (cis hetero) man who lives alone “fits the profile” of a serial killer (or pedophile). Single (cis hetero) women are spinsters (despite a feminist movement to reclaim this word, it still mainly implies dull, unattractive, and outdated). Women receive the brunt of singlism; they are not only spinsters, but sluts, and potential man thieves. As a single woman, I have been called a spinster and treated as the other two stereotypes, by both men and women. Multiple times. I first learned about relationship status discrimination, and its inter-Ism tentacles, when a friend reported a conversation she’d overheard about me:
“She looks good in a swimsuit. I’m surprised she doesn’t have a boyfriend.” I felt icky hearing this comment, but I was barely in college, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate my discomfort. Now, I would say that the speaker (a man-boy) “managed in two short sentences to not only be singlist, lookist, and sexist, with a dash of heterosexism thrown in (because what if I were gay?) but he also deftly illustrated the overlaps among these Isms, anchored together by the object’s ‘relationship’ status.” Today there’s more talk in mainstream media about singlehood being a valid, even enviable, lifestyle choice. But that’s only from the socio-cultural side. Very few people call out institutionalised singlism, and even fewer talk about how to dismantle it. So I’m going to. The following are only a few representative examples out of many, many, many.
Singlism and Institutionalised Heterosexism
Gay couples have to fight for the right to marry so they can get the social and legal privileges accorded married couples. While gay people should have the right to marry, why should they have to get married in order to share Social Security, estate taxes, health insurance, and so forth? In the modern economy, shouldn’t those institutions be oriented towards individuals, not couples? Tying marriage to government is just another opportunity to discriminate against non-heterosexuals.
How To Dismantle It:
Why can’t gay couples and unmarried people have all the same rights as married people?
Singlism and Institutionalised Ableism
In many healthcare facilities, close friends of unmarried patients can’t enter the patient’s room because they are not a spouse. Unmarried romantic couples need to pay extra lawyer fees to sort out permissive paperwork way ahead of time. A single person can use the Family and Medical Leave Act to take time off work to care for their parents or children, but close friends and relatives outside of the nuclear unit are out of luck. Unmarried people routinely pay more for health insurance, because of stereotypes that we are out street racing stoned at 2 a.m. (or similar irresponsible behaviour).
How To Dismantle It:
Let everyone choose a specific person(s) to be in their health care circle, meaning they can share insurance, hospital visits, and medical decisions. Make the paperwork free, simple, and accessible. Stop using marital status in actuary data.
Singlism and Institutionalised Racism/Sexism
Family-value conservatives want more people to marry, and they are supported by those 1,000+ federal laws giving benefits to married people. African-Americans, especially Black women, especially those with low incomes, are told marrying will improve their lot in life, make them more economically stable, and provide a solid base to raise children. None of this is inherently true, not even with all those federal privileges. Remaining single may be the best option for a low-income Black woman, but many never get a chance to explore that option, because of a lack of housing and childcare infrastructure to support single women, so that they don’t need to incorporate a man in their life unless they want to.
How To Dismantle It:
End joint tax filing, because sometimes the lower earner of a couple will stop working in order not to raise the joint income above a certain bracket. This person is usually the woman, and this is particularly impactful if she was low-income to begin with. (The U.S. “marriage penalty” is real, but it’s less serious than the fact that there is never a bonus in the US tax code for filing singly.) Bolster low-cost childcare, expand childcare hours, raise wages for all women, particularly women of colour (who earn much less than white women). Stop encouraging women of colour to get married, and encourage them instead to follow their hearts and minds, and give them the tools to do so. As a white woman myself, the racism-singlism intersection isn’t my strong suit, so I hope women of colour will weigh in here.
Singlism and Institutionalised Ageism
The Problem: “You’d better think carefully about breaking up with him because your parents are older and when they’re gone you’ll be alone,” my psychologist said to me (on my last appointment). Although this is an illogical fear, what’s real are the impacts of outdated Social Security policies on ageing single people. Dr. DePaulo pointed out years ago that whereas married people can incorporate spouses (even a long-divorced spouse) into their Social Security accounts, a single person never has the option of leaving their earnings to anyone (except a child).
How To Dismantle It:
Change Social Security laws so that they are not oriented around the nuclear family (see “Ableism,” above). This is not only important for mitigating ageism, but also classism.
We’re stuck in the singlism spider web, which is strung from Ism to Ism so delicately we don’t even realise we’re caught and thrashing. It’s time to knock ourselves free of the net.