A recent essay on the Huffington Post is titled, “It’s complicated: The psychology of ‘singlism.’” The Huffington Post attracts about a zillion readers, and unfortunately, author Wray Herbert is adding to the complication he describes by his inaccurate description of what singlism really is.
Herbert begins by saying that he “never felt judged, or discriminated against, for choosing to be single or for choosing a partner.”
Then he continues with this:
“So it came as a surprise to me to read recently about “singlism.” Apparently, some people do feel judged, and unfairly, for their status. And intriguingly, this subtle form of discrimination appears to cut both ways. That is, people who are single by choice claim that they are treated unfairly for not tying some kind of knot, while married people — especially in large urban centers — feel that they are marginalized in a predominantly singles culture.”
The essay ends with one last misleading claim:
“In short, singlism is indeed potent and double-edged. Because most people still do opt for marriage, this bias probably hurts more singles overall. But the intolerance that couple people feel is no less real or harmful.”
Because I coined the term singlism, and published the book by that name (with contributions from 28 others), I can say definitively that singlism does not cut both ways. By definition, singlism is what single people experience. It is the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. Although people who are married may feel that they are marginalized, that feeling is not an example of singlism.
In Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It, my fellow contributors and I document the ways in which singles are targets of stereotyping, stigmatizing, or discrimination in domains such as politics, religion, the workplace, the marketplace, college teaching and research, the media, advertising, and everyday life. Evidence comes from experimental studies (for example, of housing discrimination) and analyses of laws and policies (for example, the tax structure) as well as personal experiences. (Over at Onely, Christina and Lisa are working on a detailed, systematic analysis of singlism that, when finished, will be the definitive assessment of the economic costs of being single.)
Because singlism is built right into American laws, it is not possible to be single and not be a target of discrimination. If you have followed the marriage equality debate, then you probably know that there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit or protect only those people who are legally married. Even if same-sex marriage becomes legal throughout the land, all those people who are single – whether gay or straight or any other status – will still remain second class citizens.
Wray Herbert is not the only person who is, or was once, single and believes he has never experienced singlism. In a group discussion of how single diners are treated in restaurants, for example, one single woman said that she does not experience discrimination because she does not allow it: When a hostess leads her to a table at the back of the restaurant near the swinging door to the kitchen, she refuses to sit there. (Of course, her anecdote was actually an example of singlism.) Others claim that their friends and family are open-minded and do not judge them in any negative way because they are single.
Happily, there are smart and savvy people who do not judge or stereotype people who are single. However, in a program of research, my colleagues and I have shown that they are the exceptions. In study after study, we found that perceptions of single people are overwhelmingly more negative than perceptions of married or coupled people. That’s true even when we create brief biographical sketches of people who are sometimes said to be single and sometimes married but are described identically in every other way. The single people are viewed more harshly and more stereotypically than the married people.
Studies of perceptions of single people have been conducted in other countries as well. Again and again, single people are stereotyped. A particularly compelling set of studies assessed actual differences between single and coupled people, as well as perceptions of differences. The perceptions were pervasive, with singles getting derogated (relative to couples), but the actual differences were few and far between. (The journal article is here; the results are also summarized and discussed in Chapter 11 of Singlism.)
For decades, the number of people in the United States who are single (whether divorced or widowed or always-single) has been increasing. There are now nearly as many unmarried adults as married ones. Looking at households instead of individuals, married-couple households are already in the minority. As these trends continue, perceptions of singles are likely to become less caricatured and more accurate. Changing the laws that enable discrimination, though, will be a much greater challenge.
Single woman photo available from Shutterstock