[Bella’s intro: Look at the prices for tickets, travel, memberships, and just about anything else you can think of, and chances are, couples are charged less per person than single people are. This disparity happens all the time, yet is rarely questioned. But it should be. Historically, how did this come about? And how can businesses and organizations justify this practice, in which single people end up subsidizing couples? If you think this is unfair, what can you do about it? In a thoughtful and beautifully written guest post, Professor Joan DelFattore answers all those questions. Dr. DelFattore wrote a wonderful guest post for this “Single at Heart” blog once before, and I am so grateful to her for sharing her insights with us again.]
It’s Time for Singles to Stop Subsidizing Couples
Guest Post by Joan DelFattore
Yesterday’s snail mail brought an invitation from a community group that’s hosting an evening reception. There’ll be a cash bar and appetizers, followed by a lecture by the author of a new book. Cost: $25 per person, $40 per couple.
I contemplated my choice of little boxes to check off.
I plan to attend.
I do not plan to attend.
Until recently, I might have rolled my eyes and paid the $25, despite knowing that if I brought a spouse, or even a date, we’d pay only $20 each. After all, the difference is only $5. But, as I wrote in an earlier Psych Central blog post, the singles-unfriendly treatment I received during a recent illness radicalized me — as did Bella DePaulo’s books. So, instead of filling out a check for $25, I wrote this letter to the organization’s board of directors.
Open Letter to the Board of Directors
Dear Members of the Board:
I’m writing to draw your attention to a form of discrimination so pervasive as to be almost invisible. I believe, and hope, that it’s something you just haven’t stopped to consider.
Bear with me, if you will, while I provide a little background.
What’s now known as a “couples discount” dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when droves of people moved from farms to cities in search of factory work. Back then, women either didn’t work outside the home or earned much less than men; so, to attract customers, places of entertainment charged men full price, but offered half-price admission for any woman or child they cared to bring along. Vestiges of that custom can still be seen in the “Ladies’ Nights” offered by some bars and restaurants, although that’s becoming more complicated as the varieties of coupledom increase.
Not surprisingly, the second-wave feminists of the mid-twentieth century didn’t appreciate being classified, along with children, as dependents on men presumed to provide and control the money. They did appreciate the lower price, though — and lo, the “couples discount” was born, perpetuating a financial advantage for couples even when both partners work.
In light of that history, let’s turn to the invitation your organization has just sent out. As it’s worded, each adult who attends the reception as half of a couple will pay $20 for appetizers and a seat at the lecture. Those who come alone will pay $25.
To be clear, I don’t mind paying full price for something like a hotel room, even if a couple occupying that same room would pay half each. That’s like ordering a sandwich either to eat alone or to split with someone else: it’s the same sandwich, and it costs the same price. How many people share it, and how they divide either the sandwich or the bill, is irrelevant. Perhaps smaller sizes should be available for singles, but that’s a different letter.
The point here is that the amount the club pays the caterers is based on the number of guests, not on their lifestyle; and the room rental is a set amount. So why do single guests pay a premium for our potstickers and bacon wraps, and for our auditorium chairs, thus subsidizing everyone else? Couples don’t expect to get their drinks at the cash bar for less than full price: it’s so much per glass, no matter who’s buying it. The food and seating should be handled the same way.
Perhaps you’ll protest, “But this is how we’ve always done it.” Some of your members might not like the changes, or might not come to the reception if there’s no longer a couples discount.
Frankly, I doubt that most people would even remember whether there was a couples discount last year. More to the point, though, I’d be willing to bet that the same objections arose years ago, when the question was whether to admit women and minorities.
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” I haven’t been able to track down the origin of that saying, although I’ve seen it several times. The point, to me, is that discrimination can never be justified on the ground that the people who’ve benefited from it in the past feel entitled to continue doing so.
I’ll be sorry to miss this year’s reception; I usually attend, and I’d like to have heard the speaker. And, since I’ve paid the single rate so many times before, this sudden turnabout might seem pointless, or at least bewildering. Obviously, it’s not about the $5. It’s about an antiquated custom whose original purpose is lost in time, and whose present purpose is to privilege a particular lifestyle. My fault, as I see it, lies not in protesting this year, but in not having done so sooner.
I look forward to receiving next year’s invitation — and, I hope, to paying the same per-person cost as everyone else.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but my guess is that the board will do per-person pricing next year, now that someone is finally taking a stand about it. And, to be fair, they’re not mind-readers. The privileging of couples is so embedded in our culture that as long as single people keep our discomfort to ourselves — or perhaps don’t even notice injustices we’ve been conditioned to consider normal — why should anything change?
You may recall an old movie, Network, in which a wild-eyed news anchor urges viewers to stick their heads out the window and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
Excuse me. I have to go find a window.
About the Author: Joan DelFattore writes about single life, including handling serious illness while living alone. Her guest blog posts have appeared at the Washington Post, Psych Central, KevinMD, and Psychology Today. In her previous life as a professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware, she published three books with Yale University Press on freedom of speech and religion. Her current project is a memoir/research hybrid on being a lifelong single-by-choice, including dealing with singlism in medical care.
[From Bella: Thank you again, Dr. DelFattore, for your insights and for sharing them with us. One more note: This post has been updated to include a discussion of hotel rates. You can find it right after the one line, “Why,” in the letter.]