I’m mad at myself. I’ve been writing about singlism for years. I encourage single people to stand up for themselves when other people practice singlism — by stereotyping them, stigmatizing them, marginalizing them, discriminating against them, or invading their privacy by asking the kinds of questions they would never pose to people who are married. And yet, I sometimes let singlist remarks slide.
I’ve shared some of those stories here, such as the one in the supermarket and some others from when I was traveling solo. I try to find an excuse, but in my case, since it is a professional as well as personal obsession to make things better for single people, I’m not so sure I should be excused.
I want to understand the psychological dynamics of these interactions, and not just as they apply to me. So far as I know, there are no studies of how single people react when face-to-face with someone who is being a singlist. There is, though, some old and new research on sexism, and my guess is that it is relevant.
Professor Vanessa K. Bohns, a social scientist who studies social influence, reminded me in a recent article that the personal experience I just described – of thinking that I will stand up to singlist remarks, wanting to do so, and then just letting those comments pass when key moments actually occur – is typical when it comes to instances of sexism.
A whole series of studies, including other people’s and Bohns’s own, add up to this conclusion:
“We tend to imagine that people – including ourselves – would behave in bolder and more forceful ways in response to offensive and inappropriate behavior than people actually do when confronted with such behavior.”
Bohns describes a classic study from 2001 in which women were asked how they would respond if they were being interviewed by a man for a job and he asked sexually inappropriate questions. The researchers, Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance, found that about two-thirds of the women (68%) said they would refuse to answer at least one of the questions. More than three-fifths (62%) said they would explicitly let the interviewer know they thought his questions were inappropriate. More than one-quarter (28%) said they would turn around and walk out.
Then the researchers did another study with other women, who were interviewed by a man for a job. He asked inappropriate questions (such as, “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Do people find you desirable?”). The percentage of women who refused to answer at least one question was not 68% — it was zero. Not one woman ever refused to answer even one question. Also, “hardly any explicitly addressed the inappropriate nature of the questions with the interviewer.”
The women in the first study, who were just asked how they thought they’d react, said they’d be angry. In fact, though, the women in the second study who actually were asked inappropriate questions in an interview, more often said they felt fearful. “Instead of confronting the interviewer out of anger, as anticipated,” Professor Bohns explained, “participants facing the interviewer in reality instead tried to appease him by smiling.”
Bohns has documented similar psychological dynamics in her own work. For example, she and her colleagues “found that targets of romantic advances felt more uncomfortable saying “no” than perpetrators of such advances realized.”
She wrote about the research in an article about the Harvey Weinstein trial. She’s worried about the jurors and how they will judge the women accusing Weinstein of sexual assault. Maybe they will be presented with evidence suggesting that the women did not object to Weinstein’s advances, or seemed friendly to him afterwards. Maybe they will think to themselves that they would have stood up to him, that they would not have smiled afterwards or tried to appease him. They may sincerely believe such things, but it is also quite likely that at least some of them are wrong. Maybe a lot of them. Maybe very wrong.
Why is this happening? Why don’t people speak up when other people say inappropriate things to them? Professor Bohns did not address that question, but I will suggest some ideas in a future post. (Here it is.)