Sex Partner Privilege: Similar to White Privilege, Male Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege?

People with sex partners are privileged in many unrecognized ways

Posted Sep 15, 2011

[First, a note on two other topics: Please take a look at this post from my personal blog where I invite you to contribute your words of wisdom for a post I'll write celebrating Singles Week, and where I share the latest questions and updates about the new aggregated site for enlightened singles that's in the works.]

A post I wrote last month, Only sex partners are allowed: Why is this the criterion for bringing a guest?, generated quite a lot of thoughtful and provocative commentary in the Comments section. I've highlighted a few of the comments below, but you can go to the original post to read them all.

The topic of our discussion was the issue of who is welcomed to bring a guest to various social events such as weddings, and whether that guest has to be a sex partner. I think this specific topic is part of a larger topic, similar to singlism, that perhaps should be called "sex partner privilege." It is also related to the "heteronormative" concept that our friends at Onely often discuss. (I need to do more thinking about the similarities and differences.)

In 1989, when Peggy McIntosh was discussing the concept of "white privilege," that concept, and related ones such as "male privilege" and "heterosexual privilege," represented a fairly new way of thinking. Students could read her checklist (a few sample items are below; here are some others) and feel startled and enlightened by what they were realizing for the first time. Back then, it really did not occur to most white people that it was a matter of privilege to be able to assume experiences such as the following:

  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

I want to note, as I often do, that I'm not totally equating sex partner privilege to white privilege or male privilege or heterosexual privilege. I do think, though, that the more familiar (culturally-recognized) privileges have something to tell us about the place in society of people who do not have long-term sex partners.

The Singlism collection, of course, is filled with examples of sex partner privilege. We have discussed lots of other examples here at Living Single. For example, solo singles cannot assume that their own lives will be represented in textbooks on adult development. Singles cannot assume that discounts and tax breaks available to couples will also be available to them. Singles cannot point out acts of singlism or sex partner privilege, or discuss guest invitation etiquette online, without risk of being told that they are overly sensitive or gutless whiners. And, as we've been discussing, they cannot assume (as people with long-term sex partners do) that when they are invited to a social event, their invitation will include the option to bring another person.

Here are some of the comments posted to the blog post about whether having a sex partner should be the criterion for getting to bring a guest:

From Crimson:

Myself and 14 other people were invited to a dinner where we were receiving awards. The invitation was only for ourselves. When I showed up 4 of the people invited brought their spouse. We were shown to our seating area which had 14 chairs and 14 place settings for the 14 awardees. Our nonprofit host had to scramble for 4 additional chairs which means to me they weren't expecting people to bring their spouse. The 4 married people had made the assumption that they could bring their spouse because they were married. I would have liked to bring a guest too but I had correctly interpreted the invite as only me. If I had wanted to bring a guest then I would have had to pay the admission fee for my guest for and notified the host to make the seating accommodations.

From Anonymous:

I have been a bridesmaid in a bunch of weddings, some of which I didn't even get an "and guest" even though I was spending over $1K on their fete (from hosting showers, engagement parties, bachelorette parties, gifts, gifts and more gifts).

From Anonymous2 (excerpts):

I was invited to a wedding last year. The bride was angry because some of her single friends refused to attend without a guest and wouldn't go. I told her that I was happy to attend solo as long as there were people there I knew and could talk to. She promised me there were. So I showed up ready to party but there were only two people there I barely knew besides the bride... I ended up hanging onto one of the guys I sort of knew, but he too wanted to mingle with others. Eventually I started talking to a few married women who were friends but open to having me join their circle. Someone took some pictures of us. Then the bride announced "married women only!" and kicked me out of the picture.

From Dave:

The time has come to get the government out of marriage. No more tax abatements, no more benefits, no more advantages. Then the "married people only" crowd can see how much they enjoy being married without the numerous financial advantages they enjoy on our backs.

When you tell me "married people only," I also take that to mean that in the name of consistency you'll only accept gifts from married people too, right? My gift probably isn't good enough... so I'll keep the $100 in my own pocket. Thanks!

From Anonymous, who used the phrase "heterosexual privilege" in the comment title:

One of my good friends got married this summer to her boyfriend of 6 or 7 years (beginning of college). I've pretty much been single all my life with the exception of a few brief periods of time. A good friend of the bride's boyfriend was in Afghanistan (Army) at the time, and she asked if she could bring her roommate, who is female, instead. The bride then starts talking to me, asking, "Isn't that kind of weird?"

From Jessica:

It wouldn't be so bad if the couple wouldn't say things like, "well, you're single, you can afford..." meaning they expect a more expensive gift from you, you to travel quite some distance for this event, you to buy some ugly dress in some ugly color.

From Bareheaded Woman (edited):

I've been single after a long drawn out divorce, and have been taken to task from a bride-friend for not bringing "and guest" because it messed up the numbers... I was actually asked to pay for the "extra" plate since I didn't bring someone to use it. On the other hand, I've been demoted from bridesmaid in other weddings because I didn't have an attached other to make everything all symmetrical--once in favor of another lesser known girl, simply because she had started dating one of the groomsmen. (Fine by me, didn't have to pay for the hideous pink $500 dress.)

From Lauren:

I heard Sherry Shepherd say on The View a couple of weeks ago that the only way a couple could come to her wedding was if they were married. So the "only sex partners allowed" wasn't enough for her.

From Alice F.:

My brother did me the kindness of allowing me to bring a platonic friend as a guest to upcoming his wedding. I'm really comforted by that because I've been dreading the event for a number of reasons.

He told me the head table would be him, his bride and immediate family, and asked if I wanted my friend to be invited to sit at the head table with us. I said that yes, I would like that. The next day he told me there would not be room for my friend ... that she would have to sit at another table, or I would have to sit at another table with her.

There is no way I would ask my friend, who is flying in from another state as a kindness to me, to sit alone at another table with strangers. But I'm hurt and angry that my soon-to-be sister-in-law's brother and live-in girlfriend are not being shut out of the head table like I am.

From Kath:

I realize I am probably going to start losing "friends" with my responses, "is everyone allowed to bring a guest" to various invitations. The reply can be, "there will be lots of other single chicks for lots of girlie fun", or "we (note the we) are making sure you know someone there". Terribly patronizing. I do appreciate that because of societal brainwashing, people can think they are "being kind" to the "poor singleton" by these kind of responses. I argue they just don't get it, don't realize they are actually being phenomenally unkind and arrogant.

I'll end the examples with this one from Ester, who shows how NOT to practice sex partner privileging:

I'm having a graduation party and will be sending formal invitations to all of my guests. Everyone is allowed to bring a guest (but no children). I don't care who the guest is, as long as the guest is ready to have a great time.

Oh, and I've signed up for a gift registry. Why should married people get all the gifts? I believe getting a PhD is worth celebrating and deserves a few gifts!

[From Bella again: Don't forget to take a look at this post, if you haven't already.]