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Singlism: How Serious Is It, Really?

Singlism is far reaching and pervasive.

Recently, I was mocked and ridiculed online for taking singlism seriously. That’s nothing new. It has been happening ever since I coined the term more than a decade ago.

This time, the person argued that singlism — stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single — does not even exist. A different version of the objection concedes that there are ways in which single people are viewed and treated more negatively than married people, but insists that those instances are so inconsequential that they should simply be ignored. After all, there are other "isms" that are far more serious than singlism.

For a long time, I made it a point to acknowledge that other groups often deal with matters far worse than those faced by single people. For example, in Singled Out, I said this:

“In many important ways, singles are simply not in the same category as the most brutally stigmatized groups. So far as I know, no persons have ever been dragged to their death at the back of a pick-up truck simply because they were single. There are no “marrieds only” drinking fountains and there never were. The pity that singles put up with is just not in the same league as the outright hatred conveyed to Blacks by shameless racists or the unbridled disgust heaped upon gay men or lesbians by homophobes."

And yet, singlism can be quite serious. It can be dangerous, and even deadly.

Singlism can be financially devastating

In part because of laws, policies, and practices that favor married people and couples over single people, the costs of living single can be staggering. For example, married people, with all their opportunities to draw from their spouse’s benefits, can get far more out of Social Security than single people do. Housing costs, health costs, and taxes are higher for single people. According to one estimate, just those four categories alone can cost single women, over the course of their working lives, over a million dollars more than what married women pay.

In many other ways, too, the price of single life is high. Married men, for example, get paid more than single men. In a study of identical twins, the married twin got paid an average of 26 percent more. That will cost the single man with a $50,000 salary more than half a million dollars over the course of his working life.

In everyday life, single people are penalized financially at every turn. They often pay more per person than married people do for products and services, such as car insurance, home insurance, memberships, transportation, travel packages, and even wills. A recent U.K. study estimated that these extra expenses add up to a singles penalty of about 2,000 pounds (nearly $2,600) per person per year.

By the time single people reach the age of 65, if not before, a disproportionate number of them end up in poverty. A report released by the Social Security Administration showed that seniors who had been single their whole lives had the highest rate of poverty of all marital status groups, followed by divorced people and then widows.

Singlism can be deadly

Because singlism typically leaves single people less financially secure than married people, they sometimes cannot afford health insurance, or the same quality of insurance or care, as married people. Single people also have less access to health insurance than married people, who can sometimes be covered under a spouse’s plan offered by an employer. Lack of access to health care, or access only to lower-quality care, can of course cut years off people’s lives and compromise their health in the years they do have.

But even when single people have great health insurance and access to the finest doctors, they still do not always get the finest care. A single woman told this story:

"When I was 25, I was suffering from severe menstrual problems ... to the point where I asked for a hysterectomy. I was refused because I was single and 'might want to have kids someday.' So I suffered ... for 20 more years.”

In her book, Doing Harm, Maya Dusenbery told the story of a Latina woman with breast cancer “who wanted a mastectomy but whose doctor objected, saying, 'But you aren’t married.'” When Joan DelFattore went to an oncologist for treatment for a particularly deadly form of cancer, her doctor offered her only the milder chemotherapy drugs, rather than the standard treatment. He thought that she couldn’t handle the stronger drugs because she was single and living alone. Joan believes that if she had not gone to a different oncologist who was willing to prescribe the most effective treatment, she may not have survived.

Singlism can be dangerous

Do men respect single women’s bodies and their dignity less than married women’s? In the workplace, both single and married women experience sexual harassment, but single women experience it more. In a 2017 Suffolk University survey, 42 percent of women who had always been single said that a co-worker had made unwanted sexual advances, compared to 30 percent of married women.

Singlism shows up in the sometimes-extravagant benefits and protections that only married people receive

Some workplaces offer benefits only to married people, or only to people with children, that can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. I’ve already mentioned that a married employee can sometimes add their spouse to their employer-provided health insurance, while a single person cannot add the most important person in their life to their plan, nor can anyone add them to theirs. Some universities offer free tuition to a faculty member's spouse and children, without offering comparable benefits to single people who have no children.

The benefits and protections are not just financial. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, all eligible employees, regardless of marital status, can take time off to care for parents or children with serious health conditions. But married employees can also take time off to care for their spouse. Single people cannot do the same for the most important person in their life, nor can any such person take time off to care for them when they are seriously ill.

Singlism steals single people’s time and their choices

In some workplaces, single people are expected to stay later or cover weekends, holidays, vacation times, or travel assignments that no one else wants, on the singlist assumption that they don’t have anyone, and they don’t have a life. When it comes to relocating employees or laying them off, employers sometimes look first to single people, not recognizing that many have roots where they are and do not have a spouse’s income to fall back on if they lose theirs.

Singlism in politics, religion, business, advertising, research and teaching, therapy, parenting, the military, and popular culture

In politics, candidates and leaders talk incessantly about what they are going to do for people who are married and have nuclear families. If it were all just talk, then I could understand why some people might dismiss it as an inconsequential example of singlism (though I think that even the small stuff matters). But it is not just talk. Enacted policies overwhelmingly advantage people who are officially married. Protections for ways of living that do not fit into the conventional nuclear family form are lagging.

Elsewhere, I and others have documented singlism in religion, business, advertising, research and teaching, therapy, the military, and popular culture. Single parents and their children are also a great big target of singlism that is sometimes mean-spirited as well as ill-informed.

What I have described here is not an exhaustive list. I cannot think of a single domain in which singlism has no place.

If there are other "isms" even more consequential than singlism, does that mean we should just brush off singlism?

Not infrequently, people have tried to shame me for caring about singlism, arguing that other isms are much more consequential. The problem with that reasoning, Joan DelFattore explained in an online discussion,

"is that it assumes a hierarchy of misfortunes or injustices, such that protesters can always be challenged with the assertion that someone else is worse off. It's a strategy that was used for generations to persuade at least some women that now wasn't the time to demand a vote, or equal pay, or whatever, because there were always more important issues to resolve first. The fallacy, of course, lies in the implication that if, for instance, single people meekly accepted second-class status, somehow that would contribute to some more serious problem being resolved. It's not a matter of our declining to be altruistic, but of our declining to be manipulated into silence.”

Still unconvinced? Let’s play reversal-of-fortunes

If you still think that singlism just doesn’t matter, and no one should take it seriously, let’s imagine that the tables were turned. Let’s say that all the ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against happened to married people instead. Do you think married people would just shrug it off?

On the first page of Singled Out, I imagined a world in which married people get the singles treatment:

  • When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “Aaaawww” or “Don’t worry, honey, your turn to divorce will come.”
  • When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married, and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.
  • Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people.
  • When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone.
  • At work, the single people just assume that you can cover the holidays and all the other inconvenient assignments; they figure that as a married person, you don’t have anything better to do.
  • Single employees can add another adult to their health care plan; you can’t.
  • When your single co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not allowed to leave yours to anyone — they just go back into the system.
  • Candidates for public office boast about how much they value single people. Some even propose spending more than a billion dollars in federal funding to convince people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.

If that world existed, it would not last long.

Progress is rarely straightforward, even for the forms of prejudice and discrimination that have long been recognized.

All serious forms of prejudice and discrimination go through a similar process of going unrecognized, then getting dismissed and belittled once people start pointing them out, and in the best cases, eventually getting taken seriously. Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that when she was first appointed to the Supreme Court, the other judges did not think gender discrimination existed. I don’t know if the forces for justice ever score a victory that is never again challenged. Racism, for example, has been taken very seriously for quite some time. Yet today, there are those who believe that we are in a post-racial society and that any remaining racism is reverse racism.

One of the problems is that these matters are not just about the facts and all the ways that racism and sexism and singlism and all the other isms can be documented with data. They are also about emotions and ideologies and people’s beliefs about the place they think they deserve in the world. I think there will be progress in getting singlism taken seriously, but it may be slow and unsteady, with setbacks as well as advances.

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