By Bloody but Unbowed
We have all seen Jennifer Aniston’s plea for respect for women’s integrity in the Huffington Post blog by now (or, if you haven’t, click on the link and be enlightened). Aniston, who is a hugely successful actress, literally can’t go outside without the press asking whether she is pregnant. As if the most important thing about this intelligent, successful woman is the state of her uterus: is it full or empty? Aniston writes:
“For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up. I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of ‘journalism’, the ‘First Amendment’ and ‘celebrity news'” […] This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”
We all know the old, old story of how single women are viewed differently from single men. Single women are, in the popular consciousness, sad, desperate, and lonely, and eat, for some reason, ice-cream straight out of the tub. Single men, on the other hand, are carefree, fun-loving, and free. This discrepancy is perhaps most poignantly illustrated by the Aniston-Clooney singularity. Long-time bachelor George Clooney’s engagement to Amal Alamuddin was framed by the media as a “victory” for Alamuddin, which she gained using “tricks”. As if George Clooney were Troy, and Alamuddin were the Greek army spending her days cunningly building a wooden horse, while giggling evilly. When Jennifer Aniston announced her engagement, on the other hand, it was reported on in terms of relief. As if Aniston’s single state was a huge calamity, with dire consequences for the country’s economic output. Once she was safely on the road to holy wedlock, everyone could relax, and maybe crack open a beer, safe in the knowledge that the world wasn’t about to end. As Jezebel put it: It is a far, far better thing to be a Clooney than an Aniston in this world.
The pressure on women to pair up and make themselves dependent on a man: I call it the Coupledom Compulsion. It is pernicious and dangerous, especially for women. It leads to women being exposed to violence – sexual, physical, psychological, material and economic. In this blog post I am going to argue that the Coupledom Compulsion is a form of social control that limits women’s independence even when they are able to do paid work and are, to all appearances, free and autonomous human beings.
If one were conspiratorially minded, one would start to think that this cultural prison being constructed around women and their bodies exists to replace the conditions which, in the good old days, used to ensure a woman’s commitment to marriage and childbearing: economic dependency.
Historically, marriage has been a necessary form of protection for women in our misogynistic society. As I mused in my previous post on this blog, The Polite Female Listener, it’s not that long ago since a woman could not legally get an education or have a job. Economics, religion, legislation, and social control conspired to make women second-class citizens, doomed to a life of bondage and servitude. The only role possible for a person of the female persuasion was that of wife and mother, and manager of the household. A respectable woman, until well into the 20th century, could not show herself in public unaccompanied; only prostitutes frequented public spaces alone. It was thus impossible for a woman to hold public office, or go to work. If a woman was unfortunate enough to not have a man to provide for her, however, she might have to choose work over respectability out of dire need. If she lived in the countryside, that entailed backbreaking work in the fields and cow stalls, with a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery. If she lived in a city, possible careers included those of seamstress, or maid, with a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery. Once the industrial revolution kicked off, a woman could work in a factory, where she got paid half what the male workers got, and there was a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery. Ah, the good old days!
Many single seamstresses and female factory workers found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to resort to prostitution to make ends meet – there is a reason why the word “seamstress” was often synonymous with “prostitute”. (See for instance Fredrik Tersmeden’s interesting account of a university lecturer in Lund who committed suicide with his lover, described in the English-speaking press as a “seamstress”, or “dressmaker”.) The financial incentive to get married was thus extremely high, and most women, unless they were wealthy (which hardly any woman was in her own right, due to the fact that women in most societies, in most time periods, have not been able to inherit or own property) were unlikely to turn down an offer of marriage. Marriage entailed life-long servitude to a man who in effect owned your body, and could legally beat and rape you. (Marital rape was criminalised in the UK as late as 1991, and is still legal in many parts of the world.) Historically marriage was important to secure economic stability. You’d think that, with greater economic independence, women would be able to finally enjoy independence. But they are still tied to coupledom.
Luckily enough for modern women, legislation ensures that we receive equal pay for equal work, access to contraception and abortion (if we are lucky enough to live in the right country, anyway), and high-quality medical care if we do decide to have children. Apart from a few exceptions, of course. For instance, the British Equal Pay Act of 1970 is yet to be enforced, many U.S. states deny women access to abortion despite being legally obliged to ensure it, and a Swedish woman’s child died in the womb last year because she was turned away from the hospital. Then of course there’s the sexual harassment, and the femicides, and the prohibitively high costs of childcare limiting women’s ability to work in many countries. But apart from the many instances of rampant misogyny, modern Western women are free, and autonomous. We can have jobs. We can own property. We don’t have to get married. We are not legally obliged to provide our husbands or partners with sex, and they can’t force us to have children. We don’t even have to have a husband or partner if we don’t want to.
We are free to do what we want. So why do we end up being harassed, just for being single, so often? Helen Fielding illustrates the way single women are lambasted with questions about their marital state in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Picador, 2011):
“Oh! A celebrity, eh? And” – he leaned forward in a concerned manner – “are you getting the rest of your life sorted out?”
Unfortunately at that moment Sharon happened to be passing. She stared at Cosmo, looking like Clint Eastwood when he thinks somebody is trying to double-cross him.
“What kind of question is that?” she growled.
“What?” said Cosmo, looking round at her, startled.
“‘Are you getting the rest of your life sorted out?’ What do you mean by that exactly?”
“Well, ah, you know … when is she going to get … you know.. .”
“Married? So basically just because her life isn’t exactly like yours you think it isn’t sorted out, do you? And are you getting the rest of your life sorted out, Cosmo? How are things going with Woney?”
“Well I … well,” huffed Cosmo, going bright red in the face.
“Oh, I am sorry. We’ve obviously hit a sore spot. Come on, Bridget, before I put my big foot in it again!”
“Shazzer! ” I said, when we were at a safe distance.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “Enough, already. They just can’t go around randomly patronizing people and insulting their lifestyles. Cosmo probably wishes Woney would lose four stone and stop doing that shrieking laugh all day but we don’t just assume that the minute we’ve met him, and decide it’s our business to rub it in, do we?”
The generous interpretation is that the harassment of single women occurs out of concern for their happiness. Your happiness increases when you are in a relationship, right? Cinderella lives happily ever after once she has married her prince, Jane Austen’s heroines all achieve married bliss, and even Bridget Jones finally gets it off with Mark Darcy. Except – hang on – those stories are all fictional!
Forget the fairytales for a moment and look at the people among your acquaintance who are unhappy because they are in a relationship (oh yes, I can think of a few, and so can you). The imperative to find a partner – the Coupledom Compulsion – makes desperate people hook up with dudes or broads who they are not compatible with. We all know people who have been so desperate to achieve coupledom that they have ended up clinging to a wildly unsuitable partner for years, just because the alternative – the single state – appears unbearable.
But if women are no longer forced to get married, and can choose whether to live with a partner or without, everything should be fine, right? Actually, women in long-term relationships suffer health consequences, and are often economically disadvantaged. Research shows that while men who are married enjoy better health and live longer, the same doesn’t apply to women. Women do twice as much unpaid work as men, including emotional labour – unpaid labour, that is, that benefits someone else. Traditional relationships leave women exhausted, sick, and unhappy. No wonder that most divorces are initiated by women. In defence of the institution of marriage, however, it turns out that the financial benefit to married women remains in the modern age – married women have better pensions, according to an American study. Of course, we all know women who have ended up in dire straits financially following a divorce, not uncommonly due to taking time out of their careers to care for children, so the financial benefit to marriage might only be applicable if you can still stomach your husband after thirty years, and he doesn’t leave you for someone younger. Marriage, simply, benefits men more than women.
Evidently it is not in a woman’s best interest to achieve coupledom. Not only will it most likely damage her health and happiness, but in fact, by encouraging a woman to bag herself a partner, we could be endangering her life. Two women die from domestic violence every week in the UK. In Sweden, it’s one every three weeks. Before the mansplainers out there start on their usual objections that men suffer from domestic violence too: yes, they do. But most of the world’s violence is committed by men, and most of domestic violence is aimed at women. I’m going to let Rebecca Solnit clarify this one:
Domestic violence is the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and you don’t want to know about the dentistry needed afterward. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S. Pregnant women are not, however, a leading cause of death for spouses of pregnant women. There’s just no equivalency.
Research concludes that patriarchal norms are the root of gender-based violence. A report by the World Health Organisation states that the reason women are subjected to domestic violence to such a high degree is gender norms that permeate all levels of society:
- At the level of the family and relationship, the male controls wealth and decision making within the family and marital conflict is frequent.
- At the community level, women are isolated with reduced mobility and lack of social support. Male peer groups condone and legitimize men’s violence.
- At the societal level, gender roles are rigidly defined and enforced and the concept of masculinity is linked to toughness, male honor, or dominance. The prevailing culture tolerates physical punishment of women and children, accepts violence as a means to settle interpersonal disputes, and perpetuates the notion that men “own” women.
There is simply no more dangerous place for a woman than the home. Research shows that while violence against men is most often committed by a stranger, in a public place, most violence against women is committed by someone she knows, and usually indoors. In the majority of rape cases, the victim knows her (yes, her – because the victim is most often a woman) assailant. If we really cared about women’s health and wellbeing, we would encourage them to stay away from all romantic relationships, and fiercely guard their independence.
But we don’t. A friend of mine was recently forced, by a guy she dated, to participate in sex she hadn’t consented to, didn’t want, and which hurt. In my book, that’s rape. I have heard guys boast that after having sex with them, their girlfriend will either vomit, or bleed. Well, that doesn’t sound to me like she is having much fun. The Coupledom Compulsion leads to women accepting transgressions of their boundaries. Society does not condone female independence, and on the personal level, that means that many women don’t feel able to voice their desire during sex, or voice their objection when subjected to sexual violence. We ought to support women, and enable them to make truly free choices about their lives. Instead, we regard single women with suspicion, and try to pressure them into relationships that don’t benefit them, and may even cause them harm.
It is not out of concern with women’s happiness that we pester them to seek coupledom. It is out of our own desire for them to conform. Conformity makes us feel safe, as a group, and as a community. Women who stay single challenge the status quo, and make everyone feel uncomfortable. Hence the sigh of relief when Jennifer Aniston finally got engaged. And hence the perceived need for her to be pregnant. Apparently, getting married isn’t quite enough: Jennifer Aniston must now confirm her adherence to patriarchal norms by also producing children. The need for this adherence is so strong that the press regularly invents stories about Jennifer Aniston being pregnant. This bizarre phenomenon is another aspect of the social control that includes Coupledom Compulsion.
While a woman no longer needs to be married, or even have a partner, in order to reproduce, having children is still part of the approved narrative for women. Women are considered to have a biological clock, that sooner or later makes them want to breed. It is popularly assumed that all women are naturally maternal, dote on children, and are good at caring for children and meeting their needs. It is assumed that the natural order of things for a woman is to become a mother. This assumption leads to the further assumption that, if she doesn’t have children, a woman is unnatural. Childfree women are assumed to be unhappy, unwanted, left on the shelf. One can see how this leads to a pressure on women to have children – who wants to be considered unnatural and unhappy? The social pressure on women to have children further strenghtens the Coupledom Compulsion – to have babies, you need a man! While biologically a woman no longer needs a partner to reproduce, it is socially and economically beneficial to rear children with a partner, leading many women on a desperate search for one.
Of course if having children is what you want, and you have the economic and social resources to raise them in a way that won’t lead you to damage your health due to stress and economic deprivation, reproducing may well make you happy. But actually, research shows that having children doesn’t make you happier (especially not if you are a woman, unless you are a widow). Having children may even increase a woman’s risk of being subjected to violence. A common strategy among men who subject their partners to violence is to make sure the woman gets pregnant – this limits her independence, and makes it harder for her to leave the relationship.
I challenge the assumption that a woman who doesn’t reproduce is tragic and unhappy. The weirdest claim of all, however, is that not having children makes you selfish. Actually, in my opinion there is nothing more egotistical than having children purely to satisfy your own selfish urge to reproduce. Bringing another human being into a harsh, hostile, and vastly overpopulated world without asking their permission first? The height of selfishness, if you ask me. The women I know who are childfree pour their energy into intellectual pursuits and social engagement, that arguably renders them more useful to society than if they had spent ten years of their lives being exhausted from nappy-changing and sleep deprivation. Quite often they help take care of nephews and nieces, and thus provide vital relief services for exhausted, overworked and sometimes financially desperate and/or psychologically vulnerable parents.
I consider myself extremely fortunate in that my friends and family don’t harass me about relationships. My friends know I don’t find children interesting (and know better than to pester me with pictures of theirs), and my parents are courteous enough to let me make my own life choices. But out of the friends I have asked about Coupledom Compulsion harassment, only one says she has also never been harassed by friends and family. All the others said they have been getting comments on their relationship status, and exhortations to “hurry up and get sprogged up, old girl” since their early twenties.
And while my friends and family are unwaveringly supportive, other people frequently find my single state confusing. When unable to fit me into a familiar category – “married”, “cohabiting”, “single woman in her twenties” – they tend to either assume that I am a wildly tragic person, who has been unable to find a mate despite being well into her thirties, or that I am a lesbian. Just recently an acquaintance asked me if I was gay. I didn’t mind her asking (for one thing we were both extremely drunk at the time), but why do we keep framing single women as either tragic, or gay? Why didn’t my acquaintance elbow me in the ribs and utter a hearty, “So, you too think the patriarchy sucks, eh? Single out of choice? Good on ya!”? Why is it considered unthinkable that a woman in her thirties should be both single and childfree out of choice?
Women are exposed to constant coercion designed to make them conform to the social standard of what a woman ought to be. And what a woman ought to be, apparently, is dependent and controlled. The Cinderella narrative that we are all fed with during our formative years offers no scope for Cinderella to say, “Fuck you and your patriarchal norms – I refuse to get sucked into your creepy construction of the nuclear family”.
Centuries of unrelenting feminist struggle has led to people like me being able to choose whether we want to get married, and to choose whether to reproduce. And the ability to choose entails the ability to choose not to do something. As Bridget Jones said, in the first Bridget Jones film, “I have two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventual eating by dogs, or not. And this time I choose not. […] Instead, I choose vodka. And Chaka Khan.”
Well, I choose not, too. I choose not to marry. I choose not to reproduce. I choose a permanent state of spinsterhood – and to totally fucking rock it.
Let’s all harden the fuck up, and calm the fuck down. Leave single people alone: we’re fine. Are you?
Laurie Penny, in New Statesman: Is Marriage Worth It?
Tracey Loeffelhutz Dunn, in Yes Magazine: Why Not Getting Married Is Smart Economics for Women
Rebecca Adams, in the Huffington Post: If You Feel Bad About Being Single, It’s Not Because You’re Single
Erica Gies, in Forbes: Why I’m Not Having Kids, And You Shouldn’t Either
Sophie Gilbert, in The Atlantic: Why Women Choose Not to Have Children
Mary Ellsberg and Lori Heise, for the WHO: Researching Violence Against Women: A Practical Guide for Researchers and Activists
Tanis Day, PhD; Katherine McKenna, PhD; Audra Bowlus, PhD; for the UN: The Economic Costs of Violence Against Women: An Evaluation of the Literature