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Translated by Vincent Chartier
On November 4, 2019, Emma Watson stated “I am very happy being single. I call it being self-partnered” in response to a question about her relationship status (British Vogue, 2019).
Her seemingly surprising answer quickly became viral and caused many to reflect. It is in this context that Les 3 sex* started its own reflection and decided to invite its community to express themselves on the reality of the various representations of celibacy.
Whether voluntary or involuntary, celibacy is a peculiar reality in a world dominated by the relational configuration of the couple, most often heterosexual, cisgender and monogamous.
Implicitly, this dominating discourse suggests that celibacy is a temporary status, and that every single person will eventually be in a relationship at some point, if not, they will be unhappy. The idea of living a single life without actively looking to end this situation provokes surprise, misunderstanding and even mistrust, which is even greater when it comes to a “voluntarily” single woman.
Through an article backed by many stories, we try to explore and demystify this subject.
Celibacy as an Identity
Celibacy can correspond to a legal or social situation, and even define one’s identity.
From a purely legal standpoint, any person in Quebec is considered single if they are not married, common-law partners or divorced. The very concept of common-law partners even requires both parties to live together and form a pair. For example, one of the members of a throuple* in a polyamourous configuration cannot have a partner status and must be legally single. The same applies for a monogamous couple living apart (Éducaloi, 2020).
Socially, celibacy can take many forms. It can describe a social situation where the person is simply without a partner, but can also have, for some, a notion of identity through belonging to a group.
If the identity concept can apply to celibacy, it is precisely because single people live a common reality and suffer stigma because of their status (Fisher and Sakaluk, 2019). This discrimination is a little-known phenomenon, but single people are aware that their relational status is in cause (Fisher and Sakaluk, 2019).
But why would simply being single be the source of stigmatization?
Celibacy - Outside the “Standard” Life Journey
One of the reasons why celibacy is perceived so negatively, mostly at an advanced age, is because of the non-conformity towards most life journeys lived by their peers. At a young age, celibacy is justified, because it is what is expected of a child, but it becomes less and less justifiable when society expects that a “normal” adult be in a relationship (Sharp and Ganong, 2011).
Even though life journeys can take many forms and have greatly diversified in recent years, the “standard” life journey, one that is in line with the majority norms, consists of finding a partner, having children and staying with said partner until death does them part (Thomson et al., 2012). However, marriage has been replaced with cohabitation, and even though it has become more and more common for people to have a different end-of-life partner from the one at the beginning of their life, the tendency of being in a relationship persists (Statistics Canada, 2016).
The various transitions of a person’s life journey can help identify some “quantifiable” markers of social success by comparing the person’s progression to the norm. During the major phases of the idealized life journey, it is crucial to find a partner, since they will be necessary for subsequent phases (like marriage or having children).
Respecting these life phases suggests fulfillment in the personal and social spheres, and therefore, achieving happiness. When society perceives the “standard” life journey as the ideal journey, celibacy can be considered like failure.
Truth is, I failed. I am 37 and a half years old and I find myself facing one of the greatest existential voids I have ever lived. It is becoming increasingly likely that I will grieve the idea of having a family. (M.H.)
Besides the possibility of a personal disappointment like in M.H.’s story, the fear of disappointing loved ones can also make celibacy difficult to bear. Everyone that strays from this “standard” life journey risks facing some incomprehension and mistrust (Pelton and Hertlein, 2011; Sharp and Ganong, 2011).
[...] I am afraid of not being able to protect the woman I love from the disappointment we will perhaps see in my parents’ eyes. It’s the apprehension that I will be made to mourn this well-ordered life with a boyfriend, a little suburban house and a dog, which my parents probably envisioned for me. (Valérie Ayotte-Bouchard)
The pressure of not straying from this journey is strong, since many consider it to be the recipe for happiness. In addition, the non-compliance to the life journey by a child can threaten their parents’ journey towards their role of grandparents (Le Borgne-Uguen Françoise, 2003). Parents can then be concerned by celibacy, because it can jeopardize theirs and their children’s ability to attain happiness (Sharp and Ganong, 2011).
“So, still no girlfriend?” You know, that question that’s basically like an old scratched-up CD stuck in the car’s radio. The other tracks skip or crackle, but that one, that one still plays very well. [...] The problem, grandma, is that you’re not alone in the car. [...] The other passengers aren’t at all like me, a failure in his mid-twenties, that can’t seem to find a good match. (Fed up Edwin)
In this story, being single is a failure at being in a relationship, and there are few (or none) positive models where a person is alone, especially for women. This failure is the responsibility of the single person, and can be explained by inherent flaws, like a lack of maturity or a fear of commitment. (Morris et al., 2008).
Still being single is the biggest failure in my life yet. I succeeded in almost everything I undertook. I learned that when you put in the necessary effort and persevere, you can have and do anything...Oh boy, the slap in the face, the guilt, the shame of still being single. After all those efforts, why am I still single? (M.H.)
However, the standard life journey is not fit for everyone. Faced with a very heterocentric and normative life journey, non-heterosexuals were the first to bump into the inability to follow this path. Therefore, it becomes necessary to adjust this journey. This model’s strictness becomes even more evident and thus makes us realize how inaccessible it is.
The Double Jeopardy of the Single Women: The Witch’s Case
Single men and women are perceived negatively. However, single women have historically inspired mistrust, because of women's suggested dependence on men, originating from the sexist perception of women’s role.
The character of the witch is the ultimate example. Accusations of witchcraft in the 17th century mainly targeted women, specifically those who were single and without children (Roach, 2013).
Today, though celibacy is practically dissociated from the character of the witch, single women still project a bad image. This image becomes even worse if her celibacy persists and the woman grows old: “The traditional stereotype of the old single woman is one of a solitary, egocentric, irresponsable and neurotic deviant” (Baumbusch, 2004).
If her celibacy persists, the woman risks being perceived as “excessively” sexual (Pickens and Braun, 2018), and if she is inadvertent, she will be labeled as too “choosy” (Lahad, 2013).
In my experience, I would say that two images are associated with female celibacy: the promiscuous celibacy, characterized by various sexual experiences, and the shameful celibacy, characterized by the failure of being in a relationship. (Ariane Carpentier)
The traditional female identity is based on the role of the wife and mother (Pickens and Braun, 2018; Sharp and Ganong, 2011). Gender roles have barely changed even with the evolution of rights, and the pressure for women to fulfill these roles by finding a partner to reproduce with still persists (Lahad, 2013).
Single women engaging in multiple sexual experiences are therefore perceived more negatively than single men (Pickens and Braun, 2018) and are at risk of slut-shaming (discrimination against people whose sexual behavior is judged abnormal or excessive).
Although perceptions of female celibacy are mostly negative, Sharp and Ganong’s study (2011) reveals that, to other women, single women can appear strong, autonomous or even lucky.
The Couple as The (Single) Recipe for Happiness
The stigma of celibacy is strongly associated with the idealized vision of the couple, which contributes to making this relational configuration a majority.
The predominance of the couple is generally paired with traditional monogamy, which is associated with numerous utopias: amourous fusion, search for soulmates, and wholeness. In a gendered and heterosexual vision of the couple, partners complete one another because they each possess characteristics that the other cannot possess because of their gender . As such, the “couple” becomes essential to feel whole (Walsh and Neff, 2018).
At the time, celibacy was not conceivable. I heard everywhere that love was everything, a universal and wonderful feeling that gives the energy to topple mountains, that made us more beautiful and healthier. It was the best defense against loneliness and it gave sexuality an indescribable power. So then, how could someone say no to that? (David)
Celibacy is associated with loneliness, which, in turn, is rarely associated with fulfillment and happiness (Sharp and Ganong, 2011).
Why must I absolutely find a partner? Why must I be in a relationship? When I hear this question, the message I receive is that I will never be fully happy if I am alone. (Joëlle Dupuis)
This dominant perception nourishes the negative vision of celibacy and contributes to ignoring the benefits that many single people have.
Celibacy: Positive and Negative Consequences
Despite the stigma tied to celibacy, being single can have many benefits that explain why this relational configuration can be attractive and positive.
For many young women in academics, celibacy is perceived positively because it offers them freedom and independence, unlike when in a relationship, which would be both demanding and energy-consuming (Bay-Cheng and Goodkind, 2015). This perception is a recurring theme in the stories gathered by Les 3 sex*.
There’s something cool about singing in the kitchen when preparing my meals, about taking care of myself, deciding that if I want to go slower today, I can go slower. There’s no one else to account for in my day! (Ana)
The other great benefit about celibacy comes from the idea of “self-discovery”.
During my years of celibacy, I’ve learned to know myself, but more importantly, I’ve debunked the destructive myth of the “better half”. I’m a whole person, thank you very much. I don’t need someone else to complete me or to be happy. (Mariane Gilbert)
Objectively, few studies have looked into the phenomenon of “voluntary celibacy”. One of the rare studies on the subject compared the level of psychological health of “voluntarily” single people, and “involuntarily” single people in a sample of 151 people aged between 20 and 26 years old. The study reported no differences between the two groups and states that voluntarily single people lived the same psychological consequences as involuntarily single people (Adamczyk, 2016). Furthermore, celibacy, whether voluntary or not, has long been associated with negative consequences on physical and psychological health, those consequences being more severe in men (Ta et al., 2017; Muhammad and Gagnon, 2010). However, it should be noted that, besides the previously mentioned study, most studies taking interest in the negative impacts of celibacy generally focus on people aged 55 years and over.
Living Celibacy: Between Stigma and Privilege
In conclusion, it appears that one of the main sources of suffering associated with celibacy is based on the stigma and prejudices that are attached to this relational configuration. However, many people, as established in this case file, manage to free themselves from these social pressures and live their celibacy positively. On the opposite, some people living as involuntary singles must simultaneously deal with the suffering associated with the lack of a partner, and the one associated with the stigma of this status.
By opening a dialog on voluntary and positive celibacy, it becomes possible to deconstruct the false perceptions that undermine the reality of single people, whether voluntarily or not.
Note: It is important to mention that the reality of celibacy can take on various forms in different cultural contexts. Living celibacy positively remains a privilege, since, for some women, it is not a question of personal choice, since it can involve a higher mortality rate. This situation is explained, among other things, by women’s economic and social dependency in some societies. As a result, single women are more at risk of being in a precarious economic status and to be victims of violent aggressions (Anderson and Ray, 2018).
*throuple: when three people are invested in a relationship. Three + Couple.
Reading List (by Eden Fournier)
✦ Dodson, B. (1996). Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving. New York: Harmony. [➦]
✦ Jansen, C. (2015). Sex Yourself: The Woman's Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving Powerful Orgasms. Beverly: Quiver. [➦]
✦ Laing, O. (2018). The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Londres: Picador. [➦]
✦ Maitland, S. (2014). How to Be Alone. Londres: The School of Life. [➦]
✦ Witt, E. (2016). Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [➦]
Adamczyk, K. (2016). Voluntary and Involuntary Singlehood and Young Adults’ Mental Health: an Investigation of Mediating Role of Romantic Loneliness. Current Psychology, 36(4), 888-904. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9478-3
Anderson, S. & Ray, D. (2018). Missing Unmarried Women, NBER Working Paper, 21511. https://www.nber.org/papers/w21511.pdf
Baumbusch, J. (2004). Unclaimed Treasures: Older Women's Reflections on Lifelong Singlehood. Journal Of Women & Aging, 16(1-2), 105-121. https://doi.org/10.1300/j074v16n01_08
Bay-Cheng, L. & Goodkind, S. (2015). Sex and the Single (Neoliberal) Girl: Perspectives on Being Single Among Socioeconomically Diverse Young Women. Sex Roles, 74(5-6), 181-194. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0565-y
Bellani, D., Esping-Andersen, G. & Nedoluzhko, L. (2017). Never partnered: A multilevel analysis of lifelong singlehood. Demographic Research, 37, 53-100. https://doi.org/ 10.4054/demres.2017.37.4
Educaloi. (2020). L'union de fait : vivre ensemble sans être mariés. https://www.educaloi.qc.ca/capsules/lunion-de-fait-vivre-ensemble-sans-etre-maries
Fisher, A. & Sakaluk, J. (2019). Are single people a stigmatized ‘group’? Evidence from examinations of social identity, entitativity, and perceived responsibility. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 86, 103844. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103844
Lahad, K. (2013). “Am I asking for too much?” The selective single woman as a new social problem. Women's Studies International Forum, 40, 23-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2013.04.009
Le Borgne-Uguen, F. (2003). Grands-parents : un rôle à composer. Empan, 52(4), 77. https://doi.org/10.3917/empa.052.0077
Morris, W. L., DePaulo, B. M., Hertel, J. & Taylor, L. C. (2008). Singlism—Another problem that has no name: Prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination against singles. In M.A. Morrison and T.G. Morrison (Eds.), The psychology of modern prejudice (p. 165–194). Nova Science Publishers.
Muhammad, A. & Gagnon, A. (2010). Why Should Men and Women Marry and Have Children?. Journal Of Health Psychology, 15(3), 315-325. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105309353216
Pelton, S. & Hertlein, K. (2011). A Proposed Life Cycle for Voluntary Childfree Couples. Journal Of Feminist Family Therapy, 23(1), 39-53. https://doi.org/10.1080/08952833.2011.548703
Pickens, C. & Braun, V. (2018). “Stroppy Bitches Who Just Need to Learn How to Settle”? Young Single Women and Norms of Femininity and Heterosexuality. Sex Roles, 79(7-8), 431-448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0881-5
Roach, M. (2013). Six women of Salem. Philadelphia: Da Capo.
Sarkisian, N. & Gerstel, N. (2015). Does singlehood isolate or integrate? Examining the link between marital status and ties to kin, friends, and neighbors. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 33(3), 361-384. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407515597564
Sharp, E. & Ganong, L. (2011). “I’m a Loser, I’m Not Married, Let’s Just All Look at Me”: Ever-Single Women’s Perceptions of Their Social Environment. Journal Of Family Issues, 32(7), 956-980. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513x10392537
Statistique Canada. (2016). Profil du recensement, Recensement de 2016. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=F&Geo1=PR&Code1=24&Geo2=PR&Code2=01&SearchText=Quebec&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=Families,%20households%20and%20marital%20status&TABID=1&type=0
Ta, V., Gesselman, A., Perry, B., Fisher, H. & Garcia, J. (2017). Stress of Singlehood: Marital Status, Domain-Specific Stress, and Anxiety in a National U.S. Sample. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, 36(6), 461-485. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2017.36.6.461
Thomson, E., Winkler-Dworak, M. & Kennedy, S. (2012). The Standard Family Life Course: An Assessment of Variability in Life Course Pathways. Negotiating The Life Course, 35-52. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-8912-0_3
Timonen, V. & Doyle, M. (2013). Life-long singlehood: intersections of the past and the present. Ageing And Society, 34(10), 1749-1770. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0144686x13000500
Vogue (2019, November 4). Emma Watson: “I’m Very Happy Being Single. I Call It Being Self-Partnered”. British Vogue. https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/emma-watson-on-fame-activism-little-women
Walsh, C. & Neff, L. (2018). We’re better when we blend: The benefits of couple identity fusion. Self And Identity, 17(5), 587-603. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2018.1430062
We invite you to continue this read by taking a look at the stories. You will find eight stories collected as part of the Call for Papers of November 2019. Those stories allow us to understand the opinions, experiences and perceptions of people who identify as single as well as getting a more personal, anecdotal and subjective touch, in order to complement the article above. Les 3 sex* wants to thank everyone that submitted their story during the Call for Papers on the celibacy theme and wants to highlight their work and time invested in the publication process. Thank you to Ana, Ariane, David, Edwin, Joëlle, Mariane, M-H, and Valérie.