Partner-free people are rarely recognised as a political force in intersectional struggles towards democracy. Zheng Guo argues that so-called 'singles' suffer widespread discrimination which, in turn, breeds growing resistance. Embracing 'single democracy', she says, would open pathways toward a more inclusive and autonomous politics
The state and society often frame single people as shameful and irresponsible. Although singlehood is an increasing trend all over the world (34% of the EU population and 45.2% of US adults were single in 2017), singles’ plight – and their political potential – still pass relatively unnoticed.
But who are these singles, and how they are marginalised?
From a legal standpoint, singles are individuals who do not form half of a legally recognised couple. Definitions of this vary around the world. In China, only marriage can render two people 'a couple' in the eyes of the law. Countries like Germany and Canada, by contrast, acknowledge civil (common-law) partnerships. However, even in these countries, single people lack the benefits legally given to couples, in areas including tax, housing, and government subsidies.
In social norms, the adjective 'single' tends to refer only to individuals without a romantic partner. Yet many people in relationships, such as same-sex partners or those who are dating but not cohabiting, though they may not be recognised by law as 'couples', are still involved in a romantic partnership. Thus, most people would not regard them as being 'single'.
Social norms on singlehood vary across the world. Disappointingly, however, they are unanimous on one point: everybody should want romantic relationships, and whoever does not is problematic. Thus, singles are excluded not only from legal benefits, but also regarded as socially inferior.
Though social norms vary across the world, all cultures seem to agree that everyone should want romantic relationships, and whoever does not is problematic
Singles also face widespread discrimination in the workplace, in culture, and in everyday life. UK singles complain they tend to work more overtime. US singles are paying more car insurance. Customs such as Chinese Cuihun (early marriage) and the Danish cinnamon bath (a mockery for still being unmarried on one's 25th birthday) also manifest the shame of single status around the world.
Single discrimination not only pervades every sphere of life, but it also influences people intersectionally, in relation to their gender, class, race and religion. In China, for example, rich, middle-aged single men are known as 'golden bachelors'; in other words, elites desired by many. Poor single men and single women, on the other hand, are merely undesirable 'leftovers'.
Many cultures and religions pointedly encourage marriage. In Confucianism-influenced Eastern Asian countries, marriage is the criterion for adulthood. In Islamic cultures, marriage is a signifier of religious responsibilities and respectability.
Discrimination against single people only perpetuates more of the same; that is, singles influenced by discrimination inadvertently perform and reproduce it themselves. For example, a single person who is discriminated against as being inferior may internalise such judgement. In turn, they may criticise other singles as being too fat, ugly or gay to be worthy of love. This, of course, only serves to reinforce anti-single prejudice yet further.
Discrimination against single people only perpetuates more of the same. Singles influenced by discrimination inadvertently dismiss other single people as being unworthy of love
Such performativity invalidates scholars’ distinction between voluntary and involuntary singles. People are involuntarily single because discrimination shapes their worldview, leading them to perceive singlehood in a negative light. I believe that rather than helping involuntary singles find partners, we should support them in pursuing a 'single democracy' that fundamentally opposes single discrimination.
The prevailing discrimination against singles, and their growing global presence, demand structural transformations towards a more inclusive democracy. Indeed, many singles willingly choose singlehood. We should respect their choice.
It is our social responsibility to foster a democracy that is not based on the exclusion of singles, but that treats all lifestyles equally. Notably, single democracy does not favour singlehood over romantic relationships. Rather, it is an inclusive, plural politics in which singles and all others can autonomously and equally create their desired ways of life.
Society should not be based on marriage or registered partnership, but should include singlehood as an equally valid choice. It should be the individual, rather than the state, who decides on content and meaning of marriage and civil partnership. Presuppositions of heterosexuality, monogamy, and reproduction must be relegated to the past.
Singles as a rising force wield immense potential for democratic transformation. To pursue single democracy, we must be aware of intersectional and performative single discrimination, resist it in all domains, and foster supportive networks.
Shifting the narrative is crucial for public awareness. In China, a subtle shift in discourse is occurring. More and more often among young people, we hear expressions like: ‘I prefer singleness to the perils of marriage’; and ‘I envisage my friends as lifelong companions’. With more singles sharing their story, more people are encouraged to join this transformation. 'Single as an equal choice' shall be our slogan – and a reality in the near future.
More and more often among young people in China, we hear expressions like: ‘I prefer singleness to the perils of marriage’; and ‘I envisage my friends as lifelong companions’
Non-action or silent resistance, rather than confrontation, can also prove effective. In China, instead of openly defying parents' blind dating arrangements and marriage pressures, youth are resisting by avoidance. Singles ignore phone calls, skip family gatherings, and sabotage arranged dates through bad behaviour. In a passive way, the existence of silent resistance itself is a challenge to the prescribed lifestyle of marriage and child-rearing constructed by the state and social norms.
Social media is a potent weapon. On the Chinese platform Weibo (akin to Twitter-X), tips to avoid marriage pressures are trending. Innumerable short videos, their comments sections filled with outrage, demonstrate single peoples’ plight. Transformations in the digital world offer us valuable opportunities to support single-positive movements, physically and digitally.
Now, more than ever, we need solidarity. In the US and UK, social organisations specifically serving singles are on the rise. Examples include Unmarried Equality, Single Mothers by Choice, and Single Parent Rights. We need to form more global supportive networks like these, that go beyond romantic relationships. Single people need to mobilise for recognition, and for respect.
The broader framework of intersectional struggles towards democratic transformations must include singlehood as a discriminated yet promising political identity. By empowering single people and pursuing single democracy, we can work towards an inclusive, plural future in which all lifestyles can be autonomously pursued and equally respected.