I think that it’s usually better for women to be single. Particularly young women. Particularly straight young women. Not just “all right”, not just “bearable” – actively better.
I have spent most of my twenties single, sometimes by choice, and sometimes because I was dating men and unable to locate one of those who didn’t try to hold me back or squash me down. I spent quite a lot of time being sad about that, even though my life was full of friends, fulfilling work, interesting lovers and overseas adventures.
Looking back, though, staying single was probably the best decision I made, in terms of my career, my dedication to my work and activism, and the lessons I learned about how to care for myself and other people.
I’m not single right now. It’s sad that I felt I had to wait until that was the case before writing an essay like this. Part of me, I suspect, wanted to justify myself, to prove to you that I could gain the love of a man-shaped human, and thereby be an acceptable female. I wanted to wait and see if I felt the same way from the other side of five years without a primary partner. It turns out that I do.
You see, I don’t believe that my relationship constitutes a happy ending. I don’t want a happy ending. I don’t want an ending at all, particularly not while I’m still in my goddamn twenties – I want a long life full of work and adventure. I absolutely don’t see partnership as the end of that adventure. And I still believe that being single is the right choice for a great many young women.
Nothing frustrates me so much as watching young women at the start of their lives wasting years in succession on lacklustre, unappreciative, boring child-men who were only ever looking for a magic girl to show off to their friends, a girl who would in private be both surrogate mother and sex partner. I’ve been that girl. It’s no fun being that girl.
You see them everywhere – exhausted young women pouring all their spare energy into organising, encouraging and taking care of young men who resent them for doing it but resent them even harder when they don’t.
You see them cringing for every crumb of affection before someone cracks and it all goes wrong and the grim cycle starts again. You can fritter away the whole of your youth that way. I know women who have.
For those of us who mostly or exclusively date the so-called “opposite” gender, romantic love really can be a battlefield. It’s where politics play out intimately and, often, painfully.
We’re not supposed to acknowledge that love is political. But how can it be otherwise?
How can it be anything but political, when relationships with men are so often where women experience gendered violence, where differences in pay and privilege hit home, where we do all the work of caring and cleaning and soothing and placating that patriarchy expects us to do endlessly and for free?
When I’ve spoken critically about this monolithic ideal of romantic love in the past, most of the pushback I’ve received has been from men, some of it violent, and no wonder. Men usually have far more to gain from this sort of traditional arrangement. Men are allowed to think of romantic love as a feeling, an experience, a gift that they expect to be given as a reward for being their awesome selves. That sounds like a great deal to me. I wouldn’t want that challenged.
Women, by contrast, learn from an early age that love is work. That in order to be loved, we will need to work hard, and if we want to stay loved we will need to work harder. We take care of people, soothe hurt feelings, organise chaotic lives and care for men who never learned to care for themselves, regardless of whether or not we’re constitutionally suited for such work.
We do this because we are told that if we don’t, we will die alone and nobody will find us until an army of cats has eaten all the skin off our faces.
There would be serious social consequences if we collectively refused to do the emotional management that being a wife or girlfriend usually involves – so it’s important that we’re bullied into it, made to feel like we’re unworthy and unlovable unless we’re somebody’s girl.
That’s an ideological reason to be single. Now here’s a practical one.
The truth is that most men in their teens and twenties have not yet learned to treat women like human beings, and some never do. It’s not entirely their fault. It’s how this culture trains them to behave, and in spite of it all, there are a few decent, kind and progressive young men out there who are looking for truly equal partnerships with women.
That’s why it’s so critical that women with the ability to do so – particularly women and girls at the beginning of their adult lives – prioritise their financial and emotional independence, including from men.
There are many different routes to a life of love and adventure and personally, I don’t intend to travel down any one of them in the sidecar. So we need to start telling stories about singleness – and coupled independence – that are about more than manicures and frantic day-drinking.
We need to start remembering all of the women down the centuries who chose to remain unpartnered so that they could make art and change history without a man hanging around expecting dinner and a smile.
We need to start remembering that the modern equivalents of these women are all around us, and little girls need not be terrified of becoming them.
This is an edited extract from Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury, AU $24.99)