[This is the fifth in my new series of monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.]
When advocates for same-sex marriage tried to make their case, there was one obstacle they did not often face – they did not have to persuade many people that they were targets of discrimination. Laws that restricted marriage to one man and one woman were, to most people, self-evidently discriminatory. What’s more, few people deny the existence of homophobia. Prejudices against gays and lesbians are pervasive and widely recognized.
One of the frustrating parts of advocating for fairness for people who are not married, outside of the context of LGBT issues, is that many people believe that there is no prejudice or discrimination against people who are single – what I call singlism. That includes too many people who are themselves unmarried. Of course, the same 1,000+ laws which benefit and protect only people who are legally married still do discriminate against people of all sexual orientations who are not married. The recent Supreme Court decision did nothing to change that.
People left to their own judgment also discriminate against people who are not married. My colleagues Wendy Morris and Stacey Sinclair and I believed that was true, and to find out if we were right, we conducted a series of studies of housing discrimination.
In one study, we went to 54 people who worked in rental agencies and asked them about their preferences for renting a property. They got to choose among three pairs of people potentially interested in it – a married couple, a cohabiting romantic couple, or a man and a woman who were friends. The three pairs of people were always described similarly with regard to their age and interests and jobs, and they were all equally positive in what they said about why they were interested in the house.
The rental agents overwhelmingly favored the married couple. Sixty-one (61) percent of them preferred to rent to them. Just 24 percent wanted to rent to the cohabiting couple, and only 15 percent chose the pair of friends. In a subsequent study (not with rental agents), we looked only at the two kinds of couples, and we tried to tip the scales in favor of the unmarried couple by saying that they had been together for 6 years, and the married couple had been together for just 6 months. The choices were still tremendously biased – 71 percent choose the married couple, and only 29 percent choose the unmarried cohabiting couple.
Did the rental agents realize there was anything wrong with their decisions? Would anyone else think there was anything problematic about favoring married couples over unmarried couples or pairs of friends, even when the unmarried couples had been together far longer than the married couples?
My colleagues and I thought that such prejudice and discrimination would be readily recognized as such in the contexts of other biases that are part of our cultural consciousness, such as racism and sexism. For example, if landlords consistently chose a white applicant over a Black one, even if the Black one offered to pay more rent, most people would know how to explain that – the landlords are prejudiced. But do they share the same understanding when it comes to the same discrimination faced by unmarried people?
Wendy and Stacey and I continued our research. In our next experiment, we told participants about landlords who had made a particular rental decision, and asked what they thought of that decision. In one example, the landlord had two interested tenants, a White person and an African American. The African American offered to pay more, but the landlord chose to rent to the White person instead. In other variations, the landlord chooses to rent to a man, even though a woman offered to pay more; or to a straight person, even though gay or lesbian offered to pay more; or to a thin person even though an obese person offered to pay more; or to a young person even though an elderly person offered to pay more; and, of course, to a married person, even though a single person offered to pay more. In all instances, the two interested tenants had steady jobs and good recommendations from their previous landlords.
When participants heard about the landlord who rented to the White person, even though the African American offered to pay more, they thought that decision was illegitimate, unjustifiable, and unreasonable – just as we had predicted. When asked why they thought the landlord made that decision, they often said they thought the landlord was prejudiced.
Participants also recognized the unfairness of choosing the man over the woman who offered to pay more, and the heterosexual over the gay or lesbian who offered to pay more, and so on for almost all of the other examples.
The biggest exception? Choosing the married person over the single person who had offered to pay more. Participants were least likely to characterize that choice as illegitimate (though choosing the young person over the elderly one was considered nearly as legitimate).
When we asked why the landlord chose the married person over the single person who had offered to pay more, participants rarely gave the same answer they gave when asked about the other decisions, that the landlord was prejudiced. Instead, they most often said that the landlord favored the married person because the person was married – as if that in itself was a sufficient explanation.
That finding points out something very important about discrimination against people who are unmarried: unlike other more familiar forms of discrimination (such as racism or sexism or heterosexism), singlism often slips by unnoticed. Or, if people do notice it, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. That’s one of the reasons why the educational part of the mission of UE is so significant. When it comes to singlism, many people who consider themselves totally open-minded and not the least bit prejudiced, are rather clueless. They need some old-fashioned consciousness-raising, so that they realize that prejudice and discrimination against unmarried Americans are real things, and that they are illegitimate and wrong.
About the author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.
#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)