Sex and the Single (Neoliberal) Girl: Perspectives on Being Single Among Socioeconomically Diverse Young Women

Abstract

Young women’s orientation toward romantic relationships and being single is shaped not only by heteronormative gender expectations but also by their socioeconomic status (SES). The intersection of gender and class is itself situated in the midst of prevailing norms, including those stemming from neoliberal ideology. To learn how these normative conditions affect young women’s perceptions of being single, we analyzed open-ended survey responses from 274 single women in the U.S. who were between the ages of 18 and 22 and who occupied three distinct social locations: affluent undergraduates at a private mid-Atlantic university; low-SES undergraduates across New York State; and low-SES women in Western New York who were not in college. We identified eight themes that captured participants’ feelings about being single and assessed if and how the participants’ perceptions differed by social location. In the Discussion, we reflect on and summarize the thematic patterns found in participants’ responses, with affluent undergraduates seeming to characterize being single as positive and self-enhancing, the low-SES undergraduates seeing it as a strategy for self-advancement, and the low-SES non-students framing it in defensive, self-protective terms. Despite these differences, all participants seemed to draw on common neoliberal tenets. We argue that participants’ predominantly positive perspectives on being single may be at least partially attributed to commercialized feminism and an agency imperative that requires young women to cast all circumstances and conditions in light of individual choice, will, and responsibility.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Anne Bruns, Alyssa Zucker, Sangeeta Chatterji, Melinda Mizell, Jilleesha Inverary, and Inbal Fischer for their assistance with data collection, entry, and coding. Funding was provided by the University at Buffalo’s Les Brun Research Endowment Fund Pilot Program and the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender. This research was made possible by the cooperation of student services administrators at colleges and universities throughout New York State and social service providers in Western New York.

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Correspondence to Laina Y. Bay-Cheng.

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The authors are unaware of any potential conflicts of interest related to this research project.

This study was approved by the institutional review boards of The George Washington University and the University at Buffalo.

Prior to data collection, participants were provided information about the study, their rights as participants, potential risks and benefits to participation, and the responsibilities of the researchers. Only those who offered their informed, voluntary consent were enrolled as study participants.

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Bay-Cheng, L.Y., Goodkind, S.A. Sex and the Single (Neoliberal) Girl: Perspectives on Being Single Among Socioeconomically Diverse Young Women. Sex Roles 74, 181–194 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0565-y

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Keywords

  • Undergraduate women
  • Low-income women
  • Single women
  • Intersectionality
  • Neoliberal ideology