The (older) single woman has evoked numerous negative sociocultural stereotypes in recent (Western) history, with “being single” a fraught position for (heterosexual) women. Have shifts toward gendered equality changed this stereotype? We interviewed 21 young heterosexual women in Aotearoa (New Zealand) about their experiences of being single. We focused on young adulthood (ages 25–35), a time when having children might be a particularly salient concern. Women’s experiences of being single were inextricable from their wider experiences of heterosexuality and pressures to enact a “desirable” femininity. A thematic analysis identified four patterned sets of pressures, which we conceptualised as rules that govern hetero-relating: (a) pressures and expectations surrounding beauty standards, (b) (allowing for) aspects of male control and superiority, (c) acceptable/unacceptable gendered standards of sexuality, and (d) eventual and mandatory (heterosexual) coupling (by a “certain” age). Participants remained largely subject to traditional ideas around heterosexual gender roles, with identifiable punishments for “unfeminine” behaviour. Many women did articulate resistance and critique, even as most also expressed complicity. In this context, singledom was constructed as a “defective’ state,” even if desired, suggesting it remains a complex and precarious position to occupy.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Addie, E., & Brownlow, C. (2014). Deficit and asset identity constructions of single women without children living in Australia: An analysis of discourse. Feminism & Psychology, 24(4), 423–439. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353514539463.
Anka, C. (2015). Men are threatened by intelligent women, study finds. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/new-study-says-men-find-dating-intelligentwomen-intimidating-a6700861.html. Accessed 15 Nov 2015.
Aston, J., & Vasquez, E. (2013). Masculinity and femininity: Stereotypes/myths, psychology and role of culture. Hauppauge: Nova Science Publishers.
August, H. (2015). No country for old maids? Talking about the “man drought.” Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget William Books Limited.
Auster, C. J., & Ohm, S. C. (2000). Masculinity and femininity in contemporary American society: A reevaluation using the Bem Sex-Role Inventory. Sex Roles, 43(7), 499–528. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007119516728.
Baird, D. T., Collins, J., Egozcue, J., Evers, L. H., Gianaroli, L., Leridon, H., et al. (2005). Fertility and ageing. Human Reproduction Update, 11(3), 261–276.
Bartky, S. L. (1990). Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York: Psychology Press.
Bem, S. L. (1981). Bem sex-role inventory: Professional manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc..
Binkley, S. (2015). Happiness as enterprise: An essay on neoliberal life. Contemporary Sociology, 44(2), 288–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094306115570273.
Black, P., & Sharma, U. (2001). Men are real, women are ‘made up’: Beauty therapy and the construction of femininity. The Sociological Review, 49(1), 100–116. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-954X.00246.
Bolick, K. (2015). Spinster: Making a life of one’s own. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.
Bonner, M. (2016). 'The Bachelor' Season 20 premiere recap: Ben Higgins breaks hearts, fights with drunk contestant. US Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/the-bachelor-season-20-premiere-recapben-higgins-fights-with-drunk-contestant-w160754. Accessed 30 Jan 2016.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. London: Sage.
Brown, N. R., & Sinclair, R. C. (1999). Estimating number of lifetime sexual partners: Men and women do it differently. Journal of Sex Research, 36(3), 292–297. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499909551999.
Budgeon, S. (2008). Couple culture and the production of singleness. Sexualities, 11(3), 301–325. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460708089422.
Budgeon, S. (2015). The ‘problem’ with single women: Choice, accountability and social change. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(3), 401–418. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407515607647.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (August, 2014). The employment situation: August 2014. Bureau of Labor Statistics U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_09052014.pdf. Accessed 25 June 2015.
Butler, D. (2013). Not a job for ‘girly-girls’: Horseracing, gender and work identities. Sport in Society, 16(10), 1309–1325. https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2013.821250.
Chouliaraki, L. (2002). 'The contingency of universality': Some thoughts on discourse and realism. Social Semiotics, 12(1), 83–114. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330220130386.
Christoforou, M. (2015). All consuming self-destructiveness: Images of female attractiveness in fashion advertising and the impact on women's body satisfaction, self-presentations on social networks, and beauty-related consumption behavior. New York: City University of New York.
Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2(1), 39–55.
Coney, S. (1990). Out of the frying pan: Inflammatory writings, 1972–89. Auckland: Penguin Books.
Crawford, M., & Popp, D. (2003). Sexual double standards: A review and methodological critique of two decades of research. Journal of Sex Research, 40(1), 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490309552163.
Crowder, D. G. (1998). Lesbians and the (re/de) construction of the female body. In J. Dececco & D. Atkins (Eds.), Looking queer: Body image and identity in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities (pp. 47–68). New York: Haworth Press.
DePaulo, B., & Morris, W. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 251–254. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00446.
Dubrofsky, R. (2009). Fallen women in reality TV: A pornography of emotion. Feminist Media Studies, 9(3), 353–368. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680770903068324.
Elias, A., Gill, R., & Scharff, C. (2017). Aesthetic labour: Beauty politics in neoliberalism. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fahs, B. (2011). Dreaded "Otherness": Heteronormative patrolling in women's body hair rebellions. Gender and Society, 25(4), 451–472. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/23044206.
Farvid, P., & Braun, V. (2006). ‘Most of us guys are raring to go anytime, anyplace, anywhere’: Male and female sexuality in Cleo and Cosmo. Sex Roles, 55(5–6), 295–310. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9084-1.
Farvid, P., & Braun, V. (2014). The “sassy woman” and the “performing man”: Heterosexual casual sex advice and the (re)constitution of gendered subjectivities. Feminist Media Studies, 14(1), 118–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.724027.
Farvid, P., Braun, V., & Rowney, C. (2016). ‘No girl wants to be called a slut!’: Women, heterosexual casual sex and the sexual double standard. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 544–560. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2016.1150818.
Forbes, G. B., Collinsworth, L. L., Jobe, R. L., Braun, K. D., & Wise, L. M. (2007). Sexism, hostility toward women, and endorsement of beauty ideals and practices: Are beauty ideals associated with oppressive beliefs? Sex Roles, 56(5–6), 265–273. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9161-5.
Foucault, M. (2008). The history of sexuality (Vol. 1). Australia: Penguin Group. (Original work published in 1976).
Fowers, A. F., & Fowers, B. J. (2010). Social dominance and sexual self-schema as moderators of sexist reactions to female subtypes. Sex Roles, 62(7–8), 468–480. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9607-7.
Frohlick, S., & Migliardi, P. (2011). Heterosexual profiling: Online dating and ‘becoming’ heterosexualities for women aged 30 and older in the digital era. Australian Feminist Studies, 26(67), 73–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.2010.546329.
Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. London and New York: Routledge.
Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the media. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gill, R. (2009). Mediated intimacy and postfeminism: A discourse analytic examination of sex and relationships advice in a women’s magazine. Discourse & Communication, 3(4), 345–369. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750481309343870.
Gollayan, C. (2016). These women found the perfect solution to NYC’s man drought. New York Post. Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2016/09/15/these-women-found-the-perfect-solution-to-nycs-man-drought/.
Greene, K., & Faulkner, S. L. (2005). Gender, belief in the sexual double standard, and sexual talk in heterosexual dating relationships. Sex Roles, 53(3–4), 239–251. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-5682-6.
Grimley, N. (2015). Gender pay gap ‘may take 118 years to close’ - World economic forum. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34842471. Accessed 10 Dec 2015.
Hansen, J. (2015). Single in Sydney: Is a man drought in NSW to blame or are women too picky? News.com.au. Retrieved from http://www.news.com.au/national/nsw-act/single-in-sydney-is-a-man-drought-in-nsw-to-blame-or-are-women-too-picky/news-story/f4c4c47bf51248be13c635297cba07c5.
Harris, A. C. (1994). Ethnicity as a determinant of sex role identity: A replication study of item selection for the Bem Sex Role Inventory. Sex Roles, 31, 241–273. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01547717.
Heldman, B. L. (2017). And the next Bachelor is... Arie Luyendyk Jr. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved fromhttp://ew.com/tv/2017/09/07/bachelor-is-arie-luyendyk-jr/.
Hepburn, A. (2003). An introduction to critical social psychology. London: Sage.
Hoffnung, M. (2004). Wanting it all: Career, marriage, and motherhood during college-educated women's 20s. Sex Roles, 50(9–10), 711–723. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SERS.0000027572.57049.ff.
Hollway, W. (1984). Women’s power in heterosexual sex. Women’s Studies International Forum, 7(1), 63–68.
Jackson, S., & Lyons, A. (2013). Girls’ “new femininity” refusals and “good girl” recuperations in soap talk. Feminist Media Studies, 13(2), 228–244. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.708511.
Jacobs, T. (2016). Masculinity in the time of Trump. PS mag. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/masculinity-in-the-time-of-trump. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.
Jaffe, C. (2015). Tick-tock: The fertility war on women over 35. The News Hub. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/masculinity-in-the-time-of-trump. Accessed 28 Aug 2015.
Kevelighan, P. (2016). We shouldn’t be worried about the ‘millennial man drought’. Babe. Retrieved fromhttps://thetab.com/uk/2016/06/09/shouldnt-worried-millennial-man-drought-1442.
Khimm, S. (2015). The new nuclear family. New Republic, 246(11), 8–10.
Krajchir, S. (2014). Fortyhood: Why you're too old to have a baby after 40. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stacie-krajchir/why-youre-too-old-to-have-a-baby-after40_b_4339322.html. Accessed 3 Jun 2015.
Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2012). Critical realism. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford: University Press.
Lahad, K., & Hazan, H. (2014). The terror of the single old maid: On the insolubility of a cultural category. Women's Studies International Forum, 47, 127–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2014.08.001.
Lai, Y., & Hynie, M. (2011). A tale of two standards: An examination of young adults’ endorsement of gendered and ageist sexual double standards. Sex Roles, 64(5–6), 360–371. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9896-x.
Lai, A. L., Lim, M., & Higgins, M. (2015). The abject single: Exploring the gendered experience of singleness in Britain. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(15–16), 1559–1582. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2015.1073170.
Little, J. (2003). ‘Riding the rural love train’: Heterosexuality and the rural community. Sociologia Ruralis, 43(4), 401–417. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1467-9523.2003.00252.x.
Marks, M. J., & Fraley, R. C. (2006). Confirmation bias and the sexual double standard. Sex Roles, 54(1–2), 19–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-8866-9.
Martin, L. (2014). Ladies, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to be single. Elite Daily. Retrieved from http://elitedaily.com/women/intelligent-women-likely-single/678309/. Accessed 5 Jun 2015.
Matt, S. (2012). How to: Pick up a guy at a bar. Forever Twenty Somethings. Retrieved from http://forevertwentysomethings.com/2012/03/02/how-to-pick-up-a-guy-at-a-bar/. Accessed 20 Oct 2015.
McRobbie, A. (2007). Top girls?: Young women and the post-feminist sexual contract. Cultural Studies, 21(4–5), 718–737. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380701279044.
Meadows, M. (1997). Exploring the invisible: Listening to mid-life women talk about heterosexual sex. Women’s Studies International Forum, 20, 145–152. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-5395(96)00093-3.
Mediaworks. (2015). Michael Hill partners with Mediaworks for the Bachelor NZ. Scoop Independent News. Retrieved from http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1501/S00215/michael-hill-partners-with-mediaworks-for-the-bachelor-nz.htm. Accessed 4 Oct 2017.
Medical News Today. (2005). Best age for childbearing remains 20–35 - Delaying risks heartbreak, say experts. Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/30737.php. Accessed 17 May 2015.
Messner, M. A., Greenberg, M. A., & Peretz, T. (2015). Some men: Feminist allies and the movement to end violence against women. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, L. (2005). The single stigma. Telegram-Tribune. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/. Accessed 8 Feb 2015.
Ministry for Women. (2015). Gender pay gap. Ministry for Women. Retrieved from http://women.govt.nz/our-work/utilising-womens-skills/income/gender-pay-gap .
Moore, J. A., & Radtke, H. L. (2015). Starting “real” life: Women negotiating a successful midlife single identity. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(3), 305–319. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684315573244.
Morris, G. (2007). When your wife is not sexually responsive. Net Burst. Retrieved from http://www.net-burst.net/help/frigid.htm. Accessed 22 Sep 2015.
Nancarrow, J. (2014). 20 Reasons why women should enjoy being single in their 20s. Elite Daily. Retrieved from http://elitedaily.com/women/20-ways-enjoy-single-20s/614274/. Accessed 3 Jan 2016.
Neate, R. (2016). Obama outlines rules for closing gender pay gap and giving women 'fair shot'. The Guardian . Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/29/obama-outlines-rules-for-closing-genderpay-gap. Accessed 5 Feb 2016.
Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Penny, L. (2013). Take it from someone who has danced half-naked on stage: Slut-shaming is never all right. New Statesman, 142(5179), 21.
Reger, J. (2004). Organizational “emotion work” through consciousness-raising: An analysis of a feminist organization. Qualitative Sociology, 27(2), 205–222. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:QUAS.0000020693.93609.6c.
Reid, C. (2014). The New Zealand man drought is a thing. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8gd77k/the-new-zealand-man-drought-is-a-thing. Accessed 18 May 2017.
Reynolds, J., & Wetherell, M. (2003). The discursive climate of singleness: The consequences for women’s negotiation of a single identity. Feminism & Psychology, 13(4), 489–510. https://doi.org/10.1177/09593535030134014.
Riley, S. C., & Scharff, C. (2013). Feminism versus femininity? Exploring feminist dilemmas through cooperative inquiry research. Feminism & Psychology, 23(2), 207–223. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353512454615.
Ringrose, J., & Renold, E. (2012). Slut-shaming, girl power and ‘sexualisation’: Thinking through the politics of the international SlutWalks with teen girls. Gender and Education, 24(3), 333–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2011.645023.
Rose, N. (1990). Governing the soul: The shaping of the private self. London: Routledge.
Russell, N. (2011). She's a hard road to find the perfect man. Stuff Life-style. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/5480069/Shes-a-hard-road-to-find-the-perfect-man. Accessed 14 Dec 2016.
Sandfield, A., & Percy, C. (2003). Accounting for single status: Heterosexism and ageism in heterosexual women’s talk about marriage. Feminism & Psychology, 13(4), 475–488. https://doi.org/10.1177/09593535030134013.
Scharff, C. (2010). Young women’s negotiations of heterosexual conventions: Theorizing sexuality in constructions of ‘the feminist’. Sociology, 44(5), 827–842. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038510375736.
Scott, B. A. (1997). Beauty myth beliefs: Theory, measurement, and the use of a new construct. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1997). Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 58, 459.
Sharp, E. A., & Keyton, K. (2016). Caught in a bad romance? The negative effect of normative dating and marital ideologies on women’s bodies. Sex Roles, 75(1–2), 15–27. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0610-5.
Sigusch, V., & Schmidt, G. (1971). Lower-class sexuality: Some emotional and social aspects in west German males and females. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1(1), 29–44. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01540935.
Statistics New Zealand. (2013). Census QuickStats about families and households. Statistics New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/qstats-familieshouseholds.aspx.
Storr, M. (2000). The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power. (Review of the book The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power, by J. Holland, C. Ramazanoglu, S. Sharpe, & R. Thomson). Feminist Review, 66, 151–153.
Taylor, A. (2011). Single women in popular culture: The limits of postfeminism. Basingstoke: Hampshire.
Wade, A. (2016). Do you get paid fairly? Pay gap worst it's been in almost 10 years. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11573349. Accessed 1 Feb 2016.
Walkerdine, V. (2006). Playing the game: Young girls performing femininity in video game play. Feminist Media Studies, 6(4), 519–537. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680770600990036.
Wallace, K. (2014). Check your 'cat-lady' preconceptions about childless women. CNN Wire. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA370302601&v=2.1&u=learn&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=9adc06c7e2dca14ff7f4b91b62561d0c.
West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002.
Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: William Morrow and Company.
Yep, G. A. (2003). The violence of heteronormativity in communication studies: Notes on injury, healing, and queer world-making. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2–4), 11–59. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v45n02_02.
There were no sources of funding for this project (done as part of a Master’s degree).
Conflicts of Interest
There were no conflicts of interest to declare.
Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals
No animals were involved in this project. All human participants were over 16 years and volunteered to be start of the study using an ‘opt in’ process.
All participants were informed in detail about the nature and purpose of the study, via email upon first contact and again verbally at the interview. All participants were also given time to read and then sign a participant information sheet and a consent form.
Electronic supplementary material
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Pickens, C., Braun, V. “Stroppy Bitches Who Just Need to Learn How to Settle”? Young Single Women and Norms of Femininity and Heterosexuality. Sex Roles 79, 431–448 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0881-5
- Gender roles
- Sex roles
- Gender identity