Actually, there might be a slight reason to find this news surprising. I think a lot of us live in liberal parts of the country where these attitudes are muted, so it might actually be surprising to find out that single women ages 25-35 are often painfully stigmatized, no doubt especially in more conservative areas. The researchers at Texas Tech University interviewed 32 never-married women, and found that around age 25, their subjects began to face pretty ugly social stigma for not having snagged a husband yet. The idea that women’s main and often sole source of validation comes from being picked by a man hasn’t gone away by a long shot in our culture.
What I thought was most interesting about the study was that a lot of the pressure on single women to be ashamed of themselves and to feel desperate for validation comes in forms disguised as cute and harmless, so the women also feel unable to push back. Family “jokes” making fun of them for being unpicked by some random guy, for instance. Or the horrible tradition of the bouquet toss at weddings, a tradition that exists solely to make unmarried women feel bad about themselves. There’s no way to win the bouquet toss situation. If you don’t participate in the ritualistic shaming of the unmarried, you’re a spoilsport. If you throw yourself into it, you’re a screeching, desperate harpy confirming every negative stereotype about women—the big one being that they’re nothing without male validation, and will debase themselves to get it. Women who choose to stand there and let the bouquet drop at their feet while others scramble for it are finding the closest thing to a way out, but they’re still going to be treated like they’re acting superior. You can’t win. Except by getting married and exempted from the ritual humiliation.*
This stuff is far from harmless. When women are stigmatized far beyond what men can expect for not being married, that creates pressure for women to settle. Sometimes, that pressure is pretty explicit. This means men can make higher demands on women in exchange for their validation of women. Sometimes a woman’s devalued position in a relationship merely means she does most of the housework and emotional work, and her sexual satisfaction is a secondary concern. But in the worst case scenarios, culturally created female desperation can be used as leverage by domestic abusers to keep their victims in place. Abusers are often fond of telling their victims that no one else will have them—and in culture where a woman who has no man is a pariah, that threat can carry a lot of weight.
I know it seems like a lot to suggest that things like the bouquet toss subtly embolden wife beaters. And it’s true that any one “joke” or tradition that implies that there’s nothing worse for a woman to be than single would not in itself be harmful. But when women get that message from all corners, many start to think they really should lower their standards. And domestic abusers are willing to use every tool in the box. Take, for instance, this judge who suggested to an abuser that he marry the victim so that she wouldn’t be required to testify against him. He was able to convince both the abuser and his victim to marry. Most of us have to ask why a woman would marry someone who beat her like that, and I think the above explains the reason why in part. When you hear over and over that it’s horrible to be a single woman and you need a man to rescue/validate you with an offer of marriage—and when your self-esteem is already torn up by an abuser—then the offer of marriage and all the social status with it can be very tempting indeed.
*Though I will point out that you won’t escape without a blowout of humiliation. The bachelor and bachelorette parties always seemed to me to be an opportunity for the soon-to-be-marrieds to be punished by their friends, who are either jealous or sick of all the wedding crap.