“Are you single?” and why this is not a question

Probably, many of us have been confronted with the question “are you single?” at some point in our lives. And probably, many of us felt that there was (is) something wrong with that, what-is-supposed-to-come-across-as-a-question. I will try here to analyse this storm of emotions that raged through my veins and deconstruct the premises of this innocent-seeming phrase into a clear argument why “are you single?” is not a question, but an imperative and performance of power.

First of all, the temporal and spatial context is to be taken into consideration. Without wanting to claim absolute criteria for when it is (not) appropriate to throw the Question at someone, I merely want to point out the different feel to ‘asking’ someone during a speed-dating event or in a room you share with nine others in a youth hostel. There is also some sensibility to be drawn towards when in the conversation the question pops up: after having introduced your own name to someone you don’t know at all or towards the end of someone’s spontaneously opening-up after a break-up phone call. What I want to point out here is that context definitively plays a role in the perception of the Question, but is not sufficient to acquit the violence intrinsic to it.

The violence of the question is, according to me, founded in two assumptions. Firstly, it presupposes a monogamous or exclusive attitude and therefore denies the multitude and richness of doing relationships as such. Answering with ‘kind of…?’ does not fit in the line of expected responses and gets associated with a non-intended ‘yes’. It restricts the respondent to a type of interaction which might not be applicable at all, but does not give opportunity to elaborate. However, you could try to tear open this discourse by nuancing your stance. Nevertheless, and therefore secondly, the Question does not really require an answer. What happens here is not an act, or attempt, of (mutual) communication, but it is an imperative. What is imposed on the receiver is not even a show of interest, but a show of power. The content of the answer is not at stake. What is at stake, is the imposed assessment of your ‘accessibility’ which is not based on consent. In case your answer is ‘yes’ (“I am single”), you are quasi-automatically sucked into a play of submission vs domination since it was not communication that was at the centre, but power. I state this, because communication requires and respects the mutuality of both subjectivities (infra), while this power move inherent to this Question gauges the assumed accessibility and assumed consent when you say ‘yes’. It does not gauge my (the receiver’s) particular interest; it takes (equalises) my state of affairs (being single in the monogamous narrative) as the sign of consent.

In case your answer is ‘no’ (“I am not single”), the concern shifts from being respected in your disinterest to respect for the potential partner. I explicitly mention ‘potential’ because probably, if you have been confronted with this question many times, you probably also have lied about your relational status or sexuality just for the ease of it. I myself have lied about being together with both male and female friends, which in the latter case turned out even worse than saying ‘yes’ to the question because you are made to prove that you are an actual lesbian. Now that I am writing all of this down, I am deeply disappointed and angry about the denigrating monkey business I often find myself in, and how normal this seems to be. The ‘no’ does not only exhibit the respect for the potential partner as such, but for the male partner while the potential female partnership is hypersexualised. This shows not only the assumption of monogamy, but one of heteronormativity.

This Question is not an act of Communication (supra) because it denies the mutuality necessary for any interaction. I do not aim at an absolute definition of communication, but I do deem it necessary to state that receiver should be on equal grounds with the sender; if there is no room for the receiver to be heard, and therefore acknowledged, the giver is not communicating something, but merely dictating a message. This happens mostly without being mindful about the potential effects of that message, nor without being mindful about the other’s subjectivity and agency either.

What is (to be) done?

Most of the times, I end up feeling like hit with a hammer and being angry with myself for not giving them an eloquent piece of mind. However, I try to train myself in questioning their behaviour with phrases as ‘why is that important?’ or ‘what has this to do with us having a conversation?’. In the best case, this non-expected response brings about the necessary amount of self-reflection, but in many of the cases I receive a “just out of interest-“ kind of answer. If it as ‘just out of interest,’ the question should consist out of asking whether I have interest [in you]  instead of [you] assessing my interest without involving my developed agency myself.

The answer to “What is to be done” is to be found in structural and systemic changes in behaviour both on a personal and public level, but remains empty until today.

Author: Tessa Vanbrabant

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is an intersectional student organisation in Leuven. We work on decolonization of academia, LGBTQ+ right and anti-ableism through research, policy, activism and community-building. Stay updated on our socials, participate in our events or reach out to us to join the team!

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