by Yiu Tung Suen
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 7
Received: 12 Sep 2014 | Accepted: 8 Jun 2015 | Published: 31 Aug 2015
This paper contributes to the theorization of 'choice' within sociological understanding of singlehood. Previous sociological research on singlehood has largely focused on the lives of heterosexual singles. A choice narrative permeates such literature, depicting singlehood as a celebratory story that brings about the potential to disrupt the couplehood culture in society. Based on in-depth interviews with 25 self-identified single gay men over the age of 50 in England, this article finds that although gay singles share similarities with straight singles, there are gay-specific features of singlehood that can be identified, in terms of the limit of 'choice'. Although some older single gay men drew on the cultural discourse in the gay community, which decentres the conjugal couple, and claimed freedom of sexual exploration as a positive aspect of being single, there was also a strong sense that many older gay men's status of being single was shaped by a larger history, and hence, they were afforded no choice in choosing whether to be single or not. Taking these findings together, this paper suggests that there are ideological, historical and cultural factors that distinguish the lived experiences of single gay men as being different from those of heterosexual singles. This paper argues that although the discourse of 'choice' helps sociologists to understand that singlehood need not be understood as necessarily a negative experience, older gay men's experiences of singlehood caution that the choice narrative shall not mislead the analysis to focus singlehood merely on the individual level. Instead, singlehood needs to be understood as deeply socially and historically embedded.
1.1Intimacy is a topic of growing sociological interest. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) argued that there are paradoxes and tensions in contemporary relationships. On the one hand there is a decreasing emphasis on relationships because of an increasing focus on individual autonomy and reaching personal goals. On the other hand, the individualization thesis suggests that people are turning to relationships for validation and ontological security in a world where working lives are becoming less stable – this is turning relationships into the 'new religion' in increasingly secular societies. More people are moving towards identifying themselves in terms of their sexuality (Foucault 1978) and they take up the position of 'sexual subjects', whereby sex is central to the creation and expression of their selfhood (Giddens 1992). However, these sociological debates still centre in one way or another on how the traditional forms and meanings of couplehood and relationships have changed or remained (e.g. Giddens 1991; Giddens 1992; Illouz 1997; Jamieson 1998). Those who have not entered into relationships, i.e. singles, remain at the margin, if they are even considered in academic discussions at all. Singlehood remains a relatively neglected research topic in the sociology of personal life.
1.2 As Foucault (1978) argued, some ways of interpreting reality are privileged while some other coexisting ways are marginalized. These 'social and cultural frameworks of interpretation' (Mishler 1999: 18) become a canonical story, a culturally dominant story, or a master narrative (Bamberg 1997). Rubin's radical sex theory (1984) highlights that in the realm of intimacy, society is keen to regulate and organize sexual desires and behaviours into those that are 'good, normal, natural, blessed' and those that are 'bad, abnormal, unnatural, and damned':
Most of the discourses on sex, be they religious, psychiatric, popular, or political, delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as sanctifiable, safe, healthy, mature, legal, or politically correct. The 'line' distinguishes these from all other erotic behaviors, which are understood to be the work of the devil, dangerous, psychopathological, infantile, or politically reprehensible.
1.3 Rubin argued that among these erotic behaviours that are considered to be 'deviant', singlehood is included because partnered people are seen to be more legitimate sexual citizens. Heteronormativity refers to the pervasive idea in society that heterosexuality is the norm, and thus it is assumed that all people are heterosexual unless stated otherwise (Rich 1980). It defines 'not only a normative sexual practice but also a normal way of life' (Jackson 2006: 107). Within heterosexuality there are also many variants (Jackson 2006: 105). Even among heterosexuals there are 'hierarchies of respectability' (Seidman 2005: 59-60), among which 'hegemonic and subordinate forms of heterosexuality' (Seidman 2005: 40) and the 'long-term monogamous relationships in which partners share living space' (Van Every 1996: 41) are seen to be the most respectable. Of course, the idea that heterosexual romance and marriage is seen as the 'ultimate success' (Greer 1999) may be called into question because marriage as an institution is being challenged most notably by increasing incidences of divorce and cohabitation. However, monogamous coupledom, even outside a marriage, is still seen as the ideal. Researchers generally contend that 'the idealization of marriage and childrearing remains strong, pervasive, and largely unquestioned' (Sharp & Ganong 2011: 956).
1.4 This results in a couplehood culture which has become so ingrained that its privileged status is rarely questioned or even recognized. It leads to 'the tendency to privilege the heterosexual, co-resident, usually married, couple and their children as the unit of analysis thus rendering invisible the range of intimacies falling outside this form but which nonetheless are being practised in everyday life' (Budgeon 2008: 302). These ideals result in couples occupying a symbolically superior position, one that brings with it 'a range of social, economic and symbolic rewards' (Budgeon 2008). On the contrary, those who are single become subject to stereotyping (Cargan & Melko 1982: 18–19). Some authors have even gone so far as to argue that single adults (in contemporary America) were targets of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, a phenomenon the authors referred to as 'singlism', 'the twenty-first-century problem that has no name' (DePaulo 2006: 1). It has been argued that society has historically relied on family and marriage as its institutional backbone: an ideology of family and marriage therefore prevails and it assumes that 'just about everyone wants to marry, and just about everyone does' and that one's 'sexual partner is the one truly important peer relationship' (DePaulo 2006: 1). Based on a number of surveys and experiments, it has been claimed by the authors that married people were more likely to be described as happy, loving and kind, caring, faithful, dependent, while adjectives such as shy, unhappy, insecure, inflexible, lonely were more likely to be used to describe singles (DePaulo & Morris 2005). Singles were also seen to be selfish, deviant, immature, irresponsible, lonely, unfulfilled, emotionally challenged, lacking interpersonal ties and strong social bonds (DePaulo & Morris 2005). For example, in an experimental study, when the participants were asked to imagine themselves as landlords and to choose between two or three potential tenants, it was claimed that marital status discrimination was perceived to be legitimate when they expressed a preference to lease the place to partnered over single people (Morris et al. 2007).
1.5 In terms of sampling, women's experience of singlehood (e.g. Dalton 1992; Lewis & Moon 1997; Ferguson 2000; Baumbusch 2004) has been studied much more than men's. Even when single men have been studied, the research has referred mostly to straight men. Among older straight men, older widowers' experience has been of most interest to researchers (e.g. Davidson 2002; Bennett 2007).
1.6 With the notable exception of Hostetler's work (2009), gay men's experience of singlehood has been almost totally neglected. This is rather surprising given that the figures show that singlehood is not a rare experience among gay men. A review of survey data (Hostetler 2009) from the 1970s to the 1990s suggested that while around 45 to 80 per cent of lesbians were in a committed relationship at any given time, only around 40 to 60 per cent of gay men reported the same. 'Somewhat in the vicinity of half of gay men describe themselves as single at any given time' (Hostetler & Cohler 1997: 202) and these rates did not appear to vary much by age (Hostetler 2009: 500).
1.7 This omission of gay singles in research has been suggested to 'most likely reflect the understandable, if misguided desire on the part of well-intended, humanistic social scientists not to confirm social stereotypes of lesbians and gays' (Hostetler & Cohler 1997: 200). Because researchers saw singlehood either as a failure to find a partner (an involuntary state) or a problematic ideological choice (an undesirable state), they did not want to present single gay men's and lesbians' lives in stereotypically negative ways. Also, the rising political discourse of fighting for or against same-sex partnership and same-sex marriage (e.g. Jeffreys 2004; Kitzinger & Wilkinson 2004; Josephson 2005; Harding 2008) meant that discussions have concentrated more on lesbians and gay men who are partnered rather than single. As a result, the lives of gay singles have become relatively overlooked. This paper therefore addresses the research gap in which 'gay and lesbian singles have been neglected altogether' (Hostetler & Cohler 1997: 199; Suen 2015a).
1.8 Taking the above together, the dominant ideology 'bestows a range of social, economic and symbolic rewards on those who couple, leaving those who do not in a position to account for their marginalized condition' (Budgeon 2008: 309). As such, previous research has found that singlehood was experienced by single women as 'a troubled category' (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003) and a 'deficit identity' (Reynolds & Taylor 2005). Some single women conceptualized unmarried status as a 'temporary stage' preceding or preparing for marriage or the consequence of failure to maintain heterosexual relationships (Sandfield & Percy 2003). Therapists also came across cases of singles finding it difficult to face pressure from families and peers, and some 'used marital status to evaluate their lives, and based on this measure, wonder if there is something lacking' (Schwartzberg et al. 1995: 4).
1.9 In face of such social pressure to couple up, the research literature has documented that the 'single by choice' discourse was used by single women as a solution to deal with ideological dilemmas (Reynolds & Taylor 2005; Reynolds et al. 2007). Single women switched between externalizing and internalizing the blame for why they were single and had not married (Lewis & Moon 1997).
1.10 The choice narrative permeates such literature, theorizing singlehood as a celebratory story that brings about the potential to disrupt the couplehood culture in society. In claiming to be 'single by choice', singles have been found to employ narrative strategies to create a positive self to live with. They used progressive narratives to work against assumptions and the cultural stereotypes of singles so that 'most importantly, they position the speaker, rather than any outside observer, as the authority in the success' (Reynolds & Taylor 2005: 210). They developed 'discursive "tools" to construct and present themselves as fulfilled, successful and acceptable' (Zajicek & Koski 2003: 379). In trying to do so, they repositioned and focused on the positive sides of being single. They were found to repeatedly construct couple relationships as 'difficult, draining and problematic' (Budgeon 2008: 314), strategically 'distancing themselves from the couple ideal in order to manage the discrepancy between their self identity and social identity' (Budgeon 2008: 313). Singles particularly focused on freedom and independence as the positive aspects of their singlehood. Singles described marriage as a 'restriction and obstacle to human growth' (Stein 1975: 493), and they saw being single as associated with 'freedom, enjoyment, opportunities to meet people and develop friendships, economic independence, more and better sexual experiences, and personal development' (Stein 1975: 494). Older single women reported enjoying the freedom to make decisions, to be what one really wanted to be and not having to worry what a partner might think (Baumbusch 2004: 113-114).
1.11 Embedded in such a choice narrative is the idea that the nature of intimate relationships is radically changing, from one that was based on external prescription to one that centres upon self-actualization (Giddens 1992). However, such an analysis of contemporary intimacy that focuses on interpersonal dynamics within a relationship has been critiqued as neglectful of wider cultural and structural influences (Jamieson 1998). This article argues that so too there is a need to critique the meanings of 'choice' within the domain of singlehood. For example, Hostetler (2009), the only researcher to date who has specifically researched 'mature' single gay men (defined by him as those aged 35 and over), in a Midwestern city in the USA, found that the gay singles he interviewed also claimed that they were single by choice. However, he argued that they should be understood as using a 'narrative strategy' and exercising a form of secondary control to preserve ego integrity. He used a few indicators to measure whether the participants were in fact 'single by choice', including (1) a single-item indicator in the structured interview instrument: asking the participants whether they agreed with the statement: 'It is my choice to be single'; (2) combining question (1) with another question: 'How likely do you think it is that you will find a long-term relationship in the future?'; and (3) using an adaptation to singlehood tool to measure how satisfied they were with being single. It was found that even among those who said they were single by choice, many reported that they were not happy about singlehood and that it was not their preference. Few spoke of a conscious decision to remain single. The choice to be single was seen as temporary, meaning that some of these single gay men may have made a choice to be single, but only for the short term, rather than permanently. For example, some saw 'choice' as a temporary break to 'take some time out' to rethink what they wanted to get out of relationships – the goal was still to enhance their future relationships. No participant claimed explicitly or alluded to ideological motivations for being single, such as resisting heterosexual norms. The 'decision' to remain single seemed to have been made retrospectively in the context of other life experiences and past choices. Without even being asked, many of the single gay men felt the need to justify and explain why they were single. He suggested that 'single by choice' would be better understood as an interpretive strategy:
Voluntary singlehood is a gradually adopted, developmental and narrative strategy – a way of reading the past, present and future – through which these single men convince themselves that things are as they were meant to be. (Hostetler 2009: 521)
1.12 Through an analysis of older gay men's experiences of singlehood, this paper argues that the literature on heterosexual singles may have overestimated the element of 'choice' contained within the experiences of singlehood. It points out that the choice narrative does not universally apply equally to all people, and the social regulation of homosexuality needs to be factored in.
2.1 The data in this paper are drawn from a larger study of older gay men's experiences of singlehood. Twenty-five self-identified gay, single men over the age of 50 who lived in England were interviewed. Qualitative methodology, which is useful for understanding 'how the social world is interpreted, understood, experienced, produced or constituted' (Mason 2002: 3), was employed to understand the many ways in which the participants interpreted their singlehood. Ethical clearance was sought and approval was obtained. Before each interview, written informed consent from each of the research participants was sought. The participants were recruited through different organizations that worked with older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people and through online recruitment in online general classified websites, supplemented by snowballing, which means that the participants were asked to refer to the researcher any other persons who they thought may fit the criteria and may be interested in taking part in the study. Of the 25 participants, an overwhelming majority (80 per cent) were recruited through social groups that work either with gay men or LGBT people. Two participants were recruited through snowballing. One participant was recruited through posting on a general classified website, one through an organization that works with men, and another by word of mouth. It can be argued that because most of the participants were recruited through social groups, the sample may be more socially active and socially connected than average. However, the participants showed a wide variation in satisfaction with their social lives.
2.2 The participants ranged from 52 to 73 years of age (mean age = 59.6, SD = 5.8). Twelve of the participants were in their 50s, 12 were in their 60s, and one was in his 70s. All of the participants were white. Despite considerable efforts to recruit participants from diverse groups, advertising failed to attract participants from ethnic minorities. This could possibly be due to the challenges facing older gay men from ethnic minorities, who live at the intersection of ageism, homophobia and racism in society. For example, when Somali Gay Community, one of the first projects in the UK set up to deal specifically with the issue of homosexuality within the Somali culture, was approached for the research, the organization replied that:
There are a lot of issues that make it difficult to engage with the group we work with. Thus people are not comfortable with the whole issue and it's even harder for the over fifties.
2.3 More than half of the participants (n = 15) were educated at least to undergraduate level. This may reflect that older gay men who are more educated may be more connected with the social groups through which information about this research was communicated. Most of the participants lived in South-east England. All the names presented in this paper are pseudonyms.
2.4 The interviews made use of the funnelling approach of 'grand tours and mini tours' (Plummer 2001: 145), sequencing the questions to start deliberately broadly. Initially the participants were invited to share their life stories via an open-ended question: 'Would you mind telling me a bit about your life story?' Then, questions on topics such as relationship history, the participants' views about singlehood and dating were introduced. Towards the end of the interviews, the participants were asked if there were any significant people, events or aspects in their lives that they thought were relevant but which had not yet been discussed. The purpose of this question was to establish the viewpoint of the participants and to prevent the researcher's influence from overdominating.
2.5 Ethical issues were considered for the research. First, there were ethical considerations in ensuring that diverse voices were included in the sample. As all the participants in the sample were over the age of 50, a few of them experienced mobility problems. The researcher travelled to where those who were physically impaired lived to ensure that their stories would not be excluded on the ground of their physical disabilities. Although the participants were not paid for participating in the research, travel expenses incurred in relation to the research were reimbursed. That was to ensure that some potential participants, especially those who were retired or on a low income, would not be deterred from taking part in the research because of economic reasons. These considerations made it possible for the research to include older gay men who were living with different forms of disabilities, and with low or no income, who have generally been marginalized and often silenced in research. Second, as mentioned, every effort was made to ensure that the information shared by the participants remains confidential. The researcher was the only person who had access to the recorded interviews. They were stored in the form of digital audio files, on the hard drive of the researcher's personal computer at university, access to which was password-protected. Third, the researcher saw it as a moral responsibility to make sure that the participants were comfortable talking about such a personal sphere of their intimate lives and that they felt that their feelings were respected in the interviews. It had been anticipated that the research would involve retelling some difficult episodes in a participant's life. It did turn out that a few of the participants wept during the interviews, when recalling previous relationships, deceased partners and traumatic life events. The researcher always consulted them as to whether they would like to take a break in those instances but the participants all wished to continue. In fact, some participants even found it therapeutic to talk about difficult experiences. Many emailed to say that they had enjoyed the interview and would like to keep in touch. Fourth, to address the sensitive nature of the topic, participants were constantly reminded and reassured of anonymity regarding all interview contents. The researcher explicitly reiterated that any identifiable names, places and other details would be removed.
2.6 It has been increasingly recognized that knowledge generation is necessarily partial (e.g., Letherby 2002), and a completely bias-free or assumption-free researcher or research process is neither possible nor necessarily desirable. Instead, a researcher has been recognized as 'a central figure who influences, if not actively constructs, the collection, selection and interpretation of data' (Finlay 2002: 212). In this research, it is acknowledged that numerous aspects of the researcher's personal attributes could have influenced the interview encounter. The researcher was at least 25 years younger than his research participants. As one participant put it, by coming from a different generation the researcher may have had less 'common ground' with the research participants. However, despite this age difference, a large number of participants said that they actually preferred a younger interviewer. They perceived a younger researcher as having a more open mind and more liberal ideas. The researcher disclosed his sexuality at the beginning of each interview to facilitate the building of trust and rapport.
2.7 In general, the interviews took between two and six hours and were recorded. The interviews were transcribed in full rather than summarized. Guided by the grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss 1967), the themes were derived inductively from repeated readings of the participants' narratives. The technique of constant comparison (Glaser 1965) was employed to seek out differences as well as similarities between the participants' views towards dating. The process of analysis involved the following stages: first, open coding of the data, line by line, exploring emergent concepts; second, collapsing similar concepts and highlighting contrasts between the concepts; third, axial coding through which categories are linked and connections are made between the data. The analysis was theoretically informed by narrative constructionism and the notion that the self is not 'an experientially constant entity, a central presence or presences, but, rather, stands as a practical discursive accomplishment' (Gubrium & Holstein 2002: 70). Analytical memos and concept maps were used throughout the process to aid the analysis, noting reflections and other remarks. Coding of the data was facilitated by the software NVivo, a computer program for qualitative analysis.
2.8 During the analysis, it became apparent that the older gay men sensed a great deal of pressure from both the wider society and people surrounding them and they were constantly demanded to give an answer for their singlehood. This guided the analytic attention to how the older gay men took up different narrative positions to make sense of their life situation, which highlighted the tension of simultaneously being single of choice and of no choice, as illustrated below.
3.1 This article finds that although gay singles share similarities with straight singles, there are gay-specific features of singlehood that can be identified, in terms of the limit of 'choice'. Although some older single gay men drew on the cultural discourse in the gay community, which decentres the conjugal couple, and claimed freedom of sexual exploration as a positive aspect of being single, there was also a strong sense that many older gay men's status of being single was shaped by a larger history, and hence, they were afforded no choice in choosing whether to be single or not.
3.2 Similar to straight singles, the older gay men's perception was that their surrounding social climate privileges couplehood and marginalizes singlehood. The participants repeatedly stated that those surrounding them, including family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, constantly questioned them about being single. Strikingly, very few participants mentioned that they did not experience any social pressure. Those people who did not know about the participants' sexual orientation assumed that the participants were heterosexual and asked them why they were not married. Some of the participants' parents were concerned that no one would take care of the participants in later life. Henry, for example, said that although he himself was not too concerned about growing older and being single, his mother was actually more worried about it than he was. It was Henry's mother's 92nd birthday the week before the interview. She told Henry:
'I am going to give you ten thousand pounds' and I said what for? 'Oh, I just thought you might need it. I want you to have it. I am not going to last much longer… I worry about you – who's going to look after you..'
3.3 The participants' friends assumed that forming a relationship would be more desirable for the participants. For example, Patrick recalled that when he came out to his friends, their first response was to offer to introduce a boyfriend to him so that he could 'settle down'. Hence, the participants were surrounded by concerns about their singlehood status and they were constantly pressurized for an explanation about their 'deviance'. For example, Patrick said:
I mean, certainly society is all about being in a relationship. And it's very difficult sometimes for people to be single. Because people sort of think 'he's not friendly'. Something's wrong with him because nobody wants to live with him.
3.4 Malcolm said he was more interested in his own personal development than 'living through another person', but this was against societal expectations:
In our society people like the cliché of being in a relationship. If you are not in a relationship, then you are a second-class citizen. There's something wrong with you, you've been left on the shelf, you are an old maid, all these negative things to describe people not in a relationship.
3.5 Despite being aware that their singlehood status was against societal expectations, some older single gay men professed to be single by choice, drawing on the cultural discourse in the gay community which decentres the conjugal couple, and claimed freedom of sexual exploration as a positive aspect of being single.
3.6 Gay men have to construct their own life course because of not having or actively rejecting the ready-made role models they socialize with in a heterosexist society (D'Augelli 1994: 127) and they 'must create a self out of the heterosexual self that is given to them' (Blasius 1994: 191). It has been suggested that there exists virtually a lesbian and gay 'ethos' of self-making and self-determination that is closely akin to the 'reflexive habitus' (Sweetman 2003). In the domain of intimacy, lesbians and gay men can be seen as exemplars of self-fashioned identities (Giddens 1992). Heaphy et al. (2004a) argued that the lack of institutional support, most notably through their exclusion from marriage until very recently, meant that gay men are liberated from prescribed ground rules about relationship norms, and are afforded the freedom to innovatively construct their intimate relationships 'from scratch' (2004: 168), and thus they are enabled to be creative and reflexive, building more egalitarian and democratic families of choice and personal networks through an ethic of trust and negotiation. For example, it has been found that gay men hold more relaxed attitudes towards extra-dyadic sex.
3.7 Some gay men in open relationships cognitively separated sex from intimacy and prized sexual variety. They also established guidelines that safeguarded their health and affirmed couple primacy, and thus, sexual non-exclusivity may not harm the quality of couple relationships but may even enhance it (LaSala 2005). This subverts the commonly assumed linkage between love, commitment, sexual encounter, and monogamy. This led Peplau and Cochran (1990) to argue that:
Assumptions about relationships based on the values and experiences of heterosexuals may not necessarily apply to gay and lesbian couples. The extent to which actual gay and lesbian relationships resemble heterosexual marriages is an open question – and should not be an implicit assumption guiding research.
3.8 Some participants said they were not too much bothered by the prevailing social climate privileging singlehood, arguing that because they had always been excluded from the mainstream in society, they felt that they were also liberated from following the social norm. Ben, for example, said that he had always felt different from the norm or the mainstream. He said 'I have likes and dislikes. And things that people enjoy doing that I don't. And they can't understand why I don't enjoy the things that they are doing.' He went on to say, although being single means being out of the mainstream, it does not matter because he had never been in the mainstream anyway.
3.9 The older gay men in this study were aged between 50 and 73, and were therefore born between and 1937 and 1960. They had experienced the influences of gay liberation, coupled with second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, which challenged the notion of coupledom in society. Malcolm, for example, mentioned that the gay liberation movement affected his attitudes towards forming relationships, because the white, middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous relationship as the hegemonic ideal was challenged:
There was this feeling about fucking for gay liberation, that you want to go from one guy to another, rather than imitating straight people and getting into a relationship. I do think there was that kind of spirit out there, sleeping around as much as possible just in opposition to being straight. I think I was liberated to do that…
3.10 Similarly, Justin was a teenager at the start of the gay liberation movement and he felt that the changing social atmosphere lessened the pressure he felt about forming relationships:
When I was young, there was gay liberation politics. The feeling was that we shouldn't imitate heterosexual relationships. So, you know, having open relationships, being single, and having multiple partners were seen by a certain proportion of people as the way to be. To be in a monogamous, quasi-marriage was seen as selling out. I think it was good that I didn't feel I had to be in a relationship.
3.11 The gay sexual liberation of the 1970s influenced the participants' ideas about whether relationships were supposed to be the ideal to aspire to and hence whether they wanted to date. Changing social attitudes planted in them the seed of liberation and the desire to achieve a greater degree of freedom from the monogamous, reproductive ideals of a conventional relationship. They decentred the conjugal couple as the definition of an ideal intimate life.
3.12 When facing the social pressure to couple up, the older single gay men drew on the discourse of freedom and independence to justify their satisfaction with being single. Many participants perceived being single as meaning that they could go where they wanted and do what they liked, as their decisions only needed their sole approval. They did not have to negotiate with their partner, thereby avoiding the likelihood of having to give up their preferences or make compromises:
Being your own boss, and certainly when you're retired, you decide what you're going to do. (Hector)
I like being able to get up in the morning when I like. I like to go and get on a train and do what I like. That is freedom. Not 'shall we do this or shall we do that?' (Ben)
3.13 The participants talked about the flexibility of using their time as a positive aspect of being single. For them, this meant that they could do things and change their timetable at short notice. They thought that it was something that people who were partnered, especially those with children, could not afford to do. Vincent, for example, said he had never been envious of couples:
I thought they are stuck, really. They do not have the freedom that I have. I consider myself very lucky to have the freedom and independence to do what I want to do. I think I am extremely lucky. (Vincent)
3.14 The participants who enjoyed spontaneity or impulsiveness found such freedom to be especially compatible with their lifestyle. For some participants, the independence and freedom also meant that they could focus more on work. Jason, for example, said that he was able to take up research posts, which required focus and concentration, something he probably would not have done had he been married with children.
3.15 Similar to straight singles, some older single gay men claimed being single by choice, through discussing the downsides of a relationship. Malcolm said that he was cynical about relationships:
I think being a cynic, I see a lot of people in relationships who feel lonely. I am thinking about one guy I have worked with in particular. He was in a relationship and used to come in and say all the time 'my partner doesn't want to do anything, he comes home from work and what he wants to do is watch television and I want to go out and party'. So I am positive about being single.
3.16 Malcolm saw that one can also be lonely in a relationship, and there can be conflicts and arguments. He used lessons learned from his friends' relationships – and their incompatibility – as evidence for his outlook. Having this frame of mind made him see being single as allowing him the chance to escape from these 'troubles'.
3.17 Many older gay men saw being single as giving them greater freedom for sexual exploration. They discussed venturing to different venues, such as saunas, sex clubs and cruising areas for sex, and it was not difficult to find sex in those places. Patrick, for example, said being single allowed him to have multiple sex partners. He said he was not interested in having sex with the same man too frequently, no matter how attractive he might be:
I remember one particular guy who actually used to be an upmarket rent boy… he was extremely good, had a fantastically good body, in his early 30s. But I think after the third time having sex with him, I wasn't interested in him anymore. I wanted to be his friend.
3.18 Contrary to some others who missed having a regular sex partner because they were single, he saw the freedom for sexual exploration as a positive aspect of being single:
I want to have sex with different people. One of my ambitions is to have sex with men from every country in the world. Since 2002 I have slept with men from 35 countries.
3.19 He went on to describe how easy it was to get casual sex because of the increasing convenience of using the Internet to set up sexual encounters. He had mainly used the Gaydar website to find casual sexual encounters. He described that, for him, sex was readily available. He recalled his experience of chatting to someone on the website with whom he was trying to set up a meeting. This man replied at 9:00 a.m. in the morning: 'I just live round the corner and my parents have just gone off to work so just pop by…' Being single, for him, meant the possibility of having all these different casual sexual encounters. It meant that he was released from the pressure to conform to monogamy. It seems his sexual needs were fulfilled, and without much difficulty. What was afforded him by singlehood was excitement and freedom in the sexual arena.
3.20 A few participants also highlighted that they had regular sexual partners who they met from time to time for sex. They called these sexual partners their 'fuck buddies'. For example, Harry said he has a regular sexual partner and they saw each other three or four times a year. His fuck buddy is in a committed relationship and his fuck buddy's partner does not know about his presence:
The fuck buddy is not a man that I would want to live with because he hasn't got enough initiative. He has never visited my house for a fuck. It's always '[his fuck buddy's partner's name]'s away, come and stay'.
3.21 Harry was clear that he did not have much emotional investment in his fuck buddy – his fuck buddy was not a man that he wanted to live with, he also did not seem to particularly like his character, describing his personality as lacking initiative. His fuck buddy, likewise, did not seem to have special connections with him. However, this lack of emotional connection did not seem to be an issue for either of them. What brought the two together seemed to be, literally, 'a fuck'.
3.22 Similarly, Jason also mentioned that his sexual needs were 'catered for' by his fuck buddy, and hence this partly lessened the pressure to enter a relationship:
My physical urges are occasionally satisfied with my long-term visiting relationship. My sexual needs are catered for so I don't need a bond just to have sex…
3.23 The older single gay men were open to the idea of paying for sex. For example, Laurence who had never had a long-term relationship, was open to the idea of paying for sex to satisfy his urges. He had paid for sex around a dozen times, which according to him, was 'not that often'. He had no moral reservations about paying for sex and thought of it as perfectly acceptable, 'just like paying for any other service':
It's quite nice to have the company of someone for an hour or two hours and have sex and then chat and talk… and make some sort of connection with another human being. It's quite pleasant to do that. But it's not going to lead to anything more than sex, usually.
3.24 Similarly, Nic said he started hiring rent boys because he got fed up with 'going through the same routine' to meet people. He said at the time of the interview he had two or three escorts that he saw regularly every few weeks. He described his relationship with the rent boys as 'sort of more than an acquaintanceship but less than a friendship'. He said:
I really am not interested in spending my life with somebody any longer. I want to have involvement without commitment. So that's really the reason why I do it.
3.25 This study, however, also observed that the older single gay men also claimed to be single of no choice. They frequently externalized the reasons for their singlehood, and thereby distanced themselves from the cause of singlehood. They explained their singlehood with reference to the larger social and historical context, which they claimed they had no control over. This gave them the opportunity to claim that they had done nothing wrong, that they were not to be blamed for being single.
3.26 Almost all the participants linked their singlehood to the legal and social backdrop in the 1950s and 1960s, against which they grew up. Life course approaches, which suggest that 'no period of life can be understood in isolation from people's prior experiences, as well as their aspirations for the future' (Mortimer & Shanahan 2003: xi) are especially useful for understanding their non-heterosexual lives (Suen 2015b) because earlier lives can contribute to a unique world view or frame of reference that remains powerful throughout their lives (Mannheim 1952: 298). When the older gay men were born, homosexuality was still criminalized in the UK and treated as a mental problem. 'Homosexuality as a stigma was not only dominant, but exclusive' during that period (Rosenfeld 1999: 128). The 1950s was called a period of 'witch-hunts' (Jivani 1997: 9) and plain-clothes police sometimes waited outside public lavatories to catch men who practised cottaging. Convictions of reported indictable homosexual offences were numbered at 2,513 in 1961, nearly double from the 1,405 in 1948, and around 24 times higher than at the beginning of the century (David 1997: 153–154). Sometimes the police were so desperate to prosecute that they resorted to making accusations on false grounds (David 1997: 103). It was perhaps understandable that in any year up to and including 1967, suicide was sometimes used as a 'desperate escape route' (David 1997: 7) from this homophobic environment. A historical landmark was reached in 1967, when homosexuality in private was decriminalized in England and Wales for two consenting males over the age of 21. This social and historical backdrop means that many older gay men had learned from a very early age that they had to keep their sexual orientation secret. Hector, for example, had known that he was gay since his teens. He became a teacher and felt he had to remain closeted. He came out only at 50, after retirement:
The only concept you had of other people who were doing the same as you were was on notices on toilet walls… that's how gay people met…
3.27 The participants argued that growing up under this homophobic culture affected them in many ways. Being gay became something not to be discussed and not to be acknowledged. From a very early age they found that they were defined by a difference to which they could not even put a name. A lot of the older gay men then learned from a very early age that they had to keep their sexual orientation secret. That was what many of their peers have done: in the USA it was estimated that a third of the current cohort of older gay men had married in earlier life (Hostetler 2009). In one of the few studies specifically looking at older LGB people in the UK, 37 per cent of older gay men had always hidden their sexual identity (Heaphy et al. 2004b). In this study, it was the rule rather than the exception that the older gay men came out to hardly anyone at all until their 40s or even 50s. Many learned to dissociate themselves from homosexuality and to 'stay in the closet' and to use different strategies to 'pass' as a heterosexual. Some tried to form relationships with women to escape being questioned about their sexual preference. Not coming out became a very difficult but understandable option for many of the participants. However, not coming out means that the formation of relationships can be made difficult on different levels. First, staying in the closet made gay people invisible and difficult to locate. It became difficult to ascertain whether another person was gay or not. It made some participants hesitant to make any moves, fearing that they may make a 'wrong guess'. Second, not coming out meant that the gay men had to avoid certain gay-friendly places or where some openly gay men would go, because of the fear of being found out. This restricted the chance of meeting potential partners. For example, Nic, who was a teacher in the 1970s, found coming out in the teaching profession too much of a risk to take at the time:
You are talking about the 1970s; being a gay teacher would have been the kiss of death really. Parents would have gone bonkers. Because for most people at that time all paedophiles are gay and all gay men are paedophiles was their view of things. And so it would have caused tremendous problems.
3.28 He described that he was spending a great deal of time reading gay magazines and newspapers, trying to work out where he could meet other gay men, but he perceived that even going to a gay pub was too risky for him:
There was one pub in [a nearby city], there was a gay night on Thursday every other week. And in order to go there you had to go through the public bar to reach the room so… did I want to do that? No.
3.29 Being in the closet clearly hindered his use of social space, and hence affected the possibility of finding potential partners. For the closeted participants, meeting up with other gay men then had to be done in secret. Simon, for example, recalled the experience of using a dating service in his 30s, which was during the 1970s. Only a minimum exchange of information was involved:
I found an advert somewhere in the paper and it must have been some sort of gay publication. You joined and you gave them a number… and you paid… and every month they sent you a list… no photographs, just a printed list of people with a username, a description of what they looked like or their own description, what they wanted to say about themselves.
3.30 A lot of the participants talked about cruising as another way of meeting people at that time. The venues included saunas or cruising areas, such as parks or cemeteries, among many others. These were the places where the closeted gay men could be open about and satisfy their same-sex sexual desires, but also keep their anonymity, which was an aspect that was highly valued. However, using these channels to meet people also meant that a general lack of information exchange was involved in the encounters. This made the formation of trusting and sharing relationships difficult. Meeting people in these clandestine ways usually resulted in rather short-term liaisons, or even in one-off meetings, rather than something that could develop further. The price to pay was that these encounters almost always remained purely sexual, as illustrated in the way Adam talked about his experience of going to a local cruising area: 'So I went up there…he opened his clothes… I gave him a blow job and there wasn't a word spoken between us, not a word.'
3.31 The homophobic environment's impact on gay men's relationship formation went even deeper. More fundamentally, many participants found that it lowered their self-esteem. Many older gay men had internalized the negative messages in society, and developed 'internalized homophobia' (Mayfield 2001), and therefore thought they themselves were doing something wrong because of having grown up in an environment that constantly described gay men in derogatory terms:
Homosexuality was talked about in sort of very negative terms… by everybody… including by other gay people, really. And you went along with that, because that was the culture. (Darren)
I think when you are brought up, you are taught by family this is wrong, homosexuality is wrong. And even though intellectually this is nonsense, that doesn't matter. You are brought up to believe in what your family says. (Laurence)
3.32 Fundamentally, the internalized negative attitudes towards homosexuality became a block in the formation of a positive homosexual identity. This can form barriers to forming relationships. Some of the participants with lowered self-esteem and feelings of insecurity, questioned whether they were worthy of being loved and found it difficult to accept a relationship with another man (Chernin 2006). Without being able to love themselves, loving others became an even bigger challenge. Laurence described how, as he didn't have a very positive self-image, he subconsciously abandoned the thought of being loved. Similarly Adam, who had struggled with coming to terms with his sexuality, found it difficult even to contemplate forming relationships.
3.33 Society's influence could penetrate even further to change how gay men perceived intimacy and relationships. For example, Laurence described that he had been 'taught' that casual affairs with men were acceptable but that they were not something for the longer term:
We are all products of our society even if we don't admit it. We are all subject to social pressures and if the social pressures are… homosexuality isn't acceptable… I think you then react – in a way you kind of hide it. It's okay to have casual affairs, but actually doing anything more than that with somebody gay is difficult. Because of the societal pressure, it's what you were brought up to be. You never lose that.
3.34 This shows that because of society's message, some gay men could have their ideas about forming relationships with other men distorted. As a whole, the discussion above suggests that many of the older gay men in this study resorted to a narrative of social and historical changes as their reasons for being single. As Harry stated, had the social environment been different, his chance of forming relationships would have been greater:
I am fairly certain that if I hadn't had the upbringing – if I was only starting now instead of starting 60 years ago – then I am pretty sure that, for a start, I would let it be known that I was gay at school or whatever. And that in itself would increase the probability of forming a relationship.
3.35 Hector vividly described this cohort effect of growing up in the specific social era outlined above:
If my personal circumstances when I was younger had been different… I might have been a lot more proactive in looking for a relationship. If I was 20 or 25 now… it would be much easier to be openly gay, and I would be much keener about looking for a relationship. And it would be easier to do something about it… because there are so many other opportunities for meeting other gay people now in all kinds of ways… and you can therefore do much more about it and be much more proactive about it… and there's far less reason for people to end up living alone.
3.36 Thus, the older men attributed their singlehood to their developmental history, a collective history of stigma, discrimination and a lack of positive role models (Hostetler 2009: 517). That allowed them to neutralize singlehood, something they saw as undesirable, to being the result of something out of their control.
4.1 This paper has contributed to the growing but still limited sociological literature on singles, located within the sociology of intimacy and personal life. Through focusing on the neglected experiences of gay singles, the paper addresses the heteronormative bias often present in previous research on singlehood that has focused on heterosexual singles.
4.2 Based on in-depth interviews with 25 self-identified single gay men over the age of 50 in England, this paper finds that the gay singles in this study share similarities with straight singles. First, it was striking that almost no participant described that they did not face any social pressure because of their singlehood status. Relationship formation still remains an idealized form of life within the social circle in which the participants found themselves. Couplehood operated as a central reference point, and many participants were pressurized for an answer by the people surrounding them to 'explain' their deviant status of singlehood. This shows the pervasiveness of heteronormativity and the couplehood culture, the privileged status of which is rarely questioned or even recognized (Budgeon 2008: 302). This confirms Hostetler's (2009: 523) observation that despite decades of LGBT social and political progress, the social culture continues to demand much more accommodation from its queer citizens to fit into exclusively heterosexual life ways. Second, many participants claimed that they were single by choice and focused on the positive aspects of being single, similar to the ways that heterosexual singles did, as found in the research literature.
4.3 However, there are gay-specific features of singlehood that can be identified, in terms of the limit of 'choice'. Although some older single gay men drew on the cultural discourse in the gay community, which decentres the conjugal couple, and claimed freedom of sexual exploration as a positive aspect of being single, there was also a strong sense that many older gay men's status of being single was shaped by a larger history, and hence they were afforded no choice in choosing whether to be single or not. There are thus ideological, historical and cultural factors that distinguish the lived experiences of single gay men as being different from those of heterosexual singles.
4.4 This finding bears significance for the understanding of singlehood more generally. First, it demonstrates that the discourse of 'choice' helps sociologists to understand that singlehood need not be understood as necessarily a negative experience. Some participants were able to engage in ascribing more positive meanings to singlehood, enabled by having lived through the feminist movement and the gay liberation movement, during which the meanings of singlehood were transformed from being a residual category to a sense of pride. The reworking of meanings attached to singlehood challenged the privileged status produced by the idealization of couples. The gay men in this study seemed to possess a greater degree of choice in how they organize their sex lives. Being single for them did not mean being sexless, and it did not necessarily mean loneliness. However, if intimacy is defined as the quality of close connection between people and the process of building this quality, and can be understood as both physical and bodily as well as emotional and cognitive in nature, e.g. mutual love, being 'of like mind' and 'special' to each other (Jamieson 1998), this shows that although the participants were single, they were still engaged in 'moments of intimacy' – when they were intimate with their 'fuck buddies' or with people who they met in sex clubs, saunas, or elsewhere. These moments of intimacy warrant more research about their significance and meanings attached.
4.5 However, this more reflexive engagement with the social meanings of singlehood seems to have faded into the background nowadays, given the current debate over a more institutionalized recognition of the relationships of same-sex couples. This means that sociological research needs to track the changing meanings of singlehood across historical periods of time. Particularly, the move towards wider recognition of same-sex relationships, in the form of civil partnership or same-sex marriage, in an increasing number of countries at the time of writing, may have an impact directly or indirectly on singles' lives.
4.6 Second, older gay men's experiences of singlehood caution that the choice narrative shall not mislead the analysis to focus on singlehood merely at the individual level to focus singlehood merely at the individual level. Instead, singlehood needs to be understood as deeply socially and historically embedded. Many participants described that their intimate lives were constrained by the history of criminalization and the ongoing social stigmatization of homosexuality. This provides evidence to reject any explanation of singlehood that merely focuses on the individual characteristics of singles.
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