Even though I know the question is inevitable, it always takes me by surprise when a relative at a holiday party aggressively inquires about my dating life. “Are you seeing anyone?” they ask, leaning in closer to my face as if this uncomfortable proximity might ease the tension. “No,” I respond, annoyed that the first question I’ve been asked is not about my classes or my job, but about my relationship status. The relative almost always follows my curt response by asking why I don’t have a boyfriend. Suddenly, my single status is not a choice, but a horrible problem to which I must immediately find a solution.
“I’m focusing on other things at the moment,” I chime back cheerfully. “I’m really enjoying my classes, particularly English, and I’m also busy with extra-curricular clubs at school, plus I work at the library.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll find someone soon!” my relative says as she pats me on the shoulder, ignoring everything else I’ve mentioned. She’s too busy pitying me as I quite obviously languish in my sad state of actually believing that school is a worthy consolation prize for not having a boyfriend.
It’s not an uncommon exchange, and lest you think you’ve never been on the receiving end of “the boyfriend question,” it appears in other, sneakier variations. Sometimes, it’s masked as an observation: “It looks like you’re still single, huh?” (to which the only appropriate response is, “It looks like you’re still nosy, huh?”). Other versions include questions about whether or not there’s anyone special in your life. Most people in my life are special, so I find this question strangely vague. There’s also the version in which the speaker is certain that you are in love with so-and-so, but that you have simply forgotten: “What about so-and-so who you like so much? Remember how much fun you had that one time?” Um, no, you just made that up. Another favorite of mine is the backhanded compliment: “I think it’s wonderful that you’ve decided to do other things. Not everyone is meant to get married, you know.” Thanks so much, distant relative, for divining my future in your tea leaves. Let’s not forget the question about your sexual preference: “Um, I hate to ask this, but…do you like girls?” This question is incredibly disrespectful on so many levels that I never know where to start.
It’s exhausting. It’s also exhausting for my relatives, apparently, who are confounded because I’ve appeared at yet another family function without a guy by my side. For some reason, however, the question must be asked because the strange situation demands an explanation. And so “the boyfriend question” keeps getting asked because it looks enough like someone is taking the time to be interested in your life. Do not be fooled. “The boyfriend question” is as concerning as it is jarring and rude.
Aside from the obvious intrusion of privacy that I do not appreciate, “the boyfriend question” and its implications are, at the very least, unhealthy for young women (and young men, for that matter, though my guess is that men experience less of these situations than do women). A woman is not made or broken by her relationship status, but societal acceptance of “the boyfriend question” has placed relationship statuses on a higher plane than other interests or occupations women may have.
The other dangerous consequence of asking young women why they don’t have boyfriends is the attitude that single women are somehow the lesser because of it. There must be something fundamentally wrong with a young woman who doesn’t have a boyfriend, even more so if the young woman in question doesn’t seem too concerned about this gaping hole in her life.
Don’t worry! You can fill that hole if you only figure out what’s wrong with you! There are dozens of quizzes online and in women’s magazines telling you what’s keeping you single. Seventeen Magazine’s “Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” quiz is comprised of seven complex and serious questions compiled by professionals to help you diagnose your problem. Question 1 reads: “What do you do when you see that h-o-t soccer player who scored yesterday’s winning goal?” There are only three options to choose from because every young, single woman would conceivably do one of the following: “a) Half smile and kind of look away. b) Congratulate him on a good game. c) Playfully pat his cute little butt, guys’-locker-room style.” What a relief to know that I’ll never have to be single again as long as I sexually harass strangers after they play sports! How stupid of me for not having thought of that before.
Nice try, Seventeen, but not having a boyfriend is not a problem to be diagnosed, and even if it were, it wouldn’t come in the form of a multiple-choice quiz (are you kidding me?). It can be an active choice; it can be that having a boyfriend is not the sole aim for a young woman; it can be that the young woman hasn’t met anyone she likes; it can be the circumstances. It could be any of these reasons, but there also doesn’t need to be a reason. It can just be. And the sooner we let it be, the sooner we can empower young women for being themselves, regardless of their relationship statuses.