The Culture of Singularity


You may remember that I signed off last time with: "So tell me—why am I single again?" OK, confession time. I've been single for most of my life. I have never been in a long-term monogamous relationship, although I've slept with more people than the average New Zealander. Gasp!

As part of the research for my offering this time I took my own sexual history, and a fascinating exercise it was. Try it yourself. Write the name of the people with whom you've had sex in one column. In the other write the nature of the liaison. I included things like the particular sexual behavior we engaged in, whether we kissed and/or came, how long we were shagging, and whether I was in love or drunk. I was tempted to add people I really wanted to shag but hadn't—until I remembered that this was a sexual history, not a sexual fantasy.

So, let me share. I've got nothing to hide. I'd like to say straight away that I remembered the name of each and every one of my twenty-one sexual partners. All were guys except one, a drunken but consenting one-night stand one week before I turned eighteen. My enduring memories are of being hugely disappointed with intercourse, avoiding the woman afterwards and being intensely relieved I'd lost my virginity at a respectable age.

Before that I'd had many years of what I'd term "fiddling" with boys from school, six in total, half disabled, half not, and ranging from oncers in the school therapy room (I know, tacky), to a two-year liaison with a close friend—no romance, just buddies.

I fell in love for the first time when I was nineteen, with my first "real" boyfriend, who dumped me after three months because his friends were hassling him for going with me. That hurt. Then there was the guy who pumped my gas, whom I recognized at a gay march. That lasted a month or so. The one-night stand I took home from a club. The three-month spiritualist. The one-night white Australian Aborigine, within twenty-four hours of dumping the spiritualist. And half a dozen others, only one of whom broke my heart.

So there you go, twenty-five years of lust, love, passion and mediocrity in just two paragraphs. Within that period, however, I would estimate I have only spent one year actually or supposedly "in a relationship".

I'm faced with an interesting paradox. On the one hand I surprised myself at the number of sexual partners I've had in my life. That's something I will remember in those few dark moments when I feel unattractive and rejected because I'm disabled. On the other hand, I sometimes feel inadequate for being so lousy at keeping things together with guys. I guess I should remember that when I'm feeling cocky about being such a stud.

So why do I feel bad about my pitiful long-term monogamous relationship (LTMR) success rate? Cynically, I wonder if I'm disappointed that I've not had more casual partners and more regular sex throughout my life. I realize that indeed I am! There have been many men I would have had, had I not been impaired, or had they not been afraid of impairment, or had I not been afraid of their fear of impairment. (Ironically, impairment meant nothing to the handful of straight men with whom I have fallen in love.)

Irony and cynicism aside, I have long been suspicious of the social norm of coupling. The expectation of being partnered pervades our culture to such an extent that I can remember feeling relieved when I acquired a boyfriend, not because I was no longer alone, but because I was no longer perceived as being unable to find a partner. The pressure of proving oneself capable of loving and being loved by another can be overwhelming, especially if you're disabled, even more so if you're queer and disabled.

The LTMR seems to me to be the last bastion of social acceptance and success. But is it all it's cracked up to be?

One evening sometime around my twenty-fifth birthday I remember making a fundamental decision that changed my life. I realized that all experiences have an upside and a downside, and that all behavior both serves and limits (a basic Neuro-Linguistic Programming premise). With these realizations in mind I made a pact with myself. I agreed to focus on the positive, rather than the negative aspects of my life, including being single. In fact, I went so far as to consciously identify the benefits of not being in a relationship. These included lofty ideals such as making plans without needing to consult someone else, fulfilling my personal destiny without compromise, and lying diagonally across my queen-sized bed.

Of course this is not to say that the opposite advantages are not to be valued in an equitable manner. Certainly planning together, striving for mutual goals and waking in the arms of a loved one are all positive outcomes of a relationship. But what intrigues me is how we are conditioned to focus on the upside of being coupled and the downside of being single.

My osteopath's receptionist grimaced at me the other day as she realized that, if she hadn't left her husband fifteen years ago, it would have been her thirtieth anniversary. Right now she is on her own and enjoying her independence. I shared my observation that I believe most relationships are only really good for three months, okay for another year and, by three years, if they are not over, they have become habitual havens from the curse of single life. I went as far as to say that I think only five to ten percent of LTMRs are healthy and nurturing for both partners. She agreed.

In the last ten years, I have been determined and committed to reframing the stereotype that casts me as being unworthy, unfit or somehow deficient for being single. I've battled with the marginalized culture of singularity. I've ended relationships after three months when I saw them going nowhere and I've vehemently resisted getting involved simply because anyone was better than no one.

Yes, it's been lonely and hard and sometimes I've longed for the comfort and safety of the status quo. But I see couples struggling with similar and worse challenges—the fights, the misunderstandings, the compromises, and the hurt. Had I been in a succession of LTMRs I would have reached collaborative highs and lows and seen the world through the paradigm of a couple. Society, that amorphous entity, would call that success. I would call it fitting in for the sake of it. And I would not have achieved what I have in my life.

If you are reading this and you experience the culture of singularity and struggle with the lack of acceptance it may bring, fear not, comrade, for you are not alone.

Rise up and fight against the oppressive attacks on your attractiveness, your social well-being, and your interpersonal communication skills.

Go forward confidently, bearing the proud banner of the single, independent, self-determined person, which reads: "Single—and glad to sleep diagonally!"

©2006 Philip Patston


Please feel free to visit me at and email me at




BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2006