This post that I wrote way back in 2011 is proving popular on my blog lately, so I’m sharing it again along with a page from my new book Queer: A Graphic History explaining the idea of heteronormativity. That book has a lot more to say about this issue if you’re interested.
Yesterday a couple of things happened in quick succession which left me feeling strange and sad. They both called something into question which I have thought about, spoken about, and written about so much for so many years that I regard it as obvious. Having it questioned left me struggling to find words at all.
Reflecting on this today I’m reminded that, of course, this is not something which is obvious to everybody. So I thought I would write a post where I try to articulate what it is that I usually take for granted: that there is something wrong with heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity is the idea that attraction and relationships between one man and one woman are the normal form of sexuality, that sex itself should involve a penis penetrating a vagina, and that any other forms of sexuality, or gender, are not normal, or at least not as normal as this.
Important: Challenging heteronormativity is not about challenging heterosexuality. It is about questioning he idea that heterosexuality is the only normal, natural, or good form of sexuality. Anyone can be heteronormative, including people who are not heterosexual, and many heterosexual people are not heteronormative (i.e. they embrace a diversity of sexualities, forms of sex, and/or gender identities).
Apologies that this blog entry ended up being rather extensive. If you don’t have time to read it all then you can jump to ‘the short version’ which I’ve provided at the very end.
What is heteronormativity?
The first thing that happened was that a group of colleagues and I received a response to a complaining letter which we had written to a television company. We had complained about a recent documentary about sex which they aired. One of our main problems with the programme was that virtually all of the sex that they included in it was heterosexual sex (heterosexual couples kissing and cuddling, or – when it got more explicit – somebody with a penis penetrating someone with a vagina). A small part of the final episode was given over to considering why some people are attracted to the ‘same sex’, but the vast majority of representations of sex were heterosexual. The response from the television company was that they didn’t really see a problem with their representations given that ‘the majority of the British population is heterosexual’.
After receiving this email, I took a bit of a break and read a few news articles which my friends had linked to online. I found a particularly interesting one about a legal case where a woman wanted the right to wear a collar to work because she was into BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism). After finishing the article I looked through the comments which people had written on the website. I was struck by how many of them argued that the woman should keep her sexuality to herself, ‘leave her sexual proclivities at home like most people’, stop ‘going on’ about what she does in private, in her bedrooom, etc. A similar issue has recently come up in psychotherapy and counselling, whereby some people have argued that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) counsellors should not let their clients know about their sexualities, and that being open about them could be harmful.
All of these are examples of heteronormativity. The first example which I gave is pretty obvious. The argument from the television company is that it is okay to present heterosexuality in virtually all of the examples of sex on the show because ‘the majority’ of people are heterosexual. The second example is perhaps a little less clear, but none-the-less I think it is an example of heteronormativity. People generally have no problem with a person wearing a wedding ring to work, having a picture of their heterosexual partner on their desk, or talking about what they did with their heterosexual partner at the weekend. The suggestion that it might not be okay to wear clothes, or have conversations, which imply that a person is lesbian, gay or bisexual, or a BDSM practitioner, is heteronormative because the same kinds of things which are challenged – or regarded as strange – here go unquestioned for non-kinky heterosexual people.
These second kind of challenge also reveals that people are generally assumed to be heterosexual (and interested in heterosexual, non-kinky, sexual practices) unless proven otherwise. This is another example of heteronormativity. People who are not heterosexual (or who are kinky, or non-monogamous, or otherwise outside the heteronorm) have to make a decision whether to let people know this or not, whereas people inside the heteronorm know that people will make the correct assumptions about their sexuality, relationships, gender, etc.
Why is it a problem?
So what the television company, and (by implication) many of the people commenting on the collar story are saying is that heterosexuality is normal, and therefore it is fine to depict it as such, and to see people as strange who do not fit within it, and to put different restrictions on their behaviours than we do on heterosexual people.
I’m guessing that many of the people concerned would agree that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are bad things: it is not okay to be prejudiced towards, or to harm people people on the basis of, their sexuality or gender. However, they don’t see a problem with regarding people outside of heteronormativity as somehow ‘less normal’ and treating them differently on the basis of that.
Why do I think this is such a problem? There are many reasons, but here I am going to focus on three rather practical ones. First, rather obviously perhaps, heteronormativity is bad for people who are outside of heteronormativity. Secondly, it is based on some quite problematic ideas about what is normal, and whether that should be what we base our treatment of other people on. And finally, perhaps less obviously, I would argue that heteronormativity is also bad for people who are within it.
Heteronormativity is bad for people outside of it
Psychologist Catherine Butler wrote a short story, which was eventually produced as a film, called ‘homoworld‘. This imagined a world in which heteronormativity was reversed: where being gay and lesbian was seen as the norm, whilst heterosexuality was regarded as peculiar and requiring explanation. It is a useful exercise for people who are heterosexual themselves to reflect upon what it might feel like to be outside of the sexuality norm. For example, the characters in homoworld have to decide whether to come out (and deal with the stress of possible rejection or prejudice) or to hide their relationship (and deal with the stress of keeping such an important thing secret). They also have to cope with questions from others about the ways in which they decide to commit to their relationship or to have children. On a very everyday level, they are surrounded by lesbian and gay representations: on billboard advertisements, in pop songs, and on the street where it is generally only lesbian and gay people who are kissing or holding hands.
It can be useful also to check out the heterosexual questionnaire, and the straight privilege checklist, to get a sense of how heteronormativity feels for those who are outside of it. These tools raise awareness of the fact that it is not just outright homophobia which is bad for LGB people. It is also tough if everybody around you feels that it is okay to ask what you think caused your sexuality, or to question whether you are really that sexuality, or whether it might be better just to keep quiet about it. Similarly, there is a degree of privilege, comfort and security, in having a sexuality which nobody else feels discomforted by, which isn’t used as a reason to question your masculinity or femininity, which isn’t the basis of derogatory language (e.g. ‘that’s so gay’), which is not seen as the totality of who you are, and whereby you are not expected to speak for everybody else who has that sexuality. The monosexual and cisgender privilege checklists are similarly useful in relation to bisexuality and trans.
Psychologists know that dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is often the first step towards treating ‘them’ differently, and even cruelly. So we can see that heteronormativity and homophobia cannot be as easily disentangled as people might hope. When we heternormatively separate ‘normal’ heterosexual people out from other groups (e.g. LGBT, BDSM, non-monogamous, asexual), we reinforce divisions which then make it easier for those groups to be ridiculed, stigmatised, and attacked. We know that biphobia, transphobia and homophobia still exist at worrying levels: there are still countries where people can be put to death for these things, and in the UK the extent of LGBT bullying and discrimination is still extremely problematic. If we are serious about ending hate crime and prejudice we need to look beyond just criminalising transphobia, homophobia and biphobia, towards addressing the heteronormative society which suggests that it is acceptable to see LGBT people, and other groups, as ‘different’.
Heterosexuality might not be normal, and why are we so concerned with normality anyway?
This is all very well, you might say, but the television company is right that surveys have found that most people are heterosexual. Perhaps it is just bad luck for those who are outside of heteronormativity. We can’t stop presenting heterosexuality as the norm just because it is hard for a few minorities that we do so. Facts are facts.
There are many answers to these challenges. First we might think about the findings of those surveys which are mentioned. The percentage of heterosexual, and non-heterosexual, people found in such surveys depends an awful lot on the questions which are asked and the way that they are asked. In the UK, the national census does not ask questions about sexual identity for precisely these reasons. The national treasury estimated that between 5% and 7% of the UK population were LGB, whereas the International Household Survey found that 1.5% of people said they were LGB. However, a further 3.8% said that they were ‘other’, didn’t respond, refused to respond, or reported that they didn’t know. Given high levels of stigma and prejudice we might well suggest that these surveys are actually measures of ‘out’ LGB people who are happy to use this terminology (which not all cultural groups use, for example). TheNATSAL survey, which asks about ‘sexual experiences’ rather than sexual identities, found that 8-10% of people in the UK had had sexual experiences with a partner of the ‘same sex’ in 2000. This had gone up from 3-5% of people in 1990, so clearly experiences, or at least reporting of them, is not static over time. Also, people may well answer differently to a postal survey (whether they answer at all, and whether they answer honestly) than to an in depth interview, for example. This could partially explain why Kinsey’s famous study in the US found that over a third of men reported some ‘homosexual’ contact.
So we can question whether heterosexuality really is the norm. By some ways of assessing normality (number of people who identify as heterosexual on a survey), we could argue that it is. However, if we turn to behaviour, particularly if we include all of the groups who fall – in some way – outside of mainstream heteronormativity, then we would conclude that it is not. In fact, non-kinky, monogamous, ‘opposite sex’, relationships and attractions would certainly be the minority if we considered all those people who have had some kind of ‘same sex’ sexual experience, those two thirds of people who enjoy some kind of BDSM practices or fantasies, the high number of people whose gender identity doesn’t fit into traditional masculinity or femininity, and all of the people who are in some way non-monogamous.
But even if we went by the most conservative of statistics, we might ask how big a minority it has to be before we include a group of people as part of the norm, or at least stop treating them as different from everybody else. Analogies could be made here with other minority groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, and those with certain disabilities, although there are clearly different issues with different types of ‘difference’, and they often intersect with one another. Discussions of sexuality often focus on trying to prove, or disprove, naturalness or normality, but we might ask a bigger question of whether either of these is really a good foundation to base our treatment of people on. We can think of example of very unusual things (being highly intelligent, or a person like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela) which we would agree are good, and very ‘normal’ things (like being unkind or standing by when others are in trouble) which are not. We might also start to ask questions about why we focus so much on some divisions that it is possible to make between people (about sexuality and gender, for example) and not on others (for example, about eye-colour, food preference, or handedness).
Heteronormativity is bad for people within it
My final point is that heteronormativity is not just problematic for people who are located outside it. It is actually pretty bad for those inside it for many reasons as well. These have been particularly brought home to me in my work as a sexual and relationship therapist. Almost every seemingly heteronormative client who I’ve seen in this capacity has expressed an overwhelming desire to be ‘normal’ and often a desperate fear that they might not be, which has frequently made their life a misery. Normality is often privileged over everything else including having pleasurable sex, positive relationships, and open communication.
First, given the degree of stigmatisation of those who are outside heteronormativity there is a lot of pressure on those who are inside heteronormativity to stay within it. They know that stepping outside means, at least, being questioned and seen as less than normal, and, at worst, being attacked, oppressed, and discriminated against. This means that heteronormativity can feel like a dangerous and precarious place to be, especially in these days where everyone is also expected to be quite sexually adventurous in order to prove that they are interesting people with exciting relationships. The lines between heteronormativity and the ‘outside’ can seem pretty blurry. Where, for instance, do bicurious women fit, or metrosexual guys, or people who buy the fluffy handcuffs and jewelled riding crops sold by mainstream sex shops, or those who have a new monogamous arrangement where it is okay to occasionally get off with somebody other than their partner at a nightclub?
So those who have some kind of desires and inclinations beyond rigid heteronormativity, and who act on these, often live in some degree of fear of others finding this out and of how they might be treated if they do.
Others try to remain completely within heteronormativity, but this often brings with it problems as well. Many people, for example, simply do not tune into their sexuality at all for fear of what they might find if they do so. Instead, they focus on trying to have a certain kind of sex with a certain kind of partner the number of times per week which they have been told is ‘normal’. Quite often, this results in problems such as people being penetrated finding it painful or difficult and/or people penetrating finding that they lose their erection or ejaculate too quickly (see www.cosrt.org.uk). Statistics on these kinds of ‘sexual dysfunctions’ go up to between a third and a half of people, suggesting that they are extremely common. However, we might question whether it is right to see these as ‘sexual dysfunctions’, or as ‘societal dysfunctions’ whereby people are being told to have a certain kind of sex which isn’t really what they’d most enjoy. Sex therapists often find it useful, when working with these kinds of problems, to get people reading about the vast diversity of sexual practices and fantasies that human beings have, either by reading collections of fantasies and/or making checklists of what they might like to try. It can also be helpful to question the idea that everybody needs to be sexual in order to be regarded as healthy or normal. All of this involves questioning heteronormativity.
Moving from sex to romantic relationships more broadly, we can see that heteronormative models of everyone needing a opposite-sex partner to spend their life with can be very tough on those who are single, or who go through relationships break-ups, as well as sometimes encouraging people to stay in relationships which are not good for them, and sometimes meaning that people leave relationships too quickly due to expectations of the ‘perfect’ match.
What does an alternative look like?
It is often easier to point out what is wrong with something – like heteronormativity – than it is to offer anything else to put in its place. To end this blog (which has become rather long already!) I will try to offer some quick ideas which might be of help to people like the television companies and commentators who I mentioned earlier, if they are convinced by my arguments.
First of all it is vital to point out that it isn’t just heteronormativity that is a problem. Any kind of normativity would be equally problematic. There is a tendency for those who step out of one kind of normativity to quickly produce their own form of normativity in its place. This is pretty understandable because being on the outside is a scary and precarious place to be, and we seem to be drawn to seeing the world in ‘us and them’ kinds of ways. However it is also unhelpful, and reinforces the very divisions that we are saying are so problematic. For example, it isn’t great for LGBT people if, on coming out, they are faced with a whole load of new and rigid rules about how to be properly lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Similarly, for the person who is struggling with sex in the ways which I wrote about above, it isn’t great if the only other option that they can find is another kind of normativity where everybody is expected to be hugely sexually creative and try everything once.
So the answer is not just to come up with another kind of normativity that we expect everybody to adhere to. However, what we can do is to replace the normativity model with what Gayle Rubin calls a model of ‘benign variation’. This is the idea that there is a diversity of sexual desires, practices and relationships, and – so long as they are engaged in consensually and ethically – they are all equally fine. Here we are not concerned with how normal something is: a person can equally take part in something which is completely unique to them, or which most other people have experienced.
What would this look like in practice? Here are a few ideas, but I would be very interested in hearing other’s thoughts.
- Programme-makers, advertisers, magazine editors and so forth would be less concerned with representing what is ‘normal’ and would instead go out of their way to ensure that the full diversity of sexual practices, relationships, bodily forms, and so forth, were represented in their materials. In addition they would take care not to present any sexual practice, identity or relationship as ridiculous or problematic on the basis of its unusualness.
- Instead of asking whether something like wearing a collar to work was a more or less normal activity, we would afford each person with the same rights to express their sexuality or relationships through their appearance.
- Researchers in this area would be less concerned with questions of what are, or are not, normal sexualities, and with trying to find explanations for certain sexualities. Instead they would attend to documenting the diversity of sexualities that exist, to exploring the lived experiences of different people and communities, and perhaps to examining which ways of understanding sexuality are most positive in terms of decreasing stigma and discrimination.
- Educators and parents would be keen to ensure that young people grow up with an understanding of the range of possiblerelationships and identities available to them, rather than the idea that some of these are better than others. The focus would be on ethics, consent, and communication, and on tuning into our own bodies, desires and feelings.
The short version
What is wrong with heteronormativity?
- It leaves people feeling alienated and alone.
- It is bad for LGBT people and other people who are outside of it.
- It sets up an ‘us and them’ which enables homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to exist.
- It is questionable whether the ‘normative’ form of heterosexuality actually is normal.
- Our treatment of others should not be based on how normal, or not, they are.
- It is bad for those who have some desires or feelings outside the ‘norm’.
- It puts pressure on those who are inside it to stay inside it, and may prevent them for finding the kinds of sex and relationships that work for them.
What can we do about it?
- Move to a model of sexual diversity rather than normality/abnormality.