Heterosexuality and its discontents

Why straight women seem to malign heterosexuality with such frequency.

Heterosexuality and its discontents

Why straight women seem to malign heterosexuality with such frequency.

A man I was once romantically attached to had, on more than one occasion, asked me how I could possibly find men attractive. The joke reassured his own sense of identity (heterosexual, cisgender) while also signaling his awareness that there is something wrong with heterosexuality generally and men’s role in it specifically. But underlying this joke was another question that asked something about my bisexuality. If I have the option of seeking sexual and romantic attachment to someone who is not a man, why would I ever settle for men?

Bisexual culture acknowledges this conundrum with jokes of its own. For example, @woodmasterfresh tweets, “Yes, i’m bisexual: I’m attracted to women because women are incredible, and I’m attracted to men because i love making bad choices.”

Among a particular set (woke SJWs), it is a truth universally acknowledged that heterosexuality is a prison, a form of Stockholm syndrome for women cursed to date men. Spend enough time online and one gets the sense that heterosexuality is on its way out. Writer and academic Indiana Seresin calls this sense “heteropessimism” in a 2019 New Inquiry essay in which she interrogates why straight women in particular seem to malign heterosexuality with such frequency. It’s become so obvious that heterosexuality is bad that even the heterosexuals know it. “The straights are not okay,” we all say in unison. However, as Seresin also points out, these verbal disavowals are rarely accompanied by any changes in behavior. The disavowers remain practicing heterosexuals.

So why continue to participate in heterosexuality if it leads to near-constant complaining? Theorist Lauren Berlant calls the continued attachment to bad objects like, say, men a condition of “cruel optimism.” She explains that an object becomes bad when it is something “that you thought would bring happiness [but instead] becomes an object that deteriorates the conditions for happiness.” At the same time, you retain an optimistic relationship to the object because “its presence represents the possibility of happiness as such. And so, losing the bad object might be deemed worse than being destroyed by it.” As bad as heterosexuality is and as bad being in relation to men is, it’s better than losing everything being attached to them entails. Cruel optimism is not a delusion. It is a calculation (conscious or not) that decides that proximity to whatever it is you want is worth more to you than the ongoing pain of never actually getting that thing. If cruel optimism is like a long engagement without an actual wedding, at least it lets you take comfort in the fact that you’re engaged at all.

Women are beautiful, and we all understand why anyone would love them. But desiring men? That’s at best suspicious, if not outright aberrant.

Nonetheless, framing men as bad objects splinters the critique of heterosexuality. Addressing men as the point of peril in heterosexuality fails to acknowledge that straight, cis women are not the only ones who desire men. But what strikes me the most about the continued questioning of men’s desirability and the jokes about the awfulness of heterosexuality is that in spite of this practice’s outright distaste for men, it becomes another means to criticize women. I complained to my friend, Zach Schudson, about being asked this question. A soon-to-be assistant professor in psychology with a focus on gender, sex, and self-perception, Schudson pointed out that the pervasive framing of men as categorically unattractive holds inside it the insidious suggestion that the desires of people who find men attractive are incomprehensible. Women are beautiful, and we all understand why anyone would love them. But desiring men? That’s at best suspicious, if not outright aberrant.

This mode of thinking relies on a host of destructive ideas. It reproduces homophobia by framing men who have romantic and sexual relationships with other men as also being deluded. It ascribes an asymmetrical sense of responsibility for the continued practice of heterosexuality to women, whether they are cis or trans and despite not always being strictly heterosexual. It is a subtle kind of misogyny that reflects incel culture’s more obviously misogynistic logic. Where the more progressive bemoan women’s choice to continue fucking, dating, and committing to men at all, the incels state clearly that they believe women are responsible for heterosexuality through their complaints that women are not, in fact, doing those things with enough men.

Placing the responsibility for heterosexuality onto women reflects a wider trend that deflects responsibility for structural problems onto individual choices. If only we recycled more, we could stop climate change. If only women would make different choices, heterosexuality would disappear and take with it all its problems. The misogyny arises from the fact that only women are expected to make different choices.

Putting aside the obvious — that men have equal responsibility for heterosexuality and its discontents (and maybe more so given how supposedly awful they are) — even if we managed to organize all women, Lysistrata-like, to refuse heterosexuality, or live in a SCUM Manifesto-like world where only women existed as rights-wielding subjects, practicing political lesbianism, and, therefore, stamping out heterosexuality, it would not shift the other ways in which the world is organized to exploit people through the stratifications of power. It would not fix all the ways in which we hurt each other in our intimate relationships. Toxic dynamics are not exclusive to heterosexuality.

The problem is not that heterosexuality persists, it’s that heterosexuality still operates as a fundamental site of social organization.

Most fundamentally, it creates another situation where we pressure women to apologize for their desires and make them at least perform shame for wanting at all. In doing so, these theoretical discussions of sexuality forget, dismiss, or (deliberately or not) overlook the fact that we desire, sexually and romantically, what we do because humans have a habit of desiring others, men included. Men become objects of our desire because, despite any supposed detestability, they are worth loving. Why would it be surprising that women continue to have sex, fall in love, and build lives with a category of person that makes up nearly half of the total population of all people on Earth?

Rather, the problem is not that heterosexuality persists, it’s that heterosexuality still operates as a fundamental site of social organization, determining who gets access to certain privileges and capital. Call it what you will — heteronormativity, compulsory heterosexuality, heteropatriarchy — but it’s vital that we acknowledge that a system exists to ensure that it (sometimes literally) pays to be in a heterosexual union.

Partnership has its advantages, from the financial savings living in a common household with another person provide to the various legal benefits of marriage. Housing, transportation, food, furniture and so much else can be cheaper when you’re sharing it with another person with whom you live. Getting the state to legally acknowledge your dyadic partnership grants access to larger institutional benefits such as shared healthcare and certain tax benefits. But none of this is specific to heterosexuality.

So let’s return to what is specific about heterosexuality: Why do women — even women with other options (like me!) — continue to participate in heterosexuality? Though we readily count the myriad ways women benefit men in heterosexual relationships, we are much more hesitant to point out that heterosexual partnership has particular advantages for women, too. We hesitate, I think, because it skirts too closely to something we wish wasn’t true, something that feels fundamentally unfeminist — maybe women are ashamed of their continued heterosexuality because, on some level, it’s about money.

It’s absolutely true that men (particularly cis white men), on average, still make more money than anyone else. Having enough money sets a better foundation for achieving those basic life milestones such as owning property and, if you want them, having kids. Even more, being a woman outside of a relationship with a man puts you at higher risk of poverty. The last major study on poverty and sexuality found that women in same-sex partnerships had the highest poverty rates over men in same-sex partnerships and people in heterosexual partnerships. Women, overall, experience higher levels of poverty, and gay and bisexual women even more so. Money management skills aside, building a household with a man makes good financial sense. It’s certainly cheaper than being a single woman.

So, are women in partnerships with men (or is any person in partnership with anyone) actually attracted to their partners, or to what they can gain access to through their partners? Do you love your husband, or do you love the idea of having a husband (and a house and a nuclear family and the dog and the cat)? Are you attracted to your boyfriend or are you attracted to what he says about the story of your life? It’s gauche to point out the privileges of coupledom — and specifically the privileges a woman gains from being attached to a man. It’s awful to ask these questions about your affection for another person. At the same time, they are questions that can haunt relationships — especially ones that fall outside of certain conventions that refract more clearly the ways partnership may be foremost an economic arrangement: the younger second wife, the mail-order bride, the arranged marriage, loveless and sexless embittered couples who inexplicably stay together.

It’s possible, then, that people feel obligated to confess to heterosexuality as if it were a sin precisely because we have diverted responsibility for structural problems onto people’s personal choices. Women are sleeping with the oppressor, getting something out of it beyond sex or romance, and feel guilty about it. For straight people, men and women both, the confession allows them to express their genuine shame about benefiting from an oppressive system.

We do not need to end heterosexuality so much we need to end how much heterosexuality matters.

But the confessions are diversions. Indiana Seresin calls it anesthetic. They allow people to acknowledge the menace of heterosexuality, bask in the light of knowing, without needing to make any changes to their behavior. This ritual is not an apology for the continued attachment to men or even heterosexuality proper. Instead, it acts as a smokescreen for attaching people to a specific economic position. Participating in heterosexuality does not create an economic class, per se, but it does retrench certain class realities. This ritual of diversion does not direct our attention away from the fact that women continue to like men (something women continue to get shit for), but from the fact that proximity to heterosexuality confers vast and often exclusive benefits for those who are willing to cooperate.

What opposes this, in my opinion, is not the end of heterosexuality. So long as there are men and women, women are going to continue to have sex with men and fall in love with men. Instead, we do not need to end heterosexuality so much we need to end how much heterosexuality matters. We need to allow love to flourish outside of paired partnerships. We need to know that any characteristic any of us might be attracted to exists in people of all genders.

In an optimism I hope is not cruel: maybe one day there will be no more men and women or gender at all and heterosexuality will end because it’s meaningless. Or maybe there will be a proliferation of genders and an openness to a wide configuration of possible ways sexual and romantic attraction and gender interact, and heterosexuality will be only one of a multitude of modes. The future is unknowable. To make heterosexuality matter less we need to change the subtle restrictions embedded in the very foundations of our social structures, which coerce us towards valuing certain relationships over others. Which is not to say it is politically necessary for everyone to practice nonmonogamy or to give up their desire for monogamous, heterosexual partnerships. There is a danger of replicating the same logic by simply giving polyamory the same ethical position heterosexual monogamy currently holds. Instead, we should organize for a world where people of a variety of genders can have a variety of relationships to love and sex, and revolt against a world in which touch and tenderness have been made so rare.

Yuhe Faye Wang is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Yale University. She studies capitalism, race, and intimacy in the 19th century.