My previous post provided a review of Louis-Georges Tin’s book, L’invention de la Culture Hétérosexuelle. The book is an attempt to historicize heterosexual dominance by exposing the fact that the man-woman couple was valued very differently throughout French history. During feudal times, heterosexuality was viewed as necessary, but secondary: marriages had to be performed in order to ensure continuation of family lineages and certify economic exchanges. But the man-woman couple was not considered to be the epitome of love, friendship or sex. Passionate homosocial friendships and abstinence from sex were vaunted much more than relationships between men and women, and it was only in 12th Century that heterosexuality began to be placed on a pedestal. The end result was total dominance: since the late Middle Ages, and especially in the 20th Century, Europeans have been living in a hegemonic heterosexual culture – a society that Tin describes as constantly “portray[ing], encourage[ing], and celebrat[ing]” the “man-woman couple” and depicting it as the only valid form of sexual and amorous relations (9). This is the history of heterosexuality – but what about its future?

This post will consider some of the ways in which hegemonic heterosexual culture can be relegated to the dustbin of history. In order to ensure a pluralistic social environment that respects a large variety of sexualities, genders, and pleasures, heterosexuality must be stripped of its normative, compulsory status. The rules regarding heterosexual courtship (men paying for women on dates), sex (focusing solely on phallic pleasure, penetration) and relationships (legal and cultural recognition only of the man-woman couple) should also not be mandated for anyone. There are a variety of methods for fighting this hegemonic heterosexual culture, one of the most idiosyncratic of which is the phenomenon of the “queer heterosexual.”

But how can a straight person be queer?

This concept is, at first glance, hopelessly oxymoronic. How can a person who has a highly normative sexual identification be so closely associated with a term usually used to describe LGB and transgender individuals? And why would a person who has the legal and social privileges associated with his/her sexuality willingly link themselves to discriminated minorities? Indeed, the notion of the “queer heterosexual” seems bizarre from an LGBT movement perspective – is it not LGBT’s who are supposed to be fighting for rights and recognition? And is heterosexual participation in this fight not based primarily on the “ally” identity? Queer straight identification is only made possible, sensible and intelligible if we consider some of the philosophical changes brought about by queer theory. We can only hope to understand this phenomenon by peering at our sexed and gendered world through the queerest of looking glasses. This section will explain how queer theory’s basic insights inform queer heterosexual identification and practice.

First of all, queer theorists have produced a unique conceptualization of sexuality, which highlights the differences between sexual culture, sexual identity and sexual practice. The latter essentially involves sex acts, such as the swallowing of the penis by the vagina, the licking of various body parts, mutual masturbation, fun with bondage etc… Sexual identity entails the definition of certain sexual desires and practices as an essential part of who one is (for more on the historical contingency of sexuality-as-identity, see this previous post). For example, in the 20th Century, if a woman has sexual desires mostly for men, and if she has mainly had sex with men, then she is likely to come to identify herself as heterosexual. On the other hand, sexual culture refers to the social norms, values, and rules that regulate sexuality. For example, as stated above, heterosexual culture involves the constant celebration “man-woman couple” and its portrayal as the only valid form of sexual and amorous relations (Tin 9). Thus, as Annette Schlichter points out, “queer theory distinguishes between a cultural system that produces and regulates sexual identities…and heterosexuality as the hegemonic identity position arising from this system. Consequently, the object of…critique is neither heterosexual desire nor the subject desiring another gender but the sociocultural system, which inscribes a heterosexual identity as a hegemonic position” (“Queer at Last?” 546).

Queer theory’s second key theoretical move involves the dissociation of queer politics from LGBT identities, which “opens the queer project up to the participation of heterosexual[s]” (Schlichter, 546). In the late 20th Century, it was commonly thought that personal identities were inexorably linked to political affiliations. Only women could be feminists and participate actively in the feminist movement and only homo and bisexuals could participate in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. While both of these social movements can be interpreted as pushing for greater gender and sexual liberation, it was simply assumed that only women and GLBs had a stake in these principles and that only they were allowed to struggle for them. This caused the movements to become inaccessible to people who did not fit neatly into the categories “woman,” “gay man,” and “lesbian.” Furthermore, people who strongly supported the principles of the feminist and gay/lesbian movements, but did not identify with the requisite identity categories, could not find a way to meaningfully participate in them. Hence, queer theory seeks to reorient the feminist and gay movements away from identity politics and toward the struggle for sexual and gender liberation in general. In this sense, it is no problem for heterosexuals who believe in that goal to participate in queer political movements – as David Ross Fryer argues in his “African-American Queer Studies” article, “one’s identity is not part and parcel of one’s political affiliation and there is no identity criterion for entry into the political agenda” (9).

But what about the claiming of a personal queer identity and membership in the queer community? Can heterosexuals go further than simple participation in queer politics? According to most queer theorists, they certainly can. The second major contribution of this academic field is the broadening of the definition of “queer,” such that it is no longer simply a synonym for gay or lesbian. “Queer” is now considered to be an umbrella term for all non-normative gender expressions and sexualities. While gays, lesbians and the transgendered are still included under the umbrella, queer can also refer, for example, to feminine men, masculine women, people in non-monogamous relationships, and those who perform a wide variety of sexual practices that are considered to be “kinky.” Many heterosexuals fit these descriptions, and also feel isolated from the dominant gender and sexuality frameworks in society. Unlike the identity politics described in the above paragraphs, membership in the queer community is not premised on any particular desire, action or social category. In a sense, it is all about how a person feels, in relation to the sexed and gendered social order. If they feel personally uncomfortable in relation to forced monogamy, marriage, compulsory heterosexuality, and the creation of a rigid hierarchy of sexual acts, then they may feel comfortable identifying with queerness. In a sense, all that is necessary for queer identification is the proclamation of queerness itself and acceptance of the core ideological message: you are queer if you say that you are and feel comfortable with it.

Overall, queer theory opens up possibilities for queer heterosexuality. Three philosophical moves are necessary in order for this identity to be rendered intelligible. First, conceptual differentiation between heterosexual practice and culture enables a both critique of heteronormativity and a neutral attitude towards sex between men and women. Under this model, heterosexual identities and practices do not necessarily have to be the objects of scrutiny and condemnation. Second, the dissociation of identities and practices from the queer political agenda opens up the possibility for straight participation in it. Since the overall goal is the liberation of sexuality and gender, there is (at least in theory) nothing that would prevent heterosexuals from participating actively in it. Finally, the broadening of “queer,” to include all non-normative sexual and gender identities/practices, makes it perfectly possible for straight people who have experienced discomfort with heteronormativity to identify as queer and to belong in the queer community.

Radical feminist opposition to queer heterosexuality

Radical feminists have been at the forefront of critiques of queer heterosexuality. They have responded with shock at queer theorists’ attempts to embrace non-normative versions of heterosexuality, and they have been extremely skeptical about straight peoples’ ability to reject patriarchy and heteronormativity. Radical feminist criticisms of queer heterosexuality emerge from an essentialist view of sex and sexuality. In brief, the argument goes as follows: (1) heterosexual sex – defined as the penetration of the penis by the vagina – is inherently oppressive to women, as it inscribes their subordinate social status; (2) it is unclear what exactly one needs to do in order to qualify as a queer heterosexual; (3) this uncertainty leads to a kind of “anything-goes” libertarianism, in which patriarchal, oppressive and immoral sexual practices can suddenly be glorified under the pretext of liberating the “non-normative”; and (4) heterosexuals can co-opt gay, lesbian, and transgender identities for their own purposes and quash the voices of true sexual and gender minorities by assuming leadership positions in queer organizations.

A queer interpretation of straightness depends on the idea that sexuality itself is a matter of interpretation. Building on the insights of a sociological tradition developed by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, queer theorists assert that a particular action can never have a single meaning. Instead, in order to grasp the significance of the act, one has to know what kind of interpretation the individual or group doing the act takes of it, and what that interpretation means in the wider social context. This perspective sets up the possibility that, even though an action can have a dominant social meaning, individuals can develop their own interpretations of it, which do not necessarily conform to collective meanings. On the other hand, radical feminists have asserted an essentialist view of human action, which embeds certain acts with only a singular social meaning. For them, heterosexual sex is inherently damaging because there is “a particular set of cultural and political meanings attached to penile penetration of women being “had,” “possessed,” “taken,” “fucked,” meanings which are oppressive, humiliating and destructive” (Kitzinger and Wilson, “Virgins and Queers,” 446). It is not possible to transcend these meanings, “penile-vaginal penetration [is] inherently oppressive,” and therefore, true liberation can only be found by “refus[ing] heterosexual sex altogether,” or “choos[ing] heterosexual sex that does not include intercourse itself” (Kitzinger and Wilson, 447). Overall, according to some radical feminists, heterosexual sex inherently reinforces women’s subordinate status in society – hence, the only solution might be to reject heterosexuality altogether, as separatist feminists did in the late 20th Century.

Queer theorists have built their reputation on resisting this kind of reductive analysis of social acts. Their reply to radical feminists regarding the issue of penis-vagina sex is that the dominant social meaning of this act (the possession or penetration of a woman) is not fixed indefinitely and is only one among its many possible meanings. For instance, is it not possible for a person to interpret sex involving contact between the penis and the vagina in a way that would emphasize how the vagina “swallows,” “takes,” and “consumes” the penis? Would a re-interpretation of penis-vagina sex that emphasizes the woman as the active and benefiting agent, or that portrays both partners as consuming each other, be truly that difficult to achieve? At least at the individual level, people can come to interpret heterosexual sex in a different way quite easily, simply by activating their own critical consciousness. Social meanings of penis-vagina sex might be more difficult to change, but individuals and groups can work in concert to disrupt them. For instance, through dissemination of cultural material, such as the Bend over Boyfriend series (instructional videos for women about how to fuck their boyfriends with a dildo), activists can disrupt received notions about what heterosexual sex is like and open up possibilities for people who would like to explore beyond the usual sexual menu that is presented in heterosexual cultural production and mainstream porn outlets. Queer theory’s core contribution is that the social meaning of a particular act is not fixed. While today, penis-vagina sex is interpreted as an act by which a man possesses and dominates a woman, individual interpretations of it can differ widely, and concerted action by individuals and groups can help to change dominant social meanings over time as well. Hence, there is no basis on which to consider penis-vagina sex as inevitably, irreversibly and irrefutably patriarchal and oppressive.

The radical feminist critique of queer heterosexuality continues with a challenge to queer theorists regarding the vagueness of the concept. As Suzanna Danuta Walters points out, queer theorists have not successfully defined what exactly makes heterosexuality queer: “are straight queers marked by their willed critique of heterosexuality, or by their choice of sexual practices (S/M instead of vanilla, fetish fantasies, etc.), or by their allegiance to gay politics?” (“From Here to Queer,” 862). This is a valid point, but it ultimately misunderstands the individualistic sensibility of queer identity. As described above, the most important criterion for queer identification and membership in the queer community is the feeling that one wants to identify with the label and belong to the community. Usually, this is accompanied by a discomfort with heteronormativity and an unwillingness to accept social norms about gender and sexuality, for oneself or for others. Hence, the exact criteria for queer heterosexual identification should purposely be left open-ended, as a variety of experiences, emotions and desires could incite one to identify as queer.

The lack of certainty that surrounds concepts, such as “queer heterosexuality,” has also led some radical feminists to wonder whether the acceptance of heterosexuals under the queer umbrella will lead to the incorporation of morally questionable sexualities into the movement. Walters writes that, if “anyone who feels disenfranchised by sexual norms” has a right to call themselves queer, then the category can accommodate “pedophiles, incest perpetrators” and even rapists (838). If all that queer people “share is a non-normative sexuality and a disenfranchisement, then why not be totally inclusive?” (838). This slippery-slope argument misrepresents the ethical focus of queer theory. While its attention is certainly on studying how the definition of gender and sexual non-normativity has changed across time and space, queer theory’s major point is that “both gay liberation and feminism should be focusing on the struggle for sexual freedom itself – for freedom of sexual expression” (Fryer 9). Queer theory does not simply support all non-normative gender and sexual tendencies, without any regard as to what those tendencies entail. The broader principle at work is the general liberation of gender and sexuality, and hence, queer theory cannot seek to include sexual practices that are non-consensual, and that diminish the people’s freedom, under its umbrella. Rape is obviously coercive and pedophilia involves differences in the meaning of sexuality for children and adults that make actual consent for it unachievable. Consent is also problematic when it comes to incest, especially its pedophilic forms. While queer theorists might, for example, inquire into how we define pedophilia across time and space and question the arbitrary definition of ages of consent (what is the difference between 16 and 18?), it is hard to imagine an attempt to justify sex between adults and children. Furthermore, no queer theorist has seriously argued in favor of ending moral prohibitions on pedophilia, rape or incest. The only prominent figure that I can think of who has done so is Camille Paglia, and given her exceptionally stereotypical views about women and her disdain for poststructuralism, one can hardly call her a queer theorist.

Finally, Walters also expresses concern about the possibility that queer-ness could “degenerate into a ‘we are the world’ pluralism that refuses to see the lines of power as they mark themselves on the lives of gendered, raced, ethnic subjects” (863). She essentially worries that queer heterosexual identification will obscure the fact that heterosexuals still have an unprecedented amount of legal, social and cultural privilege, whatever political affiliation and sexual kinks they might have. Assuming a queer identity would allow straight people to portray themselves as victims, on a par with trans people, gays, lesbians and bisexuals. It would encourage them to infiltrate these groups’ organizations and to assume leadership positions. This would likely cause authentic sexual minority voices to be lost, as heterosexuals’ privileged position in society would make it probable that they would find it easier to assume a public role on most issues. There are two problems with this argument. First, it relies on essentialist assumptions about heterosexuals – would they not, in most social contexts, be taking a risk by identifying as “queer” and siding with sexual and gender minorities? Second, the argument conflates the GLB, transgender, and queer movements. I understand them to be interacting and overlapping, but separate, entities. The GLB and transgender movements largely push for legal changes and short-term measures to improve the lives of GLB and trans people, while the queer movement works towards broader cultural change in our conceptions of gender and sexuality. This might be an overly rigid rendering, since legal changes can contribute to cultural transformations and vice-versa. But I think it captures a key distinction between identity-based movements, which represent and aim to secure rights for a particular social group, and universalistic movements for the achievement general social principles and cultural goals. Like the LGB and trans movements, the former represents a particular group, while the latter represents the will to realize an idea. In that sense, the participation of heterosexuals in the queer movement poses few problems.

And what about queer heterosexuals themselves?

But amidst all this chatter, where are the voices of queer heterosexuals themselves? Dreamy queer theorists and horrified radical feminists, sniping away at each other in academic publications, have dominated discourse about queer heterosexuality. Unfortunately, few queer heterosexual voices have entered this debate. Currently, I only know of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Clyde Smith, who have written pieces about queer heterosexuality. In Smith’s case, he describes how identification with feminism, and queer cultural analysis, led him to develop a distance from heteronormativity. A move to San Francisco and a close identification with a mostly gay men’s dance group caused him to rethink his worldview and to develop a queer straight identity. I am not going to summarize/analyze the essay here, but it is well worth a read. In general, though, it is a shame that there are so few queer heterosexual voices, and as a result of this our understanding of the phenomenon is greatly reduced and remains largely at the theoretical/abstract level. So, come on queer heterosexuals! Tell us about yourselves!

***For More Information***

For brief, journalistic pieces about queer heterosexuality, check out Tristan Taormino’s, “The Queer Heterosexual,” and Clyde Smith’s “How I Became a Queer Heterosexual.” Annette Schlichter’s article, “Queer at Last? Straight Intellectuals and the Desire for Transgression,” is an interesting and sympathetic take on the queer heterosexual phenomenon, while David Fryer’s piece on “African-American Queer Studies,” in A Companion to African-American Studies, provides one of the clearest explanations of the differences between queer and GLBT identities, communities, and movements that I have ever read. I highly recommend it. For books on queer heterosexuality, see Thomas’ Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality< and Fantina’s Straight writ Queer: Non-normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do full justice to the radical feminist critique of queer heterosexuality (and queer theory more broadly) in this post, so definitely have a look at the following articles: Suzanna Danuta Walters’ “From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace (Or, Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Fag?),” and Kitzinger and Wilkinson’s “Virgins & Queers: Rehabilitating Heterosexuality?” There is even a Wikipedia page about queer heterosexuality, which has more useful links and resources. If there are any other books, articles, or websites on this subject that we should be aware of, do let us know in the comment box below!

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