Open thread: heteronormativity’s effects on all women and men

I like to have the TV on for background noise when I’m on the computer. This morning, I watched about thirty seconds of a crapumentary called “Anatomy of Sex”, and in those precious seconds, I got material for a whole article here (and, I’m hoping, a whole whack of comments). Here is is:

(A young man hits on a woman he’s just met)

Female narrator (in a sexy cooing voice): Guys like Greg can’t help themselves. They’re just following the first rule of evolution: reproduce! You might say the only reason you’re alive is to have sex – the urge is that strong.

Say what?

So: people with low sex drives are FREAKS. People who want gay sex are FREAKS. People who like oral sex which doesn’t make babies are FREAKS (though, somehow, I’m sure this documentary won’t make that connection, as long as they’re tonguing the other gender). People who choose to be celibate or find that’s their orientation are FREAKS. All of you who belong in one of these FREAK categories? Yeah, you should just kill yourselves now because, evolutionarily speaking, you’re a dead-end anyway.

Well, if you listen to your culture, anyway. I recommend the la la la i can’t hear you technique.

In an ironically heteronormative comment I made yesterday, I said that heteronormativity doesn’t just marginalize queer people and anyone not seeking the long-term monogamous relationship set-up. It also helps to reinforce the arbitrary gender roles society has assigned men and women, regardless of our individual strengths and weaknesses. It promises the easily frightened that unknown individuals will behave predictably, according to gender. When we don’t – when women stand up for themselves, or men turn down an opportunity to have sex with a woman, just for a couple of examples – we are breaking a promise someone made on our behalf. The people who thought they could rely on gender roles making the world of human interaction a less scary place feel betrayed. No wonder they so often get angry, or latch onto a label to brand you as a reject, not to be counted.

In reinforcing the idea that men and women exist to boink each other, heteronormativity strengthens every bullshit idea associated with that assumption. That men are aggressive and women passive. That for men, behaviors up to and including rape are natural, if unfortunate. And for women, being raped by men is natural, too.

For long-term monogamous heterosexuality to be the gold standard of relationships, you have to keep the vast majority of your populace believing that sort of relationship is what they want. To believe that, we have to believe we are the sort of men and women society tells us we are. A woman who discovers she doesn’t really need a boyfriend has betrayed the promise heteronormativity makes to conformists. A man who finds getting laid is not as interesting to him as making that next $1 billion has betrayed it too. No queerness is required, because the promise goes so far beyond assuring everyone that heterosexuality is normal. It’s a promise that women belong to men for the purposes of sex-having and the relief of frustration through abuse.



  1. SunlessNick says

    People who want gay sex are FREAKS.

    A couple of years ago, there were two articles in the New Scientist. One was attempting to explain bisexuality in female hyenas, and it was noticed that those females who had sex with the alpha female were also allowed (by her) to breed with the alpha male – so the hypothesis arrived at by the naturalists studying them was that bisexuality evolved as a way of bonding females together so that the alpha female would allow them access to the male – the advantage being that the population would then be more genetically diverse.

    The other was about a correlation in Mexican men, where homosexuality was more common in boys/men the more older brothers they had (the statistics on this one were poor, and no corresponding study had been done on girls/women) – the hypothesis there was that homosexuality evolved as a way for a species to limit its offspring when conditions crowded it (as is the case for most human populations today).

    I’m not saying I buy either of those (though I think the bisexuality idea is worth following up in other genders and species); I’m mentioning them mainly because even if you go full-on evo-psych and essentialist about sexuality and reproduction, there are STILL reasons why homo- and bisexuality could evolve and be natural.

  2. says

    @Bellatrys, it’s amusing to me that if you analyze Freud on the basis of what he spent his life doing and thinking about, by his own standards he was obviously loony toons. 😉

    @SunlessNick, I thought there was a British study that found gay men tended to be the fourth sons in a family or something like that. Maybe I’m misinformed or mixing up the two. In any case, you’re right – if you start with the hypothesis that queer orientations are not evolutionary mistakes and therefore must make some kind of sense, all sorts of possibilities emerge which you can then test.

  3. Patrick J McGraw says

    Regardless of sexuality, if you’re one of those people who lacks any desire to have children, you’re a FREAK. Doctors and family members will try to talk you out of having yourself sterilized because “you will change you mind.” Women get this worse then men, of course, but I’ve faced plenty of it myself.

  4. says

    Thankyou. You’ve just expressed a whole bunch of stuff that’s been sitting on my chest for the last 12 hours and I feel much lighter now, without going the effort of verbalising it myself.

  5. says

    Yeah, it’s funny how he realized he’d written himself into a corner there – “So, Dr. Freud, vhy do you feel that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, hm?”

    But it is kind of helpful to see just what the logical, inevitable, utterly absurd result of the “Sex Is Just For Procreation!” school of argument is. If it really is this thing where the measure of biological success is solely how many offspring you pop out, then how come many social animals don’t work that way, but have a bunch of non-reproducing relatives sharing all the parenting in a kinship group? Wolves, lions, bees – seems to work out pretty well for them! Why, you’d almost think that having a bunch of folks providing for just a few kids of the extended family was better for their little gene pool than having everybody try to outnumber everyone else and fighting to the last scrap over every bit of resources for their own offspring…

    And of course when this is used to argue against either SSM or women not having kids – OMG! humanity would go extinct if nobody bred! Sky falling, film at eleven! – there is always this deafening silence when you point out that by this same logic we need to a) ban clerical celibacy and b) do away with monogamy and replace it with harems, stat. At least on the conservative Catholic side – and well, everyone else too since the polygamous fundies are considered the drunk relatives at the party by the rest.

  6. Nialla says

    @SunlessNick, I recall similar studies in other countries as well, but the results are still unclear because of the methodology used.

    In a similar vein, I watched “The Making of Me” a while back, which is a documentary about actor John Barrowman, who is out and would love to be able to prove to the fundies that homosexuality isn’t a choice.

    He sets out to go through medical tests and explore how various theories applies to him. One mentioned was the chances of a homosexual son increased as a woman had more children. The theory behind that one was similar to earlier theories I’d heard about hormone levels in the womb, but they were going further and saying a woman’s body was fighting against the “foreign” male fetus hormonally and each child carried increased those chances. Which gives me some ironic thoughts about the fundies who’re determined to “outbreed” the liberals and take over that way. 😉

    Barrowman had two brothers — one older, and another who’d been stillborn — making him the third son and more likely to be homosexual according to this theory. Since the focus was on the male Barrowman, how this would affect lesbian children wasn’t addressed.

    I highly recommend watching the documentary. Barrowman’s always entertaining, but he really gets into the serious topic, one that is personally important to him. You should be able to find it on YouTube.

    @Patrick J McGraw, I’ve been faced with this all my life. When I was younger, I played with toy tractors and educational toys more than I ever did with dolls. Or just read. Everyone wrote it off as being a tomboy since I was a farmer’s daughter, and I’m pretty sure quite a few think I’m a lesbian because I’ve never had any real relationships with a guy.

    My mother has finally gotten over the idea of having grandchildren. She knows I’m straight (a family member coming out brought up that issue), but I’m just not interested in having children. She dotes on her sister’s grandkids as a substitute, and I’ll even babysit them when they’re old enough to talk, but I’m wary of keeping them before that age.

    I love my extended family and would do anything for them and their children, but I don’t want any of my own. I’m not one to coo over every baby I see either. When a situation demands it to be “nice” I will, but I do not seek out babies to ooh and ahh over either.

    • says

      Yeah, I don’t mind watching over kids, and I’m not “bad” at it, but I can’t see myself marrying/having kids in the future.

      Cue the sexual apocalypse. >.>

  7. ACW says

    RE: Freud…
    I have to come to his defense, just a tiny bit. His problem was miserable feedback. From what I understand, in his early years, he was counseling young men and woman and kept running across people who had been traumatized by sexual abuse at a young age. He took his data to some conference and his ideas were shot down, he was made to feel like an idiot for believing them, and every effort was made to convince him this amount of abuse couldn’t possibly be happening. So he formed new and ridiculous theories to explain what was happening with his patients. If he had received support or confirmation of his original theories, who knows? Maybe he’d have been lauded as some great man for speaking out against child molestation.

  8. ACW says

    Now, to address the actual topic of the post…
    It seems to me that shows like this prefer to explain away uncivilized behavior with skewed ‘scientific’ information. Perhaps in the animal kingdom, evolution would be an excuse for behaviors, but the narrator’s quote above ignores the fact that we, as humans, are more than animals. We are capable of making and following rules as complex societies. We are capable of rational thought. We understand that there are consequences for our actions. These differences separate us from mere animal, and allow us to do great things (as in, besides sitting around eating, sleeping, and boinking all day).
    The irony here is that the narrator cited evolution as the reason for the man aggressively pursuing the passive woman (?)… when already a large portion of our society has evolved past those roles.
    Here’s where I get slightly conspiracy-theory on you. In criminal justice studies, socialist theory and feminist theory are closely linked. It’s just a short leap to contemplate whether shows/commercials/individuals are encouraged to perpetuate heterosexuality in order to brainwash society into producing the next generation of drones for the big box stores. Heteronormativity benefits a capitalist society.

    • Spivee says

      Imagine a world where if your son grew out of his day clothes, his still flat-chested younger sister were socially allowed to (gasp) WEAR a shirt that didn’t depict butterflies and princess slogans, rather than buy an entirely new set of dolly pink shirts (lest some stranger be unable to correctly identify the nature of this child’s genitalia at a glance?)

      Capitalism definitely benefits from our need to follow gender norms at all ages.

      • says

        I did spend at least part of my childhood in such a world. It was called “The Seventies.” Kids wore clothes, and hand-me-downs from different-sex siblings happened sometimes. Then the eighties came, and the kids were still left alone, but pre-teens and teens had to wear “designer labels” or risk all sorts of public humiliation at school. Then came the 90s, and GROWN women’s shirts became progressively tighter as little girls’ clothes became not only more gendered, but more risque, which was just disturbing.

        It’s a real pity that people are stupid enough to go into debt for this kind of bullshit. And you know it’s debt-financed because most people live paycheck to paycheck without a monthly budget for princess-wear.

  9. Robin says

    Ooh, Nialla, you beat me to it. So I’ll second the recommendation of “The Making of Me”. It’s about an hour long and can be found here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

    On a personal note, I’ll add that I identify as primarily straight (mildly bi-curious but not enough to do much about it thus far), and have no interest in bearing children at this point in my life. That last part is kind of difficult for my mom to deal with, since my brother and his wife have expressed a similar disinclination. Should they decide that they want a child in the future, they will foster and/or adopt. In a strange coincidence, most of my first and second cousins (the ones I know, at least) are also opting out of parenthood, and the one cousin who has kids lives five states away so I’ve never met her little boys. Many of my late-20s-to-early-30s friend group are just now considering the possibility of children, but about half of them have already decided that they’re not going to procreate. Given all of that, it seems to me that heteronormativity is no longer “normal” for a lot of people.

    Either that, or I just hang out with a bunch of freaks, and I’m okay with that, too. :)

  10. says

    ACW, re: evolution and animal studies. I’m not so sure humans are “more than animals.” Or, rather, I’m think we may be underestimating the complexity of animals and their social systems. Insect societies are often amazingly complex. We’ve only recently realized parrots actually understand what they’re saying to about the same degree as a young human child. I’m not sure researchers should be assuming it’s all about reproduction with any species.

  11. says

    ACW, good point about heteronormativity benefitting a capitalit society. I don’t see anything conspiracy-theory-ish about that observation, either.

    I was going to make a related point, about heteronormative expectations being part and parcel of the process of creating wants. It’s difficult and labour-intensive, not to mention highly fallible and contingent, to go and find out what all the different sub-groups in your target audience really want (whether you’re a consumer manufacturer or a politician).

    Much simpler to segment your market into artificial groups, pressure people into identifying with one of them by Othering any exceptions, then market aggressively to those groups. When challenged, using vague hand waving about “evolution” and “science” is a great get-out-of-jail card. This process halso has the benefits of being self perpetuating, because the curious thing about the human desire to belong to a group and benefit from the safety of recognition is that once fake groups are postulated, nobody wants to be left out of them. So people will go to greater and greater lengths to justify teh “realness” of the artificial groupings rather than risk positioning themselves deliberately as outsiders.

  12. says

    I also agree that no tin hats are required for the theory that heteronormativity supports capitalism (at the very least, it sells products like crazy, and V-day was invented for it!), and like both ACW’s original remarks and TheLady’s additions.

  13. Pocket Nerd says

    It sounds like that crapumentary commits the naturalistic fallacy— it assumes because something is “natural” it is therefore proper and correct. This is bollocks, and it’s particularly annoying bollocks since I generally hear it from pseudo-intellectual jackasses trying to rationalize either their own failings or the failings of their demographic. “Men can’t help being cheaters, it’s an evolutionary imperative.” “It’s natural for men and women to marry for life.” (For extra credit, spot the contradiction in those two assertions, then speculate on why people repeating these phrases don’t spot it.)

    Don’t buy it. Science is a study of what is, not what ought. You might say with confidence sex is an overwhelmingly important drive to most amniotes, and you’d almost certainly be right… but that doesn’t imply it ought to be that way, or people with little or no interest in sex are somehow deficient. Modern psychology, sociology, and anthropology focus on “normative” rather than “normal”: The word “normal” comes pre-loaded with a value judgement, and value judgements are ought, not is.

    The problem gets more complicated when you realize the people pushing glib evo-psych explanations seem to think humans are some sort of solitary, reptilian predator. Back-stabbing your neighbor makes sense if you’re an asocial animal competing for scarce resources, but it’s maladaptive when you’re a social monkey (as humans are) and dependent on cooperation and goodwill with your peers. Rape can a powerful reproductive strategy for some breeds of insect in which neither the male nor the female contribute much to parenting beyond producing eggs, but it’s far less effective for animals whose offspring require large investments of time and resources (like humans). Homosexuality and asexuality are not evolutionary “dead ends” when you factor in kin selection and group survival. Regardless, none of that has any bearing on whether these things are “right” or “just” or “correct” in a human moral context.

  14. sbg says

    Total useless comment ahoy:

    I’m fairly sure I want to at the very least make out with multiple people who’ve posted on this very thread. Maybe all at the same time.

  15. says

    @PocketNerd: “Men can’t help being cheaters, it’s an evolutionary imperative.” “It’s natural for men and women to marry for life.” (For extra credit, spot the contradiction in those two assertions, then speculate on why people repeating these phrases don’t spot it.)

    I’m still trying to figure out how “Men can’t help being repulsive, uncivilized ignoramuses” and “Men know what’s best for everyone and should therefore rule the world” ever managed to co-exist for thousands of years.

    And a big yes to your remarks on the social nature of primates. It’s perfectly natural to hit people when they annoy you, yet most of humanity has made a conscious choice to curb that urge in favor of cooperation. “Guys like Greg” can indeed help themselves, and do so all the time, when they think they’ll be punished for following a natural inclination, such as the urge to hit someone. The problem here is, we send men and women many conflicting messages about what sexual behavior will be punished and tolerated, and why, and by who.

  16. Pocket Nerd says

    @Jennifer Kesler:

    “It’s perfectly natural to hit people when they annoy you, yet most of humanity has made a conscious choice to curb that urge in favor of cooperation.”

    Heh. My usual response to whines that one can’t fight instinct is “it’s instinctual to soil yourself the moment you feel the urge to urinate, but I outgrew that when I was a toddler. How about you?”

    “The problem here is, we send men and women many conflicting messages about what sexual behavior will be punished and tolerated, and why, and by who.”

    Exactly. And even in these dopey crapumentaries, you still see male privilege at work. How many times have you heard TV shows promote smug explanations of why it’s natural women should cuckold their husbands? After all, there are biological incentives for that, as well… (This is linked to the notoriously shabby standards of science reporting in general, another of my bêtes noires.)

    I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man to anybody with an interest in biology. It contains excellent examples of how easily preconceptions can shape the results of research. Peer review helps mitigate this problem, but it’s easier to overturn the false assumptions of a single scientist than of an entire culture.

  17. says

    The documentary sounds totally off on its science. Tarzanism is only evoked by people who are ignorant (or dislike) findings that disagree with their status quo opinions. In addition to Gould, I strongly recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s groundbreaking books:

    The Woman that Never Evolved
    Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection
    Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

  18. Tess says

    A bit off topic, and sorry if someone already mentioned this, but am i he only one here who was creeped out by the “Guys like Greg can’t help themselves” line?

  19. Patrick McGraw says

    Speaking of crap science making itself into the public consciousness, I fairly recently learned that nearly all of the zoological “knowledge” about wolf sociology is complete bollocks. All of that “alpha, beta, omega” stuff? Dominance challenges? Wolves preventing other wolves from mating?

    All of this was based on studying groups of wolves in captivity. It’s the equivalent of basing all of your knowledge of a human culture by studying their prison populations. It tells us nothing about how they live, organize, and sustain themselves when able to make these decisions themselves. Most importantly, the decision to just leave. Apparently, when wolves have the ability to leave and form their own packs, none of that “scientifically observed” wolf pack behavior happens.

  20. Emily says

    I totally second SBG’s comment on making out with y’all.

    Also, I don’t know if this was mentioned in an earlier comment, but I do think that evolution and the kind of ‘going in for the kill’ style flirtation do hold a large link in the way many heterosexual men act.
    However, I do hold hope that, like Pocket Nerd said, people *can* be ‘potty trained’ and grow out of their outdated supposedly ‘evolutionary’ habits. 😉

  21. Gottabekidding says


    What cracks me up about this theory is it’s rank and obvious abuse of statistics and hindsight, and the laws of entropy. If no one is actually tracking womb conditions, there’s no way to DISPROVE this theory, and even then, there’s no way to prove that it’s due to a weakening resolve *against* “parasitic” “male” embryos. The womb default is female, regardless of genetics, so if the resulting child IS “gay” or female, that’s because the body is finally behaving as it “logically” should instead of *producing* “renegade” TESTOSTERONE to fight (oh wait, no *that* doesn’t make sense…) er, PRODUCE hetero males.

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