Being exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex is a surprisingly recent phenomenon.
By Annie Hayes
While heterosexual sex is certainly nothing new, heterosexuality – the quality of being sexually attracted exclusively to people of the opposite sex – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. In 1901, Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an ‘abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex’, which is a far cry from how the term is viewed today.
In a few hundred years, the term heterosexual has transformed from obscure medical jargon into an expression of sexuality that is considered the cultural norm. The pervasive belief that straightness is the default mode of sexual orientation is known as heteronormativity, and it perpetuates gender stereotypes that can do more harm than good.
Therapeutic relationship coach Pascale Lane, love, relationship and sexuality coach at Zoe Clews & Associates Emma Spiegler, and founder of AM: Appointment Nadia Deen, delve into heterosexual meaning, discuss the trappings of heteronormativity, and reveal the key to a happy, healthy relationship:
A heterosexual person is usually said to be attracted to the ‘opposite’ sex, ie men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men. Heterosexual orientation operates on the basis that sex is binary: you’re either born male or female. However in truth, biological sex is more of a spectrum, as scientists are discovering.
Generally, people are assumed to be heterosexual unless they state otherwise. This assumption is known as heteronormativity. A real-world example might be finding out that your female friend is in a relationship, and blindly presuming that she’s dating a cisgender man (cisgender means your gender identity correlates with the sex you were assigned at birth) when she may in fact be dating a woman or a non-binary person.
What is compulsory heterosexuality?
Coined by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, the term “compulsory heterosexuality” describes the idea that heterosexuality is a political institution enforced by the patriarchy to make women dependent on men for their wants and needs.
This, Rich said, has led to ‘inequality of power, not only between men and women but also non-heterosexual people,’ says Lane. In her essay, she makes the case that heterosexuality ‘is not “normal”, or even inherent to humans, and that women actually do better by having relationships with other women,’ says Deen.
What is heteronormativity?
Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation. It’s upheld by social, legal, economic, political, educational, and religious institutions, which reinforce the presumption that people are inherently heterosexual and that gender and sex are natural binaries through their processes and cultures.
Heteronormative ideology ‘refers to the belief that there are two separate and opposing genders (women and men) with associated natural roles (masculine and feminine), which are in line with their assigned sex (female and male), and that heterosexuality is a given, rather than one of many possible sexualities,’ a review by Leiden University, Utrecht University and the University of Exeter states.
When we decide that something is normal or natural, anything outside of those boundaries becomes unnatural and abnormal.
This exclusionary view can be harmful to the LGBTQI+ community. ‘When we decide that something is “normal” or “natural”, anything outside of those boundaries becomes unnatural and abnormal,’ says Deen. ‘Basing a society on the notion that everyone fits into a cisgender heterosexual box will not only exclude a large portion of people, but it can also become harmful and even dangerous for them.’
It’s still illegal to be gay, bisexual or transgender in many countries, with punishments ranging from jail time to death, Deen continues. And while this is no longer the case in the UK, LGBTQI+ people still frequently feel unsafe going about their daily lives. According to a YouGov poll, one in five LGBT people – and two in five trans people – have experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last 12 months.
Heteronormativity in heterosexual relationships
Heteronormativity can also be harmful to heterosexual people, as it seeks to normalise behaviours and values that reinforce negative stereotypes. This includes gender roles and sociocultural expectations that are based on the sex you were assigned at birth. For example, men are breadwinners, women are home-makers. Men are aggressive, women are nurturing. Men are tall and muscular, woman are thin and graceful.
These ingrained beliefs ‘have far-reaching consequences,’ the aforementioned review states, because they ‘may serve as a straightjacket for those adhering to them. As an illustration, a straight cisgender man who endorses the heteronormative view that children need a breadwinning father and a caring mother, for example, will likely perceive a same-sex couple as lesser parents but also feel uncomfortable taking up paternity leave himself.’
Heteronormativity can also lead to toxic dynamics in heterosexual relationships. A couple may conform to how they ‘ought’ to be behaving and acting in the relationship, says Spiegler. ‘They can end up relating to constructed stories and roles, rather than authentically relating with each other. This can cause a whole host of issues that, if not inquired into and communicated, can cause resentment, conflict and tension.’
For example, when men believe they need to be ‘strong’ and a ‘provider’, there’s little space for emotionality and vulnerability, Spiegler explains. ‘If a man is feeling like he has to repress or hide his emotions, it can have a significant impact on his mental wellbeing,’ she says. It’s no coincidence that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
Another pervasive stereotype is that women are complicated when it comes to sex, Spiegler says. This causes a disparity in the bedroom. Straight women are the least likely to orgasm during partnered sex, despite straight men reaching the Big O almost every time, according to a study of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual men and women published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour.
5 tips for healthy heterosexual relationships
Challenging heteronormativity can have a positive impact on your relationships, regardless of your sexual orientation. ‘It is important to note that the need to challenge heteronormativity is not a challenge on heterosexuality,’ says Deen. It’s not about tearing down heterosexual relationships, but building happier, healthier ones:
- Consider your dating preferences
Take stock of any ways your dating preferences are influenced by gender roles and stereotypes – perhaps you “only date tall men” as a rule, or feel put off when a woman initiates the conversation on a dating app. Rigid dating preferences can actually hinder your chances of future happiness.
- Make your own rules
Setting gendered dating rules can reinforce negative stereotypes and prevent you from meeting new and interesting people. ‘We can do this in so many ways – from having “rules” around who pays for the bill on the first date, to who initiates the first kiss, and who organises the date,’ says Spiegler. ‘The important thing to remember is that what looks “perfect” on paper might not actually work in real life. Ideally you are looking for both a match in compatibility and values, and if you are heavily focusing on gender roles you may miss the person behind the role.’
We are all responsible for changing stereotypical behaviours in order to bring about equality, not just for ourselves but for generations to come.
- Challenge stereotypes
In heterosexual relationships, there can be assumed roles about who pays for dinner, cooks, cleans up, does the laundry, instigates sex, and so on. ‘It’s all stuff that we are raised to see as totally normal, and yet intellectually we know is not,’ Lane says. ‘We are all responsible for changing these stereotypical behaviours in order to bring about equality, not just for ourselves but for the generations to come.’
- Communication is key
If you’re looking to redress the balance in an existing relationship, the key is honest, open communication, says Lane.’Whether your struggles are around sexuality, sexual practice or gender stereotyping, taking the time to really explain your thoughts and feelings to each other is almost guaranteed a positive outcome,’ she says. ‘If you are both invested in each other and both want the relationship to work, nothing is insurmountable.’
- Break the heteronormative cycle
Heteronormativity is not an easy concept to overcome. ‘These attitudes and behaviours have largely been in place for generations and are handed down to us not only from our families but from society and media as a whole,’ Lane adds. But by making a conscious effort not to hold others to heteronormative standards, you can help to break the cycle.