Heterosexuality has been under siege since second-wave feminism. And yet it continues to hold sway, not only among self-identified heterosexuals but also those who disavow and critique it. Like capitalism and patriarchy, it has the ability to influence and affect ideologies and relations that are in direct opposition to it. Heterosexuality is everywhere and nowhere- it visibly shapes our lives and yet, renders itself invisible through its banality, its mythical status as “natural,” as a timeless, transhistorical notion that always existed.
Heterosexuality is both a sexual identity and a social institution. Reinforcing the binary of sex and gender, it essentially normalizes itself as the default state of sexual orientation, pathologizing other sexualities. After all, “opposites attract” has somehow managed to become an aphorism in our times, a bizarre extension of the physical law of electro-magnetism. James Clerk Maxwell would have been much amused.
Heterosexuality’s supposedly innate, immutable, transhistorical status as a hallowed social institution is, of course, a recent human invention. What once meant bisexuality and indicated abnormality is now assumed as the de facto sexual status for broad swathes of the human population, akin to an apocryphal tale. In this light, heterosexuality’s tortuous path through history to its current taken-for-granted status of “normalcy” reveals how heteronormativity has acted as scaffolding for patriarchy’s stranglehold over not only our ideologies and discourse, but our own imaginations as humans. This is revealed in the myriad ways social policy has marketed and promoted heteronormativity, exemplified by the fact that even today, citizenship rights are often a function of sexual orientation. The dominance and pervasiveness of the unrepresentative and anomalous institution of heterosexuality is testament to its staying power, enmeshed and integrated into every inch of political, social, and economic structures that govern us.
The Times They are Changing
But change is slowly and surely being affected, even if limited to the rarefied spaces of privileged groups, mostly in the Global North. The mainstream discourse on heterosexuality is shifting to a wider embrace of varied, fluid sexualities. Like the dismantling of the gender binary as constructed, sexuality, too, is being revealed as the figment of our collective imaginations and not rooted in biology or some innate, natural source. In countries like the United States and Spain, marriage is no longer the exclusive right of heterosexual couples, gay cultures, slang, and icons are celebrated in popular media, cis-hetero people openly champion gay rights and denounce homophobia, and LGBTQ+ friendly policies are now the norm in most large corporations. This cultural shift is mostly attributable to the gay rights movement but is also a beneficiary of the rise and dominance of identity politics.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that homophobia and transphobia no longer exist. Like sexism and racism, they are entrenched in our societies, even though the tireless work and activism of millions of people have ensured certain, albeit limited, victories in the fight against bigotry and discrimination. After all, the powerful do not easily yield to adversaries- their stubborn affection for the status quo is sticky and glutinous and they have institutional backing to crush dissent.
Even then, the growing discourse on dismantling heteronormativity, the rise of heteropessimism(or the more ominous term, heterofatalism), and the mainstreaming of sexual fluidity and non-dyadic models such as polyamory and open relationships lends itself to the ever expanding menu of choices when it comes to sexuality, sexual practices, relationships, coupling, and the hows and whoms of loving, copulating, and procreating. This is a positive development and can herald a sexual revolution that is not just about sex but about the politics, possibilities, and realizations of social relations.
The Truth about Compulsory Heterosexuality
But choices don’t exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, delineated from material and social realities. Like “choice” feminism which proclaims any choice by a woman as inherently feminist, ignoring the initial conditions and final outcomes, the option of not being heterosexual is imbricated and limited by one’s material conditions. The question is: who gets to express their sexual identities and embrace non-heteronormative relations? What are the conditions that allows one to do so? Is it merely cultural or does it extend to one’s economic and social status too? If so, perhaps the slogan “love is love” needs to be modified into “love is love (for those who can afford it).”
While studies have shown a positive correlation between per capita GDP and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people, it is no less likely that a country’s economic wealth impacts the latter, rather than the other way around. Class divisions in queer communities exist and accordingly, inform queer practices which, expectedly, is not insusceptible to the hegemonic powers of capitalism. On queer rights, there are wide disparities among nations. Organizing one’s life around non-heteronormative standards can often be a privilege, not a right, making it potentially easier to live an “alternate,” open lifestyle if one has the assurance of financial stability and social capital.
Non-dyadic, non-normative partnerships should become the norm. But social relations are shaped by and often, contingent upon economic and political conditions. Poverty, low wages, precarity, and race may not allow a person to explore and adopt alternate forms of relationships (like polyamory) that often do not guarantee economic stability and/ or legal recognition. And for those at the margins of social and economic privileges, that matters. After all, those openly engaging in non-monogamous relationships are often denied relationship rights accorded to monogamous couples while running the constant risk of ridicule and ostracization.
The gender dimension of free love, fluid sexualities, and multiple, multi-pronged, transitory partnerships needs to be questioned and foregrounded. It is known that many women, including victims of domestic violence, continue to stay in heterosexual partnerships because of economic and social compulsions. Breaking free is a magic wand not accessible to all. Then there are factors of race, religion, caste, community, disability that necessitate the performance of heterosexuality, coerced or not. And because not all rebellions are created equal, for specific groups, the cost of subversion is much higher. For instance, consider the well-documented double standards with which female sexuality is perceived- there are real world consequences, from higher incidence of sexual violence to blatant victim blaming. Non-conformity to normative standards has risks and rewards- but the risks are not widely spread and the rewards are not equally distributed.
For people from marginalized groups, hetero institutions like marriage facilitate a way towards earning respectability in society, a form of signaling one’s claim as a member of civil society, a path to escape the worst excess of their lower status, work towards social mobility, and gainlegal recognitions, social capital, and economic assets. These impact their actual material conditions, even if the trade-off is repressing their sexual needs and desires. But for oppressed peoples, matters of survival, respectability, and living standards are often legitimately more important than the need to experiment and discover their preferred modes of living and loving. It shouldn’t be an either/or situation but often it is. Like gender, performing respectability is a key component of living a normal, “white-adjacent” life, problematic as that may be. The politics of respectability is something that such people have to navigate every day and make decisions that forces them to forgo one for the other. To use an analogy, if choosing one’s relationship type is like going to a restaurant, the menu available to them is not just more expensive, it’s akin to having a dietary restriction so the choice doesn’t even exist in the first place.
Radical Love is Free, not sold
The objective shouldn’t be to elevate non-heteronormative partnerships over others or to fetishize it as something that in itself has the power to liberate us. Nor is demonizing heterosexuality useful for radical social transformations. The goal should be to allow each person, irrespective of their social and economic locations, to fully explore and embrace different modes of being and relating- less like a menu in a restaurant and more like a public library that is accessible to all.
However, as we have seen with pinkwashing and greenwashing, sexual freedom is ripe to be marketed and sold by savvy capitalist grifters. Capitalism has proved itself to be wily and adaptable to the changing cultural and social ethos. Consider how hoteliers are being encouragedto tweak their logistical and business models to adjust to the “rise of non-monogamy.” Cynical co-optation of social justice causes is inevitable, the question is how to make our struggles truly emancipatory.
There’s a real possibility that non-conformance to heterosexuality becomes a lifestyle choice, available to the rich, the semi-rich, and those admitted into their gilded orbits. That it becomes cultural currency, signifying a more “refined,” trendy approach to relationships, a status symbol, a commodified way of living that’s accessible to a privileged few, not the impoverished many. It risks becoming cultural and social capital rather than the realization of radical possibilities that’s informed by equality, equity, and inclusivity. Compulsory heterosexuality, like all anachronistic, patriarchal, and capitalist systems, should be dismantled; the question is who gets to lead and participate in this revolutionary project. The key would be to reimagine sexuality and, indeed, love itself as a new revolutionary paradigm that frees each one of us to reimagine and reconstruct not just how we relate to each other but to our own selves and to the world around us, instead of being immured within labels that do little to disrupt the overall status quo. Even if there is “no principle of emancipation of sexuality,” there can still be a consensus that sexual liberation should be for all and that radical love cannot be for sale.
Sanjana Pegu – New Radical Socialist Feminisms.