Unit II: Challenging Binary Systems and Constructions of Difference


As discussed in the section on social construction, heterosexuality is no more and no less natural than gay sexuality or bisexuality, for instance. As was shown, people—particularly sexologists and medical doctors—defined heterosexuality and its boundaries. This definition of the parameters of heterosexuality is an expression of power that constructs what types of sexuality are considered “normal” and which types of sexuality are considered “deviant.” Situated, cultural norms define what is considered “natural.” Defining sexual desire and relations between women and men as acceptable and normal means defining all sexual desire and expression outside that parameter as deviant. However, even within sexual relations between men and women, gendered cultural norms associated with heterosexuality dictate what is “normal” or “deviant.” As a quick thought exercise, think of some words for women who have many sexual partners and then, do the same for men who have many sexual partners; the results will be quite different. So, within the field of sexuality we can see power in relations along lines of gender and sexual orientation (and race, class, age, and ability as well).

Adrienne Rich (1980) called heterosexuality “compulsory,” meaning that in our culture all people are assumed to be heterosexual and society is full of both formal and informal enforcements that encourage heterosexuality and penalize sexual variation. Compulsory heterosexuality plays an important role in reproducing inequality in the lives of sexual minorities. Just look at laws; in a few states, such as Indiana, joint adoptions are illegal for gay men and lesbians (Lambda Legal). Gay men and lesbians have lost custody battles over children due to homophobia—the fear, hatred, or prejudice against gay people (Pershing, 1994). Media depictions of gay men and lesbians are few and often negatively stereotyped. There are few “out” gay athletes in the top three men’s professional sports—basketball, baseball, and football—despite the fact that, statistically, there are very likely to be many (Zirin, 2010). Many religious groups openly exclude and discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Additionally, heteronormativity structures the everyday, taken-for-granted ways in which heterosexuality is privileged and normalized. For instance, sociologist Karen Martin studied what parents say to their children about sexuality and reproduction, and found that with children as young as three and five years old, parents routinely assumed their children were heterosexual, told them they would get (heterosexually) married, and interpreted cross-gender interactions between children  as “signs” of heterosexuality (Martin 2009). In this kind of socialization is an additional element of normative sexuality—the idea of compulsory monogamy, where exclusive romantic and sexual relationships and marriage are expected and valued over other kinds of relationships (Willey 2016). Therefore, heteronormativity surrounds us at a very young age, teaching us that there are only two genders and that we are or should desire and partner with one person of the opposite gender, who we will marry.

Just like gender, sexuality is neither binary nor fixed. There are straight people and gay people, but people are also bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, queer, and heteroflexible, to name a few additional sexual identities. Also, sexual attraction, sexual relations and relationships, and sexual identity can shift over a person’s lifetime. As there are more than two genders,,there are more than two kinds of people to be attracted to and individuals can be attracted to and can relate sexually to multiple people of different genders at once!

Another common misconception is that not all transgender people are sexually queer. This belief may stem from the “LGBT” acronym that lists transgender people along with lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. A trans man who previously identified as a lesbian may still be attracted to women and may identify as straight, or may identify as queer. Another trans man may be attracted to other men and identify as gay or queer. This multiplicity suggests that the culturally dominant binary model fails to accurately encapsulate the wide variety of sexual and gender lived experiences.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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