So I recently read an article by a porn actress and writer named Stoya (right) on the pitfalls of heteronormativity, and it echoed a point that I've heard from several queer friends, and that my wife and I have often talked about as we've been moving away from heteronormativity, but that I haven't seen in print very often. So I guess I wanted to boost the signal a bit and share some of my wife and I's perspectives.
Usually when we complain about heteronormativity we mean that it is not an accurate reflection of the statistical reality of people out there, or that it is a recipe for creating and reinforcing injustices. And I do think both those things, but you've probably already thought about those and have your opinions already there. Further, it might turn out that you or the people you care about aren't quite as heteronormative as you think, and it therefore does a disservice to you. Again, true, but not my point today. Instead my point today is that heteronormativity often doesn't serve even genuinely heterosexual monogamous people very well. It harms those it normalizes too.
And this has allowed us to become slowly more and more involved in a variety of non-heteronormative communities. And we were both pretty stunned by how cool the people we met on the fringes were by and large. I could say embarrassing things about “authenticity” and yes that was part of my experience and impression, but there is more to it than that. I was struck by how philosophical fringe folk were about love, and sex, and relationships, and life, and ethics, and such. Over and over, I saw deep personal reflection about issues, I previously would have been tempted to simply take for granted. I have seen BDSM competitions where leather-clad couples discourse before a panel of judges and interested audience members on the meaning and importance or lack there of, of fine details of their relationship with each other. I kept thinking of teaching the Symposium year after year, these people were actually enacting it. They were philosophers of love.
But if you are under the spell of heteronormativity, the overculture gives you prepackaged answers to questions like this - How should we divide labor in our joint household? What counts as cheating? What should I ideally want out of a relationship? What sexual activities do I think are immoral? What sexual activities do I find tempting? Are there any in both camps? How do I deal with that? What gender am I? How should I communicate my needs and desires to the other important people in my life? What room is there for compromise with other important people in my life? Etc. Heteronormativity shuts down inquiry, reflection, and probing of tricky questions beforehand, and that makes customizing solutions or approaches hard.
Once you step away from heteronormativity, it quickly becomes clear that you still need answers to these questions, but also that you might not just be able to use an “off-the-shelf” answer. You need to think about these hard questions. You need to communicate with your partner or others, about your best guess answers and theirs. You probably need to negotiate and compromise about how to get all this to work out together in mutually happy-making ways. You can't just rely on romantic movies to lead your way, you have to become your own romantic movie ...
And here's the thing … thinking about the hard questions about sex, love, relationships, household management, attraction, etc. communicating about them, negotiating and compromising about them. These are excellent skills for heterosexual monogamous folks too. A 2013 Dutch study found BDSM folks to score better on a variety of mental health measures. The researcher theorized perhaps this was “ because they tend to be more aware of and communicative about their sexual desires, or because they have done some "hard psychological work" to accept and live with sexual needs that are beyond the scope of what is often considered socially acceptable to discuss in the mainstream.” A 2015 study found that same-sex couples tended to do better than mixed sex couples on a variety of relationship goals including “that same-sex couples tend to communicate better, share chore duties more fairly and assign tasks based on personal preference -- rather than gender, income, hours worked or power position in the relationship. Straight couples, meanwhile, tend to talk less and fall into to traditional gender roles, what one family describes as 'pink chores' and 'blue chores.'"
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to criticize heterosexuality, the problem here is the normativity. If something is overly normative then it is tempting to use it even when it isn't the best available solution for a particular person or couple or maybe poly triad. When gender roles are too rigid, when a relationship is too "default," when assumptions about cheating or monogamy are simply taken as read rather than examined and owned, we can't fine tune them, or even really defend them properly. When I was struggling with my gender identity and trying to make sense of it, and explain it to others, my wife wound up reading and working through Kate Bornstein's “My New Gender Workbook.” And her conclusion was yup cis female, cis, cis, cissity, cis. And that's OK. In fact, having worked on it a bit and looking and thinking carefully and still concluding “I'm cis” made her a more well-adjusted cis person than simply assuming she was cis because she never had any reason to think otherwise.
Traditional heterosexual monogamous relationships work well for many people. But they are also in trouble on many fronts. American rates of both divorce and “cheating” are pretty depressing. Americans live in dual-income families much more than we once did, and the press of work and money issues is hard for most people. Americans get a lot less maternity support, and indeed, many kinds of family support than folks in much of the rest of the first world, and that puts pressure on traditional het-mono relationships. Much as the American middle class is being squeezed slowly, making it less and less function, the standard het-mon0 default heteronormative relationship is also being squeezed and becoming harder and harder to pull off well.
So here's my challenge to all het folks out there. Spend a while thinking about these questions, and don't accept because it is “normal” as answer. Keep probing until you are confident that your answer is something along the lines of because this is how I am, or how I want to be, or how we as a couple are.
What do I ideally want out of relationship? Why?
How do I think the give and take within a relationship should work? Why?
What would feel like cheating to me, both if I did it and if my partner did it? Why?
What sexual activities do I think are immoral? Why?
What sexual activities do I think are tempting? Why?
How do I cope with any overlap? Why?
What gender am I? Why?
How do I present and enact my gender identity towards others? Why?
How should I divide up labor in my household? Why?
How should I communicate my needs and desires to the other important people in my life? Why?
What room is there for compromise with other important people in my life? Why?
Queer folk of many kinds have to grapple with these questions. But we benefit greatly from doing so. Straight folks should grapple with these questions too, until they have something better than hollow normativity to act as a solid foundation for them. And if you're in a relationship you should probably talk them over with your partner(s) too, even if it's just a check up to see if you've changed since you last poked into this stuff carefully. Or they have. Or the situations you are in together have. Things change. And we adapt. And at our best we adapt together with our loved ones. The Pope is giving a homily on the importance of family, and I guess this is my homily on family. Make it your own, through inquiry, and asking the hard questions, and negotiation. If your strategy for family life winds up looking "normal" or "boring" nonetheless make it your own, and it will be comforting and supporting. If your answers are a bit more spicy and exotic, that's livable too, with the right partner, with the right compromises, with some negotiation. But if you give half-hearted answers to the hard questions because you never really bothered to ask them properly in the first place, because if all seemed so obvious to you, then you'll only have half your heart in the outcome and it isn't really going to work well for you long term. That's my take.