We spoke with Jane Ward about her new book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, available now from NYU Press. Read below about the pitfalls of straight culture and the lessons straight people can draw from the queer experience.
1. If being straight makes life easier, why would queer people spend any time feeling worry or sympathy about the effects of straight culture on straight people’s lives and relationships?
Because being straight does not actually make life easier! One of the ways that heteronormativity has survived is by convincing both gay people and straight people that being straight makes for a happier, healthier, easier life. This has made people fearful to explore queer desire by depicting gay life as tragic and difficult. But more to the point of my book, it has masked over how much misery straight people—straight women, in particular—actually experience.
2. Is heterosexuality easier than queerness?
No, at least not for women. If we take misogyny, violence against women, and the daily inequities of straight relationships at all seriously, we start to see that gendered suffering is a core part of many straight women’s experiences. And men’s too. We also start to see that this kind of suffering is as tragic—if not more—than the kinds of suffering that homophobia produces. The difference is that straight people are expected to be made wildly happy by the very relationships that actually cause them to be miserable. Straight culture promises women the world, but, in reality, offers women very little. Queer culture, on the other hand, is a source of joy for most queer people; it’s homophobia and straight culture, not queer culture, that is the source of most queer suffering.
3. Conservatives have long promoted the belief that queer relationships are unnatural, damaged, and fraught with dysfunction. Why are you raising similar questions about the health and sustainability of heterosexual culture?
One of the things that is clear when you track the social science research on women’s experiences in relationships with men over the past century—and I am talking about women around the world, and across race and socioeconomic class—is that modern heterosexual relationships have been damaged by many centuries of patriarchy. It actually should not be controversial or surprising to say this, because of course when you have people in intimate relationships with one another, who genuinely love one another, those relationships are still deeply influenced by the institutions that distribute gendered power and authority unequally and that tell us who men and women are. But there is a reluctance to acknowledge the ways that patriarchy infuses straight culture and straight relationships, because to recognize this requires that we turn to the necessary corrective: feminism. And feminism, still, carries a lot of stigma.
4. What is the “misogyny paradox” and why is it one of the core dysfunctions of straight culture?
I use the term misogyny paradox to describe the ways that boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed within a broader culture that encourages them to also hate girls and women. We see the evidence of this paradox everywhere, and women are certainly quite familiar with it. For instance, men shout so-called compliments about girls’ and women’s bodies on public streets—like “You are looking mighty fine today!” or “You’re a beautiful woman. Why don’t you smile?”—and then, just a moment later, when they are not met with the response they hoped for, these same men hurl violent and misogynistic threats, like “fuck you bitch!” We are also led to believe that straight men love women’s bodies, but at the same time we teach girls and women that their bodies are deeply flawed and that they need to spend an inordinate amount of time whipping their bodies into a lovable shape—by dieting, shaving, waxing, dying, perfuming, covering with makeup, douching, and starving them. Perhaps no one is a more brazen and high-profile example of the misogyny paradox than President Donald Trump himself, a man who has bragged publicly that “no one loves women more” than he does and also bragged about sexually assaulting women. But in mundane everyday life, the misogyny paradox takes the subtler form of straight men claiming to love women and yet speaking over them, explaining things to them with no regard for women’s knowledge or expertise, and training their sons to reproduce this kind of behavior.
5. You define heterosexuality as a “patriarchal institution.” What does that mean and how has it affected men and women differently?
Patriarchy is a system in which men hold economic and cultural power over women, and straight relationships are the most daily and intimate sites where men have economic and/or cultural power over women. This power can take many forms, from actually having more wealth and economic mobility than women (which causes a lot of trouble for straight women in cases of divorce), to expecting women to treat men like the king of the castle—and to do this regardless of how much men are contributing, financially or otherwise. It can look like men’s physical and emotional violence against women, and/or it can look like men doing less parenting and household labor than women, whether or not women work fulltime in the paid labor force. It can look like men expecting a tremendous amount of emotional labor from women that they do not provide in return, like relying on wives and girlfriends to be their therapists and best friends, or requiring women to express immense gratitude for men’s basic contributions to their relationships and families.
6. Is all heterosexual suffering the same? How do women’s positions within hierarchies of race, socioeconomic class, and immigration status impact the effects of heterosexuality on women?
All heterosexual suffering is intersectional, and shaped by race, socioeconomic class, immigration status, and other significant factors. Black feminists like Brittney Cooper, Beth Richie, Michele Wallace, Angela Davis, the members of the Combahee River Collective, and many others have been arguing for years that the violent forces of misogyny bear down on Black women more harshly than on white women, that the expectation of loyalty to Black men is especially intense for Black women, and that so-called privileges of heterosexuality are promised to, but often elude, Black women. Research on heterosexuality and socioeconomic class demonstrates that heterosexual relationships are often expected to be a site of suffering and self-sacrifice for poor and working-class women. We also know that the more economically and legally vulnerable women are, the harder it is to escape heterosexual misery without fear of violence, poverty, or loss of custody of children.
7. What is the relationship between heterosexuality and misogyny? How can heterosexuality be liberated from it?
Misogyny, or men’s hatred of women, was an accepted fact of heterosexual relationships when the American self-help movement began in the early twentieth century. The physicians, sexologists, and psychologists who were considered experts on heterosexual courtship and marriage took for granted that men’s first impulse towards women was disdain and even violence, and that husbands found their wives’ ideas, conversation, and emotional and sexual needs to be unimportant and irritating. Later, by the 1980s and 1990s, self-help for straight couples, like the profoundly successful Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, still accepted this basic premise, but really doubled down on the idea that the gap between women and men was innate and therefore unavoidable. The best men and women could do was learn a few tricks—or “skills”—to get what they wanted from the opposite sex while minimizing conflict. This same approach still persists today, as self-help books, webinars, dating coaches, marriage therapists, and whole slew of what I call “hetero repair” professionals teach straight couples to work around gender inequality, rather than undo it. But the only way for heterosexuality to actually be liberated from its dysfunction is to address it at the root, through a recognition that feminist healing is the way forward.
8. How are girls and women groomed by straight culture to desire relationships with men despite the overwhelming evidence that heterosexual relationships are unequal?
Research shows that this starts in early childhood, with sexist and hetero-romantic Disney/Pixar films and other media marketed to young children. Interestingly, as themes in these films have begun to change, the kind of media marketed to teens and young adults has often deepened in its bold embrace of misogyny and dehumanization of women. One of the ways we know that misogyny is still quite normalized and even revered is that half of American voters elected a misogynist—with a well-documented track record of sexual harassment and dehumanizing comments about women—to the office of President of the United States. This sends a very powerful message to girls and women that misogyny is a normal part of life.
9. You write that a love/hate relationship is successfully marketed to straight people as a source of happiness, despite overwhelming evidence that it is a primary contributor to straight people’s misery. Is heterosexuality optimal for women when it requires so much coercion and cultural propaganda?
Straight culture discourages us from seeing the suffering associated with heterosexuality, but actually the evidence is everywhere. We see it in the media, where stories of girls and women surviving, and forgiving, disappointing men is offered up as the ultimate hetero-romantic tale. But one realm where it becomes really crystal clear is the last century of marriage advice and self-help books and seminars for straight couples. Here is where we can see that, over and over, straight people are told that women and men are fundamentally different and do not naturally like one another. Experts in the early 20th century advised straight couples to settle for this state of affairs by learning to tolerate and manipulate one another, and—amazingly—experts in the 21st century continue to offer this same advice!
10. Some might argue that the problem inherent in straight relationships is because of patriarchy, not heterosexuality. Why do you disagree?
The problem for straight relationships is patriarchy, but heteronormativity is one of patriarchy’s main ingredients, and vice versa. Heterosexual culture does A LOT of work for patriarchy by making it seem not only natural and biologically inevitable, but also romantic and sexy. So, both systems rely on the other, and yet we rarely address heterosexuality as a system at all—instead we are taught to believe that it is a just biological impulse. If we look at it as a culture and a system, the way queer people look at it, we are better able to see that it is a dysfunctional system that could be anchored in collective joy and freedom, rather than eroticizing patriarchy.
11. What is “straight culture” as seen through a queer, feminist lens?
I define straight culture as the romanticization and eroticization of presumably essential, and hierarchically organized, gender differences.
12. In an ideal world, would straight men love women like a lesbian feminist?
Absolutely; this is the way forward. One of the things we know from research and writing on lesbian feminists is that loving and desiring women, and even vulgar lust for women, is an inseparable experience from being invested in women’s collective freedom and happiness. In lesbian feminist culture, to be sexually oriented toward women is also to like women, to identify with women, to want to hear women’s voices, follow women’s leadership, and see women lead full and authentic lives. This is why, from a lesbian feminist perspective, many straight men seem to have only a half-baked desire for women, feeble version of what lesbians feel. This swirl of desire and feminism is what lesbian feminists meant when they said they were “women identified,” and there is no reason straight men cannot also be “women identified” too.
13. Are you out to romanticize queer life and relationships? Don’t queer people also suffer from unhealthy relationships marked by abuse, violence and traumatic breakups? What’s the difference with what heterosexuals deal with in relationships?
There is no doubt about it, queer relationships also have problems! Queer people cheat on, lie to, and hurt the people they love. These are human flaws. The difference between queer culture and straight culture is that queer culture is not structured around a presumably biological and unavoidable gender binary. We are not set up from the beginning in a way that someone risks being a nagging wife, an old ball and chain, or worrying about how to catch a man and keep him, or needing to buy self-help books like He’s Just Not That Into You, or believing that our gender means we will likely do most of the parenting and housework, or needing to convince our dating pool that we aren’t bitches, irrational, or available to be grabbed by the pussy. And if we look more specifically at lesbian feminist (and not just queer) relationships, we can see what it looks like to have an eroticism that isn’t about sexism at all. This does not mean lesbian feminist relationships are perfect; it means that lesbian feminist relationships are not rigged from the start by a straight culture that romanticizes women’s self-sacrifice and diminishment.
14. Why do you say that the narrative about “the tragedy of queerness” is more a story about gay men’s experience rather than queer women’s experience?
Many people believe that being gay makes for a sad and difficult life. Even people who claim to be gay-friendly or allies to LGBT people often discover they have these feelings when their child comes out to them as queer. But this belief in the “tragedy of queerness”—like many of our ideas about homosexuality—is anchored in a very male-centric, and inaccurate, understanding about queer life. It is based on the idea that being queer means giving up a lot of privilege and acceptance in exchange for discrimination and hardship. In many ways, it does mean this. Homophobia, heteronormativity, and transphobia are alive and well – especially for queer and trans people of color. But, if we return to the lesbian feminist canon, or to our lesbian feminist foremothers like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, we see that their writing is about how beautiful and liberatory it was to break from heteropatriarchy and be part of lesbian feminist communities and relationships. They describe the discrimination and hardship they experienced in heteropatriarchal families and communities, and the relief and joy they experienced in queer communities of color. This story about how it is a tragic loss of ease and privilege to be queer is one that has ignored the lesbian feminist experience. If we consider patriarchy at all in our thinking about these questions, if we can think intersectionally, we can start to see the tragedy of heterosexuality.
15. You make the point that women get a raw deal in relationships with men. Should straight women consider lesbianism or celibacy as preferred alternatives?
No, I am not arguing that straight women should become lesbians or celibate! Not unless they are sexually attracted to women or feel like they might be asexual! What I am arguing for is what I call deep heterosexuality, wherein straight men learn to like women so deeply that they actually like women. I am arguing for straightness to take its own impulses even deeper, to make them more authentic.
16. Why do you think it’s important to redefine heterosexuality to expand its basic ingredients to include more attachment and identification between men and women?
Psychologists have been arguing that men and women are fundamentally different, with different emotional and sexual interests, since the inception of the discipline of psychology. This approach, and the way it has been tethered to heterosexual romance, has gotten us nowhere. I strongly believe that it is possible to shift gears, and to imagine what it would be like if men thought of themselves not just as “sexually attracted” to women, but powerfully oriented towards ALL women’s well-being and liberation. I believe this will not only be good for straight women, but also tremendously healing for men.
Jane Ward is Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. She is the author of Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations, as well as Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men and The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, both available from NYU Press.