The Trouble With Heteronormativity

It’s an awkward word, heteronormativity, but I kind of like it. It describes something important. As Meg Barker of The Open University describes it, heteronormativity is:

…the idea that attraction and relationships between one man and one woman are the normal form of sexuality, that sex itself should involve a penis penetrating a vagina, and that any other forms of sexuality, or gender, are not normal, or at least not as normal as this.

I’ve only recently become aware of the fragility of this notion. I’ve always assumed, along with most people, that heterosexuality was the norm and everything else a variation. This presumption is increasingly challenged by realizations that everyone varies, and more than they think. It now appears that variation itself may be the norm.

While we know the harm of heteronormativity to non-heterosexuals, Barker goes a step farther in outlining the harms of this reductive thinking even to those who supposedly fit inside it.

These have been particularly brought home to me in my work as a sexual and relationship therapist. Almost every seemingly heteronormative client who I’ve seen in this capacity has expressed an overwhelming desire to be ‘normal’ and often a desperate fear that they might not be, which has frequently made their life a misery. Normality is often privileged over everything else including having pleasurable sex, positive relationships, and open communication.

The whole article is well worth a read.

Heterosexual Evolution

As it turns out, heterosexuality evolves. The meaning of marriage changes. Family structures morph. Relationships reconfigure themselves.

As so often, the gays forge the way in charting new relationships. Two recent examples:

1) Stayovers

Gay men have long had a form of relationship called “f*ck buddies,” meaning men we like we like and enjoy semi-regular carnal relations with, but stop short of meaningful commitment. It is a relationship of convenience, but can be much more than that. Now the New York Times identifies the same trend among straight people, labeling it with the more tasteful label of “stayovers.”

2) Grindr becomes Blendr

More recently, gay men took smart phones into a whole new realm with apps like Grindr. Grindr uses the phone’s GPS locator to arrange the pictures and profiles of all the other Grindr men based on their proximity. Suddenly the coldness of internet dating profiles becomes a dynamic game in the meatspace of real geography. In a small town? Find if there is someone interesting near by! In a gay neighborhood? You get a fascinating list of men starting as close as a few feet away!

Sadly, apps like Grindr don’t translate well into the heterosexual space, largely because of female security concerns. I’ve heard that Grindr is a hit with straight people too as women download it just to watch the fascinating world of gay interactions from the inside…like visiting a gay bar incognito. So now the Grindr people have a kind of Grindr-lite for straight people, or more broadly, for all people, called Blendr. Blendr is based on matching up people by their interests. You like photography, have a cute picture, and are standing in my vicinity?!?! Lets be friends! …I don’t see how that’s going to work.

Personally, I find the phenomenon of Grindr fascinating without finding it useful. The app is to limited in what it can do, and I prefer technology that facilitates more interaction than that. My favorite is Scruff, another gay app like Grindr but with a more global reach and enhanced communications.

Of course all of this begs the question of why gay men lead the way in experimentation of non-committed relationships. For the purposes of this post, lets keep it simple: because we are Male. More on the implications of that little detail in future posts.