I’ve recently come back from a conference in Zurich on bishops and eunuchs, about which I will eventually blog, but this post is inspired by one of the late-night discussions during the conference, when we got onto the topic of heteronormativity (the expectation/assumption that everyone is heterosexual and the organisation of society to reflect that). One of the speakers at the conference was claiming that we all ought to identify as queer rather than heterosexual. Their argument was that that any individual isn’t truly heterosexual: a “heterosexual” woman, for example, is only attracted to a small minority of men and that attraction is not solely to their genitals. If we self-identified as queer, they thought, it would help break down heteronormativity, which they felt must surely be a good thing to do.
I wasn’t convinced at the time, and I’ve since been trying to clarify my objections. The most obvious is that even if I were to say I’m queer, I’m in a monogamous and exclusive marriage to a man, so my sexual activity will remain heterosexual. And I’m not certain to what extent heteronormativity as an overall system relies on ideology as support as opposed to practice. As an analogy, I want to look at two different norms/assumptions in British society which also involve complex biological and social interaction.
Firstly, there’s handedness: whether an individual is right or left-handed. The basis for this is clearly biological, but it’s not a simple binary (there are ambidextrous people, as well as those without hands), and handedness can be consciously modified to some extent. Nowadays, there’s little ideology about enforcing right-handedness in writing etc, even if a few prejudices remain about left-handers. And yet, because being right-handed is much more common (about 90% of the population), the world is still designed primarily for us and substantially harder for left-handers to negotiate.
As a second analogy, there’s being a vegetarian. There are biological underpinnings to why we eat what we eat (I’ve wondered sometimes whether I’m a supertaster), but there’s obviously a vast amount of social construction: we largely eat what our particular society or subset of it expects us to eat. For middle-class Britons there is now a genuine choice of food, rather than the traditional constraints on what you could afford to eat or the ingredients available in the shops. Yet non-vegetarianism still dominates, even among such groups; vegetarianism is still an exception to be accommodated (or not). (Around 11% at most of people in the UK are vegetarians).
The fact that I refer to non-vegetarianism is in itself a clue: in the UK there isn’t now a strong ideology that meat-eating/fish-eating is necessary to healthiness, manliness etc, etc, although such views still exists in some cultures. The binary of vegetarian/non-vegetarian has also long since broken down: even I, not at all enthusiastic about vegetables, ended up having the vegetarian option for one meal in Zurich when the meat-eating got a little too much. Patterns of meat consumption are likely to change in the future, especially if the price of meat and fish come to reflect the full environmental costs of producing them. But for now, even though vegetarianism may have won the ideological high-ground, most people enjoy eating meat and so society is still set up to reflect that.
These are obviously only partial analogies, but they do suggest one thing: that a social system designed to reflect a numerically predominant practice/preference may emerge and continue without much in the way of ideological underpinnings. If enough people want to do X rather than non-X for any reason, social structures will reflect that. The remaining question is then one about the interaction of biology and social construction in the area of sexuality: how sexually queer are most people?
The old arguments from the late twentieth-century about sexuality as innate against sexuality as socially constructed (which focused largely on male homosexuality) are now looking rather outdated. More and more the answer looks to be both/and. Sexuality is more fluid than was once thought, but it’s not infinitely manipulable either by society or by individuals. It’s implausible to say that there’s no social construction of sexuality when porn influences both sexual expectations and sexual practices. On the other hand, it’s very hard to explain how you get people identifying as gay in immensely homophobic countries like Jamaica unless you accept some innate component to sexuality.
One of the most interesting examples of this interaction is in the development of asexuality as a sexual orientation/identity. Asexual people, those who do not experience sexual attraction, are almost certainly not a new phenomenon, even if the first known academic publication on asexuality dates from 1977. The recent development of organisations such as AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network is a reflection of existing people’s experiences. But it’s also in itself shaping those experiences into something new, and probably more coherent as an identity/ideology. For someone uninterested in sex to be able to ask the question “Am I asexual?”, rather than “Is there something wrong with me?” in itself changes the nature of their experience.
Despite all this explosion in visibility of the QUILTBAG of sexual experiences and identities, however, the actual percentage of people involved remains relatively small. The large-scale NATSAL survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyle from 2000 reported less than 10% of British men and women ever having had any kind of sexual experience (non-genital or not) with a same-sex partner, and that seems consistent with other figures of prevalence. Under those circumstances of a strong preference in the population as a whole for heterosexual activity, I don’t think heteronormativity needs the ideological underpinnings that it currently has. If most people do something, it effectively becomes a norm, whether there are attempts to enforce this norm or not. It is useful to remind people that heterosexuality is not the only possibility, and we should make attempts to be inclusive of those of all sexualities, but I don’t see any prospect of seriously undermining heteronormativity in current Western societies.