Throughout everyday life, most people make predictions and have expectations about other people’s thoughts and behaviors. Additionally, most people need some sort of external reference to make these predictions. This external reference could be race, ethnicity, gender performance, age, socioeconomic status, dress, or a combination of the above. The problem with these predictions is that they are almost entirely based on broad cultural stereotypes that often do not include opportunities for individual variation. One such stereotype involves sexual orientation. People often presume that others are heterosexual, or that heterosexuality is the default and nonheterosexuality is a deviation from that default. The theory of heteronormativity has both theoretical and practical implications, including binary thinking, intolerance of others, and hierarchical value structures.
Heteronormativity is a cultural phenomenon that is based in the different ways that societies make rules and norms surrounding sexual activity. In societies with heteronormative ideologies, heterosexuality is preferred above all other forms of sexuality. This is due to the social construction of sexuality in heteronormative cultures. The social constructionist theory suggests that different cultures give different labels and meanings to sexual thinking and behavior, which affects the ways that people in those cultures experience sexuality. According to Jeffrey Weeks, “the West still defines the norms of sex in relationships to one of the possible results -- reproduction” (Weeks, 1986). Reproduction is inherently heterosexual. Try as they might, two women cannot combine their DNA to create new life like a man and a woman can. Therefore, heterosexual reproduction becomes the ideal of sexual behavior between two people. A corollary of this is that nonreproductive sexual behaviors are less socially-desirable than reproductive sexual behaviors. This corollary helps to explain why there is a broad social preference for intercourse over masturbation. Gayle Rubin (1992) wrote that “the powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation lingers in less potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered encounters.” In heteronormative cultures, “normal” sexuality is socially constructed to involve reproductive, heterosexual behaviors. Conversely, “alternative/deviant” sexuality involves nonreproductive and/or nonheterosexual behaviors. Due to the heterosexual construction of sexuality in many Western cultures, certain sexual behaviors are designated as “deviant” and are open to be mocked and ridiculed by society at large.
Due to the social construction of sexuality in the Western world, a hierarchy exists that determines the social value of sexual identities. Gayle Rubin suggests that “marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top of the erotic pyramid” (1992). She goes on to write that “stable, long-term lesbian and gay couples are verging on respectability, but bar dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups at the very bottom of the pyramid” (Rubin, 1992). In this way, monogamous, reproductive heterosexuality is valued socially above all other forms of sexuality. Partnered, long-term, heterosexual relationships are valued above all other forms of sexual relationships. Sexual encounters that occur between two people are “partnered” encounters, and are part of the preferred forms of sexuality, which helps to explain the social taboo on masturbation. Long-term relationships are also favored over short-term relationships, which is why there is cultural restriction against very short-term relationships like one-night stands. Also, heterosexual relationships are preferred over nonheterosexual relationships. Certain sexual preferences and acts are valued over others, which results in the social hierarchy of eroticism.
The definitions of heterosexuality relate to its broad social normalization. By default, people are labeled as heterosexual under heteronormative ideologies. Sexual normalcy is often defined “in terms of relations with the opposite sex, and the consequent categorization of other forms as deviant” (Weeks, 1986). First, gender is defined as the opposition of male and female; other gender identities are not included in the definition of heterosexuality. Under this definition, a transgender person cannot identify as heterosexual. Secondly, all nonheterosexual identities are described as deviation from normalcy. A broad heteronormative ideology predicts that heterosexuality is normal, and nonheterosexuality is deviant. “Deviance” carries a connotation of strange, bizarre, and not fit for social acceptance. Therefore, nonheterosexuality is outside the range of culturally acceptable behaviors and practices. Yet again, heterosexuality is at the top of Rubin’s “erotic hierarchy,” with all other forms of sexuality below it.
Heteronormativity also reflects social norms surrounding gender roles. The presumption of heterosexuality suggests that heterosexuals conform to traditional gender roles. A key aspect of the Western construction of masculine identities is their sexual attraction to women. Nonheterosexual men “fail” at their masculine identity because they are not sexually attracted to women. When a man does not show externalized sexual interest in women, he will probably be considered “gay” by others because an essential part of masculine identity is the sexual pursuit of women. Nonheterosexual identities are lower on the social hierarchy of sexuality than heterosexual identities. At the same time, some presume that pervasive, forceful sexuality is essential to masculinity. In this way, heterosexual and nonheterosexual men are constructed similarly. Women are often instructed to resist sexual advances made by men, while men are encouraged to accept all sexual offers. Men with nonheterosexual identities are often constructed as having the same pervasive, forceful sexuality. This assumption results in the perceived “homosexual threat” posed by homosexual men (Yep, 2002). It is possible that gay men are seen as more of a homosexual threat than lesbians, which may explain why most personal observations of negative homosexuality are often of male homosexuality. In this way, the construction of sexuality also involves gender norms, which deviance from symbolizes a deviation in sexuality.
Bisexuals and bisexuality are also questioned by society in ways that heterosexuals and heterosexuality are not. Intolerance of bisexuals is often manifested in the “denial of the very existence of bisexual people” (Ochs, 1996). This intolerance exists because “we live in a culture that thinks in binary categories” (Ochs, 1996). In discussions of sexuality, most people often discuss heterosexuality and homosexuality. The omission of other categories implies that there are only two classes of sexuality. Ochs suggests that bisexuality is overlooked because it is more difficult to classify bisexuals into either heterosexuality or homosexuality, and this difficulty makes people profoundly uncomfortable (1996). Heterosexuality is often the default sexuality, and homosexuality is constructed as the opposite of heterosexuality, and as such, bisexuality does not fit in to that binary classification system. Additionally, bisexuality is often associated with nonmonogamy (Ochs, 1996). Bisexuals are attracted to people of more than one gender, and it is often assumed that bisexuals will have simultaneous relationships with people of one of more of those attractive genders. In the social hierarchy discussed earlier, this gives bisexuality an undue connotation of sexual encounters that occur in nonmonogamous, short-term relationships, which are valued at a lower level that monogamous, long-term relationships. There is a social assumption that most sexual encounters occur in heterosexual monogamous contexts, but bisexuality defies that rationale. Bisexuality does not fit in to the binary categories of sexual identity and also has an unnecessary relationship to nonmonogamy, which gives bisexuality a lower social standing than heterosexuality.
Heteronormativity is the broad social assumption that almost everyone is heterosexual, which makes heterosexuality the “default” sexuality. All other sexual identities fall below heterosexuality on a sociocultural hierarchy of sexual orientation. The ideology of heteronormativity falls under traditional gender roles. Additionally, heteronormativity excludes bisexuality as a valid sexual identity due to the problems with binary categories. Overall, heteronormativity creates a social environment that is intolerant of nonheterosexual identities.
Ochs, R. (1996). Biphobia: It goes more than two ways. In B.A. Firestein (Ed.), Bisexuality: The psychology and politics of an invisible minority. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 217-239.
Rubin, G. (1992). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring female sexuality. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 267-319.
Weeks, J. (1986). Sexuality. London: Horwood & Tavistock Press, pp. 19-44.
Yep, G. (2002). From homophobia and heterosexism to heteronormativity: Toward the development of a model of queer interventions in the university classroom. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6(3), 163-176.