Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Straightness Studies

Do variances in sexual desire only make sense if they are sorted into categories?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy

The Dining Room Window, Charleston (detail), c. 1940, by Vanessa Bell (1879–1961); photograph © Christie’s Images/© estate of Vanessa Bell, all rights reserved, DACS 2021/Bridgeman Images.

In a blog post last fall at The American Conservative, commentator Rod Dreher waxed apocalyptic about an unpublished but intriguing finding: “Roughly 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT.” From this statistic, Dreher inferred that “30 percent of Gen Z women [were] claiming to be sexually uninterested in men.”11xRod Dreher, “No Families, No Children, No Future,” The American Conservative, October 22, 2020, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/no-families-no-children-no-future-lgbt-30-percent-carle-c-zimmerman/. As commenters pointed out, this didn’t quite add up: Most obviously, bisexuals, part of “LGBT,” are by definition interested in men. But as the post’s title, “No Families, No Children, No Future,” suggests, Dreher’s concern is not that young women today are missing out on sexual enjoyment of men. Rather, it’s that these are women whose sole priority is not settling down in a conventional household.

Many a knowing laugh was had at the expense of Dreher, who had evidently missed the memo about men preferring, if anything, bisexual women, or women willing to simulate bisexuality for an evening. But his overwrought anxieties do point to something real, namely, a growing category of female-presenting, female-designated-at-birth individuals who absolutely do form relationships with men—relationships that involve weddings and children, even—but who don’t identify as straight, or as women. Of the remaining young women, many are straight and cisgender but unhappy about it, expressing what writer and doctoral student Indiana Seresin calls “heteropessimism,”22xIndiana Seresin, “On Heteropessimism,” The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019, https://thenewinquiry.com/on-heteropessimism/. and subjecting their lesbian friends and acquaintances to complaints about their lives. Writes Seresin in The New Inquiry,

Like most lesbians, I have found myself on the receiving end of approximately 100,000 drunk straight women bemoaning their orientation and insisting that it would be “so much easier” to be gay. Sure, it probably would be! That “men are trash” is not something I am personally invested in disputing. Yet in announcing her wish to be gay, the speaker carelessly glosses over the fact that she has chosen to stay attached to heterosexuality—to remain among the (slightly more than 2 or 3) women who are, despite everything, still straight.33xIbid.

In Not Gay, a book about straight-identified men who have sex with other men, gender studies scholar Jane Ward describes the same scenario: “Straight women, several minutes into a rant about their husbands or boyfriends, gesture at alliance with me by bemoaning their presumably unchangeable heterosexuality with a dramatic sigh: ‘Oh I wish I could be a lesbian. I’d probably be a lot happier.’”44xJane Ward, Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015), 203. Ward, too, suggests that these women do the thing they say would make them happier.

Meanwhile, in an article in The Spectator, radical feminist writer Julie Bindel describes the same scenario but interprets it differently: “Over the years, a fair number of heterosexual women have told me, ‘If only I could fancy women, my life would be much easier,’ as though nothing bad ever happens to us because we don’t have to scrub dirty boxers and put up with mediocre sex.”55xJulie Bindel, “Why Are Boringly Straight Women Claiming to Be Lesbians?,” The Spectator, June 4, 2019, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/why-are-boringly-straight-women-claiming-to-be-lesbians. Bindel, however, has had it with celebrities like Miley Cyrus as well as ordinary women who by all accounts lead straight lives but identify somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. She most certainly does not view straight women with vaguely queer self-identification as true allies:

Hearing straight, woke young women who have had a drunken fumble with another woman at a party describe themselves as “lesbian” or “gender queer” insults me…. What I do know is that such women almost always end up married to men and having kids and living a conventional life. Occasionally they will dye their fringe orange, put on a slogan T-shirt, and join a rainbow coalition march in Brighton. But what they won’t do is suffer for their sexuality.66xIbid.

In a sense, Ward, Seresin, and Bindel all arrive at the same position: that queerness or lesbianism is a choice open to all women, as well as one with a certain appeal to the typical straight woman. If a woman doesn’t opt out of the hetero lifestyle, it’s because she isn’t prepared to sacrifice comforts or risk discrimination. It couldn’t possibly be about liking men.

Why are any women straight? This is the question Ward asks but doesn’t really address in her engaging, if frustrating, book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Ward presents a couple of bold theses, of the sort that in another context might qualify as revelations: Straight men and women fundamentally dislike one another, and it is in fact queer people, not straight ones, who are privileged. Much of Ward’s source material consists of “interviews with queer people about straight culture.” She writes that “it is time to spill the tea—to reveal what queer people say about straight people behind closed doors so that we may help save straight people from themselves.”77xJane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York, NY: New York University Press. 2020), 31–32.

Ward presents herself as the queer savior of straight women, and the purpose of her book as improving their lot. Tragedy’s dedication reads, “For straight women. May you find a way to have your sexual needs met without suffering so much.”88xIbid., 5.

Unfortunately, straight women’s sexual need for men proves a much less compelling topic to Ward than her queer interviewees’ distaste for straight people, in the aggregate and, inescapably, as individuals.

In the abstract, a book like The Tragedy of Heterosexuality has much to offer. A from-the-outside approach is necessary in order to cast straightness as the Other, or in simpler terms, to spell out that heterosexuality is just one way of being. It’s the same dynamic one finds in whiteness studies or men’s studies: an approach that takes a segment of the population that has long been treated as the default and viewing it through the same lens generally reserved for scrutinizing marginalized groups. Or not quite the same lens: Studying the privileged means getting at specificities without necessarily advocating on behalf of the group under examination. This approach extends from academia to the online social-justice sphere, and into more mainstream cultural production. I’m thinking of StraightioLab, “an intellectual podcast where smart comedians George Civeris and Sam Taggart unpack the rich, multi-colored tapestry of straight culture.”99x“Preview: Straightiolab,” Apple Podcasts, accessed December 26, 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/straightiolab/id1503599999. Or the subreddit Are the Straights OK?, more than 200,000 followers strong. Or even just something like the term breeder, not an unequivocally good thing, but shorthand for the fact that to gay people, straight people are the different ones.

The drawbacks of looking at straightness through a queer studies lens are a bit more complicated. While there are white scholars looking at whiteness (and goodness knows, male scholars delving into masculinity), where heterosexuality is concerned, researchers and commentators on straightness as such are rarely if ever heterosexual themselves. The Invention of Heterosexuality, Jonathan Ned Katz’s 1995 subfield-launching book, begins with the narrative of his own personal and political coming of age as a gay man in the mid-twentieth century.1010xJonathan Ned Katz, “The Genealogy of a Sex Concept: From Homosexual History to Heterosexual History,” in The Invention of Heterosexuality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 1–18. Hanne Blank introduces her book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, by explaining that her partner is intersex and physically androgynous, adding that she herself lacks “the sensation of ‘being’ heterosexual or homosexual or anything but a human being who loves and desires other human beings.” She adds that she has “been romantically and sexually involved with people of a variety of biological sexes and social genders.”1111xHanne Blank, Introduction, in Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012), https://books.google.ca/books?id=M5wiZq4OpTAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. Ward opens the first chapter of Not Gay with this sentence: “About fifteen years ago, in the late 1990s, I was a young dyke who would occasionally date boring straight men, especially after a difficult queer breakup.”1212xWard, Not Gay, 1. Later in that book, she infers from her own ability to enjoy sex with men and women, and her ultimate decision to opt for queerness, that people generally can make political choices about whom they sleep with.

The lack of straight observers in straightness studies does not concern me as a question of justice in representation. After all, straight people are not an underrepresented minority, and there are plenty of straight people writing about heterosexuality without spelling out (or even realizing!) what they are doing. Scholars have no obligation to stay in a “lane” based on personal identity. The problem lies elsewhere. If you’ve only ever experienced heterosexuality as an imposition, a request out of step with your wiring or politics or however you understand it, you may be inclined to imagine that everyone experiences it as stifling. Indeed, scholars of straightness overemphasize the aspects of heterosexuality that involve people acting against their true (queer) desires and underemphasize the part where men and women fall in love with each other or jump eagerly into bed. If the aim is to shed light on straightness itself, the bafflement of nonstraight onlookers can only go so far.

To limit the story of straightness to one of obedience and repression ignores countless situations in which a love can’t be open: interracial love in a racist society, adultery, unrealizable work crushes, or, say, the doomed romance of Romeo and Juliet. There are even mundane obstacles, as in Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, the plot of which hinges on popular high school boy Connell’s belief—mistaken, he will learn—that he needs to keep his friendship with benefits with rich, brooding weirdo Marianne a secret from his conformist group of male friends. He stays mum about his true love, instead inviting an in-crowd girl to the dance, a choice with repercussions. This plot does not make sense from a straightness studies perspective: What could possibly motivate a teenage boy to hide the fact that he was having sex with an attractive (if uncool) female classmate? Yet this part of the novel rang entirely true to me, someone who did not have quite as exciting a time in high school, but who would keep certain crushes secret (even though all were on boys), for clique-related reasons that no longer make sense to me as an adult. There was plenty of drama, even if most of it was in my own head.

The headline to Bindel’s Spectator piece goes bluntly to her point: “Why Are Boringly Straight Women Claiming to Be Lesbians?” And yes, “boringly straight” also appears in the piece itself. I want to home in on this question of straight women and perceived boringness, because I think it is the key to the straightness studies enterprise.

Straight women are not unusually boring. We are, however, coded as such, for a variety of reasons. Women—i.e., in this context, straight ones—are associated with domestic concerns: cooking, cleaning, shopping, children. Also, our sexuality is thought to be a PG version of straight or gay men’s—neither filthy nor compulsive nor visually oriented. A straight woman would never be seen being sexually inappropriate on a Zoom call, à la New Yorker journalist Jeffrey Toobin.

Women who partner with men find themselves struggling to resolve the tension between rejecting and embracing heteronormativity. Most women are into men, and most people, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, do not reinvent any relationship wheels. We know we’re full human beings with complex inner lives, but also that the world doesn’t see it that way. We’re also not entirely sure about those other straight ladies, who have nothing going on. This leads, unsurprisingly, to hypocrisy. I mean some women’s practice of declaring their hatred of men on Twitter while announcing how much they love their boyfriend on Facebook. Or some women’s insistence that their hetero life is somehow different from those of other straight married ladies because, unlike those other ladies, they kept their maiden name or wore a red wedding dress or had both parents walk them down the aisle…at their wedding, again, to a man. Something similar happens when such women gesture at an unspecified, and certainly unconsummated, queerness.

In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Ward describes her sense of alienation as the sole queer faculty member in her academic department. Her colleagues weren’t homophobic, but they weren’t to her liking, either: “I was out to my colleagues as a lesbian, but I was not out to them as a radical queer,”1313xWard, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, 144. she explains. What did this difference entail?

Several of my older colleagues lived in McMansions in gated communities, wore Dockers, and liked to host poolside department parties at their homes during which they would stand around in heterosexual married couplets, drinking white wine and talking about sports cars, the successes of their grown children, or whether to buy a boat.… I was thirty-one years old and lived far away from campus in a tiny apartment in a dyke enclave with my punk trans partner. I spent my weekends dancing in a naughty queer femme burlesque troupe.1414xIbid.

Making sense of this collection of signifiers is tricky. How much of it is about sexuality, and how much is just a function of age and status in a professional-class social setting? Thirty-one-year-old professors are more likely to live in unexceptional apartments than their decades-older tenured colleagues, and a whole bunch less likely to have grown children. Ward associates aesthetically and politically with youth and describes the kinship she—“a forty-five-year-old white dyke who can still feel like a vulnerable queer kid”1515xIbid., 113.—felt with a group of queer students of color in her lecture classes. And hers is a high school lens, through which the interesting people are seen as having nose piercings and the ones with pearl stud earrings as being hopelessly vapid. How does she know that these preppy colleagues of hers were not at one time (or currently) members of naughty burlesque troupes of their own?

To her credit, Ward includes straight men in her assessment of hetero dullness. She notes that “‘boring’ was the most frequently repeated descriptive term used by my queer interlocutors to describe straight people and/or straight culture.” She writes that “queer commentators like to point out just how basic straight culture is,”1616xIbid., 124, 125. and joins these commentators in her own assessments. Ward’s definition of straight culture reads less like a description of a culture shared by most straight people than one of conventionality. It reminded me of an explanation of Pete Buttigieg’s unpopularity in radical queer circles. Writing in The New Yorker in February 2020, Masha Gessen described Buttigieg’s distance from (and Gessen’s own proximity to) “the experience of never fitting in, being bullied by classmates for the way you walk, the way you look in clothes, the way you hit or fail to hit—all the things that set you apart before you have language to describe them.”1717xMasha Gessen, “The Queer Opposition to Pete Buttigieg, Explained,” The New Yorker, February 12, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-queer-opposition-to-pete-buttigieg-explained. When I read this, I was struck by the idea that having been bullied or thought a weirdo by classmates was somehow specific to queerness, as opposed to the typical experience of middle and high school students, most of whom are straight.

Writer and podcast host Katie Herzog remarked on just this paradox of queerness in a column in The Stranger: “It’s perhaps ironic then that actual homosexuals are sometimes left out of this inclusive definition—for instance, Mayor Pete, whom Masha Gessen and other queer writers have deemed insufficiently queer because he wears khakis and because the only man he’s slept with is his husband.”1818xKatie Herzog, “More and More People Identify as ‘Queer,’” The Stranger, February 19, 2020, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2020/02/19/42900057/more-and-more-people-identify-as-queer. Khakis! Herzog, herself a lesbian, notes that these days, with the term’s myriad vague and inclusive definitions, “‘queer’ is so expansive that it can include nearly everyone, including people who are actually straight.”1919xIbid.

It’s conventional wisdom in progressive discourse that the marginalized are deeply familiar with the privileged, whereas for the privileged, the marginalized are invisible. Ward maintains that to bring up exceptions is to miss the point. A straight person insisting that not all straight people share in what she deems straight culture is simply, for Ward, defensiveness of the privileged, akin to the cliché of white people insisting that not all white people are racist. But to reject the lived experience of straight women, in a book supposedly about helping straight women, is to insist that the book not be judged on the basis of whether it rings true. Is heterosexuality really as dominated by self-help books as Ward claims? Is pickup artistry, or the gag-gift genre involving stale jokes about boobs and layabout husbands, at the core of straight people’s culture? Are women really made miserable by heterosexuality, or is the problem sexism?

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality reads like a description of straightness from someone who is ignoring, willfully or otherwise, the possibility that anyone is really straight: “Another question that queers sometimes ponder about straight people is whether they are actually sexually attracted to one another.”2020xWard, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, 18. Consider this claim, which would seem absurd and bigoted if reversed (“Dear gay men, do you actually like other men, like, for real?”), but is no less absurd in the absence of systemic bigotry: “Studies show that many straight-identified women find penises ‘unattractive,’ are ‘turned off’ by images of nude men, and prefer to gaze at naked women when given the option.”2121xIbid. If straight women are put off by the male form (#notallstraightwomen), is this about female sexual desire, or about a patriarchal society, where women but not men get objectified? Physical desire for men is stigmatized, associated as it is with promiscuous women and gay men. (I could but won’t hold forth on otherwise enthusiastic hetero Elaine Benes telling her fellow Seinfeld characters that the naked female body is “a work of art” while the male body is “hideous.”2222xAndy Ackerman (director) and Jennifer Crittenden (writer), Seinfeld, season 9, episode 9, “The Apology,” aired December 11, 1997, on NBC. In my understanding of the character, based on numerous viewings of the series, Elaine did not really think this.) If sexiness is a billboard displaying a woman in lingerie, it’s not profound or progressive that even straight women associate such images with sex.

Much of Ward’s book returns to the theme of doubting the authenticity of opposite-sex attraction: “Lesbian feminist writers…documented the ways that girls and women were groomed by straight culture to desire relationships with men despite the overwhelming evidence that heterosexual relationships were unequal.”2323xWard, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, 12. I keep re-reading this sentence, trying to imagine how it could have seemed reasonable to the person writing it. The very notion that not just girls but grown women would need to be “groomed” into “desir[ing] relationships with men” is radically disconnected from how the world of actual human beings works. This is like saying one would need to be groomed to find pizza delicious. The most that could be said is that girls and women are often encouraged to have specific heterosexual relationships they don’t want, but so too are they (girls especially) discouraged from having others they do want. And girls, women, want. Heteronormativity didn’t invent this. Yet Ward writes as though there is this abstract phenomenon, heterosexual culture, furthered by people without the backbone or creativity to choose other paths. The genuine, intense desire of women for men, and vice versa, is a missing piece without which huge swaths of human behavior become inexplicable. Or, if not inexplicable, then poised for ungenerous interpretation.

Ward leaves it to the final chapter of Tragedy to ask a straight woman directly about her straightness, and learns, “‘I am in it for the dick.’”2424xIbid., 164. Crudely put, and with an implied note of ironic misandry. (A good feminist can like “dick” but not men.) But there, at last, is an acknowledgment of female heterosexual desire. It’s a thing. Who knew?

It’s not clear how much Ward’s definition of queerness excludes people who would, by commonsense definitions, count as heterosexual. She writes about how “straight people of color, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities, sluts, fat people, and white queers—to name a few—depart from the norms associated with straightness and/or whiteness.”2525xIbid., 116. My first reaction to this was to be confused, as a boring straight white Jew, about why I was being welcomed into the slightly less problematic queer-adjacent category. But more to the point, how precisely do “sluts” break with hetero norms? A woman who is unapologetically promiscuous with men is, I should think, straight; what else is known about her? If this “slut” (again, Ward’s word; in context it’s clearly not meant as pejorative, quite the contrary) happens to be white, then I’m going to say she hasn’t departed from whiteness either.

My disagreement with Ward is on a more fundamental level than over whether straight women are, in fact, okay. Ward presents human complexity as a matter of identity subcategories: The more extensive your affiliations (or the more you know about), or the more prepared you are to place your experiences in boxes, the more you have going on as a person:

In queer life, gender and sexual identities themselves continually proliferate, sometimes to the chagrin of straight people who complain about our swelling acronym.… People are not simply straight, gay, or bisexual; we can also be pansexual, polysexual, monosexual, asexual, demisexual, graysexual, androsexual, gynesexual, skoliosexual, panromantic, demiromantic, and questioning/curious. This increasingly precise sexual vocabulary attempts to give a fuller picture of the variability of sexual desire—differences that straight culture renders unimaginable by refusing to give name to them.2626x Ibid., 141–42.

Set aside that “demisexual” refers to people who need to get to know partners before deciding whether they want to sleep with them, a category that seems to have fallen under the queerness umbrella solely because it sounds newfangled, rather than because it has anything to do with being not-straight or not-cis. Consider instead whether human experience is most accurately described through the use of preexisting (if, yes, ever-expanding) subcategories. Is it really true that variances in sexual desire become imaginable only once they are sorted into identity categories? It seems at least as productive to look at desire as highly individual and impossible to fully categorize.

Ward’s focus on aesthetics is less a queer critique of straight culture than a culturally elite critique of the lowbrow. After all, children born to straight households in well-off, enlightened pockets are not put in gendered clothing, let alone welcomed into the world with pink or blue cupcakes. Ward writes that “the problem isn’t really one of bad taste; it’s not about the ‘Live, Love, Laugh’ posters but about what they represent and why they are being consumed.”2727xIbid., 126. Except that it clearly is about taste. At a cultural moment when it’s neither sufficient nor acceptable to hate something for being tacky, it doesn’t work to state that a preference for minimalism is superior to decorating your home with banal slogans and mass-produced knick-knacks. Every critique must frame itself as a punch-up, as part of a greater struggle against oppression. Ward’s claim that queer people feel sorry for, not jealous of, straight people winds up reading like yet another story about how the popular kids in high school are now working at the proverbial gas station in their hometown, and isn’t that pathetic.

I want to end by questioning the very idea of human boringness. By that I mean the notion that how compelling or complex someone is can be determined on the basis of snap assessments of the person’s clothes or stated identity categories, rather than on the basis of something far more ineffable and individual. Think of the most and least interesting people you know. Do they line up with a certain demographic profile—or a fondness for neon hair dye? There is a danger, and not only an intellectual one, in conflating interestingness with courage. It’s what’s under the khakis, so to speak, that counts.