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In a blog post last fall at The American Conservative, commentator Rod Dreher waxed apocalyptic about an unpublished but intriguing finding: “Roughly 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT.”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.

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