THE STRAIGHTS ARE NOT OKAY.
The tragedy of heterosexuality is this: modern straightness dooms once-hopeful, loving couples to share dull, frustrating, and lonely lives together. After all, men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and what’s a heterosexual to do about it? Against this dismal state of affairs, Jane Ward’s The Tragedy of Heterosexuality offers a scholarly, empathetic intervention from the perspective of queer culture. Ward’s book reveals that the titular tragedy is rooted in the misogynistic ideology permeating straight culture, according to which women are at once objects of desire and derision. In a culture animated by this antinomy, women and men are very different creatures and, by the same token, they are bound to struggle in communicating their needs to one another, to say nothing of living fulfilling lives together. Uncrossing these lovers’ stars, Ward contends, requires adopting a form of heterosexuality—deep heterosexuality—that excises misogyny from straight culture, thereby making room for a version of heterosexuality in which men not only lust for women, but actually like them.
But, how did this situation come to be? Relying on the work of feminist historian Afsaneh Najmabadi among others, Chapter 2 draws readers’ attention to the historical tension that gives rise to this tragedy. Prior to the social evolution of modern companionate heterosexuality, marriage was an explicitly patriarchal, property-centric institution. Across many cultures, wives were merely a tool for property transfer and procreation. In patriarchal contexts like this, Ward contends, the possibility of love—the heart of today’s understanding of straightness—becomes suspicious and emasculating. A man who is devoted to a woman is subordinated to her. Thus, wherever the transition away from property-based marriage begins, it threatens the long-standing patriarchal social order (Ward 2020, p. 38). Such threats do not go unanswered.
Ward focuses on the development of this tension in the United States, with particular attention to the influence of the eugenics movement and the relationship between heteronormativity and American white supremacy (Ward 2020, p. 39). Eugenicists of the early 1900s held that the preservation of white society required happy white homes, because happiness would lead to fecundity. Thus, the happy heterosexual home became an ideal of American life. Ward’s archival analysis reveals that this ideal was a demanding one: men and women of the time routinely loathed both the marriages in which they’d found themselves and the partners to whom they were bound. They regarded one another’s bodies as unfamiliar and disgusting (Ward 2020, p. 39), and women, routinely raped on their wedding nights and knowing little, if anything, of what they were about to experience, came to know their husbands as purveyors of an unspeakable, ungratifying, and ugly act (Ward 2020, p. 41). This, of course, is poor soil for seeds of love and companionship.
In observation of this fallow state, sexologists at the Eugenics Publishing Company pioneered the techniques of the heterosexual-repair industry. This industry is central to Ward’s project: While it aims to diagnose and treat the problems that plague straight couples trying to forge lives together, Ward observes that the industry takes a decidedly heteronormative tack. In the early days, titles like the 1919 Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living normalized the disgust men and women felt for one another and urged them assuage it through professionally guided education and extensive rituals of “hygiene”, such as shaving, perfuming, douching, and so on (Ward 2020, p. 44). Emphasizing the otherworldliness and incomprehensibility of the opposite sex, even the earliest products of the heterosexual-repair industry advised men and women to lean into the analysis that misogyny provided and choose the solutions it placed in easy reach.
By the 1950s, the industry shifted away from addressing the shortcomings of couples considered together, instead focusing on the many failings of the women in those couples. Women were advised to groom not only their bodies, but also their personalities. As explained by Dr. Edward Podolsky’s “10 Commandments for Wives”, listed in Sex Today in Wedded Life: A Doctor’s Confidential Advice, the important and world-weary men in women’s lives needed wives who could overcome the desire for petty household chatter, ensure a warm, happy, clean home, and maintain an enticing appearance (Ward 2020, p. 49–50). As time went on, Ward illustrates, women’s emotional and physical labor remained the panacea of the heterosexual-repair industry, even as it adopted a more feminist tone in the 80s and 90s. Despite identifying misogyny and male entitlement problems, still the industry was unequivocal: Where a marriage is lacking, a woman is slacking.
But, capitalism loves a vacuum. Chapter 3 takes the reader on an empathetic ethnographic tour of the relatively new, masculine side of the heterosexual-repair industry: the seduction industry. Here, more than anywhere else, Ward’s commitment to empathy is challenging. As Ward traces the seduction industry’s lineage in pick-up artist culture and shares her experience attending in-person seduction industry events, it is difficult to peel one’s attention away from the fact that this lineage is the same one that inspired Elliot Rodger’s explicitly misogynistic 2014 killing spree in Isla Vista, California (Ward 2020, p. 85–6). Nevertheless, Ward manages to conjure a scintilla of empathy for these men. In her accounting, the seduction industry has come a long way from its objectifying, misogynistic beginnings. Today’s “seduction coaches” still tell the awkward, self-disparaging men who seek their advice that their courting woes are not their fault. Rather, these failures are rooted in the fact that it is now women, not men, who control seduction and dating. The evolution of the industry comes in its response to this situation: Success, coaches argue, requires that these men see the world through women’s eyes. To avoid seeming creepy, they must understand that women rebuff their advances not because they see them, in particular, as bad men or because they hate men, but rather because these women must contend with a crushing tidal wave of dubious, sometimes-frightening advances. They must understand that “bitch shields” and protective “AFOGs” (the “alpha females of the group”) are necessary strategies for surviving the onslaught (Ward 2020, p. 90). Nevertheless, these shifts in perspective are not aimed at the liberation of women or genuine empathy for their experiences, despite adopting certain feminist insights and language. Rather, they aim, as one of Ward’s interviewees explained, at getting “more high-quality pussy” (Ward 2020, p. 81). The spark of empathy is fleeting.
Together, chapters two and three illustrate a key insight of Ward’s analysis. While the tactics of the heterosexual-repair industry are carefully tuned to its distinct audiences, it employs an unwavering strategy: teach constituents to understand the vast, gender-based differences between them and their mates, then teach them to manipulate those differences to get what they want. Straight relationships, on the industry model, are relationships of adversarial opposites. Repairing them requires clever new tactics—not an interrogation of the gender roles that define the battlefield. This investigation of the heterosexual-repair industry shows that it embodies Ward’s thesis: despite the ongoing shift away from property-based marriage, straight culture remains tragically misshapen by misogynistic, patriarchal ideology. In her analysis of the industry, we see straight culture not only reify, but also reinforce and normalize these assumptions: from the concept of natural difference (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), to the primacy of homosocial status (The Game), to domestic asymmetries (Act like a Lady, Think Like a Man).
Ward attributes her clear vision of this misogynistic throughline to her queerness. Whereas heterosexuality and its many scripts are defaults into which most are socialized, queer lives are discovered and carved out in defiance of this pressure. Despite the fact that this, along with other difficulties of queer life, is widely regarded as a tragedy of its own, Ward’s perspective is joyous. She revels in the freedom and self-ownership of queer culture and queer relationships, and it is against this backdrop that the contrast with straight culture is so visible. Ward is also very much aware of the privilege that the other particularities of her position—not only as an able-bodied white woman, but also as a Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside—provide her. For this reason, Ward relies heavily on the perspectives and analyses of queer women of color in her work, drawing on Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and others.
The voices of BIPOC queers also come alive in Chapter 4, which provides a litany of queer diagnoses of the ills of straight life: boredom, mutual dislike, lack of imagination, and so on. Largely drawn from anonymous surveys of Ward’s own social circle, these commentaries may not provide a broad-based sociological study, but they are nevertheless passionate, funny, and poignant. For example, observing straight men and how straight women treat their partners, a queer Latina commentator explains, “My guard is always fully up when I meet a new straight man. He might hurt anyone, including himself at any moment to prove how manly he is […] Also the way straight women coddle and excuse away the behavior of their partners as if they are children. They are enabling them to do dumb shit,” (Ward 2020, p.133). Turning to relationships themselves, another of Ward’s commentators writes, “Let’s talk about the sitcoms straight folks keep making for each other. Do straight couples even know they should actually like each other? Because I don’t think they do,” (Ward 2020, p. 127).
This contrast between queer and straight relationships brings out another of the book’s many insights: it isn’t that queer relationships are free from strife, but rather that queer culture assumes that the solutions to those struggles are to be found in the partners themselves—not in prefabricated gender roles they occupy. Through Ward’s telling, one gets the feeling that straight culture asks couples to make a poor bargain: you may gain the security and legibility of well-trodden paths, but at the cost of your freedom to shape your life according to your own, genuine needs and desires.
In her final chapter, Ward sets out to define and endorse deep heterosexuality as an alternative to the morass of unsuccessful remedies canvassed throughout the book. For this, Ward returns to fellow queer thinkers—in particular, the lesbian feminists of the 1970s, who took the liberation of women as an object of not only their politics, but also their love. In recent years, feminists have grown rightfully wary of the lesbian separatists and their contemporaries, taking note of the ways that essentialism and universalism led to an exclusionary, transphobic perspective inconsistent with today’s feminism. Nevertheless, as Ward rightly notes, we are often too quick to abandon those who came before us. Revisiting this movement, Ward finds the resolution of a puzzle that both they and straight men must grapple with: How does one square the carnality and felt objectification of lust with the goal of seeing women as fully human partners? Or, as Ward puts it, how does one learn to “fuck women feministly” (Ward 2020, p. 159)?
For the lesbian feminists in Ward’s sights, such as the Radicalesbians, these were not separate things. Women loving women is, in itself, a liberatory act. Seeing another woman’s body as desirable, as a site of pleasure, is a mirror in which one’s own body becomes the same. This sexual liberation can only be understood, in Ward’s analysis, as one facet of the broader liberatory project of being woman-identified. To be woman-identified is to seek women’s liberation in all the facets of their lives. To be woman-identified is to “crave hearing women’s voices, thirst for women’s leadership, ache to know women’s full humanity, and thrill at women’s freedom,” (Ward 2020, p. 32). It is an orientation toward the collective; to women as much as it is to any particular woman. But, as Ward points out, men who express something like this woman-identifiedness in today’s society, who show too much interest in women’s art or art about women’s emotional and interpersonal lives ”risk being perceived as a bit ‘gay’,” (Ward 2020, p.157).
While her queer forerunners provide inspiration, Ward stops short of their separatism and recommendations of “queering”. Instead, the concept of woman-identifiedness is employed as a tool by which to honor the ostensibly guiding impulse of men’s straight identity: love for women. This, I think, is worthwhile. While the exhortation to abandon straight life to one degree or another is exhilarating and liberatory for many queers, and therefore may appear universally liberatory, we cannot assume that this is true for people who genuinely and deeply identify as straight. Some people really are, and really like to be, straight. Thus, in Ward’s proposal for deep heterosexuality, we see an approach interested in the “actualization, rather than undoing” of straightness (Ward 2020, p. 157).
As the framing in terms of Radicalesbian feminist role models might suggest, Ward addresses this final chapter to men. She urges men to reorient their sexuality—to become not just women-oriented, but women-identified. She urges men to yearn for women’s liberation in the same moment as they lust for them, drawing exemplars from the vivid memoirs of Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, Jeanne Cordova and others. She urges men to set aside the conquest of women’s bodies in favor of centering their pleasure. In illustration of this point, Ward considers stone butch sexuality. Stone butches are masculine women who eschew penetration by their partners and often refuse sexual touch. But, these preferences do not render them sexually inert. Rather, stone butches’ erotic satisfaction often lies in the pleasure they provide to their partners—in the giving, rather than the receiving (Ward 2020, p. 169). Male orgasm, in other words, need not be the focus of masculine eroticism.
As moving as this example is, however, I wonder whether the promise of men’s woman-identification can be a genuine parallel. Centering women’s pleasure is a good thing, and Ward is certainly correct that many heterosexual relationships would be vastly improved by this alone. But, if we take this superficial content as the lesson of the stone butch example, we miss its rich texture. We miss the transgression-in-authenticity of butch identity. We miss the vulnerability of opening one’s queerness to another person, especially as it was during the era from which Ward draws this chapter’s inspiration. We miss the illegibility of stone sexuality from a straight perspective. If decades of feminist standpoint theory have taught us anything, it is that these contextual trappings are essential—the masculinity acquired when we pass this experience through a heterosexual sieve is simply not the same.
Perhaps this is better understood through the perspective of the revelation. The revelation of queer sex, especially for those of us socialized as women, is seeing that things you learned to loathe—the things about which you were told that people who love women find them disgusting—are actually sexy. It is the visceral experience of the falsehood of those lies. By contrast, Ward’s analysis and prescription revolves around “sameness” and
“difference”, and teaching men to find sameness even with a female partner. But these philosophical abstractions are not the stuff of visceral revelation. This is not to suggest there is nothing to this idea for men. Men, too, can shed the lens of heteronormative expectation and let scarred, puckered, unshaven, and unplucked bodies delight them. They can (and should!), as Ward suggests, see this loving of women’s bodies as part and parcel of feminist liberation. But, this is not the same. This perspective does not free women from the further heteronormative, patriarchal expectation that men’s appreciation of their bodies is a fundamental source of value—it is merely a less onerous instantiation of the same.
This raises a final question: What does deep heterosexuality mean for women? Ward’s proposal is asymmetrical—it provides recommendations to men, but is largely silent about women. There are plausible reasons for this. Perhaps, insofar as Ward’s proposal is a corrective prescription, women do not need such correction; perhaps they are already appropriately oriented toward men. From a more structural perspective, it is men who hold power in our still-patriarchal social context, and so perhaps the onus lies on men to change it for the better.
Even so, straight women are in a strange position. Just as straight men do not lust for women in the way that lesbians do, straight women do not lust for men in the same way that gay men do (a fact illustrated in Ward’s recounting of her first experience in a gay men’s sex shop, where she “encountered a barrel full of lightly stained and dingy-looking ‘used jock straps’ for sale,” (Ward 2020, p. 165)). But, they are also inextricably bound up with men. Moreover, just as men dislike women, women dislike men, at least according to books like How to Date Men When you Hate Men. Given these situational parallels, one might expect deep heterosexuality to have a parallel message for women. And yet, the application is awkward: Should women become more man-identified? Should they “direct their energies” toward men? Should they yearn for men’s voices and leadership and invest themselves in men’s projects? Obviously, these are unappealing recommendations—they reproduce existing social imbalances and many are already true. So, if deep heterosexuality means anything for women, it is likely very different from what it means for men. I hope it means something for women, however, lest they be left waiting for men to “direct their energies toward women”.
While these questions about deep heterosexuality are a challenge, they are made to feel vivid and urgent by the insightful, empathetic, and entertaining chapters that come before. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality offers a provocative, thoughtful history of the awkward adolescence of straight identity, and provides a compelling case for the need to nurture its maturation in the hopes of turning heterosexuality away from tragedy toward the kind of liberation and joy at the heart of queerness.
University of Minnesota
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Strauss, Neil. 2005. The Game. New York: HarperCollins.
Ward, Jane. 2020. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Sexual Cultures. New York: New York University Press.