Lately I have been thinking a lot about heterosexuality. Okay, that’s a lie. The truth is I’ve been obsessing about heterosexuality. I think about it constantly. I sneak into my local newsstand to buy bridal magazines. I’ve watched “Temptation Island” more than once. I recently took notes when I saw a young couple kissing on the D train.
It’s possible this obsession is the result of an unstable mind, but I think it’s bigger than that. It’s even bigger than Valentine’s Day, a brilliant marketing campaign with its mandatory exchange of cash, chocolates and heterosexual desires. I believe my obsession is part of something big enough to include you, dear reader, as a fellow traveller in heterosexual obsession — for we are all caught in larger cultural moment of a heterosexuality in crisis and thus increasingly in a defensive mood.
There’s nothing new about heterosexuality in crisis, but those of us in the burgeoning field of heterosexual studies like to pretend there is. We academic heterosexualists — in order to convince ourselves our work has social value — like to think we are making visible that which has been hidden by power, that we are forcing the standard so used to gazing at the deviation, to account. In fact, we heterosexualists are just another round of intellectual ferment set off by a cyclical history of heterosexuality in crisis.
When heterosexuality in its present form was invented in the science of the Victorians, it was a response to the larger fears and desires of the culture. Men’s sexuality had to be controlled, harnessed into a productive form, not wasted in the sins of masturbation, sodomy and prostitution. This sexual panic forced heterosexuality to come out in the same way debutantes come out — in a more ladylike manner. By putting it under the harsh light of public scrutiny, heterosexuality could also be far better policed. An entirely different set of cultural anxieties made heterosexuality public property in the 1950s. At that time, it was more a fear of national penetration played out in the metonymy of anal penetration between men.
Today, heterosexuality is again being forced to come out, but the sexual panic outing it is more diffuse, more difficult to pin down. It’s clearly got something to do with the “threat” of an increasingly legitimate homosexuality, but it’s also got a lot to do with AIDS, a longstanding anxiety over teenage sexuality and a general sense that heterosexuality in its most legitimate form — marriage — just ain’t working.
The result: our personal and national obsession with heterosexuality. This obsession is producing results both comic and tragic from courses such as “A Sociology of Heterosexuality” to the Defense of Marriage Act to a multi-billion dollar wedding industry to a renewed emphasis on teenage sexual abstinence. What all of these manifestations of public heterosexuality have in common is a willingness to take heterosexuality seriously as a form of power but also a concrete sense of the limits of that power.
When Congress members debated the Defense of Marriage Act, there was a certain sense of comic doom, a willingness to equate heterosexual marriage with human and constitutional rights and to see those rights as threatened by same-sex marriage. But the tragedy was made comic by a persistent willingness to make same sex marriage so absurd that allowing it would force the state to recognize marriages between humans and animals. As a student of mine put it, “That’s just what my mama said when I came out. She said, why if men sleep with other men, what’s going to stop them from sleeping with dogs?”
The humor and pathos here lies in a very real sense that heterosexuality is threatened, but it’s being threatened by an absurdity, a clown, a trickster. Weddings are equally tragic and comic in tone these days. On the one hand, the average wedding costs $20,000 and in the New York metropolitan area, $50,000. On the other hand, have you seen the dresses?
This brings me to teenage sexual abstinence. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows there’s nothing more amusing than pledging sexual abstinence while defining sex as vaginal penetration with a penis. The result is a whole lot of fun without any of the shame. The tragedy is, of course, that the U.S. government is spending a quarter of a billion dollars a year to teach teenagers slogans such as “Pet your dog, not your date” rather than the far more important “Use a condom.”
This brings me to my course and the academic response to heterosexuality. Obviously my course is comic; the mere title makes people — well, people who aren’t paying tuition — chuckle. It seemed so absurd to the curriculum committee that I was forced to submit a syllabus a year ago. It seemed so absurd to a reporter that he cried out, “But how could anyone be qualified to teach heterosexuality?” as if its mystery was so deep as to be impenetrable. It was so amusing to a conservative journal that it was voted one of the stupidest courses in the country.
But I think my course and the general academic response to the current crisis in heterosexuality is deadly serious. What’s different this time around is the academics taking up heterosexuality are not invested in its survival. Trained in the methods of queer theory, feminism and gender studies, heterosexualists like myself are not echoing state imperatives to defend it. Indeed, many of us have a deviant impulse to subvert it.
Yet, sometimes it is not clear to me whether we are subverting or propping up the whole system. Heterosexuality — like nationalism, whiteness or Disney — is an extremely resilient form of power. It has a way of sucking even its critics into it — forcing us to cry at weddings, read romance novels and believe that “the family” and “our children” need protection.
Maybe the reason I buy those wedding magazines and watch Temptation Island has more to do with romance and love than critique. Maybe that’s why Valentine’s Day this year found me with flowers and chocolates in hand. After all, heterosexuality in its present guise as true love, romantic, safe, legitimate and increasingly inclusive is difficult to resist — especially when it disarms us with its comic underbelly. It is the comic underbelly — the spectacle of Temptation Island, the suppressed giggles of a President getting some but not having “real” sex, the bad puns of children’s paper valentines — that gets us every time.
A true sociology of heterosexuality requires too much of us. It is easier to forget that heterosexuality requires a huge amount of social resources to produce itself and protect itself from the threat of other forms of desire. After all, who but the mentally unstable and obsessed would resist a funny, chubby little Cupid, even if he does intend to pierce our hearts with his arrow?
Laurie Essig is a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology.