The elephant in the room: heterosexuality in critical gender/sexuality studies

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The Elephant in the Room:
Heterosexuality in Critical Gender/
Sexuality Studies
Chris Beasley a
a Department of Politics & The Fay Gayle Centre for Research on
Gender, University of Adelaide, South Australia
Available online: 27 Jul 2010 To cite this article: Chris Beasley (2010): The Elephant in the Room: Heterosexuality in Critical
Gender/Sexuality Studies , NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 18:3, 204-209
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NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research,Vol. 18, No. 3, 204–209, September 2010 Taking Turns is an open forum for brief and rapid assessments of changes emerging inthe field, and its discontents. In this series, we invite Nordic as well as non-Nordicscholars to present their take on contemporary challenges for feminist scholarship andgender research. In this issue, we are handing the relay over to Chris Beasley, anAustralian feminist scholar and Associate Professor in Politics at the University ofAdelaide, whose main areas of research interest are ethics, culture, and gender/sexualitytheory. She is currently in the process of working on two books, one concerned with thecultural politics of popular contemporary film, and the other a co-authored book onheterosexuality. In her position paper for NORA, she argues forcefully for the pressingneed for alternative feminist approaches to heterosexuality.
The Elephant in the Room:Heterosexuality in CriticalGender/Sexuality Studies Department of Politics & The Fay Gayle Centre for Research on Gender, University of Adelaide, South Australia Downloaded by [] at 19:39 12 April 2012 Heterosexuality appears self-evidently nothing special. So, surely it should be a cinchto theorize. After all, what could be more mundane, more prevalent, more presumed,more naturalized, and therefore customarily exclusionary and uninspiring? But, afterthinking on this issue for the last several years, I am now not at all sure that it is quitethat straightforward. In recent work, along with my colleagues Mary Holmes andHeather Brook, I have turned to problematizing heterosexuality and heterosex(Beasley 2008, 2009; Beasley, Brook and Holmes forthcoming).
The direction of this work is to productively upset accounts of heterosexuality as uninteresting, as simply to be equated with heteronormativity, in critical gender/sexuality studies. Such accounts remain mired in the old "sex wars" divide thatlargely cast heterosexuality in "sex-critical, sex as danger" terms. Heterosexuality, Correspondence Address: Christine Beasley, School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide, NorthTerrace, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia. Email: [email protected] 0803-8740 Print/1502-394X Online/10/030204 – 209 q 2010 Taylor & Francis The Elephant in the Room according to this stance, is immured in gendered inequality with the emphasis on itsnasty and normative features. More recently, the queer/feminist "pro-sex"perspective has become prevalent in analyses of sexuality, but in this approachqueer becomes the site of exciting and pleasurable, subversive, transgressive sex,while heterosex, if mentioned at all, is still rendered as unpleasant or dowdy and asoffering little of interest in terms of social change.
In essence critical scholarly voices on heterosexuality have mostly failed to develop beyond a "sex-critical" approach. The few more "positive" representationshave not radically altered the overall drift. For example, Meika Loe's (2004)fascinating research on Viagra in the USA may challenge the view of heterosexualmen as always powerful and predatory but, in its concern with sexual dysfunction, isnot well placed to produce improved analysis of pleasure. The lacuna in the criticalliterature is reiterated both in theoretical scholarship and associated policy materials.
For instance, it is almost impossible to find in masculinity studies any account ofheterosexual men's pleasure in ways that do not presume desire ¼ damage. Onlygay men's desire seems to involve permissible pleasure. Similarly, if we look atinternational studies writings attending to sexuality it would seem that predatorymen and vulnerable women abound (Bayliss & Smith 2001). More specifically, mostof the limited debate on sexuality in a global context has been fashioned by themes oftrafficking, slavery, and rape in war, themes largely dominated by genderedrepresentations of male victimizers and feminine victims (Re-public: re-imaginingdemocracy 2008; Women's Worlds Congress 2008).
Though my colleagues and I consider such themes crucially significant, we are presently writing a book titled Heterosexuality in Theory and Practice which offersboth a challenge to heterosexuality's comparative absence in contemporary gender/sexuality debates and a challenge to its common constitution as unremitting crueltyand pain in the service of oppressive normativity. The book develops a new analysiswhich walks a path between the sharply bifurcated perspectives of the sex wars withthe intention of showing the limits of their terms of reference. In looking toreconsider heterosexuality and its pleasurable possibilities, we reject both the ideathat sexual relations are a power-neutral, "free" zone for individual pleasure-seekingconstruction and the notion of heterosexuality as a monolith, as the undifferentiated Downloaded by [] at 19:39 12 April 2012 platform for inculcating and doing heteronormativity. We do not aim to promote arevisionist account of heterosexuality as an option in a fluid smorgasbord. Neither dowe intend to dismiss the weight of feminist/pro-feminist critiques of heterosexuality.
We seek to establish that if relations of domination do not constitute the analyticalsum of heterosexuality, the task of identifying its range of potentialities, includingits possibilities for social transgression/innovation, is clearly important forunderstanding and helping to undo its nastier elements.
In addressing, in the first instance, heterosexual pleasure we intend to reveal the gap between the cacophony of popular commercial voices about (hetero)sexualityand the comparatively silent and largely negative critical voices in gender/sexualitystudies that might be expected to provide a counterpoint. As Michael Kimmel andRebecca Plante note in Sexualities (2004: xv), there is a concerning conjunction ofa proliferation of sexuality throughout modern culture (or at least a proliferation ofcertain forms of it) with a simultaneous lack of serious substantive "conversation" about it. The gap leaves heterosexual pleasure to privatized voices and effectivelyabandons a strategy for alternative visions and social change. While we acknowledgethat presently it seems almost impossible to get away from (hetero)sex, we fear thelack of critical address. As in drugs policy (where the coolness of drugs in popularculture is poorly countered by drug policy which fails to attend to its pleasures), so for(hetero)sexuality.
Despite important efforts (for example by Carol Vance (1992), Stevi Jackson (1998), and Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott (2010)), robust conceptions of hetero-pleasure and its possibilities have not been sustained within critical study ofheterosexuality in gender/sexuality studies and associated policy developments. Tothe extent that critical voices are not able to embrace pleasure, they cannot providean enticing alternative to the seductive barrage of consumerist messages about(hetero)sexuality.
This failure to attend to heterosexuality's positive pleasurable possibilities is intimately connected to a parallel failure to consider its positive potentialitieswith regard to directions for change. Heterosexuality appears as a distasteful andimmovable monolith which is devoid of fun or worth. Rather it seems dead in thewater, hardly requiring attention, an anachronism. Indeed, most current work withincritical gender/sexuality studies tends to assume that marginality is synonymous withopportunities for social change: minority sexualities are deemed almost inherentlyoppositional, as the "home" of queer (Ahmed 2006; Chancy 2008; Shugart &Waggoner 2008), or at least oppositional to the extent that they resist approachingheterosexual normalization (Richardson 2004). Heterosexuality, by contrast, islargely simply cast as "compulsory" sexuality. This conception locates marginalizedsexualities, frequently named as queer sexualities, as always politically labile andsuggests that only marginalized sexualities, queer sexualities, are politically labile.
However, such an approach may also seriously underestimate the locations andsubjectivities in which change may arise. A "queered" (subversive) heterosexuality is,with few exceptions, seen (usually implicitly) as an oxymoron (Beasley 2005: 112).
Although queer theorists like Valocchi (2005) assert a challenge to the hetero- sexual/homosexual dichotomy, conceptions of transgression in queer theorizing that Downloaded by [] at 19:39 12 April 2012 make any reference to heterosexuality are typically restricted to slippages in hetero-sexual identities towards the non-heterosexual (see, for instance, Jagose 1996: 3).
Non-heterosexual largely stands in for queer and equates to transgression. Thedestabilizing fluidity associated with queer thinking in fact is almost invariably onlyapplied to heterosexuality to the extent that it passes muster by crossing intonon-heterosexual practices such as in bisexual identities (Munoz-Laboy 2004). Inthis restricted application there is very little room to consider the idea thatsubversion/transgression might be intrinsic within dominant practices likeheterosexuality (rather than necessarily external to them).
While it is undoubtedly worth considering research suggesting greater fixity amongst young people today with regard to heterosexuality than to gender (Moffatt& Norton 2008), the equation of heterosexuality with heteronormativity—withan unchanging conformity—is problematic in terms of social change. Moreover,the conflation of heterosexual with heteronormative reduces heterosexual subjects to The Elephant in the Room the status of cultural dopes, of social robots. The majority are condemned to standoutside the gate of history.
In rethinking the predominant conception of heterosexuality as nasty, boring, and normative, the point is to highlight the subversive potentialities of heterosexand associated practices, discourses, and identities. Heterosexuality is a majorityorientation. However, relative to other sexualities, it is under-theorized as a potentialsource of pleasure, interest, and transgression, and over-determined as a sourceof domination. Heterosexuality is in some ways the elephant in the criticalgender/sexuality studies room—simultaneously hugely present and yet somehowignored. Yet in the space between heterosexuality's normative nastiness and itsuncertain pleasures we might find something familiar yet intriguing—a place forcritical adventures, no less. A place to wonder about the meaning of and opportu-nities for social innovation and social change.
Rather than conceiving heterosexuality as simply to be conflated with the heteronormative, as a closed system, it is useful to consider the Deleuzian account of"becoming"—the notion of an open-ended system (Deleuze & Guattari 1980/1987:6 – 12; see also Chia 1996: 34 – 35). Such a conception does not necessarily ignorethe constraining normalization of heterosexuality in which corporeal identitiesand practices are situated as dualistic forms of inherent immoveable "being", butnevertheless refuses to accept that this is all there is. The anti-juridical thought withwhich Deleuze is associated enables attention to the transgressive micro-politicalwhich arises out of a disavowal of set binary positions as the only actuality. Insteadsuch an approach proposes an incessant dynamic mobility which—though blockedand contained—remains incompletely closed, unfinished and unpredictable (Deleuze& Parnet 1987: 133; Eveline 2005: 644).
If heterosexual inter-corporeality is understood in this Deleuzian sense of a terrain of "becoming", rather than a matter of primordial "being", it is also possible to claimfor it an expansive productivity that cannot be reduced to the heteronormative. It canbe countenanced as capable of "deterritorialization", of breaks and spaces, as well asmicro-practices which move away from set binary meanings/identities towards moredynamic, diffused, and heterogeneous possibilities (Deleuze & Guattari 1972/2004).
Deterritorialization does not inevitably equate to the dissolution of hetero/homo and Downloaded by [] at 19:39 12 April 2012 gender binaries (though this might indeed be a direction) and thus does not proposeheterosexuality's productivity as a synonym for erasure of its specificity. Rathersuch an approach enables heterosexuality to be reconceived as a field of potentialtransgression.
The intention of such a rethinking is bring to the fore a positive optimistic micro- politics and destabilize socio-political determinism. Nevertheless, to my mind thisis not sufficient to a consideration of transgression in relation to the mainstream,to heterosexuality. Deleuze, along with Foucault and queer theorists like Bersani,turns our attention to a positive fluidity, mobility, and multiplicity. However, thisunremitting attention to a propulsive social creativity, to "flows of becoming whichhave infinite possibilities" (Jenkins 2009: xi, emphasis added) may involvea privileged disembodiment side-stepping racialized/ethnic/cultural location inbodily and geographic terms (Beasley 2005: 168 – 174). The Deleuzian emphasis onthe open-ended quality of sociality, on "becoming" rather than "being", offers a significant step forward for analyses of heterosexuality and heterosex, in so far as theyhave become encased in negative characterization as exemplary normalization.
Nevertheless, such an open-ended emphasis can amount to a strategy not simply of de-essentializing but of dematerialization, which places in the shadows asymmetricconstraints in existing social relations but also the constraints of visceral physicalityand embodied interconnection. Sexuality and heterosex demand an account ofpleasure and transgression which tenaciously holds on to the sensuous fleshliness ofsociality, to both the creativity and the limits of "social flesh" (Beasley & Bacchi 2007).
Secondly, fluidity/multiplicity in sexual practices is not necessarily transgressive.
Endless fluidity/multiplicity perhaps can be deemed transgressive in relation tominority sexualities, but in the sphere of the heterosexual mainstream suchproductivity might after all largely maintain and extend the hegemony of theheteronormative. For heterosexual transgression to have any substantive meaningat all, an advocacy of fluidity must be moderated by a stance which challenges theheteronormative (Beasley forthcoming).
However, despite some caveats, what is useful about the work of writers like Deleuze is that heterosexuality can no longer be cast in such approaches as animmoveable elephant from which nothing pleasurable or positive can be gained andwhich is therefore best ignored by critical commentators. The refusal to inculcatesocio-political determinism enables a rejection of simplistic accounts of sexualmodes, a rejection of notions that queer/minority sexualities are somehow politicallypure and synonymous with transgression or that heterosexuality is unremittinglyoppressive and transgressive heterosexuality an oxymoron. In destabilizing reductiveassumptions about the political possibilities of sexualities we can then consider thepotential myriad of fissures in the socially normative and hence develop evidence toquestion both its seeming strangle-hold and naturalized status.
All the same there remain significant uncertainties about what counts as transgressive and socially subversive, and what counts when heterosexuality is thesite. What is the difference between the merely unusual and the transgressive in thisinstance? This is a problem for discussions about social life and about sexualitiesper se but is particularly an issue when analysing heterosexuality. I would assert that Downloaded by [] at 19:39 12 April 2012 transgression cannot be understood as only available at the social margins. Instead,transgression may be seen as intrinsic within dominant practices like heterosexuality(rather than necessarily always external to them). But what then might transgressionin the realm of the dominant look like (Beasley 2011 forthcoming); how might atransgressive heterosexuality be conceptualized? It would seem that considering the question of a pleasurable transgressive heterosexuality, and what it might involve, complicates our understandings of selfand social change and thus opens up hopeful, if not infinite, possibilities.
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