Radical Heterosexuality

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from Faeries: Visions, Voices and Pretty Dresses, Aperture, 2000

In her article “Radical Heterosexuality,” Naomi Wolf proposes a new way of challenging dated stereotypes,

gender roles and sexism within a heterosexual partnership. The radical feminist vs. hetero man-lover dichotomy

is a powerful conceptual force, forcing many women to be bound by society’s normalized practices of

negotiating the “rules of the relationship.” Many feminists view these two forces to be irreconcilable; however,

I support Wolf’s argument that there is a necessity for a proactive, engaged and conscious political manner

within the context of heterosexuality.
Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey describe the construction of sexuality as “not instinctive but learned from our families, our peers, sex education in school, popular culture, negotiations with partners and listening to our own bodies.” While the construction of sexuality can be partly physiological, there is unarguably a certain amount of indoctrination that occurs at all levels of society, that shapes how we think and feel about ourselves as sexual beings. Heterosexuality is the dominant institution of sexuality in western culture, with numerous gender roles, stereotypes and double standards built right into the fabric of its design. These culturally-determined expectations are control mechanisms, dictating how a woman should conduct herself with regards to personal choices, behavior and appearance. Within the oppressive system of patriarchy women are to be seen ideally as chaste, helpless, maternal, and self-sacrificing.
We are living in a culture of shame, humiliation and high-minded moral attitudes toward women’s sexual natures. Stereotypes enforce modes of socially sanctioned behavior and are used to maintain the status quo- namely a system of oppression and inequality, with numerous justifications for sexism embedded. Certain double standards apply to men’s sexual behavior, which are not seen as violating any social norms by exercising the freedom to engage in pre-marital sex, while women are constantly judged and frequently pay a high price for the same behavior. This system also condemns women of color to stereotypes of exoticism, animalism and hypersexuality, while women with disabilities are often viewed as sexless, and not capable or deserving of an equal sexuality to able-bodied people.
The mass media enforces these stereotypes and gender roles, with “ images [that] flow from and reinforce macro-level patriarchal constructions of sexuality and gender,” (Kirk, Okinawa-Rey). Assumptions about heterosexuality are intrinsic in this system, but the most powerful being that it is the one natural and correct sexuality for all people, and that men are the aggressors and initiators in the mating ritual. Any woman who actively challenges these assumptions is seen as subversive, perverted or just lacking in moral fiber.
But challenging this established mode of sexuality is exactly what Naomi Wolf proposes, and is what Gayle Rubin identified as “a sexual revolution that would work for women as well as for men.” Radical heterosexuality reconciles the feminist with the heterosexual woman, by inciting her to actively challenge systems of privilege and the inequality and sexism inherent in patriarchal society. Wolf proposes a new relationship dynamic consisting of “eroticized consent,” the valuing of our animalistic natures and the equality of male and female desire.
Radical heterosexuality involves the re-evaluation and renegotiation of relationship dynamics beyond social prescription. It is based on the surrendering of the “automatic benefits conferred by gender” by men, and the willingness of women to be patient teachers of feminism to their partners. Women too would be required to forfeit their gender benefits and take responsibility for tasks traditionally viewed as male. A consciousness of the binary gender dichotomy (as outlined in Leslie Feinberg’s article “We Are All Works in Progress”) would inform the way children are raised in hetero unions, as well as division of labor and the language used to describe gender.
I think Audre Lords contributes to this argument as well, by proposing that by harnessing the power of the erotic, women can reclaim their sexuality as a force independent from purposes of procreation and male pleasure. This would give women more power to define the dynamic of their relationships with male partners, as well as autonomy, empowerment and agency in deciding how to function as a conscious heterosexual.
Becoming radically heterosexual would also entail an active engagement in activism by sex education, community outreach and advocating for GLBTQ rights and freedoms. June Jordan says that “freedom is indivisible, or it is nothing at all,” and on that line of thought, a truly equal form of heterosexuality will never be reached while the system that holds it supreme in turns relegates GLBTQ, the disabled and people of color to the status of “other”. Radical heterosexuality would embrace all the complexity of the human spectrum of sexuality, and “insist on the equal validity of all the components of the social/sexual complexity”.
There is a need for radical heterosexuality in my mind, because heterosexuality is the dominant type of relationship in our society, and the current system will never change unless the people within it change the way they think, feel and relate to each other. Resisting the desire to conform and yield to the dominant hierarchical agenda, radical heterosexuals will help transform the existing structures of oppression and power, while restoring equality in the distribution of privilege and debunking the cultural justifications for sexism that harm us all.
Sources:
Kirk, Gwen and Margo Okazawa-Rey. “Women’s Life: Multicultural Perspectives.” 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007, 165-201.

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2 Responses to “Radical Heterosexuality”

  1. I noticed that this is not the first time at all that you mention this topic. Why have you decided to touch it again?

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