Heteronormativity is a big beast and can be intimidating. In this post, I break it down into its most obvious and important components. A critical look at the waters we swim in every day.

white woman in a wedding dress sliding wedding ring on man's finger

Yesterday, my post about the banality of kink brought up the concept of “heteronormativity”. I realize that I’ve done a poor job of defining this term, and it’s very important to understand when you start digging into queer theory and sexuality studies.

So here’s a short primer on understanding heteronormativity, and how it works in our everyday lives.

Hetero=different; normativity=norms, assumptions and expectations

The word “heteronormativity” has two parts: hetero, meaning different (as in heterosexual, attracted to a different gender); and normativity, the noun form of “normative”.

Something is normative when it is expected and adopted by the majority of a group. For example, in Canada, saying “sorry” for everything is normative. In psychology, a norm is either explicit (written down or told explicitly, like “in this classroom, we raise our hands before we speak”) or implicit (in my town, there is no rule for saying thank you to the bus driver, but everyone does it).

Most of heteronormativity is implicit. But we’ll look at those rules a little further down.

Heteronormativity is a system

The first thing to understand about heteronormativity is that it’s a system. Wikipedia defines a system as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of units forming an integrated whole”.

Heteronormativity is a system because it involves interacting, interdependent rules, expectations, and norms that form an integrated whole. Because it’s made up of human behaviour, the “whole” is fuzzier than, let’s say, a computer system. But it’s fairly easy one to define once you start looking at all the separate things that make up this system.

What’s the purpose of a system? A system is meant to make tasks or processes easier. The purpose of heteronormativity, as a system, is to control the way we act into forms that everyone can expect and recognize.

The components of heteronormativity

I could spend days breaking down heteronormativity into its smallest components (some academics have spent their entire careers doing just that), but a look at the big picture will help you make these observations for yourself.

Component #1: Heterosexuality

We can’t talk about heteronormativity without talking about heterosexuality.

Heterosexuality is, obviously, being attracted to a different gender. Heterosexual women are attracted to men, and vice-versa. But heterosexuality is also only having sexual and/or romantic relationships with a person of a different gender.

Heterosexuality is a “norm” in that when you walk around your neighbourhood or your city, you sort of unconsciously expect that everyone is straight. It’s not like I wonder about the orientation of everyone I meet, of course, but it’s an unspoken assumption we tend to have. For example, people do not “come out” as hetero because it’s the expected norm; only people who are not hetero need to come out to mark their difference.

Component #2: Cisgenderism

Related to the idea that everyone is basically hetero is the assumption we make that everyone is also cisgender (cisgender means that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth). If I have breasts and hips, I must be a woman. If I have a beard and a penis, I must be a man.

Again, as with heterosexuality, there is no need to “come out” as cisgender because that’s what everyone is assumed to be. Only transgender and non-binary people have to come out.

getting laid couple lying down

Component #3: Gender roles

Heteronormativity also involves a rather strict set of gender roles. Gender roles are the things that are expected and/or acceptable for any gender to do. An example of gender roles is that women cook and clean while men mow the lawn and repair the car.

Gender roles influence how we act every day in small and big ways. For example, as a woman, I am expected to be quiet and take as little space as possible. Men are allowed to be loud and take up space and express their opinions. On the flip side, while women are allowed to have a range of emotions, from joy to sadness, men are only allowed to ever feel anger. (Women are expressly not allowed to be angry.)

Gender roles are harmful because they limit what any person can do. Who says that firefighter or President is not a job for a woman? Nobody has declared it so; it’s just something we kind of believe without much evidence.

Component #4: Monogamy

As we start expanding outward, heteronormativity starts affecting not only our personal choices and actions but also how we relate to other people.

One big part of heteronormativity is monogamy. When you look at the basic relationship script we are given by our peers and the media, it says something like this:

  • Meet a person of a different gender
  • Go on a few dates
  • Have sex (if it’s the first time, though, you should wait until marriage!)
  • Become exclusive
  • Move in together
  • Get married
  • Have children, a dog, a joint bank account
  • Retire together

Other ways of having relationships, such as never having sex, not living together, or not being exclusive, are considered strange, abnormal, or downright immoral. We sort of expect most people to be monogamous, and people who are not monogamous also have to either come out or hide their non-monogamy.

Component #5: The nuclear family

Related to the idea of monogamy is the nuclear family. A nuclear family is a family made up of two married parents (one man and one woman) and their children living together under one roof.

Think about how difficult it is to define “family” any other way. I wrote a post about how marriage is a way to enforce the nuclear family on people who may not want to live this way, and how the government uses marriage as a way to limit access to benefits. Any same-sex couple who tried to access government benefits inherited from their spouse before the legalization of same-sex marriage can tell you about this problem.

If a person has two children from two different fathers and lives with both of the fathers and all the children, the government is not going to let everyone in on everyone else’s benefits. Only one father can access the benefits related to the mother.

How the government defines a family is a powerful way to influence how people form their own families.

Component #6: The couple as a unit

Traditionally, when a man and a woman marry, the woman takes the husband’s last name as her own. It’s both a way to mark ownership (Ms. Smith is Mr. Smith’s wife) and to ensure that the couple is viewed as a unit, rather than two separate people who choose to make a life together.

Viewing the couple as a unit makes things easier for the government when it comes to census data (households) and access to benefits. It is implied that a married couple will assign their benefits to the other person in the couple and/or their children.

The couple as a unit and the nuclear family also serve as metaphors when the government makes policies, especially economic. For example, treating a government budget like a household budget (at least as much money must come in as goes out) reinforces heteronormative systems.


Component #7: Good sex, bad sex

Let’s step back in closer and have a closer look at something else I talked about in my post about kink: the hierarchy of sex.

Here’s the graphic again:

The sex hierarchy by Gayle Rubin: "Good sex" is married, heterosexual, monogamous and reproductive. Areas of contest are unmarried couples, masturbation, same-sex couples, gay bars and baths, etc. Bad sex: transgender people, transvestism, fetishism, sadomasochism, sex work, intergenerational.

In a heteronormative world, the “good” kind of sex is heterosexual, penis-in-vagina sex between a married couple with the purpose of making babies (or at least maintaining couple cohesion so that they can have babies later on, or after they’ve had them so they stay together).

Non-heterosexual sex is considered, at best, “okay if you keep it private” and, at worst, “deviant and immoral”.

Heteronormativity tells us that the only kind of valid sex is sex between a cis man and a cis woman that ends in vaginal penetration and ejaculation. (Think about it. That’s a very narrow definition of sex.)

Component #8: Being in public

In a heteronormative world, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to be a couple in public. Heterosexual, cisgender couples are allowed to do all sorts of things in public: hold hands, kiss, have romantic dinners, rent hotel rooms, etc.

Couples that are not heterosexual or cisgender face risks of violence when they do any of these things.

What is allowed and not allowed in public defines how we act around others in non-intimate settings. If heterosexual norms are enforced with violence (as they often are), then people who deviate from these norms live in constant fear for themselves and the ones they love.

Add your own components

As a system, heteronormativity surrounds everything we do. Going against it requires courage, awareness, and often living with a fear of violence or stigma.

Any of the components I talk about can be further broken down in smaller subsets of norms and rules that guide the way we act every day. Assumptions about child rearing can easily be broken down by gender, for example. What do “good mothers” do? What do “good fathers” do?

At the heart of heteronormativity, however, is one single belief: that men and women are two definite and separate categories of “being” and that everything in society must be categorized by “what men are/do” and “what women are/do”.

If you’ve read through this post, you hopefully realize that all of this is basically bullshit. Not every person with a vagina is a woman. Not every woman wants children. Not every man is heterosexual. It’s important to think about the ways that these rules and norms limit us, rather than free us.

Systems like this exist because humans like when they don’t have to think too much. We are fundamentally lazy (psychologists call this “the cognitive miser”) and we like going about our days with easily predictable conditions. But our laziness also costs us in terms of potential: how many brilliant women have been told that science is not for them? How many men who long to stay at home to care for their children have been told that that’s not what real men do? I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other examples.

In short, heteronormativity exists everywhere and defines so many of our interactions, choices, and relationships, that it can be difficult to see it for what it is: something made up that can be challenged, changed, and transformed.

Good advice? Helpful information? Thank me with a coffee!