Heterosexuality is attraction to people of the opposite sex. Men who are attracted to women and women who are attracted to men are heterosexual.
What Is Heterosexuality?
Although the definition of heterosexuality seems straightforward, there is still significant debate about what exactly constitutes heterosexuality. Sociologists, psychologists, and gender studies experts have debated whether heterosexuality is genetic like eye color or is an early tendency that is the result of both genes and environment. In the latter scheme, heterosexuality would be similar to liking sweets or preferring a certain kind of movie. Some have argued that sexual orientation is a choice—as implied in the term “sexual preference”—but this view has been largely rejected.
Many people with a variety of sexual preferences define themselves as heterosexual. Those who consider themselves heterosexual might include people who are solely attracted to the opposite sex, people who are attracted to both sexes but who only have sex with the opposite sex, people who have undergone “reparative therapy” in an attempt to eliminate homosexual desires, and many other groups.
Biologist Alfred Kinsey developed the Kinsey Scale after conducting intensive studies of sexual practices. He emphasized that sexuality is a continuum rather than a dichotomy between two preferences. The scale runs from zero to six, with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual.
What Is Compulsory Heterosexuality?
Compulsory heterosexuality is the hegemony of heterosexual relationships as well as social expectations that heterosexuality is the norm and all other sexual orientations are deviant.
The tern compulsory heterosexuality is often used within groups that advocate for the rights of people whose sexuality or gender identity differs from heterosexuality, including intersex people, transgender people, gay people, or asexual people. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality is closely tied to the concept of heterosexual privilege, a system that preserves the rights of heterosexual people and enables heterosexual people to benefit from rights that non-heterosexual people do not have access to.
Common examples of compulsory heterosexuality include:
- The assumption that children will marry a person of the other sex and the grooming and socialization of children for heterosexuality.
- Sexual education books that exclusively discuss heterosexuality.
- Religious and secular organizations that assume all members are heterosexual or treat heterosexuality as the norm.
- The belief that anyone can be heterosexual and that, even if one must pretend to be heterosexual, this is better than being homosexual.
Almost everyone participates in compulsory heterosexuality in some way, and the social assumption of heterosexuality is not in itself homophobic. However, compulsory heterosexuality contributes to homophobia by marginalizing non-heterosexuals, treating heterosexuality as the superior default, and decreasing awareness of the large number of people within the population who are not heterosexual.
The History of Heterosexuality
Heterosexuality has not always been construed as an immutable trait or a significant part of identity. Philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that in the recent past, people’s sexual behavior was not considered to be an orientation; while there were heterosexual acts, there were not necessarily heterosexuals. The term heterosexual came into use in the early 20th century.
In recent years, sociologists and gender activists have emphasized the pressure to conform to heterosexual norms and the social presumption that all people are heterosexual. This phenomenon is called heteronormativity.
- Compulsory heterosexuality. (2007, July 18). A Feminist Theory Dictionary. Retrieved from http://afeministtheorydictionary.wordpress.com/2007/07/18/compulsory-heterosexuality
- Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality. New York, NY: Vintage.
- Katz, J. N. (1995). The invention of heterosexuality. New York, NY: Dutton Books.
Last Updated: 05-15-2019
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