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Gender, sexuality and heterosexuality: the complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity

Jackson, S. (2006) Gender, sexuality and heterosexuality: the complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity. Feminist Theory, 7 ( 1). pp. 105-121. ISSN 1464-7001

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According to Steven Seidman, analysts of institutionalized heterosexuality have ‘focused exclusively on its role in regulating homosexuality’ and, while queer approaches theorize how ‘homosexuality gains its coherence in relation to heterosexuality, the impact of regimes of normative heterosexuality on heterosexuality has largely been ignored’ (2005: 40). Over the last decade and more, however, feminists have been analysing how normative heterosexuality affects the lives of heterosexuals (see Wilkinson and Kitzinger, 1993; Richardson, 1996; Jackson, 1999; Ingraham, 1996, 1999). In so doing they have drawn on earlier feminists, such as Charlotte Bunch (1975), Adrienne Rich (1980) and Monique Wittig (1992), who related heterosexuality to the perpetuation of gendered divisions of labour and male appropriation of women’s productive and reproductive capacities. Indeed, Rich’s concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ could be seen as a forerunner of ‘heteronormativity’ and I would like to preserve an often neglected legacy of the former concept: that institutionalized, normative heterosexuality regulates those kept within its boundaries as well as marginalizing and sanctioning those outside them. The term ‘heteronormativity’ has not always captured this double-sided social regulation. Feminists have a vested interest in what goes on within heterosexual relations because we are concerned with the ways in which heterosexuality depends upon and guarantees gender division. Heterosexuality, however, is not a singular, monolithic entity – it exists in many variants. As Seidman points out there are hierarchies of respectability and good citizenship among heterosexuals, and what tends to be valorized as ‘normative’ is a very particular form founded on traditional gender arrangements and lifelong monogamy (see Seidman, 2005: 59–60; see also Seidman, 2002). Thus the analysis of heteronormativity needs to be rethought in terms of what is subject to regulation on both sides of the normatively prescribed boundaries of heterosexuality: both sexuality and gender. With this in mind, this article re-examines the intersections between gender, sexuality in general and heterosexuality in particular. How these terms are defined is clearly consequential for any analysis of linkages between them. There is no consensus on the question of definition, in large part because gender, sexuality and heterosexuality are approached from a variety of perspectives focusing on different dimensions of the social. It is not a case of some having a clearer view than others, but rather that the social is many-faceted and what is seen from one angle may be obscured from another. Sexuality, gender and heterosexuality intersect in variable ways within and between different dimensions of the social – and these intersections are also, of course, subject to historical change along with cultural and contextual variability. Hence before I go any further some conceptual clarification is needed to explain, first, how I am using the terms gender, sexuality and heterosexuality, and then what I mean by different dimensions of the social. I will then go on to outline some of the intersections that should be explored further if we are to appreciate the complexity of heteronormative social relations. In so doing I am certainly not claiming some privileged all-seeing perspective, but merely making some tentative suggestions on what might be seen from different vantage points.

Item Type: Article
Institution: The University of York
Academic Units: The University of York > Centre for Women's Studies (York)
Depositing User: York RAE Import
Date Deposited: 12 Aug 2009 13:50
Last Modified: 12 Aug 2009 13:50
Published Version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1464700106061462
Status: Published
Publisher: SAGE Publications
Identification Number: 10.1177/1464700106061462
URI: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/6137

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