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The Tragedy of Heterosexuality: Overview and Reflection

In what follows I offer a detailed overview and brief reflection of the book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward.


The idea that “heterosexuality is easier than queerness” is a truism within our culture. “Of course,” we say to ourselves, “it is easy to be straight and, of course,” we add, “it is hard to be queer.” It is precisely this cultural truism that Jane Ward calls into question in her book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.[1] Drawing from her rootedness within lesbian feminist networks and theories, and from her own personal experiences as a cis-gendered dyke, Ward argues that the idea that “heterosexuality is easier than queerness,” is an androcentric narrative masking both queer pleasure and joy, and the sufferings related to heterosexuality experienced, most especially, by women (2-6). Ward observes that many of the things explored in feminist theory—toxic masculinity, entrapment, oppositional binaries—are actually “straight problems that many queer women are wildly grateful to have escaped” (4). “Straight women’s lives,” she reminds us, “are very, very hard” and so  “[i]t’s not that it “gets better” for queer people; it’s that heterosexuality is often worse” (6). Straight people are barely, if at all, passing for happy. Not only is heterosexual romance frequently little more than the valourisation of rape culture and the all-encompassing exploitation of women’s labour and time, but, as Ward points out, straight relationships often fail to meet the “basic standards of good friendship” (17).

All of this is both brutal and true but what is it that makes it tragic? Well, as Ward explains in her first chapter, “the tragedy of heterosexuality is about men’s control of women, but it is also about straight women’s and men’s shared romantic and erotic attachments to an unequal gender binary, or to the heteroerotic fantasy of binary, biologically determined, and naturally hierarchical gender oppositeness” (22; emphasis altered from original text). Further, she goes on to say:

the tragic arrangement on which heterosexuality was founded—“I don’t really like you, but I am going to get (or stay) married to you out of fear or practicality”—remains alive and well, giving rise to an enormously profitable self-help and relationship-coaching industry designed to smooth over heterosexual antagonisms and disappointments” (24-25).

Heterosexuality is tragic, not simply because it systematically destroys women (and boys in the process of becoming men, as bell hooks demonstrates so well in The Will To Change and Jennifer Seibel Newsom shows us in her 2015 documentary, The Mask You Live In), but because it teaches girls and women (and boys and men) that the very thing which is devastating them is actually the thing that will lead them to a full and happy life.[2]

What produces this tragedy? Well, one of the central elements of its production is what Ward refers to as “the misogyny paradox.” The misogyny paradox is a situation “wherein boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed within a broader culture that encourages them to also hate girls and women” (27). This misogyny paradox is the focus of the second chapter. The misogyny paradox comes to the fore, Ward argues, as a new concept of heterosexuality arises over the course of the twentieth-century. For much of history, heterosexuality was organized “around men’s ownership of women (their bodies, their work, their children) rather than their attraction to, or interest in, women” (34). It’s only around the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, that the notion of heterosexuality as “mutual likeability” arose and it took most of the twentieth century for this notion to become internalized and normalized to produce what we take for granted as straightness (34-35).[3] Thus, after centuries of normalized hatred of women, men are now told they must also like women. This was a hard sell, spawning an entire industry of marriage experts, relationship counselors, and incorporating strong doses of eugenics and White supremacy in order to make it more palatable to the average White American (37-41).

Thus, for much of the early twentieth century, White men and White women are encouraged to find each other less disgusting, in order to produce flourishing White families. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, the focus shifts (on the one hand, because the eugenics movement is required to completely shed its skin after Nazism—although a snake that sheds its skin is still a snake and the ongoing influence of eugenics is still felt today; on the other hand, because the rising power of Black women needed to be incorporated into the structures of heteronormative, White supremacist society). Mid-century marriage counseling and self-help experts focus on making women less annoying to their husbands, while helping men to escape their wives’ desires regarding romantic love. This is an effort to resolve the tension “between the expectation of heterosexual love and men’s unapologetic disinterest in conversation with their wives” (49). By the 1980s and 1990s, self-help experts shift the focus for women—men are a lost cause but should not be abandoned. Instead, women need to focus on self-love, assertion, and taking individual responsibility for their own happiness (60-61). Thus, the tragedy of heterosexuality is normalized. Hence, for example, the influence of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Instead of fighting against this tragedy, Gray offers women a “patriarchal bargain … wherein women who perceive feminism to threaten their symbolic capital, safety, or respectability could choose instead a set of private, interpersonal negotiations” (64). The cost of rebellion is considered to be greater than the misery of submission.[4] This then culminates, in the early twenty-first century, with submission and hypersexualisation being rebranded as empowerment and as “hot new weapons” women can use to “catch a man and keep him” (68). So it goes for heterosexuality over the last century and a half.

Chapter Two focused much of its attention on how women were talked at and had their straight, female identity explained to them over the course of the twentieth century. In Chapter Three, Ward shifts her focus to men. She examines late-twentieth century and early twenty-first century permutations and shifts in markets directed at making men more manly so that they can have more sex with young, blonde, thin, conventionally-attractive, White women. She especially examines the world of pickup artists and seduction coaches that flourished in the early 2000s. In these environments, men who felt as though they were not getting the sex they deserved with the women they fantasised about fucking, were taught to deploy various tools—from “negging” to mimicking empathy and safeness—in order to perform a form of masculinity that would increase how often they scored. However, by 2014, after the Isla Vista shooting, the rise of Incels, and the glorification of Eliot Rodger within certain elements of the Men’s Rights Activist movement (and the alt-Right more broadly), it became obvious that seduction coaches and pickup artists were “inspiring real-life violence against women” (85). This created some uncomfortable associations and liability issues for the men (and at least one woman) who were making bank from working this field (uncomfortable because the profitability of the brand they had constructed was being negatively affected). However, rather than shifting focus altogether, the industry leaders doubled-down on their construction of an oppositional gender binary between men and women. They focused on “healing men,” on male “self-actualization,” on helping men recover a “lost masculinity,” and on helping men use their (natural) “power to do good” (102). Men are women are still constructed as essentially different, with men as natural initiators and leaders and women as natural submissives (who want to be led into sex with confident and seemingly empathetic men). It’s the same hustle repackaged for a post-#metoo era. Once again, then, we arrive at a strategy that encourages cruel optimism. The solution, which claims to move towards feminism, still props up “the gender binary that causes their problems in the first place” (106).[5]

So, then, how does all of this look to queer folx? This is the subject of Chapter Four. Queer people, Ward argues, often find straight culture and relationships “too sad or enraging to witness, too boring or traumatic to endure” (114). In fact, it may be the case that the popularity of narratives about “homosexual misery” has more to do with “a kind of subconscious jealous rage against the gendered and sexual possibilities that lie beyond the violence and disappointments of straight culture” (115). That said, apart from finding straight culture to be boring, basic, emotionally flat, anti-flamboyant, and marked by a tendency to keep things comfortable by avoiding social justice related matters (116, 124-26), what are some of the core defining features of straight culture as described by queer folx? Well, three inter-rated factors come to the fore: straight culture is a culture of complaint, heteronormative sacrifice, and resignation. “Straight women,” Ward observes, “complain about men they date or marry with such gusto that queer people are left shaking their heads and thinking, “My god, why, why, why does this woman stay with someone she finds this pathetic?”” (128). She stays, in part, because heteroromantic sacrifice, “sucking it up and surviving life’s miseries,” is another hallmark of the journey towards heterosexual happiness—happiness, it seems, that forever lingers just beyond the horizon (129-130; this suffering produced by sacrifice, Ward notes, also becomes a badge of honor and, she astutely observes, “people cannot be rescued from forms of suffering that they themselves relate to as badges of honor” [137]).  Consequently, hopelessness, despair, and resignation, set in and have become increasingly common features of straight women’s feminism over the last thirty years (131).[6] Apart from this hellish combination of complaint, sacrifice, and resignation, Ward returns to the myopic and constrained elements of straight culture, especially as they pertain to sex and gender (139). In contrast to straight culture’s lack of imagination, she highlights the “guiding sexual ethos of queer feminist life,” which asks: “How intimate, creative, debauched, and caretaking can we get with one another, what names can we give to these new forms of relating, and what rules do we need to put in place to make sure we enact them safely, sanely, and consensually?” (139-40). Furthermore, she highlights how “queer sexual typologies are not just about desire but about how to reimagine sexual partnerships so that they don’t suffer from the cycle of possessive monogamy, lying, and infidelity that damages so many straight relationships” (141).[7] Finally, Ward also spends some time discussing how straight rituals, which are ubiquitous and normalized and are especially important for marking various life stages in our culture, are also alienating, oppressive, and cringe-worthy to many queer folx (143-47).  No wonder, then, she concludes, that straight women are attracted to queer spaces, even if they end up centering themselves there, disrupting and harassing gay men, and, generally, being “utterly oblivious to the effect of their presence” (148). Even in this flight, gay people and spaces become novelty objects consumed by straight culture.[8]

Okay, so that’s the diagnosis. It’s accurate and the prognosis ain’t good. What can be done? Well, in a rather unique turn of events, Ward chooses to address heterosexual men in the fifth and final chapter of her book. Over against those who have tried to encourage a queering of straightness, Ward doesn’t want to see straightness undone—she wants to see it more fully actualized (155-158)![9] “Straight men,” she asserts, “do not need to be queered; they need to learn to like women” (158). Thus, she calls for a “deep heterosexuality” wherein “straight men like women so much that they actually like women” (the title of the chapter). Drawing on insights from lesbian feminism and the dyke experience, she calls straight men to “put their politics where their lust is: in alignment with women” so that men can meet their “human capacity to desire, to fuck, and to be feminist comrades at the same time” (155). Lust for women, as lesbians and dykes have clearly demonstrated, can live in a complementary relationship with a deep regard for women (155). “Is it not possible,” Ward asks, “that women and men could feel an attraction to each other that was so unstoppable, so expansive, so hungry for the wholeness of the other that it forged strong bonds of identification and mutual regard, rather than oppositeness and hierarchy?” (158). Surely, straight men could love women so much that they, themselves, become “women identified,” and “see themselves mirrored in the faces, bodies, and lives of women” (169). And, this, in turn, can create a more all-encompassing, lustful appreciation of the female body that does not require that body to be endlessly shaped and groomed and degraded (165). Thus, “something very powerful” can be gifted from queer life to straight culture: “a merging of objectifying desire, on the one hand, and a feminist, subjectifying respect for those who are desired on the other” (166).[10]

But this is not all. “[D]eep heterosexuality invites straight people to also develop accountability for their sexual orientation, or decide to own their straightness” (160). Switching form the (normalized) straight gaze assessing queerness, and centering the queer gaze diagnosing straightness, leads to a reframing that is “especially crucial for straight men who have been encouraged to relate to their desire for women as so physiological as to be outside their control and so compartmentalized as to enable the disconnect between wanting women and liking them” (161). “Heteronormativity,” Ward argues, “erases the need to straight men to justify or explain their sexuality, to others, to themselves: What does being straight do for them? Why do they like it? When did they first know they were straight?” (163).[11] In a parallel move, straight women are then asked to “cultivate some kind of agentic relationship to the fact that they have not chosen queerness” (164).[12]

In conclusion, Ward offers three points: first, “the normalization of violence and mutual dislike was central to straight culture from its modern inception” and it continues to resurface in straight culture when so-called solutions simply reproduce the oppositional binary that produces it in the first place; second, neoliberalism has proven its ability to co-opt and monetize things like self-help and feminism in ways that block those things from being genuinely transformative; and, third, queer people, and dykes in particular, are uniquely suited to assess the tragedy of heterosexuality and show straight people how another way is possible (172-73). Ward’s book is surely proof of this.


Personally, I found Ward’s book to be thoughtful, exciting, and urgently relevant. I think we would be on our way to a better world if straight people everywhere read it. It’s brilliant and the criticisms cut as precisely as a surgeon’s knife. But like any surgery, it is motivated by a desire to help others get well. It is, in other words, a deeply caring text. And the ways in which it wraps care and criticism together, along with its commitment to both theory and praxis, make it a uniquely remarkable text.

I know that reflections usually combine criticism with praise but most of my criticisms amount to me not disagreeing with Ward but simply saying “I wish Ward had said more about this because…” (things I flagged in some footnotes above). Therefore, in what follows, I will merely suggest that Ward’s vision of “deep heterosexuality,” as beautiful and brilliant as it is, may benefit from being filled out in at least two critical ways. The first relates to how men are in relationship with other men. The second relates to how men understand sex.

As mentioned above, Ward argues that “straight men do not need to be queered; they need to learn to like women” (158). In the context of her argument, this makes a great deal of sense (and it’s a bon mot—a good burn!) but I think there is something Ward is neglecting in her pushback against the queering of heterosexuality (which she appears to primarily reject for tactical reasons). Specifically, if men are going to learn to like women—and not simply exploit the bodies and sexual, emotional, or other labours of women—then men also need to learn to like men in ways that our heteronormative culture makes us think are queer. Men frequently flee to the homosocial environments Ward references because when they are with their bros, men can have their heteronormative masculinity affirmed. When I’m with my bros I feel like a bro. I feel like I’m cool and tough and manly. If my wife or girlfriend or the gals who reject me make me feel like “less of a man,” then these homosocial environments are places where my performance of manliness can be affirmed as manly. When I’m with my bros, I’m like the emperor wearing his new clothes (which don’t actually exist), being praised by his courtiers—and I extend the same praise to my bros about their new clothes. But then, when I’m back out around women, I encounter the voice of the child who yells out—but the emperor is actually naked!

Therefore, if men need to like women enough to actually like them, then they also need to like other men enough to actually like them—and that means liking one another as real people with real vulnerabilities, weaknesses, fears, and insecurities. That means men need to be emotionally vulnerable with men. They need to learn to be tender-hearted and affectionate with one another. They need to learn to comfort each other. They need to be physically affectionate with each other (and this physical affection need not be sexual—again, I reference Ibson’s photo essay, Picturing Men). The thing is, straight men are taught that all of these things are “like so gay, bruh.” The queering of straight men, then (and I think Ward misses this?), is not so much about encouraging men to be more open to getting pegged or sucking a dick to see what that feels like (although more power to ya if you want to do those things), as it has to do with men engaged in ways of caring for one another that straight culture feminizes or queers. In fact, I believe that men’s ability to like women enough to actually like them is intimately related to their ability to like other men enough to actually like them.

The second point that I think needs to be explored in more detail, as we develop a deep heterosexuality, is a more nuanced understanding of what men believe about sex.  In 2012, a documentary named After Porn Ends (directed by Bryce Wagoner) came out. It followed a few big-name porn stars to see what their lives were like after they stopped acting. The documentary is fairly ho-hum (and I think it spawned a second and third edition largely because sex sells) but there was something that leapt out at me when I watched it. The ways in which the women and men interviewed in the documentary spoke about sex was precisely the opposite of how heteronormative society teaches us that women and men think about sex. The women interviewed, described sex as purely transactional—what they did was a job, there were good days and bad days at work, but they went to work to get paid and once they banked enough to quit, they quit. The men spoke very differently. They were the ones who felt like there were feelings involved with the sex. The sex was more than just sex. There was an emotional connection. There were real feelings. There was love. Without the sex, after they retired (and the men tended to be pushed into retirement, instead of leaving with a bankroll) they felt lonely. Without the sex, their emotional needs were not being met.

What is going on here?

Well, it seems to me that, despite popular narratives about men just wanting a fuck to just be a fuck—a purely physical thing culminating in a (male) orgasm, whereas women are always “catching feelings”—men have actually been taught to equate sex with love and acceptance. Women, who far more frequently and over the course of their entire lives, experience far more sexualized violence than men, mostly don’t engage in the same fantasy—it’s just too implausible. Men, who mostly don’t experience sexualized violence once they become men (and, when they do experience sexualized violence as boys, the perpetrators are almost always men or other boys), are the ones who can construct (and find plausible) fantasies about sex with women as the be all and end all of intimacy and love. The male performance of heteronormative masculinity—wherein sex is supposedly reduced to just a fuck—is, in my opinion, actually fueled, in part, by male frustration, anger, and disappointment, that they are not getting all their emotional needs met, that they are not being loved unconditionally, that they are not experiencing pure and ecstatic intimacy, every time they have sex. Just as straight people project their own misery onto queer folx (as mentioned above), so also straight men perform a macho detachment about fucking because they can’t figure out why their fantasy about sex is not being fulfilled every time they have sex.

Therefore, a deep heterosexuality requires us to deconstruct straight male fantasies about sex as well as the emotional neediness they bring to sex. Like sex, this is a messy thing to work through. I think Ward helps to point some of the way forward (especially when she talks about the perspective feminist dykes bring to sex) but there is still much to be done here.

[1] Ward, Jane. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 2020). All in text page references are to this edition.

[2] Here, Ward’s references to Lauren Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” wherein the object of our desire is actually the cause of the suffering we experience because we lack that object (e.g.—thinking that if we pursue x, y, or z, we will be happy when, in fact, pursuing x, y, and z is the cause of our unhappiness) are on point.

[3] Ward notes that this conception of “the heterosexual” begins to appear in medical texts about one hundred and twenty years ago. Although she does not explore this, it is also around this time that homosexuality began to be sharply delineated form heterosexuality. As John Ibson documents in his beautiful photo essay, Picturing Men, heterosexuality is created and normalized over and against the creation of homosexuality which is pathologized. Of course, Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality is more widely known but looking at Ibson’s pictures of men—all kinds of men—sharing intimate, physical affection with one another makes me grieve all that we have lost.

[4] In this regard, I can’t help but feel that John Gray actually becomes something of a prototype for a good many of the self-professed “male allies” that come after him. With friends like these…!

[5] In this chapter, I wish Ward had spent more time contrasting the ways in which an industry geared at encouraging women to view hypersexualisation as a tool that empowers them to get the kind of man they want, and an industry geared at encouraging men to act empathetic as a tool that empowers them to get the kind of sex they want, produce a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop of commodification of self (or, perhaps, a simulacralization of self-in-relation-to-others?) in order to obtain a product or a part-of-a-person-as-product. What happens, not only to men in relation to women and women in relation to men when this kind of exchange is encouraged, but also to us as people being people with other people? I also wish she had spent some more time discussing how a focus on these different things—men wanting sex, women wanting men to be genuinely into them as people—reinforces an artificial gender binary. What of women who want sex? Men who want to have a partner who is interested in them?

[6] The conclusion of Kate Manne’s excellent examination of misogyny, Down Girl, is but one example of this.

[7] Note that Ward makes these observations—here and throughout the book—without romanticizing queerness qua queerness, as if all queers everywhere are perfectly happy, free of violence and manipulation, or whatever else, simply because they are queer. She is particularly critical of the ways in which gay, White men have influenced the trajectory of queerness more generally, but her understanding of lesbian feminism has plenty of room for works like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House.

[8] Although being critical of straight women here, Ward is also quick to point out that while straight women at a gay bar can display privilege in all kinds of annoying ways, straight men—wanting to explore their fantasies about threesomes or whatever else—who show up at lesbian bars are genuinely frightening (149).

[9] Full disclosure: I am one of those who has tried to encourage a queering of straightness over the years.

[10] Fuck, yeah! This entire section is awesome!

[11] For me, I think I first knew I was straight when I discovered the bra section of the Sears Catalogue! I sometimes wonder how my attraction to the female body was influenced by the fact that I spent my formative years jacking off to pictures of underwear models in a catalogue for a department store rather than watching whatever it is kids are watching on Pornhub today.

[12] Thus, Ward sees “the increasing popularity of biological accounts of sexual orientation [as] one of the latest obstacles to deep heterosexuality” (162). The supposed biology (or lack thereof) of sexual orientation is contested in both straight and queer communities and, it seems to me, race, class, and gender lines intersect (or diffract, Karen Barad, ftw!) in complicated ways in this debate.

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