BOOK REVIEW: 'The Tragedy of Heterosexuality' | By Jane Ward | 2020 | Paperback, $15 | Nonfiction, sexuality | Available at the Seattle Public Library
Jane Ward is concerned about the straights.
Sure, they hold the cards when it comes to systemic power. Yes, their identities are considered so “normal” as to not exist, while the identities of others are hotly debated or criminalized. Of course, they are catered to, marketed to and held up as a paragon of what a right and virtuous family model should look like.
But my god, Ward says, they are miserable — especially the women involved.
It is difficult for queer people to watch, Ward, a lesbian and UC Riverside professor, writes in her book, “The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.”
Straight culture, according to Ward, is “erotically uninspired or coercive, given shape by the most predictable and punishing gender roles, emotionally scripted by decades of inane media and self-help projects, and outright illogical as a set of intimate relations anchored in a complaint-ridden swirl of desire and misogyny.” This paradigm, she writes, “for many queers is perplexing at best and repulsive at worst.”
“The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” is the book you would get if you turned #AreTheStraightsOkay into a Ph.D. dissertation. It goes hard on intersectional feminist theory, leaning particularly on the works of feminists of color to diagnose why straight women embrace heterosexual culture despite the fact that it is so oppressive and damaging to those who participate in it.
“Tragedy” attempts to examine straight culture through a queer, feminist lens with the goals of teasing out the dynamics of the dominant relational system in our society and — unlike authors of the late 20th century who suggested women should try out lesbianism or celibacy over relationships with men — offering thoughts on how to make heterosexual culture healthier.
Ward’s analysis of straight culture focuses on two main themes: the warp and the weft of the tragedy.
First, in Ward’s argument, the warp is that misogyny and toxic masculinity are woven through the fabric of straight life in a way that is practically inextricable. Second, the weft is that it is the project of women in straight culture to constantly try to “fix” the men that they are with. This Sisyphean battle against the rock of toxic masculinity often leaves them crushed. And yet, they stand up and try again.
Another dysfunction in heterosexual culture is what Ward describes as the “misogyny paradox”: Straight men desire women but are steeped in a culture that causes them to look down on women. They want sex but don’t actually like the people they want to have sex with.
Topics of sex and sexuality permeate the book as sources of disappointment for women — only 65 percent of straight women report usually or always orgasming during sex — and of dominance for men and joy for queer people.
Strangely, one could say that heterosexual culture is the best it’s been so far, at least from an historic perspective. Ward launches into her second chapter looking at the development of heterosexuality from the 19th and 20th centuries, where women were not just objectified but actual objects, to the era of the early self-help book industry in which “happiness” in marriage became a new project, albeit a eugenicist and white supremacist one.
This time period focused on how white wives could make their white husbands happy in marriage and how those self-same white husbands could stop abusing their wives quite so much, in service of “the flourishing of white families.”
The Black community also adopted heterosexuality. However, for that group, being straight served a different purpose, one of choice of partners and some sense of stability after slavery when they had none, Ward writes.
This is the beginning of what she dubs the “heterosexual-repair industry,” created in tandem by 20th-century eugenicists, sexologists and social reformers. It is an industry that has shifted through the decades, using depictions of relationships in television shows and self-help books where women are still in the subordinate position, but men are called on to love them a bit more authentically.
“[T]his transition from woman-as-degraded-subordinate to woman-as-worthy-of-deep-love was hardly smooth, nor is it complete,” Ward says. While the change was for the better, Ward writes, the underlying structures continued: cisgender men’s dominance and cisgender women’s objectification as emotional caretaker and sexual object.
Ward continues with this thread in her chapter on pickup artists. By focusing predominantly on lonely men doing their damnedest to connect with women, either in hopes of finding a partner or — more commonly, by her observation — to hook up with as many hot women as possible, Ward illustrates another aspect of the continued commodification of relationship advice.
Ward approaches these dating-science bootcamps with the air of a sociologist watching subjects through the glass. The underpinning of these (very expensive) courses is the notion that “men, too, have been wronged by modern heterosexuality,” she says. Wives or sex partners are no longer a guarantee; now men have to work for it, and some of them are woefully unprepared.
I was surprised by Ward’s somewhat positive take on the dating coach industry. In her contemporaneous notes, which she shares in the book, she describes the sessions as similar to group therapy. Men share their disappointments, insecurities and desires. Depending on the course, they are moved away from 1990s pickup artist techniques such as “negging” — making a woman feel badly about herself to set her back on her heels before swooping in for the kill — and instead, are encouraged to see women as people.
As a professor, she even recommends a similar approach to young men who take her class, “if for no other reason, they should at least embrace feminism because doing so will result in better heterosexuality — more authentic relationships with women and better sex based on women’s enthusiastic interest, rather than women’s placating and ambivalent consent.”
But Ward has reservations about this approach as well, because it relies on self-interest to show empathy rather than on a true love for women.
“The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” draws out the queer perspective on heterosexual relationships and queer people’s deep gratitude to have escaped such a fate. Nowhere is that spelled out more thoroughly than the section “A Sick and Boring Life” in which Ward extensively quotes anonymous queer people just feeling bad for the straights.
In their eyes, straight culture is toxic, sure, but it’s also boring. Heterosexual men and women seem to dislike one another and complain unceasingly about their partners. Straight women are constantly sacrificing for men for whom the bar is wildly low — even Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” gets the treatment when she sings of Jay-Z’s philandering ways but forgives him by the end of the album.
And don’t get them started on heterosexual sex or gender reveal parties.
Ward does manage to leave straight people with a modicum of hope, a chance to heal heterosexuality authentically. For this, she turns to “deep heterosexuality,” an attempt not to “queer” heterosexuality but to take its basic tenents and dig deeper.
“Deep heterosexuality proclaims: if straight women and men are actually attracted to each other, that is excellent. Now let’s expand the notion of heterosexual attraction to include such a powerful longing for the full humanity of women, and for the sexual vulnerability of men, that anything less becomes suspect as authentic heterosexual desire,” Ward writes.
To cultivate this kind of desire, Ward offers a gift to men: a two-point plan developed by feminist lesbians “for how to like women, and to fuck women feministly.” Unfortunately, the ones who need it the most seem unlikely to pick up this book.
The first step is for heterosexual men to reframe sexual desire from a base, uncontrollable impulse thrust upon them by nature to an accountable one. In this stage, they consider and own what it means to be straight and what straightness provides them.
Second is the embrace of a different conception of eroticism where lust is “triggered by women’s actual temperaments, bodies, and experiences.” Attraction, in this sense, is not simply about some culturally imposed image of what a body should look like but rather a holistic appreciation of the person, her life and her accomplishments.
“The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” is only 173 pages of text, but it takes a person on a journey — not always a comfortable one. Ward encourages straight readers not to shy away, to sit in discomfort rather than default to “not all straights.” It is about systemic ills that cause harm not only to straight people but also queer people who are repressed by heterosexual culture until given the freedom to form their own spaces to escape it.
As a straight person, I struggled to see myself in this book. I found myself going to the exact place that Ward warns against. The men in my life have been wonderful and honest. I have never felt diminished, and I have always shared something fundamental with my partners, the kind of thing that made me want to spend time with them in the first place. However, individual experiences are not how systems work, and seeing that is why this book is valuable for straight women who have good experiences, straight women who have had bad experiences and non-straight people who might need some salve on the wounds that society has inflicted on them.
Whether straight individuals can see themselves or the relationships they’ve experienced reflected in the elements of the tragedy directly, “The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” at least gives straight people a chance to remove the scales from their eyes and see the impact of heterosexual culture in the world around them.
Ward promises that it can get better.
“We are here for you,” she closes.
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the July 13-19, 2022 issue.