Is Heterosexuality Unnatural?

I often suspect that heterosexuality isn’t natural.

Homosexuality too, of course. That’s not to say anyone should try to change, or that people of any particular sexuality are ‘better’ or ‘more normal’ or anything. Just a speculative supposition that in a future better society, bisexuality will be the baseline, and a preference for only male or only female partners will be just that, a preference, no more permanent or profound or absolute than a preference for only red-haired, only intellectual, or only slender partners.

Why do I think this? Obviously I have no great confidence, I know as little as the average human about the factors that produce human desire, but the basic ground of my suspicion is this: heterosexuality (I’ll focus on that because it’s my own case, this applies to homosexuality as well) seems to be quite alien to how attraction and desire work otherwise.

What I mean is that being attracted to women isn’t like being attracted to any other particular feature, because all other features are influenced by context and the whole in which they appear. That is – perhaps I like small noses, but I might still find myself attracted to a woman with a large nose, and the key thing is that if I really like her, I don’t like her in spite of her large nose but actually because of it.

The large nose, a feature which in the abstract, or on someone else, I might find unattractive, or just indifferent, can become a positively attractive feature on a certain person. It becomes attractive because it is hers: the attractiveness of the whole person isn’t simply an ‘adding-up’ of the attractiveness of their various traits, but reciprocally influences the attractiveness of those traits. I won’t claim to have much idea of how to make sense of or understand this process – I don’t understand it. My point is simply to break down a certain crude and obvious way of understanding it.

Of course sometimes we do operate in that way  – sometimes we see a person as the sum of their parts, as an approximation to ‘our ideal’. There are these two different logics of attraction going on, as I’ve posted about in the past. The two co-exist uneasily though: in spite of the huge amount of money poured into encouraging people to think in the latter way, we ugly people still manage to end up in relationships somehow.

So the point is, every other feature of a person is, in relation to our desire for them, of a contextually-relative character, and thus our attraction to people in general is ‘open-ended’: we may have some idea, but we can never really predict in advance who we will be attracted to. What’s interesting is how different heterosexuality is from this pattern. Watch this video:

What the last bit of the video indicates is that whereas other features are context-relative, gender functions rather to determine context. That is, we see some particular body feature – in this case, the crease between a breast and a torso – but whether or not it is attractive is completely determined by whether it belongs to a male or a female body. Hence if the (presumed-heterosexual-male) viewer at first thinks it’s female, they may form an attitude of attraction, but then when they see that it is in fact male, that attitude has to change absolutely – and the radical nature of this shift, this re-interpretation from the ground up, generates humour.

What this brings out is that desiring only, say, women, is nothing to do with liking the typical features of a female body (curvaceousness, large breasts, hip-to-shoulder ratio, etc.), because those same features acquire the opposite significance if they occur on a male body. The fact that, perhaps, Peter Griffin  is soft and curvaceous, has perhaps shaved off most of his body hair, has perhaps quite weak shoulders, doesn’t even begin to make me find him more attractive: his maleness functions to prevent those features having the significance they would have on a female body.

Now when I look at the matter like this, I find myself puzzled. What is heterosexuality? What is this radically different sort of criterion, that turns what is otherwise an essentially open-ended sexuality (I can’t tell in advance what the woman I fall in love with may look like) into one with this sharp boundary around it?

People may have different answers to that question. But to me, what it looks like is nothing so much as a rule, a conceptual, symbolic ‘discipline’ that my ‘intellect’ imposes on my sensibility. Perhaps intellect and sensibility are the wrong words (been reading too much Kant recently), but it seems like heterosexuality relates to that part of me that actively applies rules, not to that part of me that passively (relatively passively) perceives and associates impressions.

A possibly related question might be – in dreams, where it seems that this rule-applying faculty is impaired, does heterosexuality dissolve? In my experience I think probably yes – but it’s hard to be systematic in this area.

Anyway, what follows? My point is that it doesn’t seem to me that heterosexuality is what it’s often supposed to be – a wholly passive, ‘just-how-I-feel’ matter. It’s a sort of rule-enforcement, a sort of disciplining of desire and attraction. Of course we don’t consciously enforce the rule: it’s enforced subconsciously, suggesting that it is located at a very very basic part of our psyche. Quite likely it is co-eval with our gender identity, which is also something very fundamental but also something more imposed onto experience than emerging out of experience. Enforcing a rule is still something quite different from a mere matter of feeling or preference (as I’ve been arguing, they seem to work quite differently).

To this, all I have to add is my general suspicion of discipline and rule-enforcement, and out pops the conclusion that in a freer and more just society we will leave behind heterosexuality and homosexuality (perhaps gender roles will loosen and eventually dissolve altogether, but that’s not my focus here). I’m not totally against rules, of course, sometimes they are necessary and useful, but I see no way in which making rules about sexuality is useful – except for maintaining sexual hierarchies and power-structures.

The point is, if I maintain my heterosexuality through the subconscious enforcement on myself of a rule, then that heterosexuality is not some instinctive and inevitable part of how I feel, but the result of a process of construction that I’ve gone through. I may now be so constructed that I can’t, without trauma, stop enforcing that rule – and no doubt any number of factors, both genetic and environmental, may play a role in influencing the result of that construction, but nevertheless it is, in a weak and tenuous sense barely sufficient to justify my eye-catching title, unnatural.

4 Responses to “Is Heterosexuality Unnatural?”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    I do think you might be on to something here — at the very least, I think bisexuals are a lot more common than gays and lesbians, and might well be more common than people of any other sexual orientation if people were completely free to act on (or even be aware of) all their desires.

    I have no idea how valid Alfred Kinsey’s findings are now, but he also seemed to think most people were bisexual to some degree.

  2. akeela Says:

    In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler says that society’s structure reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is natural. The institutions–school, government, etc.–have rules that support the whole. So, we have been socially constructed to follow these rules. To question yourself is to question society because they are interconnected.

  3. Awais Aftab Says:

    “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

    Simone de Beauvoir

    Great post.

  4. spgreenlaw Says:

    Great post. It is something I’ve been thinking about lately as well. I was going to throw the Simone de Beauvoir quote in here, but Awais Aftab got to it first. 😉

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