If Heterosexualism Existed, We Wouldn’t Have To Make It Up
The horizon of the heterosexual, implausible though it may ultimately prove as an idea, is politically very ennobling. In my view, society should not let its sheer utopianism dissuade us from considering its merits.
I know what you’re going to say. The only confirmed heterosexual in recorded history, the 3rd century Umbrian bishop Valentinus, hardly set an inspiring precedent, did he. So committed was Saint Valentine to his left-field concept of “love” and exclusive union between two opposites—one (1) “man” and one (1) “woman”—that he performed diabolical rituals on unsuspecting members of the public: Christian ceremonies in which he legally and religiously declared the young couples trapped in an asymmetric life-long labour- and property-relation, “man and wife.” He got so addicted, it seems, he even persisted with it through the bars of a Roman jail cell. Listen, I am not defending the guy; he obviously deserved to get his head chopped off. I am only suggesting that Valentine might not be our best representation of an arguably quite utopian thing—think about it—hetero…sexuality! kinky times with the unknown!
I know. It is Valentine’s Day, suicide rates are spiking, and you are almost certainly not in the mood to hear this. But perhaps dismissing an entire cultural practice based on the horrifying actions of one (1) of its alleged scions is over-hasty. Rest assured, I shan’t attempt to argue that Saint Valentine didn’t get what was coming to him. I only want to speculate that, perhaps, though a rumoured heterosexual, Valentine was no true heterosexualist. In consequence, his legacy may not offer the conclusive grounds it certainly appears to at first blush, for condemning the fantasy of heterosexualism wholesale.
So, leaving aside self-evidently noxious practices like marriage, what is heterosexualism? The state of scientific inquiry into the abstract possibility of the phenomenon remains, as yet, inconclusive. However, the recent pinpointing of a new disidentificatory discourse—termed “heterofatalism” or “heteropessimism”—suggests the existence, at the very least, of a subpopulation of females who believe sufficiently in their own heterosexuality to be ashamed of it. Furthermore, the accretion of cultural artefacts pertaining to the dream of a heterosexual society, over time, allows us to confidently advance a hypothesis.
Unmistakably, the basic premise underlying this concept is xenophilia; the embrace of heterogeneity. By constantly refining her own amorous openness towards that which is “not like me,” the real heterosexualist promotes an attitude of hospitality towards the unfamiliar. And isn’t the cultivation of profound acceptance of the “stranger” exactly what the world needs more of, in these fascist times?
Heterosexualism, as an impossible demand, calls on us to extend radical love towards that which is as unlike the self as possible. If you want to be a heterosexualist, then, you must direct your love and desire towards that which is different, strange, and other. As a lived endeavour, heterosexuality has of course congealed undialectically into a static dyad-model of prescribed difference, which, ironically enough, spreads nothing so much as sameness and joylessness throughout the earth. But tiny traces of heterosexualism’s originary utopianism remain in the everyday practice of heterosexuality.
When you wear your head-hairs and fingernails trimmed short, for example, the heterosexual thing to do, as we all know, is to cultivate an erotic appreciation for those with long ones. Pretty comradely, you have to admit! When you enjoy something, such as algebra or intimacy or karaoke, heterosexuality encourages you to cohabit in private isolation specifically with someone who does not enjoy it.
Such limp travesties of the refusal of solipsistic sameness is what signing up for heterosexuality presently entails. It is a gruelling but, advocates claim, spiritually rewarding and even ecologically beneficial regimen of self-colonization by difference (read: small, very small differences). To be sure, today’s heterosexuals overwhelmingly seem to have confused transformational foreignness with deadening alienation. Nevertheless, legend has it that a small handful of advanced-level heterosexuals, every day, go so far as to allow whole alien life-forms called “fetuses” to feed on the inside of their abdomens for the best part of a calendar year. The latter represents, needless to say, the extremist fringe of fundamentalist heterosexualism’s idealistic doctrine of xenohospitality, and we shan’t discuss it further.
Overall, notwithstanding the faint traces of xenohospitable inclination in its day-to-day scripts, heterosexual culture as currently practiced has completely lost sight of its radical vision. Take, for instance, the fount and epicentre of straight propaganda in the 21st century, the perfect ITV2 program whose political platform is the phrase, spontaneously intoned by what seems like all the contestants, “it is what it is.” I am speaking of course of the reality TV show Love Island, or, as Rosanna McLaughlin calls it—in her essay contending that the show may be the work of a shadowy queer guerrilla underground—“straight camp.” In case somehow you don’t know what Love Island is, Tom Whyman has summarised it: “a dozen or so toned young people in swimwear and haircuts enter a villa … and form themselves on sight into couples—one girl, one guy. They’re all single, and are supposedly there to ‘find love.’ … Every week or so, the show will introduce one or two new Islanders into the villa, upsetting the gender balance—there then usually follows a ‘recoupling.’”
Watching Love Island, you are watching a labour-intensive version of nothing whatsoever happening, gruesomely, every evening, for weeks and weeks on end, in a villa in South Africa (or Mallorca) that is crawling with cameras, buttocks, biceps and branded clothing—and very little else. In this illusion of non-activity, this pushing of everything to do with set maintenance and fridge-stocking firmly off-camera, it goes even further into the illusion pioneered by my former depraved timesink, First Dates, where participants were also working very hard at “pretending not to be laboring at all,” but also paid for their fancy dinner right there on camera. Significantly more so than First Dates, Love Island appears to make a good-faith attempt at selling the heterosexual labour relation as an appealing deal.
For example: the reproductive labour you see Islanders perform after editing is strictly limited to (a) the cooking of breakfast, occasionally complemented with some light washing-up, and (b) the perfection, via gym equipment, showering, dressing, grooming and make-up, of their individual appearances. And that’s the magic of it, the sleight of hand that never seems to be remarked upon, at least, not in the think-pieces I’ve seen: THERE IS NO HOUSEWORK TO SPEAK OF ON LOVE ISLAND. What a coup! After all, a pointed three days before Valentine’s Day 2020, on February 11, the New York Times reported that young men, just like old men, “still don’t vacuum.” A new survey from Gallup has found that “among opposite-sex couples, those ages 18 to 34 were no more likely than older couples to divide most household chores equitably.” Why would a girl couple up with a boy in 2020, knowing this? Moreover (which is to my mind the tragic part): how would she, were it notthe case? Surreally, in the villa, there is no vacuuming. There is no cleaning, no pool-filtering, no tidying, no laundry, no shopping, no production of lunch or dinner. No domestic admin. No mental load. In other words: no gender. You are free, Islanders! Couple up! But nobody wants to, suddenly, or knows how.
It is impossible to stop watching. For a queer viewer, it is all extremely, irresistibly confusing. Why are these adults all applauding each other like athletes, for achieving lip-locks? Why are they celebrating like high-schoolers over each other’s high-school-esque relationship-title upgrades? Why do they all appear to think having sex is a bit uncomfortable and immoral, even as they, simultaneously, spend approximately 14 hours a day maintaining and intensifying their signifiers of sexual desirability? Wait a minute … none of them, except maybe those two exceptionally chilled-out people over there, actually remotely enjoys the company of their “opposite sex” companion. Their mouths can’t make contact without puddles of makeup migrating from face to face, necessitating awkward clean-up. Why and to what end are all these people pretending (to themselves, as much as anybody) that they are straight?!
The contradictions are dazzling. You are watching an “island,” which isn’t an island, populated by people explicitly puncturing Love™ ideology every day, even as they purport to be true believers, by theorizing relationship-building as “graft” (work). Heterosexual culture has perpetrated a gargantuan feat of gas-lighting on us all, a giant ruse, whereby the genre of personality (“women”) we still conventionally frame as unhorny and commitment-motivated are the very ones studies (and Love Island) keep showing need life-long sexual variety; while the genre (“men”) who are constantly declaring themselves to be restlessly, promiscuously horny, are reliably shown to crave, when it comes down to it, wifely hand-holding, stability and repetition. McLaughlin has a point. Love Island is astonishingly bad at selling the very thing it explicitly sets out to vindicate as self-evident, as Nature’s basic building-block, as the only conceivable human path.
Every year, there is a public conversation about the viability of an LGBTQ+ Love Island, or perhaps just a bisexual one (“Love Bi-sland”); but this is missing the point. Anything at all, including a villa populated exclusively by card-carrying homosexuals, would be straighter than Love Island.
Still, properly speaking, our cultural rites expressing our collective yearning for hetero-sex should be very different from Love Island. They should also be very different to the national holiday we like to run every February in voluntaristic memory of the state-backed biopolitical project promulgated by that medieval creep Valentinus. Whatever they might be, they will not, in the future, be ghoulish popularity contests mediated by mountains of cut blooms whose production mangles workers’ bodies and unlovingly sucks entire lakes—presumably directly adjacent to the Love Island 2020 villa in Cape Town—dry.
A xenophilic Valentine’s Day might be a psychedelic occupation of public space dedicated to collective anti-work experimentation with new kinks; a wildcat strike kitchen-cum-festival for playing at the edge of that-for-which-one-has-never-hitherto-got-hot; or an international holiday of indeterminate duration, devoted to the question: who might you be(come) if, for instance, you found out you like to fuck rivers and lakes? Instead of repeating, year on year, the buying of dinner, flowers, chocolates, etcetera, when we want to mark International Day of the Loving-Difference, we should logically speaking be sallying forth—with aftercare and support mechanisms in place, for sure—in search of experiences of self-destabilizing and troubling weirdness.
Heterosexualists (if they exist yet) are the only ones whose praxis is capable of weaving 100% of earthly beings into the web of care. Only through heterosexualism, the active pursuit of the unappealing, with a view to bridge-building, will the earth’s horrible and unsavoury denizens be reached, touched, held accountable. In contrast, we, in the queer and trans totality (also known as “the queer and trans community”), lazily insist on organizing our lives around unmathematical principles like affinity, joy, care, solidarity, and kith.
Even though LoveIslandist ideology is hamfisted to the point of backfiring, trillions of dollars are poured into it every day. Under these conditions, it is all but impossible to maintain a personal practice of heterosexualism-against-heterosexuality™. It is easy to lapse and to presume, for instance, that everybody has an ass and that, therefore, ass-eating delights everyone. As it turns out, this is not the case! We need to educate one another, you see, in order to be good heterosexualists: curious, respectful and welcoming towards the needs and desires of non ass-o-phages. There no doubt exist alternative erotic languages in which one can converse with these people, if only we set out to discover them.
Statistically significant concentrations of true heterosexualism have, admittedly, not been detected on Planet Earth since, shall we say, “The Song of Songs” (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” etcetera). If heterosexuality existed in any significant sense, we wouldn’t have to make it up all the time in TV and literature. But another world is possible, and it is never too late to try.
- This essay is part of a series of pieces that we are running this Valentine's week, looking at love, desire and relationships at the intersection of capitalism, the state, and politics. See them all here.
Sophie Lewis is a theorist, critic and translator living in Philadelphia. She publishes her work—on topics ranging from dating to Donna Haraway—on both scholarly and non-academic platforms, including Boston Review, Viewpoint, Signs, Science as Culture, Jacobin, the New Inquiry, Mute, and Salvage Quarterly. Her translations include Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak (with Jacob Blumenfeld), A Brief History of Feminism by Antje Schrupp, and The Future of Difference by Sabine Hark and Paula Villa. A feminist committed to cyborg ecology and queer communism, she is a member of the Out of the Woods collective and an Editor at Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. Full Surrogacy Now is her first book. You can support her work at patreon.com/reproutopia.