This biased perspective can be toxic in relationships.

By Maressa Brown
Jun 11, 2021 @ 9:00 am
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What Heteronormativity (and Why Is It Toxic)?
Credit: Natalie Jeffcott/Stocksy

When former Bachelor Colton Underwood came out earlier this year, he spurred a new conversation around the pressures that society puts on people to fit into typical gender roles. And when Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary, they broke free of a cookie-cutter pop star role they had been confined to since teenhood. And these are just two recent celeb examples of how people are increasingly calling out and rejecting heteronormativity.

So, what actually is heteronormativity? "Heteronormativity is the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm or baseline and that all other sexual orientations are an extension, 'extra,' or optional to respect, understand, and prioritize," explains Anne Hodder-Shipp, an American College of Sexologists (ACS)-certified sex educator. 

And while this damaging perspective is being challenged more and more these days and isn't as ubiquitous as it once was, it still functions in our culture, adds Danielle Egan, professor of gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. 

That's why it's crucial to wrap our heads around how heteronormativity manifests - especially in dating and relationships - and work to combat it. 

Where the Term 'Heteronormativity' Came From

Although society would have us believe that sexual relationships have primarily existed between cisgender men and women for eons, the concept of heterosexuality in itself is relatively new, points out Hodder-Shipp. "Heterosexuality didn't even exist until the idea and term was invented in the late 1860s by Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny," she notes. "Before that, there was no formal concept of sexual orientation!"

Over time, heterosexuality became seen as the norm in religion, medicine, law, psychology, and education, adds Egan. "Social institutions and media representations often start from this presumption," she notes.

Fast-forward to 1991 when the term "heteronormative" appeared for the first time in Fear of a Queer Planet, a book by queer theorist Michael Warner. 

The label is also linked to the gender binary, or the inaccurate assumption that there are two genders: man/woman or male/female, explains Hodder-Shipp.

6 Myths of Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity leads to a variety of biases and assumptions that can rear their ugly heads while dating or in a relationship. A few false beliefs that stem from a heteronormative POV:

All potential partners or new friends are straight.

Whether you're single and swiping or meeting another couple out on a group date, assuming that your new connections are straight is operating from an assumption of heteronormativity, points out Egan. You never want to presume someone's sexuality, she advises.

Luz Miranda, a therapist-in-training, human rights activist, and an educator for Foria's School of Unlearning, explains, "I'm currently in a relationship with a cisgender heterosexual man. Heteronormativity assumes that I am also cisgender and heterosexual when that is not the case. I'm actually bisexual and think of my gender as being fluid. Heteronormativity limits the multifaceted identities humans have. It can harm and invalidate." 

Having sex = heterosexual intercourse.

The belief that the only "real" sex involves a penis entering a vagina is a heteronormative falsehood, points out Gigi Engle, SKYN Sex & Intimacy Expert, certified sex coach, sexologist, and author. A couple related assertions: "Sex is for making babies, not pleasure, and female pleasure is not needed for making babies, and therefore, it is not something we need to consider." 

This is also related to the idea that oral sex, massage, making out, and touching are "foreplay" as opposed to sex, says Hodder-Shipp. 

Sexual desire is a drive all people experience. This invalidates asexuality or graysexuality as sexual orientations, points out Hodder-Shipp. Asexuality is an orientation defined by lack of sexual attraction, and graysexuality, which appears on the asexuality spectrum, is marked by limited sexual attraction or sexual attraction that occurs only under certain conditions or contexts.

Gender roles and expectations are based on gender stereotypes.

A heteronormative perspective leads to the assumption that men are naturally horny all the time, that women are more emotional and less visual when it comes to arousal, that women are better nurturers, that "female orgasm" is difficult and tricky and takes a long time, or that men are naturally dominant in bed, says Hodder-Shipp. 

Subscribing to these beliefs can lead to problematic expectations and shame, notes Shannon Chavez, Psy.D., a psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles. Males might feel pressured by the idea that they should want more sex, be the initiator, and assert their needs and desires more openly, and females might be less likely to engage in casual sex, ask for what they want sexually, or to minimize the importance of their pleasure, she says. 

Laws and health care should center around and prioritize heterosexual relationships.

For instance, child adoption, marriage rights, and spousal rights are often conceptualized from a heteronormative jumping off point, notes Hodder-Shipp.  

And Chavez notes that there's still much discrimination of different sexual and gender identities in the health care industry. Without proper education, providers - from couples therapists to GYNs - might not be prepared to provide quality health care to sexually diverse populations.

Sexual exploration with different identities or the same sex is a phase that people grow out of.

Anything other than heterosexual sex is looked at as experimental or as experiencing confusion about your orientation, notes Chavez. 

How to Deal With Heteronormative Beliefs In a Relationship

Thankfully, it's possible to break free of this limiting perspective with a little bit of self-reflection, self-awareness, and communication, according to the experts we spoke with. A few tips: 

Question your own beliefs. 

Consider whether you subscribe to an idea - like, say, the assertion that heterosexual men should have a high sex drive - because it's something you've been told or you actually believe, suggests Engle.

Chavez emphasizes the importance of identifying your own expectations and values in a relationship as well. "Take a look and examine where these come from and whether they serve you," she advises. "Pay attention to whether these beliefs are helping or hindering your dating/relationship life. Open up to different beliefs and educate yourself about different orientations and communities to help overcome your biases and stereotypes."

Listen to people who are not heterosexual. 

By taking in their perspective and being open to criticism, you can adapt your behaviors to be more inclusive, says Engle. 

Take note of the language and beliefs that you use in your day to day. 

This is especially important when it comes to conversations and thoughts about sex and relationships, notes Hodder-Shipp. 

"Notice and observe where there's space to make adjustments; unlearn antiquated, inaccurate, and harmful beliefs about sex and people; and to seek education and new information that's more affirming and accurate about the vast uniqueness and individuality of sexual orientation, gender identity, relationships, and general humanness," she suggests.

Have an open dialogue. 

Chavez encourages people who are dating to initiate a conversation about heteronormative beliefs with potential partners. But even if you're already in a long-term relationship, you can kick off a conversation about your beliefs with your S.O. 

"These beliefs are deeply engrained in our psyche, collective unconscious, and early programming around sex and relationships," she says. "Having that dialogue is helpful to combat shame, confusion, and disagreements." 

Once you've shared your beliefs, you can work on overcoming those rooted in heteronormativity together. Chavez advises, "Find your own balance in beliefs and expectations that help the relationship grow and evolve in a way that works for both of you."  

Don't settle.

If you're already well into a relationship and find your S.O. espousing limiting ideas about your identity or expectations in your relationship - like they assume that as a heterosexual female, you aspire to have a lot of kids, or they're dismissing your sexual orientation - it could be time to reassess your bond. 

"Ask yourself if you feel safe - emotionally and spiritually safe, especially - with this person," advises Hodder-Shipp. "Prioritize your own comfort and feelings in the presence of this person and their heteronormative beliefs. If the answer is anything other than a yes, it might be time to think about whether this is the right partner or relationship for you and if it's truly going to serve you, celebrate you, and allow you to participate and exist with a sense of respect and safety."