Every time I have entered therapy as a client, I have felt somehow compelled to declare myself as queer, usually with the phrase: “I am married. To a woman.” This is inevitably followed by a short, uncomfortable silence and a nervous giggle, and then we would move on. To be fair, no therapist has actually ever asked me outright whether my marriage was to a man or a woman, but there is something about the therapeutic space that feels so heteronormative that declaring difference seems to be a necessary step towards achieving one’s therapeutic goals. As a queer therapist, I experience the same from my own clients, many of whom would identify themselves as somehow queer or non-normative in terms of sexuality or gender. In contrast, clients who are in heterosexual relationships rarely qualify their relationship status by providing the gender of their partners.
Ingraham (1994, pp. 203-204) invokes Althusser’s notion of the imaginary when she introduces the term “heterosexual imaginary”:
“… that way of thinking which conceals the operation of heterosexuality in structuring gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an organising institution.”
Can psychology see straight? While sociologists have asked this question since the 1990s, it seems as if psychology is still oblivious of its own heterosexual imaginary. Asked differently, can psychology stand critical towards the heterosexual imaginary, its embedded heterosexual assumptions and practices, that shape its very being?
As pointed out by Heath et. al. (2013), the intellectual roots of the study of heterosexuality can be traced back to Freud’s theory of sexuality early in the 20th century – ground zero of psychological theorising. However, while Freud acknowledged the socially produced nature of heterosexuality, he was unable to step away from the idea that heterosexuality was the normative ideal, stemming out of “healthy” development, and that homosexuality and, in fact, any sexuality deviating from the heteronorm, was the result of immature or arrested development. A century later, psychology has managed to reconceptualise diversity in sexual orientations and gender identity to be no less healthy or normal than those sexualities and genders produced by normative heterosexuality. But while forward movement is certainly a good thing, it tends to blind us to the (unintentional) effects of an uncritically reproduced heterosexual norm. The continued existence of such a norm is demonstrated by the very existence of institutions such as the Sexuality and Gender Division inside institutions like PsySSA, as well as the perceived need for the development of practice guidelines for working with diverse sexualities and gender identities, as driven by the SGD. Additionally, as Jackson (2006) highlights, the current hegemonic form of heterosexuality itself has changed over time, and no longer requires marriage, for example. As can be attested to by polyamorous and asexual individuals, however, hegemonic heterosexuality in the 21st century still privileges monogamous coupledom as its ideal.
Fischer (2013) suggests that a critical understanding of heterosexuality requires seeing heterosexuality as a social construct that involves very specific power relations between men and women, and between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. Moreover, such an understanding moves away from the notion of heterosexuality as monolithic, and privileges instead the problematisation of commonsense understandings of heterosexuality as the dominant norm, allowing the exploration of the diversity of meanings, social arrangements and hierarchies within the category.
In their working paper on critical heterosexualities, Heath et. al. (2013) make explicit the ways in which the social institution of heterosexuality operates: it consists of an organised set of social practices that guide the behaviour of many people through norms, rules, and rituals; it is learned through socialisation; and it is often invoked and performed in ways that renders alternative sexualities invisible. This provides a useful starting point for psychology to start thinking about the ways in which heterosexuality shapes its theory and practice.
Fischer, N.L. (2013). Seeing “straight”, contemporary critical heterosexuality studies and sociology: An introduction. The Sociology Quarterly, 54(4), pp. 501-510.
Heath, M., Beaver, T., Fischer, N., Nordstrom-Loeb, B. and Simula, B. (2013). “Crossing Boundaries, Workshopping Sexualities.” Working Paper on Critical Heterosexualities. Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/sectionsex/documents/miniconferencepapers/workingpapers.pdf on 2 February 2017.
Ingraham, C. (1994). The heterosexual imaginary: Feminist sociology and theories of gender. Sociological Theory, 12(2), pp. 203-219.
Jackson, S. (2006). Gender, Sexuality and Heterosexuality: The Complexity (and Limits) of Heteronormativity. Feminist Theory, 7(1), pp. 105–121.
Kitzinger, C. (2005). “Speaking as a Heterosexual”: (How) Does Sexuality Matter for Talk in Interaction? Research on Language and Social Interaction, 38(3), pp. 221–265.