by Shon Faye: To launch our new Future of Sex series, author Shon Faye examines the current state of heterosexuality – how it’s been ravaged by the internet, feminism and the media, and where it can go in the years ahead…


This article is part of our Future of Sex season – a series of features investigating the future of sex, relationships, dating, sex work and sex worker rights; tech; taboos; and the next socio-political sexual frontiers.

I recently had two curious conversations at a friend’s wedding. Attempting to make small talk after the touching ceremony, a woman I didn’t know turned to me next to the salads and said, “Wasn’t it gorgeous? I cried through it all.” Taking her cue, I responded that weddings always make me rethink my own misgivings about marriage: “I don’t normally see myself as someone who wants to get married, but when I’m at weddings it always makes me feel slightly terrible I don’t have that kind of bond with someone.” Worrying I had been excessively candid with a stranger who might now genuinely pity me, I quickly added a campy addendum: “WHERE’S MY FUCKING HUSBAND?” She shook her head and then threw it back, finishing her champagne, and said, “I’m married. You don’t want it.” Later, I was talking with another tipsy heterosexual woman outside the reception who asked if I lived with housemates. I explained that I live alone, and she said, “That’s the dream.” I asked if she also lived alone. “Ugh, no, I live with my boyfriend,” she replied, her eyes rolling as she said the final word. Her tone seemed keen to impress how banal and embarrassing she found this dimension of her own life. In both interactions, the women had not engaged in the sort of smugness I had been primed to expect as a single woman in my thirties by Sex and the City or Bridget Jones’ Diary. Instead, they both engaged in a peculiar kind of disavowal of their own love lives, made more peculiar by the fact that I don’t think either truly meant what she said.

Heterosexuality remains popular in practice but is, among many women I know at least, having a PR crisis. Women in relationships with men (or those perhaps pursuing them less successfully) seem keen to pretend these relationships, much like their desire for men, are a curse which has befallen them by accident. When I was growing up queer in the 2000s, defences of gayness such as “I can’t help it” or “I was just born this way” were common and necessary to assure the dismayed and wounded homophobes in your family that your sexual orientation wasn’t the result of any effort to piss them off. Now, it seems that straight girls and those bisexual women currently involved with men have taken up such justifications for their sexual habits. I would attribute this to the inherent contradiction in a more popular and accessible online feminist consciousness among younger women in which the very real dangers of intimacy with men, at best to women’s self-esteem and at worst to their physical safety, have been laid bare while their desire to fuck, love and share lives with men obviously persists. The 2020 book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty by illustrator Florence Given, which was a durational bestseller, provides a neat example of the kind of analysis that is now in the mainstream:

“Darling, as long as you spend your years chasing male validation, you will exhaust yourself all the way to your grave. Because male validation is a bottomless pit. It won’t ever see you how you deserve to be seen. Stop chasing it. Stop trying to attract it… Your main goal in life is not to be ‘chosen’ by a man anyway. It’s all a big lie. You don’t actually need men for anything. Or at the very least, not in the capacity you’ve been made to think you do.”

Such sentiments have always been central to feminist discourse, but feminist frameworks and concepts were more esoteric, not so central to mass culture or popular parlance. The revolutionary feminists of the 1970s proposed lesbianism for all as the cure (with a kind of celibate fiat to lesbianism if you really couldn’t stomach sex with women), while some straight feminists wrestled in a more nuanced way with the politics of pleasure and how sex with men might be transformed without the dominion of patriarchy. Yet answers to these questions remain elusive and hard to imagine in concrete ways. Nor am I the first to identify the present tendency among younger millennial and Gen-Z straight women to distance themselves from their own heterosexuality: the writer Asa Seresin did so adroitly in his 2019 essay On Heteropessimism in which he defines heteropessimism as “performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about the straight experience”.

Central to a lot of online feminist practice is, as the critic Lauren Oyler suggests, the equation of acknowledgement with absolution. If you acknowledge that something is privileged, capitalist, or otherwise bad, you might get away with doing it anyway. Even loving your own boyfriend or pursuing sex and romance (the kinds that might even be – shock horror – validating) with men. Much of the public angst women express about their participation in heteronormativity is more about creating room for it to continue without interrogation than it is confronting anything deeper with a view to change.

Yet it may also be an understandable expression of unease or even guilt about enjoying the attentions of men due to the way that the burden for breaking the bonds of heterosexual desire is increasingly placed on women as individuals. The popular pastel infographic feminism of the past few years has mutated from merely pointing to the disadvantages too many women suffer as a result of loving men into a consumerist exercise designed, like so much on Instagram, to sell women things. Relationship coaches and self-esteem counsellors enthusiastically advertise their services, books and podcasts across the app with Reels and slideshows promising a way out of pain. Here, the trials of heterosexual relations for women are not actually systemic at all. Nor are they entirely hopeless: they can be mitigated by personal betterment and vigilance. Single women’s often deeply felt lack of agency in heterosexual dating and romance has become privatised into the language of pathology and disorder.

Increasingly, my Instagram Explore page is flooded with various tools of divination through which I might discover why my own relationships with men are so unsatisfactory. What’s your attachment style? Ten ways to set healthy boundaries. His charm is a MANIPULATION tactic! Five red flags to look out for… in yourself. Resolving dissatisfaction in love is a matter of ‘doing the work’ and self-improvement. At least it is for women. Men should be going to therapy too, but they just won’t – sorry! And, by the way, some men are also just pathologically despicable. Women need to be on guard against the narcissist personality type (which is typically, though not always, coded male). Narcissism, once a rare clinical diagnosis, is now a widely discussed dating phenomenon. The narcissist is devastatingly charming but constitutionally incapable of love or empathy due to a shortage in the circuitry of his early development. He will reel you in, then break you down. He, unlike you, cannot grow or change and, by the way, he is alarmingly common (almost 30 per cent of the population are narcissists according to one expert!). This is odd.

“It’s also difficult to own up to the fact that the psychodrama of wanting men, who do not love us back in the ways we need, can feel important to women’s own sense of identity as women in the sight of other women”

It’s no wonder that women, in this landscape, feel unease with their own continued participation in heterosexuality and the modern tech-driven dating culture that accompanies it. So why do we keep doing it to ourselves? The truth may, regrettably, be much messier, and lie somewhere in between strident feminist deconstruction and an individual therapeutic model, as our heart’s desires and our sexual longings so often fail to shape up to the rigid schema we draw up for them. Admitting you might still find some men sexy in spite of or (worse!) because of their ‘toxicity’ – unless whispered self-punishingly with the intention to work on yourself – becomes really shameful in this dating culture of constant self-optimisation. Yet I, and almost every woman I know, have indulged such attractions and many of us probably would again. It’s also difficult to own up to the fact that the psychodrama of wanting men, who do not love us back in the ways we need, can feel important to women’s own sense of identity as women in the sight of other women. Conversations which resolutely fail the Bechdel test tend to be one of the quickest ways, in daily life, to find common ground with other (straight) women where we might be otherwise separated by money, race, disability, transness or any of the other factors which make it so hard for women to form any real unified consciousness as a class. That men fail and disappoint us is a calming certainty in a confusing world in which to speak too stridently of ‘women’s experience’ will probably land you in hot water. More simply, if you are a woman unfortunately in the position of genuinely having found happiness with a particular man, paying lip service to heterosexual misery generally might just be a way to stay involved in the group chat.

There are also unspoken realities about how tantalising the promises of succeeding in heterosexuality really are. I certainly have my own reasons for finding them so. Being a trans woman who often feels I came to straight culture late (and by accident) upon my transition, I would not claim to speak for the emotional experiences of cis women, who have been inducted into what the theorist Sophie Lewis calls “the scripts of heterosexualism” from childhood. Yet I, personally, do feel the call of heterosexuality’s spoils intensely. The social stigma of transness, the way it calls into question the masculinity of the men who fuck me (and frankly can give them licence to treat me as disposable in unique and severe ways) and the dead end of my sterility for men’s paternal aspirations, all frequently impair my own better judgement about the pitfalls of heteronormativity, monogamy and the rest of it. To be wanted, even on regressive terms, is still to be wanted. My body excludes me from the ideal of straightness in which love between men and women is valued for its potential; potential for reproducing family, life, and children. I cannot offer men the promise of these imaginings, which means all I have to give them is myself. This has, at times, been a source of great terror: whatever the circumstances, I infer that all my romantic failings emanate from the possibility that I, personally, am simply not enough. So when heterosexual men have said they wanted or needed me, the potency of their declaration is intensified by how much it is off-script.

Being told repeatedly that something is not for you (or, at the very least, bad for you) or, as the woman at the wedding said to me, “you don’t want it”, makes it only seem more delicious and delightful. When I have had boyfriends, I have rolled my eyes at mentioning them while being thrilled to be able to do so. I revelled, briefly, in belonging to them – even when they did not treat me well – because belonging to another relieved me temporarily of the back-breaking burden of myself. Being encased at night by the body of a broader and taller bedfellow feels like success because of the demand upon every trans woman to shrink herself into the acceptable, unmannish form society demands. The man, with little effort on his part, becomes the prop by which I can achieve this much-coveted diminution. I can identify these troubling components to my sexual and romantic behaviour here and now but I have no doubt I will continue to forget them in the rush of lust I feel the next time a man’s heavy body pinning mine down. Their integration into my erotic landscape is so complete and total that even attempting to isolate them from the sensations of my body to describe them here feels exposing and vulgar. The guilty truth is as much as it has and will continue to cause me pain, I’m inconsistent in how much I want all the power dynamics stripped out of heterosexual romance. I suppose I do when they don’t work for me and I don’t when they seem to be working well. If only I could harness them properly, maybe I could find a way to feel good all the time. I wonder if many other women secretly feel the same and we have tied ourselves up in knots to avoid admitting it, though I daren’t ask them outright. Heteronormativity might be a cage but I admit I rarely care to look beyond its bars, in case doing so will make my present enclosure seem even smaller. Perhaps my fear of forever losing the paltry comforts it promises and, sometimes, offers, is simply too great. But deep down I think I’m mostly worried about discovering a great anticlimax at heterosexuality’s core: finding out that men, on their own, without my confusion and shame and self-interrogation and loneliness there to define them, are actually not very much at all.

Source: Dazed Digital