Reading over the dirty details of the exploits of scumbag of the month, Harvey Weinstein, one thought occurred to me over and over: something is rotten in the state of heterosexuality. And yet, in all the masses of media coverage on Weinstein’s disgusting behaviors, I barely remember seeing the word! Believe me that I am not one to argue that gays are innocent by comparison, only that the “#me too” twitter campaigns and the national discussion of enforced blowjobs and massages seems, for the moment to be focused upon powerful men forcing young women into compromising positions. Shouldn’t this be the beginning of a widespread conversation about men, women and sex? And should we be all thumbing through our old copies of Catherine MacKinnon and wondering whether in fact she was on to something when she wrote: “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting”? While we might want to hesitate before tarring all men with the same brush of sexual harassment, nonetheless, the exposure of widespread instances of harassment accompanied by extensive cover-ups, facilitation and pay offs has certainly raised again questions about male power and female victimization.
So, how would a national conversation on heterosexuality need to begin? Well, for once, we would need to name a power dynamic for what it is. Just as the popular press has tended, until very recently, to shy away from calling the racial context in which police officers beat and shoot Black men white supremacy, so they hesitate to call the sexual context in which powerful and famous men cajole, nudge, push, shove, forcibly manipulate often young and inexperienced women to sexually please them, hetero-patriarchy. But this is what it is and this is the atmosphere in which many young men are trained to understand themselves as extremely desirable while young women struggle with their self-image. Rather than wagging our collective fingers at a Wiener, a Weinstein, a wanker or worse, we need to turn to the way we raise young men to believe that if they want it, she does too…or even, if they want it, it does not matter what she wants. But we should also be thinking about how we raise young women to comply and about what happens when women say enough is enough.
The climate on college campuses recently is representative of the confusion some young women and men have about the meaning of heterosexuality, its rituals and its rules. Many express confusion mixed with outrage, fear, paranoia and anger. Students and professors launch sexual harassment charges at one another, and while some big name professors who are serial abusers have been caught pressuring their students and face charges, the latitude of the Title IX regulations have also been used for homophobic purposes. And so, in at least three cases that I know of personally, queer and trans faculty have been accused of “improper conduct,” or “inappropriate boundaries” with students. In one case, a queer/trans couple of color have been suspended with a reduction in pay! Perhaps on account of our reluctance to have a national conversation about heterosexuality and its abuses, Title IX regulations designed to protect students from quid pro quo scenarios have led instead to increased surveillance of queer and trans faculty.
As shocked as we all may be about the stories about Weinstein, in their sheer repetitiveness and consistency, they must be read as totally normal. Weinstein, obviously, is only the tip of a very large and very nasty Hollywood iceberg. Despite Hollywood’s own thematization of the sexual casting couch – how many films are about feisty women who are asked to sexually compromise their integrity for a job but refuse to? – it is a theme in Hollywood films because it is obviously one actual route to visibility and jobs. In fact, there is a kind of tautology to Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie coming out, long after the fact, and saying “me too.” Of course they were victims of the casting couch, their fame may tell us as much! And I am not saying that successful female stars only got where they are today because they succumbed to Weinstein or his equivalent at other studios, but I am saying that there are probably countless other actresses who never made it big precisely because they did say no. Weinstein implies as much in case after case reported by The New Yorker. When women pushed back or refused him what he felt was his sexual due, they were told, as Lupita Nyong’o bravely reported, that this would cost them in their careers.
Newton’s third law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposition reaction. So, a bird can fly because its wing motions force air down and are met by the force of the air pushing it up – flight depends upon the relations between actions and reactions. For every lewd guy who sidles up to a woman and whispers inane nothings in her ear in the hopes of seducing or forcing her into bed, there must be among all the women he approaches at least one who hears his spiel as seductive. If only every woman who ever came into contact with the bulk and force of Weinstein’s body said, as Lupita Nyong’o did: “With all due respect, I would not be able to sleep at night if I did what you are asking, so I must pass.”
Sex is like Newton’s third law – it depends upon actions and reactions. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This could be a definition of heterosexuality.
This is certainly one of the ways in which we have thought about heterosexuality – as in “opposites attract,” or “women are from Venus and men are from Mar,” or, in the immortal words of Paula Abdul: “Baby seems we never ever agree/You like the movies/And I like T.V./I take things serious/And you take ’em light/I go to bed early/And you party all night.” You say potato and I say potarto, let’s call the whole thing off. Heterosexuality has been cast in art and in science, for better or for worse, as a détente between different species. She wants monogamy and stability, he wants to spread his seed far and wide. He wants quantity, she wants quality. And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But, here’s the rub for heterosexuality – for a culture invested in the idea of men and women as “opposites,” it takes a major and continuous PR campaign to make heterosexuality seem natural, normal and even appealing.
In her engaging book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012), Hanna Blank explains how heterosexuality became synonymous with sexual normativity. She writes: “Early in the history of the term, it was even used interchangeably with the term “normal-sexual.” Over time, of course, norms shift and change but in this day and at this moment we should be clear about what norm heterosexuality names: what is normal apparently between particularly white men and women is for white men to see women as toys, accessories, playmates and trophies. What is normal for women is to react to a range of behaviors from boyfriends, fathers, uncles and family friends that slide back and forth between flirtation, seduction and abuse. The “me too” hashtag that went viral on twitter recently suggests that much of the attention directed at women by powerful white men slides quickly from seduction into abuse and that this has been so normalized that women have accepted that slide as part and parcel of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is the normalization of abuse.
Obviously not all heterosexual relations are abusive. Not all powerful white men are abusers. Not all women have been sexually assaulted. And so on. But, as Jenny Holzer once wrote with admirable and characteristic economy, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” We live in a world, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in Living A Feminist Life, built by and for white men. For this reason, she proposes, white men fit well in the world they have built and all other bodies have to struggle to find their place. The winner takes all mentality of white supremacy has organized the expectations of generations of young men and women such that white men expect the world and women are expected to deliver it to them. When those deliveries halt or slow down or are interrupted, the white man feels that he has been deprived of something he was promised. In the world that the white man built, a world where he has authorized his own violent reactions to disappointments, he now legally buys a gun and legally walks through the streets with that gun and waits for the moment within which he will use that gun to remind everyone around him that this is his world and we will live and die in it.
It is time to confront the normalization of abuse under the heading of heterosexuality. It is time to think about the violence of the norm, the way in which norms are self-perpetuating and the possibility that white male violence continues because some (white) women succumb to it, consent to it, extend it. Trump after all, after decades of Wiener/Weinstein/wanker like behavior, after extended publicity on his violent rhetoric and actions towards women, was elected with considerable help from white women voters. And for every Lupita Nyong’o who says unequivocally no to a pig like Weinstein, there are 10 others who either felt they could not say no or decided it was easier and more beneficial to their careers to say yes. Heterosexuality is a candle burning at both ends. For the casual violence that it masks to be confronted in a structural way and not in the piecemeal and potentially homophobic ways that Title IX regulations currently oversee, we need to confront heterosexuality head on. Heterosexuality promotes, depends upon and perpetuates gendered hierarchies, sexual assault and the suppression of feminine people. Heterosexuality, indeed, is not the other to homosexuality, it is the other to social justice, a politics of pleasure, a funky and open relation to sex in which we care whether our partners are awake and responsive versus drunk and inert, ready and willing versus resigned and submissive, excited and aroused versus disgusted and fleeing.
To all the Wieners, Weinsteins and Wankers out there: your days are numbered, your gig is up. Your disdain for women, people of color and the many who work for you is building towards an inevitable reversal in which you will no longer be the predator out on the prowl; in the immortal words of Grace Jones, we are approaching the moment when the hunter gets captured by the game. Get ready!