I took it as a sign of the times the other day when one of my “gold star”, masc-of-centre lesbian analysands laughingly referred to herself as LGBTQH. She explained she was feeling so open-minded about love and sex that she might even consider dating a man. Like all the best jokes, it exposed a hidden truth: heterosexuality can seem pretty queer these days. She wasn’t presenting it as a crisis, nor as any kind of backtracking or betrayal of her identity. She just couldn’t see why not. It would certainly give her friends a laugh.
Recently, another gay male friend jubilantly announced he’d spent all weekend having sex with a woman – a close friend of his. His happiness didn’t appear to be born from the fact that his mum would be delighted; it was more that he’d found it charmingly transgressive. He’d tried pretty much everything else, but never that.
When you think you notice a trend in your immediate environment it’s gratifying to have it reflected in literature and film
And then again, a trans-masculine analysand in a long-term relationship with a cis woman described endlessly daydreaming about having vaginal sex with men. It seemed to him the most off-limits fantasy, and therefore the most exciting.
While the somewhat controversial term “queer heterosexuality” has been around since the late nineties, this new iteration seems to be coming at things another way round. It’s not about cisgendered heterosexuals identifying as queer, understandably pissing off “proper” queer people who’ve been the targets of prejudice. Contemporary heteroqueerness instead appears to involve treating heterosexuality as something so kitsch, weird and/or hilarious that it suddenly seems worth trying.
When you think you notice a trend in your immediate environment it’s gratifying to have it reflected in literature and film. Lillian Fishman’s novel Acts of Service (2022) tells the story of its lesbian protagonist being drawn into a menage à trois with a heterosexual couple, only to find herself desperately turned on by sex with the man. And Passages (2023), a film starring Ben Whishaw, tells the story of a gay couple’s marriage being thrown into disarray when one of them launches into an affair with a woman.
Each era has its own special flavour of transgression, often utterly puzzling to people outside its time frame. Marital rape was apparently a staple of mid-century Mills & Boon novels, while sexy priests were a 1970s favourite, perhaps inspired by the 1977 novel The Thorn Birds (and anachronistically revived in the otherwise contemporary-seeming TV series Fleabag). You could argue that the former was a salve for women’s guilt about their active sexual desires, while the latter was perhaps a reaction to increased sexual freedoms – priests were some of the very few adults you weren’t supposed to have sex with. Prohibition is so exciting.
So why heteroqueerness now? The obvious answer might be that, since queer sexualities have gained so much greater social acceptance, people have had to come up with new forms of thrilling transgression. Having fought so hard for certain rights and freedoms, it might seem perverse to backslide into heterosexuality. But if “perverse” is precisely what you’re looking for, heterosexuality is actually quite a good candidate. How come the dominant norm lends itself so well to seeming so… kinky?
Asa Seresin’s brilliantly coined term “heteropessimism” has instant self-explanatory power. Her opinion piece went viral in late 2019 and gave the world a name for the rage and shame heterosexual men and women sometimes feel at their romantic and sexual lot. Men known as incels or “involuntary celibates” might believe they suffer from “unjust” female rejection or, if they’re more sexually successful, from the misery of the OAG (overly attached girlfriend) aka the old-school “ball and chain”. Women, understandably irked by these unflattering portrayals of their own sex, might be inclined to characterise straight men as obtuse narcissists. Or, especially since #MeToo, as entitled predators. (Of course, in the wake of the recent Russell Brand revelations, and the problematic normalisation of his allegedly exploitative sexual behaviours, it would seem obtuse to criticise women for being suspicious of the men who want to sleep with them.) In these scenarios, being heterosexual may very well involve misogynistic men having sex with straight women, who in turn hate men, and so on. Still, both sides stay hopelessly locked in their dance of blame, soothing themselves with performative blasts of heteropessimism – “So embarrassing, I wish I was a lesbian” – while failing even to attempt anything that might make the situation better. In keeping with its characterisation as the lifestyle choice of the stupid, heterosexuality has no idea how to fix itself.
Of course, this lack of critical sophistication on the part of the straight majority is surely a direct result of their “majority-ness”. Because straight people are following a well-trodden path, long supported by a tangle of laws, traditions, expectations, coercions and unplanned pregnancies they haven’t had to create their own subtle ethics and lexicons around relationships. Since everybody supposedly knows that a “good” heterosexual relationship involves a man and a woman getting married and living happily ever after, raising kids and not shagging anyone else, then no one has to give it too much thought. Either you match the ideal or you don’t. And if you don’t, the options are basically to keep it secret, or style it out and risk social disapproval. LGBTQ couples have traditionally had no such “luck”. If you live outside the dominant norm you are pretty much forced to make a huge intellectual and emotional effort. If you live unquestioningly inside it, you can be as dumb as you like. (Women, of course, are the non-dominant portion of the dominant culture, hence feminism and heteropessimism intersect in interesting ways. As the film Barbie showed us, women have a great deal to gain from undermining patriarchy – but it could be a plus for men too.)
The form of normative heterosexuality we are currently living through is perfectly tragicomic and, by extension, perfectly camp. The deadlock reached in the war between the sexes is revealed to be unnecessary and unimaginative alongside more nuanced, unconventional modes of hanging out. It just looks silly. You could perhaps say that standard issue heterosexuality is like a 1950s TV ad, in contrast to queer sexualities’ complex arthouse psychodrama. But then somehow, in an extraordinary feat of inspired, creative recuperation, straightworld’s dumbness becomes its charm.
Into this space inject a million memes, Instagram accounts like @hetero_cringe, podcasts like Queer Watching (TV and cinema hilariously viewed through queer eyes), and the term “straggot” (a pejorative term for a straight person). Given queer culture’s penchant for engaging with the grotesque and excluded, perhaps it should come as no surprise that straight people, with their quaint mating customs and twisted, self-justifying logics of co-existence, should come in for cultural redemption. Calling oneself a straggot as an act of defiant self-acceptance?
Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer based in London. Her latest book, “Fashion: A Manifesto” (Notting Hill Editions), is out now