Hope Talbot discusses the emotional conflicts of being in straight-presenting relationships as a queer person, questioning why these relationships have such an impact on so many aspects of personal identity.
My own heterosexuality actively embarrasses me. Whilst I proudly maintain my identity as a queer woman, I am embarrassed when I find myself in relationships that present as straight.
I feel so much of this embarrassment stems from the tragicomedy that is dating men in the status quo. Both publicly and privately, heterosexuality has earned a bad name for itself.
On social media, we see the fallout of heterosexual relationships in spectacular fashion. When celebrities break up, there is a sprint to cast one person as the villain and the other as the victim. This framing of celeb couples is then refracted in the language we use to discuss our own relationships too. As therapists and psychologists gain notoriety on TikTok, we have developed a therapy-based lexicon to describe our romantic entanglement. From stating that our exes are actually narcissists or sociopaths, to the overuse of terms such as ‘gaslight’, social media has become an outlet for jilted lovers to puzzle over the behaviour of their exes.
Saying this, however, I’m not trying to undermine or cast aside the very real emotional abuse that takes place in relationships. Often, social media can help us realise huge wake-up calls about the behaviours we’ve previously accepted as ‘the norm’. But what is true is that, through social media, we have massively oversimplified much larger issues which affect the way we date today.
In her breakout opinion piece, ‘On Heteropessimism’, Asa Seresin historicises the trope of women lamenting the process of dating men. For decades, we have seen how women so often try to disassociate themselves from the typical heterosexual experience, expressing embarrassment, regret, or hopelessness. It can feel like an ‘aha’ moment, that just because you are self-aware of how bad heterosexuality can be, you are less likely to reproduce its harmful tropes of finger-pointing and casting victim/villain.
An unfortunate reality, however, is that, no matter how self-aware we are, no matter how much self-help TikTok we watch, the tragicomedy of dating men still remains a very central part of womanhood for many women. Women who date men are often asked to do the emotional labour of break-ups and relationships, being given the explanation that men simply don’t have the ‘emotional bandwidth’ to complete this. As massively unequal as this is, this status as the bearer of romantic emotional burdens makes up a significant facet of female identity. In her piece on modern heterosexuality, Shon Faye admits that much of the ‘psychodrama of wanting men’, feels ‘important to women’s own sense of identity as women in the sight of other women.’ For so many, dating and romance (and the failures of said relationships) is an integral part of forming friendships and bonds with other women.
Although womanhood and straightness aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s fair to say that heteropessimism equally confines queer women’s experiences of romance and dating. Often, lesbianism and queerness are framed as the alternative to straightness, a last resort option to avoid putting up with dating men. In this way, heteropessimism also acts to confide queer identities, devaluing the desires of women who love women as merely a convenient loophole.
Often, in the conversations I have with other women lamenting our desire for men, someone will almost always use the phrase ‘ugh, I hate men’. While hating men has fostered a wave of angry female leads taking part in revenge rampages in pop culture and fiction such as Lisa Taddoe’s Animal and the film Promising Young Woman, I think we need to genuinely investigate this sentiment. Why do we like men? If there is so much to hate and so much to villainize, why do women continue to date men?
With this sentiment in mind, it’s almost become a break-up ritual for me to get out my now well-worn copy of bell hooks’ ‘The Will To Change’. In this, hooks discusses a kind of masculinity that is much more honest and true to the men I know and see in daily life. The masculinity she asserts is one of kindness and emotional fluency. It’s one where men are open and honest, and where morality cannot be easily cast into binaries of good and bad. It’s one where men aim to, and achieve, the emotional language to express and consider both themselves and others intimately, rather than relying on the emotional languages of women to express their needs for them.
Although this masculinity might seem far away, and distance, it is real and it is strived for. Now, more than ever, men are becoming aware of the consequences of emotional closedness, and the unfair burdens women bear in this regard. The more we strive to expect a standard of equal emotional availability and communication regardless of gender, the better heterosexuality will be.
In the meantime though, I’ll still be somewhat embarrassed.