Mundane Heterosexualities: From Theory to Practices
Hockey, Jenny, Meah, Angela and Robinson, Victoria
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
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I told my friends over lunch one day that I was reading about heterosexualities. I was greeted with disbelief and they exclaimed: 'Who would want to study something as 'ordinary' as heterosexualities?' Their response is understandable. Heterosexualities, like masculinities (e.g. Connell 1995) and white skin colour (e.g. Jensen 2005), have generally been perceived as dominant and traditionally received less attention in Social Sciences, and in fact, also in daily conversations. Mundane Heterosexualities: From Theory to Practices is an interesting read which challenges and provokes its readers to re-think heterosexualities.
As the title of the book suggests, the authors worked with the notion of heterosexualities (i.e. plural) rather than heterosexuality. The departure point of such a notion is that there are multiple forms of heterosexualities which carry with them varied social meanings and power dynamics. Hegemonic heterosexuality can be summarised as long-term and monogamous relationship (VanEvery 1996). It is also the form of heterosexuality that society values most highly. However, as in other domains of life, there is discrepancy between the stories that we live by (the ideal) and the stories that we live with (the actualised). Much less is known about other forms of heterosexual lives that do not conform to the hegemonic ideals (p. 27).
The authors of the book came from three academic fields: (a) heterosexuality and masculinity; (b) ageing and the life course; and (c) gender studies. A result of such a combination was a life course approach employed in the research which captured both the individual and historical changes surrounding sexuality, family and morality in general. Data was generated by interviews with 72 individuals aged 15 to 90 from the three generations of 20 extended families. One limitation of the data was that a majority of the sample was female.
By design, the book raises more questions than the definite conclusions that it can provide. Heterosexualities were analysed as an organizing principle. Both the mundanes of heterosexualities, such as food and clothing and their extremes, like day rape and first sexual intercourse, were analyzed. Specific attention was paid to how individuals exercised agency to redefine and resist the hegemonic heterosexuality as discussed above. These ideals and practices of heterosexualities, were learned, reproduced and resisted across generations in families. All of the above were in turn patterned by gender and class. What outstood in the book were the many contradictions in heterosexualities, for example, the struggle between the need to be 'moral' and the desires:
'I was as green as grass when I got married, I didn't know all the…'
(Anita Smith, 70, p. 71)
'Well, there was a check-list that used to go around, that you were meant to sign, and everything was a stage, of the sort of meeting boys, courtship, right down to the ultimate, and you were meant to, score certain points [LAUGH] you know, and I of course, you know, I was sort of nought… nothing…' (Lynne Archer, 55, p. 132)
If I have a chance to debate with the authors, I would be curious to ask: how much are the discussions on heterosexualities also applicable to sexualities in general?
Many of the issues discussed in the book, such as the interrelationships between sex and identity, myths around sex, lack of language and expressions about sex, sex as a marker of identity, the ambiguities and dilemmas around ideals and lived experiences, for me seem to be applicable to sexualities in general; homosexualities as well as heterosexualities.
While queer theories have contributed much towards a critique of heteronormativity, and research in Lesbian and Gay Studies has raised many questions on traditional understanding of families (e.g. Weeks et al. 2001), it would perhaps be interesting to think across sexualities, and ask what researchers on heterosexualities and homosexualities can learn from each other and what implications do findings from each of the fields have for the other. For example, if and how are understanding and practices of heterosexualities altered and understood in a family when a family member is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or transsexual? What influences do attitudes on gays and lesbians in society have for heterosexualities? It could be interesting to facilitate different sexualities to engage in meaningful dialogue.
CONNELL, R. W. (1995) Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press.
JENSEN, R. (2005) The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers.
WEEKS, J., HEAPHY, B. and DONAVAN, C. (2001) Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. London: Routledge.
VANEVERY, J. (1996) 'Heterosexuality and Domestic Life', in D. Richardson (editor) Theorising Heterosexuality. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Yiu Tung Suen
University of Oxford