Towards a Hetero-Optimism...
How it all started.
In late 2019, writer Asa Seresin coined the term “hetero-pessimism” in an article published in The New Inquiry. The term identifies a pervasive negative attitude in apparently heterosexual or straight culture about heterosexuality and straightness. These are familiar and old ideas in many ways. For instance, the concept that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” as a framework for thinking about heterosexual relations that reinforce binary gender in connection to biological sex and position heterosexual relations in terms of antagonistic difference. It is this logic too, that casts one’s spouse as a “ball and chain", the husband as lazy, the wife as emotional and so on. And although these concepts aren't new, heteropessimism has a contemporary specificity: the disappointment or negativity has not been resolved by the struggles for feminist and sexual liberation to date, indeed it persists in spite of social change.
So, where to from here?
Seresin’s piece evidently struck a contemporary chord and “went viral”. It was clear that he had identified a still-recognisable and, indeed, widespread cultural sentiment. The members of this project were caught up in the hype around the article, too. Initially, discussing it as part of a feminist reading group at their work place (the University of New England) which then culminated in a more formal collaboration to create space to think through its implications.
The team presenting this work are a group of four interdisciplinary scholars based on unceded Anaiwan Country at The University of New England and a transmedia consultant, audio editor and website producer on Awabakal Country in Newcastle. As individuals, the project team identify differently—as heterosexual, bisexual and queer—and for a variety of reasons, feel the critical problem named by 'heteropessimism' (or, heterofatalism) acutely in their lives and work.
To explore the concept, they applied for a Freilich Foundation Grant with the goal to put together a series of articles and audio interviews on the subject. The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry is a philanthropically funded, interdisciplinary research centre based at The Australian National University. According to their website, the project supports research into the causes, histories and effects of ethnic, cultural, religious, and sexual bigotry and animosity. It promotes public discussion on how such intolerance can be combatted and how co-existence can be promoted through social, research and educational programs.
Bigotry is an “obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief, opinion, or faction; in particular, prejudice against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.” Heteropessimism is not obviously bigotry like homophobia, racism, misogyny or transphobia, where the fear is of the other. In this case, the pessimism and thus the prejudice comes from within. Heteropessimism is an obstinate prejudice against the heterosexual experience by heterosexuals.
But this negativity against the self, against one’s own intimate partner is also related to other forms of prejudice against other groups. Heteropessimism is, for example, related to misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia but the connections between the two are not immediately obvious because of the way we divide up our thinking about sexuality into two master categories heterosexual and LGBTQAI+. In this regard, because of the traffic between, for example heteropessimism and transphobia, the concept opens up new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality across the spectrum of sexualities and genders.
In addition, the concept of heteropessimism shares some conceptual terrain with what is known as the “anti-normative” reflex in queer studies. As Seresin says in his piece: “Such a theoretical lacuna is unsurprising. Heterosexuality has long been a neglected object of study, elbowed out of sexuality studies right after the field emerged by the sexier and cooler project of queer theory. Queer theorists look smugly at heterosexuality over their shoulders as the thing that they have—thank God—left behind.”
This project’s tackling of the “theoretical lacuna” of heteropessimism is a work-in-progress. The team has begun by unpacking the implications of heteropessimism from their different, interdisciplinary and personal perspectives; with their approaches stemming from a variety of contemporary and historical perspectives, drawing on methods from History, Philosophy, Sociology, Environmental Humanities, Gender and Literary Studies. With the assistance of an external transmedia consultant, the participants have thought hard about the project’s blind spots and shortcomings - identifying it as an active work in progress, as a way to communicate and present its findings in ways that remain scholarly but are not exclusively for readers of scholarly journals.
This first phase employs thematic chapters with essay writings, audio interviews and textual reflections to critically explore this space. These are: pessimism, masculinity, domesticity and desire. Overall, this is a research project that is both descriptive and hopeful. One that aims to describe the idea of heteropessimism, and also reflect on how to move beyond the impasses of the present (and the rise of an uncritical form of straight pride, for example) pessimistic or fatalistic horizon, towards an otherwise.
The Heteropessimists project team hopes to pursue funding to produce a second volume of work on this topic.
Who are "The Heteropessimists"?
Peruse the team's formal bios below, or for more of a personal explanation of their individual connections to this project and subject matter, please explore their introductory chapters, here.