What is Heteropessimism?
In this first chapter we introduce the term and the team, and complement that with Episode 1 of our accompanying podcast: an audio interview between Jen Hamilton and scholar, Asa Seresin who first coined the term.
According to Seresin, heteropessimism is:
a mode of feeling with a long history, and which is particularly palpable in the present. Heteropessimism consists of performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience. Heteropessimism generally has a heavy focus on men as the root of the problem. That these disaffiliations are “performative” does not mean that they are insincere but rather that they are rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality. Sure, some heteropessimists act on their beliefs, choosing celibacy or the now largely outmoded option of political lesbianism, yet most stick with heterosexuality even as they judge it to be irredeemable. Even incels, overflowing with heteropessimism, stress the involuntary nature of their condition.
Overall our project exploring heteropessimism has a two-pronged goal. To, firstly, further define and describe the term and, secondly, to develop ways of thinking through and beyond heteropessimism, toward what we are calling ‘hetero-optimism’. As this is a work-in-progress, we are unsure exactly what we mean by hetero-optimism at this stage, but the idea is that heteropessimism itself is both a problem and a conceptual and political cul-de-sac. It is not a good, or useful thing but it is also a problem that cannot be solved in a straightforward way (though positive thinking or straight pride). Rather, heteropessimism is a symptom of bigger historical, socio-economic and cultural issues.
In the interview associated with this chapter, we discuss what the idea is and how it has travelled. The conversation also explores how heteropessimism relates to other political struggles in terms of gender, sexuality, race and class and the importance of valuing and respecting desire as a principle. The conversation identifies the urgent need to think laterally about what causes feelings of disappointment and frustration within heterosexuality.
We think the concept has a broad reach and major implications for social and political struggles around gender and sexuality. In this regard, the following chapters in the first “volume” of the project examine a few different ways we can describe and understand heteropessimism in culture. In the first volume of interviews, we focus on the pervasiveness of heteropessimism in white settler colonial heterosexual cultures in Australia and the US from our different disciplinary perspectives.
The existentialist-minded philosopher on the team, Felicity Joseph, believes an answer to the problem of heteropessimism lies in the vexed nature of traditional theories of gender which impose an ideal, if not reality, of asymmetrical humanity: that men must self-create (the ‘self-made man’) to prove themselves in the world, while women accept (often resignedly or under protest) the predetermined role of primary carer and housekeeper even when they work full-time. Despite years of critique and a range of new practices around gender, hierarchical ideas about the gender binary are widely disseminated through straight culture and persist in influencing relationships. This fails both genders, because it fails to recognise the open-endedness of their equal humanity, one that will always struggle to fit into rigid and ideal roles. The question then arises, how can co-existence in heterosexual relationships acknowledge gender difference but still support an equal humanity? Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex told us ‘Equal loves are possible’, but those within the dominant sexual culture are still working out how to achieve this beyond individual exceptions to the depressing heterosexual norm.
Matt Allen is an historian of colonial Australia. He has observed how even as heterosexual norms that define society today were imported to Australia with colonisation, the colonial archive is noteworthy for its heteropessimism. Since Australia was colonised, sexual relations between men and women have been both normal and fraught, in ideal and reality. White Australian identity has circled around a legend that relies on tired masculine tropes that are misogynistic and cynical about marriage. Historicising gender relations, sex and sexuality can help us understand how we have arrived at this particular heteropessimist moment.
Christina Kenny is the sociologist in the group. Kenny is intrigued by the ways that culturally dominant (or acceptable) modes of desire, and desiring (and desired) bodies are reflections and expressions of cultural politics, colonial legacies of the privilege of whiteness, and express deep heteropessimistic values. She asks, how can disrupting 'normal' or mainstream beauty standards, sexualities and sexual practices open up new, freer spaces for love, desire and expression.
Jen Hamilton is a queer ecofeminist, interested in how heteropessimism relates to domestic life or what she is calling “housework pessimism”. While we have a biological need for shelter and love, there is no rule in nature dictating that the desire for a person of the opposite sex must care for children, or insist on a complicated and expensive wedding, an oversized house and stressful mortgage to finance. What kind of new domestic arrangements could meet our needs, solve some of our urgent ecological problems, and also mitigate pervasive hetero- and housework pessimism caused by the isolation and stress of running a private household?
All of this inquiry is geared towards the idea of hetero-optimism, which (as we said above) we have not fully defined at this stage. What we mean though is that this is a conceptual and political project that both recognises heteropessimism as a cultural problem and that dealing with it is not just a matter of positive thinking internal to cis-het couples. Rather, heteropessimism has historical, social and political origins and, therefore, demands bigger scaled thinking about solutions. As Seresin says: “heterosexuality is nobody’s personal problem”. In other words, hetero-optimism is not just about fixing broken relationships, but something bigger and more expansive in terms of thinking about the possibilities for the everyday experience of desire and sexuality in properly heterogenous, non-bigoted and expansive ways.
In addition to listening to our interview with Seresin, we invite you to read below to learn about the different personal and professional motivations of the team.
"I came to this project through the complexities of romantic love and the desperate need for new ideas in a time of climate crisis."
Seresin’s “heteropessimism” article immediately captured my interest as it seemed to occupy the other side of a zone of personal, professional and political interest to me. I came to this project through the complexities of romantic love and the desperate need for new ideas in a time of precarious work and climate crisis.
Since reading Eve Sedgwick’s iconic essay “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading: You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” almost 20 years ago, I’ve been more attentive to the ethical integrity of intellectual processes rather than finding ways of justifying pre-determined political positions. This is because, in this piece, Sedgwick examines the way that ethical politics is not determined by stand-alone facts or truths about good and bad people, but rather emerge and make sense only in relation to other things. For me to dislike you, I should have received some kind of feedback from you that gives me a sense that you are unlikable; I might not like you at first, but after a few conversations our position in relation to one another can change. To theorise this idea, Sedgwick draws on the psychoanalytic work of Melanie Klein who studies how babies relate—in a range of different (loving, aggressive, paranoid) and at times expected and at other times unpredictable ways—to their mother.
Broadly speaking, current trends in mainstream politics, the stunning polarisation of it all, rewards clear political positions over engaged understandings of relations and how they can and should change. Intuitively, we all kind of know how broken things are, but we don’t have a very compelling way out. But this is why I am interested in the brilliant messiness of the concept of heteropessimism. Because although it is defined really clearly in Seresin’s article in relation to how straight-people name disappointment and hopelessness about their sexuality and its domestication, for me there are interesting overlaps between heteropessimism and what queer feminist theorists call the “anti-normative reflex” in queer theory. The anti-normative reflex is the idea that anything that looks remotely like heteronormativity is politically problematic: under this rubric marriage is always bad or politically problematic, relations between cis-genders is always a product of false consciousness or gross and so on. Heteropessimism and queer anti-normativity are very strange bedfellows! Although they begin from very different places—one inside and one outside heterosexual relations—they arrive at very similar conclusions. It feels worth it to me to explore the relationship between the two largely because so many people remain invested in heterosexuality and the normative privatised life it promises (even as Andrea Long Chu argues that heterosexuality is held together with “sticky tape and crossed fingers”). Constructing a dialogue between heteropessimism and queer anti-normativity could be one of the most inclusive political struggles of or time. It would be a space of unlikely allies and awkward conversations, but potentially new relations and thus new possibilities.
This willingness to try to inhabit a no-fly zone between two similar but seemingly oppositional concepts is based on the 20-odd years of thinking and study since reading Sedgwick’s paper, but it also is related to both my involvement in both environmental studies and union activism. What I’m learning in becoming more active in both the environmental and union movements, is that today both environmental and union politics has to be radically inclusive of all kinds of people. The common ground is not identity, it is one’s desire to build a livable planet and be treated well and respected at work, and to have a real say in how that workplace is governed. But we can’t hang love, romance and sexuality out to dry – we want to be respected and well paid at work and we want to save the environment – because being in love and alive is pleasurable.
Full disclosure, I feel that I might literally inhabit the space between heteropessimism and anti-normativity. I am a queer bisexual in a heterosexual marriage. By virtue of my identity, the mundane aspects of romantic coupledom (marriage, parenting, the family home) contradict how I experience desire. My experience of desire in the world necessarily transgresses this structure. While it’s a mantra in bisexual culture that “not all bisexuals have to be non-monogamous”—that is, it is legit to be bisexual and in a monogamous relationship—to be able to really feel like myself in the world, I have to find a way to be open to relations that are at the very least more than just heterosexual (this article is highly relatable in this regard). I deeply love my partner and child, but I don’t need to fortify my family at the exclusion of my friends. The expression of my self takes many forms. Ultimately although it’s not been easy always, I feel lucky to feel desires that exceed the imposed social structure of heterosexual monogamy because it enables me to see and feel the edges that people who don’t desire more can’t see as clearly but who also might feel or sense in the disappointment or pessimism about their lives. But I also don’t feel aloof or outside these structures, capable of wholesale rejection of the structure. I feel compassion for those who do feel trapped but also I think my experience has given me ways of thinking around, against, outside, in between that might be helpful. The intellectual process that we’ve begun in this work-in-progress offering is part of that for me.
Professionally, I’m a feminist environmental studies scholar; I research human relations and cultural representations of weather, shelter and domesticity. I talk more about the desperation that made heteropessimism so captivating for me professionally in the chapter, Domestic Ecologies.
"The political being also the personal (to reverse the feminist maxim), I realise I have a long history of feeling pretty pessimistic about heterosexuality, or more specifically, what women get out of it."
My academic background is in European Philosophy and it has furnished me with ways to think about the enduring structures of gender relations. Philosophy being a very male-dominated area, I found myself more and more interested in the relatively unsung women and feminist philosophers, fuelling my interest to join the feminist reading group at UNE. My academic and personal interests coincided when I first came across the term ‘Heteropessimism’ through the group: Christina Kenny brought the paper by Seresin to my attention. Reading it, I found certain parts of it crystallised many issues I’d been thinking through in my own research into attitudes towards gendered violence and the seeming intractability of such violence.
The political being also the personal (to reverse the feminist maxim), I realise I have a long history of feeling pretty pessimistic about heterosexuality, or more specifically, what women get out of it. I was quite young when I first noticed how horrible many heterosexual relationships and marriages appeared to be, with dominating, sexist men and relatively impotent, submissive women. When women got together, I’d notice they would often complain about their spouses, but in hushed tones, and never once did anyone ever propose actually doing anything about it – something characteristic of heterosexual pessimism is a certain resignation to gender inequality. It is meant to be like the sun rising and setting: men mistreat women; women complain about men; men complain about women; and so the world turns. Seresin expresses this clearly when he says:
To be permanently, preemptively disappointed in heterosexuality is to refuse the possibility of changing straight culture for the better.
This clarifies my own feminism for me: feminism must challenge the idea of the ‘permanence’ of disappointment with men themselves and in relationships with men. Disappointment can be a starting point, but it must not be the end-point: a robust feminism refuses to accept the model of gender relations which is handed down, even if it has been so for millennia. This means challenging the supposed inevitability or ‘naturalness’ of male violence and domination, but it also means handing the challenge on to men themselves (who so far appear reluctant to take it up).
‘Heteropessimism’ as a phenomenon interests me because it reflects an overwhelming-but-not-quite-global reality, while highlighting by contrast that better concepts of gender and gender relations can be freely chosen. In this I see the two key Existentialist values come to light: Reality and Freedom. For a true hetero-optimism to be possible, I suspect both men and women will have to face up to (brutal) reality and exercise their freedom in ways we perhaps don’t understand yet…
"I am particularly concerned to find an ethical way to become who I am – to find a heterosexuality and masculinity of which I am not ashamed."
I’m Matt and (I think) I’m a heteropessimist. I’m a historian and historical criminologist whose research is focused on understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from penal colony to responsible democracy, and the way that this process was shaped by the conflict between liberal ideals and authoritarian controls within the British world.
At the root of my sins, I am a fourth-generation academic, all men: my father is a physiologist, his father was an astronomer and his father died of yellow fever on the boat back to Perth, to take up a position as a mathematician. I went to one of the most privileged all-male high schools in the country – Sydney Grammar School – a mill for grinding boys into gentlemen – and I had no idea how to talk to women other than my mother until I was in my 20s. I was a very bad feminist – I like to think I am now, merely a bad one. I joined what was then the Feminist Reading Group at UNE, founded by my partner, Christina, to become a better one.
To be honest, I want to be a better feminist for intellectual as much as ethical reasons. It is clear to me that I cannot be a good historian without understanding that gender is a category of historical analysis. Feminism is just but it is also right. It is for me a methodology and an epistemology as much as it is an ethic. For example, I became the secretary of the group because I thought it was fair – from each according to their privilege – but also because I thought doing that work as the only man was a project that would teach me something useful. Like a gentleman driving a hansom cab on his holiday, performing what is often labelled, and more frequently, is, female labour, does not allow me to understand being a woman, let alone a secretary. But since people are different, all genders are unique in the last analysis; and I do learn something interesting, even from my limited standpoint. It is not the least of my many privileges that I get to talk about gender and sexuality with such brilliant scholars.
Until I heard and we discussed the concept last year I would never have considered myself a heteropessimist but I have always been ambivalent about masculine gender roles and perhaps especially the kind of fundamentally misogynistic alpha sexuality that was the public discourse of my school and others like it. It is not only toxic for women, it was also toxic for me. At school I was never able to be that guy but I didn’t know how to be anyone else – and I’ve been trying to figure this out ever since I left. With that said, and perhaps because of it, I’ve never been attracted to anyone other than women my age – which may itself be a kind of privilege – and, as I’ve got to know them, I like women. So I am probably hetero-ambivalent rather than heteropessimist. And I want to talk about heteropessimism precisely because I want to be a hetero-optimist. As a 'not-all' man trying to check my privilege, I am particularly concerned to find an ethical way to become who I am – to find a heterosexuality and masculinity of which I am not ashamed.
"How can we build a popular understanding of heterosexuality as an identity, and an identity that affects our personal contentment, our cultural and social politics and, for far, far too many women, our physical safety?"
I’ve always been deeply ambivalent about monogamy and what I’ve come to understand as the compulsory heterosexuality of my early life and schooling. Not dissimilarly to Maggie Nelson who once commented that “heterosexuality always embarrasses me”, I have often thought, rather sarcastically, although not altogether untruthfully, that heterosexuality for women was a hinderance to feminist politics; that heterosexuality was a state to be tolerated. Perhaps there are ‘good’ men, but the search for the exception to the rule seems an unsustainable strategy.
In my work with heterosexual and LBQ women in Kenya and with queer communities in Australia, heterosexuality and heteronormativity are experienced as damaging. Heteropessimism offers us a “mode of feeling” to describe these deep ambivalences, as well as a starting point to work through the origins, experiences and results of this ambivalence.
Why, as Seresin asks, do so many people:
stick with heterosexuality even as they judge it to be irredeemable?
How can we build a popular understanding of heterosexuality as an identity, and an identity that affects our personal contentment, our cultural and social politics and, for far, far too many women, our physical safety?
"To me, the term 'heteropessimism' exists to name and explain our discontent for the prevailing white colonial project and its many intersectional trenches that many of us still, in 2022, find ourselves clambering - utterly disillusioned - out of."
Like many who grew up in so-called 'Australia' in a white settler household and culture, ‘heteropessimism’ was peppered throughout my 1980’s/90’s childhood. Generally cringeworthy and often emerging in the form of “humour” and / or an invitation for single gender bonding or solidarity, it always bothered me. At its most base form, it looks a helluva lot like the childhood taunts of “girls have cooties, boys have …?” Sorry, I can’t remember what they were thought to have, but we can assume something undesirable. Anyway, I’m sure you get the idea. Used in even this most simplistic fashion, heteropessimism seems to me to be a phenomemon that effortlessly spreads division, while continuing to perpetuate sexist tropes and exceedingly dull ideas around gender identity and heteronormativity, and all in the most innocuous and therefore sinister of ways.
As a queer person who has never found the heterosexual / homosexual binary nor the male / female gender categories particularly comfortable or identifiable, I came to this project as a transmedia consultant following a late night phone call with Jennifer Hamilton. She’s an academic in literary and gender studies with a background in art (how I know her) and she mentioned that during a book club at her place of work - University of New England – the participants had stumbled upon an article which had coined a term for this phenomenon and its many guises. The book clubbers - readers from entirely different scholarly backgrounds - had found the term extremely enlightening and perhaps even a little confronting. And so began this ad-hoc, albeit relatively organic project – at least in terms of its origin story.
My interest in this project is complex and kind of messy. I find its random participants and their incredibly different entry-points to the subject matter uncomfortable but also fascinating. This isn’t a project that was conceived first and then had a diverse range of experts on the topic brought in to interrogate the concept. This is genuinely something that stems from authentic curiosity and enquiry, born from a relaxed conversation at an academic book club between individuals who are all products of the culture that perpetuates this term and are all in heterosexual relationships! In addition to my interest in each of the contributor’s journeys over the course of this investigation, I have a quest all of my own. It’s not a unique experience I know, but the older I get and the more comfortable I am with accepting my queer self, the harder I find living in a Patriarchy, the more repugnant the stench of sexism and misogyny becomes and the more tiresome the vision of heteronormativity and performative and limited understandings and expectations of gender are too. The sub-heading for this project is “towards a hetero-optimism”and to me, this couldn’t be more important at this time in our realities. My understanding of the term heteropessimism is synonymous with the embedded strictures of white hierarchical culture and colonisation. It exists to name and explain our discontent for the prevailing white colonial project and its many intersectional trenches that many of us still, in 2022, find ourselves clambering - utterly disillusioned - out of. I sincerely hope that we can turn away from this harmful and hateful system and find a healthy place for heterosexual desire and relationships.