The Coining of Heteropessimism
It all started in our feminist reading group. We devoured Asa Seresin’s piece, 'On Heteropessimism' in The New Inquiry and swiftly became totally fixated on heteropessimism as a concept.
Being in heterosexual relationships and identifying as either straight or 'straight passing' queers, the notion gave us lots to think about. This blog post delves a little deeper into the term, ‘heteropessimism’ and seeks to provide some further context about why we feel this research project is important.
In the audio interview we recorded with Asa Seresin, he defines 'Heteropessimism' as “when straight people express negativity about heterosexuality.” He also reflects on how the concept has “gone viral” and how, in that process, it has in some instances come to be taken in the opposite sense of this basic figuration.
In terms of this provisional definition – when straight people express negativity about heterosexuality – we might imagine freedom limiting phrases like 'ball and chain', the expectation that men won’t do housework, that women will nag, that the sex will be bad, the marriage will be dull and argument prone. A laundry list of negative things that straight people habitually and reflexively express about themselves and their partners.
The instance of heteropessimism that is definitive in the New Inquiry article is Maggie Nelson reflecting on her heterosexual experience as a queer person: that “heterosexuality always embarrasses me”. This idea that heterosexual desire for a queer person might be shameful or embarrassing in some way is related to the pessimism that straight folks might express about their experiences. As Seresin indicates, it creates a bit of a critical impasse where heterosexuality is unable to be really thoroughly critically interrogated. It’s either bad, embarrassing or invisible.
There are differences between Seresin’s foundational definition and the way the project as a whole uses the term heteropessimism, too. One of us came up with a distinction between uncritical and critical heteropessimism – this doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other, but that the first version is existing reflexively within non-scholarly spaces, and the other is a tendency or habit to reflexively critique heterosexuality as a point of departure in scholarly sexuality studies . This critical version is akin to Maggie Nelson’s expression of embarrassment. In this podcast and project, we are actively using both terms and in some cases we’re practicing critical heteropessimism – being heteropessimistic as a feature of our interviews and discussions – and in other cases we’re critical of critical heteropessimism, and trying to get beyond that reflex towards something new, towards some kind of critical optimism .
Seresin’s view is that there is no need to be exactly critical of heterosexuality. That the problems with heterosexuality are more symptomatic of wider cultural norms (capitalism, patriarchy, misogyny), rather than a necessary feature of heterosexuality. That if you’re dealing with the other issues, the desire between two differently cis-gendered people is not in itself a problem. For Seresin, the stakes of this work are very high. He suggests that “mass reflexive and uncritical misandry devolves very quickly into trans-misogyny” and, in addition, trans-exclusionary radical feminism or TERF. The pathway here is complicated, but for Seresin this relates to the subtle (or not so subtle) essentialism that occurs in heteropessimistic thinking and related forms of binary thinking about sex, gender and sexuality.