What Is heteropessimism and do you need to stop with that sh*t?
Don't be sorry!
Being straight in this, the year 2022, can feel a bit like still wearing skinny jeans. You know there are more fashionable options out there—maybe you’ve even tried a few flared or wide-leg styles on for size. But at the end of the day, skinny jeans still just feel like a better fit for you, so now every time you show up somewhere looking like 2015 from the waist down you feel the need to apologize for yourself like, “Lol, I know, I’m such a cringe Millennial!” (Also cringe? Comparing sexuality to a fashion trend. But we’ll come back to that, I promise. Just stay with me.)
It’s become common among straight women (and women in hetero relationships) to engage in this little self-deprecation game when it comes to our sexuality as well. We complain that men are trash, heterosexuality is a curse, and joke about how much easier it would be if we were queer and could just date women instead. This is nothing new, obviously. Women have been complaining about dating men since well before the SATC gals started venting over brunch. But as queerness has increased in visibility and acceptance in recent decades, this run-of-the-mill frustration with the heterosexual experience has ripened into an embarrassment over the heterosexual identity itself. Straight women, especially those of us who like to consider ourselves sexually open-minded and evolved to a certain fashionable degree, might feel compelled to call ourselves out for being “boring straight people” or otherwise bemoan our lack of sexual fluidity.
I’ve done this, I’ve heard friends do this, and if you’re a straight woman, I’d be willing to bet you’ve done some version of it too. As it turns out, there’s actually a name for it: heteropessimism. And while identifying as a heteropessimist might sound kinda edgy, you’re gonna want to wait for a beat before dropping this lil neologism into your dating app bio because—spoiler alert—it’s not exactly a good thing.
Hetero what now?
Coined by Ana Seresin in a 2019 article for The New Inquiry, heteropessimism “consists of performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience.”
This negativity can take many forms, says Casey Tanner, certified sex therapist and Lelo expert, including but not limited to: resentment and/or embarrassment toward a partner, being (or claiming to be) ashamed of being straight, memes about straight couples adhering to traditional gender roles, and even catchy rallying cries like, “heterosexuality is a prison,” or everyone’s fave, “men are trash.”
To be clear, women aren’t the only heteropessimists. While heteropessimism generally puts the blame for the purportedly abysmal state of heterosexuality on straight men, those straight men have their own—sometimes much more dangerous if not downright violent—forms of heteropessimism, from the “old ball and chain” schtick to incel culture. Even queer people, as Tanner notes, can contribute to the culture of heteropessimism through “the memeification of straight couples” that presents them as inherently “less evolved” or just plain boring.
In general, however, heteropessimism—especially the subgenre that’s guilty of objectifying the queer experience—is largely the domain of straight women. Like, you’re probably less likely to find a bunch of straight dudes complaining about how they wish they were gay because it would be “sooo much easier if they could just date men!”
This isn’t to say that women—who have been the primary victims of heterosexuality and the patriarchal structures it upholds—don’t have a right to some level of dissatisfaction with the straight experience. But what makes these heteropessimistic displays of our discontent problematic (and/or super fucking annoying) is that we’re all talk and no action.
As Seresin defined it, heteropessimism is “performative” not in the sense that it’s necessarily insincere, but in that it is “rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality.”
The degree to which anyone can or should change or abandon their sexuality is obviously a topic of extensive and fairly nuanced debate. But the main idea here is that we use heteropessimism as a way to nominally distance ourselves from the more problematic elements of heterosexuality without actually doing anything to resolve those problems, meanwhile ignoring straight privilege and over-simplifying the queer experience by painting it as something that would be “easier” or “cooler.”
In other words, this ish is reductive and annoying!
As an occasionally apologetic straight myself, I get why it might seem progressive to praise queerness as a cooler, more evolved, or otherwise preferable alternative. But in addition to commodifying queerness as some kind of trend (yes, my earlier skinny jeans analogy is guilty of this—it’s called illustrating a point), it ignores the privilege that is still very much attached to heterosexuality. Think of the “Ugh, I wish I were queer” thing as the sexuality version of your skinniest friend complaining about how it’s sooo hard for her to gain weight, or your friend who has generational wealth and a nepotism job saying he admires your hustle and actually kind of wishes he’d “had to struggle more.” It seems like a compliment, but it’s actually just kind of cringe and tone-deaf.
“Reducing the queer experience to something that would be ‘so much easier’ than dating crappy men is incredibly out of touch and privileged,” says Leanne Yau, non-monogamy educator and founder of Poly Philia. These heteropessimistic expressions of queer envy also put queerness on a pedestal that ignores the nuanced reality of lived LGBTQ+ experience and holds it to some impossible standard of purity.
Sure, it may be less bogged down by patriarchal BS, but the queer experience “is not all sunshine and rainbows,” says Yau. “Ultimately, the straight experience is not inherently toxic and flawed, and the queer experience is not free and devoid of issues.” Presenting either as such reduces the broad and diverse spectrum of sexuality to a good-and-evil binary that a) is literally inaccurate and b) erases and essentializes the lived experience of those identities.
Heteropessimism hurts you too, BTW
Sure, heterosexuality may be kind of a mess—not denying that! But as Tanner points out, heteropessimism is harmful for the same reason pessimism in general is, i.e., “it fuels hopelessness.”
We may have good reason to complain about the state of the straights, but making memes and half-hearted jokes and texting each other “men are trash lol” only normalizes those problems. It promotes the idea that heterosexuality is inherently doomed and we shouldn’t bother to expect anything better. This kind of attitude is at best unhelpful, if not downright dangerous in that it may discourage people in bad or even violent relationships from taking steps to improve their situation.
As Yau puts it, this defeatist approach “creates a learned helplessness,” when in reality we do have the power to change our experience for the better. Can anyone straight person fix *all* the problems that exist within this heteropatriarchal hellscape of ours? Obviously not. But we can create better heterosexual experiences for ourselves—whether that means demanding more from our partners, seeking new partners and better relationships, or even exploring different relationship styles or sexualities.
“We live in a society now where we can openly talk about these things,” says Yau. “If you want to explore your queerness, you can do that. If you want to explore other relationship styles, you can do that.” So to just sit around and complain about being straight is, uh, kind of pathetic, TBH.
Also, for the love of god, ladies, can we please stop acting embarrassed about being into men? And look, I get it. Perhaps now more than ever, at a time when our rights to our own bodies are literally being stripped away, it may only be natural as women to feel repulsed or humiliated by our own attraction to men—to see it as a curse, a trap, or even a literal threat to our safety. And of course, it can be. To deny that would be to ignore the staggering percentage of women who die at the hands of male partners, in childbirth, seeking illegal abortions, or by way of other tragic byproducts of heterosexuality.
But I think we can acknowledge and critique these very real issues without shaming ourselves in the process. If there is one thing women do not need to be doing, it’s repressing our sexuality. We get plenty of that from, oh, IDK, literally every other aspect of society. We’re not doing ourselves any favours by silencing and shaming our desires. The heterosexual experience—for all its flaws—can be beautiful, can be filled with erotic bliss and good sex and real, visceral desire. And like any sex of any kind between consenting adults of any gender, it shouldn’t be shameful. You don’t have to apologize for liking d*ck.