ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Ways to Learn and Unlearn

I took a class titled “Heterosexualities: Past, Present and Future” in the last quarter of my undergraduate degree in gender and sexuality studies. In my college, it was rare to be offered a class that made a hegemonic formation—heteronormativity in this case—its centre of analysis. The recurring feelings I had throughout my undergraduate programme were those of discomfort and guilt, particularly owing to how my coursework treated inequalities and injustices of various kinds as distant and atomised “objects” of study. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I was someone who often directly benefited from the kinds of inequality, even as I read and wrote about these concerns. Two statements pertaining to this dilemma have stuck with me:

“What if the amount of money spent on studying the poor was given to them?” and “I am not your data, nor am I your project. I am not your field research nor am I the topics of your lectures.”

Both have pushed me to be careful and cautious about what I am learning, who I am learning from, and what I plan to do with what I have learned. They point to the distance between those who conduct and benefit from this research/learning and the research subjects themselves. The presence and persistence of this distance are far from accidental—there are immense material and moral benefits for the researcher and institution at the expense of the people the research is “conducted on.” As I approached the end of the study programme, I directed some of my cumulative anxieties towards this final course on heterosexuality to ask:

What will we learn when we shift the gaze from those who are considered non-normative to those who are considered normative, when we investigate the hegemonic formation that deems numerous identities non-normative? 

In a class by Prof Héctor Carrillo, two concepts related to heteronormativity frequently informed discussions: “heteroflexibility” and sexual fluidity. Heteroflexibility represents a trend where behaviour that would be considered "not heterosexual" and that might appear to pose challenges to the hegemony of heteronormativity, reproduces and bolsters inequities associated with heteronormativity itself. 

Heteronormativity, a hegemonic concept that functions in tandem with capitalism, patriarchy and the caste system, is defined by Shilt and Westbrook (2009: 441) as the belief that there are “two and only two genders, that gender reflects [an ostensible] biological sex, and that only sexual attraction between these 'opposite' genders is natural or acceptable.” This definition is complicated by Amanda Hoffman and Carrillo’s research that investigated how men who had sex with and desired men and transgender women (before transitioning) continued to self-identify as heterosexual (2017). They argued that this was indicative of heterosexuality’s “flexibility.” It revealed processes by which the hegemony of heteronormativity gains strength and expansiveness by selectively incorporating the very logics it seems to repudiate. Further, Hoffman and Carillo found that men who had same-sex experiences while identifying as straight continued to gain from heterosexual privilege. Indeed, one of the reasons respondents said they identified as straight was the multiple privileges it provided them. It illustrates that while these men might rework and expand the definition of heterosexuality, they continue to bolster its regulatory power.  

We learned that heteronormativity functions in multiple ways to regulate the lives of people within and outside of “heterosexual” relations. Leila J Rupp (2012: 849) argues that prior to and outside of the classification of heterosexuality, sexual fluidity can be found in different times and places, “persistently” as a response to cis male-privileging social arrangements.

The long historical association between prostitutes and same-sex sexuality suggests that as long as women serviced men, what else they did was inconsequential. Lucian of Samosata, writing in the second century CE, depicted two prostitutes talking about the masculine woman lover, from Lesbos, of one of them (Cantarella 1992, 92–93) ... When pioneering sexologist Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchalet published his study on prostitution in the early nineteenth century, he reported that a high proportion of prostitutes engaged in sex with other women (Miller 2000: 70).

Drawing on historical and cross-cultural research, she found that accepted understandings of sex were reliant on the participation of a penis to the extent that women could interact with one another in ways that did not “count as sex” (Rupp 2012: 850). Indeed, she found that sex between women was/is acceptable, even beneficial in some cases, in otherwise heterosexually structured cultures.

“Medieval Bengali tales tell of co-wives who make love after their husband dies without a male heir and conceive a son together ... As Ruth Vanita makes clear in describing these Indian stories, they emphasize the benefits of love between co-wives for the family and community” (Rupp 2012: 852). 

Rupp labels these patterns of same-sex behaviour as “sexual fluidity” and not “heteroflexibility” possibly for two reasons. One is that “sexual fluidity” signals a level of openness and defies easy classification. Two is that “heteroflexibility” requires an investment in the category of heterosexuality as a primary way of being—one that Rupp might risk falsely ascribing to women whose experiences are already mediated in complex historiographic ways that privilege cis men.

The concepts of heteroflexibility and sexual fluidity provide a framework to academically understand how heteronormativity functions. However, for me, the course as a whole was limited in its approach for four reasons. First, it relied primarily on white scholars who, even in instances where they include the experiences of Black and Latinx people, did not consider how heteronormativity intersected and functioned in tandem with whiteness in the context of the United States. Second, transgender women were portrayed in several instances as passive bodies; bodies upon whom violence was done, and transgender men were portrayed as benefiting—without mentioning the unstable grounds and terms—from masculine privilege. Third, not enough was said about the numerous movements to dismantle cis-male masculinity and heteronormativity and how the formation has responded to these movements. Fourth, while we reflected on our sexuality and other aspects of our social background in relation to what we learned, we could have examined what changes we aimed to bring in our own lives, especially given our awareness of how the violent formation functioned (and particularly since several students said they were "straight" during the class). 

The first three limitations could perhaps have been addressed if we changed our learning material. All the assigned readings and most of the classroom discussions were based on academic articles. Given that formidable barriers prevent theorists from marginalised backgrounds from participating in “academic” discourse, what and how we learned was severely limited. It is imperative to restructure such courses by taking into account the voices of those who have borne the brunt of violence created by heteronormativity, because their perspective is key to dismantling its regulatory power. Till the time material created by women, Dalits, Adivasis, people of colour, individuals identifying as queer, people facing class disprivilege, and those who theorise within and outside academia as artists, writers, journalists, lawyers, is included in the syllabus, such courses remain uncritical and irrelevant. 



Carrillo, Héctor, and Amanda Hoffman (2017): “‘Straight with a Pinch of Bi’: The Construction of Heterosexuality as an Elastic Category among Adult US Men,” Sexualities, Vol 21, No 1-2, August, pp 90–108,

Rupp, Leila J (2012): “Sexual Fluidity ‘Before Sex,’” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol 37, No 4, pp 849–56,

Schilt, Kristen, and Laurel Westbrook (2009) "Doing Gender, Doing Heteronomrativity: 'Gender Normals,' Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality," Gender and Society, Vol 23, No 4, pp 440–64.


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