What is Heterosexuality?
The term “heterosexuality” comes from the Greek affix “hetero,” meaning “different” or “other.” Heterosexuality is a sexual orientation in which a person is sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex. People who identify as heterosexual have emotional, sexual, and romantic relationships with people of the opposite sex. A common term for a person who identifies as heterosexual is “straight.”
The Kinsey Scale
The famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey organized a linear, continuous scale to define a person’s sexual preference. This scale, called the Kinsey Scale, ranges from 0, or completely heterosexual, to 6, or completely homosexual. Kinsey believed sexual preference is not necessarily defined by one preference. Instead, some may identify with an intermediate preference; for example, a 1 on the Kinsey Scale represents predominately heterosexual behavior with incidental homosexual tendencies.1 It is important to note that a person can identify however they please, regardless of their attraction or sexual history.
For example, a person may have had same-sex sexual interactions or relationships, but choose to identify as heterosexual. A person has the right to identify however they want, regardless of their sexual behavior. The Kinsey Scale is only one of the many ways to understand sexuality and is a rather outdated, one-dimensional way of labeling sexuality.
The term “heterosexual” was first used in the nineteenth century, as a part of a larger taxonomy of sexuality. This term was used almost exclusively within the medical field. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the term “heterosexual” came to be associated with a perverse sexual attraction toward the opposite sex. In 1923, the term “heterosexuality” made its debut in the general public in Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, meaning “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex”.2 Gradually, the meaning of the term began to change, until its dictionary definition was changed to a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality” in 1934.2
Though “heterosexual” originally referred exclusively to sexual attraction, it now refers to sexual and/or romantic (non-sexual) attraction.1 Today, when someone refers to themselves as “heterosexual” or “straight,” there are a myriad of social meanings that are implied. It is important to remember that society’s understanding of heterosexuality has changed over time. Before the term “heterosexual” (or “homosexual”) existed, society did not have rigid categories for sexual identity like we do today. Opposite-sex people often engaged in sex for reasons outside of sexual attraction or desire. Opposite-sex partnerships were often arranged for economic purposes, rather than love or romance.
In societies all over the world, heterosexual couples are represented as the dominant (and sometimes only) cultural sexuality. In western culture, heterosexuality is nearly omnipresent in a variety of cultural institutions. In the United States, governmental policy, TV, movies, and popular literature, and schools assume that its constituents are heterosexual. Thus, people, by default, are assumed to be heterosexual and are treated as such. This misidentification can be detrimental to non-heterosexual people. From early childhood, people are surrounded by representations of heterosexual relationships and are taught that those relationships are the norm. Often, people who are not heterosexual feel that they are surrounded by only heterosexual people, which can make them feel isolated and confused.
Heterosexual privilege is defined as “unearned, often unconscious or taken for granted benefits afforded to heterosexuals in a heterosexist society based on their sexual orientation”.3 Though heterosexual love or sex itself does not pose any sort of problem to society on the whole, the fact that heterosexuality is almost ubiquitous and dominates representations of love, sex, and marriage in popular culture is harmful toward those who do not identify as heterosexual. Not only that, but in many cultural representations of love or sex, heterosexuality is regarded as the only acceptable or healthy sexuality, while other sexualities are regarded as wrong or gross. This assumption is true of some religions, especially those that argue that monogamous heterosexual relationships are the only tolerable sexual relationships. Heterosexuality is often associated with positive connotations, while homosexuality is associated with the negative, affording heterosexual people some privileges within our culture. This mindset can make it difficult for people who are not heterosexual to receive the kind of resources and care that they deserve.
There are countless examples of heterosexual privilege in today’s society; the following represents only a few of them:
1. A heterosexual person never has to “come out.” In our heteronormative society, it is commonly believed that most people are heterosexual.1 This belief is supported by the overwhelming representation of heterosexual relationships in the media. Society assumes everyone is heterosexual unless stated otherwise, thus, a heterosexual individual never has to undergo the process of “coming out” to friends, family, and the public. Coming out can be a very difficult part of identifying as homosexual.
2. A heterosexual person has always had the right to marry. The Supreme Court decision in the summer of 2015 to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide was the first national statement of accepting homosexual marriage.3 Up until that point, same-sex marriage up was highly contested and only granted for certain periods in certain states. The right for heterosexuals to marry has never been threatened, and thus, heterosexual individuals have never had to worry about not having the rights associated with marriage.
3. Heterosexuals have never been the victim of violence due to their sexual orientation. People who identify as LGBT are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group.4 The mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016 is the most prominent and devastating example. Heterosexual adults are not similarly targeted in hate crimes because of their sexual orientation.
4. Heterosexuals do not have to justify their sexual orientation to anyone. Our heteronormative society expects its people to be heterosexual, and thus, identifying as anything other than heterosexual appears abnormal. Subsequently, heterosexuals are not subject to others asking questions such as, “how do you know you are gay/bisexual?” or “when did you know you were gay?” Even further, heterosexuals are never accused of “going through a phase” in which they are attracted to the opposite sex. Some even believe that homosexuals and bisexuals choose their orientation and could be heterosexual if they wanted to be. This fundamental questioning and lack of acceptance toward homosexuals is something that not experienced by heterosexuals.
5. Heterosexuals usually do not fear institutional persecution because of their sexual orientation. Whether by religious institutions, employers, or landlords, there is virtually no risk of institutional persecution toward people who identify as heterosexual. In many cases, homosexual individuals have been fired from jobs, denied housing, or banned from participating in religious groups simply because of their sexual orientation. This struggle is unknown to heterosexuals.
It is important to remember that no matter what your sexual orientation is, it is not something to be ashamed of. This statement goes for heterosexuality as well. Just as homosexuality is not a choice, neither is heterosexuality. Sexual orientation is a deeply ingrained and important part of an individual’s identity. Thus, sexual orientation should never be questioned or used against someone as a means of persecution. Identifying as heterosexual in a vastly heteronormative society carries privileges that are not afforded to those of other sexual orientations. Those who are heterosexual should attempt to recognize the privilege they have and the hardships that those of homosexual or bisexual orientation have to face.
- LeVay, Simon, Janice Baldwin, and John Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality, Second Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2012
- Katz, Johnathan Ned. “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” Frontline. PBS, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2016.
- Liptak, Adam. Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide. The New York Times. Web. 26 Jun. 2015.
- Park, Haeyoun and Mykhyalyshyn, Iaryna. “LGBT People Are More Likely to Be Targets of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group.” The New York Times. Web. 16 Jun. 2016.
Last Updated: 2 February 2017.