eli nova rose

One afternoon in the late 1990s, my father was coming home from surgery and still high on pain meds. We had stopped in the parking lot of the local pharmacy when in an unfiltered moment, he turned to me and declared, “I like women both as people and as sex objects.”

It bothered me. It seemed… objectifying.

“Stop it, you’re high,” I retorted.

Imagine my surprise, 25 years later, at rediscovering a similar thought as the punch line of a 2020 queer theory book, Jane Ward’s The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.

“I call upon the wisdom of the dyke experience,” Ward declares, “to illuminate for straight men the human capacity to desire, to fuck, and to be feminist comrades at the same time” (155). In the dyke experience, she proposes, “lust, objectification, humanization, and friendship live in complementary relationship to one another” (32).

It’s quite a book. Dyke wisdom for all! Dyke wisdom especially for straight men, who share something with dykes: an orientation towards women.

I loved reading this. I read it cover to cover.

The book proceeds from Ward’s own experience, which is also a collective experience: the experience of queer people looking back at straight culture from the outside. In such moments, seeing the men who can’t relate to women, the women doing unfair amounts of housework and childcare, the scripted and often violent sexuality, the banality of a lot of straight discourse, the entanglements of straight culture with economic and racial violence, the ways that straight people can live in such different worlds… In the face of all that, Ward and her friends turn to each other and wonder: Straight people, are you ok? Do you need help? Why don’t you run away?

The move is from rage and scorn to pity.

It’s the pity of a resolutely queer feminism, a feminism that looks back at straight women’s suffering from outside.

Her inquiry thus framed, Ward provides a three-part panorama of some remarkable parts of straight culture. By remarkable, I also mean remarkably dismal. Ward explains that “the earliest ‘self-help’ books about modern marriage were almost exclusively written by proponents of the eugenics movement, a violent and ostensibly scientific project aimed at encouraging reproduction among people of good genetic stock and discouraging or preventing population growth among undesired populations” (39). This marriage advice industry was (and is) palpably contradictory. It made spousal violence and disdain into a market opportunity, seeking to cash in on mitigating the damages of patriarchy. A commodified femininity emerged, as “soaping, douching, shaving, bleaching, and other hygiene products [were] marketed to white women to promote gender and racial purity” (44). I can’t unsee the midcentury advertisements promising that vaginal douching with Lysol will “safeguard your dainty feminine allure,” nor the marketing claims that skin bleaching for Black women would show “how lovely you are” and “chase away those bad-complexion blues” (Fig. 2.2).

In short, as Ward observes (though the point could be pushed farther), the racialization of femininity and of cishet desire become opportunities for capitalist expansion. These business ventures, predictably, do not aim at justice or structural change. Rather, they hawk consolations for the problems of patriarchy, selling sexual fantasies to disappointed men and cosmetic fixes to women. In a striking chapter about the modern seduction industry, Ward notes that modern dating coaches still portray “young, white, blond women” as the most desirable of all possible sexual objects.

Nevertheless, Ward’s accompanying analysis of seduction workshops is surprisingly gentle and ambivalent. She shows us a glimpse of her fieldnotes:

I am really struck by their friendliness with each other, their kindness, the absence of posturing… Some of the men’s faces flushed when it was their turn to speak, or their voices trembled when they talked about problems they’ve had with women. I feel sorry for them. The feeling is a lot like group therapy. It seems like . . . the mood of an infertility group for women? These men thought they were entitled to something (hot chicks!), but it isn’t happening. They are confused about why it isn’t happening. (80-81)

Evidently there is even a sort of crypto-feminism within these seduction workshops, as men get trained to be nice, empathetic, and nonthreatening. Of course, this empathy is always strategic — maybe it will lead them to sex. It’s pathetic that showing basic empathy towards straight women could possibly be an effective sexual differentiator. Meanwhile, it’s hardly surprising that the awkward straight men at these workshops seem to bond better with each other than with women.

It’s all a bit tragic, even wretched, to see the points where a bad system contorts itself even further.

What does the tragedy come from? Anything as overdetermined as heterosexuality is obviously a composite project, emerging from multiple histories. And yet at the core of Ward’s book is a historical claim: that heterosexuality is tragic because straight culture is stuck in an unfinished transition between two modes of desire.

Schematically speaking, the earlier mode of desire is premised on “men’s ownership of women (their bodies, their work, their children),” while the succeeding mode is premised on “intimate, romantic, love-based connection,” “mutual desire and likability” (33–34). It’s commonplace enough to observe that such a historical shift has occurred; but Ward’s point is that this transition was always disastrously incomplete. This unfinishedness helps to explain what Ward calls the misogyny paradox, wherein “boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed within a broader culture that encourages them to also hate girls and women” (27). Meanwhile, as in the male camaraderie at the seduction workshops, many straight people remain closer and more comfortable with their same-sex friend group than with their opposite-sex lovers.

It’s a deeply entrenched, dichotomous, patriarchal system that decades of activism and rebellion have transformed, but never abolished.

Ward’s somewhat utopian conclusion is that straight society could get unstuck, could get less tragic, if only (more) straight men actually did what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to love women and like them, so why don’t they just do that? More straight men could learn to actually like and love women, as equals, as comrades, as people who they want to listen to.

It’s a radical proposal, but a lovable one.

And yet I fear that this book will not be widely read by straight men, above all not the ones who could most benefit from it. For one thing, it’s a book, and there’s a gender gap in reading itself: men tend to read less than women. For another thing, straight men don’t usually engage with gender studies. (“If I studied gender studies I would seem gay,” a student told Zoe Strimpel in a blog post that came out last decade.) I’m struggling to imagine any straight men I know actually buying a book called The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, much less reading it.

The dilemma of Ward’s proposals is that if they were compelling to most straight men, the underlying problem would already be largely solved. Which is to say, if most straight men were ready or even able to take sexual ethics lessons from lesbian feminists, then the foundations of cishet masculine subjectivity would already have been radically transformed.

Every utopian proposal seems to have this problem: How do you ever get there from here, the messed up world we live in? In the neighborhood I live in, in a queer-friendly, rapidly gentrifying city, I see grounds for hope and dismay. I see some lovely straight dads pushing strollers, doing childcare and school transportation, and (this isn’t entirely trivial) talking to women. But whether even these men do as much childcare or mental labor as their female partners, I tend to doubt. And I meet plenty of absolutely not-feminist men with wives who seem barely able to make conversation with a woman, much less a group of women. I’m not sure what would get through to them.

Still, I sense that the ground is shifting beneath their feet, getting a little kinder to queer and trans people, a little friendlier to straight people who come out as bi or nonbinary, and a little less complacent about toxic masculinity and harassment. I don’t think anything is guaranteed or that progress is linear; witness the current reactionary backlashes against queer and trans people, against abortion rights, against feminism. But I notice that even patriarchs can be swayed by things like workplace policies forcing them to respect trans people. And there is a significant generational shift in U.S. public opinion away from erstwhile straight orthodoxies.

Thinking about Ward’s book, I feel at once stuck and unstuck, optimistic and pessimistic, content and desolate. The nightmare always grows close to the dream, when it comes to questions of historical change in this country. Historical change isn’t something that Ward’s book theorizes to my satisfaction. Indeed, sometimes Ward’s book seems too binary, based on too stark a distinction between straight and queer, eliding the transitions between one way of being and another. And in everything that’s ambiguous and in flux about the world, I find a lot of potential.

Other times Ward’s analysis seems 100% right to me, but I just feel helpless in the face of what’s intractable about the straight world. It’s easy to get caught up in heteropessimism, as Asa Seresin names the stance of those who feel incapable of changing anything about a straight world that they also deplore. In this light, the greatest merit of Ward’s book is its conviction that straight culture can radically improve — and that better models are already close at hand, if only they could be heard.