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‘The Tragedy of Heterosexuality’ Is an Essential Playbook for Straight Men

Jane Ward’s book is a vital read for anyone who wants to have genuinely good sex. What if men who profess to love women started by actually liking them?

The fourth chapter of Jane Ward’s new book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, imagines a dinner party with 60 of Ward’s queer friends and colleagues. They’re in the middle of a critical discussion about straight culture and the boredom, obliviousness and bad sex they associate with it. Also discussed are oppressive straight rituals like bridal showers and parties announcing the shape of an unknown baby’s genitals. Mostly, though, Ward and her queer comrades pity straight people who don’t seem to like each other very much, evidenced by men shit-talking the mothers of their children and straight women constantly complaining about the men in their lives.

The professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, pulls no punches as she offers a century-long investigation of the “misogyny paradox,” wherein men are encouraged to simultaneously desire and hate women. The message is unapologetically feminist, as is Ward’s central thesis: Straight men would do well to lean into conversations around consent, privilege and toxic masculinity — at the very least to demonstrate genuine empathy for the women they profess to love. Maybe they could even like women, she suggests, imagining a world in which straight men rename their sexual orientation “feminist,” as it would more accurately describe the depth of their respect of women. 

I recently spoke with Ward about how The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy were emblematic of the marital discord found in much of the 20th century; what straight men can learn from lesbians; and why she thinks queer people should worry about straight people.

Why are you, a self-described “femme dyke,” so concerned about straight people? 

Because I’m a feminist. Lesbian feminists in the 1970s were also crying queer tears for straight women because they were observing how difficult it was for straight women to be in relationships with men, and many feminists were strategizing about how to be allies to straight women. So part of this book is me returning to those questions about what it means to heal centuries of patriarchy and misogyny. In the same way that we’re grappling with centuries of white supremacy in this country, this book is very much about what it means for men and women to come together by loving and respecting one another, and liberating heterosexuality from misogyny by unraveling the legacy of gendered violence that shapes the context in which straight relationships occur.

If that’s the goal, why is it more appropriate to worry about heterosexuals rather than be upset with them, and call them in rather than calling them out?

We’ve been calling them out for decades, and it hasn’t helped them. So this is about recognizing that heterosexual relationships are often fraught with inequities rigged into the system from the start. Even “good” feminist straight men find themselves replicating all sorts of inequalities, whether it’s house work, parenting work or having bad sex that centers on men’s orgasms over women’s. Meanwhile, women’s passions and careers are sidelined, and they’re doing way too much emotional labor because their husbands or boyfriends won’t go to therapy and don’t have any close friends. The list goes on and on of all the ways people get caught up in cycles of straight misery. This is why the majority of heterosexual divorces are initiated by women. 

You note that one of the defining features of straight culture is complaint, which leaves feminist lesbians shaking their heads wondering why women stay with someone they find so pathetic. Has that been your experience, too? 

When I’m hanging out with a group of straight women, they just love to complain about their husbands and boyfriends. He doesn’t do his fair share; he acts like a child; he’s emotionally deficient. When you’re listening to that as a queer person, it’s perplexing. The first reaction is, Why doesn’t she just leave him? But we now know as feminists that blaming women who are in abusive relationships isn’t the way to go, and the first question should always be, Why is he treating her that way? 

It’s important to recognize that for people who are socialized into straight culture, those inequities aren’t only deeply normalized, but romanticized. So it’s hard for straight women to make sense of what they imagine to be a natural impulse in men because that’s the message they’re often given — “men will be men” — and they don’t realize that they can demand men to be different.

You wrote this book out of solidarity with straight women, but your focus shifted to include straight men. Why? 

Mostly because I feel empathy for and connection with men. I have a number of good feminist men in my life, and I know what it’s like to desire women, to lust after women, to objectify women and to struggle to balance that with feminist politics. But what really struck me about the culture straight men are embedded in is that the desire for women is often talked about as an individualized experience. 

When you’re a lesbian and attracted to women, it’s usually inseparable from feminism. Because if you desire women, you also desire what’s best for women — women’s freedom, leadership and culture is deeply tied up with your sexual desire for women. That’s the piece that’s missing for men in straight culture. In fact, the opposite is largely true: Many straight boys and men are raised to constantly signal their heterosexuality so nobody thinks they’re gay. One way straight boys and men often do that, aside from objectifying women, is to distance themselves from intimacy with women. Because being too close to women paradoxically raises questions about their masculinity. So that’s another thread in this book — this weird paradox in heterosexual masculinity that men can want to fuck women to signal their heterosexuality, but it raises questions about his sexuality if he actually respects women, listens to them speak, shows interest in films centering on women’s characters or reads books with women protagonists. 

I’m trying to flip that script and say, if you’re so straight, how much do you really like women? Show us the receipts!

As a gay man, I was delighted by your call to 58 queer-identified colleagues and friends, asking them to answer two questions: 1) Do you prefer the company of queer people over straight people?; and 2) Is there anything about straight culture you find sad or off-putting? I was struck by the empathy in their responses.

There was a lot of sadness and concern, which is why I talk about the importance of queer people being allies to straight people. We’re told that it’s so difficult and lonely to be queer, but the more you really dig into heteronormativity and what it looks like once the wedding day is over, it can be deeply isolating. Queer subculture encourages us to stay politically engaged well beyond college and to maintain connection to queer life. That’s why we go out to gay and lesbian bars regularly well into adulthood. Whereas, there’s this narrative in straight culture to party it up when you’re young, but then once you get married, you settle down and move to the suburbs and your whole life becomes your family. There’s so much pressure to marry and have kids that it can be a deeply predictable experience because everybody’s following the same script.

Many of the queer people I spoke to referenced straight culture appearing “suffocating” and “soul killing.” Moments that are supposed to mark important rites of passage in straight people’s lives and the rituals they use to celebrate these things — bachelor parties, wedding receptions, gender reveal parties — are all so scripted that many of us queers feel pity about the dullness of it all. 

Unsurprisingly, then, “boring” was a through line in many of the responses. Why do queers find straight people to be so basic?

It has to do with sexual normativity. For the most part, straight culture is very invested in the gender binary and pretty rigid gender norms around masculinity and femininity. Most queer people have grown pretty tired of those. I have normative gender, but I think of my gender in terms of being a fem top or a feminist dyke. There’s a lot of complexity to how I understand my femininity that makes me feel like it’s something I’ve cultivated, not something that I was born with. Therefore, I can play with it, change it and articulate it in as many different ways as I want. There’s a gajillion examples of this in gay male subculture, including the hanky code and different erotic vocabularies gay men have created to talk about what they’re into.

What can straight people learn from this? 

They could start by asking each other what they’re into sexually, instead of assuming that their genitals alone determined whether it’s going to be a good fuck. Maybe then guys would know whether a woman was more of a top or a bottom and what sex acts she was into, or whether she even wants to be fucked. Maybe she only wants him to go down on her. All of that stuff is already baked into the mix for queer people. Which really helps, not just with making sure that we have good sex, but also with communication, negotiation and consent. And so, there’s less faking. Straight women do a lot of faking to please men. 

Which brings us back to why it’s boring: We’ve seen the script play itself out in all of our straight friends’ lives, we’ve seen it on television, we’ve seen it in reality television and we’re just so tired of it.

Many straight people will likely take issue with your framing: “the misery of heterosexuality.” You’ve received some really ugly feedback, too. 

You’ve just gotta love the manosphere, because it always responds to feminist writing by saying some variation of, “There’s no such thing as misogyny, you fucking cunt whore, you should die!” I’ve received dozens of emails from men who think I should lose my job, and how dare I even have a PhD when I’m corrupting young people and ruining the world. None of these men has actually read this book, of course, they just read the title, which seems to be very triggering for them. Several suggested that they wished I’d been aborted, which was interesting because I imagine many of these men are pro-life. Maybe if you’re pro-life, though, that’s like the greatest insult or something, I don’t know. 

You offer a remarkable history of the roots of straight misery. Early in the 20th century, some sexologists said that marriage was synonymous with sexual violence. Can you speak to that time — how women often considered men’s bodies “repulsive” and were driven mad on their wedding night? 

Some even committed suicide. Surprisingly, the earliest marriage self-help books were published by the Eugenics Publishing Company in the 1910s as part of white supremacist projects trying to keep white marriages together so that people who were believed to be of good genetic stock would continue to reproduce. 

The presumption at the time was that people married for primarily pragmatic economic reasons. It was a patriarchal system in which men would marry women not because they actually loved women or even liked women, but because women were property and essentially servants to men. They were also the only way men could have male heirs to whom they could pass on their possessions; so it was necessary to partner with women. But no one expected men to like their wives, or for women to like their husbands.

These books describe in detail a mutual loathing and repulsion and almost prison-like conditions of marriage, and they were struggling to figure out how to repair this. Physicians and sexologists knew they needed to somehow bridge the gap between men and women, because if they didn’t, men would continue to brutalize women and rape them on their wedding night, which was a threat to marriage. So they come up with a series of recommendations, some of which carry through to 21st-century marital self-help books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which is that straight couples should basically fake it till they make it. Women should recognize that men’s brutality, violence and disregard for their wives is a biological impulse, so they must give men space. And men should realize that their marriage won’t be sustained unless they provide a degree of gentleness with women. 

That call for sympathy seems to really pick up in the mid-century self-help books, right?

Absolutely. At that time, the presumption is that men are going out into the paid labor force and are just exhausted from having jobs. So that when they come home, the wife must understand that there shall be no noise and no distraction. She shouldn’t even talk to him; she should just have his food ready. She should always look beautiful, the house should be clean and the children should be tidy because anything could potentially set this man off. The focus mid-century is on giving women a checklist of duties to help their fragile male partners. The public sphere was such a harsh and difficult realm that men deserved a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude from women simply for having jobs. 

These rigid gender responsibilities were affirmed in television shows of the day like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, in which a mutual dislike among married couples is on display. Ralph threatens to hit Alice in nearly every episode of The Honeymooners, and Ricky actually spanks Lucy in I Love Lucy until she cries in two episodes. The running joke at the time was how little married couples actually liked each other, especially how irritated the husband was at the sound of his wife’s constant yammering. Married… With Children would become an exemplar of this in the 1980s, the conceit being how much Al Bundy deeply hated his wife.

Meanwhile, Playboy begins publishing in 1952, which speaks directly to men’s desire for being free of these claustrophobic relationships. 

Playboy comes along and is so popular in part because it’s speaking to the heterosexual misery that men are experiencing. We primarily think of it as providing nude images of women that men can gaze upon, but it did much more than that. It created a social environment where men could be part of a community of readers who shared a sense that they’d lost a freedom that men crave, and that their wife was an old ball and chain and their children were a drag. Men could escape into the pages of Playboy, where it was possible to drink martinis while entertaining different young women. In this fantasy universe, compulsory heterosexuality wasn’t bearing down on men quite so heavily.

Skipping ahead to the 1990s, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus seems to cement this notion that men and women are so different that they might as well be from different planets. 

It was the No. 1 best-selling non-fiction book of the entire 1990s, translated into multiple languages and sold millions of copies around the world. That’s significant when you pay attention to the book’s message, which was that men and women don’t naturally like each other. Thus, the best that they can do is learn a set of tricks and manipulations that will get them what they want in the context of the transaction that’s heterosexual marriage. Men were taught to touch women 10 times a day because women crave affection. Women were taught to express gratitude every time a man takes the trash out or pays a bill because men thrive on the feeling that they’re needed. 

And yet, I think one of the reasons people loved the book is that it effectively circumvented feminism by saying, “I hear that you’re miserable and this isn’t working, but you don’t have to take a feminist route. You can adopt a bio-essentialist argument that men and women are two different kinds of human beings who don’t share a common language or common interest, but have to come together in partnership nonetheless. Here are different tricks of the trade, and if you memorize them and use them, they’re going to work.” That was very appealing to people. 

Then, in the early aughts, the message changes slightly. For instance, in Sherry Argov’s 2002 book, Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl — A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship, she presents three words “guaranteed” to turn any man on: “You are right.” Sounds familiar, no?

It’s not a change in the content by any means, and reverts back to strategies of the 1950s when women were directed to double down on subservience. What’s different in the 21st century, though, is it gets marketed to women as a kind of “girl boss” strategy that wise women can use to manipulate men. It’s sold to women as a savvy, innovative new way of manipulating men by pretending they have the power when in fact you have the power. But it’s just a merging of women’s subservience that was the dominant paradigm in the 1950s and the performativity of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It’s brought together in this notion that a smart bitch knows how to manipulate a man by telling him what he wants to hear, even when she doesn’t actually believe it.

Which brings us to today, when people like Lizzo give women permission to actually walk away

Yes, she does. There are a number of books like that, that suggest women should just disinvest in men, kind of a “hoes before bros” sort of argument — let’s bunch together as women because we actually have each other’s backs. And yet, women continue to return to men. What’s missing that we have in the queer community is ethical polyamorous or ethical non-monogamous frameworks that women could use to help maneuver the complexities of opting out of heteronormative marriage. And so, these women, they’re aspiring for something. I understand the impulse, but I think there’s not any guidebook that they have available to them to truly opt out.

Meanwhile, on the men’s side, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), pickup artistry and inceldom start to crop up. How does the rise of the manosphere fit into all of this? 

At one end of the continuum, you have MGTOW, men who’ve decided that women aren’t worth it and so they’re “going their own way,” disinvesting in heteronormativity. They’re only going to have sex with sex workers and otherwise wash their hands of life with women. These men feel that heterosexuality has changed so dramatically that now women have all of the power, leaving men without access to the sex they feel entitled to by birth. On the other end of the continuum is pickup artists, who approach this problem by learning a set of seduction techniques to be more successful with women. Men in this movement often feel like failures and believe their lot in life is their responsibility because they never learned how to attract women. 

I’ve studied these men extensively, observing pickup artist bootcamps and seen men crying about their first girlfriend abandoning them, or how they were a virgin into their 30s, or just feel deficient because they don’t know what’s wrong with them. And I sympathize with them. They’re often socially awkward or immigrant men who feel like they haven’t mastered American gender norms. Others are just unattractive men, or men who feel they can’t compete. The problem with these men isn’t that they can’t find women who want to have sex with them, but that they’re not attracted to women who are attracted to them. Over and over I’d hear them say, “The women who are attracted to me are older, divorced, have kids and are a little chubby.” I’m looking at these men and that’s exactly who they are, too! And yet, they find it repulsive in a woman. Almost exclusively, these men want young, skinny blondes. So it’s not that there aren’t women available, these men just have a very narrow fantasy about what’s desirable.

Are there any groups within the manosphere doing positive things?

Project Rockstar, perhaps, a growing wing of the seduction industry in which you can pay $20,000 to go on an extended bootcamp that involves travel to various cities. They’re about the “total man.” When you pay for the Project Rockstar experience, you get a fashion consultant, a financial planner and a personal trainer. All the while, you’re also being trained in the “game,” or how to seduce women. What brings men to Project Rockstar is a desire to access “better” women, and they imagine financial success, better fashion and a more fit body are all a means to that particular end. 

But the message has also evolved from traditional pickup artist teaching. Trainers in Project Rockstar are millennial men who are very in tune with what’s happening in the broader cultural environment. They offer “emergency webinars” on how men should be thinking about the #MeToo Movement and how men should be thinking about toxic masculinity: How can they seduce women without being perceived as a creep? To answer this question, they almost adopt a pop feminist line, which is that if men are paying enough attention to what women want and are firmly rooted in their natural, chivalrous protective masculinity, they’ll be able to seduce women in a way that women find pleasurable. Since they believe straight women naturally crave men’s leadership and protection, they’re simply offering them what they really want.

Is this a net positive then?

It’s better, because it’s training men to think about women’s experience in the world. They spend a lot of time trying to get men to put themselves in women’s shoes, explaining that it’s not that women at the club are bitches, it’s that they’ve been approached by 20 different creepy dudes so they’ve got their bitch shield up, and that’s what you’re experiencing. Rather than being angry about that, you should feel empathy for them, and learn how to work around it by bonding with that woman instead of being yet another one of the creepy dudes. 

But it remains a transaction, trading empathy with women for sex. None of these men are doing it because they believe in the inherent value of gender equality or women’s sexual autonomy and self-determination, they’re doing it because they have trainers who’ve told them this is the way that you’re going to distinguish yourself from other men. So it’s just creating opportunities for a little more identification and communication between men and women, not challenging the logic of misogyny at all. 

Still, I’ll take it. Sometimes we have to move incrementally or developmentally. Sometimes when I’m teaching I’ll appeal to straight men and say, “Y’know what makes for really good sex? Consent. If you want to have sex with a woman who’s hungry for that dick, you have to have a personal investment in figuring out how to have feminist sex, because feminist sex is hotter sex.” 

Speaking of feminist sex, given that way more lesbians than straight women report having orgasms during sex, how does the tragedy of heterosexuality extend to the bedroom? 

The very definition of straight sex is organized around what men want and their desires. In straight culture, the preferred shape and sensations of a vagina is based on the experience of a penetrative penis rather than the experience of the vagina itself. The emphasis is on having a tight vagina, whereas that’s just not a thing in lesbian culture. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite: We celebrate a size queen, someone who can really get a lot in there! 

Heterosexual sex is a male invention, designed by and for men, and that’s how it plays out in most straight people’s sexual relationships. What would it look like to think of straight sex from the perspective of women? I have a sociologist friend, D’Lane Compton, who suggests starting a lesbian sex challenge for straight couples, which would be 30 days of no dick-involved sex.

What’s your final piece of advice to straight men? 

Attraction to women doesn’t have to be based on oppositeness. It can be based on deep identification, intimacy and mutual respect. Once that’s cultivated at home, it can extend more broadly to feminist men’s organizations and friendship among feminist men. When all of those pieces come together, men can start to see that their sexual orientation is already political, and that being a straight man means making a commitment to women, not just to their wives and daughters, but to womankind as a whole.