In spite of dozen studies on gender, the multiplication of controversial societal debates, the struggle for recognition which also aggregates identity as well as public issues, very little has been written about heterosexuality in the field of social sciences. How does the normative power of heterosexuality operate in the society?
This power is referred to as « heteronormativity », meaning the whole set of relationships, actions, institutions, discourse and knowledge which build up and reproduce heterosexuality as « normal », desirable, even natural and mandatory. So far, the notion of heterosexuality has been formulated and investigated in studies whose objective was to deconstruct the power exercised on the types of sexuality and genders that do not conform.
Our research work here aims at questioning the approach of those who reproduce the norm. Our concern is to deconstruct the « normality » of heterosexuality and the way it is commonly used as a normative and decent reference to talk about and experience one’s sexual life, as well as to establish one’s own male or female identity within oneself and to others.
According to Alain Giami, « In the social world, heterosexuality appears to be the most widespread form and prevailing norm of sexual activity ». It is often taken for granted, particularly in the light of reproductive purposes: only a man-woman sexual intercourse is seen as the « natural » way of reproducing the human species. Thus, heterosexuality is the category used to identify a sexual desire for people of the opposite sex and heteronormativity turns it into a very powerful normative model. This model also defines a binary and asymmetrical system of relationships: the male sex « must » equate the masculine gender – and the female sex the feminine, while heterosexuality becomes mandatory.
And yet heterosexuality is not an inborn feature. According to Jonathan Ned Katz, the word itself, heterosexuality, is not much older than one hundred years. A great number of studies (among which those by Louis Georges Tin ) have shown that there is no ancient heterosexual culture and that it actually results from a modern construction; it became the reference model in 12th-century Western societies through, for instance, the emergence , within the nobility, of the ideals of heterosexual courtly love.
Heterosexuality can be analyzed as a historically and culturally situated socialization process, which is revealed in daily life by the practices and interactions individuals use to talk about themselves and to be understood by others. Nevertheless, it is not a mere demand enforced from the outside that sets the limits and coerces men and women. Heterosexuality is shaped by its very actors who devise and negotiate the acts and interaction codes through which their own experiences and the others’ make sense. Using this approach and relying on the study of the sexual behavior of 20 to 30-year old Moroccan male immigrants in Europe and the way they construct their masculinity, our work analyzes the discourse, practices and ways of behaving which establish heterosexuality as the socially rightful and acceptable norm.
The hegemonic power of heteronormativity goes much further than defining the young interviewees’ sexual experiences and masculine identification processes. It also shapes the representations they have of youth and of the transition into adulthood, their approach to religion (here, to Islam), relations between the generations, relations between immigrants and the majority population.
The sociological analysis of sexual behaviors and masculinities opens up onto a much broader study of young Moroccan immigrant interviewees’ experiences and of their biographical routes in Europe. This approach also helps rethink the common stereotyped picture of the North African Muslim immigrant. For instance, the study shows how the meaning of Islamic laws concerning sexuality is being strategically adapted and teachings reinterpreted by the young interviewees.
Studying the various forms under which heteronormativity is produced highlights the benefit of cross-investigating the issues of gender and sexuality so as to question the whole set of tensions and social spheres shaping the circumstances of these young men. This does not mean that gender and sexuality are the only themes likely to question the young Moroccan immigrants’ life experiences. We have selected this particular approach for our study to understand how the norms which fuel gender identification processes and the social construction of sexuality shape the strategies which produce the interviewees’ experiences.
That is why the description of heteronormativity portrayed through the study of the characteristics of a given population has got nothing to do with some singularizing description: it helps underline the cross-cutting impact of the heterosexual norm.
The study underlines the multiplicity of places from where heteronormativity is produced and expressed. Its power spreads through the representations of sexuality and of gender identification conveyed by one’s peers, exchanged between friends in everyday spaces or in partying contexts; it is reinforced by the religious discourse which predicates the primacy of man-woman union; it is active in daily interactions, within the family, between parents and children, in same sex or opposite sex relations.
Nevertheless, whatever the context, heteronormativity mostly remains “non-thought”. Its capacity to turn heterosexuality into « normality » shapes individual stories and people’s actions, and yet, it is almost never mentioned. It is particularly obvious in terms of language. One only need to try and remember how many times the word “homosexuality” is being pronounced whereas we very rarely utter the words
“heterosexuality” and “heteronormativity”. Only the analysis of the empirical data collected in the course of our study – from interviews and ethnographic observations – has permitted to word the notions of heterosexuality and heteronormativity, to turn them into objects of study, to capture them in the interviewees’ lives, and from there, question their normative power.
We have demonstrated that the power of norms cannot be considered outside an analysis articulating individual experiences and the social frameworks of interaction. Analyzing heteronormativity in a variety of cultural and social contexts should be encouraged to move on and question the diversity of heterosexual forms as well as their ordinary complexity.
Crédits images en CC : Pixabay FotoshopTofs, Leo_65, Painter06, Publicdomainpictures.net