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Heteronormativity: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson covers the definition of heteronormativity, or the belief that heterosexuality is the only natural and acceptable form of human sexuality. It also discusses work by social theorists who seek to challenge the domination of heteronormativity in our society.

Defining Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity is a concept used by sociologists and other social scientists to describe the way that sex and gender are used to hierarchically organize people in our society. More specifically, heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality, or a romantic and sexual attraction the opposite sex, is the only normal sexual orientation. Other sexual identifies are considered unnatural and are sometimes even legally prohibited.

Heteronormativity enforces not only strict norms about sexuality but also reinforces strict gender roles within society. For example, the model that women should stay home with children while men work is upheld by a belief that men and women have specific jobs to do in our society.

This is also related to what is known as the gender binary, whereby individuals are categorized into either male or female.

Although the terms sex and gender are related, it is important to note the distinction between the two. Sex refers to the biological and hormonal differences between men and women, whereas gender refers to the social relationships and standards that define how men and women should act.

Origins

In this section, we'll focus on the origins of the concept of heteronormativity as it is used by social scientists, rather than the origins of heterosexuality as our culture's dominant understanding of human sexuality. The concept of heteronormativity comes from early theorists of gender and sexuality who used the term to explain the demands placed on individuals in a society to conform to mainstream understandings of sexuality. In other words, men are expected to pair with women, and vice versa. The term came into use as social theorists became interested in understanding how the enforcement of heterosexuality disadvantaged members of society.

As social scientists began to study gender, they realized that human sexuality might be more complicated than this, leading to exploration of alternative sexual identities.

Categories of Sexuality

Heteronormativity is related to biological explanations for human sexuality. Biological understandings of gender and sexuality insist that one's identification as male or female is fixed and natural. This is known as biological determinism and explains gender differences as the result of evolutionary processes. Social scientists who refute the biological determinist argument suggest that social institutions play an equally important role as biology in determining how gender and sexuality work in our society. For example, institutions such as the military reinforce and uphold dominant norms about men and women, reproducing dominant ideas about gender.

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