The Heterosexual Imaginary: Feminist Sociology and Theories of Gender

Chrys Ingraham. Sociological Theory. Volume 12, Issue 2. July 1994.

Feminist sociology, once at the vanguard of academic feminism, is showing signs of losing its conceptual and political edge. Feminists once sought to effect transformative social change by making visible the investment of sociology in practices contributing to the reproduction of gender inequality and relations of ruling.1 But in the 20 years since feminists announced the need for sociology to attend to gender as an organizing social category, gender studies have been gradually canonized; more than that, the founding concept, gender, has come to be taken as obvious. From textbooks to research studies to theory, there is little or no debate over what is meant by gender. In this essay I make the argument that feminist sociological understandings of gender need to be reexamined for the ways in which they participate in the reproduction of what I call “the heterosexual imaginary.” The “imaginary” is a Lacanian term borrowed by Louis Althusser for his theory of ideology. Defining ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (1971:52), Althusser argues that the imaginary is that image or representation of reality which masks the historical and material conditions of life. The heterosexual imaginary is that way of thinking which conceals the operation of heterosex­uality in structuring gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an organizing institution. The effect of this depiction of reality is that heterosexuality circu­lates as taken for granted, naturally occurring, and unquestioned, while gender is under­stood as socially constructed and central to the organization of everyday life. Feminist studies of marriage, family, and sexual violence (which might seem to cover this ground) invariably depend upon the heterosexual imaginary deployed in a variety of heteronormative assumptions. Heteronormativity—the view that institutionalized heterosexuality constitutes the standard for legitimate and prescriptive sociosexual arrangements—repre­sents one of the main premises not only of feminist sociology but of the discipline in general. As such, it underlies and defines the direction taken by feminist sociology and by gender studies in particular.

If this is to change, feminist sociology must develop a critique of institutionalized heterosexuality which does not participate in the heterosexual imaginary. To interrupt the ways in which the heterosexual imaginary naturalizes heterosexuality and conceals its constructedness in the illusion of universality requires a systemic analysis of the ways in which it is historically imbricated in the distribution of economic resources, cultural power, and social control.

It will be the work of this essay to call for a reconsideration of gender as the key organizing concept of feminist sociology. The main argument of this article is that the material conditions of capitalist patriarchal societies are more centrally linked to institu­tionalized heterosexuality than to gender and, moreover, that gender (under the patriarchal arrangements prevailing now) is inextricably bound up with heterosexuality. Rearticulating some of the critical strategies of early feminist sociology within a materialist feminist framework, it is possible to both redress and disrupt the heterosexual imaginary circulating in contemporary gender theory.

Gender, or what I would call “heterogenders,” is the asymmetrical stratification of the sexes in relation to the historically varying institutions of patriarchal heterosexuality. Reframing gender as heterogender foregrounds the relation between heterosexuality and gender. Heterogender confronts the equation of heterosexuality with the natural and of gender with the cultural, and suggests that both are socially constructed, open to other configurations (not only opposites and binary), and open to change. As a materialist feminist concept, heterogender de-naturalizes the “sexual” as the starting point for under­standing heterosexuality, and connects institutionalized heterosexuality with the gender division of labor and the patriarchal relations of production.

Materialist Feminist Critique

Materialist feminism developed in response to a series of global social changes and associated critical currents in intellectual and political work. Western materialist or marxist feminists attempted to expose and disrupt the interface of patriarchal social structures with multinational (particularly U.S.) corporate capitalism’s expanding sphere of accumulation and exploitation (Barrett 1980; Hennessy and Mohan 1989; Kuhn and Wolpe 1978; Mies 1986). Complaints about the global effects of patriarchy and capitalism provoked protests from non-western or U.S. Third World feminists about western feminism’s own racist, classist, and colonialist assumptions in attempting to “speak for” all women (Minh-ha 1989; Mohanty 1988; Sandoval 1991; Spivak 1985, 1988). These criticisms were but­tressed by escalating claims in the west that feminism privileged the interests of white, middle-class, heterosexual women at the expense of an emancipatory project which could intervene in white supremacist, classist, and heterosexist social arrangements (E. Brown 1989; R. Brown 1976; Bunch 1976; Carby 1982; Collins 1991; Combahee River Collective 1983; Davis 1981; Giddings 1984; hooks [sic] 1984; Lugones 1989; Moraga 1986; Rich 1980; Spelman 1989). This call for an internal re-evaluation of western feminism inter­sected with the circulation of newly forming critical knowledges such as Afrocentrism, postcolonial criticism, poststructuralism, neo-marxism, and postmodernism, and brought about a rethinking of feminist concepts and politics.

Throughout the struggles and debates within feminism over the past 20 years, materialist feminists have continually worked to develop an analytic capable of disrupting the taken- for-granted in local and global social arrangements and of exposing the economic, political, and ideological conditions upon which exploitation and oppression depend. Materialist feminism, however, is not to be confused with vulgar Marxism, with what is frequently referred to as base-superstructure Marxism or economic determinism. Rather, materialism here means a mode of inquiry that examines the division of labor and the distribution of wealth in the context of historically prevailing national and state interests and ideological struggles over meaning and value. Utilizing both marxist and feminist critiques of ideology, materialist feminism breaks away from the growing trend toward discursive politics— postmodern and poststructuralist feminism—and takes as its object the “social transfor­mation of dominant institutions that, as a totality, distribute economic resources and cultural power asymmetrically according to gender” (Ebert 1993:5). Committed to system­atic analysis, materialist feminism is

an inquiry intended to disclose how activities are organized and how they are articulated to the social relations of the larger social and economic process …how our own situations are organized and determined by social processes that extend outside the scope of the everyday world and are not discoverable within it (D. Smith 1987:152).

This form of analysis asserts the systematic operation of historically specific social totalities that link the local to the macro level of analysis. It is not, however, a “totalizing” theory in that it does not generalize its findings to apply to absolutely all phenomena, nor does it argue from an abstract or objectivist stance.

As a form of “critical postmodernism” (Agger 1992), materialist feminism argues that the nexus of social arrangements and institutions which form social totalities—patriarchy, capitalism, and racism—regulates our everyday lives. They are not monolithic, but consist of unstable patterns of interrelations and reciprocal determinations which, when viewed together, provide a useful way of theorizing power and domination. To theorize in terms of social totalities is to have a way of making sense of events in relation to pervasive social patterns. Rape and domestic violence, for example, can be seen as the effect of social structures that situate men in a hierarchical relation to women and to each other according to historical forms of social differentiation such as heterosexuality, with its historically specific heterogendered and racial components. According to Dorothy Smith, “relations of ruling” such as patriarchy

bring into view the intersection of the institutions organizing and regulating society …a specific interrelation between the dynamic advance of the distinctive forms of organizing and ruling contemporary capitalist society and the patriarchal forms of our contemporary experience … a complex of organized practices, including government, law, business and financial management, professional organization, and educational institutions as well as the discourses in texts that interpenetrate the multiple sites of power (1987:3).

Significant in Smith’s theory of ruling is her reference to forms, complexes, and “multiple sites of power.” It is evident that for Smith, capitalism and patriarchy are organizing structures which are varied and multiple, institutionally as well as textually. Before returning to the role of ideology in materialist feminist work in this essay, let us first address the struggles over concepts such as capitalism and patriarchy.

Theories which focus on capitalism and patriarchy as social totalities are becoming less and less acceptable. In recent years an important debate about the explanatory reach of such frameworks has challenged feminists to defend or rethink many of their assumptions. In particular, many postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists have criticized the use of “master narratives” such as marxism, as “totalizing” and have disputed any theory which conceptualizes in terms of social totalities, such as capitalism or patriarchy. For example, Jean Francois Lyotard argues against master narratives, but his argument confuses ever- changing and historically specific social totalities with totalitarianism and (for some) positivism. These ideological debates are crucial and consequential. When critiques of Western culture’s master narratives privilege the local and the particular at the expense of making connections, these arguments endanger any effort to conceive a “social change movement designed to remake the world” (Agger 1992:113). Furthermore, they fail to acknowledge the significant rewriting social totalities and marxism have undergone in recent years (Hennessy 1993; Walby 1989).

It is my position that we should continue to critique capitalism and patriarchy as regimes of exploitation which organize divisions of labor and wealth, national and state interests, and those ideologies which legitimize the ordering and justification of these totalities and the production of social hierarchies and difference. In particular, we need to examine their varying historical, regional, and global conditions of existence. For instance, capitalism in Japan is not the same as capitalism in the United States, even though they are interrelated and reciprocal, and produce similar effects. They emerge from different historical and material relations of production and therefore defy reductive generalization.

Patriarchy is also historically variable, producing a hierarchy of heterogender divisions which privileges men as a group and exploits women as a group. It structures social practices which it represents as natural and universal and which are reinforced by its organizing institutions and rituals (e.g., marriage). As a totality, patriarchy organizes difference by positioning men in hierarchical opposition to women and differentially in relation to other structures, such as race or class. Its continued success depends on the maintenance of regimes of difference as well as on a range of material forces. It is a totality that not only varies cross-nationally, but also manifests differently across ethnic, racial, and class boundaries within nations. For instance, patriarchy in African-American culture differs significantly from patriarchy in other groups in U.S. society. Even though each group shares certain understandings of hierarchical relations between men and women, the historical relation of African-American men to African-American women is dramatically different from that among Anglo-European Americans. Among African- Americans, a group which has suffered extensively from white supremacist policies and practices, solidarity as a “racial” group has frequently superseded asymmetrical divisions based on gender. This is not to say that patriarchal relations do not exist among African Americans, but that they have manifested differently among racial-ethnic groups as a result of historical necessity. Interestingly, racism has sometimes emerged in relation to criticisms of African-American men for not being patriarchal enough by Euro-American standards. As a totality, patriarchy produces structural effects that situate men differently in relation to women and to each other according to history.

To critique the way gender is theorized in feminist sociology, a materialist feminist mode of inquiry begins by investigating foundational assumptions. This investigation is followed by an examination of what is concealed or excluded in relation to what is presented. A materialist feminist critique attempts to determine the ideological foundations of a particular set of knowledges and the interests served by the meanings organizing a particular theory. For example, theories which foreground and bracket off its link with heteronormativity—the ideological production of heterosexuality as individual, natural, universal, and monolithic—contribute to the construction of (patriarchal) heterosexuality as natural and unchangeable.

To examine the ways in which feminist sociology reproduces the heterosexual imaginary requires a theoretical framework capable of investigating the interests and assumptions embedded within any social text or practice. This mode of inquiry would make visible the frames of intelligibility or the “permitted” meanings in constructions of gender and heterosexuality. More than this, it would connect heterosexuality and interests to a prob­lematic. As Althusser has argued, “A word or concept cannot be considered in isolation; it only exists in the theoretical or ideological framework in which it is used: its problematic” (1982:253). To determine a text’s problematic is to reveal another logic circulating beneath the surface. It appears as the answer to questions left unasked. It is not that which is left unsaid or unaccounted for, but that which the text assumes and does not speak. What is required, then, is a process of analysis capable of inquiring into the power relations organizing the allowed as well as the disallowed meanings in an effort to expose the artificiality of the theories and ideologies organizing the use of particular concepts.

The practice of ideology critique used by Marx (1985, 1986) and rewritten as symp­tomatic reading by Althusser (1968) has had a significant influence on sociology, most recently in the work of Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990). Ideology critique seeks to demystify in ways in which dominant or ruling class ideologies are authorized and inscribed in subjectivities, institutional arrangements, texts of ruling, various cultural narratives, and, in this case, feminist sociological theories of gender. Like those taken-for-granted beliefs, values, and assumptions encoded as power relations within social texts and practices, ideology is central to the reproduction of a social order. Because it produces what is allowed to count as reality, ideology constitutes a material force and at the same time is shaped by other economic and political forces. As Althusser theorized it, ideology is the “‘lived’ relation between [persons] and their world, or a reflected form of this unconscious relation” (1986:314) or imaginary.

This theory of ideology addresses the meaning-making processes embedded within any social practice, including the production of (social) science. Inherently contradictory, capitalist and patriarchal social arrangements are in a continual state of crisis management. The work of dominant ideologies is to conceal these contradictions in order to maintain the social order. At the same time, however, these breaks in the seamless logic of capitalism and patriarchy allow oppositional social practices and counter-ideologies to emerge.

Central to a materialist feminist analytic is its critical focus on ideology (see Althusser 1971; D. Smith 1987). Critique is a mode of inquiry which makes use of what is and what is not said in any social text, and theorizes the disjuncture between the two. Of particular importance is the examination of what is missing from the text. What is unsaid can be read symptomatically[1] to reveal the organizing problematic, or how the text raises certain questions while suppressing others. The unsaid of a text also reveals the interests served by what is left out. This understanding of absence speaks to the boundaries established by any conceptual or theoretical framework, which distinguish that which is addressed and that which is constructed as outside the limits of the theory at hand. What is unsaid is as constitutive of the problematic as what is said. Critique is a “decoding” practice which exposes these textual boundaries and the ideologies which manage them, revealing the taken-for-granted order they perpetuate and opening up possibilities for changing it. Materialist feminism then situates these ideologies historically and materially in relation to the division of labor and the relations of production. Finally, critique inquires into the political consequences of theorizing from this site of opposition. This approach attempts to put into crisis those organizing ideologies which naturalize or universalize particular sets of power relations implicated in the production of exploitation and oppression.

Feminist sociology has long made use of critique in order to pressure the discipline for its participation in relations of ruling. Many critical works served as significant interven­tions in the business-as-usual of sociology, and stand as landmarks from which to extend the reach of feminist theory. Although the following sections of this essay examine feminist sociology for its participation in the heterosexual imaginary, I think it only fair to say that some of the challenges to disciplinary authority by feminists were made at great risk and that much can be learned from these early critiques of sociology. The strategies used by feminist sociologists created the opening for further critical social inquiry and should be considered in their historical and material contexts.

Feminist Sociology and the Heterosexual Imaginary

Feminist sociology has been a powerful force for change since its emergence in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to its significant contribution to gender studies, feminist sociology has provided a critical evaluation of mainstream sociology. Contesting the foundations upon which the production of sociological knowledges depends, feminist sociologists have provided a profound critique and rewriting of both the theoretical and the methodological assumptions of mainstream sociology (Acker 1973; Bart 1971; Bernard 1973; Deegan 1978; Hacker 1969; Hughes 1975; Long Laws 1979; Millman and Moss Kanter 1975; Oakley 1974; Reinharz 1983, 1984; Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1971; D. Smith 1974, 1975, 1987, 1990; Spender 1985; Stanley and Wise 1983). In a recent essay, Patricia Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley (Ritzer 1990) discuss the defining char­acteristic of feminist sociological theory:

Feminist sociological theory attempts a systematic and critical reevaluation of sociology’s core assumptions in the light of discoveries being made within another community of discourse—the community of those creating feminist theory (1990:316).

Central to this description is a reading of feminist sociological theory as responsive to “discoveries” and critical insights emanating from feminist theory and research. Feminist sociological theory has continually pressured the discipline to account for its political investments. In this regard, a key feature of feminist theory in sociology has been its exposure of sociological inquiry as value-laden and implicated in ruling practices. If it is to continue as a vital critical force in the discipline, feminist sociology must attend to contemporary theoretical and political debates, even those which question the problematics of feminist sociology. Recent trends in social thought, especially in what is becoming known as queer theory or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered studies, are challenging the very foundations of feminist sociology, and indeed of sociology in general.

Critiques which reveal the implicit perpetuation of a normative heterosexuality require new ways of thinking for feminist sociology. Significant insights for this kind of analysis can also be found, however, in the works of those whose critical sociology questions the assumptions of the discipline. Of particular importance are the contributions of feminist sociologists whose analyses provide the possibility for examining the circulation of the heterosexual imaginary in sociology, even as their work also bears the marks of partici­pating in it.

Two feminist theorists who have been highly influential in this regard are Shulamit Reinharz and Dorothy Smith. Reinharz argues that sociology is a field of study which demonstrates its conservative politics by “reinforc[ing] the current order and its values” (1983:165) rather than taking into account “specific historical, cultural, ideological” con­texts (1983:162). Arguing from a sociology of knowledge perspective, Reinharz asserts the importance of explaining “the relationship between the knowledge produced or ac­cepted in a particular society at any time, and the other dimensions of that society” (1983:163). She is referring to mainstream sociological knowledge, but her critique can be applied as well to feminist sociology. For instance, feminist theories of gender which posit males and females, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual as op­posites participate in dominant ways of thinking which organize all areas of difference as hierarchical and oppositional binaries. To produce theories of gender which bracket off heterosexuality as a social organizing structure is to “reinforce the current order and its values” by participating in the production of “acceptable” knowledges or ideologies. This closes off the possibility of theorizing the complex ways in which gender is tied to heterosexuality as institutionalized and hegemonic, as organizing the division of labor, and as instrumental to capitalism and patriarchy. If heterosexuality is assumed to be the natural attraction of opposites, somehow outside of social production, it does not require explanation. Feminist theories of gender, as well as common sense and acceptable knowl­edges, reflect these assumptions. By not considering the “historical, cultural, and ideo­logical” contexts in which gender circulates—the heterosexual imaginary—feminist theories of gender not only are contradictory but also leave heterosexuality as the unsaid on which gender depends.

Gender cannot be simultaneously an achieved status and an organizing concept for a “naturally occurring” heterosexuality. If both gender and heterosexuality are socially produced, then feminist sociology should be engaging with both of them at that level. Heterogender and its corresponding heterosexual imaginary are among those “other di­mensions” which can affect the organization of knowledge and the reach of feminist sociology.

Dorothy Smith (1974, 1987, 1990) also takes the discipline to task, in this case for participating in the production of “objectified modes of knowing characteristic of the relations of ruling” (1990:13) and for using ideas exclusive to a “male social universe” (1990:13).

The profession of sociology has been predicated on a universe grounded in men’s experience and relationships and still largely appropriated by men as their “territory.” Sociology is part of the practice by which we are all governed; that practice establishes its relevances (1990:13).

Smith critiques the disjuncture between women’s experience and the prevailing “male” sociological frameworks, raising feminist sociology to a new height by making visible the significance of knowledges pertaining to women which sociology has typically ignored. She theorizes the silences in sociological theory as implicating sociology in male domi­nation, and rewrites sociological practice to attend to women’s everyday lives.

The neglect of women’s everyday lives by sociology is of central concern to Smith, who argues for a sociology from the standpoint of women. This means not only analyzing women’s daily lives and practices but also placing women within the larger social context of capitalist and patriarchal relations. Smith aims to explicate the “actual social processes and practices organizing people’s everyday experience from a standpoint in the everyday world” (1987:151). Her argument differs from Reinharz’s in that she links the organization of women’s lives to political economic dynamics. Of particular importance here is Smith’s contribution to a theory of the everyday. In rewriting Marx for a feminist sociology, she opens up the study of the everyday as organized by relations of ruling.

In her contribution to the study of women’s invisible labor and everyday experience, however, Smith makes repeated reference to the work of mothering and housework as largely overlooked by social scientists.

Expanding the concept of work for our purposes requires its remaking in more ample and generous form … to include all the work done by women to sustain and service their and men’s functioning in the wage relation …(1987:165).

In her references to mothering and women’s domestic labor as enabling the work of men, heterosexuality once again appears as the assumed and unacknowledged structure orga­nizing women’s lives as well as the division of labor. Heterosexuality is a natural or universal condition that Smith’s theory of gender assumes. Although Smith makes great strides in shifting the starting point of feminist sociology to incorporate a version of ideological critique, her own work reveals a political investment in a heteronormative social order, which by definition maintains the very relations of ruling that she tries to put into crisis.

Feminist sociologists have challenged sociology to account for its “politics”—its in­vestment in practices and knowledges organized hierarchically along lines of power. As can be seen in the work of Reinharz and Smith, these analytical strategies indeed create important conceptual and political openings, but by participating in the heterosexual imaginary they also reproduce some of the very social conditions they seek to interrupt.

In addition to Reinharz and Smith, other feminists have challenged the discipline (Abbott 1992; Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley 1990; Maynard 1990). Their groundbreaking efforts have also paved the way for a critique of feminist sociology. Yet at the same time they, too, participate in the reproduction of the heterosexual imaginary. In their overview of the contributions of feminist sociology, Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley (1990) outline the ways feminists have challenged sociology, beginning with questioning the absence of women and of knowledges related to women in all areas of sociology. This heuristic is particularly important for questioning the circulation of the heterosexual imaginary in feminist sociology.

A particularly important pattern that these authors identify in feminist sociology is the contestation of the andronormative starting point of sociological inquiry, which relegates all other knowledges to the margins and thereby reinforces patriarchal authority and value. For example, studies of mothering, teaching, child care, caregiving, and other aspects of the “domestic sphere” have been either ignored or devalued by mainstream sociology. Patriarchy, however, is not only andronormative; it is also heteronormative. Those aspects of the division of labor which are trivialized and neglected in sociological research and theory are also those practices which count as “women’s work” in heterogendered social arrangements. By shifting the focus from gender to heterogender as the primary unit of analysis, institutionalized heterosexuality becomes visible as central to the organization of the division of labor. This shift also reveals the ways in which the heterosexual imaginary depends on an abject “other,” which is regulated as deviant. This “other” consists of any sexual practice which does not participate in dominant heterogender arrangements and therefore does not count as legitimate or normal.

When I say that the critical insights of feminist sociologists can be employed to interrogate the heterocentrism of feminist sociology, I am not talking only about the marginalization of lesbian/gay/bisexual knowledges from sociological inquiry, but also about the way in which heteronormative assumptions organize many conceptual and professional practices. For instance, many social science surveys ask respondents to check off their marital status as either married, divorced, separated, widowed, single, or (in some cases) never married. Not only are these categories presented as significant indexes of social identity; they are offered as the only options, implying that their organization of identity in relation to marriage is universal and not in need of explanation. Questions concerning marital status appear on most surveys regardless of relevance, in some cases as “warm-up” questions. The heteronormative assumption of this practice is rarely, if ever, called into question; when it is questioned, the response is generally dismissive. Hetero- normativity works in this instance to naturalize the institution of heterosexuality.

For those who view questions concerning marital status as benign, one need only consider the social and economic consequences for those respondents who do not partic­ipate in these arrangements, or the cross-cultural variations which are at odds with some of the Anglocentric or Eurocentric assumptions regarding marriage. All respondents are invited to situate themselves as social actors according to their participation in marriage or in heterosexuality as a “natural” and monolithic institution. This invitation includes those who, regardless of sexual (or asexual) affiliation, do not consider themselves “single” or defined in relation to heterosexuality, and do not participate in these arrange­ments. Above all, the heterosexual imaginary working here naturalizes the regulation of sexuality through the institution of marriage and state domestic relations laws. These laws, among others, set the terms for benefits such as tax, health, and housing on the basis of marital status. Rarely challenged except by nineteenth-century marriage reformers and early second wave feminists (Bunch 1974, 1976; Harman 1901; Heywood 1876; Mac­Donald 1972; Sears 1977; Stoehr 1979; Wittig 1992), these laws and public policies use marriage as the primary requirement for social and economic benefits rather than distrib­uting resources on some other basis, such as citizenship.

Heteronormative sociology, then, plays its part in what Dorothy Smith has conceptual­ized as textually mediated social practice.

Such textual surfaces presuppose an organization of power as the concerting of people’s activities and the uses of organization to enforce processes producing a version of the world that is peculiarly one-sided, that is known only from within the modes of ruling, and that defines the objects of its power (1990:84).

To not answer such seemingly innocent or descriptive questions is to become deviant according to sociology’s enactment of modes of ruling, which signal to respondents in a variety of ways—from theory to surveys—what counts as normal. Under these conditions, sociology is a political field of study, invested in the reproduction of a heteronormative social order, and closed off to struggles over the construction of sexuality and to the exploration of social relations in all their layered and complex configurations.

Dorothy Smith’s theory of the everyday world as problematic can be particularly useful for investigating the circulation and production of heteronormativity in sociological prac­tice. As a mode of inquiry which begins with people’s everyday lives, it illustrates and explains how individual lives are organized by extralocal social arrangements. For in­stance, to study how institutionalized heterosexuality organizes everyday professional activities in sociology, consider the case of the two nontenured faculty members competing for the same job in a department which was allotted funds for only one. One candidate was a heterosexual man; the other, a lesbian. Two weeks before the final decision is made concerning hiring, the heterosexual man announces his engagement to a local woman and sends out wedding invitations to all members of the department. Well situated within the heterosexual imaginary, members of the department do not view this event in relation to the decision concerning the job but rather respond to it as a celebratory occasion and a chance to have a good time. The effect of this event on the material life of the candidates is never considered.

Weddings, like many other rituals of heterosexual celebration such as anniversaries, showers, and Valentine’s Day, provide images of reality which conceal the operation of heterosexuality both historically and materially. In this sense they help constitute the heterosexual imaginary’s discursive materiality. When used in professional settings, for example, weddings work as a form of ideological control to signal membership in relations of ruling as well as to signify that the bride and groom are normal, moral, productive, family-centered, good citizens, and, most important, appropriately gendered. (Or I should say “heterogendered”?) Although these patterns pervade the culture at large in everything from Turns commercials to the “Style” section of the New York Times—not to mention their prolific use in soap operas and prime time television—little work has been done to critically examine their reasons for being and their effects.

Other examples abound regarding the heteronormativity or heterocentrism of sociology (e.g., privileging married couples in hiring practices, sanctions against research on lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgendered people, use of heteronormative concepts to describe nonhet­erosexual relationships, invisibility of nonheteronormative parenting practices), but to critique them is beyond the scope of this essay. Certain questions can be raised here, however, as a way to convey the extent to which heterosexuality remains an unexamined issue in the discipline. Of particular interest from a materialist feminist perspective are the complex ways in which institutionalized heterosexuality helps guarantee that some people will have more class status, power, and privilege than others. Sociologists need to ask not only how heterosexuality is imbricated in knowledges, but how these knowledges are related to capitalist and patriarchal social arrangements. How does heterosexuality carry out their project both ideologically and institutionally? How do so many institutions rely on the heterosexual imaginary? Considering the rising levels of violence and prejudice in U.S. society, how are we to understand the social and ideological controls regulating sexuality? What would a critical analysis of institutionalized heterosexuality reveal about its relationship to divisions of labor and wealth, national and state interests, and the production of social and economic hierarchies of difference? And, finally, how will sociology change if we shift away from a heteronormative or heterocentric sociology through a critique of heterosexuality?

Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley point to the contribution of feminist sociology in critiquing the discipline for its lack of social activism. Sociological studies rarely examine how women’s lives are organized by dominant ideology and practice, or what role sociological inquiry plays in the maintenance and production of social inequality. Feminist sociologists insist that the discipline be reflexive, accountable for its politics, and actively engaged in reducing any oppressive consequences of its practices.

Reclaiming the critical legacy of feminist sociology not only promises to advance the theoretical reach of sociological inquiry, but also restores the activist orientation of feminist sociology. By questioning the starting point of gender studies while denaturalizing the institution of heterosexuality, feminist sociology once again can become politically reflex­ive and active in ideological struggle. The following section is a step toward initiating this process through an exploratory examination of contemporary gender texts.

Critiquing Heteronormative Gender Theory

Over the past quarter-century, feminist sociologists have made an enormous contribution to the study of gender across all social institutions and categories of analysis, theorizing everything from gender-based power arrangements to sex difference development. More­over, they have pressured the discipline to account for the ways in which it is implicated in the reproduction of gender oppression and exploitation. As a formidable force for change, feminist sociology, with its counterpart, the Section on Sex and Gender of the ASA, has established itself as one of the largest and most successful areas of inquiry in the discipline.

Feminist sociology, however, is losing its impetus for intervention or for ideological debate. Recent works within areas of inquiry covered by the sociology of sex and gender generally assume a level of agreement on what gender is, how to study it, and why it is important. Gender, family, and introductory sociology textbooks, journal articles, and conference presentations in recent years show little variation in definitions of sex and gender.

A sampling of gender texts within sociology reveals the presence of a dominant frame­work in gender theory. Sex is typically defined as “the biological identity of the person and is meant to signify the fact that one is either male or female.” Gender is described as “the socially learned behaviors and expectations that are associated with the two sexes” (Andersen 1993:31). The idea of sex as biological and gender as sociocultural was originally theorized by Oakley (1972) and then again by Gould and Kem-Daniels (1977), and has become the standard for most of sociology. In addition to Margaret Andersen’s widely used text, Thinking about Women, Laurel Richardson’s The Dynamics of Sex and Gender describes sex as “the biological aspect of a person” and gender as the “psycho­logical, social, and cultural components … an achieved status” (1981:5). Laura Kramer’s The Sociology of Gender employs a similar version, arguing that “physically defined categories are the sexes” and that the “system of meaning, linked to the sexes through social arrangement constitutes gender” (1991:1). Likewise, in Clare Renzetti and Daniel Curran’s Women, Men, and Society, sex is a “biological given …used as the basis for constructing a social category that we call gender” (1989:2). In each case, sex is distin­guishable as biology, implying that it is natural, while gender is viewed as learned or achieved. Even in essays offering an overview of the field of gender studies within sociology, gender is perceived as an established concept in a discipline which needs only to take it more seriously as a central category of analysis (Abbott 1992; Maynard 1990).

These patterns suggest that the biological-cultural differentiation of sex and gender has become “normalized” in sociology generally and among feminist sociologists in particular. Although inclusion of gender studies in “legitimate” sociology may be cause for celebration for some, the lack of debate over such a crucial concept as gender—not to mention its companion concept, sex—should be grounds for concern among feminists. Acquiescence to an unexamined gender concept goes against the grain of two of feminist sociology’s founding principles—to keep a critical eye on the disciplining of knowledge and on forms of gender bias.

Consider some of the contradictions present in the acceptance of these theories of sex and gender. As Maria Mies (1986) points out, separating sex from gender reinforces the nature/culture binary, opening the study of sex to the domain of science and closing off consideration of how biology is linked to culture. Sex, as a biological category, escapes the realm of construction or achieved status, even though it is “defined” or “constructed.” Because we are always engaged in giving meaning to the natural world, how we do that and to what end are questions of major significance. Sex as a category of analysis can never exist outside prevailing frames of intelligibility. It is a concept that is related to ways of making sense of the body, often by those—sociologists and biologists—who have a great deal of authority in the creation of knowledges. As a socially constructed category, sex must be scrutinized in relation to the interests that its definition furthers. That is, as sociologists we need to ask what ends are served by constructing sex as “the division of humanity into biological categories of female and male” (Macionis 1993:350).

The institution of science and its authority in relation to the production of biological knowledges have far-reaching effects. It is one thing to assert that two X chromosomes produce a female and that an X plus a Y chromosome produces a male. But what happens when introductory sociology texts claim that it is a “hormone imbalance” which produces “a human being with some combination of female and male internal and external genitalia” (Macionis 1993:351)? What investment or perspective is present in connoting this hor­monal and genital configuration as an “imbalance”? Or, reading the unsaid here, what constitutes balance according to these knowledges? Clearly, a society of scientifically defined and authorized males and females is considered the “natural” order of things. How, then, do we make sense of cross-cultural difference in the “treatment” of sex variation? For example, the Dine (Navajo) view persons bom with a combination of male and female genitalia as the exemplification of complete humanness, not as evidence of some dis-order (Geertz 1973).

Contemporary sex-gender ideology provides limited options for how we organize sex­uality, but expanding these options is not simply a matter of attending to marginalized sexualities. Instead, it seems to me that we need to question our assumptions about sex and gender as to how they organize difference, regulate investigation, and preserve particular power relations, especially those linked to institutionalized heterosexuality.

All of the institutions involved in the production of sex as a biological category defined as male or female, where each is distinct and opposite from the other, are participating in reproducing lines of power. Claims that XX is female and XY is male are just that: scientific claims about the natural world, authorized by the ruling order and processed through organizing structures which assign meanings based on frames of intelligibility already circulating in the culture at large. What counts as normal and natural or as “fact” comes out of ways of making sense already ideologically invested in the existing social order. Often it closes off our ability to imagine otherwise. Any manifestation which does not fit the facts is rendered abnormal, deviant, or (worse) irrelevant. Consider, for instance, that the same institutions which organize these knowledges also historically neglected the study of women, scientifically justified the inferiority of non white people, and claimed that social Darwinism was fact. These “findings” were coherent with dominant ways of thinking about sex, race, and class, and worked in their historical moment to legitimize prevailing practices and policies (Gould 1981; Takaki 1990).

Currently, with the rise of the lesbian/gay/bisexual rights movements, many “factual” knowledges concerning gender, sexuality, desire, morality, sex differences, labor, and nationality have been put into crisis. The more these critiques challenge the taken-for- granted concerning sex and gender, the clearer it is that current ways of thinking in sociology do not adequately account for sex variation. This investment in the dominant construction of sex begs the question of what interests are served by the disciplining of knowledge in sociology and what social arrangements that disciplining makes possible. The uncritical participation of feminist sociologists in these knowledges implies the pos­sibility that there exists an investment in “naturalized” social arrangements at the risk of rendering invisible the interests that organize these ideas and benefit from their production. At the present, the dominant notion of sex in feminist sociology depends upon a hetero­sexual assumption that the only possible configuration of sex is male or female as “opposite sexes,” which, like other aspects of the physical world (e.g., magnetic fields), are naturally attracted to each other. Masking the historical relation of sex to history and to heterosex­uality is guaranteed by what I have defined as the heterosexual imaginary.

Gender, as the cultural side of the sex-gender binary, is frequently defined by sociologists as either achieved or constructed through a process of “socialization,” whereby males and females become men and women attaining opposite and distinct traits based on sex. In addition to appearing in prominent texts and articles on gender, this understanding of gender circulates in introductory sociology texts. For instance, Hess, Markson, and Stein’s Sociology asserts that gender is made up of “femininity and masculinity as achieved characteristics” but that maleness and femaleness are “ascribed traits” (1989:193). Al­though this particular text makes reference to gender as variable cross-culturally and historically, its reliance on an unsaid heterosexual dualism implies a static or normative understanding of gender. In addition, this definition of gender illustrates the need for the concept of heterogender as a more appropriate description of the relation between sex and gender. Finally, this explanation does not account for the “necessity” of gender. This theory of gender as an “achieved” status does not address to what ends gender is acquired. Nor does it account for the interests served by ascribing or assigning characteristics based on sex. In other words, this text, as well as many others, does not examine what historical and material arrangements organize or are organized by gender. By foregrounding gender as dependent on the male-female binary, the heterosexual assumption remains unaddressed and unquestioned.

A similar approach is evident in John Macionis’s introductory textbook, where he defines gender as

society’s division of humanity, based on sex, into two distinctive categories. Gender guides how females and males think about themselves, how they interact with others, and what positions they occupy in society as a whole (1993:352; my emphasis).

Likewise, consider Craig Calhoun, Donald Light, and Suzanne Keller’s text, which claims that sociologists conceptualize gender as “nonbiological, culturally and socially produced distinctions between men and women and masculinity and femininity” (1994:269). Again we see the dependence of theories of gender on the existence of two distinct categories, male and female. This so-called biological configuration is actually the foundation of established definitions of gender. Accordingly, gender is not treated as variable; rather, it is made up of two distinct entities, unquestioned, ahistorical, static, and consequently normative. These understandings serve as the standard in mainstream sociology and legitimize the organization of all other manifestations as deviant, alternative, or nontraditional.

Evident in most conceptualizations of gender is an assumption of heteronormativity. In other words, to become gendered is to learn the proper way to be a woman in relation to a man, or feminine in relation to the masculine. For instance, consider Mary Maynard’s argument that “a significant factor in understanding the organisation of society is women’s socially constructed difference from men” (1990:281). Patricia Lengermann and Ruth Wallace state that “exploring the gender institution means looking at the identity of females in relation to males and vice versa … in the context of a two gender social reality” (1985:3). As Margaret Andersen explains, “Gender refers to the complex social, political, economic, and psychological relations between women and men in society” (1993:34). These are just a few examples among many that identify gender as a cultural binary organizing relations between the sexes. Ask students how they learned to be heterosexual, and they will consistently respond with stories about how they learned to be boys or girls, women or men, through the various social institutions in their lives. Heterosexuality serves as the unexamined organizing institution and ideology (the heterosexual imaginary) for gender.

Most important in these theories is the absence of any concept of heterosexuality as an institutional organizing structure or social totality. The cultural production of behaviors and expectations as “socially learned” involves all social institutions from family, church, and education to the Department of Defense. Without institutionalized heterosexuality— that is, the ideological and organizational regulation of relations between men and women—would gender even exist? If we make sense of gender and sex as historically and institutionally bound to heterosexuality, then we shift gender studies from localized examinations of individual behaviors and group practices to critical analyses of heterosex­uality as an organizing institution. By doing so, we denaturalize heterosexuality as a taken-for-granted biological entity; we begin the work of unmasking its operations and meaning-making processes and its links to large historical and material conditions. Al­though feminist sociologists have made important contributions to the analysis of the intersection of gender and social institutions, they have not examined the relation of gender to the institution of heterosexuality. By altering the starting point of feminist sociology from gender to heterosexuality, or heterogender, as I have defined it, we focus on one of the primary roots of exploitation and oppression rather than on one of the symptoms.


The position I am taking in this essay is not new. It has a long and controversial history in feminist thought. Early second-wave feminists such as the Furies Collective, Purple September Staff, Redstockings (1975), Rita Mae Brown (1976), and Charlotte Bunch (1976) challenged dominant notions of heterosexuality as naturally occurring, and argued that instead it is a highly organized social institution rife with multiple forms of domination and ideological control. Adrienne Rich’s (1980) article “On Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and Monique Wittig’s (1992) “The Straight Mind” confronted the institution of heterosexuality head on, asserting that it is neither natural nor inevitable but instead is a contrived, constructed, and taken-for-granted institution or, as Wittig argues, a political regime. Now classics in feminist theory, these works have left a legacy that can be found in knowledges circulating primarily in the humanities.

In relation to other disciplines, sociology is losing ground on these issues as the contest over sexuality and gender escalates in other areas of the social sciences and in the humanities. For example, debates within gay/lesbian theory, cultural studies, and feminist theory in the humanities indicate that a major rethinking of gender and heterosexuality is underway (Butler 1989; de Lauretis 1987; Fuss 1991; Hennessy 1993; Sedgwick 1990; Seidman 1991, 1992, 1993; Warner 1993; Wittig 1992). Queer theory, as it is now called, has emerged as one of the prominent new areas of academic scholarship. A virtual explosion of books, articles, and special issues has issued from major academic publishers and high-level journals. Yet these new knowledges have been produced primarily within the humanities. Queer theory has been dominated by postmodern cultural theorists such as Butler (1989), de Lauretis (1987), and Sedgwick (1990), who posit heteronormativity and gender as performative aspects of postmodern culture. More recent materialist ap­proaches to rethinking gender and sexuality include the works of Delphy (1980), Evans (1993), Hennessy (forthcoming), George Smith (1988, 1990, 1991), and Wittig (1992), to name a few.

I am arguing in this essay for a return to feminist sociology’s political high ground. By “political” I mean all those social, material practices in which the distribution of power is at stake. Attending to these practices requires an internal critique of sociological gender theory for its participation in the very conditions feminist seeks to pressure and for its reproduction of the heterosexual imaginary. In the interests of materialist feminism and the lesbian/gay/bisexual rights movements, I am arguing for an examination of the ways in which feminist sociology’s theories of gender contribute to the production and institu­tionalization of hegemonic heterosexuality. Finally, I am calling for something really queer: a critique of institutionalized heterosexuality as a formal area of inquiry within feminist sociology.