What Is Heteronormativity?

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published July 01, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Heteronormativity is the belief that being heterosexual, or being attracted to the opposite sex, is the natural and accepted sexual orientation (it is predicated on the gender binary).

It is the overall assumption that everyone is straight and based on the conception that there are only two genders. It is the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are always between one man and one woman - heteronormativity does not accurately reflect the reality that gender exists on a spectrum (that there are only two genders).

Heteronormativity presumes heterosexuality is the "default" sexual orientation, thus erasing others' sexual identity and can lead people to misgender someone - such as referring to someone with the wrong pronouns.

This can harm LGBTQ+ individuals as it contributes to lacking human rights security and funds to support them and obliterates identity.

Heteronormativity fortifies transphobia and homophobia by assuming that everyone should be straight. Transphobia means prejudice against transgender people, while homophobia means intolerance against people attracted to similar gender.

Key Definitions:

Sex is the biological and physical characteristics typically associated with men and women. While sex has a natural component, its implications and attributes are socially constructed. People whose anatomy is not typical for males or females are intersex.

Gender refers to the social norms typically associated with each sex; it is how society determines what it means to act like a man or woman.

Gender binary is the heteronormative way that people are defined as either men or women in society, as well as all of the expectations associated with being male or female.

Gender expression refers to the way that people show their experience of gender to the world. There are many heteronormative expectations regarding gender expression: women are generally expected to wear makeup, men are not likely to wear skirts, and so on.

Sexual orientation is a person's sexual and romantic preference for a particular gender(s). While people can be straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, heteronormativity dictates that heterosexuality is the only proper sexual orientation.

The Origins and History of Heteronormativity

To understand the origins of heteronormativity, one must first have a general understanding of the history of sexuality. It is tempting and widespread for people to believe that heterosexuality has always been the standard as it is now understood.

On the contrary, there has been a mixture of constructions of normative sexuality throughout history and in different cultures.

For instance, in medieval Europe and modern Catholicism, the singular acceptable expression of sexuality is between a married man and woman with the distinct purpose of conceiving a child. Any other form of sexual articulation was considered equally deviant and inappropriate, even if it was heterosexual.

The word "heterosexual" itself did not develop its current definition until 1934. Before this, it was defined as a dreadful sexual desire for one of the opposite sex rather than normative sexuality.

But, it is essential to note that heteronormativity existed long before these terms were defined. It conquered the storytelling and imagery of the man and woman relationship and the nuclear family.

There have long been specific expectations and norms around human sexuality, but those norms change over time. The term "heteronormativity" was made prevalent in the 1990s to critique society's rigid sexual and gendered expectations.

Specifically, in 1991, queer literary and social theorist, Michael Warner, popularized the term heteronormativity. The motivation for the word was influenced by an essay called "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" by Adrienne Rich. LGBTQ+ activists and theorists were the first to point to heteronormativity as a characteristic force.

Assuming There Is Only One Way to Have Sex

For people who adhere to heteronormativity, penis in vagina intercourse, also coined PIV, is believed to be the only way to have sexual intercourse.

Obviously, this is false. Individuals can have sex without a penis or a vagina. Sex could involve one or more people who both have penises or one or more people who both have vaginas - it does not have to involve any penetration.

Having what is defined as normal sex is seen as PIV sex, while all other forms of sex are considered "different" or "abnormal" in a heteronormative society.

Assuming Everyone Is Straight 

By assuming that someone is straight, one is eradicating their sexual identity. Also, stating that someone is simply "going through a phase,", especially for individuals who identify as bisexual or pansexual, can be detrimental and demeaning because it omits such identities, therefore, contributing to a lack of human rights protections and funding to support these communities.

One example of this kind of erasure is the Trump administration's refusal to add questions about sexual and gender orientation in the 2020 Census, which determines the allocation of federal funding. This is just one example of how excluding people and denying they exist has ramifications. 

Within heteronormativity, there are prejudices of transphobia and homophobia. By assuming that only being straight or cisgender, as someone who defines themselves with the gender associated with their designated sex at birth, is normal and that everyone identifies that way, heteronormativity reinforces transphobia and homophobia.

Assuming Someone's Gender

Heteronormativity assumes that the gender identified with a person's assigned sex at birth is how that person identifies. Ultimately, society decides what gender you are while in the womb or after being born.

Everything from what colour your clothes, bedroom, and toys should and will be are decided for you. However, not everyone identifies as the gender associated with their assigned sex at birth. 

When a child is born, they are expected to conduct with heteronormativity. For example, playing with an aeroplane or playing with a doll can depend on your allocated gender and may be enforced by your parents on how they view your gender.

Seeing a child veer from those norms may be worrisome for parents who adhere to heteronormativity. They may stumble with the idea that their daughter wants to get a short haircut or their son wants to wear dresses and play tea party.

A study conducted in 2020 looked at 25,000 LGBTQ people between 13 and 25 in the United States and discovered that transgender and nonbinary youths risk depression and suicide. It's critical to nurture a child, no matter their identity and how far it strays from heteronormative beliefs.

Assuming One is Monogamous

Heteronormative people tend to believe in the guarantee of monogamy or when someone is in a romantic or sexual relationship with only one individual. The idea is that these types of relationships have more trust and communication.

Therefore non-monogamous relationships are seen as existing outside of heteronormative relationships. It is not wrong to be monogamous, but it is negative to believe monogamy is exemplary of non-monogamous relationships. 

Non-monogamy is a term for lifestyle choices beyond the traditional monogamy framework. This could include polyamory, where people have many romantic partners, or an open relationship, where people in a relationship are sexually entangled with more than one person.

It is believed that reproduction is essential for people who subscribe to heteronormativity and believe that marriage or long-term relationships should result in bearing a child.

This idea of a nuclear household includes kids and a cisgender, heterosexual mother and father. People who are not married or have kids and could be non-monogamous are seen as "weird" by people who adhere to heteronormativity.

Examples of Heteronormativity

Many heteronormativity examples impact people daily. Typically, those who are hurt the most by heteronormativity are people who do not conform to the heterosexual ideal, including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

However, heteronormativity also creates strict rules that can be stifling for heterosexual people and can limit people's capability to express themselves comfortably. Here are some examples of heteronormativity.

Media Representation

In the past years, there has been a significant push for TV shows, movies, and advertisements to better illustrate how diverse the human population is.

Heteronormativity is apparent in media as default, and standard couples are consistently portrayed as straight. The influence and battle that people in the LGBTQ+ community have to be displayed as examples of couples to clarify how predominant heteronormativity is in society.

Queerness As Confusion

When people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community come out, they are frequently told that they are simply going through a phase.

People may assume they are not sure of themselves or their sexuality. The idea that it is a phase of having a sexual preference that is not heterosexual is heteronormative because it believes that all people are straight. Anyone who is not is simply confused.

Biological Pronouns

If someone insists on referring to another person based on their biological sex, regardless of how many times one tries to correct them, they display heteronormative beliefs. If you find yourself in this situation and sense this could be a mistake, take some time to fix them.

If you see another person in this situation who is obviously uncomfortable because someone is referring to them in the wrong pronouns, take the time to speak up.

Healthcare Discrimination

Heteronormative culture is displayed when LGBTQ+ individuals face struggles and challenges trying to obtain proper healthcare because of a lack of insurance and healthcare providers who work to understand their needs. 

Parental Disapproval

Many heteronormative parents who practice transphobia and homophobia would not respond kindly to their kids coming out. They will deny their kids the chance to come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Therefore, their kids will never reveal their true identities to their parents. Related to this, intersex is when a child is born with sexual anatomy that does not fit a female or male. Parents who practice heteronormativity by performing excessive surgery to ensure the newborn is entirely male or female.

How Does Heteronormativity Affect Society

The presumption that being straight is the only natural and standard sexual orientation and excluding those who do not fit is complicated in several ways.

Lack of Acceptance

Studies show that about 40 percent of all homeless youth are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Most of them find themselves living on the streets because of nonacceptance by their family members.

The presumption that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation affects LGBTQ+ kids, causing them to deny who they are and encounter trauma that affects their lives. LGBTQ+ people also lack proper healthcare as the providers discriminate against them based on their sexuality. 

Employment Discrimination

Individuals who do not identify as heterosexual are more likely to be fired due to their sexual identity. Regardless of their ability and success, a person who identifies as LGBTQ+ could lose their job if their manager clashes with their sexual identity.

LGBTQ+ people are also not treated equally to heterosexual people. They often get lower salaries, are overworked, and are forced to work night shifts. This discrimination can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and substance abuse.

Homophobia and Transphobia

When the media only portrays examples of straight couples, it creates the idea that those who are not heterosexual are abnormal.

Obviously, this is false because LGBTQ+ relationships exist worldwide and are entirely natural. Portraying straight couples only passes the message that it is weird to be attracted to someone other than the opposite sex.

This then plants the seed for homophobic statements and ideas, which can emotionally harm LGBTQ+ people. Homophobia can also lead to scary physical violence or assault cases against people who are not heterosexual.

Bullying and Violence

When LGBTQ+ children are bullied, this can cause severe emotional distress. For a long time, children have been taught that being straight is customary; therefore, they will pick on their peers who display LGBTQ+ behaviors that are believed to be abnormal - these children then become targets for bullying.

This can often extend to hate crimes and physical violence against LGBTQ+ individuals. One study showed that about one in five hate crimes committed in the US was due to sexual orientation and identity.

Extreme bullying and violence can lead to several issues (like mental health conditions) and cause significant damage to queer individuals.

How to Combat Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity is a significant driving force in our culture. As we can see, though, it's a highly problematic one that harms all people who are not straight.

Because heteronormativity functions on the assumption that everyone is straight, the most positive thing one can do in order to not harm others it is not to assume things about others.

It is a challenging job to help each heteronormative person to alter their beliefs. Along with spreading awareness about LGBTQ+ and the various gender and sexual preferences, one must know how to combat heteronormativity. 

When one meets someone new, ask for their pronouns rather than using the pronouns one would assume they use. If one decides to ask about someone's romantic life, one can inquire if they have any intimate or romantic relationships instead of asking if they have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. One should also tell people how one identifies rather than making people guess or assume.

These simple gestures make people feel welcomed instead of harrassed. Heteronormativity may be a firm ideology, but it is an old-fashioned one that causes damage. Little actions on everyone's part help us achieve an equal society.

Here is a summarized list of what you can do to stop heteronormativity:

  • Always ask about people's preferred pronouns.

  • Do not rely on assumptions. When in doubt, ask politely.

  • Make sure one expresses one's identity clearly.

  • Use gender-neutral terms.

Heteronormative Word Cloud on a white background

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Frothingham, M.B. (2022, July 01). What Is Heteronormativity. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-heteronormativity.html

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