Hendrick Goltzius, The Fall of Man, 1616. Image credit: Everett Collection / Shutterstock
Loving my boyfriend feels like letting the patriarchy win. Now, don’t get me wrong: I would never be in a relationship with someone who isn’t fervently feminist. But regardless of how many conversations he and I have unpacking our different experiences of life—from walking down the street to shaving body hair, from our confidence in our careers to our confidence in conversations—a heavy, sickening treacle of hostility is permanently pooled on the floor of my stomach: a very real conviction that, in this patriarchal society, my boyfriend and I will never be equals.
One solution would be to break up with him. Instead, I go out for a glass of wine with my heterosexual girlfriends, and we giggle about how men are trash, and exchange dreams of living in a nudist convent of feminine energy, beautiful vibes, a sanctuary of liberation and serenity. Then, we return home to our boyfriends.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned that my behavioral pattern was part of a larger trend: heteropessimism.
Asa Seresin coined the term heteropessimism in a 2019 New Inquiry article that described a “mode of feeling … usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience.” Notably, Seresin observes that heteropessimist behavior consists, more times than not, of “performative disaffiliations.” The heteropessimist may be sincere in her despair about the straight experience, but only rarely forswears it altogether.
Seresin further characterizes heteropessimism as an “anesthetic feeling,” one “designed to preemptively anesthetize … against the pervasive awfulness of heterosexual culture.” This rings all-too-true to me. I am stupefied by the messy amalgamation of the love I have for my boyfriend with the hate I harbor for the structure in which our relationship exists. I’m happy; I’m disgusted. Am I really going to do anything about it? For this only slightly embittered, playfully despondent heterosexual woman, the resigned dissatisfaction of heteropessimism offers numbness, distraction, and—weirdly—a kind of comfort.
In 1981, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group published the polemical pamphlet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. Based on a 1977 conference talk (and initially published as “Political Lesbianism: The Case Against Heterosexuality”), the pamphlet argued that “all feminists can and should be political lesbians,” and that “men are the enemy [and] heterosexual women are collaborators with the enemy.” (The pamphlet defines “lesbian” as a woman who does not have sex with men, as opposed to a woman who has sex with women.) More than 40 years later, its advocation for completely renouncing testosterone, penises, and sperm remains, well, revolutionary.
For today’s heteropessimist, the drastic call-to-arms of Love Your Enemy? is almost hilariously optimistic in its confidence that sexuality can be reconfigured and culture altered. “To be permanently, preemptively disappointed in heterosexuality is to refuse the possibility of changing straight culture for the better,” explains Seresin. It seems that the heterosexual woman’s awareness of the hopelessness of her circumstance is almost enough for her to accept it, desire for rebellion satiated. As Clara Drummond put it in her 2022 essay “Escape Heteropessimism” for Astra magazine: “When confronted with these contradictions, these women sigh in resignation: the patriarchy is just too strong to tame the need for male approval.” The heteropessimist continues to pursue relationships with men, despite the conviction that sex will be inattentive, emotions ignored, and communication minimal; in doing so, she chooses pessimistic certainty—and with it, a sense of control in a society hell-bent on taking as much of it away as possible.
Since Seresin coined the term at the end of 2019, several other similar essays exploring heteropessimism have been published. “What Is Heteropessimism and Do You Need to Stop With That Shit?” Kayla Kibbe asked (Cosmopolitan); “If Heterosexualism Existed, We Wouldn’t Have to Make It Up,” Sophie Lewis argued (Verso); Shannon Keating boldly questioned whether heterosexuality might be an “ultimately doomed project” (BuzzFeed); a group of scholars are even tackling the “theoretical lacuna of heteropessimism.” Evidently, I am far from alone in the befuddlement I feel about my heterosexual relationship, nor am I the only one noticing the fact that, even though so many of us feel similarly, heteropessimism (and its attendant inaction) persists.
Seresin acknowledges that, while we might picture the heteropessimist in our life (we all have one—if, indeed, we aren’t one ourselves) as a straight, drunk woman, “bemoaning their orientation and insisting that it would be ‘so much easier’ to be gay,” women are not the only heteropessimists. From the self-identified incel to the “married man complaining about his ‘old ball and chain,’” men too fall victim to the bleak perspective pervading heterosexual while concurrently co-creating it. That’s just it: much like deciding to be sober while drunk, heteropessimism sedates any constructive thinking about how things could actually change.
When Adrienne Rich wrote Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence in 1980, she took issue with the fact that heterosexuality is accepted as a natural inevitability and argued instead for its recognition as a political institution. Rich suggested that “women have learned to deny the limitations of masculine lovers for both psychological and practical reasons.” (Emphasis mine.)
When I reflect on this, it makes me think that heteropessimism works as a prophylactic balm protecting me from heterosexuality’s disappointments—in an inverse of Rich’s paradigm, I’ve learned to acknowledge the limitations of masculine lovers for both psychological and practical reasons. This balm may inure heteropessimists to more than the patriarchy: “A certain strain of heteropessimism assigns 100 percent of the blame for heterosexuality’s malfunction to men,” Seresin writes, “and has thus become one of the myriad ways in which young women—especially white women—have learned to disclaim our own cruelty and power.” In this, heteropessimism can be understood as part of the “sex wars” strain of feminism that targets the patriarchy while failing to address intersectional issues of race, class, and gender identity.
When I recently contacted Asa Seresin on whether he had any thoughts on how to actually deal with the malady he had identified, and more specifically the way in which I experience it in my relationship, he suggested to “push back against the idea that a man is the physical representation of female oppression, because I don’t think it’s that useful to make people stand in for larger structures.” In pointing out that we all play many different roles in different parts of our lives, and that we arguably see our romantic partner in more roles than we get to encounter in any other relationship, Seresin helped me understand the otherwise obvious fact that reducing people to any single role limits how we see them and, by extension, limits how we see ourselves.
In the almost four years since coining the term, Seresin’s own views on heteropessimism have apparently transformed a bit, too. When asked if there are parts of the essay he would write differently today, Seresin responded, “I transitioned after I wrote it and in hindsight, I think a lot more of the piece is about (my own) transness than I initially assumed.” On that note, Seresin also suggested that the “greater understanding of transness is changing the way people think about heterosexuality,” which, he said, would also impact the way he wrote his piece.
Until recently, the sedation of heteropessimism has been enough for me. I’ve been embittered, yes, but it’s soothed me that at least I was conscious of what was plaguing me: there’s some power to be had in knowing where your discomfort lies. But, of course, numbing myself to an enormous aspect of my life is not a solution—indeed, “shrugging it off” only makes me angrier.
Putting aside heteropessimism and confronting the disconnect between love and rage in my relationship has been frustrating in its own way: like a tormented Tantalus, eternally almost in reach of the fruit tree, it seems that I am always just steps away from a sense of having arrived at a point of conclusive conviction, of equality, of hetero-optimism, even.
In our conversation, Seresin left me with the advice: “Make a distinction between an individual man and the structural power that is available to him via gender.” At the end of the day, it’s just my boyfriend and me, alone at home on the couch, giggling like children. We can decide which power structures we let in the front door, and which ones we keep outside. Hell, I might even be the big spoon tonight.
Josephine Houman is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research and Public Seminar editorial intern.