Heteronormativity between construction and reproduction

AG About Gender – International Journal of Gender Studies

Special issue on:

Heteronormativity between construction and reproduction.

Edited by: Emanuela Abbatecola (Università degli Studi di Genova), Luisa Stagi (Università degli Studi di Genova).

Deadline 31st October 2014.


The heterosexual norm traces invisible boundaries in biographical trajectories. It affirms who you may or may not be, what you can and cannot do. It confines spaces, defines places, builds desires, delimits rights and structures language.

The concept of heteronormativity points out the existence of a paradigm grounded on moral, social and juridical norms based on the presupposition that there is a correct sexual orientation, the heterosexual one, that there is a coincidence between biological sex and gender and that a natural and necessary complementary-ness exists between man and woman. The term seems to have appeared for the first time in the text, Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet by M. Warner (1991) where it is intended as a «pervasive and invisible character» of current societies, connected with «the ability of the heterosexual culture to self-interpret itself like society», marginalising and defining in an antithetical sense whatsoever sexuality not ascribable to the traditional heterosexual culture (Falcetta 2014).

Indeed, heteronormativity prescribes the behaviour “not to take on” but at the same time it strongly codifies the behaviour considered “normal” and “correct”. Just as LGBTQI subjects are marginalised by this discourse, so too are heterosexual subjects found to be forced to conform to it and to take on a series of attitudes that characterize normative femininity and masculinity. Indeed, the heterosexual identity influences physical control of the body such as even control of behaviour, of what is licit and what is moral. For this reason one speaks of “violence” and of control of bodies, since all that escapes from traditional gender roles is sanctioned (Borghi 2011, 2013).

Reasoning around the relationship between heteronormativity and regulation of bodies and desires also means trying to deconstruct the ways in which sexual normative hierarchies structure the global processes such as migrations, forms of tourism, labour and welfare (the latter being a theme to which a monographic number of Gender & Society was devoted -Vol. 23 No. 4, 2009). Indeed, as Judith Butler has shown, the norms that determine the sexual position of individuals in society are all retraceable to the norm of obligatory heterosexuality, identified as the par excellence product of patriarchal order. The heterosexual norm governs the discourse of the west, through the production of the matrixes of psychoanalytical discourse, of anthropological discourse, including its structuralist version, and finally, and this paradoxically, is also part of the feminist discourse

(Butler 1990). Certainly it is worth underlining that heterosexuality and heteronormativity are not synonymous, but to understand this it is necessary to analyse the ways in which subjects, bodies, norms and heterosexual practices are articulated and naturalized in relationship to ‘non-normative’ genders and sexuality (Ward and Schneider 2009). It is interesting to remember the pathway of Gayle Rubin (1975 and 1993) and the tension between her old papers – focused primarily on pointing out how heteronormativity worked at the service of the patriarchal binary gender – and her more recent work, where attention has been more aimed at tracking mobility, adaptability and the long-term effects of ‘normal sexuality’. The last decade has been witness to a heritage of feminist research informed by both approaches, just as also by the developments of these within the feminist intersectional theory. Feminist sociologists have considered co-construction of gender and heterosexuality through cultural, institutional and political-economic dominions, working to show the multiplying effects of ethnic origin and social class on heterosexual subjectivity (e.g. Andersen 2008; Bettie 2003). Bringing the heterosexual paradigm inside the analysis, these researches have shown how heterosexual subjectivity, despite deriving from fragility, variability or “queerness”, still succeeds in writing social femininity and masculinity (e.g. Kitzinger and Wilkinson 1994).

In this issue of AG we intend to reflect on heteronormativity understood as a pervasive structure of  power that imposes, naturalising them, both a dualism of gender that becomes a hierarchy, and the record of monogamist heterosexuality. In other words, the role of the heteronormative discourse in defining the rules of social life. In particular we are interested in developing reflections in the followings fields, to be understood as not exclusive:

1) Heteronormativity and history: One has spoken of the heterosexual norm as absent presence (Katz 1996) wishing to point out how historiography has little questioned heterosexuality, which has progressively imposed itself as norm of “nature” and as a defining criterion of the other forms of sexuality. Therefore, we are interested in contributions that reflect on the social construction of heterosexual normality, to the invention of and the changes to heterosexual culture in space and in time and on the historical processes that have contributed to the construction and the change in social and cultural norms in relationship to matters of sexuality.

2) Heteronormativity and space: The regime of (in)visibility of the heterosexual norm traces frontiers, more or less porous, that allow us to reconsider the conditions and the means of access of everyone to public space (Blidon 2012). Indeed, public space is thought out, managed and modelled on the basis of a rigid dualistic conception (public/private, male/ female, permissible/illegitimate, homosexual/heterosexual). We are interested in contributions that focus on analysis of spaces, on how they incorporate, reflect and therefore naturalise the structures of power and the hierarchies of gender, legitimate the boundaries of visibility and invisibility and contribute to building notions of adequacy and vulnerability of bodies.

3) Heteronormativity and law. Through the process of juridification, the law does not simply mould the juridical norms according to heteronormative assumptions but tends to cloak these assumptions of naturalness, proposing them as normal and taking for granted that the vision of society that they propose is the only one possible and real (Wilkinson and Kitzinger 1993). However, at the same time, at least in certain circumstances, the law can operate as a repairing tool for discriminations founded on people’s sexual orientation and gender identity, contributing to overturning heteronormative social order and anticipating “desirable” cultural changes (MacKinnon 1987 and 1993). In light of these considerations, we deem studies and research important that, departing from an analysis of the most recent legislative, jurisprudential and doctrinal developments on the subject, reflect, also from a comparative point of view: i) on the argumentative paths that still extend, in different parts of the world, to exclusively recognise rights to that model of subject and social formation that comes into the heteronormative ideal; ii) on the tools and on the modalities through which in some legal systems, European and not, the juridical culture, or part of it, has moved and/or is moving in the direction of the abandonment of the so-called heteronormative dualism, based on the assumption that there is only one “correct” sexual orientation and only one acceptable model of family and worthy of safeguarding at the juridical level.

4) Heteronormativity and language: Heteronormativity also pervades the way in which we speak and what we say in everyday conversations (Land, 2005). In daily interaction, heteronormativity is built and constantly maintained through communicative practices and, as Butler has shown (1990), individuals are what they are even as a result of the way in which they speak. According to Sedgwick (1993), who affirmed the existence of a presupposition of heterosexuality in daily conversation, the participants in an interaction in an ordinary context are supposed heterosexual until they show the contrary. We are interested, in this sense, in studies and research on daily conversations and on linguistic indexes of gender in reference to the presupposition of heterosexuality transmitted by a heterosexual culture.

Papers should be between 4000 and 6000 words (excluding references) and written in one of the two languages in which the review is published (Italian and English), with this in mind please see the review’s Authors guidelines.

Contributions must be sent by 31st October 2014.


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