Book Review: The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward

Cultural propaganda, sexual assault, incest, compulsory marriage, economic dependence, control of children, and domestic violence; are the only possible reasons a woman would remain in a heterosexual relationship. As a straight woman and having had conversations with other straight women, these reasons are evident in every heterosexual relationship I have come across. Jane Ward in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality explores the societal expectations and pressures of the patriarchy upon heterosexuality and the heterosexual-repair industry that desperately attempts to mend these broken relationships. In addition, as a lesbian, in her book, she describes the sadness she feels upon witnessing the violence, control, diminishment, and disappointment experienced by straight women. In summary, her book leaves readers wondering, are heterosexual relationships worth the toxicity of straight culture?

Jane Ward is a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward has written two other books: Not Gay and Respectably Queer. Her books cover a wide array of topics including, feminism, queer parenting, the racial politics of same-sex marriage, and the social construction of heterosexuality and whiteness. She currently resides in Southern California with her partner, Kat Ross. One may argue that because Jane Ward is a lesbian, she should not be making such broad claims about heterosexual women. I counter this by suggesting that a lesbian is the best person to observe and criticize heterosexual relationships and the burden they put upon women. Ward can compare the respect and fulfillment she feels in her lesbian relationship, to the stress and disrespect felt by the heterosexual women in her life.

As a white woman, one aspect lacking from The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is the expectations imposed upon Black women by the patriarchy. One hardship that Ward’s book does examine is the fact that many early white feminists based their arguments for nonviolent marriage and women’s rights on the claim that bringing white women closer to equality with their husbands will ensure a unified front among white people against the Black civil rights activists. However, as a reader who has now read “Controlling Images and Black Women’s Oppression,” by Patricia Hill Collins, the lack of attention paid to the controlling images forced upon Black women in heterosexual relationships, and the constant criticism of their sexuality, is highlighted. Therefore, there is a slight bias in the book to feel sadness toward white women in heterosexual relationships, because Jane Ward is a white woman. 

 The overarching argument present in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward includes the efforts by the heterosexual-repair industry to improve the enduring defects of straight culture. The heterosexual-repair industry has been flawed since its emergence. It is made up of eugenicists, sexologists, and social reformers. Ward cites three broad concepts present in the industry: they exposed the violence and mutual dislike in heterosexual relationships and reassured the population that this was natural, they took on the role of defining modern heterosexuality and repairing the problems that came along with it, and they accepted the premise that men and women found each other’s bodies undesirable and advocated for the use of beauty products to stimulate desire. Each of these concepts is inherently misogynistic. For example, at one point, experts were channeling their efforts to discover why women had annoying personalities and attempted to mediate men’s irritations with their wives. The solution the “experts” discovered involved women being submissive, lovely, and always putting their husband’s needs before their own. They went as far as asserting that women should be responsible for heterosexual success because they managed men’s emotions and should also be responsible for the happiness of their households and communities. Did no one ever wonder if it was men’s sexism and unrealistic expectations that caused them to be irritated with their wives? Or consider this: perhaps wives’ personalities come across as irritating because they are having unpleasurable sex?

Furthermore, the heterosexual-repair industry also came to the solution that women had to keep their bodies “fresh” and sexually appealing to their husbands. Advertisers collaborated with the heterosexual-repair industry in provoking fear among women to purchase their beauty products. The logic was that if women were not careful about their appearance then they could risk losing their husbands’ affection or “suffer their wrath.” One should not even have to explain the flaws in this argument and the unnecessary strain it places upon women to improve straight culture and desire. The toxicity rooted in straight culture is thanks to the patriarchy, and yet women are expected to help men improve their relationships. To conclude, Jane Ward, in her argument, exposes how the efforts to improve the conditions of straight culture are misogynistic and put the responsibility onto women. 

The single greatest strength in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward is explaining the misogyny paradox that plagues straight culture. Essentially, this paradox asserts that boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed in a society that simultaneously encourages them to hate girls and women. Jane Ward provides a possible explanation for this paradox in which society is suspicious of women because they stand to threaten men’s patriarchal power. The author analyzes this in the context of violence against women and girls. The misogyny paradox is evident when a man rapes and/or murders a woman that he reported to have desired or loved. Another example of this outlook is seen in the 18th and 19th centuries in England and colonial America. At this time, wives were seen as a “necessary evil.” Many would argue that wives, and heterosexual marriages, in general, are still seen in this negative light today. While these are all extreme examples, the misogyny paradox takes a simpler form in everyday life. Often, straight men claim to love women but continue to speak over them, mansplain subjects to them, and train their sons to imitate this lack of respect for women. To comprehend the true tragedy of heterosexuality, the author must portray the disrespect, violence, and ignorance displayed by men to women who claim to be in affectionate, romantic relationships. Jane Ward understands the importance of this paradox to her argument and succeeds in making the misogyny paradox accessible and easy for her readers to understand. 

One weakness present in Jane Ward’s book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, is the lack of proposed solutions to this tragedy. The author notes that no feminist efforts have made a dent in straight culture, but she doesn’t go further to explain where they fell short. In fact, Ward describes the sexism and toxic masculinity surrounding heterosexuality as “inescapable.” Later, she also reveals that, as a lesbian, it is painful to witness straight women’s “endless and ineffective” efforts to repair straight men. As a straight woman reading this book, it is incredibly depressing to read these statements and feel as though there is no hope. The patriarchy and toxic masculinity seem like grand problems that can never be solved, certainly not by the time that I’m ready to settle down and get married. It leaves me wondering, am I destined for an unhappy marriage? Is there any point in dating if sexism is normalized in straight culture?

After reading this book and sharing facts and anecdotes with my non-straight friends, they unanimously decided that I represent The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Over my 19 years as a straight woman, I have heard from friends, family members, and therapists that there are good men out there and not to give up. However, upon reading Jane Ward’s book about the emotional and physical strain of heterosexual relationships on women, I began to question if straight culture is worth the control, diminishment, and not to mention, disappointing sex. I will now respond to these friends, family members, and therapists that until the misogyny paradox is abolished and women are treated with genuine respect, finding “one of the good ones” will be challenging. Finally, I wish the heterosexual-repair industry the best of luck as they take on the impossible endeavor of mending the relationships between men and women, following a long history of sexism and abuse. 

Works Cited

Ward, Jane. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. New York, New York University Press, 2020. 

Book Review: The Tragedy of Heterosexuality

Is being queer so tragic? Clearly, there is a common narrative that idealises straight over queer relationships: “No one would choose to be queer” or “being straight is so much easier.” While there is much privilege in being straight in a heteronormative society, this “tragedy of queerness” has gone unexamined. In fact, this narrative conflicts with simple, observable situations in our society: Why do women not benefit from straight relationships as much as men do? Why are queer people proud of their queerness if it is such a tragic thing? Jane Ward takes on the challenge of examining this narrative —the tragedy of queerness— and proposes that, even more worrisome is The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.

In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Ward argues that “under the weight of heteronormativity […] people have come to understand heterosexuality as the most instinctive and fulfilling form of sexual relating.” While she recognises the difficulties of queer relations, she questions whether straight relations bring such ease and fulfillment. For Ward, heterosexuality is the tragedy because of the patriarchal and misogynistic nature of heterosexual relations that, paradoxically, teaches men to desire and hate women while also romanticises violence. For queer people, this means that actually, heterosexual relations are nothing to wish for. But for straight people, this clearly fleshes out the problem of misogyny, to put it mildly. Thus, Ward advocates for a reconstruction of heterosexuality: “a future in which straight men like women so much that they actually like women.” This is a straight relationship that does not perpetuate misogyny.

This deep analysis of heterosexual relations is presented in a digestible and extremely engaging way. The book is written masterfully: it combines the different aspects of an academic analysis, with stories, quotes and interviews that make it easier for the reader to make the argument personal, and includes the insights of the author as a queer and Feminist scholar. She is also the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (2015) and Respectability Queer: Diversity Culture in LGTB Activist Organizations (2008). She received her PhD in Sociology by the University of California Santa Barbara in 2003. Currently, Dr. Jane Ward is a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California Riverside, where she teaches courses on feminist, queer and heterosexuality studies. Her experience is clearly reflected in her book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020). 

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Book Review: *The Tragedy of Heterosexuality*

Cover of Jane Ward’s The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, winner of the 2021 PROSE Award in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology, is Jane Ward’s third book. In it, she explores what is wrong with heterosexuality in the 21st century and what straight people can do to fix it. She compares straight to queer relationships, pointing out where straight couple could learn from queer culture, takes a look at the self-help industry (and how it’s not helping at all) and ultimately wonders how straight women (and to a lesser extent men) have survived the tragedy of heterosexuality. Ward offers us a map of the complex and shifting landscape of heterosexual desire in the era of #MeToo, sexual harassment, and Title IX.

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Flirting with Danger

Every day, every single interaction, whether conscious or unconscious, shapes our identity and perception of the world. From the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are taking in information, processing it, and shifting our awareness of society based on the viewpoints we perceive. This impact of interactions and social cues has evolved over time into the hegemonic countercultures in different places around the globe. In her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn N. Phillips explores the ideology of power and choice within hetero-relationships formed by Western Culture through an in-depth analysis of the personal stories from young women.

Lynn N. Phillips coined the phrase “flirting with danger” in order to summarize women’s approach toward hetero-relations as established by previous interactions and media influence. In common situations of hetero-relations, the boundaries between “seduction and domination, pleasure and danger, responsibility and exploitation, agency and objectification, and consent and coercion” often become variable and murky (Phillips 3). However, women interpret this risky behavior as a “part of the ‘normal’ experience of their daily hetero-relational lives” (Phillips 3).  Through her research and analysis of women’s personal reflections of their relational experiences, Phillips successfully explores how women’s view of hetero-relations has evolved into the “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Lynn N. Phillips draws on previous literature from feminist theorists in order to analyze her qualitative data. In doing so, she successfully creates a framework to guide our understanding of how society has shaped the subjectivity of power, choice, and desire within hetero-relations. In writing this book, Phillips aims to stimulate discourse regarding aspects of hetero-relations that are often excluded from feminist and social science literature. She specifically highlights the absence of conversation promoting “male accountability” and “female pleasure without penalties” (Phillips 77). While women do have the same sexual desires as men, “structural, ideological, and interpersonal barriers” created by Western Culture often prevent women from expressing these desires (Phillips 77).  Further, she hopes to gain a greater understanding of how women’s judgments, specifically regarding the meanings of male domination and sexualized power in their lives, have been shaped by personal experiences and outside influences. These subjectivities, formed from popular media and past hetero-relational experiences, are exemplified through four common themes of discourse: (1) “how to be a ‘good woman’,” (2) “what constitutes ‘normal’ male behavior,” (3) “what counts as ‘real victimization’,” and (4) “what should be expected from men and hetero-relationships” (Phillips 38, 52, 61, 69).  Through her comprehensive investigation of power and desire from personal narratives about hetero-sexual relations, Phillips successfully sets up a foundation for institutional change and further research surrounding “how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relations” (Phillips 205).

Lynn M. Phillips consults with organizations on issues of sexuality, education, and victimization. As a Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School University, she has experience in teaching and working with young adults. She has also written several other books on the topic of gender, sexuality, and relationships. For example, she was commissioned by the National Council for Research on Women to write The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, and she is the author of Planned Parenthood’s Unequal Partners: Exploring Power and Consent in Adult-Teen Relationships. Her research in the field of gender and sexuality studies has sparked further inquiry surrounding the formation of the beliefs and messages guiding hetero-relations.

Phillips wrote Flirting with Danger in order to investigate her three central research questions: (1) How do “young women conceptualize the distinctions between good relationships and bad ones, between consent and coercion, and between agency and victimization?”, (2) How do “young women make sense of the violence and manipulation that all too often invade their hetero-relationships?”, (3)  What do young women “tolerate,…resist,…or perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ in their own and other women’s hetero-relational encounters?” (Phillips 5). In addition to using previous literature from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Butler, Bartky, Collins, and more, Phillips conducted her own research study by interviewing young women from a small, progressive liberal arts college in the northeastern United States (Phillips 6). She placed letters in the campus mailboxes of all female students, inviting them to be interviewed about “power and intimacy in various relationships” (Phillips 6). She had in-depth conversations with the thirty young women who responded regarding their own personal experiences within hetero-relations as well as the hetero-relations of those around them.  Surprisingly, of the thirty young women that responded, twenty-seven of them “described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment” but “only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience” (Phillips 7). Though Phillips does not discuss the official legal reporting of rape, battering, or harassment, this fact demonstrates the challenges of under-reporting. Many women are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and abuse, but refuse to consider themselves a victim when placed in the exact context. When in this situation of victimization, women have a “tendency to downplay the severity of their experience and blame themselves for their own abuse” (Phillips 157).  However, Phillips uses this fact alone as well as the contexts in which these young women’s hetero-relational subjectivities were constructed to understand young women’s personal perceptions, decisions, and attributions within hetero-relations. By placing these perspectives within cultural contexts, Phillips is able to identify common themes which contributed to their formation.

Through exploring prevailing themes within popular discourse relating to hetero-relations, Phillips creates a structure for the contexts, formulation, and application of “flirting with danger.” She specifically outlines four dominant themes of discourse with two conflicting discourses within each. For example, one dominant theme throughout her discussions was “how to be a ‘good woman’,” which broke down into “the pleasing woman discourse” and “the together woman discourse” (Phillips 38-39, 47).  The “pleasing woman” encompasses “the desire and ability to be pleasant, feminine, and subordinate to men,” stressing “morality, sexual ‘purity,’ and service to men and children” (Phillips 39). The “together woman” is “free, sexually sophisticated, and entitled to accept nothing less than full equality and satisfaction in her sexual encounters and romantic relationships” (Phillips 47). As exemplified though “how to be a ‘good woman’ discourse,” the two discourses within each dominant theme are viewed as mutually exclusive, thus creating the need to “flirt with danger” in order to obtain a “normal” hetero-relational experience (Phillips 38). As Phillips discusses, however, these two discourses should be seen as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive, as hetero-relations will vary within each discourse based on the situation. Through exploring, establishing, and breaking down the social constructions of these dominant discourses, Phillips hopes to stimulate discussion surrounding the promotion of young women as sexual subjects who can find pleasure and safety within their hetero-relations with the final goal being a society without a “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Within feminist literature, Phillips specifically draws from bell hooks’s Feminist Theory from Margin to Center in order to build off of previous theories regarding sexuality. In a passage referenced by Phillips, bell hooks describes “naming and criticizing the negative aspects of sexuality” as a “simple task for women” (Phillips 190). Further, bell hooks discusses difficulty of changing the norms of sexuality for women due to cultural constraints. Though Phillips agrees with the difficult task of creating new sexual ideals, especially in the present culture, she argues that naming is not such as simple a task as bell hooks portrays. Referencing the stories of the young women she interviewed, Phillips argues that women have difficulty making “straightforward claims about their own victimization” (Phillips 190). Women were able to speak against male sexual aggression in general, but unable to identify male sexual domination as victimizing within their own experiences. Similar to the views of bell hooks, Phillips contributes the inability to identify personal experiences as victimizing and the failure to establish new sexual paradigms to the cultural constraints of society today. By analyzing and critiquing the work of bell hooks in the context of her research, Phillips contributes to the conversation regarding feminist literature, enabling further research in this field.

One of the strengths of Phillips’s book is that it is relatable to a wider audience, concerning race, socio-economic status, and religion, as she draws on stories from all of the women in order to form her analysis. She uses specific examples of situations women found themselves in or brought upon themselves through poor decisions or risky behavior as evidence for all of her claims, further aiding her argument. This detailed investigation, however, is limited only to heterosexual relations; though some of these women identify as bisexual or questioning, she limits her research to only their hetero-relational experiences, excluding all other relations since she believes that “all women regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, are engaged in hetero-relations of some sort” (Phillips XI). Phillips did not take into account that these women’s same-sex relations could have made an impact on the formation of their ideas surrounding hetero-relations.  Therefore, in order to expand upon her study, Phillips suggests researchers should “explore how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relationships as well,” building off of her framework and findings (Phillips 205).

Overall, in her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn M. Phillips successfully analyzes the hetero-relational experiences of thirty young women in order to create a structure for the formation of the beliefs behind their actions. Other feminist theorists as well as young women and men should read Phillips’s book in order to stimulate discourse and change the culture constructing these views and beliefs surrounding power, desire, and choice within hetero-relations.

 

Works Cited

Phillips, Lynn M. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and

Domination. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.