On the failures of Political Heterosexuality and No Cis Men
This past January, a woman using the moniker “Radical” wrote into Slate’s “How To Do It” sex advice column: “I’m a cis woman in kind of a classic millennial sex pickle: I’m really repelled by heterosexuality politically and personally, but I’m also really into dick. I’ve been thinking maybe I should look for bi dudes/ bicurious gay dudes.” Implicit in her query is what’s become an accepted truism among left-leaning women online: cis straight manhood is bad, interpersonally and politically; therefore, any other gender or sexual orientation is interpersonally and politically better.
I’ll be the first to say it: I love men. The Discourse™ has turned me into a boyfriend apologist. Man-hating as a political necessity in 2020? Please. I’d rather let my cishet boyfriend choke me while he comes on my face. The money shot, prescribed as it is, is a more viscerally interesting exercise than entertaining yet another stale round of men-are-trash-slash-heterosexuality-is-a-curse-slash-anyone-but-cis-men thinkpieces, tweets, door policies, and movements. Anything is.
In “Know Your Enemy,” their 1981 pamphlet calling on every feminist-identified woman to reject straight sex, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group wrote, “Men are the enemy. Heterosexual women are collaborators with the enemy.” They elaborated using hypothetical Q&A’s with straight women, answering the objections, “But we don’t do penetration, my boyfriend and me”; “But I like fucking”; “But you don’t understand how difficult it is to give up men”; and, “But lesbian relationships are also fucked up by power structures.” To the last challenge, they respond, “That is sometimes true, but the power of one woman is never backed up by a superior sex-class position. Struggles between women do not directly strengthen the oppression of all women or build up the strength of men.” This is, unfortunately, patently untrue. If one firmly believes that the liberation of all women is not just tangentially but, at its heart, bound up with the liberation of the most structurally marginalized women among us—including but not limited to trans women, Black women, poor women, Native women, and disabled women—then one also believes that struggles between women can and do directly strengthen the oppression of all women. For example: every time a cis lesbian fights for legislation denying trans women the right to use women’s restrooms, she strengthens the oppression of all women. Every time my hetero boyfriend pulls my hair, or puts his dick inside of me, or—God forbid—forgets to text me back, he does not.
I digress. Political lesbianism doesn’t seem too popular anymore, save for last year’s resurgent adulation of Andrea Dworkin’s writings. But something like Political Heterosexuality has emerged, defined by the same consensus that organized political lesbianism, only this time, also heralded by straight women: Men are the enemy! To the political lesbian’s logical counterpart to that statement—that heterosexual women are collaborators with the enemy—the Political Heterosexual doesn’t disagree, but enlists the Gaga-fied, age-old defense of sexual orientation that’s most palatable to liberals because it’s hardest to argue with: they were born this way. If they could choose to be any other way, they would.
In an essay for The New Inquiry, published in October, Indiana Seresin coined the term heteropessimism to describe aspects of this phenomenon, specifically, her observations of “performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience.” (She subsequently replaced “heteropessimism” with “heterofatalism,” following criticism of her positioning the term next to Afropessimism, problematic because of heterosexuality’s dominant cultural standing; I’ll use the latter from here.) Citing examples like the online straight girls’ response to Straight Pride, when many quickly declared “that they are not that kind of heterosexual, that they are, in fact, ashamed of being straight, and that, not to be dramatic, they see heterosexuality as a prison within which they are confined against their will,” Seresin writes, “dissatisfaction with heterosexuality, despite being sold as universal, always seems to operate on the level of the individual. Collectively changing the conditions of straight culture is not the purview of [heterofatalism].” Seresin makes two assumptions here: 1) performative displays of dissatisfaction with heterosexuality are made for individual gain and absolution, and, 2) these performative displays reflect a genuine and earnestly felt dissatisfaction with men and the conditions of straight culture, rather than … something else.
Several essays published since Seresin’s “On [Heterofatalism]” share in her assumptions. In her year-end review, “It Was A Tough Year for Heterosexuality,” Shannon Keating writes for Buzzfeed, “women are still more likely than men to be unhappily married . . . men older than eighty-five report less life satisfaction if their spouse dies, while women whose husbands die actually get happier once the men are gone . . . the world is still plagued by shocking levels of intimate partner violence. In the face of all these bleak statistics, who could really blame straight women for being less than thrilled with their own straightness?” In a fantastical Valentine’s Day essay for the Verso Books blog, Sophie Lewis confirms “the existence, at the very least, of a subpopulation of females who believe sufficiently in their own heterosexuality to be ashamed of it.” In The Outline’s “Heterosexuality and its discontents,” Yuhe Faye Wang offers a slightly different explanation for the trend of lamenting one’s straightness:
People feel obligated to confess to heterosexuality as if it were a sin precisely because we have diverted responsibility for structural problems onto people’s personal choices. Women are sleeping with the oppressor, getting something out of it beyond sex or romance, and feel guilty about it … the confession allows them to express their genuine shame about benefiting from an oppressive system.
Nevertheless, each writer’s reflection on the public distancing by straight women from the objects of their desire rests on the belief that these displays reflect women’s feelings about their attachment to men as a stable category—disappointment or shame—rather than their feelings about their attachment to women as a stable category—fear that this category is becoming politically obsolete.
The thing is, the popular misandrist left discourse, perpetuated by straight women, has almost nothing to do with sexuality, but everything to do with gender. Like political lesbianism, this Political Heterosexuality is not concerned with actual, felt sexual orientation or relationships—it’s concerned with the reifying of binary categories at the expense of a nuanced analysis of gender that accounts for race, class, and transition. Political lesbianism organized itself around the principle that men were the oppressors of women, and that to engage with men romantically or sexually was to, literally, sleep with the enemy. It called for a categorical rejection of men: it didn’t matter if a woman was actually attracted to other women, or had lesbian relationships; it only mattered that she didn’t have relationships with men. The purpose and consequence of political lesbianism was to assert the absolute binary that men are oppressors and women are oppressed. This binary also, of course, relied on an insidious biological essentialism: political lesbians understood men as people possessing penises—like our dear “Radical,” above—and understood all penetrative sex as akin to rape. So, if the men decried by political lesbians were proxies for the global oppression of women by way of their phalluses, maligning them shored up the category of “women” as their opposite: the globally oppressed, the phallus-less, the righteous. While the decrying of men by Political Heterosexuals is less overtly bio-essentialist—tending to focus on men’s emotional immaturity, commitment-phobia, poor sexual skills, lack of hygiene, or failure to own a real, off-the-ground bed—it still relies on an implicit or explicit comparison with women, and thus, a binary. What makes these men men is that they are not women; what makes these women, then, women is that they are not men. In my view, professing hatred of men online is not exclusively or even often reflective of individual disappointment or in service of individual absolution; it is in service of the desire to continue to define the political category of “women” by a clean-cut opposite, in a time when it is no longer politically correct to do so.
I’m conflicted. I don’t know where my desire to defend men comes from, exactly. It makes me sad that online feminist discourse has become so odious, so cloyingly basic, that I’ve been reduced to this: turning my perfectly fine love of men into something interesting, or unusual, or worth talking about.
I hate this discourse not least because of its lack of attention to tenderness. There is tenderness between men and women; there is tenderness, even, to cis men. My boyfriend never kept his hair long when he was little; now it covers the length of his back, and he has no idea how to maintain it. Like my mom detangling my hair when I was a child who refused to brush it, I detangle his, frustrated but patient.
In her n+1 essay on feminist symbolism and vaginoplasty, “The Pink,” Andrea Long Chu writes,
I suppose what I’m saying is not that the desire for a universal is politically defensible but, more simply, that the desire for a universal is synonymous with having a politics at all. In a punishing twist, feminism has become both the preferred name for this desire and the very politics which must not claim it. Indeed, the minimal definition of a feminist might be a person who, affirming that women will never constitute a political class, privately hopes it might happen anyway.
Good feminists do indeed acknowledge the impossibility of lumping women together as a discrete group with legible, united needs; over is the heyday of white second-wave feminism, claiming all women—regardless of race or wealth—as equal in their second-class citizenship. But, even as progressive women dutifully point out the failure of the universal, acknowledging that the universalizing of the category “women” nearly always reeks of white supremacy and transphobia, many of those same women continue to fervently desire a universal, whether or not they’ll say it out loud. And the loophole, championed by Political Heterosexuality, is to affirm that men constitute a political class—the silent foil being, then, that women still do, too.
Political Heterosexuality flourishes IRL just as much as it does online. The performative online displays of man-hating stem from a longstanding in-person sociality: the age-old tradition of straight women bitching about their boyfriends to one another, which they do precisely to feel a sense of community with other women. It’s a grasping for a pseudo-political solidarity that isn’t as performative as online displays are, but that often feels like the easiest way to make meaning of the confusing, ever-present affective experience of women in straight relationships who feel failed emotionally by their partners. This is not unique to straight women, though. I’d argue it’s the universal experience of romantic love: feeling fundamentally misunderstood or unmet by one’s beloved—a betrayal felt so deeply only because of how known the beloved can otherwise make one feel—and whenever I find myself falling back on a “men are trash” refrain to explain my alienation from male romantic partners away, it’s out of laziness or a desire for connection to those who might feel the same. This is a way to make suffering feel more communal and less punishing—to imagine that failed communication or bad sex are beyond our control, and also, to imagine that something better is out there. In other words, I don’t think heterosexuality is a curse, as is so popular to profess, but desire certainly is.
When older relatives ask at a family gathering if “your man” is coming, I secretly delight. My man! My man, whom I do not hate, whom I very dearly, in fact, love.
In the season eight finale of The Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny Frankel catches her friend’s fiancée cheating. She lies in bed in Miami screaming, “You know I NEVER even say this, but men are fucking ANIMALS!” Her only recourse is universalization.
A friend will text me a screenshot of a guy’s Tinder profile, someone who calls himself an “empath” and is “just looking to hook up,” and I’ll respond, “omg men are TRAGIC,” with an infinitude of sobbing emojis. Another friend will complain over drinks that the guy she’s seeing, who has been acting like her boyfriend for the past three months, keeps vehemently reminding her he’s not “in a place” to “have a girlfriend,” “right now.” Again, the conversation will turn to men as a group—how callous they are, how emotionally out of touch, how afraid of their own desire for intimacy. But even as I’m doing it, I don’t believe my own hemming and hawing. When I was in college, I’d sit around complaining with my girlfriends about how the guys we were hooking up with would, without fail, aggressively finger-bang us, thinking that’s what we wanted. “No girl likes that,” we’d say smugly and exasperatedly, self-satisfied with our knowledge of what every woman in the world liked in bed—knowledge I was certain of, until the first lesbian I ever had sex with wanted me to do it to her. Gone was the fantasy that a similar body denotes a similar desire; gone should be the fantasy that a physical body denotes anything about desire or gender at all. So many of the misunderstandings of each other’s bodies, desires, or emotional needs that we blame on gender are merely interpersonal failings. But blaming men on the basis of cis manhood allows cis women to reify biologically essentialist notions of our own bodies—as a group—without really having to say it, like a wink and a nod.
I watched Almost Famous at my grandfather’s house, one night in elementary school when I couldn’t sleep. Too young to understand much of the movie’s actual plot—too young to recognize drug use and closeted sexuality and thwarted fame—what came through was simply affect. What I recognized in Penny Lane’s overdosing on Quaaludes, in the arms of a sweet and soft-spoken boy, heartbroken over a harsh, electric man who refused to choose her, asking plaintively, “Why doesn’t he love me?” before passing out, was womanhood. I wanted it, and to become a woman, I would someday love a man who didn’t love me. (Louise Gluck writes of her sister, “She was my father’s daughter: / the face of love, to her, / is the face turning away.”)
We profess our indignation and irrationality like children play-acting adult anger: We Hate Men! It’s us caving into the soothing “intimate public of femininity” that Lauren Berlant warned us about, defined by her “female complaint”: “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Such a public “operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires,” making “participants in the intimate public feel as though it expresses what is common among them.” But, always already embedded within and stemming from this circulation of collective feeling are white supremacy, transmisogyny, and other insidious modes of domination.
The complaint genres of “women’s culture,” therefore, tend to foreground a view of power that blames flawed men and bad ideologies for women’s intimate suffering, all the while maintaining some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place … the complaint is often a half-truth in the guise of a whole one, hyperbole projected out of a consciousness that observes struggle and registers the failure of the desired world without wanting to break with the conditions of that struggle” (italics my own).
Our popular discourse around men—the final gendered category we allow ourselves to treat as both fixed and bad, marked as a collective scapegoat for all things narcissistic, obtuse, and disappointing—is an expression of maintaining our fidelity to the world of distinction, or refusing to break with the conditions of the struggle we observe. In this way, we are simply repeating the belief that a binary gender can be a stable category, even as we simultaneously fight against the conditions of the gender binary foisting stable and unwanted categories upon us. We cannot champion a non-biologically essentialist, trans-inclusive feminism and champion No Cis Men; we cannot have it both ways.
This past June, queer theorist Che Gossett tweeted, “the popular grammar of ‘cis man’ treats gender & sex as fixed and forecloses trans femme-inity. We need new grammar that doesnt reinforc[e] the binary logic its supposed to oppose.” They sparked a conversation that went on to question the popularity of gender-based door policies at queer parties, adding, “I went to a queer ‘feminist’ play party where there was a no cis man policy and got gender policed at door and then non consensually touched at the party. Like that’s not how violence or ending it works, it just a violent & false sense of ‘safety.’” GUSH, the infamous queer club night that happens once a month in Brooklyn, has a door policy that’s exemplary of the kind of hostile, “lol,” faux-inclusive tone of gender policing in the name of queer liberation that’s currently in vogue: the cover charge is donation-based, but its flier “suggests $10 for anyone who identifies as lesbian, female, trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, intersex, or asexual, $15 for cis gay men, and $75 for cis straight men.” I went to the party once, got trashed, and made out with my crush. Contemplating going again the next month, my friend and I drank wine in bed. “I’m sorry, but, where exactly do these people think trans women come from?” they wondered aloud. I know a fair amount of people who identified publicly as gay men before identifying publicly as trans women, and a fair amount of people who I thought were cis until they came out as trans or nonbinary. The truth is, people explore and expand their gender identities—and feel safe doing so—by being in community with others who have explored and expanded their gender identities.
Who are we to say who is a cis man, at this point? People are cis until they’re not; look cis depending on what you think cis looks like; look trans depending on what you think trans looks like. People realize their identities over time, usually in nonlinear ways. A person might never disclose their gender identity publicly; they might not feel safe doing so.
No Cis Men has taken hold beyond nightlife; it’s the new, ostensibly more expansive but equally nonsensical “women and femmes.” Women’s colleges, too, have adopted versions of the phrase as their admissions policy. In 2014, Mount Holyoke announced it was expanding its admissions criteria beyond solely admitting women; the only defined gender not eligible for admission was “biologically born male; identifies as man.” The new dating app Lex is intended for anyone but cis men, though its founder “can’t explicitly say that.” In a recent Instagram post, user @drdevonprice wrote,
“Anyone but cis men” policies mean you think assigned female people can be assumed to be safe by default, and that assigned male people can’t … People are constantly in search of an acceptable way to lump all assigned female people together with maybe, mayyybe a small number of trans women (if that) and call that feminist . . . [these] policies always end up excluding trans women and assigned male trans people, because they paint assigned male people as inherently more dangerous and suspect than assigned female ones.
The Political Heterosexual’s hatred of the men she loves and the queer’s championing of the No Cis Men position are one and the same: the last bastion of binary gender stability; the only remaining sexism palatable to us all.
I love men’s casual homoerotic acknowledgements of each other as men; I want all men to kiss their homies goodnight and I want it so badly that I, too, want to be a man who is a homie who gets kissed goodnight.
I love the heterosexual drama of insisting that my boyfriend just doesn’t get me.
Lana del Rey’s newest album dropped last summer, to wild anticipation. (Famous for her sad-girl, brokenhearted affect, a friend once told me she told an interviewer that her songs were about alcohol, not men. I believe it, but haven’t ever been able to find the evidence.) Of the first and title track of Norman Fucking Rockwell, a Pitchfork critic wrote, “‘God damn, man child’ are felicitous first words and the national mood.” The lyrics continue, “You’re fun and you’re wild / But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through . . . ‘Cause you’re just a man / It’s just what you do.” Her voice is calm but plaintive: this is the straight girl’s cross to bear; there’s no sense in denying or fighting it. (Less than a month after NFR’s release, Lana was photographed enjoying a stroll through Central Park with her new boyfriend: Sean “Sticks” Larkin, member of the Tulsa, Oklahoma police force, Instagram influencer, and star of not one but two A&E cop reality shows. A Lana stan to the end, I couldn’t accept this turn of fate; thank God they’ve since broken up. Here’s a thought: men are not cops. Cops are cops. Some identities are indeed fixed, and fixed as in bad: those irrevocably attached to the institutionally sanctioned violence of the state. There are no good cops; there are some good men.) Pitchfork’s comment on Lana capturing the national mood is well taken, though: we’ll never know the exact effect of widespread Trump-hating on the uptick in mainstream man-hating over the last few years, but a correlation seems likely.
Two months prior to Lana’s album release, beloved advice columnist E. Jean Carroll published a feature in New York magazine called “My List of Hideous Men.” She was pictured on the cover in a Donna Karan coatdress, black tights, and black heels, next to sans serif black type: “This is what I was wearing 23 years ago when Donald Trump attacked me in a Bergdorf dressing room.” The essay was adapted from her then-forthcoming travelogue and treatise, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal. The book is not very good; the abridged essay, devastating. Carroll describes a variety of hideous men assaulting her in a variety of ways, never straying from her chatty, born-cheerleader tone. Then, she details Donald Trump’s raping her in the city’s most expensive department store when she was fifty-two. And then she ends the piece: “And that was my last hideous man . . . I have never had sex with anybody ever again.”
The conceit of Carroll’s book is a feminist road trip: having decided that the root of every problem asked of her during her twenty-five-year tenure as “Ask E Jean” at Elle was “men,” she embarks on a road trip to “every town named after a woman between Tallulah, Louisiana, and Eden, Vermont . . . asking people ‘What Do We Need Men For?’ in the fond hope of getting rid of the male sex forever.” She begins with a modest proposal in the vein of its predecessor, body-based and creepy. She’d like to break down men for parts:
I have been assured by female scientists that the male body is roughly composed of 0.00004 percent iodine, 0.00004 percent iron, 0.05 percent magnesium, 0.15 percent chlorine, 0.15 percent sodium, 0.25 percent sulfur, 0.35 percent potassium, 1 percent phosphorus, 1.5 percent calcium, 3.2 percent nitrogen, 10 percent hydrogen, 18 percent carbon, and 65 percent oxygen, and these elements would, on the open market, fetch about $1 per bloke. The number of males in America is generally reckoned at 164,628,232. Ladies, I propose that we dispose of our chaps at the $1.03 price and put their elements to better use … Plus, with the $170 or $180 million we receive, we will be able to purchase, in return, eleven or twelve genuine Birkin bags.
It’s a science fiction fantasy, a vaporizing of all who have done her harm. Fewer rapists and more handbags is a utopia I can get behind, save for its biological reductiveness. I am wary of critiquing Carroll too harshly, allowing for both generational divides and an irrational love of magazine advice columnists, but I find the skeptical nature of her question unconvincing. If men cause women so much trouble—if they are, in her view, the root of all of our problems—what could we possibly need them for? To exist in opposition to us, for one thing, as the objects of our uncorrupted disdain. To prop up our tenuous grasp on our own womanhood, dependent for so many on an inverse.
It’s true that men frequently commit profound violence against women, particularly women they’re in intimate relationships with. It’s true that much of masculinity under hetero-patriarchal capitalism is toxic. It’s true that cis white men are prodigal sons, so often impenetrable by cruel institutions that discipline the rest of us. And yet, judging by the sheer number of men in prison alone, the state arguably commits more violence against men than it does against women. At the very least, the state commits significantly more violence against cis Black men than it does against cis white women. No Cis Men policies and casual man-hating refuse to account for how expansive and ever-changing the category of cis men is. The violence we ascribe to masculinity is always already inscribed by police, prisons, schools, and hospitals, stamped onto men to bleed onto the rest of us. Upholding this category as something poisonous, to be quarantined and kept out of our allegedly safe spaces, both discursively and materially, only strengthens the rigid categorizing we have otherwise worked to oppose.
While writing this essay, I asked someone who I thought was a man to open a jar for me in the library. I had brought a beverage with me and, ever weak, couldn’t twist the lid off. He took the jar, seamlessly opened it, and I continued typing my praise of men. “Life really does imitate art!” I tweeted. I don’t know if he was a man, though. I know he possessed qualities I like in men I spend time with: strong, silent, happy to help without drawing attention to my inability to complete an exceedingly simple physical task. I know he’d be expected to pay $75 at the queer party, based on his appearance, and it’s certainly possible he has a girlfriend tweeting about his refusal to go down on her at this very moment. I know seeing him as a man let me revel in my womanhood—my delicate wrists, my minimal upper body strength, my nails too long to to get much done—but I don’t know if he was one. And if he was, in fact, a cis man, I have no idea how long he’ll remain one. Gender is never fixed; gender is always broken.