Monday, July 28, 2008

What makes heterosexuality legitimate?

Feministe is one of the larger feminist websites. There was a post recently at the site titled "What Does a Feminist Relationship Look Like?". Readers were asked to respond to the following question:

How do you work feminism into your relationships? Do you think it’s even possible to have a fully feminist, egalitarian heterosexual relationship?

There was a range of answers, but I couldn't help but notice response no.54 from Allyson:

I would like to suggest that women (and men) struggling with what an egalitarian heterosexual relationship looks like refer to Christine Overall’s Heterosexuality and Feminist Theory. The feminist philosopher argues that it is possible to have a feminist heterosexuality, if it is separated from institutionalized heterosexuality. She suggests that this is accomplished by each partner taking a critical perspective, becoming aware of the privileges attached to their relationship and then rejecting that privilege and striving against heterosexist oppression.

In addition, she argues that a feminist heterosexuality can only be present when it is a conscious choice; in other words, she argues that a woman must engage in critical reflection, identify that she is attracted to men and act accordingly. A feminist heterosexuality cannot be one that is automatically assumed because self-determination is not present there.

Dr Overall is apparently a big thing in Canadian academia: the Queen's University website declares,

Dr. Christine Overall is one of the world’s foremost feminist scholars, particularly in the field of reproductive ethics, and is regarded as a pioneer in the field of feminist philosophy.

(By the way, what are the chances of a pioneer in feminist philosophy being called Dr Overall - conjuring up images of the appearance of 1970s style feminists.)

So, on Allyson's reading at least, Professor Overall believes that women can be legitimately heterosexual, but only if they choose this heterosexuality self-consciously after a period of "critical reflection". If they fail to do this they haven't self-determined their sexuality and it becomes illegitimate.

This is a logical, if unusual, application of liberal autonomy theory. Liberalism sets autonomy as a primary life aim and therefore seeks to remove impediments to individual self-determination. But there are a lot of significant things we don't self-determine, our sexuality being one of them (along with our ethnicity and our gender). Some liberals therefore claim that heterosexuality is not fixed and naturally predominant, but that sexuality exists fluidly in multiple forms along a continuum.

Dr Overall's solution seems to be a bit different: she wants people to go through a conscious process of choice to make it seem as if their heterosexuality is voluntary and self-determined. (Note how closely connected feminist philosophy is here with the basic concerns of liberalism.)


  1. Nice post Mark. As you have pointed out, these hetero feminists are deluding themselves into thinking they are different.

    Note also the demeaning assumption that other women are completely under the influence of patriarchy without knowing it, and are hence lesser beings.

    The feminist call for "consciousness raising" kind of reminds of the The Matrix movie, where the protaganist needs to stop believing in worldly reality in order to be truly aware.

  2. It's also a form of gnosticism, where only the "enlightened" are living truly authentic lives.

  3. I think they're getting stupider by the day.