What is Heteronormativity and What Does it Mean?

Heteronormativity presents heterosexuality as something that's given and natural, or "the norm." Why is this so harmful? Learn the answer here.
What is Heteronormativity and What Does it Mean?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 09 June, 2023

If you’re heterosexual, how many times in your life have you had to go out and fight for the right to marry? Have you been abused for holding hands with your partner? Have you been forced to give explanations about the person you’re in a relationship with or about your partner? Surely the answer is no. This is because we live in a society in which heteronormativity is the validated model.

However, just because it’s ‘common’ doesn’t mean that it’s the best. Its main drawback is that while some people can live in complete freedom, there are those who are not only prevented from doing so, but must face criticism, episodes of violence, prejudice regarding their orientation, and the impossibility of accessing their rights. Let’s delve a little deeper into this topic.

What does the term “heteronormativity” refer to?

Heteronormativity is a social, political, and economic regime that presents heterosexuality as the only normal and natural sexual orientation. It imposes the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders to be linked in a sex-affective way and in kinship.

However, this concept actually responds to a socio-historical construction. It’s taken as universal the attraction and relationship between people of different sex or gender – that is, between a man and a woman.

It’s a model that’s considered unique, is prescriptive, and comes many with assumptions. This can be evidenced in issues of rights and laws as well as in everyday conversations. For example, when a man is talking to another man about his partner, the latter assumes – almost automatically – that he is referring to a woman.

This is how heterosexuality, by becoming the norm, represents an obstacle to other ways of living and expressing sexuality. It can make them invisible, cause them to be labeled, make them seem inferior and, in more serious cases, turn them into a “disease.”

In fact, it’s also accompanied by limitations for those who are part of heteronormativity, since by prescribing models of “should be”, it puts in the spotlight those who exhibit behaviors that aren’t in accordance with their sex or gender. For example, this occurs when a man cries and is labeled as “weak” or “sensitive.”

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The characteristics of heteronormativity

Some of the characteristics of heteronormativity present in society are the following:

  • It’s assumed to be natural, obvious, and universal. It’s simply assumed that all people are heterosexual.
  • It’s based on sexual binarism, or the notions of men and women, who in turn have “complementary” roles. However, it should be noted that they’re valued differently and hierarchically within this system.
  • In most societies and cultures, there’s a constant reinforcement of heterosexuality as a universal model to be followed. Think, for example, of the protagonists of novels or stories.

How can heteronormativity affect people?

Sexuality and the way of living it is a fundamental dimension in the life of any person. It’s not only about sex, but also about emotional bonding and the relationship with one’s own body, among other things.

However, within the framework of heteronormativity, not all people can enjoy their sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity in the same way. To this day many are still stigmatized for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. They’re often infantilized with phrases like “you’ll grow out of it…” There are even those who prefer to live their entire lives “in the closet.”

Not to mention that in some countries they still can’t even enjoy full rights, just like the rest of the citizenry. In many places, equal marriage still doesn’t exist and homosexuality is even punished with the death penalty.

Access to basic rights such as education and health is hindered for LGBTIQA+ people.

Having said all this, what are the consequences of living under compulsory heteronormativity? Undoubtedly, the impact is at all levels; physical, psychological, and social. In particular, in terms of mental health, we can mention some of the following consequences:

  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Self-rejection, due to internalized models of homophobia
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Feelings of sadness, anguish, and depression
  • Suffering is caused by stigma and discrimination
  • In some cases, people are forced to lead a “double life” because of the rejection that may be caused in their relationships by the fact of being attracted to a person of the same sex-gender
  • Due to the need for approval, they may have unhealthy overcompensating attitudes and behaviors (for example, they may become the “perfect child” at the cost of their own well-being)
  • In more extreme cases, ideas about death and suicide may even appear.
It’s worth clarifying that homosexuality is not directly related to this impact on mental health because it’s harmful per se, but because of the context of discrimination and violence experienced in the environment.

Like this article? You may also like to read: Asexuality: A Complete Lack of Sexual Desire

The importance of accepting diversity

Diversity (sexual, religious, ethnic, bodily, among others) not only allows people to express themselves freely -which is a basic universal right – but is also enriching. Some of the reasons why it’s positive and necessary are the following:

  • It allows the construction of more egalitarian, respectful, and tolerant societies.
  • It helps all people to live a free life, without feeling fear or shame for being the way they are.
  • It supports the development and positive experience around the body, feelings, emotions, and bonds. In this way, not only can multiple unpleasant or risky situations be prevented, but also a positive and authentic connection to who we are and who we want to be.

Addressing diversity is an urgent matter

In many homes, the issue of sexuality in general and heteronormativity in particular are often addressed “when it comes up”. However, it’s imperative to change this reactive way of thinking, since both children and adolescents are not alien to the world in which they live, and are permanently in contact with information and people.

If we don’t raise them with a quality and diverse education, they may become accomplices or protagonists of situations in which other people are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, such as through homophobic bullying.

Finally, it’s important to stop thinking of sexual diversity as a taboo subject; we’re all involved in it. Diversity is not only about sex; it’s also about relationships and feelings. It’s about rights and respect.

In this case, a good first exercise for parents and adults is to examine their own beliefs and myths before sharing knowledge and experiences with children. The topic should be approached naturally, without fear or embarrassment, and adapting the information and language to the age of our interlocutor.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.