Compulsory heterosexuality and the social construction of sexuality and gender


Compulsory heterosexuality is a concept rarely questioned in contemporary society. This essay will not only discuss its heteronormative ideals with references to the expectations of gender and sexuality throughout a Western hegemonic culture, but will also highlight ways in which it has become normalised through discourse and social interaction. The question of whether or not structure overrides agency and aids to define an individual’s sexual behaviour or gender will be asked in turn. However, this essay’s argument states that in direct opposition to the essentialist perspective of sexuality, social constructionism acts to reinforce ideals of heteronormativity, and yet, serves to challenge these norms simultaneously through the construction of a metaphorical framework. Throughout this framework, agency can be found, but in order to display a sense of free will and free expression, certain guidelines must be adhered to.

Compulsory heterosexuality, or heterosexism, can simply be defined as the dominant norm for sexual orientation, thus to take on any other form of sexual orientation outside the norm is seen as a deviant act (Germov & Poole 2011, p.10). This means that all social interaction is filtered and seen through the lens of a heteronormative gaze. A common misconception, however, throughout Western society is that gender and biological sex are synonymous in meaning. This is not the case. Compulsory heterosexuality, within a post-modern patriarchal structure, has its origins deeply entrenched throughout modernity. As the clinical study of the body during this time took a reductionist approach to sexuality, its assignment of function to each appendage created the normative view that sexual organs were to be associated with human reproduction (Hawkes & Scott 2005, p.10). Reductionism is a word used to describe the minimisation of a phenomena to its most simplistic single form (Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2006, p. 321) and this methodical practice is evident within the heternormative views of society. Therefore, seeing the world through this frame communicates the discourse that sexual behaviour is a result of our biological state. From this assumption, it can be deduced that, as a common misconception, it ‘helped to legitimate male dominance in a range of social settings’ (Hawkes & Scott 2005, p.10). As a result, this fuelled the normalisation of compulsory heterosexuality, and yet, it could be argued that norms are not subjected to determinism in society.

Biological sex is biologically determined, sexuality is altered in accordance to preference, and gender is a behavioural mode of being (Butler 2011). These three concepts are not substitutable. However, role expectations within Western culture have led people to trust in the belief that they must perform certain acts within certain structures to avoid conflict. For example, it is a commonly taken for granted view that females should act like girls and males should act like boys but this is not always the case. This avoidance of conflict can be seen to spur on emotions of shame, insecurity, or even fear, and therefore, encourages expressionistic silence. For example, research shows that in many English speaking countries, not excluding Australia, discrimination against homosexuality is discouraged and, at times, even illegal. Regardless of this, heterosexual men are shown to ignore homosexual desire in fear of being shunned by their peers (Richters & Rissel 2005, p.118). This is extremely problematic at the time of adolescence, when identity is at its most vulnerable through the unavoidable pressures of socialisation. This prejudice is evident in Australia, for instance, in which ‘bisexuality is not widely recognised as a valid sexual identity’ and, therefore, ‘not protected by discrimination legislation’ (Richters & Rissel 2005, p.119). In direct contention to this, research shows that ‘same-sex attraction or experience is reported by 9 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women’ (Richters & Rissel 2005, p.113). These are high numbers which are, for the most part, ignored. Therefore, compulsory heterosexuality seems to not only be put in place by popular discourse, but also shows to be enforced by the state and government. However, there is still hope that this patriarchal view of the world will shift but this will only occur when expectations and discourse through agencies of socialisation are altered (Connell 2005, p.23). This includes television, film, and magazines, however, agencies of socialisation aren’t just limited to materialistic devices; discourse can also be communicated and circulated through symbolic interactionism. Mead’s concept of symbolic interactionism places its emphasis on language and social interaction, as both are a means of developing a sense of self (Germov & Poole 2011, p.523).

Social constructionism refers to the social development of human characteristics based on the ‘idea that people actively construct reality’ though symbolic interactionism (Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2006, p.521). Therefore, the outcome of meaning is not a result of nature but purely through the effects of social interaction. This makes meaning entirely subjective to context in nature. According to this method of viewing the world, gender and sexuality are both social constructs within society despite dominant discourses that lead to compulsory heterosexuality. However, it could be argued that free agency is possible but only to the extent of structural boundaries erected by institutions and their participants. This approach is widely accepted as truth in sociological thought and contains therein what is commonly referred to as ‘social scripting’ (Gagnon 1977, p.6). Sexual scripts, as a subset of social scripting, are the metaphorical guidelines in which sexuality and sexual behaviour is regulated and understood (Gagnon 1977, p.6). For example, there are specific components of a sexual script which are said to be metaphorical boundaries for individual agents to move around in. Therefore, sexuality can be defined by who one has sex with, what one does sexually, when one has sex, where one has sex, and why one has sex (Gagnon 1977, p.8). These guidelines allow for much movement in order to individualise one’s sexuality to preference but aren’t static in nature; scripts are subjective to change and reconsideration. Nevertheless, this has no validity in the eyes of an essentialist.

Indeed, compulsory heterosexuality takes on a much more essentialist perspective in that sexuality is a biological state determined by nature (Abbott, Wallace & Tyler 2005, p.199). This has been the discourse since early modernity and until recently has been the norm. This theory is focused around four very simple assumptions about an individual’s sexual behaviour and gender. Firstly, one assumption is that sexuality is a human need. Secondly, according to essentialist thought, gender is biological and insinuates that one is conceived with it. This important factor directly contends with social constructionism and claims that gender is determined prior to socialisation. Thirdly, sexuality and gender are things which come from within the individual, as a biological essence residing within them. This assumption is in direct opposition to Connell’s more valid opinion that ‘gender is a social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do’, and therefore, ‘it is not social practice reduced to the body’ (Connell 2005, p.71). Fourthly, and most importantly, sexual behaviour, according to essentialist perspective, is something which cannot be changed throughout the life of any given person. This point positions sexual behaviour as something which cannot be influenced (Abbott, Wallace & Tyler 2005, p.199). Therefore, anything that steps outside of the essentialist perspective of sexual behaviour is considered, by heteronormative culture, as deviance in practice, thus creating a stigmatised view around non gender-binary relationships – and, in particular, non-heterosexual relationships.

With all this said, it could be argued that ‘humanness is socio-culturally variable’ (Berger & Luckmann 1976, p.67). This states that human behaviour is subject to change and is anything but a fixed state. If we are to assume the sociological perspective on gender and sexuality, this argument is equally valid. However, the question as to whether change is dependent on agency or structure remains. Much like the sociological approach of social constructionism, Berger and Luckmann take on a similar method of explaining preference with reference to ‘distinctive sexual configurations’ (1976, p.67). In a very similar likeness to the sexual script concept, here it is argued that there are a set of metaphorical guidelines in society that agents throughout must navigate within. From this, it could be argued that, agency is possible within a heteronormative hegemony. The term hegemony refers to one set of cultural ideals and its dominance over another. It differs from the concept of an ideology as its power is seen to reside within agency and allows for acts of resistance. Compulsory heterosexuality is able to make dramatic shifts within society through intention. For example, the ‘women’s movement,’ according to Gagnon, ‘has questioned a whole range of gender-role stereotypes about what women and girls are really like’’ (1977, p. 59). Therefore, it can be shown that through different forms of symbolic interactionism, norms can become questionable within any given structure. In 2004, research shows that, men and women were more likely to identify as gay, homosexual or lesbian than in 1998 (Hillier, Turner & Mitchell 2005, p.7). Possible reasons for this could include the expanse of information available through globalisation and the World Wide Web. Online blogging and, what could be called, armchair activism (online activism), has become a normal form of symbolic interaction in post-modern and contemporary Western cultures. These forms of socialisation could be argued as having the capability to pave the path for a much larger scope of acceptance outside of compulsory heterosexual structures.

In summary, this essay has shown that despite the patriarchal roots of compulsory heterosexuality, its influential vigour has carried on into post-modern society. Questions of agency have been raised in response to two major theories in order to understand sexual behaviour and its misconceived facts circulated throughout Western culture. Despite the ignorance of many, there still seems to be a few willing to resist the normalised ideals of heteronormativity. Furthermore, it has been deduced that we now live in a hegemonic society, with room to shift and change. There is no doubt that, in time, compulsory heterosexuality will be a dominant discourse of the past. Expectations on gender will alter, and the roles we perform in society will not be subject to discrimination or hate. Agency within structure is a powerful notion but it only ever takes one to deviate for the rest to follow.


Abbott, P, Wallace, C & Tyler, M 2005, An introduction to sociology: feminist perspectives, 3rd edn, London

Abercrombie, N, Hill, S & Turner, BS 2006, Dictionary of Sociology, England

Berger, PL & Luckmann, T 1976, The Social Construction of Reality, Great Britain

Connell, RW 2005, Masculinities: Second Edition, Los Angeles

Gagnon, JH 1977, Human Sexualities, United States of America

Germov, J & Poole, M, 2011, Public Sociology: An introduction to Australian society, NSW

Hawkes, G Scott, J, 2005, Perspectives in Human Sexuality, New York

Hillier, L, Turner, A & Mitchell, A 2005, Executive summary, in Writing themselves in again: 6 years on, Monograph series no.78, Australian Research Centre in Sex, health & society, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Lindsay, J 2005, Don’t panic! Young people and the social organisation of sex, Perspectives in human sexuality, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp.86-9

Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender 2011, online clip, Judith Butler: Big Think, retrieved 27th May, bigthink.com/videos/your-behavior-creates-your-gender


Makeover Culture and the self-produced individual

Is makeover culture indicative of the self-managing and self-produced individual in consumer society?

The question of makeover culture being indicative of the self-managing and self-produced individual in consumer society can be seen as too simple in premise to answer. Regardless, if one were to answer yes or no, the answer would be no. However, it is not that simple. This essay will discuss the makeover and its culture within a consumer society in contrast to its effects on the individual. From this, the question of whether or not agency reigns over structure is one open for debate. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir S, 1988 p. 267). Her comment not only speaks about a self-produced identity but also about structural influences as a simultaneous cause. This essay will attempt to discuss this topic with an emphasis on dualism. That is to say that one can argue in favour of free agency within any given structure, and yet, simultaneously, argue that our choices in society are limited to normalised views and class positioning. Heyes suggests that ‘taking charge of one’s destiny […] or gaining the body that better represents the moral virtues one has developed, are all forms of working on the self within a regime of normalisation’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 28). This is a valid suggestion to make considering that, as this essay will argue, structure and agency are both interchangeable within a post-modern world; each acts off the other.

The term makeover was first used in an issue of New York’s Vanity Fair in 1860. It was utilised to reference a character named ‘Miss Angelica Makeover’ who, unsurprisingly, had the uncanny super ability of being able to beautify her hair with ‘miracles of art and patience’. In actual fact, the copy was ‘the men like her and the women wonder why’ (Miller T, 2006 p. 586). Of course, this was widely known as a satirical piece, playing on the notion that in order to be aesthetically beautiful, one must maintain a sense of wonder to be attractive within the boundaries of a heteronormative structure. Sadly, in 153 years, this notion of femininity is still a reality. The definition used to describe makeover today ‘has [proven] to be a device that is useful for the portrayal of almost any social practice, from hotel ownership to debt management and toddler taming’ (Redden G, 2008 p. 485). This includes the ethically debatable practice of cosmetic surgery. However, within this practice, ‘ideological complexes’ can be found (Jones M, 2008, p. 15). There are a number of contradictory discourses within makeover culture, both serving to strengthen and weaken an individual’s motivation for internal and external change; one of these being the conflict of oppression over liberation. That is oppression in regards to structure and liberation in regards to individualistic freedom.

For example, from one feminist perspective, ‘cosmetic surgery enables women to move beyond a body reduced to the function of reproduction’ and allows them to embody a self with the capability of being able to stage new identities (Brooks A, 2004 p. 209), thus liberating their self within a patriarchal society. This view allows the individual to take control of their identity, and yet, the question of whether or not these choices are due to the normalising gaze remains, that being the question of whether or not individuals self-regulate because of societal expectations. It could be argued that, for many, ‘choosing cosmetic surgery is not about trying to be beautiful but rather about becoming “normal”’ (Jones M, 2008 p. 21). The word normal itself refers to socially constructed ideals, thus bringing forth the theory that free will is a myth or, at the very least, is only limited to the boundaries erected by society and its occupants. To support this argument, Jones argues that ‘cosmetic surgery processes the bodies of women, who make up the vast majority of its pool, into man-made women’ (Wolf N cited in Jones M, 2008 p. 21). This begs us to ask the questions: who is it that makes the choice to undergo cosmetic reconstruction? Is it the participant or is it discourse within a patriarchal society?

One could postulate that the male gaze is an important contributor to these norms. That is the theoretical belief that perspectives in the media and other forms of discourse have been framed through that of men (Jones M, 2008, p. 21). Taking this into account, if one suggestion assumes that ‘all citizens are similarly positioned as agents of their own welfare, another is that it includes very little recognition that […] optimization is mediated through discourse’ (Redden G, 2008 p. 486) For evidence of the latter, you need only turn on a television to witness its effects. Take the Jerry Springer Show for example:

‘An obese woman appeared on stage wearing a micro-mini frock and high heels. Her waiting family members shook their heads in disgust and the audience booed and jeered. But then Springer said she had recently lost 100 pounds. Instantly boos (sic) changed to cheers and the woman sat down proudly, ready to defend her right to wear skimpy outfits.’ (Jones M, 2008 p. 11).

Here, the disapproving audience falls prey to the influences of societal norms, reinforced by the media and images of beauty associated within it. As a result of Jerry’s announcement, the audience applauds her effort to change and moves aside her physical appearance. This leads to the conclusion that transition is prized above all else, thus deducing that if the knowledge of transition was removed, they’d still be ‘booing and jeering’, based on their socially constructed views of beauty.

Jones claims that ‘makeover culture is a state [in which] becoming is more desirable than being’ (2008 p. 12). To further this notion, the makeover can also be perceived and described as a ‘fairy tale of identity becoming’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 21). Pick up any children’s book from the library and it is plain to see that the fairy tale narrative provides ‘metaphorical accounts of identity transition’ in which natural life occurrences such as adolescence or socio-economic determinants appear to be erased. ‘The motif and they all lived happily ever after describes a mature [and] flawless self’ after battling through the hardships of transition (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 21). This is an appealing conclusion to years of supposed abnormality, and this is why makeover culture is so widely accepted and embraced as a means to self-produce and manage our identities. However, the question of why this transition has become so important to the individual is one worth looking into. The need for individual change has become increasingly popular within the confines of post-modernity (Elliott A, 2010). As Bauman observes, the modern self is obsessed with stability and predictability, and yet the post-modern self is just the opposite as it lacks solidity and structure (Elliot A, 2012, p. 154). A direct cause of this could be due to the effects of living within the culture of ‘quick-change’ (Jerslev A, 2006, p. 133). With thanks to the expanse of globalisation, bodily transformation seems to be the norm due to its ease of access and the promise of pain free transition. However, again, change is limited to what is seen as normal within westernised post-modernity.

In support of Bauman’s claim, Atkinson argues that in a post-modern society ‘the symbolic fracturing of family, economic, political, educational, sport-leisure, technological-scientific and media power bases, masculinity codes have been challenged within most social settings’ (Atkinson M, 2008 p. 68). As outlined in Atkinson’s study,

‘Tom’s cosmetic surgery narrative is a typical one: he tells the story about cosmetic surgery as a pathway toward body enhancement, as a vehicle for fitting in and as a technique for building self-esteem. As part of his narrative, Tom expresses a clear understanding of his own interest in body enhancement; he simply wants to be present, recognized and very ‘commonly’ male’ (Atkinson M, 2008 p. 75)

Here, Tom’s motive for displaying an act of agency is influenced by the structural expectations of “common” society itself. From this, we can conclude that within structure, agency can be found, and therefore, both agency and structure are contributing factors in creating the self-produced individual. Lewis claims that ‘people’s sense of selfhood today […] is increasingly disconnected from fixed categories of social identity’ (2008 p. 68). This is evidently apparent but does not necessarily make it determined. People’s sense of selfhood might be perceived as being disconnected from the social structure but that is not to say that there isn’t a type of dualism at play here. Not just within agency and structure, but also between the internal and external self.

From a philosophical perspective, ‘many thinkers from Plato to Rousseau to Hegel have suggested in various ways that the body tells us something about the virtues of the soul with which it is conjoined’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 18). This seems to be a popular discourse communicated via makeover television, stating that the body should be synonymous with a virtuous mind, as if to say that everybody thinks in terms of virtue, thinness, and normalised views of beauty. However, according to Heyes, many ‘feminists, anti-racists, and disability rights activists, for example, have all convincingly argued that bodies marked by sex, race, or physical impairment do not indicate an inferior intellectual ability or moral character’ (2007 p. 18). It could also be argued that according to the expectations of a contemporary society, and despite the supposed arguments against this claim, the physical body should be, as common discourse would have us believe, as pure as the mind. These expectations bring with them the concept of an aesthetically homogenised culture. To support this, Brooks argues that ‘as increasing numbers of women engage in [common forms of cosmetic surgery procedures], beyond looking more “beautiful” or “younger”, they also may begin to look more alike’ (2004, p. 225). This claim gives the inquisitive public no choice but to ask themselves where choice begins and where choice ends. Whether it begins from an individualistic perspective, a structural perspective, or from a place somewhere in between, is a question that begs to be examined.

In brief, free agency to change is evident but only works to serve in accordance to structure within the boundaries put up by society and its functions of normalisation. A number of factors have been mentioned in regards to how these aesthetic norms are enforced, thus the aforementioned nods to media discourse and our individual selves within a post-modern structure. We, as free agents, not only have the ability to change within the confines of class and structure, but our choices are also influenced by the gaze upon us.


Atkinson, M 2008, ‘Exploring Male Femininity in the ‘Crisis’: Men and Cosmetic Surgery’, Body & Society, vol.14, no.1, pp.67-87

Brooks, A 2004, ‘Under the Knife and Proud of It: An Analysis of the Normalization of Cosmetic Surgery’, Critical Sociology, vol.30, no.2, pp.207-239

de Beauvoir, S 1988, The Second Sex, London

Elliott, A 2010, ‘Concepts of the Self’, Cambridge

Heyes, CJ 2007, Cosmetic Surgery and the Televisual Makeover, Feminist Media Studies, vol.7, no.1, pp.17-32

Jerslev, A 2006, ‘The Mediated Body: Cosmetic Surgery in Television Drama, Reality Television and Fashion Photography’, Nordicom Review, vol.2, no.27, pp.133-151

Jones, M 2008, Skintight: an anatomy of cosmetic surgery, New York

Lewis, T 2008, ‘He needs to face his fears with these five queers!’ Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, makeover TV, and the lifestyle expert’, Smart Living: lifestyle media and popular expertise, Peter Lang, New York, pp.67-87

Miller, Toby 2008, ‘The new world makeover’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol.22, no.4, pp.585-590

Redden, G 2008, ‘Economy and reflexivity in makeover television’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol.22, no.20, pp. 485-484


A brief analysis of consumption and consumer spaces


According to Ian Woodward, a basic understanding of consumption can be seen to emphasise the purchase and use of goods and services. This definition, whilst maintaining an almost black and white perspective, is entirely valid. However, one could argue that the process of consumption can be seen to contain so much more. For example, in a post-modern consumer society, consumerism has the quality to define identity, and thus the means to mould an individual’s lifestyle. Woodward writes that ‘consumption […] is about meaning-making, and the opportunity to perform, affirm, and manage the self in relation to others’. Based on everyday observation, within a society, the clothes we choose to wear, the products we choose to utilise, and the media we choose to absorb are all chosen, most likely, in the name of individualisation. This brings us to the Frankfurt School of thought and critical theory.

Unlike in Marxist theory, within which Marx claims that the understanding of production is pivotal to the comprehension of society, Adorno and the Frankfurt School argue that it is the ‘object of consumption’; the commodity, which is vital for this very purpose. This is clearly evident in westernised culture. It can be argued that consumer society is here and now, and it is a society in which ‘the aestheticisation of everyday life’ and hedonism play an important role via the process of consumption. And what better place to practice consumption than in a shopping mall?

In a qualitative study named Social control and the management of ‘personal’ space in shopping malls (2005), John Manzo visits a mixed bag of shopping centres in an attempt to gain an understanding of human behaviour in consumer spaces; in particular the food court. This study, coupled with a focus on methods of social control in accordance with centre design elements, makes for an interesting read. In his study, Manzo asks why these spaces are not sprawled with deviant acts. Other than security staff on ‘foot patrol’ and the many CCTV cameras installed, self-regulation seems to be the norm.

Manzo’s findings indicate that in order to employ a design that facilitates social control, a consumer centre must be built around a grouping of ‘pseudo-corridors’: spaces which lend themselves to a ‘street-scape’ sensibility, thus, one could argue, creating a sense of the much loved traditional outdoor shopping strip. Not only does the centre’s aesthetically pleasing environment create a welcoming haven for consumer behaviour, but its shoppers are led along a string of pseudo-corridors in the hope of maximising traffic flow efficiency.

Manzo, however, finds the design elements of a food court to be quite different. Instead of the obvious path along a string of merchant sellers, the food court acts as an ‘anchor’ in which the divisional path is much more subtle. For instance, the tiles on the floor in accordance to where the tables and chairs are placed may indicate division, thus directing the consumer in a particular fashion. This method indicates that the food court is, what Manzo calls, a ‘sphere of activity’, in which consumption is encouraged but lengthy stays are not. Another clear indicator of this lies in the food court’s seating arrangement. Most, if not all, seats are for either a single individual or paired couple; food courts are not meant for social functions or large gatherings. This push for movement and flow is evident in most consumer spaces, one needs only to visit their local shopping centre for proof. Manzo’s final finding in his study of social control in accordance with design shows that food courts are an open space. Much like Bentham’s Panopticon, food courts promote self-regulation, therefore allowing people to adjust their behaviour in accordance to the norms of their particular role as consumers and members of a civil society.

John Manzo’s second research endeavour in this study aims to discuss how patrons within a food court make claim to their surroundings through methods of procurement. For instance, Manzo discovers that men, in particular of European ethnicity, attempt to lay claim to large portions of the space as their own. This can be likened to the stereotype of an elderly man, reading his morning paper in the corner of an authentic Italian coffee shop, except there is no corner to lay claim to, only tables in an open space. This sense of ownership isn’t limited to men of ethnicity. Women, men, children, and teenagers are found to exhibit individual behaviours which indicate a want to transform public space into a private one. In actuality, Manzo finds that even if an individual isn’t sitting in the chair or table itself, their items tend to be laid out regardless, as if to indicate ownership and control over one area. This act, when ‘breached’ by another individual’s invasion of space, is met with confusion and, at times, avoidance of eye contact, and mumbled replies. The deviant might then apologise and be on their way. This indicates a clear sense of self-regulation.

In conclusion, the consumers within a food court not only act in accordance to how they are expected to act within a public sphere, but also act as if to presume ownership of their surroundings. Manzo’s research has found, with clear evidence, that the food court ‘demands consumption and limits agency on the part of anyone except the mall’s commercial interests’. However, his research also finds that people self-regulate, with a demand for personal space despite their location. This study also shows that design does facilitate social control but to a certain extent. One can plainly see a clear example of agency within the individual consumer them self, however, social behaviour is evidently influenced by social control, both by design and the norms of society.