Heterosexual Romance

Challenges to heterosexuality and marriage have used Arguments about patriarchy and about the fact that marriage Is a privilege accorded only to heterosexuals. But they have not Challenged the ideal of romantic love and permanence that underlies heterosexual marriage.

Because heterosexuality is normative (meaning that society considers, unquestioningly, that that is the way people should be), it is often part of the unspoken. By virtue of defining other sexualities as non-normative, heterosexuality then assumes its place as taken for granted. So it appears to be uniform, without any diversity, in fact, as homogenous. Sea Ling Chen disrupted this taken-for-grantedness in her talk at Films of Desire.

Sea Ling Cheng is an anthropologist who researches issues of sexuality, prostitution, migration, trafficking and human rights. She has conducted research in South Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. She is on the faculty of Women Studies Department at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Sea Ling reminded us that over the past 30 years, sexuality studies have destabilised the notion that heterosexual is natural and good and that any deviations from it are unnatural or bad. They have done this mainly by focusing on non-normative sexualities. However, it is important to turn the focus back on to the so-called normative, i.e. heterosexuality.

So far, challenges to heterosexuality and marriage have used arguments about patriarchy and about the fact that marriage is a privilege accorded only to heterosexuals. But they have not challenged the ideal of romantic love and permanence that underlies heterosexual marriage.

Sea Ling thinks that it is important to focus on the heterosexual couple in order to de-centre heterosexuality as an institution that organises intimacy and sexuality. We know that a feminist critique of monogamy challenges the private ownership of one person by another, as well as the assumption that the lack of sexual exclusivity will lead to strong feelings of jealousy and insecurity.


The idea of a heterosexual couple locked together for life as a nuclear unit is an alien concept to the Mosuo, a matrilineal ethnic group in China. The Mosuo live around the Lugu Lake in south western China on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Kids are born into the mother’s family and all siblings work collectively for the household economy. There is no marriage as we know it. At the age of 12, the girl is said to have come of age, and becomes free to receive a lover under the sisisystem (or what is called a ‘walking marriage’), where the man walks to the woman’s house to have sex but returns to his own house the next morning. The woman can end this ‘marriage’ by just not opening the door. Children born from these relations live with the mother’s family. The father has no obligations.

During the Cultural Revolution in China, the Han Chinese (majority people) considered this practice primitive and forced the Mosuo to marry. After the failure of the Cultural Revolution, some of the Mosuo went back to the sisi system. A documentary made by Chow Wah Shan in 2001 on them has this quote from aMosuo woman, ‘I don’t understand the Han Chinese way of love and this small family business. They say this, ‘I am yours and you are mine’ thing. What is this? I am I, and you are you. You are not mine and I am not yours. The most important thing we Mosuos have is our family. So, if my lover leaves me, it is fine. I always have my family. So, we don’t have such problems as love suicide or love murder.’

This is a strong critique of the notion that in romantic love one person belongs to or is owned by another and voluntarily submits one’s self completely to the other. This quote from the Mosuo woman also leads us to question whether the desire for monogamy is intrinsic or is generated by the way society is ordered and organised.

Sea Ling then deftly moved us to another context to look at dating practices and at the concept of heterosexual monogamy through the reality TV show, The Bachelor, in the US that has successfully completed nine series. In each series, one distinguished (by wealth, or looks, or achievements or a combination) man looking for ‘true and lasting love’ dates 25 selected women and, over time, eliminates them one by one, until he is sure that he has found ‘the one’. The series ends with him giving her a red rose, and one assumes that they happily walk off into the sunset, bound in love for life. The show has a huge following, with audiences vicariously following the twists and turns of romance, week after week.

Sea Ling points out that such reality TV performances queer the public-private divide by making so public something as personal as the process of ‘finding the one true love’. During the series, in his quest for ‘the one’, the bachelor engages in varying degrees of emotional and sexual intimacies with many of the women, leading of course to bitter tears for the ones who are not chosen. This challenges everyday thinking about the practice of monogamy in heterosexual relationships – to find the one, he dallies with the many. And even, when he does find ‘the one’, the question is ‘Will it last?’, because very few of these coupledoms formed through the reality show have lasted for any length of time. These ruptures allow us to see that there is no one version of heterosexuality.

Therefore, heterosexualities and their diverse representations have a subversive potential to open up spaces that accommodate a plurality of desires and erotic practices that go beyond a simplistic homo-hetero divide.

Recent work on sexual rights has also gone beyond identity politics, i.e. making claims based on identity as hetero- or homosexual, and has moved to claiming rights based on broader principles such as the right to bodily integrity and the right to pursue sexual pleasure. Therefore, for Sea Ling, as for all of us, recognizing the subversive potential of heterosexualities is not only about gaining sexual rights, but also a personal and political project of liberation and empowerment.