From the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd Edition

MacMillan Press (2008)



Author: Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Coined in 1991 by Michael Warner, a social critic, this concept refers to pervasive and invisible norms of heterosexuality – sexual desire exclusively for the opposite sex – embedded as a normative principle in social institutions and theory, which deems those who fall outside this standard to be devalued.  The concept is useful in attempting to understand the assumptions upon which heterosexuality rests, and to show how and why deviations from heterosexual norms are subject to social and legal sanctions.  For example, heteronormativity assumes a belief in dimorphic sexual difference (there are two sexes), biological essentialism (male and female functions are essentially different), and mimetic sex/gender relationship (psycho-social traits follow anatomy).  Those who deviate from these assumptions by openly preferring romantic partners of the same sex, who change from one sex to another, or who violate heterosexual norms in other ways, are marginalized.  They are considered by many societies as mentally defective and morally inferior, subjecting them to street violence, discrimination in employment and withdrawal of social acceptance.  These assumptions and sanctions force conformity to sexual norms.

        This term is controversial because it suggests to some a condemnation of those who espouse heterosexuality, or of those who oppose non-heterosexual behavior based on religious or moral beliefs.  Some have suggested that it is used to enforce “political correctness,” the imposition of limits on language that is perceived to marginalize certain cultural groups.  This is correct to some extent, in that the concept of heteronormativity focuses on the exclusivity of heterosexual norms. Thus, the concept includes criticism of those who disapprove of non-heterosexual behavior.  The real question here is whether such criticism is justified.  It is justified to some extent because it is often difficult for those in the majority heterosexual culture to realize the extent to which their culture routinely pervades society and constantly creates and enforces norms that marginalize non-heterosexual behavior.  Normative heterosexual culture pressures all to conform, or at least to hide their differences, because those outside the norms are perceived as “strange.”  The normative culture also erases the extent to which it makes heterosexuality an issue.  Because heterosexuality is the order of things, it seems as if non-heterosexuals make an issue of their sexuality, but heterosexuals do not, as illustrated by this quote from Michaelangelo Signorile (1993) about the pervasiveness and invisibility of heterosexual norms.  


“These heterosexuals don’t realize that they routinely discuss aspects of their own sexuality every day:  telling coworkers about a vacation they took with a lover; explaining to their bosses that they’re going through a rough divorce; bragging to friends about a new romance.  Heterosexual reporters have no problem asking heterosexual public figures about their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends or children—and all these questions confirm and make an issue of heterosexuality.  The ultimate example of making an issue of heterosexuality is the announcements in the newspapers every Sunday that heterosexuals are getting married.”

Signorile, Michelangelo. 1993. Queer in America:  Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press (at xvii).


Warner, Michael. 1991. "Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet" Social Text  29 (4): 3-17