Growing up heterosexual

Table of Contents:

As we begin to read the interview, generational difference is evident: Angela is wary of assuming that someone of Jean’s age will articulate details of more private or emotional aspects of her experience. Jean’s age is something Angela explores tentatively: Can I ask first, if it’s not too personal a question, what year were you born? When it comes to sexual and reproductive knowledge, Jean highlights the generational distance between them — and their possible lack of a common language: . . . they didn’t call it periods in my day, you were “unwell”. She goes on: We didn’t have “sex”, we “made love”, you know, these days it’s all sex, sex, sex, in’t it? How Jean’s age and sexual experience might intersect remains uneasy territory for Angela who says: Now you might tell me to mind my own business here, what was the sex like as you got older? What is evident, however, is that despite differences in the ways in which sexual and reproductive knowledge might be articulated, the two women speak about it with similar directness. Through the following account we seek to disentangle the continuities and the changes which both unite and separate them.

We begin by noting how Jean’s subjectivity develops within a culture implicitly organised according to heterosexual principles. However, we then identify aspects of her life history which suggest a position of sustained resistance to such frameworks. Finally we turn to data which attest to Jean’s capacity to direct the course of events within her own life, yet with the apparent outcome of reproducing institutionalised heterosexuality. It is particularly via these final data that we attend to the complexities of agency as a life long process through which Jean inhabits the categories of heterosexuality.

For Jean, little explicit sexual and reproductive knowledge was made available within the family as she grew up, an experience shared by many of the younger, middle-aged women interviewed. As Jean said, . . . there wasn’t an awful lot of discussion. You were expected to know really. This ‘omission’ can be construed as an aspect of Jean’s socialisation into heterosexuality: of her mother she says all I can remember her saying is that, [SIGH/ you had to keep yourself that was my mother’s thing, “Keep yourself clean”. You had to keep yourself clean. Along with this possibility of female ‘dirtiness’ came the danger of washing your hair whilst menstruating — a contradiction in terms, yet one which signalled unspecified threats associated with growing up female. Among her peers, however, this process was marked by pairing off with boys, a necessary pre-requisite for social status. When she went behind the bike sheds with Arthur Bradshaw at the age of twelve, the exchange involved simply a kiss on the lips and an invitation to the cinema which her parents would forbid. Yet Jean felt like Cock of the North because he was a real bonny lad, he was, and all the girls liked him, everybody talked to him, he was absolutely gorgeous. Already, therefore, she experienced heterosexuality as contradictory, ‘unspeakable’, but a marker of social status. That it might frame her developing subjectivity was something she experienced not just within the family and peer group, but also at an institutional level: for example, in the double seats for ‘courting couples’ at the cinema. This more macro-level example of everyday life being organised according to heterosexual principles had a temporal as well as spatial dimension. Double seats were given up on marriage, the intimacies of a darkened cinema giving way to those of the bedroom. Indeed the ‘fixed abode’ of the marital home was pre-figured in the way these seats were allocated: as Jean said, ours were 17 and 19 and if ever we went, you know, these were our seats. Heterosexuality’s spatially marked trajectory was thus segmented into temporally bounded stages: ‘courting’, led on to ‘marriage’, ‘the hegemonic form of heterosexuality’ (VanEvery, 1996, p. 40). Women’s agency, however, was expressed in their recollections of this highly ‘structured’ marker of heterosexual status. Like women from all three generations, Jean’s memory of her wedding in 1949, over fifty years earlier, is richly textured: the toastmaster’s red jacket; her white chiffon velvet dress; the twenty-five carnations which made up her bouquet; the potato pies her mother made for the reception. History and biography intersect as Jean acknowledges the constraints of that post-war era and how they were nonetheless partially overcome at her wedding: we had some belting wedding presents and that kind of thing, and went to Fleetwood [LAUGHS], fabulous Fleetwood. She goes on: we didn’t have a fabulous spread, it was ham and something, hut in those days it was very good. Heterosexuality also provided the organising principle for the gifts given to guests: quarter pound boxes of Black Magic and Cadbury’s Milk Tray for every lady and each man got a cigar. Moreover, the public nature of this transition to heterosexual coupledom is evident in its ‘performative’ aspects: Jean recalls the vicar’s wife, a former student at RADA, telling her I shall be sat at the back and I hope to hear every word.

Growing up heterosexual led to a traditional domestic division of labour on marriage: Jean would ensure that tea was on the table for Harry, particularly when he felt left out after their daughter arrived. They passed on a model of family life which restricted sexual expression to within its confines, warning their daughter not to let them down by becoming pregnant and exposing them to gossip. As Harry’s parents aged, Jean cared for them, organising her paid employment around her domestic role, Harry taking on the male breadwinner role. When Harry died at sixty-three, Jean spent months in a daze, struggling to believe what had happened. She said she still thought of herself as Harry’s wife, and couldn’t imagine being with anybody else. For the rest of her life, we can speculate, Jean will continue to identify as the heterosexual partner of the young man she met when she was fifteen.

Threaded through Jean’s account, however, is evidence of her reflexivity, of an alternative perspective which allowed her to view these conditions critically. For example, she flouted the unexplained injunction against washing her hair whilst menstruating; she suspected the playground stories of how babies popped out of the brown line down your stomach and then it sort of sealed up. Of this she says, I used to think, it’s a funny how-do-you-do this, then asking a friend’s mother, since her own mother hadn’t got the words.

Having countered the ‘ignorance’ engendered among young women by actively seeking out this knowledge, she was better placed to make sense of sounds coming from her parents’ bedroom. Indeed, her resistance to the implicit injunction to navigate a route into heterosexuality without any explicit knowledge of its bodily implications did not stop here. In her parents’bedroom she discovered their copy of Marie Stopes’ Married Love, helped herself to its contents and, indeed, read it with Harry, her boyfriend. Of this episode, she said, and I think that was an absolute marvellous help, you know. When they put theory into practice, she was sixteen and a half. Their sexual relationship developed in both their homes, whilst their parents were out, a decision Jean made on the basis of her own experience: I enjoyed it too much to feel guilty, she said.

Jean’s most valued memories were of her wedding and the birth of her children, yet despite her lack of higher education, when she and her peers were all having babies she got to the stage when I wanted conversation that didn’t dwell on babies. Although her married life with Harry seemed to mesh seamlessly with the requirements of hegemonic heterosexuality, Jean deliberately ensured that she always had ‘a life apart from him’: flower arranging for the local church; pottery classes; girl guide leadership; Sunday School teaching; committee work. Harry’s redundancy at fifty-eight shattered him. He coped very badly, very badly, Jean said, he was ill with that, he’d always been the breadwinner. When she was offered full-time work, Jean went to Harry and said from now on, I’m the breadwinner, so you can take over all my jobs [ ... ] including the cooking . . . and it’s not demeaning.

On the basis of this account, can we conceptualise Jean as an agent of change, working across the currents of hegemonic heterosexuality? What is the status of her refusal of its limitations? Jean is also profoundly committed to a traditional form of heterosexuality, reproducing rather than just resisting its patterning of everyday life. In these final extracts from Jean’s narrative we critically consider the assumption that as a patriarchal institution, heterosexuality denies women agency, rendering them passive within a particular set of ideological and material conditions. These are data which cannot easily be interpreted as ‘resistance’, yet which reveal a woman for whom heterosexuality is a self-directed system of thought and practice.

As already noted, Jean readily recalls the materialities of her wedding. As a key heterosexual ‘moment’, it figures alongside descriptions of her first kiss with Arthur Bradshaw; first sex, lying in the grass on a summer Sunday teatime; her first home in a little two-up and two-down cottage; and years later, discovering her husband stone cold in their bed after his brain haemorrhage. These transitional moments in Jean’s heterosexual life reflect the traditional structures which inform the lives of many women and men, both then and now. First sex, for example, she describes almost as an inevitability: we’d gone down to the common and that, I mean, loads of other people went as well, and we were down there, and, you know, afterwards, lying down in the grass, and got kissing, and went a little bit further, and a bit further and, then it happened [SIGH]. When Angela puts to Jean the late twentieth century perception of a sexually innocent older generation for whom pre-marital sex was not the done thing, Jean’s response is, it was actually, but people didn’t talk about it, I mean, it happened, with most of my friends, but you didn’t talk about it, you didn’t brag about it, like they do now. Yet Jean’s account suggests that she was empowered with the resources to direct her sexual practice according to her own wishes. Thus, for example, although her immediate response to this spontaneous first sex was oh God, what if I have a baby, she dealt with her anxiety promptly: after that he, we never did without, urn, Durex.

Indeed, when Jean met Harry she was only fifteen. He was nineteen, which did not go down terribly well with her mother. Jean, however, reminded her parents that whilst there was an age difference, at least his family was local and known to her own — which would not have been the case if, like all her friends, she had gone off to Bolton Palais and found boyfriends among the solders, sailors and airmen who frequented it. Having secured parental consent through this rhetorical strategy, Jean and Harry began courting, yet, as Jean said, over time he started .. . taking me for granted, and I had no intention of being taken for granted. Taking control of the situation, she told him: I wanted a break, and, I made an excuse of another lad, but he were nothing. She maintainedher position of strength for three months until Harry’s mother asked her to take him back because he was crying and upset and not eating, and his life were at an end and all this, that and the other. Jean took him back and he never ever took me for granted afterwards. Their long marriage was, therefore, on the terms chosen by Jean. Not only did Jean find a house for them, but she talked her father into agreeing a wedding date prior to the official age of consent. Before the birth of their daughter, Jean and Harry shared the housework, though Jean took responsibility for its organisation, preparing the tea which he would cook on his return home. Indeed when Angela asked Jean whether she felt their relationship changed after marriage, she said Yeah, I think, I felt a hit more responsibility, yeah, I felt a bit more responsible for one another, really. This taking of responsibility is evident in much of Jean’s narrative. For example, after difficulties with breast-feeding her first child, she resisted hospital birth for her second, taking note of the doctors criticism of its quality of care. Finding a midwife from among her local contacts, she managed to secure a home birth for her second child.

As Jean and Harry’s parental roles developed, this challenged their status as a heterosexual couple. Jean was quick to modify her possessive attitude to their daughter and actively ensure the involvement of both Harry and the extended family. After she caught herself just about to tell her mother-in-law not to pick up their daughter, she describes reflecting: She just doesn’t belong to you, you know, and from then on, I was sort of very, very careful, and as Harry walked through the door, you know, I’d pick her up and give him, where before, I’d sort of I’d held onto her. When the stitching she received after the birth compromised their sexual relationship, she again actively sought out medical advice and with Harry’s patience, determined to gradually retrieve the pleasure she valued so much.

Harry’s support at this time was something she not only appreciated but also committed herself to reciprocating when he lost confidence in himself after redundancy. Thus she deliberately chose not to take the initiative sexually: particularly during that period when he, things were a bit rough for him, I never, ever made any overtures, because I didn’t want him to feel, if he couldn’t, he was a failure. Clearly there are complex processes at work here as Jean actively adopts a ‘passive’ role, one aimed at helping rescue Harry’s masculine identity.

As noted above, Jean also organised the breadwinner role reversal in such a way as to provide Harry with support during his depression. Indeed, emotional labour characterises much of Jean’s account. She reflects actively on the nature of relationships between different family members, on her family members’ motivations and agendas, always with the aim of overcoming differences and making up for inadequacies. In addition she provides emotional support for a grandchild with serious mental health problems. At various points she provides evidence that her family see her as someone with strength and a capacity for independence. Her daughter rarely puts her foot down on Jean’s behalf, conscious that Jean is more than able to defend herself when necessary; and Harry, she says, hoped not to survive her since he felt he would not cope alone as well as she would. She recalls his words after the sudden death of a work colleague: “I don’t want he left on my own, Jean will cope a lot better than I will”, he said, “hut not yet”. But you see, six months later, you know, he’d gone.

When Angela asked Jean what advice she would pass on to her grandchildren about the ingredients of a successful relationship, Jean identified hard work and tolerance, as well as love. In the data with which we completed this paper, there is considerable evidence of Jean’s ‘hard work’, particularly in orchestrating the emotional lives of her family’s members. While this ‘labour’ is one characteristically undertaken by women, when viewed within this body of empirical data, it becomes evident that, like the women Jackson (1999) identifies as pursuing ‘love’ with realistic ambitions, Jean too feels empowered to realise her vision of heterosexual family life. Rather than entering into relations of dependency which would locate a male partner as the source of its fulfilment, Jean herself is the agent through which that life is brought into being.


While Rich (1980) has characterised heterosexuality as intrinsically about the absence of choice for women, VanEvery’s account (1996) of the lives of women who challenge hegemonic constructions of heterosexuality and gender whilst still identifying as heterosexual and/or engaging in heterosexual sex raises the question of women’s choice. In the data presented here we have used a life course approach both to gather and to interpret what was said. This means that the context within which we consider our material extends not only temporally, but also at a theoretical level in that it has both macro as well as micro level resonances. Thus if we place Jean’s busy engagement with the conditions of her own heterosexual life in the broader context of data pertaining to a spread of topics, stretching across a seventy-year period, we can see that her ‘engagement’ stands alongside positions of resistance. As described, she refused to remain ignorant of sexual knowledge, engineered her parents’ approval of an older boyfriend and her early marriage to him, purposefully took on the breadwinner role in later life, maintained separate leisure interests and actively managed her husband’s depression. Yet in doing heterosexuality ‘her way’, Jean also tailored her paid employment to the demands of her family and undertook extensive emotional labour on their behalf.

Jackson (1996) describes heterosexuality as institution, practice, experience and identity. As our data indicate, the institution of heterosexuality profoundly shaped Jean’s earlier life; and in terms of her future identity, she cannot envisage herself as anything other than Harry’s wife. Yet when we consider heterosexuality as practice and as experience, Jean’s life history indicates that within these two areas, she not only exercised considerable agency, but also reflected extensively upon how her practice might shape her experience of heterosexuality. These are the data which our life history approach allowed us to access (Alasuutari, 1995, p. 50). While we may separate out heterosexuality into its constituent elements, as Jackson (1996) does, it remains important to recognise the interrelationship between these different aspects and acknowledge the way practice and experience themselves produce an institution and an identity we recognise as‘heterosexual’. In that Jean chose what she would not accept, we need to recognise, as contemporary feminists, that there are important forms of agency at work in her choices of what she desired and would work hard for.


  • 1 The names used for informants and individuals referred to in the data are pseudonyms.
  • 2 We are grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this project.


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