Gendered Understandings and Normative Heterosexuality

In order to understand the normative positioning of women in relation to reproductive health, it is important to remember that it is fundamentally different to many other aspects of social life. All Western societies formally support the principle of gender equality. Many areas have a long way to go to achieve this, and what it might look like is still debated, but the principle is still upheld. Yet in reproductive health, gender equality can never be achieved as long as, generally speaking, only women can get pregnant. Whilst in many heterosexual relationships partners will agree on issues of fertility, if they do not, then one person’s decision has to take precedence. For me, there is no question that it should be the woman’s sole decision. Pregnancy is an embodied state for women, so all decisions that relate to being or not being pregnant have to remain with women. Whilst this does not mean that partners should necessarily be excluded, involving them should always stop short of giving them the right of decision-making over women’s bodies.

So reproductive health is, and will likely remain, an issue in which gender differences can never be eliminated due to the inherent biological divide. However, understandings of these different biological positions are constructed socially in line with gendered expectations. Having a womb and ovaries does not mean that women are biologically programmed with a desire to grow a child. As I have already shown, the idea of motherhood has long been associated with femininity, but these gendered constructions arise from social expectations. In normative expectations of femininity, women are often positioned as nurturers and carers (Skeggs 1997, 2001), and they are expected to always consider the needs of others (Jaggar 1989). Good motherhood epitomizes the performance of these values (DiQuinzio 1999). Ideas about femininity and motherhood will also be affected by other issues of identity. For example, Siraj’s (2012) study of Muslim women in Glasgow revealed that the Qur’an was an important reference point for understanding their identity as women and mothers. Nevertheless, the gendered expectations of women are often the basis for normative understandings within reproductive health.

As Jackson (1999) pointed out, it is important to retain a distinction between gender and heterosexuality, even though the frameworks are interwoven. The term heterosexuality has been used to describe sexual practices, sexual identities and aspects of social structures, and its position as ‘normal or ‘natural’ meant that previously it was not necessarily examined or questioned (Jackson 1999; Jackson and Scott 2010). As Carrera et al. (2012) have shown, heteronormative scripts still dominate understandings even if there are challenges to heterosexuality’s dominate status. Whilst, like gender, heterosexuality is always constructed in relation to other aspects of identity, it retains a binary construction within differing expectations of women and men (Jackson and Scott 2010). The automatic link between heterosex/heterosexuality and reproduction has been challenged through the development of many reproductive technologies and changes in legal practices in which same-sex couples and single people can become parents. Nordqvist (2008) has shown how the increasing use of assistive conception techniques undermines heterosexual presumptions about conception and parenthood. However, as Mamo (2007) has argued, heteronormativity still retains a dominate framework and shapes the experiences of reproduction whether or not they are heterosexual. Her study of lesbian mothers found that their practices of motherhood both challenged and reinforced dominant understandings in complex ways. For example, whilst assisted reproduction allows the possibility of conception beyond heterosexuality, as Mamo (2007) argues, it can also reaffirm the fertility industry’s presumption that pregnancy is desirable for all women.

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