What is The Heterosexual Contract? an exploration of Wittig's The Straight Mind and related works.

A/N: Full text of all sources linked at the end!

In The Straight Mind, Monique Wittig describes the form and function of heterosexuality and gender, and how they act as the perpetuating agents of patriarchy.

Wittig defines heterosexuality as “the obligatory social relationship between ‘man’ and ‘woman’”. This differs from straightness as we usually conceive of it, which is as a sexual orientation. Instead of seeing straightness as an individual identity that exists in a vacuum, Wittig asks us to consider the superstructure that heterosexuality imposes on us. According to Wittig, the dominance of man over woman is baked into heterosexuality. Cis male heterosexuality is privileged as the default, while womanhood, queerness, and gender transgression are othered and punished. This othering is in itself an “act of power[…]. One has to be socially dominant to succeed in it.” (Wittig quotes Faugeron & Robert here)

Structural anthropologists of Wittig’s time, such as Lévi-Strauss, considered “the exchange of women as a necessary condition for every society.” Prevailing attitudes were insistent on the natural quality of men’s authority over women. Feminism rejects the idea of women’s oppression as natural or necessary, so we must then ask: if it is not natural, where does it come from?

In the pre-agricultural past, children were raised by large networks of extended family and non-relative community members. These practices have survived in some Indigenous societies, but for the most part they were replaced by the heterosexual nuclear family structure throughout the agrarian and colonial eras. Once agriculture was invented, farmers - already a male gender role - gained the ability to amass capital, and began to think about how to maintain control of this new surplus. Men used their control over a newly valuable resource to institute structures that benefitted them, including patrilineal inheritance practices and the “right” of man to the fruits of not only his labor, but the labor of his wife and children as well. In the words of Friedrich Engels:

“The Greeks themselves put the matter quite frankly: the sole exclusive aims of monogamous marriage were to make the man supreme in the family, and to propagate, as the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own.”

This new structure is heterosexuality, and Wittig goes on to describe how it is imposed on those it oppresses (“all women and many categories of men”) through both violence and symbology. She uses the example of pornography to illustrate where these two methods meet. Wittig believed, as is typical for radical feminists, that pornography is a product of women’s domination.

“It humiliates, it degrades, it is a crime against our ‘humanity.’ As a harassing tactic it has another function, that of a warning. It orders us to stay in line and it keeps those who would tend to forget who they are in step; it calls upon fear.”

My personal opinions on pornography are complicated (I'll be writing about it soon), and I know porn-critical feminism is unpopular. That being said, any woman with a sizable social media following has seen the ways that misogynists use violent and degrading porn as a harassment tactic.

Violence on the basis of gender or sexuality is used to impose the heterosexual order on all of us. Men use violence against women who dare to challenge their supposedly natural place in society (under them). Heterosexuals use violence against gay people as punishment for our so-called deviancy. Gender-conformists use violence against transgressively gendered people to push us into the neat categories that heterosexuality demands everyone to fit so its structure can perpetuate. All of this violence ultimately serves the heterosexual males at the top of the pile.

Wittig identifies gender itself as a social construct, a symbological false dichotomy, that exists specifically to oppress women. In her view, the very system of gender is one way that heterosexuality is forced onto us. Heterosexuality demands a polarized distinction between men and women that does not naturally exist. This distinction allows empowered men to claim that they are not dominating women, the genders simply have differences that justify differing treatment and opportunities for women. Wittig points out how these supposed “differences” seem to apply only to the oppressed: “Men are not different, whites are not different, nor are the masters. But the blacks [sic], as well as the slaves, are.” After constructing this difference, heteropatriarchy uses it to insist that men and women need one another, which renders the heterosexual social relationship necessary.

Wittig proceeds to communicate the necessity of a class struggle between women and men that will dissolve gender entirely. She stresses that it is important for those oppressed by heteropatriarchy to “revolt,” and “question the differences” that the dominant group has put in place. Because the categories of “man” and “woman” are constructed for the purpose of oppression, she suggests that they have no value and should be abolished "as classes and as categories of thought or language […], politically, economically, ideologically."

In her final paragraphs, Wittig makes her call to action: we should break off the heterosexual contract. We can undermine heteropatriarchy by refusing to participate in heterosexuality, thus removing ourselves from the patriarchal binary gender classes and showing that heterosexuality is not universal. She points out lesbians as a group that already do this - famously declaring that “Lesbians are not women.” Due to the intertwined nature of heterosexuality and gender, each is essential to the other; lesbians, through our rejection of heterosexuality, cease to fit the definition of women.

A decade later, Wittig revisited this call in her essay On the Social Contract. She explains that the idea that there is a pact between individuals and the social order came into existence during the 17th century in the words of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. “According to Rousseau,” she explains “the social contract is the sum of fundamental conventions which ‘even though they might never have been formally enunciated are nevertheless implied by living in society.’”

Skipping ahead a bit, Wittig calls attention to the understanding between people that “there are a certain number of acts and things one ‘must do’,” lest you fall victim to social sanction. A social sanction is a method of social control that enforces a certain idea about what is socially acceptable. The examples Wittig mentions are a bit dated for the modern reader - being labeled as “outlaw” or “mad” - but a social sanction can be anything from a dirty look or chiding comment to assault or murder.

Heterosexuality is an example of this type of understanding. No one laid the rules out for us in a list, but we all know that there are certain things that society agrees women and men “must do,” and those who do not conform are punished; those are called gender roles! Part of the gender role for both genders is heterosexuality. Women “must” love men, men “must” love women, they “must” pair up in heterosexual nuclear family units. Aristotle said it openly in Politics (emphasis Wittig’s):

“The first point is that those which are ineffective without each other must be united in a pair. For example, the union of male and female […] and of natural ruler and subject.”

Back to the origins of the idea of a social contract. In Rousseau’s original writing Social Contract, he says this (emphasis mine):

“Whether as between one man and another, or between one man and a whole people, it would always be absurd to say: ‘I hereby make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it as long as I wish.’

Wittig compares this rhetorical description to the current situation of women, demonstrating it as exploitative. She states that it is important, even instrumental, that women “reexamine their conditions and “reflect upon what has affected their existence without their agreement.”

Wittig actually brings back her criticism of structuralist Lévi-Strauss from The Straight Mind as an illustrative example of the boundaries around the heterosexual social contract. It is “a social contract from which women are excluded, a social contract between men. .[…] For Levi-Strauss, society cannot function or exist without this exchange. By showing it he exposes heterosexuality as not only an institution, but as the social contract, [and] as a political regime.” This is a fantastic deal for men, because as Wittig says “[women] have been convinced that they want what they are forced to do,” such as with heterosexuality and gender conformity, “and that they are part of the contract of society that excludes them.” Cynically, she adds: “Because even if they, if we do not consent, we cannot think outside the mental categories of heterosexuality.”

At the beginning and end of On the Social Contract, Wittig likens the experience of women to the treatment of serfs. Serfs freed themselves from feudalist oppression gradually, realizing that the order of society did not benefit them but was actually at their expense and running away. Wittig suggests that perhaps women can free themselves from the heterosexual contract in a similar way, by breaking away from it one by one. She doubles down on her earlier call to action: “breaking off the heterosexual contract is a necessity for those who do not consent to it.”


Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind

Monique Wittig, On the Social Contract (also contains another copy of The Straight Mind and several other Wittig essays)

Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

I also referenced Lily Alexandre's What Are Women? video for some of the history.