Book Review

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward

Genre | Nonfiction
Page #s | 216
Publishing Date | September 2020

Heterosexuality is in crisis. Reports of sexual harassment, misconduct, and rape saturate the news in the era of #MeToo. Straight men and women spend thousands of dollars every day on relationship coaches, seduction boot camps, and couple’s therapy in a search for happiness.

In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward smartly explores what, exactly, is wrong with heterosexuality in the twenty-first century, and what straight people can do to fix it for good. She shows how straight women, and to a lesser extent straight men, have tried to mend a fraught patriarchal system in which intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and mutual respect are expected to coexist alongside enduring forms of inequality, alienation, and violence in straight relationships.

Ward also takes an intriguing look at the multi-billion-dollar self-help industry, which markets goods and services to help heterosexual couples without addressing the root of their problems. Ultimately, she encourages straight men and women to take a page out of queer culture, reminding them “about the human capacity to desire, fuck, and show respect at the same time.”


With a title like The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, I was expecting a satirical, comedic take on the sad state of straight people. What I got instead was an academic treatise on the historical and social forces at work to create imbalanced and dangerous heterosexual dynamics and a feminist lesbian solution, and I loved it!

The conditions of patriarchy have long damaged men’s desire for women, and women’s for men, such that heterosexuality, as a sexual orientation, was always already a contradiction. Women were too inferior, too degraded, for men to actually like. Women could be sexually desired, and they could be paternalistically loved; but they could not be engage as autonomous, self-determining humans in the way that men related to other men.

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality

The current iteration of heterosexuality (Ward walks readers through the historical shifts in male/female relationships over the past century, as well as the self-help books written to fix inherent problems therein) has a single, enormous flaw at the center of it: the misogyny paradox. Straight men are sexually attracted to women within a culture that belittles and insults them. This is why a guy can go from “You look beautiful today!” to “Learn to take a compliment, you bitch!” when his cat-calling goes unanswered.

Most of the book is spent digging into all of the ways in which straight men and women have to work against stereotype in order to enjoy each other’s company; it’s grim but compelling. I read this a couple weeks after a friend of mine told me, “I know being gay isn’t a choice because I wouldn’t be straight if I had a choice. In my past relationships, I’ve been abused by more than half of my boyfriends, but I just keep being attracted to men.”

“I am so lucky to have one of the good ones,” they say. Meanwhile, may of us queers are thinking, “That’s what counts as good?” We also know that the answer is yes, it is what counts as good, because as the folks quoted above explain, many straight men are violent and unpredictable.

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality

Although it was only a small portion of the book, I especially enjoyed the end when Ward shares ideas of how straight men can learn from lesbians as both share an attraction to women. Queer women tend to love women, with their weight gains and body hair and uniquenesses. Straight men, or straight male culture if we’re being generous and vague, love women who have waxed, dyed, and altered themselves.

Of course, queer people and queer relationships are not inherently better than straight relationships, a point which Ward makes frequently. The difference comes from the fact that queer relationships operate outside of the system of tradition and assumptions that hamstring straight couples, even those who want to be progressive and feminist.

Perhaps queers are doing no better, as many of us also lie, cheat, and engage in no end of painful behavior. But the thing about heterosexual misery that makes it so irreducible to human foible is that straight relationships are rigged from the start. Straight culture, unlike queer culture, naturalizes and often glorifies men’s failures and women’s suffering.

The Tragedy of Heterosexuality

I loved this book; it inspired a ton of conversations with my partner (my favorite of the moment is thinking through the difference between objectifying and subjectifying someone). At the heart of my love, I come back to what first drew me to this book. The title makes it clear that we’re flipping the script. Instead of assuming heterosexuality is the good and right default, queer relationships are allowed to take center stage as experiences full of meaning and wisdom that can be shared with our straight friends.

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

If you’re a queer woman and a feminist and you like academic reading, run (don’t walk) to The Tragedy of Heterosexuality! And then talk to me about it!

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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