In season 5, episode 2 of Sex and the City, Carrie meets with publishers who want to turn her eponymous column about sex and relationships into a book. All she has to do is write an introduction to set the tone. "Is it hopeful?" one of the peppy publishers asks as she sits across from Carrie, nursing the show's trademark cocktail, an electric pink cosmopolitan. "Is Carrie Bradshaw an optimist or a pessimist?" The question is easier asked than answered; the previous season saw Carrie break off her engagement with Aiden and watch Mr. Big move across the country without her. Alone in her apartment that night, sorting clippings of her past articles, Carrie narrates in voiceover: "Maybe optimism isn't even advisable after the age of thirty. Maybe pessimism is something you have to start applying daily, like moisturizer. Otherwise, how do you bounce back when reality batters your belief system and love does not, as promised, conquer all? Is hope a drug we need to go off of, or is it keeping us alive? What's the harm in believing?"1

Carrie's questions anticipate Asa Seresin's 2019 essay in The New Inquiry, which coined the term "heteropessimism" to describe the practice of announcing one's emotional disaffiliation with heterosexuality without relinquishing heterosexuality as a practice or renegotiating its conditions.2 Shortly afterward, in 2020, Jane Ward published The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, which argues, counter to narratives that queerness is a source of suffering and trauma which no one would ever choose, that women in particular have little to lose in leaving behind heterosexual relationships that are often sources of inequality, alienation, tedium, sexual dissatisfaction, and violence.3 Seresin now uses the term "heterofatalism" to disambiguate heteropessimism from Afropessimism, a concept with which it has been associated.4 Yet the deluge of think pieces on the subject suggest that the original term is here to stay.5 What this discourse tends to obscure is that optimism and pessimism aren't really opposites when it comes to love. What Seresin calls "heteropessimism" is closer to Lauren Berlant's "cruel optimism," our continued investment in the very things that impair our thriving. This investment is not an emotion but a structure of relation to things beyond ourselves, like heteronormative notions of the good life or the happy ending, which "might feel any number of ways, from the romantic to the fatalistic to the numb to the nothing."6 In short, whether straightness is experienced as romantic, fatalistic, or simply boring comes down to the same thing. Pessimism and optimism are not different emotional states but analogous ways of remaining attached to a version of heterosexuality that lets us down.

Psychoanalysis provides us with a model for understanding how our attachments constitute our selfhood. Given this, what might be the psychoanalytic relationship between heteropessimistic attachment and the self? Might heteropessimism be understood as an act of mourning, a letting go and grieving of the lost lesbian object? Or a form of melancholia that reproduces heterosexual femininity through the incorporation of the lesbian object, transmuted into anesthetizing feelings of resignation and embarrassment about heterosexuality's own tragic inevitability?7 The essays here gesture toward the latter by documenting heteropessimism's expansion from a feeling to an aesthetic, a self-diagnosis, and an identity as in Annabelle Tseng's discussion of femcel culture that doubles down on heterosexuality's immutability in the very moment of declaring its failure. Rather than making heterosexuality more permeable, heteropessimism stakes its position as a resistant subtype within a heterosexual typology broad enough to encompass doubt and dissent. While much can be said about the discordance between straight women's expressions of envy about lesbian life and their refusal to create such a life for themselves, it seems that destabilizing heterosexuality is beside the point, or at least not the metric against which we should measure heteropessimism's usefulness. Instead, the stakes of heterosexual regret are more feminist than they are queer, functioning, potentially, like the gender-based depression and anxiety of the mid and late twentieth century to produce spaces of collective feminist consciousness raising, new vocabularies that transform the personal into the political, and, in their best iteration, animating collective action against misogyny and violence. If these aims feel retro and well-worn, it is because heteropessimism is a new name for an old feeling an unsettled feeling that warned of damage and demanded change. 

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the DSM-II following pressure from gay activists.8 It was replaced with a new diagnosis, Sexual Orientation Disturbance (SOD), that could be assigned to people "disturbed by, or in conflict with, or wish[ing] to change their sexual orientation."9 SOD, long since removed from the DSM, shifted the defining feature of the disorder away from homosexuality and toward the feeling of being conflicted about one's sexual orientation, a psychological state the APA did not appear to have considered applicable to heterosexuals. Critics of SOD pointed out that it ignored the societal reasons people were distressed by their homosexuality (i.e. homophobia) and gave legitimacy to reparative therapy, but one wonders what potential insights might have emerged from the category had it also been applied to straight women's pained relationship to heterosexuality. Probably little, given psychology's record of reducing the distress wrought by heteropatriarchy to hysteria, frigidity, and mood and personality disorders. But what if, by seeking to avoid the mass conversion of disillusioned straight women into lesbians, psychology necessitated clinical attention to the societal conditions namely centuries of patriarchy that cause straight women distress?  Sexual orientation disturbance, in that case, could be understood not as an internal experience of having the wrong desire, but as a sense that the social and cultural meanings attached to one's desire felt untenable.

Both the phenomenon and the critique of heteropessimism raise questions about the political implications of desire that were central to an earlier moment in feminism. Can we have a kind of sex that isn't initially appealing? What is the relationship, if any, between the kinds of sex we have and the world we envision? Are our desires intractable or subject to choice or change? Are they even knowable at all? Several essays in this cluster return to these questions in new ways. As Caroline Godard shows in her comparison between Adrienne Rich's 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" and the viral Lesbian Masterdoc, projects to reform heterosexual desire have long turned around contests over the meaning of lesbianism. If Seresin suggests that heteropessimism requires a disavowal of political lesbianism, Godard's analysis of the progression from compulsory heterosexuality to #comphet allows us to see heteropessimism as lesbianism's melancholic incorporation. Adora Svitak's essay, on the other hand, can be read as answering Seresin's provocation to invest in describing what makes heterosexual relationships appealing to many women in the first place. While Svitak argues that women's sexual desire for men is underdescribed in contemporary fiction, Chiara Giovanni shows that popular romance novels by and about women of color often indulge a positive orientation toward heterosexual desire. Giovanni calls this orientation "heteroidealism" and sees it as an adaptive strategy to forge solidarity between men and women along racial lines.

Multiple essays in this cluster discover that heteropessimism is not just an individual affect or speech act but also a formal structure patterning a variety of contemporary genres, whereby alternatives to or critiques of heterosexual convention are incorporated at the level of plot, character, or style in a way that shores up straight, monogamous marriage in the end. Annabel Barry reads Sally Rooney's essay on Ulysses to imply that heteropessimism is formally essential to the novel, a genre that experiments with queer possibilities and romantic disappointments while relentlessly building towards the marriage plot. Sean Lambert considers how The Worst Person in the World connects the foreshortening of heterosexual and capitalist horizons and the dissolution of the formal coherence of the rom-com in particular and film more broadly. In an essay on Ted Lasso, Ryan Lackey disputes that the softened, feminist-friendly "new masculinity" that the titular divorced football coach embodies challenges the heteropessimist refrain #Menaretrash. While testing out new social configurations at the level of character, Ted Lasso remains patterned by what Lackey calls "heteroformalism," where "heterosexuality is both narrative object and narrative structure." Katie Kadue's essay traces this constant reworking of the same old forms back further, to early modern lyric poetry as a male version of heteropessimist complaint that entwines apostrophes to lovers with expressions of resentment about the labor of writing verse that romantic entanglement requires. On her account, the lyric emerges as a generic form propelled both by heterosexuality and by complaining about it, from Petrarch to Bob Dylan. If Seresin claims that heteropessimism is "particularly appealing to women" a version of what Berlant has elsewhere called "the female complaint" these latter two essays reveal heteropessimism's deep connection to heterosexual masculinity.10

If these essays offer new diagnoses of heteropessimism's histories and manifestations, the question remains: what do we do about it? Popular media might direct women to the self-help industry. As Ward shows in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, self-help books, overwhelmingly marketed toward women, form a crucial part of the ideological apparatus that compels women to remain invested in heterosexuality despite its paradoxical entanglement of companionship and eroticized hierarchy.11 For example, to aid Sex and the City's Carrie in deciding whether she is an optimist or a pessimist, Charlotte, herself still reeling from a divorce, invites Carrie to attend a seminar hosted by the self-help guru Dr. Cheryl. The two sit in a sea of women in an auditorium, watching Dr. Cheryl as she paces back and forth on the stage, delivering affirmations: "Love will come to you only when you truly believe you deserve it. Love will raise you up. Fear will pull you under. Only love is real." After an audience member thanks Dr. Cheryl profusely, announcing to applause that the daily affirmations helped her find love, Charlotte stands up. "I'm just wondering how long that woman was doing her affirmations, because I've been doing mine every day, and I want to believe, but nothing is happening, and I just don't think it's working I just don't think it will work for me," she says, tearfully. Dr. Cheryl is unsympathetic. Following some back and forth, she suggests, "Perhaps you're not really putting yourself out there." This is when Carrie grabs the mic and retorts, "No, she's out there."12 The exchange implies a sharp criticism of a self-help industry that commodifies straight women's romantic woes, making dissatisfaction a personal problem even as Carrie prepares to publish a book that is likely to appear in the self-help aisle itself.  Likewise, in an unexpected turn of events, Ward's text conceived as a critique of the self-help industry was taken up as a self-help book by many straight women. While self-help may respond to a craving for pre-packaged answers, it does so by directing focus back to individual solutions and ignoring broader issues like gender inequality. Some essays in our cluster instead advocate more collective or structural solutions. Ellie Anderson reframes Seresin's designation of heteropessimism as "performative" by turning to speech act theory, in which performative speech is not speech that rings false but rather speech that does something in the world. What heteropessimist complaint does, she demonstrates, is create networks of support between women. Sarah Brouillette shows how heteropessimism often appears in grievances about the uneven distribution of domestic labor that can only be rectified through the abolition of the family and the collectivization of care.

One concern might be that, in bringing to the forefront the instantiation of heteropessimism in aesthetic forms, these essays perform the very withdrawal from the systemic that the original concept of heteropessimism describes and subjects to critique. Is a focus on artistic form an example of what Walter Benjamin called "the aestheticizing of politics?"13 As Hannah Wang demonstrates, there can be a thin line between the aesthetic and the anesthetic. Or, as other Frankfurt school critics such as Theodor Adorno have proposed, might the aesthetic be a domain in which ideology is made visible with a difference in a way that enables reconceptualization and even change?14 The authors in this cluster offer various proposals for what works of art can be in relation to heterosexuality and heteropessimism: a repository of historical memory, a place where entrenched social forms can be seen anew, an area where desire can be made heard, the basis for the formation of new attachments, a blueprint for a better future, a space to mourn and move on.

Annabel Barry (@abelqbarry) is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Berkeley, interested in Irish literature, feminism, and philosophy of language. Her public writing on contemporary Irish literature appears in Chicago Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Common. She is working on a special issue about Ordinariness for Qui Parle, where she is co-editor-in-chief.

Caroline Godard (@carolifegodard) is a PhD student in French at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research traces theories of the contemporary in early modern French literature. She also writes and edits publicly about feminism in the present.

Jane Ward (@thequeerjane) is professor of Feminist Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. She is the author of multiple books, including The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020) and Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015). Jane is also a community organizer, crafter, green witch, and a parent to one cat, two chickens, and one human child.


  1. Sex and the City, season 5, episode 2, "Unoriginal Sin," directed by Charles McDougall, aired July 28, 2002.[]
  2. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019.[]
  3. Jane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2020).[]
  4. Asa Seresin, "pretty straight, pretty conventional," Asa Seresin (personal blog), June 17, 2020.[]
  5. For a non-exhaustive list, see Shannon Keating, "The Year in Heteropessimism," Buzzfeed, December 30, 2019; Yuhe Faye Wang, "Heterosexuality and its Discontents," The Outline, January 28, 2020; Sophie Lewis, "If Heterosexualism Existed, We Wouldn't Have to Make it Up," Verso, February 12, 2020; Sophia Giovannitti, "In Defense of Men," Majascule 3(April 2020); Vicky Spratt, "In 2020, How Are Women Supposed to Be With Men?," Refinery 29, June 26, 2021; Phoebe Maltz Bovy, "Straightness Studies," The Hedgehog Review 21, no. 1 (spring 2021); Clara Drummond, "Escape Heteropessimism," translated by Zoë Perry, Astra, September 16, 2022; Kayla Kibbe, "What is Heteropessimism and Do You Need to Stop With That Shit?," Cosmopolitan, November 18, 2022. See also Ellie Anderson and David Peña-Guzmán, "Heteropessimism," Overthink, February 1, 2022, podcast, 58:36 and Jennifer Hamilton, Felicity Joseph, Christina Kenny, Matt Allen, and Daz Chandler, The Heteropessimists, podcast.[]
  6. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011), 13. []
  7. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia" in Collected Papers, vol. IV, translated by Joan Riviere, edited by Ernest Jones (Hogarth Press, 1953), 152-170.[]
  8. Jack Drescher, "Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality," Behavioral Sciences 5, no. 4 (December 2015): 565-575.[]
  9. Tobias Wiggins, "A Perverse Solution to Misplaced Distress: Trans Subjects and Clinical Disavowal," TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 7, no. 1 (February 2020): 56-76.[]
  10. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism"; Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008).[]
  11. Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, 33-74.[]
  12. Sex and the City, season 5, episode 2.[]
  13. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [Second Version]" in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin ( Belknap Press, 2008), 42.[]
  14. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 1998).[]