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rough tradeWhen I first heard Rough Trade’s “High School Confidential” I was immediately taken by its rawness and frank sexuality: it was rare to hear this kind of forthright discussion of desire on the radio stations available in Windsor, Ontario in the early 1980s. Lines like “is he screwing [with] her” were very risqué at the time. (As an aside, I recall that, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, and trying to understand the details of sex, I somehow came to the conclusion that “screwing” referred specifically to anal sex. Of course, I also thought that the vagina was on the front of a woman’s body, just under the belly button, so I was clearly vastly misinformed about a great many things.)

But the most scandalous and titillating (there’s a word that in itself seemed dirty) lyric was the singer’s admission that seeing Dagmar in the hall “made me cream my jeans.” Can you say that on the radio?!

I’d come across the phrase (and don’t doubt that, at twelve years old, even saying the word “come” was a source of embarrassed amusement for all) and knew it was dirty and tied to the newly discovered pleasure and shame of ejaculation (mostly experienced through “wet dreams” at that stage of my life), not to mention crude desire. What a song!

My adolescent mind, just coming to grips with my own sexuality, couldn’t parse the full impact of this line and, even though up until that point in the song I thought the singer was a woman, refused to accept that she could cream her jeans over another woman (and my limited anatomical knowledge had no clue that women could even “cream” at all). So instead of allowing my mind to grasp the possibilities of female-on-female desire, I let cognitive dissonance take over completely and convince me that the singer must be a man after all. And so for years afterward, whenever I heard the song, I pictured a man singing it (in these days before ubiquitous music videos, I’d never been encumbered by actually seeing Rough Trade, although even if I had I’d bet my brain could have convinced my hesitant teenage self that Carole Pope was a man… the subject of androgyny is a story for another time), a man through whom I could identify with my own frustrated desires for the type of woman who was “a combination of Anita Ekberg and Mamie Van Doren” (not that those kinds of girls went to my high school).

Here for me is the power of heteronormative thinking: the assumption that the only possible interpretation of a situation is the heterosexual view. And it was a powerful and instinctive reaction, formed by society, upbringing, and media, I suppose (although now, years later, I’m comfortable taking responsibility for my own presumptions and bias), that was extremely tenacious. How transgressive was this song, in so many ways? It laid the path to an understanding of different ways of being, even if it took me a long time to walk that path.

1. The use of the term “partner” to refer to both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, to say nothing of business relationships. Oh, your partner Hilary and you went to a sales conference? Is that your husband or wife or office-mate?

2. Giving pets human names: Norman, Dora, Henry, Gertrude. What happened to old favourites like Spot, Fluffy, Spanky and the like? Last night I witnessed a man running down the street, calling out desperately “Betsy!” and I didn’t know if he was looking for a child, a dog, or a ferret. At least, for the most part, the human names are ones no one ever gives a person these days… but that could just mean that he was looking for a wayward nonagenarian.

3. Giving children names with (what you imagine to be) unique spellings. It’s not the name that makes someone unique–it’s the person and how they live their life. Ashley, Ashleigh, Ash-Lee, etc.: you’re going to meet someone with your exact name, as assuredly as I will. For me, it’ll be a little anecdote, the start of a conversation, an odd coincidence. For you, it’ll be a wreck, a blow to your ego from which you’ll never recover, as you realize you’re not quite the precious one-of-a-kind snowflake your parents always said that you were.

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