Our family structure impacts all areas of our lives. In the U.S. the idealized family structure is the nuclear, two heterosexual parent relationship with a couple of children and these are the families privileged under our system. If it abides by the male breadwinner, female homemaker model, so much the better. That structure is what we call “traditional” even though it only predominated for a brief chunk of time post WWII. But it was only ever prevalent, during that time period, for upwardly mobile Whites who were upwardly mobile because of the GI Bill, given to White men who had served in the military. POC and women were not given the same opportunities, even when they had served.
We specify parental status in addition to “family structure” because adults who do not have children are not considered “real” adults by many. “Two-parent” also requires specification because single parent households are stigmatized and sanctioned in our society, especially if a woman is the head and even more so if a Black woman is the head of the household.
The relationship escalator typifies the idealized relationship process in U.S. society. Dating leads to engagement leads to marriage leads to children. What about those of us who do not want some or even any of those things? There is nothing wrong with people being married (although we should be critical of the institution itself) but some of us are happily single, happily solo poly, happily single parents, happily relationship anarchists, happily polyamorous, happily engaged in so many other forms of family. Each of the normative structures that govern relationships can be defined:
- Repronormativity—this refers to how ideas about which bodies should be having sex together has historically been set by which bodies can have children together. It’s based in a male-female binary and has also been the belief that the only sex that people should be having is sex which is for reproduction. So sex for fun, oral or anal sex, or anything else that is not penis-in-vagina intercourse is considered deviant. People may argue and that repronormativity is not even an issue in our current historical epoch. We argue otherwise: we still see repronormativity in the stratification of sexual orientation whereas heterosexual relationships receive more privileges and are seen as “normal.” We still see it in our rhetoric around sexual acts—for example, anal intercourse is considered deviant compared to vaginal intercourse. We see it in the push for people to have children, the common belief that people who do not want children have something wrong with them or just need to age a bit.
- Heteronormativity—related to repronormativity since it based around male-female dyads that are capable of PIV and reproduction. Heteronormativity is key today in how marriage became something for queer people to aspire. That aspiration makes sense because heterosexuals have received benefits built into the system of marriage that only they had access to (including but not limited to decision making, adoption, inheritance). Arguably, however, “marriage equality” has led to the development of homonormativity, where queer identified people are “supposed” to have marriage as their relationship goal and the leaving behind of people who cannot or do not want to espouse to those norms. Gay marriage allows some people who are queer access to the institution of marriage and from there, access to health/medical, economic, and other benefits. It still leaves the institution of marriage and the accompanying inequalities in place, like access to all of one’s partners in the hospital, adoption of children, tax benefits, etc.
- Mononormativity—monogamy, specifically serial monogamy, in U.S. society is the norm. Multiple, consenting adult relationships or even staying solo are not seen as legitimate options. People who identify as kinky or as poly may face higher risk in family courts as if their (adult) relationships and sexual practices make them less fit parents than others.