Heterosexuality Is Only 150 Years Old

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 9 2012 7:15 AM

No Hetero

Hanne Blank’s lively history of straights.

A happy and man and woman on their wedding day.
How much of sexual orientation is what we've been taught to call ourselves?

George Eastman House Collection.

You quondam liberal-artists out there—veterans of lit-crit and queer theory, men and womyn formerly fluent in what Said said and all that Lacan cant—may yet remember that we live our lives according to a system of social constructs. The idea of race did not exist until colonialism required it. The notion of the self was thoroughly obscure until the Enlightenment dawned. The teenager didn't exist until the Industrial Revolution told him to get off its lawn.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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Now from Hanne Blank comes a chewy piece of scholarship—Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon)—that puts a spin on the hip-hop catchphrase "no homo," explaining that there was no hetero until social science and pseudo-science invented a need in the middle of the 19th century. Anyone who's done time at a British public school or a progressive women's college can tell you that matters of sexual orientation are not strictly either/or. But this book twirls that “/” with panache, spinning a generous handful of yarns about the stories we tell ourselves about sex, love, and identity.

Straight covers an impressive bit of social-historical ground despite being, true to its subtitle, a compact production. It runs 264 pages, including index and footnotes. There are no illustrations, lamentably, so let's start with the author bio. Hanne Blank is "an independent scholar," earlier the author of Virgin: The Untouched History, and her "work has been featured everywhere from Out to Penthouse"—a gamut that would seem to exclude both Oui and Playgirl. She is, on the evidence, a rigorous thinker. Tracing the history of the word heterosexual and homosexual—coined, in 1868, by a pamphleteer opposed to the laws against "unnatural fornication" being written into the Prussian penal code—she is calm and clear. Tracing the way those coinages and the ideas animating them radiated into general discourse—by way of Kraft-Ebbing and Kinsey and Freud—she is deft and nimble. Shuttling back and forth through time to chat about related issues—including matrimony and sodomy, the economics of nonsexual bed-sharing and the history of romantic love—she exhibits the handsome confidence of a popular historian. And dragging herself into it, she uses a light touch to make us question the pronoun she.

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In the acknowledgements, Blank thanks her partner for "being such such a good sport about being made into a framing device for a history book." The author is a woman who claims "no deep personal attachment to labeling myself in terms of sexual orientation," and her better half is, in terms of sexual organs, a man. But does the manhood make the man? He is diagnosed with Klinefelter Syndrome, "one of the most common sex-chromosome anomalies," meaning that his DNA reads XXY. His looks are androgynous, and his testicles are no help to the perpetuation of the species, but everything's peachy … until you start wondering whether this couple's love would traditionally be allowed to speak its name.

It would be orthodox to say that he is a man and that their relationship is heterosexual, but Blank is most compelling when talking about doxa. One of her few resorts to jargon, it’s a necessary one. "When anthropologists talk about this 'stuff everyone knows,' " she writes, "they use the term doxa. Doxa comes from the Greek for 'common knowledge,' and that's a pretty good description of what it is: the understanding we absorb from our native culture that we use to make sense of the world. … We all create it, together, mostly unintentionally." The doxa of straightness was created by tribal leaders and trial lawyers, by old wives and Viennese witch doctors, and it is being created by me as I write and you as you read. Blank has some questions for us, and they originated, it seems, with an intimate inquiry she confronts at the health clinic when wondering which box to tick, "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender," or "heterosexual."

Hanne Blank.
Hanne Blank

Courtesy Hanne Blank.

The book's impetus may be personal but its passions are strictly philosophical. One mission of Straight is to argue with people identified, with a Cornel West flourish, as "our right-wing brothers and sisters"—some of whom, mostly scarily those running for president, assert that heterosexuality is all about procreation. But Blank's argument isn't against them. Rather, it's an engagement with the whole system of thought that allows and encourages right and left wings to take flight.

If I fail to convey the book's central point, that is because the book has no center. It's possible that Blank isn't the tenure-track type because her prose style is too good for too many of the departments that go in for her kind of thing—too free of weedy rhetoric to take root in the groves of academe. But also, Blank, though eminently reasonable, is not committed to sustained linear reasoning. The book hops among a useful riddle about "marked categories" (if we say that prude is the opposite of slut, then what are we saying about the person who is neither?), some thoughts on a court case involving the jazz pianist Billy Tipton (a woman who passed as a man, which was news to his widow), and a consideration of the metaphorical "wide stance" of Larry Craig ("he straddled the border of what was permissible for a man in a position of power"). Elsewhere, there are mini-essays on the cultural shift from courting to dating, the Defense of Marriage Act, the advent of no-fault divorce. … It's all smart, and it's all over the place.

And there are wrinkles in the text that would have benefited from the steam-ironing of peer review. Blank, for instance, spends time fruitfully considering degeneration—a perversion of Darwin that lay behind some lethal pseudo-science—but she neglects to mention the famous Max Nordau book of that title. But am I succumbing to the tyranny of doxa in lodging such complaints? Isn't there something perfect in the fact that Straight zigzags in connecting its dots?

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