So I’m kind of cheating on this one, because I haven’t actually read Hanne Blank‘s new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. But I know her work, and I know how fabulously important this topic is, so I’m endorsing it sight unseen.
A recent interview with Hanne in Salon gives a flavor of what the book covers:
Men and woman have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. So how can we talk about there being a “history” of heterosexuality?
We can talk about there being a history of heterosexuality in the same way that we can talk about there being a history of religions. People have been praying to God for a really long time too, and yet the ways people relate to the divine have specific histories. They come from particular places, they take particular trajectories, there are particular texts, and individuals that are important in them. There are events, names, places, dates. It’s really very similar.
So where does the term “heterosexual” come from?
“Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual,” [in the mid-19thcentury], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.
One of the things I find so crucial to our mission of social justice is questioning the norms that almost no one questions. When you interrogate them just a bit, you find out just how constructed they actually are. Heterosexuality is widely accepted as the norm, and homosexuality the deviation. What Hanne uncovers is that the terms themselves are recent inventions with clearly political (and discriminatory) histories.
One of the ways these social norms get reinforced, and made even more powerful, is through scientific research. Hanne addresses this phenomenon:
Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of science arguing that there are physical differences between gay people and straight people, in their brains and even the direction of their hair whirls. You’re skeptical of this research. Why?
I question their validity primarily because nobody has established or in fact attempted to establish that there is a canonical straight body. And if you don’t have characterized control, you can bet your bottom dollar I am not going to believe your hypothesis. It’s really that simple.
All of this research that is purporting to look for physiological material differences between gay bodies and straight bodies: What are they comparing it to? Their assumption that they know magically what a heterosexual body is? When no one has actually established what that is. That’s bad science.
You can pre-order Straight (coming out at the end of the month) here.