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Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

Who, and what, is “heterosexual”? How did we come to think about ourselves, and our sexualities, in terms of something called “heterosexuality” and what does it mean that we do? These questions are at the core of Hanne Blank’s Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, a look at how Western culture came to devise and adopt the idea of “heterosexuality” as well as how the idea has changed over time.
Straight opens by revealing how the female author’s long-term relationship with a genetically intersex partner made it hard for her to accurately indicate her sexual orientation to others, for instance on the forms used by her doctor’s office. This difficulty set Blank on the path of uncovering the history of “heterosexual,” hoping to find evidence along the way that would make it clearer how a relationship between a cisgendered woman and a person who is genetically neither male nor female might be defined.

Prior to the invention of the term “heterosexual” in the late 1860s, she wouldn’t have had to worry about it. Before that point, Western culture did not include the concept we now call “sexual orientation” or “sexual identity.” Sexual desires were things anyone could experience, whether they were appropriate or inappropriate, sinful or virtuous. Those who indulged their desires had an obligation to conduct their sex lives properly and morally, but one could fail at this, as well as succeed, even if one’s sex partner were of a different biological sex. Same-sex sexual acts were often prejudicially punished, but there was not a general sense that those who engaged in them were of a particular “type” or shared a particular “identity.” Anyone could have sex that was sinful, immoral, or illegal.

The term “heterosexual,” along with its sibling “homosexual,” was coined in 1868 in this fundamentally egalitarian vein. Austro-Hungarian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny invented the terms as part of a protest against a Prussian sodomy law that criminalized male-male sex acts specifically, while not penalizing identical acts performed between male-female couples. Kertbeny’s terminology suggested his theory that such differential punishment was unfair because human beings were at root simply sexual, with “hetero” (different) and “homo” (same) being simply two directions in which that sexual urge could be directed.

As detailed by other scholars, including Jonathan Ned Katz in The Invention of Heterosexuality, this terminology did not remain egalitarian. As it made its way into medical jargon via the early sexological literature of psychiatrists like Richard von Kraft-Ebbing by the late 1880s, homosexual and heterosexual became a de facto hierarchy: Kraft-Ebbing used “heterosexual” interchangeably with “normal-sexual.” From there into the turn-of-the-20th-century psychoanalytic literature of Freud and others, and continuing into the 1920s, “heterosexual” as a synonym for “normal” or “appropriate” sexuality began to appear in mainstream literature and public discussion, and swiftly became part of our vernacular, something that “everybody knows.”

This process was enabled by a great many cultural trends that both began well before and continued long after the late nineteenth century. As the chapters of Straight detail thematically, our shared understandings of the thing we call “heterosexuality” have been influenced by nearly every realm of culture, including demographics, physical science, marriage, divorce, our expectations of romantic love and sexual pleasure, economics, psychoanalysis, and much, much more. Just as heterosexuality’s influence is felt in virtually every aspect of Western culture, virtually every aspect of Western culture has an influence on heterosexuality.

The chapter entitled “Carnal Knowledge” looks at this process and shows some of the ways we come to know the things we believe we know to be true about heterosexuality. A great deal of our sense of “heterosexual” is not taught to us explicitly, but is absorbed from our surroundings and interactions through language, our understanding of nature, our religions, our love of statistics, our family structures, our entertainment media, and more. Because we learn it in such diffuse and numerous ways, it can be hard to pinpoint where our awareness of “heterosexual” comes from, which can make it seem as though it “just is,” and comes from nowhere.

This invisibility, where assumptions about heterosexuality are concerned, becomes glaring when we look critically at biomedical science’s attempts to uncover biological origins for sexual orientation. Scientists have looked for a physical origin for homosexuality for over a hundred years, but found none. But no such origin has ever been sought where heterosexuality is concerned. Scientifically speaking, this is indefensible – if one sexual orientation demands a biological basis, so do any others -- a fact that sheds enormous light on the extent to which our presumptions about sexual orientation bias our thinking.

Experiences and expectations of romantic love, marriage, childbearing, childrearing, and sexual activity have also contributed to – and changed along with – the emergence and dominance of the idea of “heterosexual.” From the 16th to 19th centuries the rise of companionate marriage, in which spouses were expected to be emotionally sympathetic to one another, fundamentally changed expectations about male/female partnerships. Increasing egalitarianism in law, economics, and social expectations likewise transformed the potentials of male/female relationships, permitting women and men alike more opportunity to pursue subjective pleasures like love, romance, and sexual compatibility. These things, along with the increasing ability to choose whether and when to conceive and bear children, have transformed “heterosexuality” into something that is still socially normative, but whose specific manifestations are highly dependent upon personal preferences and choices.

Straight concludes by returning to the opening problem, of how to talk about sexual orientation when it involves a person who is neither a textbook male or female, with an extended look at the various points at which the hetero/homo scheme breaks down. Intersexed individuals, transsexuals, new reproductive technologies that allow for conception without penis-in-vagina intercourse, and even the simple (yet vast) array of sexual behaviors in which humans engage all challenge the ability of “heterosexual” to rule the day. In the end, it is clear, “heterosexual” is not an inevitable answer but a temporary one, an idea and a term we developed because it was useful to us, and an idea and term whose usefulness we will eventually outgrow.