The concept of heterosexuality in our current culture is much like what the concept of Caucasian once was for Western society: It's the assumed "normal," the standard by which everything and everyone else is measured. One difference, as explained by Hanne Blank in her rich new book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, is that unlike skin color, heterosexuality is not an inherent trait one is born with, and in fact may not even exist.
Blank is a prolific writer and speaker who addresses subjects of sex and erotica candidly and cleverly. She's previously written about virginity and sex for "people of size," in addition to editing collections of erotica and penning her own. Straight deconstructs our modern conception of the word "heterosexual," the so-called "normal-sexual" individual who is 100 percent one gender and 100 percent attracted to a member of the opposite gender.
The introduction explains Blank's personal clash with the word. She is female, and her longtime partner was born with, and has, a fully functioning penis. But where women have XX chromosomes and men have XY, her partner has all three: XXY. He/she is therefore, as she puts it, "simultaneously male, female, and neither." Her partner's ambiguous gender therefore calls into question Blank's own sexuality: Is she straight? Gay? Bi? Or something else entirely?
Thus begins Blank's dense, detail-packed tome. In addition to being a writer, Blank is a historian, and the book is composed of the high-concept sentences and occasional academic language one would expect. This is not, in other words, pop science, and is consequently not always an easy read. The book begins with a look at the culture of urbanization in the early 19th century and how this changed concepts of the family, religion and society; all of this provides the background against which Blank sketches the developing view of heterosexuality.
"Heterosexual" as a word didn't make it into print until a writer named Karl Maria Kertbeny included it in a letter written May 6, 1868. As industrialized society grew to favor the nuclear family, sex started to morph out of a religious context that saw it as evil, into an act solely for the consummation of marriage and production of children, into something from which both the male and the female could experience pleasure. These changing views of the sex act thus constantly shifted the way each individual viewed his or her own sexuality and that of others.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the public was told that one always had to be on the lookout for sexually "deviant" behavior – the gynecologist's use of a vaginal speculum could lead to female masturbation, nymphomania and prostitution, for instance – and that everything from reading novels to constipation could be considered sexually deviant. (Both Graham crackers and Kellogg's cereals were popularized due to their high fiber contents, which could cure constipation and thus alleviate the pressure on the prostate that was thought to cause sexual thoughts.) Blank writes:
The self-identification of small numbers of sexually non-normative individuals was not something that generated a sensibility of "the heterosexual" or "the normal-sexual" in the rest of the population. What generated this sensibility in the mainstream was the increasingly common experience of looking in the mirror to see if a deviant or degenerate looked back.
Though Straight may at first seem dense, it is worth the effort it takes to get to the juicy stuff. Blank discusses everything from Disney's harmful representation of the prince coming along to save his princess – "Disney damage," as she and her friends call it – to the complications sex-assignment surgery and test-tube babies are creating in the search to define ourselves sexually. When marriage is not required for children, and neither are two members of opposite sexes, what does that mean for how we view the roles of the male and the female, and the ways in which they interact?
Because heterosexuality is presumed "normal," it often escapes the sort of examination to which homosexuality is subjected. Blank discusses all manner of social and scientific studies conducted to find a biological "cause" for homosexuality, a "gene" that may make one predisposed to such an abnormal state of being. But with Straight, Blank calls the accepted state into question, and in doing so undermines its relevance. In referring to a tiff with a doctor about pronoun usage, Blank writes:
The simple fact is that no sexuality is as simple as my doctor wanted to make it. Neither is the language we use to talk about it. … [S]exuality is a complicated alchemy that mixes biology, gender relations, hierarchy, resources, and power. "Heterosexual" and "homosexual" were, on one level, nothing more than a smart man's attempt to use language to redefine the terms of a particularly nasty game of Us vs. Them.
Straight comes at an opportune time, as the nation struggles to define marriage and the rights of those who identify as anything other than classically straight. Blank ultimately concludes that heterosexuality is a concept invented by society, and society thus has the power to redefine it. Both supporters and opponents of the gay rights movement would do well to read this book with an open mind; Blank's words bring some sober clarity to a battle that often feels vitriolic and rooted in uninformed prejudice.
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