May 23, 2012

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank

In Straight, Hanne Blank (author of the brilliant Virgin: The Untouched History) details the creation of the concept of heterosexuality. The book opens with Blank describing her experience at a doctor’s office: when filling up a form, she was asked to check one out of five boxes describing her sexual orientation, but none of the five really captured the complexities of her reality. Her partner has three sex chromosomes, XXY, and although he has male genitalia, this doesn’t make their relationship “straight” by all definitions. She therefore asks: “If I’m attracted to, and in love with, someone who is technically speaking neither male nor female, does that make me heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or something else altogether? Who gets to decide? And, more to the point, on what grounds?”

Blank uses this example to illustrate how the categories that currently govern our understanding of sexual orientation are not all-encompassing – furthermore, they’re actually quite recent and by no means inevitable. Straight goes on to recount the cultural history – surprisingly short, as the book’s subtitle tells us – of the concept of “heterosexual”. It starts by describing its creation in 1869 and perceptively exploring the social climate that produced it. Along the way, Blank covers topics such as the history of our understanding of sexuality, romantic love, monogamy, and marriage, and the beginnings of scientific research into sexual orientation. She explores the processes through which these concepts are shaped by culture, and takes a good look at the assumptions that underpin most studies of sexual orientation to the present day.

The central thesis of Straight is that rather than being a neutral and unchanging descriptor, “heterosexual” is a construct that only came into being in opposition to “not heterosexual”. Blank tells us that,
historically, what heterosexuality “is” has been synonymous for “sexually normal”. Early in the history of the term, it was even used interchangeably with the term “normal-sexual”. And there, as they say, is the rub. “Normal” is not a mode of eternal truth; it’s a way to describe commonness and conformity with expectations. But what is most common and expected, in terms of our sexual lives or any other aspect of the human condition, does not always remain the same.
She also adds,
Heterosexual became a success, in other words, not because it represented a new scientific verity or capital-T truth. It succeeded because it was useful. At a time when moral authority was shifting from religion to the secular society at a precipitous pace, “heterosexual” offered a way to dress old religious priorities in immaculate white coats that looked just like the ones worn among the new power hierarchy of scientists. At that historical moment when the waters of anxiety about family, nation, class, gender, and empire were at a rather hysterical high, “heterosexual” seemed to offer a dry, firm place for authority to stand. This new concept, gussied up in a mangled mix of impressive-sounding dead languages, gave orthodoxies a new and vibrant lease on life by suggesting, in authoritative tones, that science had effectively pronounced them natural, inevitable, and innate.
Blank further suggests that sexual orientation is only such a big part of how people define themselves because we live in a world that makes it so culturally salient. In other words, “not straight” is a marked category because our social world makes it into one – because sexual orientation has tangible consequences for people’s lives due to our current power arrangements, rather than because there’s any essential, immutable difference between being “straight” and “not straight”.

The idea of “heterosexual” as an unmarked category is especially interesting to me, because shortly after finishing Straight I came across a post at The F Word about how Julia Serano (whose work I really need to read) makes the opposite argument:
Fifty years ago, homosexuality was almost universally seen as unnatural, immoral, illegitimate, etc. Back then, people regularly talked about “homosexuals,” but nobody ever talked about “heterosexuals.” In a sense, there were no “heterosexuals”—everyone who wasn’t engaged in same-sex behavior was simply considered “normal.” Their sexualities were unmarked and taken for granted. (…) But then gay rights activists began challenging this notion. They pointed out that all people have sexualities (not just homosexuals). The so-called “normal” people weren’t really “normal” per se, but rather they were “heterosexual.”
It’s interesting to compare these two perspectives: I can certainly see Serano’s point about how the existence of the concept of “heterosexual” should make it easier for it to no longer be perceived as the default, but I also think Blank has a point when she says that in actuality, people still very much equate “heterosexual” with “normal” (the term “straight” alone expresses this association) and that the authority of science has been used to lend legitimacy to this idea rather than to challenge it.

The chapter of Straight that covered the history of scientific research into sexual orientation was probably my favourite: Blank notes how even today, studies that attempt to pinpoint the “essential” difference between straight and gay participants repeatedly confuse sexual orientation with gender identity:
Endocrinology researchers have postulated that homosexual men might become homosexual as a result of being exposed, as fetuses, either to particularly high levels of “female” hormones or else to conditions that compromise their bodies’ ability to respond normally to “male” hormones. (In actuality there are no such things as “male” or “female” hormones. Hormones have no sex of their own, and all types of sex hormones are present in all human beings in varying amounts.) This hypothesis relies on the same old inversion paradigm: a gay male is gay because he’s in some way(s) not male.
This assumption (and also the related assumption that lesbians are not “proper” women) is incredibly common. There is of course some degree of overlap between non-straight sexual orientations and non-cis gender identities, but the association is certainly not inevitable.

Reading Straight (and also Lesley Rogers’ Sexing the Brain earlier this year) helped me articulate my discomfort with the idea that “proving” that sexual orientation is hardwired will necessarily result in greater tolerance; and also with the assumption that rejecting biological approaches to sexual orientation equals aligning ourselves with homophobia by implying that people who aren’t straight “could” or “should” change. Demonstrating that those in same-sex relationships “can’t help themselves” shouldn’t be a requirement for their romantic choices to be respected. This is why pleas for tolerance solely based on examples from nature tend to make me uneasy: while it is perfectly true that there are plenty of examples of same-sex attraction in other species, there’s also so much that human beings do and other animals don’t, from using cutlery to reading Shakespeare, that is never called into question. Why should same-sex relationships be any different?

Furthermore, it’s important to note that “not hardwired” is not the same as “inconsequential” or even “mutable” – but as I have said before, we have a tendency to think of cultural constructs as not actually real. Hanne Blank argues that the categories we currently use to classify sexual orientation are in fact cultural constructs, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful, meaningful to people, or real in terms of their everyday experiences and lived identities.

As someone who identifies as straight and is far from all-knowledgeable about this topic, I really want to clarify that finding Blank’s arguments persuasive doesn’t mean I’m trying to erase the benefits that labels can bring to lgbtq people living in a world that does make sexual orientation salient and is organised along “straight” versus “not straight” lines. Sexual identity allows people to form communities, to find sources of comfort and support in a world that still oppresses them, and to organise themselves politically and fight for the legal and civic rights they should have had all along. This is all extremely important stuff, and it means that the categories we have today are useful. But it’s also important not to confuse “useful” with inevitable, ahistorical, or immutable.

Much like Virgin, Straight is a fascinating book: detailed, carefully researched, intensively readable, wonderfully written, and successful at bringing together seemingly unrelated strands of knowledge to make a cogent argument. It’s also a book that challenges our assumptions, poses plenty of questions, and ultimately argues for us to enlarge our mental categories and approach sexuality with flexibility. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excerpts – a very sensible section from the introduction in which Blank explains what she thinks we should always keep in mind when exploring human sexuality:
Because there is so much inbuilt variability where sexuality is concerned, there are five caveats worth keeping in mind for any exploration of sexual orientation. First, the biological sex and social gender of a prospective partner are only two of many characteristics in which an individual may take a sexual interest, and their relative importance is subjective and variable. Second, sexual desire (what we like or want) and sexual behavior (what we actually do) are not the same thing, and may or may not be related. Third, sexual and/or erotic activity takes on considerably more forms then we may be personally accustomed to recognize, and certainly more forms exist overall than are sanctioned by any given culture. Fourth, we have to remember that all sexual activity is social activity, while only a small subset of all sexual activity is also reproductive activity. This means that it behooves us to think about sexual activity first as social, and only consider it as (potentially) reproductive when it actually is. And last, we must bear in mind that the relationships between perception, thought, emotion, and behavior are neither automatic nor consistent. In many cases they are demonstrably affected or directed by culture and socialization. We don't just want what we want because we want it; we want what we want because that’s what we’ve learned to want.
A few more interesting bits:
Making orgasm the goal of sex did not, in fact, usher in a magical era of liberation, equality, and general grooviness. Women continue to have to negotiate a sexual double standard that, even in Hollywood’s fantasy factory, paints their sexual pleasure as less appropriate and less valid than men’s. The film-ratings body known as the Motion Picture Association of America has been noted to apply its harshest, most commercially damaging, ratings to films featuring what it deems to be “overlong” scenes of female orgasm. Women who are perceived to be overly sexual, or too sexual in the wrong ways—meaning, especially, ways that do not focus on conventional feminine receptivity to men—are still likely to be shamed, ostracized, and punished.

Heterosexuality seems to be bigger than we are, independent, more powerful. It is not. In reality, we are the ones whose imaginations created the heterosexual/homosexual scheme, and we are also the ones whose multitudes that scheme ultimately cannot contain. Eventually as a culture we will imagine our way into some different grand explanation, some other scheme for explaining our emotions and our desires and our passionate entanglements. For now we believe in heterosexual. And this, too, shall pass.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Oh, I want to read this so bad.

    Sexuality is such a complex beast that the idea of people trying to boil it down to "oh, X biological reason is why you're what you are" honestly baffles me, especially since it's not applied to straight people. One of the most useful things I found as a kid was a questionnaire that flipped the script on questions people normally ask lgbtq people ("When you did first decide you were straight?", for example) and that absolutely blew my mind.

    And you are, obviously, quite right that we shouldn't need biological excuses to be whatever we are. I know as an panromantic asexual woman, I tend to try and explain it as "I'm just wired differently", because it can be a baffling concept to people, but I would love to live in a world where I didn't have to.

  2. I really want to read her books. The library doesn't have them, though, and I really have to stop buying books! At some point I will hopefully get a chance, though!

  3. This truly sounds as awesome as expected! I'd totally want to read it for this quote alone: "In reality, we are the ones whose imaginations created the heterosexual/homosexual scheme, and we are also the ones whose multitudes that scheme ultimately cannot contain. Eventually as a culture we will imagine our way into some different grand explanation, some other scheme for explaining our emotions and our desires and our passionate entanglements. For now we believe in heterosexual. And this, too, shall pass."

  4. There's an interesting article in Rolling Stone about the lead singer of the punk band - Against Me! - coming out as transgender and beginning to transition to his female self. The article is in the print version, but here's a link to an article about the article (how meta is that?).

    This whole conundrum is much like that of the construction of racial identity. My sister-in-law is quarter black, quarter Asian, half white (with some Choctaw thrown in for good measure). She identifies as all of those things, yet is constantly being told she's black hearkening back to the days of one drop of black blood makes you black.

    It all seems very backwards and useless to spend so much time requiring a specific label for things that are big, complex, and not even close to specific.

    Great review.

  5. This sounds really interesting! I've heard that in Australia, for passports and things, there's a third gender option in addition to male and female, so our definition of gender and sex is definitely fluid and changing.

    I have never been asked what my sexual orientation is on a form. And if I was I sure as heck wouldn't answer it.

  6. We have talked a lot with our kids (now teenagers) about why people identify themselves by sexual "orientation" so much. It's a little disturbing to me how much their peers sexualize everything (there is still hilarity at our house when they invoke the 19th-C line "he woke with a sudden ejaculation").

    This book would have been useful to me when I was teaching a few years ago. One of the things I always did was ask each person in the class when he/she decided or recognized a particular sexual orientation. The "straight" kids had to think about it, which was revealing all by itself.

  7. I can't wait to read this. I love Hanne Blanke.

    I hate defining my sexuality. I'm almost 40 & I still don't understand why I should have to label it.

  8. This sounds fascinating. I completely agree with comments above that our society sexualizes everything so much and so early that people are almost forced to "pick a team," as it were, without really even knowing what they're doing. For example, a friend told me about a 12-year-old girl she knows who has already decided she's a lesbian. I mean, what?! How? And if your first crush is a girl, does that mean you are now put into a box wherein all of your future crushes must be girls? At age 12? It's so disturbing to me.

  9. I'm looking forward to reading this! Hanne Blank said many fascinating things in Virgin that have stuck with me for years after reading the book, and I expect the same from Straight. Yay for gender theorists!

  10. I've always hated the idea of labels until I came out…then I got it a little bit..though I'm still not totally nuts about them. Not at all really :p Sexuality really is such a fluid thing. But I do totally agree that labels can be useful as far as helping to identify with a group of people, seeking out resources, etc.

    I feel similar when it comes to psychiatric diagnoses actually..i know..weird thing to bring up, lol. But I HATE labeling someone with a disorder. But I do see how said label can be helpful to find resources for someone with similar traits as other people. /rant.

    Anyway, you are totally making Hanne Blank my new favorite author that I've never read ;p

  11. Thanks for this review, sounds like a really interesting and informative book - always a type I like to read ;)

  12. I almost checked this one out the last time I was at the library. Your review is excellent as usual and does make me want to read the book. I've just started Delusions of Gender which I think you would enjoy if you've not already read it.

    I think this one may be next.

  13. This is an interesting blog. Heterosexuals and homosexuals always baffles me, and by reading this, I hope this will answer most of my questions. Thanks for posting!


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