When you were born, for instance, they decided whether you were a boy or a girl (admittedly, based on obvious visual clues). Because of that, they hung a gender-specific moniker on you, dressed you in pink or blue, cuddled you more or less, and gave you certain toys accordingly.
Consequently, people presumed your sexuality before you were able to confirm or deny it. But what is a heterosexual, anyhow? Or, for that matter, what’s a homosexual? Find out in the new book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank.
For most of human history, people were just people, un-pigeonholed. There were no heterosexuals prior to about 150 years ago, nor were there homosexuals. Love existed, of course, as did various sexual desires and behaviors, but terms and categories describing humans themselves did not.
In 1868, a Victorian-era writer coined the word “heterosexual,” and there we are. Those Victorians, says Blank, were a randy bunch who loved to be titillated, so we shouldn’t be too surprised at their prurient interests, especially that which concerned the maintenance of “manly” virtues and the defining of “deviant” behavior of the lower class.
Those “degenerates” were the ones who needed to be “weeded out.”
Suddenly, what others were doing in the bedroom became a really big deal. Serious names for every sexual activity, as well as judgments for them, were topics of hushed conversation, and extreme care had to be taken to remain on the good side of gossip. Anything other than “normal” sexual relationships were considered immoral, though it was extremely common for same-sex couples to share a bed and nobody gave it a thought.
Freud weighed in with his ideas. Other “scientists” followed suit, and by the 1950s, “‘heterosexuals” were everywhere, many ushered into marriage because it was expected of them. After all, wedded bliss was the only respectable allowance for having sex, and sex was only for procreation.
And then came The Pill…
But all this history begs a modern question: because we know now that there are way more than two categories of human sexuality on the spectrum, does anyone’s sexual identity really matter to anybody but that individual? Who cares anymore?
Blank says that, of course, it depends on who asks.
Straight is…well, it’s pretty straight, and probably not the kind of book you’d pick up on a lark, although author Hanne Blank does occasionally employ a sense of the absurd in her accounting of the history of heterosexuality and everything that it wasn’t.
For casual, time-starved readers, though, that might not be enough. What Blank says runs somewhat deep and semi-philosophical, with solidly based research and biographical examples. These things are tempered by Blank’s sharp-as-an-ax wit, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that this book begs to be pondered.
Still, if you’ve ever wondered how we got to this point in our bedrooms, you really can’t miss it. If you’re heterosexual (or know one), reading Straight is a good decision.
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality
by Hanne Blank
2012, Beacon (beacon.org)
228 pages (includes notes), $26.95
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.