I found this book thanks to Kirstyn McDermott on The Writer and The Critic. The full title is Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, and as the history of sexuality is often bound up with the history of gender I snapped up a copy.
Blank is a good person to write such a book. She has had sexual experiences with people of a variety of genders, and her chosen life partner is an intersex person. He — he does identify as male — exhibits Kleinfelder’s Syndrome, so has XXY chromosomes; but he is also chimeric, meaning that not all of the cells in his body have the same chromosomes. Parts of him are XXY, and parts of him XY. (I understand that this is not a rare as you might think — in particular women who have given birth to sons often have a fair number of XY cells in their bodies.) Blank notes in the introduction that she has no idea whether she classes as heterosexual or not; and that as a couple she and her partner are sometimes read as straight and sometimes as lesbians. She wanted to know what being “heterosexual” meant, and a rabbit hole opened up.
Part of the problem was lack of scientific study. Blank notes:
No dedicated neurologist has ever hunched over microscope slides of brain tissue teasing out telltale details that make a “heterosexual brain” heterosexual. Endrocrinologists cannot give us the hormonal recipe for the biochemical cocktail that makes a person straight, nor have geneticists ever tried to locate such a thing as a “straight gene,” except insofar as they often assume that genes are “straight” unless they are something else. Sociobiologists have yet to register any definitive statements on questions like whether being the firstborn, or perhaps having a lot of older sisters, or maybe being an only child, increase ones odds of growing up to be heterosexual. Dozens, even hundreds of scientists have made careers, sometimes quite influential and lucrative ones, in attempting to answer exactly these and similar questions where homosexuality is concerned. But somehow heterosexuality seems always to be left out in the cold, with no one to show the slightest concern for its nature or workings.
Poor straights. No wonder they are always complaining about how oppressed they are.
Of course it doesn’t help that heterosexuality is a relatively recent invention. The terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were coined in 1869 by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, an Austrian novelist and human rights campaigner who was protesting against a new Prussian law providing stiff penalties for “unnatural fornication” (a law that the Nazis later made enthusiastic use of). What Kertbeny was hoping to do was establish same-sex and opposite-sex relationships on an equal scientific (and therefore moral and legal) footing. Sadly it didn’t quite turn out like that, but clearly people did have straight relationships before Kertbeny discovered heterosexuality, so how were those relationships defined then?
Interestingly the word “normal” did not necessarily apply, at least not to a lot of what we understand as straight sex. Prior to Kertbeny, the primary distinction was not between hetero- and homo-, but between morally acceptable sexual practices and sodomy. By “morally acceptable” I mean sanctioned by the church. The term “sodomy” was not restricted to male-male anal intercourse, but applied to any unsanctioned sexual activity. Good Christians had sex purely for procreative purposes; sodomites did other things for pleasure.
Blank takes us on an entertaining tour of the history of attitudes towards sexuality, and types of sexual behavior. Naturally this includes a survey of the Victorian obsession with sex, and in particular masturbation.
Anything and everything, it seemed, could spur one to the dissipating, morally degenerate, vitality-sapping practice of self-stimulation. Reading novels was considered a high-risk activity, encouraging fantasy and laziness. Constipation was judged to excite the nerves of the pelvis and encourage insalubrious behaviour; both Sylvester Graham’s eponymous cracker and John Kellogg’s breakfast cereals were part of the effort to ensure regular, healthy bowel movements that would not cause undue stimulation to sensitive bits of the anatomy.
Blank has also managed to convince me (though it didn’t need much work) that Freud was seriously in need of psychiatric help. I thoroughly applaud her skewering of the psychiatric practice of inventing “disorders” so that they have excuses to sell their services.
The book has other interesting insights and snippets of information too. Apparently in 1958 the Goodyear Rubber company made $150 million from the sale of condoms, yet publicly refused to admit to manufacturing them because social attitudes towards contraception in the USA were deeply hostile. I was also impressed by Blank’s observation that the modern beauty industry owes much of its influence to the social change from “courting”, which typically took place in the girl’s home, to “dating”, which took place in public and which put much more emphasis on approval by one’s peers than by one’s parents.
A key element of Blank’s argument is the concept of doxa. This is a technical term for “things that everyone knows”; that is, ideas that are so deeply embedded in popular opinion that hardly anyone ever questions them. Wikipedia tells me that it was invented by Greek rhetoricians and was quickly adopted as a means of influencing political opinions. It has had a long and successful history in that role ever since. The examples of doxa that Blank is most concerned with are the ideas that male-female sexual relations are “normal” and “natural”, despite plenty of evidence that same-sex relations are common in both humans and animals. Blank is also interested in how the precise definition of what is “normal”, and therefore socially acceptable, can change dramatically in a very short period of time.
I have a couple of concerns with Blank’s history. The first is that it is very much a Western history. I understand that getting a good understanding of how other cultures view sexuality is difficult, probably particularly difficult compared to most cross-cultural studies. Nevertheless, my own work on gender suggests that looking at other cultures can teach us an awful lot about how blinkered our own ideas are. It seems odd to me that someone writing a history of sexuality appears not to have read the Kama Sutra.
Also, in her zeal to show how many of our ideas about sex are modern inventions, Blank has a tendency not to look too far into the past. Anything prior to the 18th Century is generally presumed to be mediaeval and unchanging. It is true that ancient love stories tend to be tragedies rather than romances with happy endings, but I think the existence of tales such as those of Diarmuid & Gráinne and Tristan & Isolde prove that teenagers did fall in love well before Dion and the Belmonts. Two of Homer’s key plotlines Achilles & Patroclus and Odysseus & Penelope, are love stories.
Naturally, because of her emphasis on doxa, I was also interesting to look for ideas that Blank accepted without question. That led me to examine some of the dangers of being fundamentalist about scientific proof.
I’d been a bit suspicious of Blank’s approach all the way through. She appeared to be taking the position that anything that had not been positively proved to exist did not exist. This isn’t actually the way that science works. There are plenty of things that either theory or observation have told us should exist, but have taken decades or more to acquire positive proof of their existence. In Blank’s case her insistence on positive proof leads her into territory that she carefully avoids illuminating.
I’m perfectly happy to accept the argument that people should have a right to their sexuality regardless of whether they were “born this way” or not. So I’m not disturbed that Blank insists that there is no biological origin to sexuality. But she also insists that there is no psychological or sociological cause. In that case sexuality can only be a choice, and is if is then “gay cures” should work, and certainly should be acceptable therapies.
The point is that “gay cures” don’t work. The fact that they don’t suggests that there is something deep-seated about human sexuality that has not yet been discovered. We haven’t proved that it does exist, or shown what it is, but there is good reason to believe that there is something yet to be discovered. In any case, until we do have positive proof one way or another, we should put a stop to people who use torture to try to get people to renounce their sexuality.
There are other things that disreputable psychiatrists try to cure as well, in particular gender identity. On the face of it, Blank has impeccable queer credentials. At one point in the book she even refers to “our adorable baby nephew and his gay trans daddies”. But when she actually comes to talk about trans people it becomes clear that, while she is prepared to accept their gender identities, she doesn’t believe in them. Talking about the large number of trans men known in history, she notes that they probably lived as men because of the social advantages they would have gained from doing so. Talking about historical instances of trans women, she can only speculate that living as women was something they “wanted to” do.
The impression that I get from the book is that Blank approves of trans people on the grounds that she sees us as another variation on human sexuality. That is, she’s holding fast to the idea that a trans woman is “really” a man, no matter what you call her, and vice versa, but she thinks that’s OK because it doesn’t matter who you have sex with. I submit that this is doxa at work. The trouble is that if you accept a group of people, not on their own terms, but on your own explanation as to why they think the way that they do, then you are not really accepting them.
Overall, however, this shouldn’t put you off what is a very interesting book. If nothing else it should make readers much more aware of how crucial historical and cultural context is with regard to what is seen as so “normal” that no one would ever question it.
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