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Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

I'm finally going to talk about Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank, the book review I've been avoiding because I'm terrified I'm not going to say everything I want to say the way I want to say it.


I emailed the author some questions, because you can DO that nowadays, and she was very very nice and put up with me being thick-headed and not totally getting her book and probably STILL not totally getting it, but I wanted to be able to sum up some of her awesome points and not misinterpret them.

This is a really, really short book (the title does not lie), but there's so much in it, I'm dismayed about my relative lack of space in which to talk about it. I'm not going to be able to talk about everything (alas!), so you should just read it. That being said, here we go.

So. You might think from the title that this is one of those liberal books by one of those liberal people trying out some new liberal concept of 'Oh, people were TOTES GAY for most of history. This thing we have now with gentlemen and ladies? Way new. I mean, does it even make SENSE? Have you seen men's bathroom habits? Nast." BUT NO. It is in fact exactly what it says: it's a history of the concept of heterosexuality.

Because who had to name it? It was normal. Everyone did it (*cough*orsotheythought*cough*). We don't need names for those things. She makes the excellent point that we have names like 'prude' and 'slut' but there isn't a name for someone who's into sex "a normal amount." And it's not like we have a scale, so those are arbitrary titles society can cast onto people. Someone's a slut because they're called a slut.

All right, so heterosexuality.

"Historically, what heterosexuality 'is' has been a synonym 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."

Blank argues that around the time everyone started labeling everything (18th/19th c.s), since some people started compiling lists of ways someone could be a sexual 'deviant,' the population at large wanted a way to be reassured THEY weren't deviants. Which is why "heterosexual" as a term took off, despite it being invented basically to fight against a law that was awful to homosexuals (she says the two terms were invented so they'd just seem like different types of sexuality instead of judging one or the other).

I BELIEVE part of her main argument is that as different types of sexuality and their practices have become known, "heterosexuality" has adopted many of those practices (ex: oral sex among straight couples used to be fairly uncommon), many of which were seen as "anti-heterosexual" before. This normalizes -- to an extent; still workin' on it -- other types of sexuality as they become less outsider and more familiar to the world at large.

Towards the end, she addresses the topic of reproduction, basically saying that one reason heterosexuality has been said to be the only acceptable form of sexuality is because it can result in children. Something that I get can be a little sticky for people is that children can be born a ton of ways now -- in vitro, surrogate pregnancy, etc -- and so even if the Evangelicals' worst fears came true, and the gays started indoctrinating everybody's children and THEY ALL TURNED GAY, because that's a thing, we could still have babies.

One thing I've found myself still thinking about weeks after reading this is cultural doxa, which I addressed in a previous post. These are things everyone 'just knows' are right/how things are/the way things should be. But we look at other cultures and other time periods, and the doxa is sometimes completely different. And sure, we can say "Oh, well, society has advanced and we've learned things, etc etc" but as I'm sure at least one of your teachers said, you can't assume society is getting linearly better. Don't be condescending to the past.

Of course, this is WORRISOME to me, because we're so indoctrinated in our doxa, HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE'RE RIGHT? Even if you're a Christian and you're like "Oh, well, look at the Bible," look -- the people in Jesus' time had their own doxa. Which we don't even know parts of, which is a bit troubling when trying to interpret the Bible, but NEVER MIND THAT NOW, OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.

Ok, so it's not like God says "And this is how ye shall date -- two years and no less, before thou decidest to wed, for ye do not know each other well enough before then." So it's all cultural. And modesty? Yeah, sure, as a Christian you're supposed to dress modestly, but modest for now is like Mayor of Whoreville for the 19th century.

These are things to ponder, people.

She covers heterosexual privilege, which, in a nutshell, is when y'all get to hold hands on the street and don't have to worry about getting the shit kicked out of you. I think it's a good thing to keep in mind, if only because when super-conservatives talk about how gay people already have the rights they need and they keep pushing their 'agenda' because they want everyone to accept them -- um, yeah. Sure. More acceptance would be great. Because of that whole beaten up/killed problem.

Hanne Blank also wrote a book called Virgin: The Untouched History, which I suspect I'm going to like more than Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth. These are all written with some bias, because it's very difficult NOT to have a bias on issues like sexuality, but they have enough research and attempts at objectivity that I wouldn't see it as a major stumbling block if you disagree with the author. Also, being open to reading things that don't totally tally with your viewpoint? Important.


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