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ARTS

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

A new book explores the way that test-tube babies, "Disney damage" and advances in genetic research are redefining human sexuality

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Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

by Hanne Blank
Beacon Press
264 pages

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:

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