Getting It Straight

A Heterosexual History

Straight: the Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon, $27.95) by Hanne Blank is breezy, passionate, informative and, yes, quite short. This may seem a bit mysterious: sexual activity between our male and female ancestors long predates men and women; heterosexual romance is celebrated in some of our oldest texts — see the Song of Songs; and the institutions of heterosexuality, chief among them marriage and parenthood, are still among the pillars of our culture.

“But wait!” you say. “Marriage, parenthood, even romantic love, have changed enormously, thanks to the movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay and lesbian rights!” That’s Hanne Blank’s point exactly. This book is short because, as Blank puts it, to have a sense of being straight is “to understand one’s self to be part of a specific, distinctive sexual culture.” Until 1868, when the word “homosexuality” was coined, there was no need for its hetero partner. Straight surveys heterosexual self-knowledge rather than heterosexual activity.

Straight is interdisciplinary: its six main chapters explore the institutions and intellectual buttresses of heterosexuality in the Western world. The first three are dedicated to sexual terminology, psychology, and science. Here, the reader meets figures such as Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who invented the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” while fighting an 1851 Prussian anti-sodomy law; as well as the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose Psychopathia Sexualis first divided human sexuality into categories; and Havelock Ellis, whose Sexual Inversion (1897) promoted tolerance of homosexuality. “Straight Science,” the strongest of these chapters, traces scientific and medical efforts to locate signs of hetero- or homosexuality in the human body (there are none); to regulate sexual pleasure physically (amid myriad aphrodisiacs and aids, even Viagra’s help is shown to be largely psychological); to change sexual orientation through medical intervention (useless and cruel); or through psychological intervention (ditto).

The second half of the book traces the development of a Western secular ideology of perpetual romance, fabulous sex, and intimate companionate marriage. In these chapters, Blank glances at the rise of the novel, the beginning of dating (earlier than you might think; in 1914 or so, girls and guys began to go out alone as opposed to courting in the woman’s parlor with her family there), the history of birth control and the histories of the liberatory movements mentioned earlier. Blank sees history as uneven progress toward more open and flexible possibilities of love, companionship and family building. She emphasizes this belief in an introduction and a final chapter on her own ambiguous situation: she is the partner of a man whose genetically anomalous makeup gives him an androgynous look that has led strangers to infer mistakenly that the two are a lesbian couple or that Blank’s partner is a trans-man.

Throughout, Blank — who once wrote about breasts in Lilith — assumes that the view of heterosexuality as an institution slowly changing for the better holds true worldwide. This means that she never explores places where — often spurred by fundamentalist religions, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu — gender distinctions and the institutions of heterosexuality have only become harsher, especially for women. Her last chapter is titled “Here Be Dragons,” a playful reference to unexplored territories on old maps. It would have been interesting to see her assessment of the dragons that are already lurking in our closets, and multiplying.

Elizabeth C. Denlinger is the author of Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era and has published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality.