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Why Heterosexuality Didn't Really Exist Until the 19th Century

The history of straightness is much shorter than you'd think.
 
 
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If you met Hanne Blank and her partner on the street, you might have a lot of trouble classifying them. While Blank looks like a feminine woman, her partner is extremely androgynous, with little to no facial hair and a fine smooth complexion. Hanne’s partner is neither fully male, nor fully female; he was born with an unconventional set of chromosomes, XXY, that provide him with both male genitalia and feminine characteristics. As a result, Blank’s partner has been mistaken for a gay woman, a straight man, a transman — and their relationship has been classified as gay, straight and everything in between.

Blank mentions her personal story at the beginning of her provocative new history of heterosexuality,  “Straight,” as a way of illustrating just how artificial our notions of “straightness” really are. In her book, Blank, a writer and historian who has written extensively about sexuality and culture, looks at the ways in which social trends and the rise of psychiatry conspired to create this new category in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along the way, she examines the changing definition of marriage, which evolved from a businesslike agreement into a romantic union centered on love, and how social Darwinist ideas shaped the divisions between gay and straight. With her eye-opening book, Blank tactfully deconstructs a facet of modern sexuality most of us take for granted.

Salon spoke to Blank over the phone about the origins of heterosexuality, the evolution of marriage and why the rise of the “bromance” is a very good thing.

Men and women have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. So how can we talk about there being a “history” of heterosexuality?

We can talk about there being a history of heterosexuality in the same way that we can talk about there being a history of religions. People have been praying to God for a really long time too, and yet the ways people relate to the divine have specific histories. They come from particular places, they take particular trajectories, there are particular texts, and individuals that are important in them. There are events, names, places, dates. It’s really very similar.

So where does the term “heterosexual” come from?


“Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual,” [in the mid-19thcentury], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.

But the term took quite a while to catch on. How did it spread?

Thanks to psychiatrists in the 1880s and 1890s — a part of the medical profession that was deeply unscientific at that time. It meant that somebody with a medical degree and all of the authority it brings could stand up and start making value judgments using specialized medical vocabulary and pass it off as authoritative, and basically unquestionable.

 
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