At GOOD magazine today, I’ve written a review of Hanne Blank’s new book Straight: The surprisingly short history of heterosexuality. Blank, whose previous books include Virgin and Big Big Love, writes masterfully about gender, culture, history and sex. When it comes to the history of heterosexuality, she’s got her work more than cut out for her:
What does it mean to be a straight person? It seems silly to ask: You know exactly what heterosexuality is, and so does everyone else. It’s so obvious it barely needs acknowledgement. Young people come of age and identify as straight just by default. But in Straight, Blank spends almost two hundred pages to make clear just how unclear our conception of heterosexuality really is. “Despite the fact that most of us use the term ‘heterosexual’ with enormous (and cavalier!) certainty,” she writes, “there seems to be no aspect of ‘heterosexual’ for which a truly iron-clad definition has been established.”
German proto-gay rights activist Karl Maria-Kertbeny took the first stab at a definition in 1868. In the course of arguing against the criminalization of “unnatural fornication … between persons of the male sex,” Maria-Kertbeny coined both “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” with the former term meaning a man who had sex with other men, and the latter meaning pretty much everyone else. Twenty years later, Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing penned a compendium of sexual deviance in which he used “heterosexual” and “normal-sexual” interchangeably. From its inception, “heterosexual” was a term to stand in opposition to deviant, dangerous and undesirable kinds of sex.
But as any modern sex columnist will tell you, there is little consensus on what sexually “normal” is.
You can read the whole thing here.