Jun 26

What Causes Heterosexuality? Hanne Blank Takes It On

What causes heterosexuality? If you’re going to ask what causes homosexuality, isn’t this a fair question too?

“We don’t know much about heterosexuality. No one knows whether heterosexuality is the result of nature or nurture, caused by inaccessible subconscious developments, or just what happens when impressionable young people come under the influence of older heterosexuals.”

The author of the above tongue-in-cheek quote and the new book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, is Hanne Blank. About the book, the publisher has this to say:

In this surprising chronicle, historian Hanne Blank digs deep into the past of sexual orientation, while simultaneously exploring its contemporary psyche. Illuminating the hidden patterns in centuries of events and trends, Blank shows how culture creates and manipulates the ways we think about and experience desire, love, and relationships between men and women. Ranging from Henry VIII to testicle transplants, from Disneyland to sodomy laws, and from Moby Dick to artificial insemination, the history of heterosexuality turns out to be anything but straight or narrow.

First, a little something about Blank’s credentials. Besides being a historian as well as an activist regarding fat acceptance and sexuality issues, there’s her more personal life. Thomas Rogers, Salon:

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.

Central to Blank’s history of heterosexuality is how the terms for both homo- and hetero- sexuality were originally coined. As Troy Patterson points out in Slate, Blank “puts a spin on the hip-hop catchphrase ‘no homo,’ explaining that there was no hetero until social science and pseudo-science invented a need in the middle of the 19th century.”

Blank’s recent article on The Huffington Post regarding 10 “surprising facts about heterosexuality” contained the following examples:

  • Never mind the question of whether there’s such a thing as distinctively “gay genes” or “gay brains”; we don’t even know if there’s such a thing as straight ones. Physical and biomedical science have yet to define or even confirm the empirical existence of heterosexuality…no one’s ever even tried.
  • The ideal that men and women should have mutually orgasmic sex developed during the same time period as the idea of “heterosexuality” did, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This novel notion helped establish the new notion of distinctively “heterosexual” desire and pleasure as scientific and medically proper.
  • Though men and women have engaged in various forms of non-intercourse sexual activity since time immemorial, the idea that there was a necessary opening act to sexual intercourse called “foreplay” is something we owe to Sigmund Freud and a handful of other psychologists and medical types around the turn of the 20th century.

If you’re interested in more such info, getting through Blank’s “short history” should be a breeze. As stated by Dr. Abigail Zuger, on comparing this book to the almost 1000-page DSM (psychiatry’s reference book) : “Hanne Blank gets a pat on the back for dispatching the equally murky entity of heterosexuality in fewer than 200, plus back matter.”