Hanne Blank on the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality
Blank, an American expert on the history of sexuality, did not intend her new book to be a brief against conventional relationships, but rather as a survey of the subject.
According to Hanne Blank, it has been possible to be defined as “heterosexual” only since 1868. That’s when an Austro-Hungarian journalist first used the term. He was distinguishing men who were sexually attracted to women from “homosexuals,” men drawn to other men − a tendency that, if acted upon, was punishable in parts of Germany by incarceration.
Blank, an American expert on the history of sexuality, suggests that modern society was ripe for a term that would describe so-called normative, religiously condoned partnerships between men and women. Her new book, “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality” (Beacon Press, 264 pages, $26.95), is not intended as a brief against such conventional relationships, but rather as a survey of the subject, so as to demonstrate that it hasn’t always been this way, it isn’t necessarily God’s plan, and it’s possible to have and raise healthy and happy children via other frameworks.
Blank, 42, is the author of several previous books, on such topics as the history of virginity, and fatness and sexuality, and has edited several anthologies of erotica. As part of her effort to show that nothing is as straightforward or obvious as we thought, she describes her own, long-term partnership, with a man whose sexual genotype is XXY. That means that biologically, he’s both male and female − and neither − a condition that may occur in as many as one in 2,000 people.
She describes how in public people often jump to conclusions about their respective sexual identities, and as she herself has had relationships with people of different “biological sexes and social genders,” she writes that, today, “when pressed, I am most likely to declare my ‘sexual identity’ as ‘taken.’” Blank writes with great erudition and humor, so that, even a skeptical (or anxious) reader will be hard-pressed not to find it enjoyable and thought-provoking. Haaretz spoke with Hanne Blank from her home in Baltimore.
Your philosophy of sexuality in the book seems to be, basically, anything goes, so long as no one gets hurt. Who’s to say what’s “normal?” Do you encounter resistance to your approach?
Oh, absolutely. People resent being told that the possibilities they have known their whole lives as the only possibilities, are really just a small subset of the available options. Some people find that liberating, but there are many who find it deeply terrifying.
Is America becoming more accepting of sexual diversity − or more conservative? Or is the conservatism we’re witnessing really pushback?
I think the answer is “yes.” We are seeing a lot of live-and-let-live liberalism regarding sexual diversity. That is arguably an outgrowth of the sexual revolution, and partly American feminism, but it’s also very much an economic phenomenon.
Americans expect both women and men to be economically self-sufficient as soon as possible. This creates a lot of opportunity for people to establish their own boundaries, and their own demands and requirements regarding what their emotional and sexual lives are going to look like. When you remove the economic dependence, when it’s no longer, “I’ve got to get married to a man, or I’m going to starve in the street,” it changes the picture. There’s also part of that has to do with the establishment of a pleasure ethos about sex.
And the emphasis on pleasure has only been in the last 50 or so years, right?
Yes, that’s really when it took off. The watershed for the pleasure ethos as a mainstream way of evaluating sexual relations for heterosexuals is [sex researcher Alfred] Kinsey − he was the orgasm bean counter. When you start talking about orgasm as the end [goal] of sex, as the way you “count” sex, it starts to matter a whole lot less how you get there. And because both of the Kinsey Reports were so massive − and not just because they were each 800 pages, but also in their reach and scope − that was a real sea change for the American culture of sex, with real trickle-down around the world.
You tell us in the book that heterosexuality as a concept only goes back to 1868. What does that mean?
One of the analogies that really tends to works well is this: There was a time when there was no such thing as an Orthodox − or a Reform or Conservative − Jew. Either you were a Jew or you weren’t. You could say the Shma, you could go to shul, keep kosher, but you weren’t going to conceptualize yourself, and say, well because I do these things, I am an Orthodox Jew. Similarly, there was a time, before we had this word “heterosexual,” when you could have a marriage with someone who was of a different sex from you. You would have children, you would build a family, you would do all of those things − but you wouldn’t call it heterosexuality. This was the way you organized your life, but you didn’t have a word for it. But once you do have a name for it - and this is important − some sort of collective understanding that you share with other people about what this thing is, then it develops a cultural identity.
How did you approach the topic?
Jonathan Ned Katz’s “The Invention of Heterosexuality,” which came out in the 90s, was a real touchstone for my work. Katz was the first person who made that really crucial first step of saying, clearly someone had to come up with this word. Where did the concept behind the word come from? What’s going on in terms of the intellectual culture of the time, when this word arises, and how does that happen? But I also had a lot of things that had been accumulating in mental bins over the years, that I was just curious about. For instance, years ago, it had occurred to me, reading [neuroscientist] Simon LeVay’s work on the hypothalamus [which showed a correlation between the size of the hypothalamus gland and men’s presumed sexual orientation], I remember thinking when these reports were coming out that he had a small sample size, so he must be really confident that he knows exactly what a heterosexual brain looks like.
Strangely enough − he was posthumously diagnosing people’s sexual orientation, based on their cause of death. But we have learned that you cannot assume that someone is gay just because they died of AIDS. And you also can’t assume that AIDS doesn’t change your neurological anatomy. As it turns out, nobody actually does know what a heterosexual brain looks like.
So you’re not a reductionist, who believes that theoretically, with big enough super-computers, we should be able to break all our thoughts and actions down to a material, chemical cause.
It may be that everything is biological, but if it is, I think that it is of sufficiently advanced complexity that it will stymie our attempts to discover it. The wonderful thing about having a material explanation is that it’s a way to absolve yourself. To be able to say, I don’t have control over this and I don’t have anything to do with this. That’s why a lot of LGBT rights activists push really hard for this: to be able to say no, we are born this way, it has nothing to do with what we want. And because it’s innate, then you can’t ask us to change it. Which on the surface seems like a good argument. But in practice it doesn’t work out so well.
In what sense?
There are any number of probably innate, genetically inherited human characteristics that are as inborn as they come, and yet the fact that they are inborn does not stop people from using those characteristics as grounds for all manner of prejudice and hatred and abuse. Womanhood comes to mind, for instance. There is nothing more biologically innate than one’s biological sex, and yet, no matter how much we say we agree about the value of girls and women as human beings and the righteousness and desirability of a world where people regardless of biological sex are treated in an egalitarian fashion, we still have horrifying, rampant, outrageous misogyny everywhere we look. The only person who needs to know whom I want to sleep with is a person I’m interested in sexually. The only person to whom it can possibly be of any consequence whatsoever is someone whom I’m interested in as a sexual partner. Why should that matter otherwise? I think that saying “I can’t help myself, it’s innate” is beside the point. Being human ought to get you some measure of human dignity, full stop.
Are you saying it’s not interesting?
Oh, it’s very interesting. But the actual object itself is not as relevant as the desire, and the workings of that desire, and how they change and create their lives and their cultures to make it possible for them to pursue their desires.
What was your upbringing like?
I was raised by an anthropologist and an English teacher, a great combination if you want to write about the history of sex. It was a very tolerant home, and my parents always came down on the side of: Are you a decent person, are you a mensch? If so, then what you do in your private time is up to you. Certainly, my father being an anthropologist was an important thing in my coming out the way that I did. I remember being in the corner of his classroom when I was small kid, 6 or 8 years old, and him screening documentary about the Highland Dani of Papua Guinea, and just knowing from early on that the way I live was just one of many ways that people lived in the world. There was never for a nano-second a sheltering fiction that in a perfect world everyone’s like us.
Is the study of sex a Jewish science?
There’s something to that. When your upbringing and culture is not the norm and is not the accepted rule for the mainstream of the culture that you live in, it sets you up to look at things from a slightly different angle. You look at what people consider the norm, and say, that’s really interesting, why do you that? Because in my house we do it differently. Why do you put up this spruce in your living room in December, what does that have to do with Jesus? Because the implied emotional logic of people of the mainstream Christian culture isn’t there for you. For me, a lot of sexuality and a lot of sexuality work that I do, comes from that place. I look at myself and compare it to what I see around me, and I think, well, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to be done, because, I don’t get it. I wrote “Straight” because I didn’t really understand how we came to this place, where we were calling ourselves “heterosexuals” Why do we do it? What’s in it for us? And specifically what would be in it for me, if I found that that was an accurate way to describe my own relationship? What would that mean? I realized, as a historian that I couldn’t just assume the answer to that question.