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Where did heterosexuality come from?
January 31, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

The Invention of the Heterosexual: In a new book, author Hanne Blank explains the surprisingly short history of the concepts of hetero- and homosexuality.

HT kalessin.
posted by latkes (50 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Read Judith Butler instead.
posted by Fizz at 8:08 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been feeling an increased resistance to binaries lately, for reasons that include those eloquently outlined by Blank in these links. Maybe it's part of getting older, and watching as my own life and the lives of my friends start to evidence all the little compromises and gray areas of making the best of things as an adult in the real world. (As opposed to the younger, more militant version of me who preferred to believe that all issues could be boiled down to cut-and-dry questions with only two answers.)

I'll absolutely have to pick up this book -- thank you for bringing it to my attention!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:14 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


HOW IS STRATE FORMED
posted by jonmc at 8:18 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


HOW IS STRATE FORMED

I don't get it.
posted by demiurge at 8:19 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


they need to do way instain mother, who kill their hubbies
becauz thos hubbies cant frihgt back

--Aesop, 450 BC

posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:20 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


how is babby formed (meme)
posted by jepler at 8:20 AM on January 31, 2012


Oh, so, to continue,

"I used to be straight like you, until I took a dildo in the knee."
posted by demiurge at 8:21 AM on January 31, 2012 [14 favorites]


I think it's implying that the question is one where the answer is obvious or widely known. If so, I doubt the answer is either as simple or widely known as jonmc supposes it is.
posted by jepler at 8:22 AM on January 31, 2012


they need to do way instain person> who sex with people regardless of gendr. because these peopl cant normatvize beahvor it was in the histry of sexality this mroing a woman who had choos her person to sex with . they are taking the persons back to normtv catgries of sexality too protct idenity politcs i am truely sorry for your lots
posted by RogerB at 8:27 AM on January 31, 2012 [17 favorites]


(Why the fuck do Salon permalinks not link to just the single goddamn article? Ugh. So fucking annoying.)
posted by kmz at 8:31 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back to the subject at hand, I read part of the wikipedia page on gender trouble. It says this in summary of one of Judith Butler's points:
Sexed bodies cannot signify without gender, and the apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition is merely an effect of the functioning of gender. That is, both sex and gender are constructed.
Is she suggesting that terms like "sexual dimorphism" as applied in a scientific context in the study of plants or animals have no meaning except in our society and in the presence of the construct of gender? To me, this seems unlikely. And if you take the position that humans are also animals, then it is possible to talk about sexual dimorphism in humans without reference to gender-as-a-social-construct.
posted by jepler at 8:36 AM on January 31, 2012


Heterosexuality was invented by the Austrian chemist Heri August Hetrosexus in 1879 during an attempt to create a more efficient rubber-making process. It was later shown to have domestic use and has been with us ever since.
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 AM on January 31, 2012 [35 favorites]


I'm excited to see this kind of material linked, thank you very much. However in all humility and seriousness, I wish the topic could be brought up without trolling titles like the one up above.

But again, thanks for the post!
posted by Poppa Bear at 8:38 AM on January 31, 2012


Is she suggesting that terms like "sexual dimorphism" as applied in a scientific context in the study of plants or animals have no meaning except in our society and in the presence of the construct of gender? To me, this seems unlikely.

Well, considering science itself is a construct of our culture*, then yes, concepts in Western science like 'sexual dimorphism' are also a construct. Like human sex or gender, it's a handy shortcut but when you start to look at animals and species that are not strictly dimorphic, it starts to fall apart.

For example, many animals exhibit within-sex polymorphism, which biologist Joan Roughgarden defines as:
"Males and females in a species may come in two or more sizes or colors. The morphological [pertaining to the form, structure and configuration of an organism] differences are the tip of the iceberg.

"The two morphs [i.e. gender variants of a sex] approach courtship differently, have different numbers of mates, have different arrangements of between-sex and same-sex relationships, live different life spans, prefer different types of real estate for their homes, exercise different degrees of parental care, and so on."
I have been meaning to pick up Evolution's Rainbow for a long time, based on this fascinating series of blog posts which summarize a lot of Joan Roughgarden's work.

*Whether or not science is a construct or is somehow innately true is sort of outside the scope of this discussion. I like to just take it for granted that humans are animals, and that if something is a product of our brains, it should be examined in that context.
posted by muddgirl at 8:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


People like to do stuff with their genitals. Other people like to talk about people doing stuff with their genitals.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Heterosexuality was invented by the Austrian chemist Heri August Hetrosexus in 1879 during an attempt to create a more efficient rubber-making process.

I thought they were knitted from yarn.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition

I prefer my sex with a minimum of discourse and cultural imposition, I'm a freak like that though.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2012


(I don't mention polymorphism to argue that gay men are a different gender from straight men, nor does Roughgarden. Her point seems to be that 'It takes all kinds of people/animals to make a world.')
posted by muddgirl at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2012



"Is she suggesting that terms like "sexual dimorphism" as applied in a scientific context in the study of plants or animals have no meaning except in our society and in the presence of the construct of gender? To me, this seems unlikely."

Well, considering science itself is a construct of our culture*, then yes, concepts in Western science like 'sexual dimorphism' are also a construct. Like human sex or gender, it's a handy shortcut but when you start to look at animals and species that are not strictly dimorphic, it starts to fall apart.


Well, either way, the sexual dimorphism concept isn't about "males are like this, and females are like that." Most characteristics that are dimorphic, like many things, operate on a normal distribution. For example, I have owned hens with big red combs typically associated with roosters. However, most hens have smaller non-red combs. But not ALL. And then there are some chickens that have almost no comb.
posted by melissam at 8:55 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where did heterosexuality come from?

I think Sigmund Freud answered this fairly conclusively in his landmark study, Heterosexuality Came From Toledo.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:56 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not sure how it all is or got formed. I do know there are straight women, bi women, and lesbian women, and that women experiment more than men while young.

Why not make women wear name tags that signal to the public what they are at any given time?
posted by Postroad at 8:59 AM on January 31, 2012


Why don't people just use the Kinsey scale?
posted by Carol Anne at 8:59 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this something I'd have to be non-cisgendered to understand?
posted by Decani at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Absolutely, muddgirl—I'm not saying that these issues are simple in non-human animals (though perhaps my choice of the term "sexual dimorphism" implied that I did).

In fact, your example is an excellent one that perhaps fits my point even better: the social idea of gender and sex are both binary, but science readily reveals that for sex in non-human animals that this is absolutely not the case. But this is still all predicated on the idea that "sex" as a scientific term is getting at something as objectively true about the universe as anything that science does.
posted by jepler at 9:06 AM on January 31, 2012


However in all humility and seriousness, I wish the topic could be brought up without trolling titles like the one up above.

How is the title "trolling?" The whole point is that, up until very recently, people weren't described as having a sexual identity in this way at all.
posted by me & my monkey at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2012


Thanks for the post, latkes. I've been thinking about this and related topics since cp311's post last week. I've put Blank's book on my list to peruse.
posted by Boxenmacher at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


But this is still all predicated on the idea that "sex" as a scientific term is getting at something as objectively true about the universe as anything that science does.

Well, we currently define "sex" based on capability of producing gametes, which is partially determined by two (sometimes 3) chromosomes. Back in the day, before we discovered chromosomes, we defined sex based on a different metric - probably external and internal organs.

Many animals which have a 'sex' as we currently define it will change that sex throughout their life. Many creatures are 'intersex.' In the future it seems like that, if we want to keep up the pretense of dimorphism, we'll have to redefine sex to more wholly account for these biological truths.

Putting it this way, sex doesn't seem very 'objectively true' to me.
posted by muddgirl at 9:17 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh gosh, I forgot that even today, we define someone's sex based on external organs - when the baby is born, we're not all drawin' blood looking for XX or XY. The doctor takes a gander and often gets it quite 'wrong.'
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 AM on January 31, 2012


Also see Jonathan Ned Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995) and Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality (2003)
posted by ts;dr at 9:27 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, considering science itself is a construct of our culture*, then yes, concepts in Western science like 'sexual dimorphism' are also a construct.

The problem with framing the issue this way is that the claim instantly becomes meaningless. If everything we think is a "cultural construct" then there's nothing particularly interesting about the claim that sexuality is culturally constructed. So, by that reasoning, is the difference between iron and gold. And yet it would seem clear that Hanne Blank wants to say that the difference between iron and gold is "real" in some way that the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality is not.

it's a handy shortcut but when you start to look at animals and species that are not strictly dimorphic, it starts to fall apart.

I've never really understood the force of this argument. It's as if the existence of gray called into question the existence of black and white. There is pretty much nothing about the traditional conception of gender that is premised upon the impossibility of nonconforming cases. In fact, nonconforming cases have always been recognized (and usually heavily stigmatized). It's as if one were to argue that the notion that dogs have four legs is purely a "social construct" because some nonzero number of dogs are born with three or five legs.

Personally, I'm skeptical of the notion that our sexual drives and choices are entirely socially constructed (although they are, obviously, subject to massive social coercion and shaping). This seems like an unlikely way for homo sapiens sapiens to differ from pretty much every other animal in the world. I think we get born with our fair share of instinctual drives which are then molded in various ways by cultural pressures. It's in the nature of things that this is an hypothesis that is impossible to test rigorously (how do you establish a control group--kidnap a bunch of babies and raise them in a sealed environment somewhere?), but it seems to me that the alternative hypothesis makes us such a freak in the animal kingdom that the burden of proof lies with anyone trying to make that case. In the meantime, though, the "yes, we have innate sexual drives and in the majority of cases those are broadly heterosexual in nature" argument is in no way disproven or disturbed by the fact that exceptions to the rule exist.

Finally, there is no inherently "liberatory" perspective here. That is, the belief that sexuality is purely a social construct does not inherently imply acceptance of alternative sexualities. Quite the opposite, in fact. If sexuality is purely a matter of social construction, then there really is no reason not to insist that in this particular culture we insist upon this particular expression of sexuality: just as in this particular culture we insist upon adherence to our particular laws in the full knowledge that in other cultures other sets of laws may apply. Conversely, I think that the widespread diffusion of the idea that homosexuality is innate, for example, has in fact been one of the most powerful driving forces in changing attitudes towards gay rights over the last two or three decades.
posted by yoink at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


The problem with framing the issue this way is that the claim instantly becomes meaningless. If everything we think is a "cultural construct" then there's nothing particularly interesting about the claim that sexuality is culturally constructed. So, by that reasoning, is the difference between iron and gold.

"Culturally constructed" !== meaningless

Cultural constructs are probably the most meaningful things we've created.

Personally, I'm skeptical of the notion that our sexual drives and choices are entirely socially constructed

I'm skeptical of that notion as well. However, I'm also skeptical of the notion that our sexual choices are entirely biologically determined.
posted by muddgirl at 9:42 AM on January 31, 2012


Hey, this was a really good article and an excellent read. Thanks for posting!
posted by rebent at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is the idiotic nature or nurture debate recast as gender studies. The answer is always not either but both (and a few more things besides). Human development is multi-factoral. There is no one thing that makes someone who they are. Individuals are always a combination of biological, cultural and psychological factors. Looking for single root causes is fruitless. Humans are not unidimensional.
posted by bonehead at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


jepler: I don't suppose anything. It was a joke.
posted by jonmc at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2012


And heterosexuality comes from the Sears catalog. Homosexuality from Montgomery Ward. Bisexuality has to be custom built.
posted by jonmc at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2012


Asexuality is from IKEA.
posted by The Whelk at 9:59 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


why is asexuality from ikea

i dont understand
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:08 AM on January 31, 2012


@jonmc

oh ok it was a joke, cool
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:09 AM on January 31, 2012


Personally, I'm skeptical of the notion that our sexual drives and choices are entirely socially constructed

Sure, but that's not what is being claimed; it is the role of sex/sexuality/gender which is entirely socially constructed. It's not whether or not there is a chemical difference between iron and gold but whether there is a different social role for each element which is culturally constructed and historically specific: you damn well better believe it, and this specific social role is what dominates our understanding of what it means to be a man, woman, hetero/homosexual, or a particular bar of metal.

And these cultural constructions can overwhelm, transform, and delineate the subject they were attempting to objectively describe. see: goldbuggery.
posted by mek at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


How is the title "trolling?" The whole point is that, up until very recently, people weren't described as having a sexual identity in this way at all.

Agreed! Completely. But i think it could come off sounding like an attack. It could also cause a thread that otherwise could be an interesting discussion about sexual identity and why/how/if it's important to us and society (and should it, etc.) and turn it into Preaching to the Choir and throw-away one-liners.

Imagine the reaction if the article had been called "The Invention of the Homosexual", even though the article's premise could realistically have lead to exactly that. I imagine it would have put some people's backs up, and possibly silenced some voices that should be heard. People would be offended.

I called it trolling because I thought it might very well have that effect on some people (and it misrepresented the concept), and I thought that was a shame, because this is a conversation worth having with everyone.

To be completely fair though, I have the same problem with the book title, and if it was latkes intention to present the material on its own merits without editorializing, then I was wrong not to reference the book title in my original critique, rather than the post title.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have the same problem with the book title

Well, I'm preeeeetty sure Hanne Blank's not a troll.
posted by liketitanic at 11:05 AM on January 31, 2012


Asexuality is from IKEA.

The åsexual is a bed that can take the weight of precisely one person.

Is she suggesting that terms like "sexual dimorphism" as applied in a scientific context in the study of plants or animals have no meaning except in our society and in the presence of the construct of gender?

I don't think so, she says that without gender, sexed bodies don't signify anything. Am I misinterpreting this or does that just reduce to the (trivial) observation that without human input nothing signifies anything.
posted by atrazine at 11:32 AM on January 31, 2012


Hum. She said that marriage was primarily about sex, neglecting that for most of history it's been about economics. I wonder if the rest of her grasp of history is as slapdash?
posted by happyroach at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2012


Personally, I'm skeptical of the notion that our sexual drives and choices are entirely socially constructed (although they are, obviously, subject to massive social coercion and shaping).

I'm not certain where this is coming from. People who examine the social construction of gender and sexuality generally don't say there are not biological factors involved, only that the multiple layers of meaning we attach to biology and physicality, including a fair bit of magical folk psychology about how we come to be seem to be socially constructed, and translate in weird ways the further we get from the people studied by the academic research that's shaped our ideas of sexual orientation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:20 PM on January 31, 2012


It's not just "grey" areas. I've been pointedly reminded by some very kindly people from around the world who pointed out to me that the standard "coming out" narrative of sexual self-discovery so often celebrated in film and fiction doesn't necessarily apply cross-culturally.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:25 PM on January 31, 2012


Just figured out from Blank's blog that there is a preview of the book available.
posted by latkes at 3:37 PM on January 31, 2012


"Culturally constructed" !== meaningless

I didn't say "culturally constructed=meaningless." I said that if you defend the claim that sexuality is culturally constructed by saying "well, science is a cultural construct" then the claim becomes meaningless. Because then the distinction you appeared to be making (sexuality is culturally constructed unlike some other things) ceases to exist. If every distinction within science is a "cultural construct" then the distinction heterosexuality/homosexuality is no more or less a "cultural construct" than the distinction "iron/silver."

A large part of my problem with Blank's position is precisely that I do, in fact, think that cultural constructions are incredibly meaningful. "Incest" is (by and large) a cultural construction; and yet I don't see any serious large scale movement to legalize incest. "Slander" is a cultural construction--and ditto. "Insider trading" is a cultural construction. Etc. etc. etc. I think that arguing that heterosexuality is a "cultural construction" adds precisely nothing to the progressive side of the argument. If it's a "cultural construction" then that would seem to me to authorize criminalizing homosexuality--just as we criminalize incest, slander and insider trading.

Ironically, the person who is minimizing the significance of cultural constructs is Blank. The implication of her argument is that sexuality is "just" a cultural construct, and therefore it doesn't really matter what style of sexuality we engage in. But that's a complete non sequitur. Our cultural constructs define who we are. We accept happily and without controversy (even here on Metafilter) that it is legitimate to publicly sanction and enforce all kinds of cultural constructs.

I'm not certain where this is coming from.

It's coming directly from the linked interview. Hanne Blank (aptly named, given that she's so committed to the tabula rasa model of human consciousness) repeatedly insists that there is no "innate" component to sexuality. She is, again quite specifically, insistent that the claim many, many gay people make that they were "born that way" is false.

This, incidentally, always strikes me as an odd lacuna in typical left-wing bienpensant thought. We tend to smile and nod equally at the claims that sexuality is absolutely constructed (socially or individually) AND at the claim that it is completely innate. Both of these are seen an inherently "progressive" claims despite the fact that they are completely contradictory.

I wonder if the rest of her grasp of history is as slapdash?

Well, in the interview, at least, she's freighting a truly absurd amount of probative value on the recent emergence of the word "heterosexual"--as if the concept didn't exist before we had the word. One has only to consider Aristophanes' speech from Plato's Symposium for two seconds to realize how absurd that claim is.
Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the tally-half of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men. The women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they have affection for men and embrace them, and these are the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.
Voila: the concept of innate heterosexuality and homosexuality, a couple of millennia earlier than Blank seems to realize.
posted by yoink at 10:48 AM on February 1, 2012


Not going to argue with any of your specific points yoink, but I suspect you might feel a bit different about Blank's analysis if you read some of the book. It's hard to get across much subtlety in a short interview format.
posted by latkes at 11:58 AM on February 1, 2012


(Not to say you'd agree with her basic thesis, but you're assuming a lot about what was researched or what is covered in the book as a whole.)
posted by latkes at 12:09 PM on February 1, 2012


A large part of my problem with Blank's position is precisely that I do, in fact, think that cultural constructions are incredibly meaningful.

Sure, they can be. But they can also be actively destructive and harmful, especially when we fail to recognize they are culturally constructed and begin to believe they are objectively real (eg. eugenics). (Science is a good example... hence paradigm shifts) Cultural constructions can stop being meaningful or relevant due to social change, because they're historically specific. It's important that we approach them critically - and yes, that includes science, the value of gold, and the nature of heterosexuality.
posted by mek at 4:25 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


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