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Uncovering The History of Heterosexuality

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Since I began to tell people that I was working on the project that ultimately became my new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality [Beacon Press, $26.95], I've been getting two major, fascinating reactions to it.

One is straightforward disbelief. How on earth, I have been asked more than once, could I consider writing a history of something that has demonstrably always existed, world without end, "male and female created He them," amen? What sort of history could there possibly be to write?

This is, conveniently, also a reasonably straightforward question to answer. Just asking someone to define "heterosexual" is usually enough to illuminate the fact that it's far from a simplistic matter of the fact that males and females exist in the world and are capable of reproducing sexually. All the other things that come up, from love and sexual desire to religion, marriage, and even ticking off the "married, filing jointly" box on one's tax form make it pretty clear that there are definitely parts of what "heterosexual" is that must have some kind of background, some kind of story, some sort of connection to history. Too, people are usually ready to acknowledge that the word "heterosexual" had to come from somewhere, and that this also constitutes a bit of history.

It seems to me that people come to acknowledge that heterosexuality can have a history in much the same way that they come to acknowledge that food can have a history. People have always, obviously, eaten food. But they haven't always eaten the same things in the same ways, or prepared them identically, or ascribed the same meanings to the food they eat. Heterosexuality -- or at least relationships between men and women, which is not entirely the same thing -- is not so different.

The other reaction I get is more complicated, and harder to respond to. Many people, particularly among my queer and feminist friends, have expressed the view that working on the history of heterosexuality is redundant, and possibly a sort of Uncle Tom-ish betrayal. Haven't heterosexuals got enough of a share of our culture's bandwidth already? Does heterosexuality really deserve to have political progressives like me spending time and effort, energy and intellect, to boost its signal?

On the surface, this seems like a very good question. And yet the history of heterosexuality itself reveals, at a stroke, the ways in which any honest history tends to undermine and complicate the structures of power and privilege.

Heterosexuality does, yes, broadcast its priorities far and wide, in our culture, with top billing and extreme prejudice. But it is notoriously, even ludicrously, bad at self-reflection and self-analysis. I've noted many times that it isn't the straight people who've managed to actually get a purchase on the history of heterosexuality. It's the queers -- Michel Foucault and Jonathan Ned Katz, to name the two most visible and important of the heterosexuality scholars who made it possible for me to even consider writing this book -- who've taken on the task of revealing what makes heterosexuality tick.

It's not a simple task, after all. All of us, queer and not queer, are born and bred, enculturated and explicitly educated to see heterosexuality as being not just normal, but Just The Way Things Are. It often seems to take a queer perspective, and queer outsiderness, to get any purchase on the idea that this might not be entirely true, and that perhaps, heterosexuality is instead One Of Many Ways That Things Might Be.

The fact of the matter is that as much as we might want to believe that we ought not lend our attention to the enormous sociocultural juggernaut that is heterosexuality on the grounds that paying attention to it only gives it more energy with which to thrive, none of us live our lives outside of the heterosexual matrix. Even if we despise the heteronormative hegemony, even if we fight the heterosexism of the patriarchy we live in with every waking thought, the fact remains that the less we know about it, the less effective our resistance can be. As much as I dislike thinking of heterosexuality as "the enemy" -- it's not, it's just an idea we use to think with -- we still need to know our enemies. Just as we need to know our friends. Just as we need, quite frankly, to know ourselves.

Each and every one of us, no matter what our own sexual orientation may be or how we may identify, has had to forge that sexual orientation or identity in the long shadow of heterosexuality. It influences every one of us, in every part of our lives. It shapes who we are and how we think. It influences how everyone we talk to thinks. And this ultimately is why it's a worthwhile project to know how it got that power, that reach, and that capacity to determine the shape of our culture and our lives.

It's also why studying the history of heterosexuality is, inevitably, not a thing that lends force and credence to that huge cultural presence, but rather takes it apart, looks at the pieces, and pronounces many of them curiously arbitrary and rather strange. Just like looking at the history of food makes us ask questions about why, for instance, we eat rabbit but not rat, why we make associations between moral virtue and the green astringency of kale but not the sweet purity of sugar, looking at the history of heterosexuality makes us wonder similar things about our attitudes concerning who desires and loves and has sex with whom, and in what permutations of biological sex.

I do understand the fear that having scholars and writers look too long and hard at the history of heterosexuality might seem to lend credence to its claims of superiority. Yet having been through the process of taking that long hard look -- and written a book that will take anyone else who cares to join me on the same journey -- I can only say that it is an experience that can only end up exposing both heterosexuality's forest and its trees.

Beginning with the very foundations, merely in asserting that heterosexuality has a history and explaining how that's possible, a look at the history of heterosexuality confirms nothing so much as the radical notion that human experience is no monolith, and that even the most weighty and powerful of our cultural institutions is only as inevitable, and only as eternal, as any of its myriad individual parts.