Medical texts describe human males as having an X and a Y sex chromosome. Females have two Xs. Hanne Blank's partner has two Xs and a Y. Discovering that her partner had Klinefelter's Syndrome while visiting a fertility specialist, Blank gained a new perspective about her own sexuality and her love for a “man” who has at various times passed for a feminine gay man, a butch lesbian and a female-to-male transsexual.
In her new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Blank explores the reasons behind the creation of the term “heterosexual,” and how this word has changed our relationships and our world.
Your book seems to suggest that the naming of heterosexuality and homosexuality in 1868 was a negative thing, as it limited people to specific sexual identities. Given a choice, do you think people who identify as non-heterosexuals have more freedom to embrace their sexual identities today or before 1868?
The notion of a “sexual identity” is also a new thing, even newer than the words “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality.” The idea that “homosexual” and “heterosexual” represent two possible options of some larger category of “sexual identity” is a twentieth-century conceit.
So on one level, I don't think you can actually talk about people having freedom to embrace a “sexual identity” at a time in history when no one would have had any notion that they had a “sexual identity” to embrace.
If what you're asking is whether people whom we would today describe as non-heterosexual were more or less free to pursue their particular sexual, emotional or relational desires prior to the invention of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” and so on, that's a different question and it has a very different answer.
The answer to that question is that it would've depended on who you were, and where and when you lived. There have been times and places where some people — notably elite males — have been able to pursue their sexual interests relatively unfettered, regardless of current social mores and norms. There have been times and places where some people who flew well under the radar of most authority figures — Victorian housewives, for instance — have been able to pursue theirs relatively undetected. But it would be incorrect to claim that there was some golden age of sexual flexibility and possibility that existed just because we hadn't yet built the pigeonholes into which we now stuff ourselves. Human beings have never, to my knowledge, failed to at least attempt to police the desires and sexuality of most of the people, most of the time.
If we were to abolish the terms heterosexual and homosexual, who, if anyone, do you think would protest this dissolution more: the hetero or homosexual community?
Hard to say. Many people — regardless of how they label their own sexual selves — have bought into these labels and the whole schema very thoroughly, and would have a very hard time imagining themselves or the rest of the world if they could not use this lens.
Really, part of the challenge of writing this book was to struggle, intellectually, with the problem of how indeed a person steeped in our current culture could begin to conceptualize a world without “heterosexual.” Demonstrably, it at one point existed. But it is hellaciously hard, thanks to the doxa in which we are all so steeped, to find a place to stand where we can get a clear view of what that might have been like (or might be like in the future). I think that this difficulty is of equal magnitude for anyone who has grown up in our particular sexual culture, regardless of one's personal constellation of desire and behavior and self-concept.
Do you think it would be a positive thing to eliminate all demographic labels like sexual preference, gender, and race? Would it be fairer to have unisex prisons, to combine boys and girls sports teams in high school, or to delete race as a factor on college applications and scholarships? Are these labels a necessary evil in striving for equality?
Social categories are absolutely social, and to that degree, fictions — not indicators of inherent difference. But this does not mean they are not material in their effects and in their presence in our lives. In terms of what social categories are allowed to do, and the ways that they influence how we behave toward people, how we treat them, what we allow them and disallow them, they are very real indeed.
Addressing the differences in how we treat people on the basis of the social categories to which we assign them (or that they assign themselves to) is an important project. Abolishing a label or a term isn't going to necessarily abolish the social category that term describes.
The important things to address, when addressing systematic prejudice and discrimination, is that it is systematic and that it is discriminatory. Refusing to use a certain label for a certain discriminated-against group does not automatically produce that awareness, and it certainly doesn't produce the necessary action to stop the prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. To think that it would is to believe in a kind of sympathetic magic that does not in fact exist.
You comment on the decline of bed-sharing among men, implying that bedfellows did more than just sleep beside each other. Do you think these man-on-man sexual acts were a function of situational homosexuality — a result of having less access to casual, female sex partners? Or do you think that the rise of homosexuality as an identity defined these acts as homosexual, and therefore made them taboo for heterosexual men?
I think that what sexual acts did transpire between same-sex bed-sharers (and both men and women did share beds with same-sex bedmates) probably happened for many different reasons. Some of it was surely the result of a sort of “any port in a storm” opportunism. Some of it was probably experimental. Some of it may well have been deeply passionate and emotionally engaged. Some of it was, in all likelihood, predatory or coercive. Because we have so little actual information, it is historically irresponsible to assume we know with any more certainty than that.
I do think that the rise to currency of the idea of “homosexual” did play a large part in putting paid to the acceptability of same-sex bedsharing amongst people over the age of puberty, yes. Same-sex intimacy, generally speaking — both emotional and physical — has become considerably more fraught and less common in Western culture in the same general time frame as the culture has taken on the apparatus of “homosexual” vs. “heterosexual.”
Women seem to have much more freedom to experiment with same-sex sex acts without being labeled as homosexual, or even bisexual. Do you think this is true? If so, what are the reasons for this? Have women always enjoyed this freedom, or have men historically had more freedom to experiment with other men?
What you're noticing here is a side effect of the notion that unless there's a penis involved, it isn't sex.
Woman-on-woman sexuality, historically speaking, has largely been invisible. Partly this is because women's lives and experiences have been generally discounted and silenced as less relevant than men's, and partly because the only kind of sex that always counts, historically speaking, is the kind where a penis penetrates a vagina.
The baseline assumption of our culture, historically, has been that what happens when two people who between them have only vaginas and no penises get together sexually is… something that isn't really sex, and is thus not really of consequence.
One of the subtle truths about things that are not deemed to be “of consequence” is that people pay less attention to them. The radar, as it were, is not set to detect them. And as we all know, when you can fly under the radar, you can get away with a lot.
What do you say to people who fear that gay marriage will open the door for the legalization of other forms of civil unions, like polygamy? What do you think of the idea of dissolving the institution of marriage as a legal contract and simply allowing everyone to define marriage in their own, private way?
I think the state has no ethical business regulating which consenting adult gets to fuck another consenting adult. I certainly don't think the state is ethical in dispensing substantial legal and civic rewards selectively to those it selectively deems eligible to be regulated in this way.
Having spent a great deal of time immersed in the history of marriage and of marriage law specifically has only intensified this view for me. Tying property, wealth, child-rearing, inheritance, tax status, hospital visitation rights, and all the rest of the stuff that married people get as social and legal perks for signing up for a state-sponsored fucking license is about as retrograde as it gets. Getting rid of formal state-sponsored marriage is honestly something I would welcome with wide-open arms.
You discuss the evolution of marriage from tradition to companionate. Do you think the rising divorce rates in the U.S. are related to the fact that more people expect marriage to be about love as opposed to functioning like a business partnership? If so, are rising divorce rates actually a sign of progress? What do you think the next shift in marriage will be?
I do think that higher divorce rates are an outgrowth of the expectation that marriage be an experience of ongoing, continuous True Love, yes, though that's only part of the whole picture.
On divorce rates as a sign of progress, I feel that yes, they are a sign of progress, but the progress that they indicate is largely progress in women's autonomy, as I discuss at length in the book.
I think the next shift in marriage will be its more uniform extension to same-sex couples. The state has a vested interest in being part of the control of domestic partnership, and has for quite a few centuries now, and it has become pretty clear that governments are extending themselves in order to do so more comprehensively.
You end the book with this: “For now, we believe in heterosexual. And this, too, shall pass.” What is the future of heterosexuality, or sexuality in general?
I wish I knew! Alas I am an historian, and thus afflicted only with the gift of hindsight, and not foresight.