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Interview with Hanne Blank, author of Straight: the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality

Hanne Blank was gracious enough to answer a couple of questions for me about her super-fascinating book Straight: the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality. First, watch the trailer:

SR:You do such a good job of clearly explaining the fraught socio-historico-politico-other-things-that-end-in-O context in which the category of heterosexuality was invented, and I love the way you mix dense scientific, historical, and anthropological background on the ways we’ve perceived sexuality & gender roles with humor and pop culture references.

One thing I especially loved was learning about the existence of ‘doxa‘ — just the fact that there’s a name for “the things that everyone ‘knows’ are true but are in fact totally bound up in culturally-constructed assumptions.” If you could change one piece of the doxa in contemporary U.S. attitudes toward sexual identity, what would it be and why? (There’s a certain ‘pull one brick out and the whole edifice crumbles’ quality to this question, I realize.)

HB:I love this question. I often get asked “what do you think would happen if we just abolished the word ‘heterosexual’?” and I always have to say “I think we’d just find another way to talk about it because we’ve built a whole culture around the idea that this thing exists, and it’d be really hard to change the whole culture but really easy to just find another word or phrase.”
This is a much more interesting question!
I think that if I could change one thing about the way that we think about, talk about, and “do” sexual identity in the US today, I think it’d simply be to have people realize that the whole concept of “sexual identity” is entirely optional, and not inevitable or endemic to the human condition. It’s not an integral part of the human organism, it’s an idea we use to talk about ourselves, what we feel, and what we do. There is, in fact, no requirement that anyone have or feel or be able to articulate anything like a “sexual identity,” let alone that such a “sexual identity” be of one particular type or another, or that it form any part of how we treat other people or ourselves. In fact, for most of the history of humanity, no such concept existed and we got along just fine. It still doesn’t exist for some cultures, and they seem to manage okay too.

 

SR: Was there anything you discovered in your research that especially surprised you, and/or challenged your beliefs about sexuality?

 

HB:I knew going in to work on this book that “heterosexual” was at least as much of a tool to control people with as it ever has been “just” a label or a category or a tool to think with. I was constantly amazed by the degree to which “heterosexual” does this by behaving rather like the fictional Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation — by encompassing behavior or attitudes traditionally identified with the non-heterosexual, for instance oral sex, or anal sex — and thereby “adding their distinctiveness to our own” where it can be watched over and shaped by the dominant heteronormative culture and its priorities.


Resistance was futile  I is assimilated

The last chapter of the book deals with this in some specific directions and ways, looking at how heteronormativity has assimilated (or not) things like same-sex sexual behavior among hetero-identifying people, genderqueer and transgender lives, advanced fertility and reproductive technology, and so on. It’s necessarily incomplete, that chapter, because we’re still playing out, as a culture, that particular pattern of creating and re-creating “heterosexual,” and probably will be until the concept of “heterosexual” breaks under the strain of holding too much.
I also really enjoyed learning about how the notion of “heterosexual” (and “homosexual” too) got exported to non-Western cultures. This is something I didn’t write about in the book, because it got a bit too far afield for my scope, but it was fascinating to me to read what other researchers had to say about how introducing Western ideas of “sexual identity” or “sexual orientation” to cultures that had never used such notions — for instance in China — had changed the ways those cultures thought about and practiced sex and relationships. It was amazing to read about what happens when cultures acquire what is to them a brand new idea about sexuality that they had never previously had a use for, an idea that simultaneously seems so fundamental and unquestionable in our own culture. It really brought home to me the fact that while all human beings share a capacity we can call “sexuality,” sexuality doesn’t look, sound, feel, or act the same way for everyone, and that this can be as true on a cultural level as it can be on an individual one.

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