The Invention Of The Heterosexual

tumblr_lz08yrqbBK1qg39ewo1_400Salon interviews historian Hanne Blank, who argues that the categories of “straight” and “gay” as we know them today arose with the spread of psychiatry in the late nineteenth century. So I guess Blank is saying, this Valentine’s Day, thank Freud?

“Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual,” [in the mid-19thcentury], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal.

Psychiatry is responsible for creating the heterosexual in largely the same way that it is responsible for creating the various categories of sexual deviance that we are familiar with and recognize and define ourselves in opposition to. The period lasting from the late Victorian era to the first 20 or 30 years of the 20th century was a time of tremendous socioeconomic change, and people desperately wanted to give themselves a valid identity in this new world order.

Social Darwinism comes into play in a big way. It became important to prove that you were part of the solution and not part of the problem in this pell-mell, hurly-burly, crazy new social order [of the late 1800s and early 20th century].

13 Comments on "The Invention Of The Heterosexual"

  1. Don’t you mean psychology, not psychiatry?

    • bsaunders | Feb 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm |

      At that time, there were no “psychologists” who weren’t medical doctors.

  2. Interesting. I think its fairly well known among gays that the ‘codification’ came into being as a result of Victorian era prudery and amateur pseudo-science psychiatrists…whereas prior to that era, with exception of a few eras of religious driven mania, the behavior now classified as ‘homosexual’ was disregarded as unimportant to the overall scheme of things and generally ignored or flat out accepted as not particularly worrisome…a state of affairs most folks found completely acceptable. To a greater or lesser degree, depending on what country you visit (other than English speaking countries), the same lassaize-faire attitude is still largely in place (once again…making exception for countries and cultures in the grips of religious hysteria…which are subject, not coincidentally, to a higher degree of random panic over trivia.) On the bright side, basic rights for ‘gay’ people (ie: those who are exclusively same sex oriented) are a by product of the turmoil and harm caused by Victorian histrionics over the last hundred or so years…so however high the price…some new ground has been gained from that darkness and struggle.

    • Liam_McGonagle | Feb 14, 2012 at 7:27 pm |

      Once again you beat me to the punch, mon frere.

      As you say, the firewalling of sexuality does seem to have been a special preoccupation of the Victorians, and probably has to do with an unnerving sense of decline in the effectiveness of traditional methods of social control, especially in the late Victorian era, when opportunities to resolve social tensions by transportation to Australia or engaging in (yet another) foreign military adventure were dwindling.

      But I think the criminalization of sexuality has some important pre-Victorian precursors worthy of note.
      I’ve been on an art history binge lately and just got done with a bunch of discussions of the intersection between homo-eroticism and statuary in Renaissance Florence.  Specifically surrounding the “David” statues of Donatello and Michelangelo.

      Florence was periodically visited by anti-homosexual purges during the period, so the controversy surrounding those artworks could literally be deadly in an environment pitched between the seemingly unresolvable tensions of an often sybaritic classicism lurching towards a modern, scientific view of the world and the legitimate but strategically misguided efforts to counter the rampant abuse of power by decadent Church leaders and aristocrats.  Historical accident in this specific context aligned the “homosexual” contingent with the interests of wealthy but irresponsible autocrats.

      Which was a real irony.  Before that time, since at least the time of Augustus Caesar, “homosexuality” was more identified with the lower orders of society.  Yet Suetonius makes it clear that exclusively heterosexual preference in sexual partners was very rare in Roman emporers up through the 2nd century C.E. 

      Don’t get me wrong.  Lots of patricians were charged with the criminal offense of “Sodomy”, and the punishment wasn’t a 10-day warning or fine.  But it was the CLASS aspect of the affair that seemed most to bother them, not the fact that two men might engage in sexual behavior.  What was unacceptably disgusting to the Romans was the fact that a member of the ruling class might allow himself to be penetrated by another, so enacting a type of ritual renunciation of the aggressive warlike and predatory nature of Roman culture.  It was totally cool for elites like the poet Horace to violently seize and cornhole unwilling 10-year old slave boys–provided that he always remembered that he was a top and not a bottom.

      It’s very interesting to see the way anti-“homosexual” laws reflect a kind of uneasy, shifting misunderstanding of actual human sexuality that usually seems to be a proxy for political and class conflict.  I think that’s also reflected in the fact that there typically seems to be less furore surrounding female homosexuality than female heterosexuality, in the context of infedelity and promiscuity.

    • It’s a state of affairs I wish we could go back to. I’m not particularly bothered by homosexuals, and I don’t think many people would be if there wasn’t this constant message being pumped out that its somehow unwholesome or even evil.

      • Jin The Ninja | Feb 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm |

        i know how you feel, i am not particularly bothered by str8 people either:P

  3. Sven Broward | Feb 15, 2012 at 2:03 am |

    This is all wish fulfillment and word juggling. Human sexuality, like all mammalian sexuality, is genetically programmed. Most will be straight and between five and ten percent will be gay.

    • Mostly true…but it kind of hangs on how you define gay. If by gay we mean “overwhelmingly prefers same sex relations” we actually come up a bit lower than five percent. If we mean “considers same sex relations appealing some or part of the time”…then we start racking up much higher than ten percent. Possibly higher than 30 percent or even more. The widespread hope amongst those who spread homophobia is that, with enough negative social pressure, the percentage will be lowered…which I think is actually impossible. In this, I partly agree with you. We’re genetically programmed to associate attractiveness and affection with sex…and this generally leads to babies happening…but it also leads to same sex sexual activity…whether its frowned upon by society  only determines whether people feel very guilty, slightly guilty or not guilty at all about it. All the pressure in the world cannot change peoples innate nature…all it can do is make them uncomfortable with themselves. Which is a pity…since I think the world would be a much happier place without such wasted 

      • Monkey See Monkey Do | Feb 15, 2012 at 2:39 am |

        15% are gay or bi-sexual for both males and females. That’s the average in democratic countries where statistics have been gathered. (source: wikipedia)
        I agree with you that it could be as high as 30%, especially if you look at bi-sexuality in a more thorough way. I actually believe bi-sexuality is one of the next steps in human evolution.

        • So you use Science to discredit Morality.

          For the record I see Humanity’s next step being one of unceasing warfare. We will either destroy ourselves, or Ascend to Homo Superior.

          • Liam_McGonagle | Feb 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm |

            I’ve vaguely optimistic that #2 is more likely, though it ain’t happening any time soon.

            And being relatively vanilla myself, I have to admit to more than my share of hangups about things like sexuality and race and ethnicity.  I suspect there will be any number of broken barriers along the way which are currently so deeply ingrained that their demise cannot but evoke some sort of pants-sh*tting terror.

            I sense you may have similar ideas.  It seems only to make sense that there is no freakin’ way in Hell that each and every last individual human is going to completely vanquish all of their irrational hangups and prejudices.  My G*d, it’s rare enough that a single individual gets that far.

            But maybe that doesn’t necessarily entail all-out war, or even ultimate absorption into the Borg Collective.  Maybe society just gets a little more honest about admitting its hangups and becomes tolerant, allowing us the space we need to accept radical changes on something resembling our own terms.

          • Jin The Ninja | Feb 15, 2012 at 2:32 pm |

            great post, but as a note, in reading your past writings, i’ve never personally thought of you as ‘vanilla,’ from someone whom is admittedly caramel both in race and flavour.

        • The kicker is that crazy Kinsey scale. If you categorize everyone who isn’t firmly in the 1 or 6 (99%straight or 99%gay) spots…its kind of shocking how many people are willing to anonymously confess to something other than classic straight behavior. Bi-sexuality is kind of the dark secret of human sexuality in some ways, even tho its spoken of so openly now. Its just that few admit how widespread it may actually be. (interesting side note: even in the gay community…negative pressure is placed upon bisexuals to pick one side or another and stick with it. I’ve seen it…and consider shameful conduct from people who really ought to know better.)

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