Straight Talk: We Don’t Know Anything About Heterosexuality

The study of sex should belong to the social sciences, not the physical sciences.

In centuries past, it was not uncommon for adults of the same sex to share a bed. It was a way to keep warm, save money, and maximize quality time between friends. These people were sleeping together, but they were not, in a modern sense, “sleeping together.” And yet, as Hanne Blank writes in her new book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, “some of you are probably secretly telling yourselves that it doesn’t matter what some silly historian says, those sentimental gentlemen sleeping in one another’s arms were clearly gay.”

What does it mean to be a straight person? It seems silly to ask: You know exactly what heterosexuality is, and so does everyone else. It’s so obvious it barely needs acknowledgement. Young people come of age and identify as straight just by default. But in Straight, Blank spends almost two hundred pages to make clear just how unclear our conception of heterosexuality really is. “Despite the fact that most of us use the term ‘heterosexual’ with enormous (and cavalier!) certainty,” she writes, “there seems to be no aspect of ‘heterosexual’ for which a truly iron-clad definition has been established.”

German proto-gay rights activist Karl Maria-Kertbeny took the first stab at a definition in 1868. In the course of arguing against the criminalization of “unnatural fornication … between persons of the male sex,” Maria-Kertbeny coined both “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” with the former term meaning a man who had sex with other men, and the latter meaning pretty much everyone else. Twenty years later, Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing penned a compendium of sexual deviance in which he used “heterosexual” and “normal-sexual” interchangeably. From its inception, “heterosexual” was a term to stand in opposition to deviant, dangerous and undesirable kinds of sex.

But as any modern sex columnist will tell you, there is little consensus on what sexually “normal” is. Today, there are too many potential definitions of "heterosexual" to list, and the variation between them is so great that attempting to decide on one is impossible. Straightness as a concept is hugely important to how we experience the world, but no one really understands what it means. And yet we’re all convinced that we know exactly what we’re talking about.

To begin to understand what it is to be straight, we first need to understand the idea of “doxa,” a term that anthropologists use to mean “stuff everyone knows,” what laypeople would call “common knowledge.” Doxa is “the understanding we absorb from our native culture that we use to make sense of the world,” Blank writes, and “virtually everything we know about sexuality and heterosexuality, we know—or think we know—because of doxa.” It is doxa, Blank explains, that convinces us that those centuries-old same-sex friends sleeping in each other’s beds were getting busy—because everyone knows that’s what “sleeping together” means.

While “everyone knows” a great deal about heterosexuality, researchers and experts actually know very little. After surveying the history and the current state of scientific inquiry on straightness, Blank concludes that the research on heterosexuality is lacking because while scientists have spent their time and resources investigating sexual deviation—namely, homosexuality—they’ve failed to investigate the assumption on which that deviation is based. As Blank notes, “in science, it should technically not be possible to even begin considering whether there might be exceptions to a rule until you have proven that the rule exists.”

When scientists have made attempts to explain the existence of heterosexuality and homosexuality, they have failed. “Whenever one part of the body or aspect of physical function failed to provide a telltale diagnostic, the scientists looked someplace else," Blank writes. "When appearance, gross external anatomy, and characteristics like voice failed to produce the desired evidence, as they did quite early on, scientists began to turn their gaze inward.”

The key word there is “desired.” Researchers desired scientific explanations for heterosexuality and homosexuality, and they were determined to find them. But even after neuroscience, microbiology and DNA sequencing came along, the search continues. That’s how deep the cultural doxa about heterosexuality runs: Our culture insists that heterosexuality exists and can be explained, so scientists continue to hunt for an explanation.

If such proof and explanation exists, Blank argues, the physical sciences may not be equipped to find it. The task may be better left to the social sciences—sex is a biological act, but it is also a social one. Psychologists, anthropologist, sociologists, and philosophers have all contributed to the research on the subject. Leaving the study of heterosexuality to the social sciences “may be difficult for a culture whose doxa still holds that only the natural sciences possess truly impartial authority,” Blank concedes. “It may, however, not only prove to be the most intellectually honest path, but the most scientifically rigorous as well.”

On its face, Straight is a book about the history of sex, but it is really a book about the history of knowledge. When it comes to something as influential as sexuality, it’s important to know how we came to know what we know. And though it can be off-putting at times, it is essential that we know just how much remains unknown. Michel Foucault and others have treaded this ground before, but Blank’s thorough and witty book is the first to target these known unknowns squarely at a popular audience.

Only when we bring the critique of straightness out of the laboratory and the academic elite will we really see a cultural shift in what we consider sexually “normal.” A long time ago, we all created the cultural category of “heterosexual,” then outlined a plethora of “not heterosexual” definitions in opposition to it. Now, we are circling back in an attempt to understand exactly what those categories mean. We are trying to explain our own doxa in terms more concrete and credible than “that’s just the way things have always been.”

Heterosexuality, Blank concludes, is “a mouse that roared, a modern term of art posing as an eternal verity dressed in Classical-language garb, and an assimilative juggernaut.” The concept is messy, but it is not any messier than we are. “We are the ones whose imaginations created the heterosexual/homosexual scheme," Blank writes, "and we are also the ones whose multitudes that scheme ultimately cannot contain."


Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

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The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

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Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

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The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.