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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."

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