Straight by Hanne Blank
The reason I picked up this book is very simple: in reading an interview with Hanne Blank (which is, by the way, one of the coolest names ever), she casually mentioned the fact that, despite scientists trying to prove the existence of a “gay” gene, there’s no such thing as a “straight” gene. Afterwards, I realized the implications this had for certain scientists’ bias, but as I read it, I was absolutely stunned by both this idea and the fact that somewhere, lurking deep within even a queer woman like me, the idea that to be queer was to be markedly different had soaked in. And that’s exactly the sort of thing Blank does in Straight; calm and logical destabilization.
In Straight, Hanne Blank charts both the evolution of the term “heterosexual” (coined in 1868 not by scientists, but by men attempting to protect homosexuality under the law) and the various ways it has insinuated itself into our lives, to the point that scientists search for “gay” genes (with no knowledge of a “straight” gene to even compare it to), it influences shifts in culture, and even the most well-meaning of people treat it as an irreducible fact that to be “heterosexual” is to be normal and rigid in one’s sexuality.
I don’t know if it’s because I was raised religiously feral, because my parents never talked about it, or because I came to all the orientation labels at once through a thoroughly queer-friendly lens, but I’ve never understood “straight” to mean anything other than “romantically and sexually attracted to the opposite sex pretty much all the time”. So while I was enjoying reading Straight, I was a little confused by how all over the map it was, which I’ve seen mentioned in other reviews. But late in the book, I realized why this was; the terms “straight” and “heterosexuality” have a huge cultural weight outside of that meaning, and it’s just as all over the map as the book is. Even in my own little bubble of ignorance, that weight pressed down on me—even before I realized I was ace, I knew the way that I was attracted to people, even if they were boys and thus “appropriate”, was not exactly kosher according to a standard of heterosexuality that asked for girls to be passive and judged aggressive girls harshly. Blank, obviously, has no beef with the heteros among us, but rather that particularly kind of weight, which can hurt all of us.
To explain this, Blank brings up the concept of “doxa”, the kind of beliefs that people believe in because, the things your parents never gave you proper answers to—you know, because that’s just the way things are. On some level, doxa is useful; it helps you to navigate through the expectations of culture. But when problematic concepts become doxa that it becomes a problem. Even when non-problematic concepts become doxa it can become a problem. Late in the book, Blank talks about how, in the hard sciences, the idea that life is sacred has become doxa, which is why homosexuality is looked at askance; it’s non-procreative sex. Of course, Blank argues, heterosexual couples engage in non-procreative sex all the time, and it’s not even a guarantee that procreative heterosexual sex will result in procreation.
Straight is full of interesting and thoughtful anecdotes like that; I, for one, was both amused and horrified at the fears the Victorians had that non-penetrative sex between heterosexuals would lead to homosexuality, because anything other than passive female straight sex was upsetting the natural gendered order of things. There’s also the evolution of the concept of love, which touches briefly on the same stuff Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History is made out of—an evolution from marriages as a way to build families and properties (love not required), to marriages as a union between two mature souls, to marriages requiring romantic love. (Even more interesting is the fact that Blank mentions that romantic love might be a cultural construct; I mean to pass this onto any aromantics I stumble across.) And, of course, Blank examines how all the weight of heterosexuality (as currently culturally framed) affects male-attracted women, by flattening all the nuances of their attraction towards men (which will always be informed by the history of masculine control) into one thing. Ultimately, Blank concludes that the reason this conception of heterosexuality still persists is because we, as a culture, don’t want to face the nuances of different-sex attraction: “What it seems we really want is a heterosexuality in which we can enjoy all the thrills of riding the tiger of the libido while simultaneously being kept safe from its teeth and claws” (146).
Bottom line: Straight is short and a little all over the place, but that’s only because our societal construction of “heterosexuality” is just as all the place. Thoughtful, interesting, and well worth a read.
I rented this book from my college library.