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Friday, March 16, 2012

Hanne Blank's 'Straight' and the Future of Heterosexuality

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 I have spent this week lying on the beach reading Hanne Blank's new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Yes, this is indeed what sex nerds do for fun and relaxation. The book is an engrossing read that will not only equip you with lots of interesting trivia for your next cocktail party, but also probably challenge your personal beliefs.

Most of us believe that heterosexuality is a stable concept that can be easily described in both scientific and social terms. Straight challenges this assumption, showing that the idea of heterosexuality is only 150 or so years old, has no basis in scientific research and is constantly changing—in fact, it may be on its way out the door in the not-too-distant future. Much of the book focuses on the concept of doxa, which Blank defines as "the understanding we absorb from our native culture that we use to make sense of the world... the stuff that 'goes without saying,' the assumptions and presumptions and 'common sense' ideas we have about our world and how it works."

Blank's previous book, Virgin: The Untouched History, as well as Straight, both take on the task of questioning doxa—"everyone knows" what a virgin is; "everyone knows" what a heterosexual is. I asked Blank why she thought this was important, and she replied, "Questioning assumptions is an effort to understand ourselves. It helps show us the differences between the things we believe and things we actually do know. When we do this kind of digging, we find out where the ideas we have and use to build our lives with came from, which helps us in the effort to decide what kind of ideas we want to be building our lives with, and whether the ones we've inherited are good enough for the lives and cultures we want for the future."

Blank's digging for Straight uncovered not only the origin of heterosexuality, but also the origin of many assumptions about "appropriate" sexual behavior that are still accepted as true today. For instance, Blank writes that 19th-century politics and early psychiatry combined to fabricate the idea that "[a]ny man who voluntarily took on a sexual role other than...'the impenetrable penetrator' was considered at least suspect, if not outright deviant." The level of anxiety that I see every day in male customers at the Tool Shed who worry that enjoying anal penetration or performing oral sex on their partner makes them "less of a man" seems directly rooted in these century-old notions.

Straight
also explores the roots of our cultural ideas about romantic relationships, gender roles, female beauty, adolescence and sexual pleasure—all things that are intertwined with heterosexuality. As a non-historian, I loved learning more about where the questions I get from readers, customers and students come from and why common concerns about sexuality persist long after their Victorian progenitors have fallen out of memory or even been discredited. In the end, Blank concludes that heterosexuality is so varied and unknowable that she compares it to both the Borg from "Star Trek" and to a Magic Eight Ball, which caused me to have a major geekgasm.

Mostly, this book made me question how we can change these persistent cultural norms about what our sexual behavior says about our sexual identity. In my work with queer and allied youth, I've witnessed a growing acceptance of "no label"—people just wanting to be who they are without assigning labels like straight, gay or other identities. I've often wondered whether this might signify a shift away from the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy or even more nebulous labels like "queer" and toward a society where sexual identity is less defined. At the close of Straight, Blank implies that this may in fact be happening. It will certainly be interesting to see if this is true.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.
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