Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
Men and woman have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. So how can we talk about there being a “history” of heterosexuality?
We can talk about there being a history of heterosexuality in the same way that we can talk about there being a history of religions. People have been praying to God for a really long time too, and yet the ways people relate to the divine have specific histories. They come from particular places, they take particular trajectories, there are particular texts, and individuals that are important in them. There are events, names, places, dates. It’s really very similar.
“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. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.
But the term took quite a while to catch on. How did it spread?
Thanks to psychiatrists in the 1880s and 1890s — a part of the medical profession that was deeply unscientific at that time. It meant that somebody with a medical degree and all of the authority it brings could stand up and start making value judgments using specialized medical vocabulary and pass it off as authoritative, and basically unquestionable.
I actually talked to my grandmother about this. My grandmother is 88 and she came to consciousness in a world that didn’t have heterosexuals in it, where nobody knew that word, and certainly nobody used it to refer to themselves. And she associates this change with Freud, whom she’s never read but whom she’s heard a lot about. So there was this sort of culture-wide game of telephone, if you will, in which these authoritative medicalized ideas coming from very rarefied circles trickled down into the larger culture. I think that for people of my grandmother’s generation particularly, heterosexual simply became a synecdoche for normal. And that’s certainly the way Freud talks about it, that you know, you attain heterosexuality. There’s this process of attaining normality. When you manage to develop yourself, or to become developed, in the proper way, in an appropriate way, in the way that Freud says you’re supposed to, what you end up with is a heterosexual.
Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of science arguing that there are physical differences between gay people and straight people, in their brains and even the direction of their hair whirls. You’re skeptical of this research. Why?
I question their validity primarily because nobody has established or in fact attempted to establish that there is a canonical straight body. And if you don’t have characterized control, you can bet your bottom dollar I am not going to believe your hypothesis. It’s really that simple.
All of this research that is purporting to look for physiological material differences between gay bodies and straight bodies: What are they comparing it to? Their assumption that they know magically what a heterosexual body is? When no one has actually established what that is. That’s bad science.