Sunday, February 05, 2012

Once again: the purported "invention" of heterosexuality

In January 2012 the independent scholar Hanne Blank published a book entitled “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.”

According to the blurb (as furnished by Amazon), the book asserts the following: “Like the typewriter and the light bulb, the heterosexual was invented in the 1860s and swiftly and permanently transformed Western culture. The idea of ‘the heterosexual’ was unprecedented. After all, men and women had been having sex, marrying, building families, and sometimes even falling in love for millennia without having any special name for their emotions or acts. Yet, within half a century, ‘heterosexual’ had become a byword for ‘normal.’ enshrined in law, medicine, psychiatry, and the media as a new gold standard for human experience."

In fact Blank’s book simply recycles the unlikely claim advanced by Jonathan Ned Katz in his 1995 book the “Invention of the Heterosexual.” I commented on this book in a previous posting on Dyneslines (July 5, 2011), little suspecting that the issue would arise again so soon.

One problem bedeviling this hunt for "inventions" in social behavior and attitudes is that they rest on a category mistake. Changes in the social realm are simply not like the discovery of the typewriter and the incandescent light bulb. Gradual and often imperceptible in detail, these shifts are not mechanical devices. We must deal with process not discontinuity.

In addition, such speculations reflect a kind of linguistic idealism, more specifically the idea that no social phenomenon can arise until a word has been created to characterize it. “Homosexual” was created in 1869. while “heterosexual” came along a few years later. QED.

As a matter of social history (and not linguistics), the issue raised again by Blank’s book is this: was heterosexuality ever “invented,” and if so, when?

Ironically the matter has been problematized by a writer who also thinks that heterosexuality was invented, the French scholar and activist Louis-Georges Tin.  In 2008 Tin published a book entitled  “L'invention de la culture hétérosexuelle.”   In this volume he seeks to extract heterosexuality from the “order of nature” in order to resituate it in the “order of time.”  More specifically, taking his cue from the older studies of Denis de Rougemont, Tin believes that heterosexuality emerged in Western Europe in the 12th century. To his credit, Tin does not shackle the origin of heterosexuality to a word, but looks at the evidence for a social phenomenon.

Louis-Georges Tin, who is active in black cultural politics in France as well as gay ones, had earlier edited the impressive (though perhaps inevitably flawed) Dictionnaire de l’homophobie (2003), bringing together the work of 75 contributors.  There is also an English-language version.

The “when” problem remains. Did heterosexuality only emerge in the late 19th century (Katz, Blank), or as early as the 12th century (Tin)?  It cannot be both. The chronological discrepancy--a huge gap--points to an obvious conclusion. This is in line with what common sense dictates: there was no need to invent heterosexuality, for it had always existed.

In the meantime, the groundswell of “inventions” continues, witness Patricia Cohen’s new book “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.”  One rubs one’s eyes in disbelief.  As Samuel Chew has shown, the tripartition of the course of human life goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by the riddle the sphinx posed to Oedipus.

Putting “invention” in the title may sell books, but is it good scholarship?

For more on the latest example, see




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