Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Homosexuality and heterosexuality--are they inventions?

During my high school years (1949-52) I first experienced a powerful attraction to members of my own sex, specifically to a fellow student, Larry S. I felt that this boy, who seemed so perfect, stood on a plane far higher than mine. I knew that for this reason, and because of the societal prohibition of what I soon learned to term “homosexuality,” I would never be able to consummate this attraction, lending the whole matter a tragic intensity. I never sought to disclose my attachment to Larry (who was in several of my classes), and I doubt that he had any inkling of the depths of my feelings. I recently saw a photograph of him, with regular features but otherwise unremarkable in appearance, and I wondered what the fuss had been about in those remote, confusing days. But that was part of the experience: the sheer enslavement to the being of another.

At about this time in my teen years I chanced to read an article in a popular magazine that purveyed the theories of romantic love espoused by Denis de Rougemont. This Swiss scholar held that romantic love was specifically invented by the Troubadour poets in twelfth-century Europe. To be sure, generic love had existed before, probably from the dawn of human history, but it was not the sort of tragic love that I had experienced. Or so I gathered from the article.

In this way I was confronted with a puzzle. To me my yearning was primal, probably biological in origin. My conviction of the primordiality of the feeling was enhanced by my sense that male same-sex love, seemingly accompanied by intense longing of the sort I had experienced, was a prominent feature of ancient Greece. On what authority I do not know, my stepfather opined (with no reference to me) that the behavior had been known way back in ancient Egypt.

How then could my experience be both timeless and specifically anchored to the twelfth century, the era when it had supposedly arisen ex novo?

Later I learned that Denis de Rougemont’s idea was not original, but rested ultimately on the concept of courtly love (amour courtois) expounded by Gaston Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. In English the idea had been popularized by C.S. Lewis in his book The Allegory of Love (1936). It was left to Peter Dronke in the 1960s to show that romantic love flourished in many cultures prior to it purported invention in twelfth-century Europe. Thus it could scarcely have been a novelty introduced in medieval Europe.

There is something distinctively French about this notion of the idea of the “invention” of some particular concept or cluster of emotions. A familiar example is Philippe Ariès’ claim that childhood was invented in the early modern period in Europe, having been previously unknown. Needless to say, many have challenged this proposal,

Later (1976) Michel Foucault was to indicate (or seem to indicate) that homosexuality did not exist before 1869, when the word was introduced by the Austro-Hungarian writer K. M. Benkert. This notion of the invention of the (modern) homosexual has been much discussed, so that I trust that I may be excused from entering further into the matter here.

More recently we have been treated to the extraordinary claim that heterosexuality was also something time-bound and invented--a development posterior to the purported invention of homosexuality. I refer to the book of Jonathan Ned Katz of 1995, entitled The Invention of Heterosexuality.

Basing himself on research of Manfred Herzer, Katz begins by pointing out, correctly, that the word “heterosexual” was first employed (as far as we know) in a private letter written by K. M. Kertbeny to another scholar, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In this letter, dated May 6, 1868, Kerbeny set forth four terms to designate particular forms of sexual expression: 1) monosexual; 2) homosexual; 3) heterosexual; and 4) heterogenit. (Monosexual seems to haver referred to masturbation, while heterogenit applied to human sexual acts with animals.) In his publication of the following year, however, Kertbeny chose to replace “heterosexual” with “normalsexual.”

Normalsexualität," normal sexuality, was the activity of the majority of human beings. standing over against the minority preference, that is, Homosexualität,. In this way, Kertbeny introduced a judgmental coloration that was absent, or at least less prominent in the earlier coinage.

Since only a few persons could have known about these private speculations, Kertbeny did not truly introduce the term "heterosexual" to the German-speaking public--at least not in any meaningful sense. That task was undertaken by the popularizer Gustav Jaeger in 1880, author of Die Entdeckung der Seele. It was Jaeger, later famous for a line of clothing, who consolidated the contrast between heterosexual and homosexual, subsequently adopted by Krafft-Ebing and many others. (Katz does not mention Jaeger.)

For a long time these discussions were conducted in the German language, and writers in English, French, and Italian on the subject of sexual orientation were necessarily dependent on primary works stemming from Central Europe. Knowledge of German was then regarded as essential if one was to secure a medical degree. Yet Katz, who seems to be monolingual, will have none of this. His narrative of the purported invention of heterosexuality is almost exclusively American. In the terms of the era he is seeking to reconstruct, this is a very provincial view at best.

Katz makes much of an entry in Dorland's Medical Dictionary (1901), published in Philadelphia, which characterized heterosexuality as "abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex." Few seem to have gone along with this interpretation, and in 1934 the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, authoritatively defined "heterosexuality" as a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

Evidently, Katz is seeking to show that the definition of heterosexuality was at first ambivalent and unstable, only gradually settling into its current meaning. Yet this claim could only be substantiated by tracing the parallel developments in other languages, which Katz declines to do.

As the author of an online work on the semantics of homosexuality (www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/BIB/Homolexis/main.htm), I take a great interest in words. Yet anyone working with this material must recognize the danger of linguistic determinism, that is the notion that words proliferate without reference to social conditions and evolving behavioral patterns.

There are other reasons for dismissing the claim of the “invention” of heterosexuality as a twentieth-century innovation. In order to clarify this point one must acknowledge that names and concept are two different things, and a single concept can appear under several different verbal designations. In the Symposium, Plato clearly contrasts opposite-sex love with two different forms, male-male sexuality and female-female sexuality. In early modern France devotés of Cythère (the island of Cythera) correspond to what we would term heterosexuals, standing over against the same-sexers, votaries of Sodom(e). Thus the recognition of these contrasts preceded the 1860s by many centuries.

In short there are no good reasons for believing that heterosexuality and homosexuality appeared at some particular point in recent history; as far as we cam tell, they have been with us for a long, long time--certainly since ancient Greece.

What looks likely to linger is this seductive meme of "invention." A friend harshly terms this scholarly penchant "special creationism." In my judgment, most of the sweeping claims of cultural invention are simply that--inventions. Or to put it more bluntly, just-so stories,

NOTE. In a book I have not seen, the French scholar Louis-Georges Tin seeks to trace the origins of heterosexuality back to that very twelfth century that is supposed to have seen the birth of courtly love (L'invention de la culture hétérosexuelle / The invention of heterosexual culture. Paris, Éditions Autrement, 2008, 205 pp.). Tin is best known for his editing of the The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience, recently translated into English.

The twelfth century rides again! One curious feature about the special creationists is that they cannot agree on their dates. Some think that the "modern homosexual" arose only in 1869; others argue for ca. 1700. Katz thinks that heterosexuality started in the twentieth century; Tin that it began eight centuries earlier. The simplest solution is to assume that these phenomena have been around since time immemorial. But that conclusion, unremarkable as it is, would not justify the writing of a whole book. Perhaps the moon is not made of green cheese after all.



Blogger Arsinoe said...

Although it is impossible to document this, my sense is that 'Kinsey 0-1's' spend very little time thinking about their sexual orientation, unless they happen to be scholars of human sexuality. In part, of course, because opposite-sex orientation is both normative and necessary for the propagation of the specie.

The gay movement brought more attention to the issue and backlash in certain quarters. This may have led to an uptick in questioning by everyone, but the basic question of orientation is one that preoccupies to a greater degree those whose sexual preferences are atypical

1:18 PM  
Blogger Thomas Kraemer said...

Even though Jonathan Ned Katz is not a formally trained academic, his book of 1995 entitled "The Invention of Heterosexuality" merely reflected the then popular social constructionist academicians' premise that everything is a social construction, including things like race, which most people consider to be a physical characteristic acquired at birth rather than something that is defined by society.

Although I acknowledge the many practical limits to social constructionism theory as a means to explain everything in the social sciences, I also think it would be naive to dismiss the concept entirely.

An example of a social construction that formed in the 20th Century is the concept of a "hippie."

People I have interviewed who were alive in the 1800's, told me that even though the word "hippie" did not come into common usage until the 1960s, this type of person or group of people had been well recognized before, but it was called different things, such as being a bohemian, etc.

Of course, any good social historian would tell you all the differences between bohemians and hippies, but these differences are irrelevant to the idea that society will define what it means and this definition can change over time as society redefines it.

I believe that there have always been people who are naturally born to grow up and be free spirited hippies, much like there have always been people born to be gay, but in both cases the exact way society defines the hippie or gay man will change over time and the definition will be different around the world in different societies.

What I am saying is consistent with the idea that certain people are born gay in a manner that can not be changed. There is no reason that biological facts must be consistent with the beliefs held by society concerning certain people or groups of people. For example, the idea that all homosexuals were child molesters out to seduce young boys into having sex was a popular belief in the 1950s. That is how society had defined gay men even though the biological facts did not match the social construction of a homosexual man.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

The hippie-bohemian link suits me very well. One could continue by tracing the general type back to the pícaro of Spain of the siglo de oro, and even further to the gyrovagi or penniless wanderers of the middle ages.

All this reinforces the key point that the same phenomenon appears under different names in different periods.

What is to be avoided is the feckless linguistic idealism that fetishizes individual words. It is the phenomenon, not the word that must be our focus.

1:26 PM  

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