Hanne Blanke’s Straight – The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, promised to be innovative and refreshing. While there are many books that attempt to explain the historical and societal perspectives of homosexuality, there have hardly been any works that try to map the development of the concept of heterosexuality and the prevalence of the heteronormative standard in our society. In her book, Blanke attempts to create a thorough collection of historical evidence of how society’s perception of sexuality has changed over centuries with a major focus on the Victorian era. It is a combination of both historical and scientific details that raise important questions on the difference between gender and sex and whether or not it is possible to characterise human beings merely by their chromosomes, behaviour, or orientation.
With this premise and goal, one would expect a potentially interesting read. Unfortunately, “Straight” lacks a coherent theme and argument. By trying to address too many difficult and ambiguous topics, it ends up being hard to follow, unstructured and highly unsatisfying. Its problems are not solely structural, but also contextual. Among these multiple elements that undermine her work, two are the most prominent. First, her inability to go past the cliché of defending homosexuality in every book that deals with human sexual preference and secondly, her dislike for categories and rebuttal of everything good that categorization may have brought to the human condition.
Please stick to your previously-stated mission
If someone decides to pick up “Straight” from the library, they would want to evaluate the title’s promise to surprise the reader on the topic of heterosexuality. That said, it is only natural, as heterosexuality, like many other concepts whose understanding comes from a pre-established binary opposition, is usually contrasted to the alternative of homosexuality. Yet, as Blanke shows in her book, both terms were not invented during the same period of time. Heterosexuality came first, as the means of identifying a group of people who not only had sexual desires directed at a person of the opposite sex, but also those who remained within the boundaries of the plain vanilla variety. So far, so good. This is exactly the point that the book is trying to make: how did we go from having no specification of sexuality, other than the person you marry, to these brands?
It is more than fine to use homosexuality as a mean to achieve a goal of defining heterosexuality as an opposite. Unfortunately, Blanke does not use homosexuality just as a means to an end. As many writers, academics and scientists before her, she falls into the one trap that seems to have become unavoidable when discussing sexuality: defending the existence of homosexuality and vouching for its “normalcy.” Blanke is fighting in a never-ending circle that spirals around the idea that homosexuality has always existed, at least since the times of Ancient Greece and Babylon, and that science has never stated that there is such a state of ‘normality’ when it comes to sexuality. Hence, where does the idea of heterosexuality as the golden standard come from? The question is interesting, but she provides no historical evidence to hint at an answer.
By dealing with these questions, Blanke forgets what her book was supposed to be about. So much in fact, that once a whole chapter on sexuality and science is finished, while she transitions to the importance of the developing of the notion of marriage and female equality has changed the idea of heterosexuality, the reader has forgotten the main point of her discourse.
What’s wrong with categories?
In her defense of homosexuality, rather than in her history of heterosexuality, Blanke brings up an oft-asked question: why do people have to fit into categories—whether of sexuality, nationality or culture—at all? Most liberals are against categorization by principle, as they imply stereotypical characteristics, which limit the person’s ability to create their own image. However, the manner in which Blanke demonizes categorization is not convincing. Most of her critique is implied, yet she does go as far as to say that heterosexuality was just a brand of self-identification created to make sure that you were not homosexual. According to her, categories such as ‘heterosexual’ were created to make sure that when you saw yourself in the mirror, it was not a ‘degenerate who looked back.’
Essentially, defining oneself as gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or whatever, though it might not be necessarily welcomed by everyone, does not have to be inherently offensive. It is something we have come to accept as human beings. Categories are helpful— they are defined by the people we are attracted to and to what they define themselves as. It might not be biologically accurate, and it might not even describe our own experience, but categories themselves only can embody the meaning that we give to them. As human creations they are bound to evolve as our understanding of the world evolves. And if they help millions of people make choices, fit better, or understand where they do not fit in, they can also serve to build communities and provide relief as people share common experiences.
Finally, there are two things left to do for Blanke. Either change the title to “Another book on why homosexuality is just fine,” or rewrite the whole story by leaving out the overly long chapters that defend homosexuality on the basis that science has found nothing against it. The book has potential, if it actually were about heterosexuality in the overall.