Heterosexuality: A Post-Contact Invention

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality argues that heterosexuality is a human invention

The notion of heterosexuality did not exist even per se among Europeans before contact. In fact, the Germans were instrumental in inventing it in the 1860s, a new book argues.

In Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2012), author Hanne Blank sets out to demonstrate the ways in which the rigid notions that bind us are just that—fetters. The idea that the only possible love combination is between men and women gets turned on its head as Blank delves into sources ranging from the Prussian Penal Code to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to the research of Alfred Kinsey and beyond. Its conclusions would seem to concur with and complement the sentiments expressed in Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature.

It is not that people did not historically practice heterosexuality, Blank writes, but rather they did so without thinking about it, labeling it or feeling terribly tied to it. But the migration into crowded urban centers generated a need for order.

Terms such as heterosexuality “came to exist because a need was perceived to identify people as representatives of generic types distinguished on the basis of their tendencies to behave sexually in particular ways,” Blank writes. “[It’s] a story of industrialization and urbanization, the rise of the middle classes, the complications of empire, and the scientific and philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment … creating a world in which the idea of a type of human being called ‘heterosexual’ made a specific and useful kind of sense.”

These forces helped form the idea, but the Germans actually codified it in the 1800s with a section of the Prussian Penal Code that imposed harsh punishment on anyone caught practicing “unnatural fornication between people and animals, as well as between persons of the male sex.”

This academic romp through the recent history of sexuality and how culture and other man-made constructs shape it is detailed almost to a fault. Yet it does answer many unasked questions and documents what two-spirit people already know: We do not fit into tidy boxes.