‘Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality’ By Hanne Blank

Hanne Blank’s Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality sounds as if it is an examination of the 150-year period since the coining of “heterosexual” to identify the biologically male-female relationship. Blank’s work reaches further and deeper into the history of heterosexuality. This period is merely the starting point from which she expounds on her exhaustive research.

This research explores, considers, and questions heterosexuality’s array of meanings, references and significances.  Blank describes part of the problem:

‘Heterosexual’ does not have a single standard scientific definition. Different disciplines, and indeed even different researchers within single disciplines, use the word to mean different things. This is more than merely incidental sloppiness. Scientific method and scientific authority depend in part on clear and consistent definitions that are supported by careful observation. Yet when heterosexuality is the subject scientists all to often behave like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty.

An historian, writer, and speaker, Blank’s approach in Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality is highly accessible. Blank provides an elementary introduction to the scholarly methodology of her research. She blends an informal tone with a construct of rules found in scientific studies, in papers and academic presentations. This balance seems to bespeak a keen sense of judgment she has for her work and readers.

To be clear, Blank’s goal is not to question the arguable existence of heterosexuality (prior to its being identified and given a name in 1868), but to trace its origins and examine its effects. In the beginning chapters, Blank presents a concept she will use throughout, doxa. Doxa is the Greek word  for “common knowledge.” She explains, “Doxa is, quite literally in most cases, the stuff that ‘goes without saying.'” That is, “common sense” ideas absorbed from one’s culture. Doxa applies to other areas as well, not strictly sexuality but cultural “norms” each of us participates in maintaining, “knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly.”

It is doxa, then, that has hindered further research into heterosexuality, as well as homosexuality. She also describes the anthropic principle, a philosophy about science’s approach to heterosexuality and sexuality. The anthropic principle argues that the unifying purpose of everything is life.

It is evident that Blank is foremost a historian, leaping with ease across centuries, leading  readers on a tour of the attitudes, traditions, and norms regarding male-female relationships. Conclusions and assertions Blank makes would perhaps be more likely questioned without her science-oriented background and deft talent for writing.

She joins the paucity of academics and scholars who write for mainstream readers. Adapting to a vastly different audience requires a savvy artisan, skilled in communicating using an entirely different lexicon. Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky wrote similarly for mainstream media. Like Pinker and Chomsky, Blank successfully avoids the common dilemma of positioning an argument, and then offering evidence too dense for the lay reader.

Language is largely and the center of Blank’s theories. Giving heterosexuality a name in the 19th century sparked a chain of change in how sexuality is treated; namely homosexuality, now that there was something to say it deviated from.

Ms. Blank has stated that during research as she has gone to look something up, there was no source, and the obvious solution was to write the book she needed. Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality was also framed (in the Introduction) through Blank’s partner, who, as a result of a chromosome anomaly, prompted Blank to look further into the “grand and vexing ambiguities” that are sex and gender.

For me, as a reader, it is refreshing when a nonfiction publication is written by a professor or scholar that can easily be enjoyed by a layperson. I look forward to more Hanne Blank. And more questions about the nature of sexuality, its linguistic and literary origins and how it lead us to our attitudes today.

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality
By Hanne Blank
Beacon Press
Hardcover, 9780807044498, 264pp.