Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality
★★☆☆☆ (It was OK.)
“We don’t just want what we want because we want it; we want what we want because that’s what we’ve learned to want.”
I like books that teach me more about what I think I already know. Take the blunt force “common knowledge” (doxa) and pull it apart until you have a finer, more nuanced understanding of the world. This was one of those kinds of books. It brought together a lot of information (some familiar to me, some new) and traced the history of heterosexuality.
I’m queer and it was refreshing to have the centered position taken apart, for a change. I don’t subscribe to an innate, biological “born this way” approach to sexuality. If people were born straight and all that implies in 2016, then there would’ve been a word for it a long time ago. Way longer than the 1800s.
While none of this information was brand new to me (with one exception, which I’ll get to momentarily), the book pulled information together in a coherent way, including some information I knew, but had not thought of as necessarily related to sexuality. (The process of ethnically diverse European immigrants “becoming white” in the States, in part through dating (and then, intermarriage), was an angle I had never considered.)
Now the surprise: Blank mentions, almost offhandedly, that in cultures without a concept of “romantic love,” people generally don’t experience it. I know it’s outside of her thesis, but I wish she had devoted a little more to this truth bomb, or at lest footnoted it with where to read more. I’ve tweeted her to ask; I’ll let you know if she gets back.
(Update: This review was originally published in May 2016 on Goodreads. The author has not gotten back to me.)
Blank really wants her relationship to be “queer.” I’m not here to police other people’s sexual identities, but as a queer woman without the option to “shelter under the sturdy roof of straightness,” it just made me uncomfortable. Her partner is assigned male at birth, identifies and lives as a man. Blank, as far as I know, is likewise assigned female, lives as a woman, and explicitly identifies herself as femme. But her partner is XXY intersex, which she claims makes them a queer couple. They might be two queer people in a couple, but that coupling is straight.
They weren’t, at publication, married, but in 2012, they could’ve if they wanted, anywhere in the country. I know her partner looks androgynous and sometimes is mistaken for a woman, but for social and legal reasons, they’re in a hetero relationship.
I had the same problem with this as with Blank’s other history of sexuality, Virgin: There was just not enough inclusion of queer issues and what was there was awkwardly worded and badly researched. I know her focus is on heterosexuality, but there was almost nothing about trans issues. I think the existence of trans people in opposite gender relationships (with cis or other trans people) is hugely relevant to a shifting understanding of what it means to be “heterosexual,” but the only two mentions were somewhat tragic.
For all Blank is an academic, she doesn’t have a good grasp of LGBT+ terminology: Billy Tipton was not “a woman.” Billy Tipton was a man. Blank’s assertion that he was discovered to be “a woman” is not a direct quote; a responsible researcher/reporter should have quoted that incorrect understanding and then corrected it. She also uses “transsexual” where “transgender” or just “trans” may have been more appropriate.
I knocked an entire star off of my rating for all of that.
Judging a Book by Its Cover
This isn’t really the kind of book that sells by its cover. It’s not quite as academic as I’d expect from a textbook, but it’s not as clever or funny as, say, Mary Roach’s Bonk. (It’s priced like a popular science book, not a textbook.) The cover design is completely unremarkable, but I imagine you’d have to have an interest in the topic before you picked it up, and not the other way around.
This book wasn’t a bad review of heterosexuality, pulling together a lot of background information in an illuminating way. This falls in an uncomfortable space between academic and popular; it’s too shallow to be an academic text, but too dry to be much fun as a popular text. Still, I learned a lot, so I can’t knock it.