Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heterosexuality Is Unnatural, no matter what Sex Essentialists say

What follows is a book review from Achille's Heel: The Radical Men's Magazine

The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz

Twelve years ago, Gore Vidal asserted that "there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or hetero acts." He repeats this hypothesis in an argumentative foreword to Ned Katz's book. But Katz seeks to dig deeper than this and questions the assumptions that lead us to divide people, acts, relationships and feelings into binary opposites. Starting with the first appearance in the United States of the word hetero-sexual, in 1893, he shows how it has moved from its original medical definition to its use in describing "normal", different-sex eroticism.

The original definition is important in the argument that Katz develops. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attempts were made to identify and name various deviations from the procreative norm. "Hetero-sexuality" described one type of non-procreative perversion involving different-sex desire. Erotic attraction was seen as a healthy sexual instinct when procreation was its aim, but not if it involved only the satisfaction of lustful impulses. It was these drives and impulses that were taken up by Freud, from 1905 onwards, in the development of his theories of sexuality.

It is difficult to imagine a time before knowledge of the powerful concepts and images that Freud put before us. Katz shows how the presumption of a predominantly male, heterosexual norm pervaded Freud's writing, creating an assumption of the biological and historical roots of the hetero/homo divide. In a similar way, Freud displaced the procreative norm and replaced it with the concept of sexual libido and its satisfaction.

In terms of individual development, the choice of sexual object (same- or opposite-sex) was not fixed or restricted, but Freud made it clear that a heterosexual outcome would be both normal and preferred. Homosexuality is seen as "fixated" and "immature" and an undesirable developmental outcome. This impression of an essential, historical and biological truth focussed negative attention on abnormal homosexuality. More importantly, it directed attention away from the heterosexual norm. Katz invites us to check the relative invisibility of discourse on heterosexuality by browsing the indices of relevant seminal texts. As an example, he cites the standard index to Freud's complete works. This contains only one reference to heterosexuality but more than a column of references to homosexuality. Katz goes on to show how heterosexuality grew rapidly from a preferred developmental outcome into a universal, cultural norm. He places Gore Vidal's distinction between persons and acts as post-Kinsey in that Alfred Kinsey's research, reported in "Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male" (1948), described a range of behaviour and practice that did not fit neatly into exclusively homo- or heterocategories.

In the same decade, the words "gay" and "straight" were being used as descriptions of sexual identity, with "straight" meaning "not homosexual". The concept of a gay or lesbian identity and the growth of identity politics have been instrumental in affirming the feelings and lifestyles of those who are glad to be gay. Ned Katz recognises the importance of this movement, but is pessimistic about its potential in the breaking down of the heterosexual norm.

Acceptance of genetically-determined sexual orientation is compared with similar biological "evidence" used to justify the practices of slavery, racism and sexism. Rather than argue on these grounds, he sees a way forward, through a focus on what is held in common and not through an emphasis on what makes us different from each other. His model for this is based on challenges to the dominant male, heterosexual culture posed by liberal, radical and lesbian feminists since the early 1960s. Katz draws together the strands of a feminist de-construction of heterosexuality, from Betty Friedan's dissatisfaction with arbitrary sexual designations, placing limits on women's potential, to Adrienne Rich's explicit criticism, in the early 1980s, of institutionalised heterosexuality.

Katz looks forward to a time when homo- and hetero- distinctions will become redundant. As Lisa Duggan points out in her afterword, this is bound to make some readers uncomfortable, if not downright hostile.

Conservative "essentialists" will perceive an attack against the institutions of marriage and the family. On the other hand, those working for lesbian and gay rights may feel that their position is undermined and that it is better to argue for equality on the basis of gains already made. Katz and Duggan both suggest that an acceptance of "difference" can lead, at best, to a state of tolerance, whereas true equality can only come if we "change the notion that heterosexuality is normal for the vast majority of people, and shift social, cultural and political practices based on that assumption".

Ned Katz's main aim in this book is to focus attention and to encourage debate on the problem of heterosexuality. In this respect, he has produced a valuable resource. "The Invention of Heterosexuality" distils almost fifteen years of discussion, research and writing. It contains a wealth of notes and references that will provide an excellent platform for further study. But, above all, this is an essential read and a fascinating journey through the sexual politics of the 20th century.

Andrew Martin

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