Invention of Heterosexuality | Queer History


Publishing early since I’ll be out all day! Enjoy!

(Credit: Alamy)

What if I told you… Heterosexuality didn’t exist until 1934?

Hello and welcome back! I’m being slightly silly. Heterosexuality as we know it today didn’t exist until 1934. The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than twenty years later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; ‘normal’ sexuality.” You know how people always talk about “the rise of the homosexual?” We can pinpoint when homosexuality came into existence in human history. The same thing happened for heterosexuality. The reason why people don’t think about this is because heterosexuality seems “normal” and has always just been there. The problem here is that people assume that heterosexuality equals reproductive intercourse. News flash: it doesn’t.

Obviously, different-genital intercourse has been around as long as humans have been. However. Queer theorist David Halperin at the University of Michigan wrote, “Sex has no history” because it’s “grounded in the functioning of the body.” But sexuality does have a history, because it’s a “cultural production.” Another way of saying this: there have always been sexual instincts throughout the animal world (sex). But at a specific point in time, humans attached meaning to these instincts (sexuality). When humans talk about heterosexuality, we’re talking about the second thing. Prior to 1868, there were no heterosexuals. Neither were there homosexuals. It hadn’t yet occurred to humans that they might be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced.” Sexual behaviors, of course, were identified and catalogued, and often times, forbidden. But the emphasis was always on the act, not the agent. So what changed? Language.(Credit: Wikimedia Commons) In the late 1860s, Hungarian journalist Karl Kertbeny coined four terms to describe sexual experiences and two of them were heterosexual and homosexual. Kertbeny used the term “heterosexual” a decade later when he was asked to write a book chapter arguing for the decriminalization of homosexuality. The editor, Gustav Jager, decided not to publish it, but he ended up using Kertbeny’s novel term in a book he later published in 1880. In the Western world, long before sex acts were separated into the categories hetero/homo, there was a different ruling binary: procreative or non-procreative. The Bible, for instance, condemns homosexual intercourse for the same reason it condemns masturbation: because life-bearing seed is wasted in the act. While it was mainly reinforced by Christianity and Judaism, this ethic actually came from Stoicism. Stoics argued that sex could only be moral in the pursuit of procreation. Early Christian theologians took up this conjugal-reproductive ethic, and by the time of Augustine, reproductive sex was the only normal sex.

The article I drew from goes on to discuss Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German psychiatrist, and his work in defining sexual love and what was “normal.” It also discusses about how the invention of heterosexuality corresponds with the rise of the middle class and seemingly increasing degeneracy. This was when cities were exploding in size in the 19th century. It wouldn’t be an article/video without mentioning Freud and his psychosexual theory of development, which is really messed up but was happily accepted as the explanation for “normal” sexuality. So bizarre. Kinsey is also mentioned, and his work in defining the spectrum of sexuality which reinforced the idea that sexuality was between two ends. I’ll quote from the article here: “Once upon a time, heterosexuality was necessary because modern humans needed to prove who they were and why they were, and they needed to defend their right to be where they were. As time wears on, that label seems to actually limit the myriad ways we humans understand our desires and loves and fears.” The article closes out with this: “The line between heterosexuality and homosexuality isn’t just blurry, as some take Kinsey’s research to imply – it’s an invention, a myth, and an outdated one. Men and women will continue to have different-genital sex with each other until the human species is no more. But heterosexuality – as a social marker, as a way of life, as an identity – may well die out long before then.”

And with that, I will end for today. I found this article a while ago, and had been saving it for a good time. There’s so much more in the article that I left out, and it is a bit of a long read, but worth it! There’s a book that it mentions called “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.” The article often draws from it, but I want to read it in full! Okay, I hope you enjoyed this post.

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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