When I began work on my book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, I often got teased by friends who wondered whether, in working on the history of something so commonplace, I was going to come across anything that wasn’t already common knowledge. Surely, they thought, it would all be very straightforward, very vanilla, very Leave It to Beaver, and if there were anything in there they didn’t already know about, they’d be surprised.
As it turned out, this was far from true. The history of heterosexuality is actually a motherlode of remarkable and sometimes deeply strange stuff, from the broad-brush conceptual to the kinds of tidbits you add to your cocktail-party repertoire. Not only does the history of heterosexuality offer up surprises that make you rethink what “heterosexual” is and means, it also makes you realize how little we really know about this thing about which most of us assume we already know everything we need to. The following are 10 of my personal favorites.
The words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were coined on this day in a letter written by Austro-Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny to the German legal eagle and proto-gay rights crusader Karl Ulrichs. Technically speaking, before that fateful Wednesday, it was impossible for anyone in the world to be either a heterosexual or a homosexual, because the words didn’t exist yet. Image by torisan3500 on Flickr.com
Married American women didn’t gain full legal control over their own financial assets until after this landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1981. In overturning “head and master” laws that gave husbands a legal upper hand over financial decision making within marriages, this decision finally made it illegal for a husband like Louisianan Joan Feenstra’s, awaiting trial for sexually molesting his daughter, to decide to do something classy like mortgage the house for which his wife had paid in order to pay his legal bills. (And no, that date’s not a typo: 1981.)
Image by Ernst Vikne on Flickr.com
The ideal that men and women should have mutually orgasmic sex developed during the same time period as the idea of “heterosexuality” did, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This novel notion helped establish the new notion of distinctively “heterosexual” desire and pleasure as scientific and medically proper.
By 1922 , Dr. Walter Robie would write that married coitus had to be “mutually pleasurable and simultaneously climactic… if it is to be scientifically correct.”
Never mind the question of whether there’s such a thing as distinctively “gay genes” or “gay brains”; we don’t even know if there’s such a thing as straight ones. Physical and biomedical science have yet to define or even confirm the empirical existence of heterosexuality… no one’s ever even tried.
This means that scientific research being conducted on the question of what makes people gay is being done without a properly characterized control to compare with. That’s bad science.
Image by Liz Henry on Flickr.com
Though men and women have engaged in various forms of non-intercourse sexual activity since time immemorial, the idea that there was a necessary opening act to sexual intercourse called “foreplay” is something we owe to Sigmund Freud and a handful of other psychologists and medical types around the turn of the 20th century.
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