Booked All Week

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The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz

with 14 comments

This book blew my mind a little bit, and I couldn’t be more pleased that it did!

In a very direct and easy-to-understand way, Katz takes a critical look at heterosexuality and finds that it’s not what many of us tend to believe: rather than timeless, inevitable, and categorically distinct from homosexuality, heterosexuality is a relatively new concept with specific cultural and historical limitations. This is not to say that different-sex love and attraction isn’t real and hasn’t always been real for a whole lot of people, but that the way in which we understand variations in sexual desire and experience is relatively new and very particular to our own time and place.

Because queer sexualities have been so thoroughly marginalized and discriminated against in Western culture’s recent history (and this book is specifically dealing with Western culture), the last centuries’ worth of activism has inspired a lot of academic work that aims for recognition by focusing on those sexualities which have been typically neglected or repressed by society at large. This work has been incredibly important and necessary for putting queer sexualities on the map but, Katz argues, the overwhelming focus on homosexuality and bisexuality reinforces the notion that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation that is so natural and normal that it doesn’t warrant investigation. The Invention of Heterosexuality is his attempt to challenge this deeply held assumption.

Katz starts by looking at the way the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality emerged together in the mid-to-late Victorian era as descriptions of pathologies. As the new middle-class grew, they looked for ways to distinguish themselves from what they considered the lascivious working classes AND the decadent upper classes. Re-evaluating sexual norms gave them a way to do this, and one of the ways they represented their new class status was through virtuosic sexual restraint and stricter sexual morality (though they were not in practice as sexually repressed as we often think of them now!). In order to define appropriate sexual behavior, though, they had to name what was considered inappropriate.

Heterosexuality was the term applied to men and women who had sex for pleasure or for any reason other than procreation. As women were seen as basically asexual (or hypersexual if lower class, non-European, any race but white, or inclined to pathological behavior), the history of heterosexuality has, since the beginning, developed along many entirely different trajectories dependent on intersecting lines of race, class, and gender*. Homosexuality was named as similarly deviant, but homosexual and heterosexual behaviors were not mutually exclusive, nor was it assumed that someone with either predilection had anything fundamentally in common with any other who shared it. These sexualities had yet to become “opposites”mediated by bisexuality, and they did not yet connote identity. That came later, with Freud, who actively normalized sex for pleasure by demonizing homosexuality and forcing them into two distinct and incompatible categories of desire. It was only at the expense of homosexuality that he was able to justify the dominance of heterosexuality and convince mainstream society that heterosexuality was normal and even desirable. Of course, Freud was incredibly influential and is responsible for much of what we think about sexuality today.

Only then, after discussing Freud, does Katz ask what kind of systems for thinking about differences in sexuality existed before. He finds that in pretty much all eras, there were systems of categorization that were organized around polarities; but again, one could engage in behaviors aligned with both poles and their sexual desires and actions had no bearing on them as people (meaning their character, personality, etc). He uses the obvious example of the ancient Greeks, who considered sexuality along the lines of Earthly love and Heavenly love. Those driven by the urges of Earthly love found satisfaction in men and women, whereas those who aspired to Heavenly love were drawn to those who exhibited most intensely the ideals of their culture: young men. Men, at least, often engaged both forms of attraction. A less expected example, though, was colonial America, where sexual desire and behavior was understood as being Fruitful or Barren. Adultery and sodomy occupied the same category of behavior, then, since neither was engaged for the purpose of bearing children (although because adultery laws were mainly concerned with protecting women as property, this is one of those areas in which this categorization played out in very different ways for men and women).

Some of his examples did seem questionable because he didn’t offer much context within which to judge his claims, though to be fair that context wasn’t necessarily within the scope of his book. There are too many gaps in my own knowledge to challenge him on anything, and though I do have a hunch that a lot of what he said was really over-simplified, it didn’t really detract from Katz’s main point–at least for me. Katz’s book inspires an overhaul of large and deeply ingrained concepts and forces us to confront their ever-changing nature so that we must ask ourselves: what might a better understanding of sexuality look like in the future?

*Sometimes it was difficult to know how much of what Katz was saying transcended multiple trajectories and which were likely to apply only to white men, so I wish that he’d gone a little more in depth about this.

Written by Emily Jane

October 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm

14 Responses

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  1. This sounds like a really interesting book! Reminds me of The Straight State which talks about how US policy helped really to form our current understandings of heterosexuality. Here is the link to my review:


    October 24, 2011 at 12:41 am

    • Yeah! I remember your review, The Straight State was added to my to-read list immediately and sadly lingers there still. I bet the two would compliment each other nicely!

      Emily Jane

      October 24, 2011 at 12:56 am

  2. How interesting! I added another book that sounds similar to my wishlist the other day – Straight by Hanne Blank (who wrote Virgin: The Untouched History, which I loved). I hope to get to one of the two before long (or to the one Amy suggested), as they sound like they raise all sorts of pertinent questions.


    October 24, 2011 at 11:55 am

    • Oooh, both of those sound great too! i can’t wait to hear about them, and am adding them to my wish list right now 🙂

      Emily Jane

      October 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  3. I love it when I learn stuff from a review! I had absolutely no idea about how heterosexuality was defined in Victorian times and changed with Freud. That will inform the way I talk about things from now on.

    Joy Weese Moll

    October 24, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    • I had no idea either, Joy! Truly fascinating stuff. I haven’t stopped talking about it since I read it, haha.

      Emily Jane

      October 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  4. I found that interesting, too. Particularly the bearing it has on classic literature. I am never entirely sure that I believe what I think I know about Victorian sexuality!


    October 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    • Sheesh, neither am I, Sarah–it’s so deceptively complicated. My next post is going to be on an equally awesome and interesting book specifically about Victorian women’s sexuality, though, which helped make sense of a lot, and totally changes the way I think about Victorian literature! Would love to hear your thoughts once I finally get around to writing about it.

      Emily Jane

      October 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm

  5. This sounds fascinating; thanks for the great post. I’m always beset by a little bit of wistfulness when I read about the Victorian-era formation of our modern sexual categories. There was a historical moment in which we had the opportunity to veer in a (to me) much more more balanced, less identity-based direction, and, like reading Shakespearean tragedy, I always hope it will turn out differently even though I know the ending. Or at least I know the middle, through which we’re living right now. Anyway, thanks for putting this book on my radar.

    • It really is Emily, and thank you! And yes, the more I know about this Victorian-era formation, as you say (and there’s still so much more to know), I feel the same way. It also feels great, though, to learn about these formations because seeing the exact progression of their construction really reinforces the notion that they can and will be changed again and are in fact always changing–hopefully in a direction that better suits us all!

      Emily Jane

      October 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  6. Very interesting. the intersection of Victorian “morals” and middle-class aspirations have wreaked havoc an quite a bit our conceptions on humanity and its practices. Not to mention Freud! I’m glad that such a book exists and that people are researching these issues. thank you for such an insightful and comprehensive review.


    November 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    • I agree Kinna! I’m also glad the book exists and that people are doing research about these things. Happy to hear that the review was helpful 🙂

      Emily Jane

      November 5, 2011 at 2:32 am

  7. […] was published in the ’80′s and is also on my wish list. It was the perfect follow-up to The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz as it can almost serve as a case study in support of his larger […]

  8. […] The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz […]

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