Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: The Invention of Heterosexuality

[Jonathan Ned Katz. The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.]

It is perhaps a measure of a book's importance that it causes a stir when released but readers who encounter it years later wonder what all the fuss was about because its ideas have become common sense. Among the general public, the idea that sexuality is socially constructed would still probably be met with blank stares and then hostility, but there are (and I tend to inhabit) circles that one might label as lefty, para-academic, and queer-positive or queer where it's a pretty common ideas, even if there is little consensus about what it actually means. Given its status as a fairly key text in the development of such ideas, I was initially disappointed that I did not feel both more challenged and more changed by Invention, and that I was left feeling that a great deal remains to be said. In part, however, I think that is a measure of its success.

Katz sets himself a task that turns out to be simpler than it first appears. He is responding to the historical dominance but relative invisibility of heterosexuality. At the time of his writing, gay and lesbian historians had already made great strides in making visible the histories of people who have desired those of the same gender. However, despite various writings taking partial steps to problematize heterosexuality (by feminists, by early gay and lesbian liberationists, and by Michel Foucault, among others) it had remained remarkably resistant to even being seen let alone tagged as being in just as much need of explaining as homosexuality and then fully analyzed. Katz takes a simple approach: he traces the evolution of the term and associated concepts.

The story runs something like this: In the early 19th century, words (and even categories by other names) corresponding to hetero- and homosexuality did not exist. Rather, the EuroAmerican conceptual universe related to sexuality revolved around those acts which could result in reproduction and which were therefore "good", and those which could not result in reproduction regardless of the genders of the participants and which where therefore "bad." There was no conception of an other-gender-focused, pleasure-based eroticism that deserved to be honoured in its own right and which existed in contrast with (and domination over) a same-gender-focused eroticism associated with stigma and shame. That distinction came about in the late 19th century, probably before the actual words came into use, and seemingly related to the formation and development of the middle class. Initially, heterosexuality was not a gold star type-term that signalled something socially endorsed and the avoidance of perversion by its opposite, but was itself theorized by some as a perversion because it promoted eroticism for its own sake rather than strictly for reproductive purposes. However, by the second decade of the twentieth century, the conceptual framework that is still part of our Western commonsense was firmly in place.

Katz traces the evolution of the term and concept through Freud and other early modern theorists of sexuality, in the mainstream media and literature through the century, through the beginnings of its destabilization in a sampling of (white and middle-class) second wave liberal feminist, radical feminist, and lesbian feminist critique. I particularly appreciated the survey of feminist stuff, as a way of learning a little bit about a few writers I have heard of but whom I have never read. I also appreciated the glimpse of Freud, but I think I would have gotten more out of it if I had more of a grounding in his work already.

As I said, I am not someone who really needed much convincing of his basic thesis, and I was glad to have a chance to encounter this particular sort of evidence. However, I was disappointed that I was left with the feeling that the task had only been begun. I think this book leaves lots of room for analysis of other relevant texts and even more for exploration of the actual social organization and regulation of sexuality (admittedly a tall order when you are talking about history). I thought that perhaps Katz stated his conclusions more strongly than warranted by the evidence he presents in this volume, though not necessarily than the evidence accumulated before and since in the field will bear. I also felt he fell into an all too common hole in presenting a relatively shallow and simplistic entry into the discussion of how biology figures into things -- I've sort of come to expect that most blatant biology-determinists will refuse to engage at all with the social, but I really do think that those of us who do appreciate the significance of social construction would serve ourselves and our theories well by investing time in developing and articulating a more sophisticated treatment of biology. That treatment might not change a lot in theories like Katz's, but it would make those who read and supported them much better able to fend of simple, misguided, but often nonetheless effective-with-many attacks by bio-determinists.

(This actually makes me think of another book called Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (Edward Shorter, University of Toronto Press, 2005) which is just such a bio-determinist attack. I read it late in our stay in LA, I think, but, oddly for me, didn't finish it. I'm caricaturing a bit because the details have faded with time. It consisted of a rather interesting exploration of how desire has been written of in (Western) history. Each chapter consisted of an introduction containing some combination of attacks on social constructionist theories of sexuality (without actually describing them or engaging with them seriously, and sometimes misrepresenting them), snide remarks about radical and lesbian feminists from the early second wave, and generalizations about the march of Western history and "civilization" consistent with the associated orientalist, colonial, and self-indulgent ideas; then followed by interesting research and writing that mostly seemed to support social constructionism but were presented as if they did the opposite, which most readers would have to take the author's word for, which most lay readers would because he refuses to present the ideas he is opposing while his own position gets clearly articulated and is closer to most current commonsense anyway; and concluded by a recap of the introductory diatribe as if the research presented had proven his points. Like I said, I am caricaturing it, and I only read about 2/3 of it, but it was a very peculiar book.)

Invention remains an important book. If the idea of a socially constructed sexuality, including heterosexuality, is new to you, it's a great place to start. But if you want to know the issue in an exhaustive way -- and I certainly don't claim that I do -- this cannot be a one-stop way to do that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


J. David Zacko-Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Very interesting book review! I am a student of social constructionism (doctoral), and also a teacher, and am just getting into the social construction of sexuality (I've been using constructionism to examine other things like leadership), so I will have to check this one out! Any other suggestions? Great blog, too.

Scott said...

Hi David!

Sorry it took me a couple of days to get around to replying to this.

I'm glad you liked the review and found it useful. Like I said in the post, I'm no expert in the social construction of sexuality, but I can probably come up with a couple of titles off the top of my head.

The first big one would be Michel Foucault's work on the history of sexuality. Though she writes more about gender than sexuality per se, I don't think you can really deal with them separately, so Judith Butler would probably be useful. A useful early title in my own reading was The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities -- a lot of its specific historical content is Canadian, but if you don't mind that it is still quite conceptually interesting, and it is heavily referenced so could point you towards lots of other useful theory. (I should add as a disclaimer that I didn't know the author at the time, but in the last couple of years have been politically active with him on anti-poverty issues.) Ummm...I don't think there's a whole lot, but the academic-ish stuff the focuses on bisexuality tends to be very explicit in its refusal to see categories as given and natural, just because of the unstable place that bisexuality holds in the rigid gay/straight dichotomy. Ummmm...I haven't read any of it and I don't remember the authors or title, but there is something from the late '70s looking at gender in the context of ethnomethodology, which I think offers a more materialist kind of way of understanding the social construction of gender than the more discourse-focused stuff that Butler talks about.

That's just sort of a random brain-dump...hope some of it is useful to you!