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Until I fell in love with my partner, Hanna, I generally conceptualized myself as “mostly straight.” This was because, despite the passionate friendships I formed with female friends and the way lesbian sexual fantasies made me go all squishy with excitement, I didn’t feel I was queer enough to be considered authentically out of bounds of straightness. And I passively imagined that, given the statistical odds, chances were I’d fall in love with a person who was a cisgendered man (although I wouldn’t have used the term “cisgendered” back then).

Then Hanna came along, and I realized I was falling for her, and then we were together, a couple in the world, and I had to develop a whole new vocabulary for talking about myself: “mostly straight” no longer felt accurate. But was I lesbian? bisexual? fluid? queer? Should I articulate my sexuality in terms of my kinky fantasies? The gender identity and sexual orientation of my partner? The aggregate attractions I’ve felt but never acted upon for people across the gender and sexuality spectrum? If I’m a person who’s felt squishy feelings for people who identify as male, female, trans, gay, bi, straight, and numerous combinations of the above … how meaningful is it to try and identify something inherently personal (one’s subjective sense of self) in terms of the objects of my affection (which are multivarient, ever-changing). In a strange way, the language I choose to speak of myself has an effect on the identities of anyone I’ve ever felt the thrill of sexual excitement over.

It’s a social dilemma that, three years later, I’ve yet to resolve. These days, when filling out forms I go for the string-of-words approach. The form asks Sexual Orientation? I respond: “lesbian/bisexual/fluid” or the like. Check boxes be damned. In a pinch, “bisexual” is probably the best catch-all (I register attraction to people of multiple gender expressions and sex identities). In biomedical terms, “lesbian” is probably the most accurate in that I’m in a monogamous relationship with a cisgendered woman — so our medical needs will be those of women who have sex exclusively with women. But that isn’t all of who I am — or who my partner is, for that matter, since she identifies as bisexual. “Fluid” helps capture some of the contextual nature of my sexual desires, and my sense of personal change over time. But will provide little information to my primary care provider that “lesbian” doesn’t already communicate — with much less room for confusion.

When blogging or speaking informally, I’ll use lesbian, dyke, bi, gay, queer, fluid, or sometimes opt for phrasing that’s less about who I am and more about what I do: “As someone in a lesbian relationship…,” “As someone who’s partnered with another woman …”

Hanne Blank, in her recently-published (long anticipated!) Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2012) recounts similar dilemmas of self-identification as the partner of a male-identified person whose markers of sex and gender are, nonetheless, all over the biological map due to having been born with XXY chromosomes. The author of Virgin: An Untouched History returns to historical and cultural notions of human sexuality in an effort to illuminate what we mean when we talk about “heterosexual” or “straight” identity. As with “virgin,” the answer turns out to be murky at best. The concept of an individual whose identity or nature was built, at least in part, around an exclusive attraction to “opposite”-sexed partners and activities, only came into being in relation to the study of non-normative or “deviant” sexual behavior during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even after the term came into common usage, virtually no research has been done — scientific or otherwise — on heterosexual sexuality. We don’t know how the bodies of heterosexuals differ from those of non-heterosexuals, for example. Research on homosexuality suggests there is no marker of sexual orientation on the body, but no one has ever asked the question “How are heterosexual bodies composed?” Scientists studying non-heterosexuality always assume they know the normal against which they are measuring the non-normal. Yet this assumption is never spelled out, and its markers are never articulated. As Blank writes:

Scientists often look for evidence of non-heterosexuality, what we consider the exception to the rule, while assuming that the heterosexual rule itself requires no evidence. Scientifically speaking, this is precisely backwards. In science, it should technically not be possible to even begin considering whether there might be exceptions to a rule until you have proven that the rule exists (42-43).

The reason why we’ve never inquired into the existence of heterosexuality is that, culturally speaking, it is a category of being that has become commonsensical, so self-evident in our minds that we measure every other sexuality in relation to it. There is power in a category so constructed as simultaneously normative and empty of actual definition. Blank compares heterosexuality to the concept of being not a person of color or not a slut. “Nameless and characterless, the space we can loosely categorize as ‘normal’ is almost completely undefined,” she writes (32):

This is why ‘slut’ and ‘prude, ‘pervert’ and ‘deviant’ all work so well as insults and as ways to police the boundaries of sex doxa [an anthropological term meaning “what everyone knows to be true”]. The labels are effortless to deploy, and hard, even impossible, to defend against … The opposite of ‘slut’ is someone who has not been labeled a slut, someone who has never been charged with violating doxa (32).

If there is a weakness in Straight it is the emphasis on marriage and reproduction as signs of heterosexual identity. I understand why Blank draws upon these cultural examples of heterosexual life — both marriage and parenting are more social activities than, typically, sexual behavior. People are far more likely to record instances of the former rather than the latter. So from an historical perspective, research on heterosexuality will end up documenting those outward signs with much more confidence than it will what people actually did with their bits (and how they felt about doing it). Unless people talk about their sexual self-identities, it’s hard to do more than catalog instances in which sexual acts were recorded — and those acts were usually the ones considered deviant, exceptional, worthy or note or censure.

Still, other books have been written in recent years on the history of marriage, and I felt myself starting to skim in hopes of more discussion of sexological research and taxonomy, a more inventive backward reading from those instances of “deviance” toward what people considered not-deviant. Some of that does appear in the pages of Straight, but I found myself wishing Blank’s editor had pushed her to include less of the well-trodden history of marital practice and more of the specifically sexual practices that fell within the bounds of the acceptable. She does argue, at one point, that “penis-in-vagina intercourse is the only source of sexual pleasure that has never, so far as we can tell from the historical record, has never been challenged … the fortunes of all other sex acts and all other sources of sexual pleasure, have varied widely” (124). I would have liked to see that assertion expanded on, to have these boundaries of sexual activity discussed in relation to the notion of sexual identity in historical understanding. In the 1890s, for example, would a husband and wife who practiced cunnilingus and fellatio with one another been categorized as “normal-sexual” in the eyes of the early sexologists? Blank leaves much of that open to further discussion — which may, I admit, have been her intent.

In the end, Blank has written yet another accessible survey of a sexual concept we think we all know and instead, it turns out, we know little about. I hope the liveliness of her prose and the concrete examples she provides of individuals who defy our binary sex, gender, and sexual categories (man/woman, gay/straight, cis/trans) will encourage people who may not have thought human sexuality in such complex terms to revisit their assumptions and look at their own identities and behaviors with new, and perhaps more forgiving and expansive, eyes.