5 The Invention of Heterosexuality
Jonathan Ned Katz
Heterosexuality is old as procreation, ancient as the lust of Eve and Adam. That
first lady and gentleman, we assume, perceived themselves, behaved, and felt just
like todayâ€™s heterosexuals. We suppose that heterosexuality is unchanging, universal,
Contrary to that common sense conjecture, the concept of heterosexuality is only
one particular historical way of perceiving, categorizing, and imagining the social
relations of the sexes. Not ancient at all, the idea of heterosexuality is a modern
invention, dating to the late nineteenth century. The heterosexual belief, with its
metaphysical claim to eternity, has a particular, pivotal place in the social universe of
the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that it did not inhabit earlier. This essay
traces the historical process by which the heterosexual idea was created as ahistorical
and taken- for- granted. . . .
By not studying the heterosexual idea in history, analysts of sex, gay and straight,
have continued to privilege the â€œnormalâ€ and â€œnaturalâ€ at the expense of the â€œabnormalâ€ and â€œunnatural.â€ Such privileging of the norm accedes to its domination, protecting it from questions. By making the normal the object of a thoroughgoing historical
study we simultaneously pursue a pure truth and a sex- radical and subversive goal:
we upset basic preconceptions. We discover that the heterosexual, the normal, and
the natural have a history of changing definitions. Studying the history of the term
challenges its power.
Contrary to our usual assumption, past Americans and other peoples named,
perceived, and socially organized the bodies, lusts, and intercourse of the sexes in
ways radically different from the way we do. If we care to understand this vast past
sexual diversity, we need to stop promiscuously projecting our own hetero and homo
arrangement. Though lip- service is often paid to the distorting, ethnocentric effect
of such conceptual imperialism, the category heterosexuality continues to be applied
uncritically as a universal analytical tool. Recognizing the time- bound and culturallyspecific character of the heterosexual category can help us begin to work toward a
thoroughly historical view of sex. . . .
Iâ€™m grateful to Lisa Duggan, Judith Levine, Sharon Thompson, Carole S. Vance, and Jeffrey Weeks
for comments on a recent version of this manuscript, and to Manfred Herzer and his editor, John
DeCecco, for sharing, prepublication, Herzerâ€™s most recent research on Kertbeny. Iâ€™m also indebted
to John Gagnon, Philip Greven, and Catharine R. Stimpson for bravely supporting my (unsuccessful) attempts to fund research for a full- length study of heterosexual history.
From Socialist Review, 20 ( Januaryâ€“ March 1990): 7â€“34. Copyright Â© 1990 by Jonathan Ned Katz.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
48 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
Before Heterosexuality: Early Victorian
True Love, 1820â€“1860
In the early nineteenth- century United States, from about 1820 to 1860, the
heterosexual did not exist. Middle- class white Americans idealized a True Womanhood, True Manhood, and True Love, all characterized by â€œpurityâ€â€”the freedom from
Presented mainly in literary and religious texts, this True Love was a fine
romance with no lascivious kisses. This ideal contrasts strikingly with late nineteenthand twentieth- century American incitements to a hetero sex.*
Early Victorian True Love was only realized within the mode of proper procreation,
marriage, the legal organization for producing a new set of correctly gendered women and
men. Proper womanhood, manhood, and progenyâ€” not a normal male- female erosâ€” was
the main product of this mode of engendering and of human reproduction.
The actors in this sexual economy were identified as manly men and womanly
women and as procreators, not specifically as erotic beings or heterosexuals. Eros did
not constitute the core of a heterosexual identity that inhered, democratically, in both
men and women. True Women were defined by their distance from lust. True Men,
though thought to live closer to carnality, and in less control of it, aspired to the same
freedom from concupiscence.
Legitimate natural desire was for procreation and a proper manhood or womanhood;
no heteroerotic desire was thought to be directed exclusively and naturally toward the
other sex; lust in men was roving. The human body was thought of as a means towards
procreation and production; penis and vagina were instruments of reproduction, not of
pleasure. Human energy, thought of as a closed and severely limited system, was to be used
in producing children and in work, not wasted in libidinous pleasures.
The location of all this engendering and procreative labor was the sacred sanctum
of early Victorian True Love, the home of the True Woman and True Manâ€” a temple
of purity threatened from within by the monster masturbator, an archetypal early
Victorian cult figure of illicit lust. The home of True Love was a castle far removed
from the erotic exotic ghetto inhabited most notoriously then by the prostitute,
another archetypal Victorian erotic monster. . . .
Late Victorian Sex- Love: 1860â€“1892
â€œHeterosexualityâ€ and â€œhomosexualityâ€ did not appear out of the blue in the 1890s.
These two eroticisms were in the making from the 1860s on. In late Victorian America and in Germany, from about 1860 to 1892, our modern idea of an eroticized
universe began to develop, and the experience of a heterolust began to be widely
documented and named. . . .
*Some historians have recently told us to revise our idea of sexless Victorians: their experience and
even their ideology, it is said, were more erotic than we previously thought. Despite the revisionists,
I argue that â€œpurityâ€ was indeed the dominant, early Victorian, white middle-class standard. For the
debate on Victorian sexuality see John Dâ€™Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of
Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xii.
5 Katz / The Invention of Heterosexuality 49
In the late nineteenth- century United States, several social factors converged to cause
the eroticizing of consciousness, behavior, emotion, and identity that became typical
of the twentieth- century Western middle class. The transformation of the family from
producer to consumer unit resulted in a change in family membersâ€™ relation to their own
bodies; from being an instrument primarily of work, the human body was integrated into
a new economy, and began more commonly to be perceived as a means of consumption
and pleasure. Historical work has recently begun on how the biological human body
is differently integrated into changing modes of production, procreation, engendering,
and pleasure so as to alter radically the identity, activity, and experience of that body.2
The growth of a consumer economy also fostered a new pleasure ethic. This imperative
challenged the early Victorian work ethic, finally helping to usher in a major transformation of values. While the early Victorian work ethic had touted the value of economic
production, that eraâ€™s procreation ethic had extolled the virtues of human reproduction.
In contrast, the late Victorian economic ethic hawked the pleasures of consuming, while
its sex ethic praised an erotic pleasure principle for men and even for women.
In the late nineteenth century, the erotic became the raw material for a new consumer culture. Newspapers, books, plays, and films touching on sex, â€œnormalâ€ and
â€œabnormal,â€ became available for a price. Restaurants, bars, and baths opened, catering to sexual consumers with cash. Late Victorian entrepreneurs of desire incited the
proliferation of a new eroticism, a commoditized culture of pleasure.
In these same years, the rise in power and prestige of medical doctors allowed
these upwardly mobile professionals to prescribe a healthy new sexuality. Medical men, in the name of science, defined a new ideal of male- female relationships
that included, in women as well as men, an essential, necessary, normal eroticism.
Doctors, who had earlier named and judged the sex- enjoying woman a â€œnymphomaniac,â€ now began to label womenâ€™s lack of sexual pleasure a mental disturbance,
speaking critically, for example, of female â€œfrigidityâ€ and â€œanesthesia.â€*
By the 1880s, the rise of doctors as a professional group fostered the rise of a new medical model of Normal Love, replete with sexuality. The new Normal Woman and Man were
endowed with a healthy libido. The new theory of Normal Love was the modern medical
alternative to the old Cult of True Love. The doctors prescribed a new sexual ethic as if
it were a morally neutral, medical description of health. The creation of the new Normal
Sexual had its counterpart in the invention of the late Victorian Sexual Pervert. The attention paid the sexual abnormal created a need to name the sexual normal, the better to
distinguish the average him and her from the deviant it.
Heterosexuality: The First Years, 1892â€“1900
In the periodization of heterosexual American history suggested here, the years 1892
to 1900 represent â€œThe First Yearsâ€ of the heterosexual epoch, eight key years in which
the idea of the heterosexual and homosexual were initially and tentatively formulated
*This reference to females reminds us that the invention of heterosexuality had vastly different impacts on the histories of women and men. It also differed in its impact on lesbians and heterosexual
women, homosexual and heterosexual men, the middle class and working class, and on different
religious, racial, national, and geographic groups.
50 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
by U.S. doctors. The earliest- known American use of the word â€œheterosexualâ€ occurs
in a medical journal article by Dr. James G. Kiernan of Chicago, read before the cityâ€™s
medical society on March 7, 1892, and published that Mayâ€” portentous dates in
But Dr. Kiernanâ€™s heterosexuals were definitely not exemplars of normality. Heterosexuals, said Kiernan, were defined by a mental condition, â€œpsychical
hermaphroditism.â€ Its symptoms were â€œinclinations to both sexes.â€ These heterodox
sexuals also betrayed inclinations â€œto abnormal methods of gratification,â€ that is,
techniques to insure pleasure without procreation. Dr. Kiernanâ€™s heterogeneous sexuals did demonstrate â€œtraces of the normal sexual appetiteâ€ (a touch of procreative
desire). Kiernanâ€™s normal sexuals were implicitly defined by a monolithic other- sex
inclination and procreative aim. Significantly, they still lacked a name.
Dr. Kiernanâ€™s article of 1892 also included one of the earliest- known uses of the
word â€œhomosexualâ€ in American English. Kiernan defined â€œPure homosexualsâ€ as
persons whose â€œgeneral mental state is that of the opposite sex.â€ Kiernan thus defined
homosexuals by their deviance from a gender norm. His heterosexuals displayed a
double deviance from both gender and procreative norms.
Though Kiernan used the new words heterosexual and homosexual, an old
procreative standard and a new gender norm coexisted uneasily in his thought. His
word heterosexual defined a mixed person and compound urge, abnormal because
they wantonly included procreative and non- procreative objectives, as well as samesex and different- sex attractions.
That same year, 1892, Dr. Krafft- Ebingâ€™s influential Psychopathia Sexualis was first
translated and published in the United States.4
But Kiernan and Krafft- Ebing by no
means agreed on the definition of the heterosexual. In Krafft- Ebingâ€™s book, â€œ heterosexualâ€ was used unambiguously in the modern sense to refer to an erotic feeling for
a different sex. â€œ Homo- sexualâ€ referred unambiguously to an erotic feeling for a â€œsame
sex.â€ In Krafft- Ebingâ€™s volume, unlike Kiernanâ€™s article, heterosexual and homosexual
were clearly distinguished from a third category, a â€œ psycho- sexual hermaphroditism,â€
defined by impulses toward both sexes.
Krafft- Ebing hypothesized an inborn â€œsexual instinctâ€ for relations with the
â€œopposite sex,â€ the inherent â€œpurposeâ€ of which was to foster procreation. KrafftEbingâ€™s erotic drive was still a reproductive instinct. But the doctorâ€™s clear focus on
a different- sex versus same- sex sexuality constituted a historic, epochal move from
an absolute procreative standard of normality toward a new norm. His definition of
heterosexuality as other- sex attraction provided the basis for a revolutionary, modern
break with a centuries- old procreative standard.
It is difficult to overstress the importance of that new way of categorizing. The
Germanâ€™s mode of labeling was radical in referring to the biological sex, masculinity or femininity, and the pleasure of actors (along with the procreant purpose of
acts). Krafft- Ebingâ€™s heterosexual offered the modern world a new norm that came to
dominate our idea of the sexual universe, helping to change it from a mode of human
reproduction and engendering to a mode of pleasure. The heterosexual category provided the basis for a move from a production- oriented, procreative imperative to a
consumerist pleasure principleâ€” an institutionalized pursuit of happiness. . . .
Only gradually did doctors agree that heterosexual referred to a normal, â€œ othersexâ€ eros. This new standard- model heterosex provided the pivotal term for the modern regularization of eros that paralleled similar attempts to standardize masculinity
and femininity, intelligence, and manufacturing.5
The idea of heterosexuality as the
master sex from which all others deviated was (like the idea of the master race)
deeply authoritarian. The doctorsâ€™ normalization of a sex that was hetero proclaimed
a new heterosexual separatismâ€” an erotic apartheid that forcefully segregated the sex
normals from the sex perverts. The new, strict boundaries made the emerging erotic
world less polymorphousâ€” safer for sex normals. However, the idea of such creatures
as heterosexuals and homosexuals emerged from the narrow world of medicine to
become a commonly accepted notion only in the early twentieth century. In 1901, in
the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, â€œheterosexualâ€ and â€œhomosexualâ€ had
not yet made it.
The Distribution of the Heterosexual
In the early years of this heterosexual century the tentative hetero hypothesis was
stabilized, fixed, and widely distributed as the ruling sexual orthodoxy: The Heterosexual Mystique. Starting among pleasure- affirming urban working- class youths,
southern blacks, and Greenwich- Village bohemians as defensive subculture, heterosex soon triumphed as dominant culture.6
In its earliest version, the twentieth- century heterosexual imperative usually
continued to associate heterosexuality with a supposed human â€œneed,â€ â€œdrive,â€ or
â€œinstinctâ€ for propagation, a procreant urge linked inexorably with carnal lust as
it had not been earlier. In the early twentieth century, the falling birth rate, rising
divorce rate, and â€œwar of the sexesâ€ of the middle class were matters of increasing
public concern. Giving vent to heteroerotic emotions was thus praised as enhancing
baby- making capacity, marital intimacy, and family stability. (Only many years later,
in the mid- 1960s, would heteroeroticism be distinguished completely, in practice
and theory, from procreativity and male- female pleasure sex justified in its own
The first part of the new sex normâ€” heteroâ€” referred to a basic gender divergence.
The â€œoppositenessâ€ of the sexes was alleged to be the basis for a universal, normal,
erotic attraction between males and females. The stress on the sexesâ€™ â€œoppositeness,â€
which harked back to the early nineteenth century, by no means simply registered
biological differences of females and males. The early twentieth- century focus on
physiological and gender dimorphism reflected the deep anxieties of men about the
shifting work, social roles, and power of men over women, and about the ideals of
womanhood and manhood. That gender anxiety is documented, for example, in
1897, in The New York Timesâ€™ publication of the Reverend Charles Parkhurstâ€™s diatribe
against female â€œandromaniacs,â€ the preacherâ€™s derogatory, scientific- sounding name
for women who tried to â€œminimize distinctions by which manhood and womanhood
5 Katz / The Invention of Heterosexuality 51
52 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
The stress on gender difference was a conservative response to the
changing social- sexual division of activity and feeling which gave rise to the independent â€œNew Womanâ€ of the 1880s and eroticized â€œFlapperâ€ of the 1920s.
The second part of the new hetero norm referred positively to sexuality. That novel
upbeat focus on the hedonistic possibilities of male- female conjunctions also reflected
a social transformationâ€” a revaluing of pleasure and procreation, consumption and
work in commercial, capitalist society. The democratic attribution of a normal lust to
human females (as well as males) served to authorize womenâ€™s enjoyment of their own
bodies and began to undermine the early Victorian idea of the pure True Womanâ€” a
sex- affirmative action still part of womenâ€™s struggle. The twentieth- century Erotic
Woman also undercut nineteenth- century feminist assertion of womenâ€™s moral superiority, cast suspicions of lust on womenâ€™s passionate romantic friendships with
women, and asserted the presence of a menacing female monster, â€œthe lesbian.â€8 . . .
In the perspective of heterosexual history, this early twentieth- century struggle
for the more explicit depiction of an â€œ opposite- sexâ€ eros appears in a curious new
light. Ironically, we find sex- conservatives, the social purity advocates of censorship
and repression, fighting against the depiction not just of sexual perversity but also
of the new normal heterosexuality. That a more open depiction of normal sex had
to be defended against forces of propriety confirms the claim that heterosexualityâ€™s
predecessor, Victorian True Love, had included no legitimate eros. . . .
The Heterosexual Steps Out: 1930â€“1945
In 1930, in The New York Times, heterosexuality first became a love that dared to
speak its name. On April 30th of that year, the word â€œheterosexualâ€ is first known
to have appeared in The New York Times Book Review. There, a critic described the
subject of AndrÃ© Gideâ€™s The Immoralist proceeding â€œfrom a heterosexual liaison to a
homosexual one.â€ The ability to slip between sexual categories was referred to casually as a rather unremarkable aspect of human possibility. This is also the first known
reference by The Times to the new hetero/homo duo.9
The following month the second reference to the hetero/homo dyad appeared in The New York Times Book Review, in a comment on Floyd Dellâ€™s Love in
the Machine Age. This work revealed a prominent antipuritan of the 1930s using the
dire threat of homosexuality as his rationale for greater heterosexual freedom. The
Times quoted Dellâ€™s warning that current abnormal social conditions kept the young
dependent on their parents, causing â€œinfantilism, prostitution and homosexuality.â€
Also quoted was Dellâ€™s attack on the â€œinculcation of purityâ€ that â€œbreeds distrust of the
opposite sex.â€ Young people, Dell said, should be â€œpermitted to develop normally to
heterosexual adulthood.â€ â€œBut,â€ The Times reviewer emphasized, â€œsuch a state already
exists, here and now.â€ And so it did. Heterosexuality, a new gender- sex category, had
been distributed from the narrow, rarified realm of a few doctors to become a nationally, even internationally, cited aspect of middle- class life.10 . . .
Heterosexual Hegemony: 1945â€“1965
The â€œcult of domesticityâ€ following World War IIâ€” the reassociation of women
with the home, motherhood, and child- care; men with fatherhood and wage work
outside the homeâ€” was a period in which the predominance of the hetero norm went
almost unchallenged, an era of heterosexual hegemony. This was an age in which conservative mental- health professionals reasserted the old link between heterosexuality
and procreation. In contrast, sex- liberals of the day strove, ultimately with success,
to expand the heterosexual ideal to include within the boundaries of normality a
wider- than- ever range of nonprocreative, premarital, and extramarital behaviors. But
sex- liberal reform actually helped to extend and secure the dominance of the heterosexual idea, as we shall see when we get to Kinsey.
The postwar sex- conservative tendency was illustrated in 1947, in Ferdinand Lundberg and Dr. Marnia Farnhamâ€™s book, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex. Improper masculinity and femininity were exemplified, the authors decreed, by â€œengagement in
heterosexual relations . . . with the complete intent to see to it that they do not eventuate in reproduction.â€11 Their procreatively defined heterosex was one expression of a
postwar ideology of fecundity that, internalized and enacted dutifully by a large part
of the population, gave rise to the postwar baby boom.
The idea of the feminine female and masculine male as prolific breeders was also
reflected in the stress, specific to the late 1940s, on the homosexual as sad symbol of
â€œsterilityâ€â€”that particular loaded term appears incessantly in comments on homosex
dating to the fecund forties.
In 1948, in The New York Times Book Review, sex liberalism was in ascendancy.
Dr. Howard A. Rusk declared that Alfred Kinseyâ€™s just published report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male had found â€œwide variations in sex concepts and behavior.â€
This raised the question: â€œWhat is â€˜normalâ€™ and â€˜abnormalâ€™?â€ In particular, the report
had found that â€œhomosexual experience is much more common than previously
thought,â€ and â€œthere is often a mixture of both homo and hetero experience.â€12
Kinseyâ€™s counting of orgasms indeed stressed the wide range of behaviors and
feelings that fell within the boundaries of a quantitative, statistically accounted heterosexuality. Kinseyâ€™s liberal reform of the hetero/homo dualism widened the narrow,
old hetero category to accord better with the varieties of social experience. He thereby
contradicted the older idea of a monolithic, qualitatively defined, natural procreative
act, experience, and person.13
Though Kinsey explicitly questioned â€œwhether the terms â€˜normalâ€™ and â€˜abnormalâ€™
belong in a scientific vocabulary,â€ his counting of climaxes was generally understood to define normal sex as majority sex. This quantified norm constituted a
final, society- wide break with the old qualitatively defined reproductive standard.
Though conceived of as purely scientific, the statistical definition of the normal as
the- sex- most- people- are- having substituted a new, quantitative moral standard for
the old, qualitative sex ethicâ€” another triumph for the spirit of capitalism.
5 Katz / The Invention of Heterosexuality 53
54 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
Kinsey also explicitly contested the idea of an absolute, either/or antithesis between
hetero and homo persons. He denied that human beings â€œrepresent two discrete
populations, heterosexual and homosexual.â€ The world, he ordered, â€œis not to be divided into sheep and goats.â€ The hetero/homo division was not natureâ€™s doing: â€œOnly
the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeonholes. The living world is a continuum.â€14
With a wave of the taxonomistâ€™s hand, Kinsey dismissed the social and historical division of people into heteros and homos. His denial of heterosexual and homosexual personhood rejected the social reality and profound subjective force of a
historically constructed tradition which, since 1892 in the United States, had cut the
sexual population in two and helped to establish the social reality of a heterosexual
and homosexual identity.
On the one hand, the social construction of homosexual persons has led to the
development of a powerful gay liberation identity politics based on an ethnic group
model. This has freed generations of women and men from a deep, painful, socially
induced sense of shame, and helped to bring about a society- wide liberalization of
attitudes and responses to homosexuals.15 On the other hand, contesting the notion
of homosexual and heterosexual persons was one early, partial resistance to the limits
of the hetero/homo construction. Gore Vidal, rebel son of Kinsey, has for years been
there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homoor heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, and what
anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance.
So why all the fuss? In order for a ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions. Of all prohibitions, sexual taboo is the most useful because sex involves
everyone. . . . we have allowed our governors to divide the population into two teams.
One team is good, godly, straight; the other is evil, sick, vicious.16
Heterosexuality Questioned: 1965â€“1982
By the late 1960s, anti- establishment counterculturalists, fledgling feminists, and
homosexual- rights activists had begun to produce an unprecedented critique of sexual repression in general, of womenâ€™s sexual repression in particular, of marriage and
the familyâ€” and of some forms of heterosexuality. This critique even found its way
into The New York Times.
In March 1968, in the theater section of that paper, freelancer Rosalyn Regelson cited a scene from a satirical review brought to New York by a San Francisco
a heterosexual man wanders inadvertently into a homosexual bar. Before he realizes
his mistake, he becomes involved with an aggressive queen who orders a drink for
him. Being a broadminded liberal and trying to play it cool until he can back out of
the situation gracefully, he asks, â€œHow do you like being a ah homosexual?â€ To which
the queen drawls drily, â€œHow do you like being ah whatever it is you are?â€
The Two Cultures in confrontation. The middle- class liberal, challenged today on
many fronts, finds his last remaining fixed value, his heterosexuality, called into question. The theater . . . recalls the strategies he uses in dealing with this ultimate threat
to his world view.17
Heterosexual History: Out of the Shadows
Our brief survey of the heterosexual idea suggests a new hypothesis. Rather than naming
a conjunction old as Eve and Adam, heterosexual designates a word and concept, a norm
and role, an individual and group identity, a behavior and feeling, and a peculiar sexualpolitical institution particular to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Because much stress has been placed here on heterosexuality as word and concept,
it seems important to affirm that heterosexuality (and homosexuality) came into existence before it was named and thought about. The formulation of the heterosexual
idea did not create a heterosexual experience or behavior; to suggest otherwise would
be to ascribe determining power to labels and concepts. But the titling and envisioning of heterosexuality did play an important role in consolidating the construction of
the heterosexualâ€™s social existence. Before the wide use of the word â€œheterosexual,â€ I
suggest, women and men did not mutually lust with the same profound, sure sense
of normalcy that followed the distribution of â€œheterosexualâ€ as universal sanctifier.
According to this proposal, women and men make their own sexual histories.
But they do not produce their sex lives just as they please. They make their sexualities within a particular mode of organization given by the past and altered by their
changing desire, their present power and activity, and their vision of a better world.
That hypothesis suggests a number of good reasons for the immediate inauguration
of research on a historically specific heterosexuality.
The study of the history of the heterosexual experience will forward a great intellectual struggle still in its early stages. This is the fight to pull heterosexuality, homosexuality, and all the sexualities out of the realm of nature and biology [and] into the
realm of the social and historical. Feminists have explained to us that anatomy does
not determine our gender destinies (our masculinities and femininities). But weâ€™ve
only recently begun to consider that biology does not settle our erotic fates. The common notion that biology determines the object of sexual desire, or that physiology
and society together cause sexual orientation, are determinisms that deny the break
existing between our bodies and situations and our desiring. Just as the biology of our
hearing organs will never tell us why we take pleasure in Bach or delight in Dixieland,
our female or male anatomies, hormones, and genes will never tell us why we yearn
for women, men, both, other, or none. That is because desiring is a self- generated
project of individuals within particular historical cultures. Heterosexual history can
help us see the place of values and judgments in the construction of our own and
othersâ€™ pleasures, and to see how our erotic tastesâ€” our aesthetics of the fleshâ€” are
socially institutionalized through the struggle of individuals and classes.
5 Katz / The Invention of Heterosexuality 55
56 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
The study of heterosexuality in time will also help us to recognize the vast historical
diversity of sexual emotions and behaviorsâ€” a variety that challenges the monolithic
heterosexual hypothesis. John Dâ€™Emilio and Estelle Freedmanâ€™s Intimate Matters: A
History of Sexuality in America refers in passing to numerous substantial changes in
sexual activity and feeling: for example, the widespread use of contraceptives in the
nineteenth century, the twentieth- century incitement of the female orgasm, and the
recent sexual conduct changes by gay men in response to the AIDS epidemic. Itâ€™s now
a commonplace of family history that people in particular classes feel and behave in
substantially different ways under different historical conditions.18 Only when we
stop assuming an invariable essence of heterosexuality will we begin the research to
reveal the full variety of sexual emotions and behaviors.
The historical study of the heterosexual experience can help us understand the erotic
relationships of women and men in terms of their changing modes of social organization. Such
modal analysis actually characterizes a sex history well underway.19 This suggests that
the eros- gender- procreation system (the social ordering of lust, femininity and masculinity, and baby- making) has been linked closely to a societyâ€™s particular organization of
power and production. To understand the subtle history of heterosexuality we need to
look carefully at correlations between (1) societyâ€™s organization of eros and pleasure; (2)
its mode of engendering persons as feminine or masculine (its making of women and
men); (3) its ordering of human reproduction; and (4) its dominant political economy.
This General Theory of Sexual Relativity proposes that substantial historical changes in
the social organization of eros, gender, and procreation have basically altered the activity and experience of human beings within those modes.20
A historical view locates heterosexuality and homosexuality in time, helping us distance ourselves from them. This distancing can help us formulate new questions that
clarify our long- range sexual- political goals: What has been and is the social function of
sexual categorizing? Whose interests have been served by the division of the world into
heterosexual and homosexual? Do we dare not draw a line between those two erotic
species? Is some sexual naming socially necessary? Would human freedom be enhanced
if the sex- biology of our partners in lust was of no particular concern, and had no
name? In what kind of society could we all more freely explore our desire and our flesh?
As we move [into the year 2000], a new sense of the historical making of the heterosexual and homosexual suggests that these are ways of feeling, acting, and being
with each other that we can together unmake and radically remake according to our
present desire, power, and our vision of a future political- economy of pleasure.
1. Barbara Welter, â€œThe Cult of True Womanhood: 1820â€“1860,â€ American Quarterly, vol. 18
(Summer 1966); Welterâ€™s analysis is extended here to include True Men and True Love.
2. See, for example, Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur, eds., â€œThe Making of
the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century,â€ Representations, no. 14
(Spring 1986) (republished, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
3. Dr. James G. Kiernan, â€œResponsibility in Sexual Perversion,â€ Chicago Medical Recorder,
vol. 3 (May 1892), pp. 185â€“210.
4. R. von Krafft- Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, with Especial Reference to Contrary
Sexual Instinct: A Medico- Legal Study, trans. Charles Gilbert Chaddock (Philadelphia:
F. A. Davis, 1892), from the 7th and revised German ed. Preface, November 1892.
5. For the standardization of gender see Lewis Terman and C. C. Miles, Sex and Personality, Studies in Femininity and Masculinity (New York: McGraw Hill, 1936). For the standardization of intelligence see Lewis Terman, Stanford- Binet Intelligence Scale (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1916). For the standardization of work, see â€œscientific managementâ€ and â€œTaylorismâ€
in Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth
Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
6. See Dâ€™Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, pp. 194â€“201, 231, 241, 295â€“96; Ellen
Kay Trimberger, â€œFeminism, Men, and Modern Love: Greenwich Village, 1900â€“1925,â€ in
Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 131â€“52; Kathy Peiss, â€œâ€˜Charity Girlsâ€™
and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working Class Sexuality, 1880â€“1920,â€ in Powers of
Desire, pp. 74â€“87; and Mary P. Ryan, â€œThe Sexy Saleslady: Psychology, Heterosexuality, and
Consumption in the Twentieth Century,â€ in her Womanhood in America, 2nd ed. (New York:
Franklin Watts, 1979), pp. 151â€“82.
7. [Rev. Charles Parkhurst], â€œWoman. Calls Them Andromaniacs. Dr. Parkhurst So
Characterizes Certain Women Who Passionately Ape Everything That Is Mannish. Woman
Divinely Preferred. Her Supremacy Lies in Her Womanliness, and She Should Make the
Most of Itâ€” Her Sphere of Best Usefulness the Home,â€ The New York Times, May 23, 1897, p. 16:1.
8. See Lisa Duggan, â€œThe Social Enforcement of Heterosexuality and Lesbian Resistance
in the 1920s,â€ in Class, Race, and Sex: The Dynamics of Control, ed. Amy Swerdlow and Hanah
Lessinger (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), pp. 75â€“92; Rayna Rapp and Ellen Ross,
â€œThe Twenties Backlash: Compulsory Heterosexuality, the Consumer Family, and the Waning of Feminism,â€ in Class, Race, and Sex; Christina Simmons, â€œCompanionate Marriage and
the Lesbian Threat,â€ Frontiers, vol. 4, no. 3 (Fall 1979), pp. 54â€“59; and Lillian Faderman,
Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: William Morrow, 1981).
9. Louis Kronenberger, review of AndrÃ© Gide, The Immoralist, New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1930, p. 9.
10. Henry James Forman, review of Floyd Dell, Love in the Machine Age (New York: Farrar & Rinehart), New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1930, p. 9.
11. Ferdinand Lundberg and Dr. Marnia F. Farnham, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex
(New York: Harper, 1947).
12. Dr. Howard A. Rusk, New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1948, p. 3.
13. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human
Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948), pp. 199â€“200.
14. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior, pp. 637, 639.
15. See Steven Epstein, â€œGay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Constructionism,â€ Socialist Review 93/93 (1987), pp. 9â€“54.
16. Gore Vidal, â€œSomeone to Laugh at the Squares Withâ€ [Tennessee Williams],
New York Review of Books, June 13, 1985; reprinted in his At Home: Essays, 1982â€“1988
(New York: Random House, 1988), p. 48.
17. Rosalyn Regelson, â€œUp the Camp Staircase,â€ The New York Times, March 3, 1968,
Section II, p. 1:5.
18. Dâ€™Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, pp. 57â€“63, 268, 356.
19. Ryan, Womanhood; John Dâ€™Emilio, â€œCapitalism and Gay Identity,â€ in Powers of Desire,
pp. 100â€“13; Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London: Quartet Books, 1977); Dâ€™Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters;
5 Katz / The Invention of Heterosexuality 57
58 PART I The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality
Katz, â€œEarly Colonial Exploration, Agriculture, and Commerce: The Age of Sodomitical Sin,
1607â€“1740,â€ Gay/Lesbian Almanac, pp. 23â€“65.
20. This tripartite system is intended as a revision of Gayle Rubinâ€™s pioneering work
on the social- historical orgainization of eros and gender. See â€œThe Traffic in Women: Notes
on the Political- Economy of Sex,â€ in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157â€“210, and â€œThinking Sex: Notes for a
Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,â€ in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality,
ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 267â€“329.
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