Notes on Pride

Provincializing Straight People: Jonathan Ned Katz's "The Invention of Heterosexuality"

June 24th, 2021

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. (Katz, 1995, p. 57)
By not studying the heterosexual idea in history, analysts of sex, gay and straight, have continued to privilege the “normal” and “natural” at the expense of the “abnormal” and “unnatural.” 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 hetero- sexual, the normal, and the natural have a history of changing definitions. Studying the history of the term challenges its power. (Katz, 1995, p. 58)
Krafft-Ebing hypothesized an inborn “sexual instinct” for relations with the “opposite sex,” the inherent “purpose” of which was to foster procreation. Krafft-Ebing’s erotic drive was still a reproductive instinct. But the doctor’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. (Katz, 1995, p.63)

Continuing my attacks on heterosexuality and all things straight, today we are talking about Jonathan Ned Katz’s “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” This short essay makes a profound claim in suggesting that what we know now as the heterosexual has a recent history linked to medicine and psychiatry. Prior to the Victorian era we talked about manly men, womanly women, progeny and procreation. But the term heterosexual gained traction when we moved from talking about procreation to inherent erotic drives. The work of doctors like Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Pyschopathia Sexualis (1886) hypothesized an inborn sexual instinct for the opposite sex. This idea formed the basis for what would become the normal heterosexual. Even before Krafft-Ebing psychiatrists used the term heterosexual as an clinical and even derogatory term for those who had a proclivity for sexual gratification without reproductive impulses. What Katz’s essay demonstrates is that even the seemingly normal and natural has a history. What we deem “the heterosexual” is a cultural category based not on reproductive function but on pathologizing desire for the opposite sex. So next time a straight tells you you’re an unnatural abomination, remind them that they are too…