liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
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Author: Hanne Blank

Details: (c) 2012 Hanne Blank; Pub Beacon Press 2012; ISBN 978-0-8070-4459-9

Verdict: Straight has some interesting ideas but overall is a bit rambly and anecdotal.

Reasons for reading it: I've been a fan of Hanne Blank's various online incarnations for some years now (though her current blog is nothing like as outstanding as her old LJ and a couple of other defunct projects), and I really loved her previous popular history of sexuality, Virgin. Plus I am definitely interested in the topic of a history of heterosexuality.

How it came into my hands: Bought new. I ended up getting it from Amazon because no non-Amazon shops were selling it in any sensible way.

I'm not quite sure what I was hoping for from Straight, but I didn't quite get it. There's some very lively writing; Blank certainly lives up to her previous talents for delightfully zingy sentences and making potentially dry historical topics seem readable and exciting. And Straight is pretty much at the level I want from popular history, it's doing a lot of synthesis of disparate historical ideas which contribute to an interesting overall argument. I really like the way Blank draws together ideas about industrialization and the rise of the middle class, with ideas about scientific positivism and early psychoanalysis, and there's some good if fairly basic stuff about the twentieth century and the sexual revolution.

The problem is that it all just seems bitty and doesn't really fit together, and there's a bunch of odd polemic about the fact that Blank used to date an intersex individual and because it was somewhat ambiguous whether or not he counted as "male" [I follow Blank's use of male pronouns for her ex-partner] it therefore was also ambiguous whether she counted as "straight". This is a perfectly reasonable point to make, but it doesn't quite match with the rest of the book; it seems as if Blank can't really decide whether she's ranting about the fact that you can't divide humans neatly into male and female based on the rough shape of their genitals at birth, or whether she's actually giving a popular account of the development of heterosexuality as an identity category.

Although Blank carefully cites her sources, the account she gives in the main text is very simplified and even though I have only the most basic of lay understandings of the bits of history she's dealing with, I spotted several places where she repeats misinformation and factoids to make a rhetorical point. Would I have wanted the book to be more technical and less accessible? Possibly not, I might have struggled to get through it. But I could have done with more coherent. By the standards of internet polemic it's pretty good, by the standards of professionally published non-fiction, eh.

I think part of what put me off is that Blank rather talks down to her audience through a lot of the book. She introduces the idea of doxa as
Stuff everyone knows [...] from the Greek for "common knowledge" [...] the understanding we absorb from our native culture that we use to make sense of the world [...] the stuff that "goes without saying," the assumptions and presumptions and "common sense" ideas we have about our world and how it works.
Which is totally fair enough as a way of introducing a technical term from anthropology, but throughout the rest of the book she sort of anthropomorphizes "doxa" as some kind of misinformation monster. Whenever she makes a controversial point, instead of backing it up with concrete evidence, she simply states breezily that the only reason people don't accept her conclusions is because doxa are making them think wrongly about sex and sexuality. There's also a lot of ranting about natural sciences; I'm completely on board with the idea that if you want to study human behaviour and human societies, you really need to be using social sciences rather than trying to shoehorn everything into physics. But Straight seems to argue that not only is biology completely useless for understanding anything about sexuality, anyone who thinks they can get any useful information out of natural science is risibly misguided.

Honestly, I'm not sure who the intended audience is for Straight. It's pretty simplistic for anyone who's already familiar with the complex interactions between sex, gender and sexuality; for example, Blank seems to expect her audience will find it a great revelation that intersex and other non-binary people exist. At the same time, I can't imagine that people who are completely gender essentialist and think "God created Adam and Eve" is some kind of eternal verity about human gender and relationships are going to pick up an overtly feminist book titled Straight: The surprisingly short history of heterosexuality. And if they did, they'd be unlikely to be convinced by a book that repeatedly goes on about how dumb they must be to believe such obviously ridiculous doxa.

Unfortunately, I think Straight may be one of those books where the title is rather cooler than the actual content. There's some good stuff in Straight, I did learn something, but I feel pretty unsatisfied overall. I think my best bet is going to be to read some of the sources in the (pleasantly extensive) bibliography, particularly Jonathan Katz' The invention of heterosexuality which Blank acknowledges as a major influence.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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