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Q&A with Hanne Blank

Welcome to the JWA Book Club! We are excited to gather today to discuss Hanne Blank's rousing history of heterosexual relations, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.

Out chat will begin at 12 EST on Wednesday, May 20. When taking part in our comment-based discussion below, remember to hit "Show Reply" and "Show New Comments" to see the full conversation! 

Topics: Non-Fiction
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Hi, Hanne! I'm wondering if the "hetero"/"homo" constructs are largely western ... and what kind of different concepts there might be in non-western societies?

In reply to by Rebecca

Hi, Rebecca! Yes, "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" are Western in origin, but they have been exported with not inconsiderable success -- cultural imperialism is a real thing. Most of the big influential cultures around the world have embraced some form of the hetero/homo construct at this time.

But historically, we can see how things worked differently: for instance, historian Bret Hinsch wrote a beautiful monograph on the "passions of the cut sleeve," on male-male love in Imperial China. There are other people who've worked on similar things in other parts of the world, including in Native American/First Nations cultures in North America.

There are also non-Western cultures that currently embrace some alternate or plural sexualities in ways that the hetero/homo divide doesn't make space for. Some of the more recognizable examples are Thai kathoey (sometimes called "ladyboys") and Indian hijra, who occupy a different space, in their cultures, from identities we would label as either "gay" or "straight."

Thanks, Hanne and Tara! I really enjoyed this. My reading list just got longer!

We're just about out of time! Thank you everyone and ESPECIALLY Hanne for joining us today! What a fantastic discussion!

In reply to by Tara Metal

Thanks so much for inviting me! And thanks to all of you who came by and asked such fun questions.

In reply to by hanneblank

Thanks so much! Best of luck in your current and future endeavors, Hanne!

Hanne, I'm interested in writers who write across genres, so I love that you write both historical books and erotica. Could you tell us a little bit about writing in these two genres and the relationship between them for you?

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

And your erotica has the best name--Zaftig!

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

It boils down to my fascination with bodies, selves, and culture. Sex, medicine, exercise, food (I recently published a long essay about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher in a book called ICON -- http://flavorwire.com/484260/h.... That's where I live. I'm fascinated by the life of the body and the life of the self and how the two things, in conjunction with culture, create one another.

I want to ask you about another book of yours, The Unapologetic Fat GirlÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. ItÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s a really unique bookÌ¢‰â‰۝as in, thereÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s nothing else like it out there. What led you to write it? Why is a fat girl exercising an incendiary act?

In reply to by Tara Metal

Fat women and girls (REPRESENT!) are taught that exercise has a single purpose: to make you thin.

Moving your body because moving your body is great and does awesome things for you and lets you enjoy yourself and gives you entry to a whole bunch of activities that women (and especially fat women) can easily be excluded from? Rather than because it might make your body look a certain way? Yeah, that's still pretty radical.

Women owning their bodies and using their bodies for their own purposes, not for the purposes of trying to make their bodies serve the aesthetic needs of others, is incendiary. As well as deeply feminist. I'm a big big fan.

Again, I wrote it because there wasn't anything else out there like it. That empty spot on the shelves got me once again.

In reply to by hanneblank

"... using their bodies for their own purposes, not for the purposes of trying to make their bodies serve the aesthetic needs of others." LOVE that. This book I've got to read!

I'm also interested in the cross-threads between your book on virgins and this book on heterosexuality.

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

Me too!

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

Thanks for asking this! STRAIGHT followed VIRGIN pretty directly, and grew out of the fascinating problem that virginity has historically been defined almost exclusively by the one sex act that is also viewed as canonically "heterosexual."

(I use the scare quotes there because putting a penis into a vagina does not necessarily have anything to do with what the owners of either set of genitalia actually desire or how they experience their sexuality, as well we know.)

This became a problem for me when I was working on VIRGIN because so many writers on virginity cavalierly use the word "heterosexual" to refer to people and to behaviors that existed well before the notion of heterosexuality existed. This struck me as intellectually sloppy... and it is.

Thinking about how the problem could be fixed made me realize that the history of sexuality would look very different if historians understood heterosexuality to be a concept that is attached to a particular time -- and to some extent a particular place and culture.

And then I went off to the library to find some books that discussed heterosexuality as a historical problem and only found one of them, Jonathan Ned Katz's brilliant book "The Invention of Heterosexuality." Which was wonderful as far as it went, but I wanted more.

In reply to by hanneblank

Thanks! I was wondering about this, too, when I read Virgin. I could see how one book would lead to the other!

In reply to by hanneblank

Wow. In my education work teaching about history, we think a lot about "presentism"--how our contemporary lens changes or influences our ability to understand the context of past eras. This is such an important observation to make and story to tell.

In reply to by Etta King

Yup ... and think about all the things we interpret -- religion, law, literature, etc. -- through our current lens. Also, much of Jewish thought struggles between whether to find meaning in an early text via its historical or contemporary context ...

In reply to by Etta King

Bingo. History of sexuality has an enormous problem with presentism. We're getting better about it, but it's hard!

I'm also wondering what questions were raised for you in the process of writing the book that you thought "Wow, I need to write another book about this!"

In reply to by Etta King

Oh, goodness.

Well, it got me going in a number of directions. Who knows whether they will ever become books, but in the best of all possible worlds, I would really love to write histories of sexual fidelity/infidelity and of sexual consent. Both of those ideas are really explosive, and really juicy, and I think have a lot to tell us about how we build our cultures around sexuality.

Currently I'm working on some very different stuff, so we'll see whether I'll return to those at some point.

In reply to by hanneblank

Yes! I would love to learn more about the history of those topics as well. Whatever it is, I can't wait to read it! :-)

This is sort of a standard book club question, but I will ask it anyway: What is the most surprising or important thing you learned while you were researching and writing "Straight?"

In reply to by Etta King

I think the most important thing I learned was that I was right when I suspected there was no fixed definition for "heterosexual," and that the lack of a fixed definition is part of what makes it so powerful -- its boundaries can be expanded and contracted to suit a huge range of situations, which is hugely significant both socially and politically.

In reply to by hanneblank

Interesting, yes. I have experienced this in my own life and I think we are seeing it play out on a national scale now with the gay marriage issue. That is what I was talking about before, that if people are getting married to have families that fit into our social constructs of what families should be and do, it is more acceptable than if they are deviating from that ideal of marriage.

In reply to by hanneblank

It's so interesting, because somehow it comes across as pretty clearly defined! I guess this is part of its success as a creation :)

You say in Straight, when discussing women who have lived as men, Ì¢‰âÒTo abandon masculinity is to abandon power.Ì¢‰âÂå I canÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t help but think of everyoneÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s favorite current tabloid cover, Bruce Jenner. Bruce, along with Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, are suddenly raising the profile of trans people. Do you see trans visibility as a major cultural shift?

In reply to by Tara Metal

I do. Jenner, along with the amazing Ms. Cox and Ms. Mock, and others like Jenny Boylan, are raising the profile of trans* women in all kinds of ways, and I think this is wonderful. At the same time the backlash against trans* women, and the challenge they represent to our culture's essentialist ideas about maleness and power and sexuality, is still really horrific. Trans* women are still murdered at staggering rates, especially trans* women of color -- some (slightly dated but good) info here: http://www.thetaskforce.org/st...

Trans* women also face a lot of difficulty in employment, housing, and other crucial areas of life. This is particularly true for trans* women who aren't as beautiful as Ms. Cox or Ms. Mock, who are women of color, who are poor, or who simply do not "pass" well. So we have a long way to go yet before all my sisters get to live the lives they deserve.

In reply to by hanneblank

Thank you for this. I've been have conversations with friends about how beautiful Ms. Cox and Ms. Mock are, and how that plays into their roles as figureheads of the trans community.

In reply to by hanneblank

Such a poignant comment. And very thought-provoking when you talk about how the cultural "success" of high-profile trans women is based on their attractiveness ...

In reply to by hanneblank

To be honest, I had never thought about this idea about masculinity and power as it relates to trans* women. In my liberal upbringing and in the community where I now live, we spend so much time talking about trans* women being powerful (themselves) that we have spent less time (until recently) thinking about how oppressive systems keep people from stepping fully into their true selves. This book and the conversation we are having is reminding me how important intersectionality of issues is. We really cannot achieve equal rights for some people unless we are looking at all people, and how all people are impacted by the legal and cultural systems that govern our country.

I think it is so interesting that heterosexuality and homosexuality were terms coined at the same time; that by explaining one there necessarily had to be a counter point. We know that hetero and homosexuality are not the only descriptions of one's sexual desires/identity/etc. Can you say more about how you think that binary has impacted our views on sexuality over time? (Does this question make sense?!)

In reply to by Etta King

Agreed--I was stuck by the seemingly sudden historical demarcation between "problematic" and "nonproblematic" sex--i.e., heterosexuality and everything else

In reply to by Tara Metal

Yes, and it is hard for me to imagine a world where this distinction doesn't exist!

In reply to by Etta King

Yeah, totally impossible

In reply to by Tara Metal

It is only barely possible for me to imagine a world where the distinction doesn't exist, too. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write about it: "heterosexual" is such a wildly *successful* concept! Not an inevitable one, not a natural one, not a necessary one... but amazingly, amazingly successful.

In reply to by hanneblank

I love that explanation.

In reply to by Tara Metal

Also interesting in how this made some sex sort of invisible as sex (e.g. intimacy between women, because heretosexuality defines sex in a very penis-centric way).

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

And speaking of invisible sex, it's crazy how the influx of people into cities really made sex into a criminal act--when everyone was living in close quarters, it was harder to hide "deviance" than it was in the country!

In reply to by Etta King

That's a complicated question -- yes, it makes sense. To start to answer it, we have to recall that the coining of "heterosexual" and "homosexual" come at a time when Germany is trying to figure out how to arrange and write its civil law. In the age of revolutions across Europe, civil governments are endeavoring (often for the first time) to create secular versions of areas of law that had previously been based on, or were taken wholesale, from the canon law of the Catholic church. So there was an inheritance of that sinful/not sinful binary, and I think that is perhaps *the* big influence on C19th thinking on the matter of sexual behavior.

In reply to by hanneblank

So interesting! Though also challenging to think about the long fingers of the Catholic Church ...

Hi Hanne, I know the book was only published a couple of years ago, but I feel like there have been some important shifts in culture in recent years -- I'm thinking particularly about the increasing legality of gay marriage and about recent attention to transpeople. What would you add (if anything) to the book if you were writing it now?

In reply to by Judith Rosenbaum

Judith, that's a great question. If I were writing the book now I would definitely write a lot more about marriage, and about the complicated issue of same-sex marriage. There are some amazing conversations happening about the politics of marriage and the question of whether the move to expand access to legal marriage is coming at the expense of a more egalitarian justice in regard to sexuality. So I would do more on that.

The trans* piece is also something I'd talk about. In fact, since I am no longer partnered to the person I was with when I wrote the book, I might very well frame the book with a discussion of transgender and transsexual issues and how they complicate discussions of sexual orientation.

In reply to by hanneblank

That's very interesting. This point makes a lot of sense to me and relates to the conversation of how gender egalitarianism has impacted "marriage" and heterosexual relationships overall. As a cis woman who recently got engaged to a cis man, I have been thinking a lot about legal marriage--if it matters, why and when it matters, who has access, and why and when they have access. It often seems like questions around marriage relate directly to raising children, which leaves out a growing group of people who choose not to have kids (to say nothing of those who want children but cannot have them). I think marriage has in many ways become synonymous with "family" and that has so many implications and carries a heavy weight with it as well. I'm not sure we'll every be able to fully parse marriage--a set of legal rights of partnership--with marriage--a socially constructed idea of what partnership "should" be.

At JWA we talk a lot about how history isnÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t about the pastÌ¢‰â‰۝it informs everything we do in the present! This idea seems especially relevant to our sexual history. Our ideas about sexuality are ever changing, yet we know so little about their development. I was really struck by how little I knew while reading Straight--and I was a Gender Studies major!!

In reply to by Tara Metal

That's not an unusual experience. Because heterosexuality is presumed to be a default and a norm, a lot of what we talk about and write about tends not to examine it. I wrote my book in part to try to change that tendency.

Hi, I'd like to hear more about this interesting book (which I have not read)!

In reply to by Heidi Rabinowitz

I did an interview with Salon that should give you a decent idea of what the book's about: http://www.salon.com/2012/01/2...

I'd try to give you a synopsis here but if I could give a synopsis that'd fit in a blog comment, I wouldn't have had to write a book!

In reply to by Heidi Rabinowitz

Heidi, it's a funny, fascinating history of how our concepts of human sexuality developed to where they are today--it calls into question a lot of what we feel is "normal" and a given in relationships and sex

Joining in from NYC to be part of the conversation!

How to cite this page

Metal, Tara. "Q&A with Hanne Blank." 20 May 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 26, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/bookclub/book-club-meeting-hanne-blank>.

Hanne Blank.

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