6/01/2017

The invention of 'heterosexuality'


One hundred years ago, people had a very different idea of what it means to be heterosexual. Understanding that shift in thinking can tell us a lot about fluid sexual identities today, argues Brandon Ambrosino.


The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than two decades later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

Whenever I tell this to people, they respond with dramatic incredulity. That can’t be right! Well, it certainly doesn’t feel right. It feels as if heterosexuality has always “just been there.”

A few years ago, there began circulating a “man on the street” video, in which the creator asked people if they thought homosexuals were born with their sexual orientations. Responses were varied, with most saying something like, “It’s a combination of nature and nurture.” The interviewer then asked a follow-up question, which was crucial to the experiment: “When did you choose to be straight?” Most were taken back, confessing, rather sheepishly, never to have thought about it. Feeling that their prejudices had been exposed, they ended up swiftly conceding the videographer’s obvious point: gay people were born gay just like straight people were born straight.

The video’s takeaway seemed to suggest that all of our sexualities are “just there”; that we don’t need an explanation for homosexuality just as we don’t need one for heterosexuality. It seems not to have occurred to those who made the video, or the millions who shared it, that we actually need an explanation for both....more