Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jonathan Ned Katz--The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)

Katz’s text builds on the gay studies movement of the 1970s, especially works by Joseph Epstein and Foucault.  After his work on recovering a history of homosexuality, in this text he moves on to challenge three “arguments [about] our idea of an age-old heterosexuality: (1) a procreate-or-perish imperative makes heterosexuality a necessity everlasting; (2) all societies recognize basic distinctions between human females and males, girls and boys, women and men—those biological and cultural differences are the source of an immortal sexuality that is hetero; (3) the bodily pleasure generated by female and male conjunctions remains the unchanging basis of an eternal heterosexuality” (14).  He goes on to claim that “heterosexuality is not identical to the reproductive intercourse of the sexes; heterosexuality is not the same as the sex distinctions and gender differences; heterosexuality does not equal the eroticism of women and men.  Heterosexuality, I argue, signifies one particular historical arrangement of the sexes and their pleasures” (14).  Katz also distinguishes between “sexual reproduction, sex difference, and sexual pleasure,” noting that they “have been produced and combined in different social systems in radically different ways” (14).  Katz also acknowledges not only what he has gained from recent feminist approaches to history, especially the awareness of how gender, race, and status have influenced the narratives which have been told and assumptions which have been made about heterosexuality.
He begins with the work of doctors like Krafft-Ebing at the turn of the century, who took a medical approach to sexuality.  It was at this point (in the 1890s) that the idea that the sexual instinct was identified as a procreative desire was being challenged by “a new different-sex pleasure ethic” (19).  In his discussion of Kraff-Ebing, he points out that “the term ‘contrary sexual feeling’ presupposed the existence of a non-contrary ‘sexual feeling,’ the term ‘sexual inversion’ presupposed a noninverted sexual desire. From the start of this medicalizing, ‘contrary’ and ‘inverted’ sexuality were problematized, [while] ‘sexual feeling’ was taken for granted” (55).  After Krafft-Ebing comes Freud, who put pleasure—rather than reproduction—at the center of human sexual feeling and behavior.  Importantly, Freud’s ideas of the libido, drives, instincts, and impulses demonstrate a “desire for psychic satisfaction experienced in the flesh” (61).  I think this may be a very important point in terms of embodiment themes in literature.  However, Katz also notes that “Freud innovatively proposes the original and complete independence of erotic desire and erotic object” (61)—an important innovation, but one which requires careful consideration, because it’s easy to fall into a solipsistic way of thinking, failing to taking concepts such as intersubjectivity into account.
After discussing the solidification of the other-sex pleasure centrality to twentieth-century sexuality and its role in cementing heterosexuality as the normative mode (as well as the change in understanding of heterosexuality from its existence as a medical term meaning morbid attachment to nonprocreative sexuality to its meaning today, Katz turns to the feminist contribution to the critiquing and problematizing of heterosexuality, observing that much feminist work (looking at specifically at liberal and radical feminist commentaries from 1963 and 1975) “critically probe not only male supremacy but the social arrangement of heterosexuality” (113).  While Katz is a fan of second wave feminist critiques of heterosexuality, he observes that many of these critics (such as Monique Wittig, to name only one) “fall[] prey to the equation of heterosexuality with reproduction,” failing to see that pleasure-oriented, Freudian heterosexuality is actually at the heart of the heterosexual social organization of which they otherwise provide incisive critiques (157).  Ultimately, Katz says that,
I don’t think that the invention of the word heterosexual, and the concept, created a different-sex erotic.  I do think that the doctors’ appropriation of the word and idea of heterosexuality newly and publicly legitimated the previously existing but officially condemned different-sex eroticism of the middle class.  The word heterosexual, and the concept, then helped to re-create this sexed eroticism as, specifically, “heterosexual” within a new, specifically “heterosexual” society. (181).
Katz’s vision of modern-day heterosexuality is one that ultimately emerged out changing view of sexuality from a nineteenth century understanding of sexual desire as based in procreation to one (and one specifically attributed to a rising American middle class with falling birth rates and rising divorce rates) which had pleasure at its center.  Katz goes even further in his conclusion, claiming that “Heterosexual and homosexual refer to a historically specific system of domination—of socially unequal  sexes and eroticisms” (189).  As “feminists have recently shown us that sexual anatomy does not determine  our gender destinies…neither does biology determine our erotic fates” (190).refer to a historically specific system of domination—of socially unequal  sexes and eroticisms” (189).  As “feminists have recently shown us that sexual anatomy does not determine  our gender destinies…neither does biology determine our erotic fates” (190).

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