The Invention of Heterosexual Culture

The man-woman pairing displaced other well-established forms of bonding, finds Robert Mills

November 1, 2012

At one time, believe it or not, heterosexuality as we know it did not exist. This isn't to say that men and women didn't engage in sex acts with one another, get married, have children or engage in some of the other practices commonly grouped together under this heading. But male-female love didn't possess the cultic status that it does today. In the Middle Ages, chastity tended to be valued more highly than sexual relations of any kind, including those between men and women within the framework of marriage; heterosexuality was neither a given nor a cultural norm, and other modes of bonding - notably platonic friendships between men - were often accorded greater value. Even when the word "heterosexuality" was coined at the end of the 19th century, it still didn't signify as normal: as late as 1923 some dictionaries defined it as a "morbid" passion for members of the opposite sex.

The main thrust of Louis-Georges Tin's argument is that, as the Middle Ages shifted into the Renaissance and the early modern period, heterosexual culture's fortunes gradually began to change. Heterosexuality shifted from being a marginalised and occasionally denigrated practice to being the epitome of the natural and the normal. In France, the principal focus of Tin's survey, this shift was neither straightforward nor inevitable. From the 12th century, courtly literature began exalting male-female love within well-defined parameters. But this burgeoning discourse of what Tin claims is an early manifestation of heterosexuality met with fierce resistance, whether at the hands of religious authorities, medical practitioners or advocates of older chivalric codes.

Medieval churchmen saw heterosexual culture as a threat to their chaste ideals and, when they couldn't stem the tide, sought to bring it under their control, notably instituting marriage between men and women as a Christian sacrament. Physicians since ancient times had viewed love as a mode of sickness, with a distinct pathology and potentially devastating consequences for its practitioners. In literary circles there continued to exist a tension between the codes of chivalric culture, which placed a high premium on intense male bonding, and the new ethos of courtly love, which promoted the idea that women might be as capable as men of arousing deep-seated emotions. Homophobia looms large in Tin's analysis of the reasons why heterosexuality eventually triumphed in the face of this resistance.

The author writes lucidly and engagingly, and succeeds in making heterosexual culture visible across a longue durée. In a lively final chapter, he demonstrates how, in the 20th century, even educationalists got in on the act, participating in the progressive "heterosexualization" of French culture by, among other things, promoting co-education over single-sex schooling. While the book's broader claims about our sexual past are not especially novel, this ability to synthesise and to range widely sets Tin's book apart from previous studies aimed at divesting heterosexuality of its magic and claims to universality.

Sometimes, though, discussions of particular genres and historical conditions would benefit from being opened up to closer readings. James Schultz, focusing on the medieval German literary tradition, has shown how heterosexual romantic love, which explicitly eroticises sexual difference, does not map neatly on to the language of courtly love: lovers in medieval romances fall in love with courtliness and nobility, not with members of the opposite sex. It is debatable, then, whether courtly literature can be viewed as straightforwardly representative of an emergent "heterosexual culture", as Tin would have it. Karma Lochrie, another medievalist, has argued that heterosexuality is governed by the technologies of normalisation that, as Michel Foucault posited as long ago as the 1970s, developed in the 19th century. Before the evolution of these norms, it is not possible to speak of heterosexuality as a common ideal or "normative" standard against which other sexualities can be measured.

In conclusion, Tin berates Foucault for his blind spots regarding heterosexuality, but the author's own blind spots regarding Foucault's contribution to this topic - and the contributions of other scholars - mean that some of his conclusions will need revising and further nuancing in the light of recent scholarship. Envisaging this as the first in a trilogy of volumes, Tin may indeed be in a position to undertake this work himself. One looks forward to the results.

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture

By Louis-Georges Tin

MIT Press, 208pp, £15.95

ISBN 9780262017701

Published 12 October 2012

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