Historicizing Heterosexuality

Until recently, Le Petit Robert (the French equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) defined “heterosexuals” as people who experience a normal sexual appetite for individuals of the opposite sex. This perspective is still widespread in modern social discourse, which assumes that sex between a man and a woman is the only natural and healthy form of sexual expression. Heterosexuality is conceived as having its origins primarily in human physical makeup – in genes, hormones and brain structures. It is thus frequently portrayed as a transhistorical and transcultural sexual orientation: most humans have had a “healthy” attraction to the other sex and most human societies have organized sexual and amorous relations primarily on the basis of man-woman coupling. Given that heterosexuality is hard-wired into our biology as the basis for reproduction, it could hardly have been otherwise: the cultural dominance of heterosexuality is inevitable and unchangeable.

In his book, The Invention of Heterosexual Culture (L’Invention de la Culture Hétérosexuelle), French scholar and activist Louis-Georges Tin puts forward an ambitious challenge to these dominant ideas about heterosexuality. He explodes the assumption that all human societies have prioritized love and sexual relations between men and women by showing that heterosexual pairings were valued very differently throughout history. More specifically, Tin provides an astute historical analysis of medieval and early modern French literature and culture, in which he argues that the valorization and exaltation of love and sex between men and women only started in the 12th Century and did not become dominant until the 16th Century. Previously, heterosexual marriage was considered an economic and social duty, but the male-female couple was by no means glamorized or placed on a pedestal as the highest point of love, passion, friendship and affection. Indeed, the eventual rise in prestige of the heterosexual dyad was challenged and resisted by various other cultural discourses about sexuality, companionship and love that were widespread in Western Europe during the Middle Ages: (1) homosociality and passionate friendships between knights and men of war; (2) love of God through celibacy, which was promoted by the church; and (3) the medieval medical idea that love itself is a serious illness.

Theorizing Heterosexuality

Tin’s historical intervention is founded on an alternative theorization of heterosexuality, which sets up a distinction between heterosexual practice and heterosexual culture. He defines the former as sex between a man and a woman involving contact between the vagina and the penis. This practice is “universal” and found in all human societies, since it provides “the biological basis” for reproduction (9-10). Human societies could not have survived without it. On the other hand, the widespread existence of heterosexual practice does not necessarily imply that all societies have been organized around a heterosexual culture, which Tin describes as the constant and widespread “portrayal, encouragement, and celebration” of the “man-woman couple” and its depiction as the only valid form of sexual and amorous relations (9).

One only has to examine the deluge of poems, stories, films, novels, and paintings, and other works of art that have been devoted to promoting and exalting love and sex between men and women, in order to understand that 20th Century Western culture was extremely heterosexual. During this time, it was very difficult to contest the idea that “the purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man” (10). Nevertheless, there were many societies throughout history that took a different perspective on love and sexual relations. While recognizing that marriage and heterosexual practice had supposedly “useful” functions (reproduction, subordination of women, economic exchange), cultural elites in these societies did not view it as the best, most valuable and most passionate form of love, friendship and sexual relations.

Homosocial and Anti-Sexual Cultures of Medieval France

According to Tin, medieval France was an example of such a society. Upper caste feudal culture had “an exclusively masculine basis,” in which “virile” friendships between men (particularly knights and warriors) “often became passionate relationships that lasted until death” (15). In cultural representations, these friendships were “expressed in very strong language, which mixed sentimental tenderness with military vigor” in a way that “modern socio-sexual discourse” would find unthinkable (15). In this homosocial society, “normal love, the kind of love that causes individuals to lose themselves in sacrifice” for another person was considered to be possible mostly between two men (15).

This perspective is prevalent in the cultural productions of the period. In The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, the exceptionally close friendship between Roland and Olivier figures prominently in the story. For instance, in the heat of a battle, Roland sees Oliver get struck down. The sight of his friend “all bloody and blue” causes Roland, who is otherwise portrayed as a paragon “of courage and virility,” to “faint on his horse” (17). He eventually manages to make it to his friend’s side, and Olivier dies in Roland’s passionate embrace, which is described as “a burst of love” (17). French literary critics have made much of the relationship between Roland and his wife, Aude, but her place in the story is considerably less prominent than Olivier’s. She is presented in only 29 lines of the epic poem (out of 4,002) and functions, in a highly patriarchal manner, as an object of exchange that confirms Roland and Olivier’s friendship. Aude is, in fact, Olivier’s sister, and she is “given” to Roland by Olivier as a way of “reinforcing the link between the two” men (21). Thus, the main, although probably non-sexual, love story in The Song of Roland is between Roland and Olivier, not Roland and Aude. According to Tin, there are “innumerable examples” of similar passionate male-male friendships in medieval French literature (26).

For instance, in the Arthurian legend, Lancelot, the story is organized around “the double relation between, on the one hand, Lancelot and the queen [Guinevere], and on the other hand, Lancelot and his friend Galehot” (36). Galehot is clearly in love with Lancelot: when the Lancelot falls asleep Galehot quietly lies down next to him and passes the night secretly by his side. He says that, “he loves [Lancelot] more than any earthly riches,” and seems prepared to do anything for his friend, including setting him up for marriage with the woman he loves, Guinevere (37). The only condition that Galehot places on the marriage is that he be allowed to have one last night with Lancelot, in the same bed. Although there is no way of verifying whether the relationship between Lancelot and Galehot was of a sexual nature, it is evident that they are engaging in a level of passionate (although probably platonic) love and intimacy that modern social discourse makes us believe is unimaginable between two virile male warriors.

In addition to this valorization of seemingly platonic male-male friendships, the Christian church in medieval French society also viewed celibacy and abstention from sexual relations as superior to heterosexual marriage. “Marriage populates the Earth; virgins populate heaven” – this adage, first formulated by Saint Jerome, was “repeated unceasingly” throughout the Middle Ages (75). And the cultural productions of the time clearly show that celibacy was highly valued. For example, in The Travels of Marco Polo, Polo writes approvingly of an old hermit who, “having read in the Bible that it is better to gouge out one’s eyes if the eyes encourage sinning,” proceeded to cut out his own out in order to avoid looking at beautiful women (76). He would go that far to preserve his celibacy because the superior form of love was considered to be love of God, which the “believer” expressed by “consecrating his or her chastity” to the deity (75). Given that celibacy was considered to be the best guarantee of spiritual love and a strong relationship with God, the church forbade its clergy to marry and encouraged its followers to do the same.

Furthermore, popular stories and legends were often revised to include positive portrayals of the renunciation of sexual earthly pleasures. For instance, the last few pages of The Death of King Arthur show Lancelot “renouncing human love, retiring to a monastery, becoming a priest...fasting, abstaining from sex [and] praying” (85). When Lancelot dies, “everyone mourns him,” and he is buried right next to his best friend, Galehot (85). Of course, just like the homosocial valuation of close friendships (above), the church’s obsession with celibacy was motivated by a considerable amount of misogyny: men were encouraged to be celibate not just as a way of getting closer to God, but also in order to avoid exposing themselves to women and the alleged “danger" (in terms of encouraging men to engage in ungodly sexual acts) that they posed.

Finally, according to Tin, “love and pleasures of the flesh were…also [considered to be] bad from a medical perspective” (142). For doctors of that period, love was “comparable to other potentially pathological practices, such as drinking alcohol” (144). They assumed that too much love could lead to an “inflammation of the liver and the blood,” which causes a general overheating of the body (147). In men, this “love sickness” could have serious consequences for the body, such as a slowing of the pulse, weight loss, insomnia, sleepiness, digestive problems, and inability to react to stimuli (148). For women, it was thought that the situation could get even more serious: the assumption was that “the woman is by nature weaker than the man,” and thus, more susceptible to pathologically falling in love and overheating (148). The consequences of this for women’s bodies were considered to be far more severe. At the time, doctors thought that a woman who was “strongly heated by an extraordinary desire, could eventually acquire masculine sexual characteristics, such as…a virile voice and a beard” (151). Furthermore, an excess of love and passion could also cause a woman to produce semen. And if the semen “remain[ed] unused, it could accumulate in the uterus along with menstrual blood, go foul, and cause irritation in the inner linings of the vagina” (153). This was considered to be the leading cause of “hysteria” and “erotic melancholy” among women (153). On the whole, medieval medical discourse was decidedly anti-sexual: it pathologized excessive love and passion between men and women, while encouraging a moderate, subdued approach to sexuality that bordered on celibacy.

The Rise of Heterosexual Culture

Nevertheless, the homosocial and anti-sexual cultures that dominated medieval society were largely displaced by the 16th Century. Heterosexual culture, or the glorification and exaltation of the man-woman couple, had become the most prominent discourse on love, sex and friendship in France. And it is still dominant today, as evidenced by the stream of “children’s stories, adult novels, films and T.V. shows, journals and magazines, advertisements and pop songs” that portray, propagate and celebrate the male-female couple (6).

In the 12th Century, more refined court culture had begun to slowly replace chivalric military culture as the primary inspiration for poetry, plays, epic poems and songs. Unlike the military world, which was almost exclusively male and masculine, the world of the court featured females and femininity prominently. In this context, "courtly love" between men and women "became…a quasi-obsessional recurring theme" in the poetry, music and literature of the period (28). The story lines usually went as follows: a man and a married woman would fall in love, but the woman's husband and family would forbid their relationship. How the couple negotiated this predicament was subsequently the major theme, and the poem would usually unfurl in passionate erotic language, which in particular, "celebrated [and] exalted" the woman's physical beauty (40). According to Tin, court culture introduced a veritable "revolution" in medieval life, and by the end of the 16th Century; it managed to replace homosocial masculine friendships with heterosexual affairs as the social centerpiece of love and intimacy.

The Catholic Church also changed its attitudes to heterosexuality. With court culture and heterosexual erotic poetry becoming more and more popular since the 12th Century, the church increasingly had trouble promoting celibacy. It thus attempted to regulate the burgeoning heterosexual culture by bringing it – with many strings attached – into the religious fold. Marriage was reluctantly made into a sacrament and poets were encouraged to channel their admiration of women into chaste songs of praise for the Virgin Mary, instead of for married women. While the clergy initially resisted heterosexual culture, they eventually realized that it had become a permanent feature of the social landscape and that the best way to regulate it would be to accept it as a cornerstone of church doctrine.

Finally, anti-(hetero)sexual attitudes also waned in the medical sphere. By the 16th Century, sex was perceived more as a cure than a disease: "when a woman was affected by love sickness, an increasing number of doctors recommended that she have sex with a man as a way of treating it" (155). Whereas previous cures for the illness included "bloodletting" and "the induction of vomiting," Renaissance medicine would often recommend that a spouse be found for the sick person and that the two people should consummate their relationship as soon as possible (157).

Overall, by the 16th Century heterosexual culture largely replaced medieval homosocial and anti-sexual ideas as the main way of organizing sexuality, love and friendship in French society. The construction of what Tin calls “the heterosexual empire,” or the symbolic primacy and constant propagation of man-woman relations, was virtually complete by that point (6).

Some Criticisms of Tin’s Book

While Tin demonstrates convincingly that medieval French society did not exalt sexual, amorous and friendship relations between men and women, he does not attempt to explain why heterosexual culture emerged as a challenge this perspective and why it became the dominant way of organizing sexual and amorous relations by the 16th Century. He astutely describes how heterosexual culture seeped into, and eventually took over, most of the cultural productions of the early modern period: epic poems, tragedies, comedies, philosophy, novels, and medical discourse. But he does not speculate on the reasons why this happened. This may be due to time and space constraints: as Tin himself points out, “the scope of the subject is so vast that it would, of course, be impossible to address everything” in one book (190). Indeed, a comprehensive treatment of the topic of heterosexual culture would require “several volumes” of work and an “ample library” of sources. But neither of these are currently obtainable, since The Invention of Heterosexual Culture is actually “the first book published in French on the history of heterosexuality” (190).

Nevertheless, I do not think that we should excuse the lack of explanations for the rise of heterosexual culture because of this. Tin could have at least tried to speculate on some possible reasons why heterosexual culture emerged and became so dominant in France and the rest of Europe after the 12th Century. It is especially important to note, in this context, that he had no trouble coming up with a list of factors, which purported explain why there was such a strong emphasis on male-male friendships in the Middle Ages. On pages 26-28, he describes “the historical conditions that favored the development” of widespread homosociality during this period as follows: (1) Misogyny – “women were pushed to the side and mattered little” – they were viewed primarily as objects of exchange, who could stir sexual interests, but not true love or passion; (2) The need to avoid conflicts – close relationships between knights and male warriors were a way of ensuring unity and social peace in a violent and fragmented political context, and friends were often bound together publicly by an “unwritten contract,” which usually involved an exchange of women and mutual promises; (3) Royal power – the King needed a permanent army of “unmarried young men,” who would be able to defend “his territory” – married men would be more difficult to mobilize and the cult of intense male-male friendship served to make the single-sex warrior life more attractive and to reinforce “solidarity” among the soldiers; (4) The brutality of medieval life – “sentimental” friendships between men brought some of the few moments of affection and “tenderness” in feudal society. In a violent social context, having knights who “hug and kiss each other…and sometimes spend the night together” was a welcome respite from everyday brutalities.

Tin was thus able to propose some historical factors, which could explain why homosocial relationships were so popular in medieval France. But why did he not endeavor to do the same for the heterosexual culture that became so dominant after the 12th Century? Could he have at least speculated on some of the potential causes of the increase in valorization and exaltation of heterosexuality? Could he have even argued that the rise of heterosexual culture may have been caused by the declining importance of the four conditions (see above) that promoted homosociality? Given that Tin’s stated purpose is to de-naturalize heterosexual culture by exposing its historical contingency and variability, he would have done well to reflect more on why heterosexual culture has existed in some periods and some societies, but not in others.

Furthermore, in a theoretical sense, Tin does not deal at all with the issue of heterosexual identity. His distinction between heterosexual practice and heterosexual culture is certainly useful, in that it sets up a distinction between sexuality as a specific type of action and sexuality as a normative social discourse, which defines what the legitimate and desirable forms of love, sex and coupling are at any given time. This dichotomy enables Tin to effectively critique the anti-democratic and highly limiting discourse of heterosexual culture, while at the same time, remaining neutral about the practice of sex between men and women. Nevertheless, it is strange that a book about the history of heterosexuality hardly deals with the issue of heterosexual identity. Many interesting questions could have been asked on this point. For instance, Foucault argued that homosexuality only emerged as a personal identity in the late 20th Century and that this was made possible by changes in medical discourse, which posited sexuality as a form of being, rather than an action – is the same true for heterosexuality? At what point did people start to identify as "heterosexuals" and how did they define themselves in relation to the homosexual "other"? Given time and space constraints, it is perhaps understandable that Tin did not deal with this question. Nevertheless, the book has left me wondering about them.

Conclusion: Studying the Heterosexual Empire

Nevertheless, despite the above-mentioned flaws, Tin’s book is an excellent introduction to the history of heterosexuality and the practice of historicizing sexual relations in general. It is also a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in early modern French literature, as it offers crucial re-readings of several canonical authors from the perspective of gender and sexuality studies. The book has the added advantage of being written in a clear-but-complex language, which makes it very accessible for beginners, while at the same, holding the attention of specialists and other readers who are already familiar with the subject matter.

Finally, it is impossible to overemphasize the significance of The Invention of Heterosexual Culture from an activist point of view. The book sets out to destroy a major aspect of heterosexual privilege: the freedom from having this particular sexual orientation queried, studied, and questioned. For too long, homosexuality and sexual fetishes have been the sole objects of scientific, sociological and psychological analysis, while heterosexuality has been left unexamined. It was simply assumed that sexual relations between men and women, the monogamous heterosexual coupling on which society is founded, and the constant cultural glorification of man-woman relationships, were all perfectly natural and required no analysis and no explanation. Only the presumably pathological (homosexuality and other non-heterosexual sexualities) was considered in need of academic inquiry. Tin’s book rightly brings heterosexuality down from its pedestal and puts it to serious scrutiny.

***For More Information***

Louis-Georges Tin is a well-known French LGBT activist and scholar. His academic training is in medieval and early modern French literature and society, but he has also published three books about sexuality: Homosexualités – Expression/Repression, The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay and Lesbian Experience, and L’Invention de la Culture Hétérosexuelle. He is also the founder of the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) and a writer for the French newspaper, Liberation. You can find some interviews with him (in both French and English) here and you can read his blog about heterosexuality (in French) here. As yet, there are no plans to translate The Invention of Heterosexual Culture into English, but my next post will take a look at some of the English-language literature on the historical and theoretical study of heterosexuality and homosociality. I will, in particular, aim to compare this literature to Tin’s contribution and to see whether it can offer some explanations for the emergence and dominance of heterosexual culture.

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