The Invention of Heterosexual Culture
by Louis-Georges Tin
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
208 pp. Trade, $21.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
The translation of a French study published in 2008, this book is an original and highly stimulating contribution to the broader field of gay and lesbian studies. As the title of the book makes clear from the very start, Tin's subject is not heterosexuality but heterosexual culture and the distinction between human nature (in which heterosexuality is a given) and human culture (in which it only seems "natural", at least today) is one of the fundamental building blocks of this new approach of human sexuality. The ambition of the book is to highlight that the gap between nature and culture can only be explained if one accepts to study it in historical longue durée terms, which shed a very different light on the past as well as the present and the future of heterosexual cultural practices and the organization of Western societies around a mythical conception of heterosexual love.
Tin's story begins in the 12th Century, a period characterized by the emergence of what has become so totally self-evident today that we tend to consider it essential and transhistorical: heterosexuality as an ideal of interpersonal and social relationships. As convincingly demonstrated by Tin, this heterosexuality meant a revolutionary shift in a culture that until then was strongly dominated by paradigms of homosociality, in which issues of heterosexuality and family were kept at the margins of the strong bonds that defined relationships between men in a chivalric or monastic environment. Tin admits that there is still no conclusive explanation of why this homosocial structure was put into question, but its historical reality can, of course, not be denied. From that point on, Tin proposes a real grand narrative ranging the whole second millennium A.D. and studying mainly the conflict between heterosexuality and the three major forces that have attempted to counter or block it: the chivalric world-order, which saw heterosexuality as a danger for its ideals of masculinity; the religious world-order, which rejected it as a danger for its ideals of spiritual love; and the medical world-order, which linked it with various kinds of problematic, i.e. unhealthy behavior (in the beginning of the 20th Century, heterosexuality, the newer form of lovesickness, was esteemed as dangerous as homosexuality). Relying on a corpus constituted by literary sources, Tin scrutinizes these resistances to heterosexuality, often very long (as already said, these phenomena have to do with longue durée historiography) but always, despite frequent moments of success, profoundly reactionary and rear-guard. A second layer in the book is the discussion of the notion of sexual and social normalcy, and the progressive criminalization of what is the flipside of the rise of heterosexuality: homosexuality. A third one has to do with the social and sexual treatment of women, which Tin clearly distinguishes from the changing views on heterosexuality.
Tin proposes an appealing interpretation of heterosexuality in Western culture, with a good mix of broad general tendencies and a fine sense of detail and close-reading. The choice to focus on literary sources, rather than unpublished archival material or legal documents as might have been expected from an author who has read carefully the work by Foucault, has a double advantage. First, it allows for a creative rereading of French literary canon, from the Chanson de Roland to Paul Claudel over Montaigne and Corneille and many others. This rereading is extremely refreshing. It shows, moreover, how the literary canon has been misread or even misused in the past. Second, the emphasis on literature helps bring into focus the importance of education and of the social framing of sexual matters. As an aspect of culture, not of nature, heterosexuality is something that cannot be separated from education, and Tin has many clever analyses of the way in which the literary and school system (for many centuries, both were almost inseparable) promoted forms of writing while manipulating, withdrawing or censoring other ones in order to impose a certain idea of human sexuality. Logically, the last chapter of the book is then an appeal towards the "end" of heterosexual culture (not of heterosexuality) and a plea for a new revolution that replaces the age-old "natural" domination of heterosexual behavior and practices by culturally more diverse of sexual culture.