What is determined to be “normal” when discussing sexuality? This past weekend, I was watching an old Saturday Night Live episode, which had a skit dedicated to this topic. While the skit was meant to satirize sexuality, it brings up a good point. Who decides what is and isn’t “normal”? And, Why is heterosexuality accepted without question? The answer is, as usual with sexuality during the early 20th century, procreation. Society believed that sexual intercourse, and all relating sexuality, was for the sole purpose of procreation. However, as the 20th century progressed and sexuality began to shift from procreation, to pleasure, deviations of sexuality began to threaten the “norm”.
Sexuality is an idea, not an identity. This is what I perceived from Jonathan Katz’s essay, “The invention of Heterosexuality”. This was an interesting essay, because it seems, that while obviously heterosexuality has always existed, by naming it, it becomes an aspect of self- identity. Katz gives the argument that heterosexuality is readily unquestionable; it is comprehended by society as “normal” because the act of heterosexuality has always existed, since Adam and Eve (Peiss, 348-349). Katz also says, “ by not studying the heterosexual idea in history, analysts of sex [..] have continued to privilege the ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ at the expense of the ‘abnormal’ and ‘unnatural’(Peiss, 349). By not questioning why heterosexuality exists, and why it is so easily accepted, people further alienate homosexuality as different and wrong. While Katz does distinguish that sexuality is not abstract, “ heterosexuality and homosexuality came into existence before it was named and thought about” (Peiss, 355), it’s social construction is the reason for the perception of sexuality today. The invention of heterosexuality could not have occurred without the invention of homosexuality (Peiss, 351). By identifying the unorthodoxies of “normal sexuality”, society not only established the idea of heterosexuality, but also increased the idea of homosexuality.
Heterosexuality was universally accepted not only because it oldness, but also because during the early 20th century, sexuality was linked to procreation. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, society placed the importance of procreation as the reason why heterosexuality, of “legitimate natural desire” was considered normal, “legitimate natural desire was for procreation and a proper manhood or womanhood”(Peiss, 350). Once again, it was societies’ belief that sex was for procreation that stigmatized any differences against “normal” sexuality. However, as the family dynamic began to change during the late 19th century, so did sexual idea. Sexuality is, and always has been connected to the family. Katz says, “the transformation of the family from producer to consumer unit resulted in a change in family members relation to their bodies[..]the human body was integrated into a new economy, and began more commonly to be perceived as a means of consumption and pleasure”(Peiss, 351). As more Americans left the typical family dynamic, they began to explore their sexuality, as seen in my previous post.
The rise of the middle class, which changed the sexuality of America, not only led to women’s sexual liberation, but also the influx of homosexuality in the public sphere. People were leaving their strict families, and exploring themselves sexually. The rise of a homosexual subculture can be attributed to sexual insecurities and defined gender roles. Fairies, flamboyant (gay) men with feminine qualities, were nonconformists of the male gender, while “manly men” were typical working class men (Chauncey, 115). George Chauncey points out in his book, Gay New York, homosexuality threatened the masculinity of “normal” men- “the crisis in middle- class masculinity, many middle-class workers felt compelled to insist [..] that there was no sexual element in their relations with other men” (Chauncey, 115). As Meagan points out, “Men began fearing the public representation of femininity, and as result, growing numbers of men turned to “strenuous recreation, spectator sports, adventure novels, and a growing cult of the wilderness” (Chauncey 113). This definition of male heterosexuality was the basis for criticism of the gay community’s “less masculine” social divisions”. I completely agree with Meagan’s view of male heterosexuality; the fear of emasculation leads to the need to prove one’s masculinity. The fear of emasculation, and the fear of differences lead to the stigmatization against homosexuality.
The perception of sexuality is entirely based upon society. Because heterosexuality is unquestioned, society perceives it as “normal”. However, homosexuality has always been apart of history. It wasn’t until the names, homo and heterosexuality, were used, did heterosexuality become the “dominant” sexuality (Peiss, 349). Homosexuality was an aspect of everyday public life in New York during the beginning of the 20th century. However, the rise of the importance of masculinity, especially during the interwar years, lead to the ignominy attached to homosexuality. History should be unbiased, and explore both spectrums of sexuality, before condemning one.