Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture

Article excerpt

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture, by Louis-Georges Tin, translated by Michael Roy. Boston, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2012. xi, 197 pp. $21.95 US (cloth).

Historians of sexuality often take for granted that modern Western culture has enforced what amounts to "compulsory heterosexuality"--and that "heterosexuality" is itself of relatively recent vintage. These ideas are also the points of departure for this brief and ambitious work by Louis-Georges Tin, a French scholar-activist specializing in sixteenth-century literature. Originally published in 2008 by Editions Autrement, this work appeared in France a year after Jonathan Ned Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality (Chicago, 2007). By largely focusing on a French body of texts, and pushing the origins of "heterosexual culture" back to the Middle Ages, Tin considerably extends the scope of Katz's study. Yet, by opting for breadth and brevity rather than depth and detail, Tin ends up erring on the side of generality. Tin seems aware of these problems but, rather inconveniently for those who would have expected to find such a discussion in the introduction, he addresses the aims and limitations of his study only in the conclusion.

The central terms of The Invention of Heterosexual Culture are loosely defined. Tin marks a difference between heterosexual practices, which he says are tied to instinct and are therefore universal, and "heterosexual culture" which "always give[s] symbolic primacy to the man-woman couple and to love in its cultural, literary, or artistic representations" (p. ix). The opposite of heterosexual culture is nevertheless not homosexual culture or practices because, in many cases, the form of love that bound men together prior to the triumph of courtly love was not necessarily physically consummated. Thus Tin employs the term "homosociality" (p. 5) as the preferred opposite of heterosexual culture, even though the only homosocial culture that Tin entertains is male-male. Tin's use of the term "culture" refers in a rather traditional way to works of "high" culture and not in the anthropological sense of the word. Thus "heterosexual culture" consists largely of selectively chosen texts (chivalric, ecclesiastical, and medical) that prescribe or comment on ideals and behaviour, but has little to do with "everyday social behavior" (p. 26).

Tin argues that the Middle Ages represented a transitional period during which an ancient warrior celebration of homosocial male bonds was eclipsed by a new emphasis on heterosexuality manifested in the emerging ideals of courtly love and the chivalric code. In the form of conjugal bonds, heterosexuality had always been deemed necessary for the purposes of reproduction, but had long been considered capable of causing "effeminacy" in those men who practiced it exclusively or excessively. The Church too seemed hostile to heterosexual culture, but since for it the problem was less military prowess than spirituality, it privileged "a society of pious brotherhood and saintly predilection" (p. 56). Yet the homosociality the Church promoted seems to have been erected against sexuality in general. However affectively charged they might be, and regardless of what might happen in everyday life, male-male relations were assumed to be chaste, and it was heterosexual relations that might cause the concupiscence that "distracted men from their spiritual obligations" (p. …

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