Are Straight People OK? And Other Questions About Love and Sexuality

From Personal Ads to Swiping Right, a
Story of America Looking for Love
By Francesca Beauman
196 pp. Pegasus. $27.95.

In our present time of distance, the search for what we want has taken on an unexpected literary quality. Reading has always been the safer form of sex, and though the coronavirus has made more relationships sexless as of late, that doesn’t necessarily make them chaste. Written back when people could pursue their desires with all the abandon they liked, three new books remind us now, in the midst of a pandemic, that romance has never been quite as simple as communicating desire. It’s often wanting what you shouldn’t; hoping for more than you can get.

In “Matrimony, Inc.,” Beauman uses history to help us make sense of our near future. The book frames our impulse to nakedly self-promote as just an old habit fitted to a new era. As white settlers spread across America in the 18th and 19th centuries, finding eligible partners became a question of geographical logistics. Since then the imbalances of courtship have been the subject of much study, but as Beauman writes, very little research has been done into their supposed solution: the personal ad, born in The Boston Evening Post in 1759.

Full of funny facts that should under no circumstances be brought up on a first date, the book revisits the critical satirists James Franklin (Benjamin’s brother) and Mark Twain, who set the tone for mocking the corniest parts of looking for love. But there are also some genuinely terrifying true-crime tales that have spawned today’s urban legends and moral panic around the proliferation of dating apps. In 1908, Belle Gunness murdered at least 40 men in her farmhouse, after advertising herself as a “comely widow” in search of a husband.

Like all good social histories, “Matrimony, Inc.” is mostly a study of language. “Rare chance to acquire happiness and fortune honestly,” reads one gentleman’s ad in the 1800s. By the 1970s and ’80s, abbreviations like “GSOH (good sense of humor)” and “WLTM (would like to meet)” were commonplace. In the brief final chapter, Beauman reasons that A.I. will constitute the next phase of online dating. Even more chillingly, she predicts sometime in the future, “we all end up just having a relationship with the computer itself.”

What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society,
and the Meaning of Sex
By Angela Chen
210 pp. Beacon. $26.95.

While we have developed many words and phrases to describe what we want, somehow there are never enough words to explain how we feel. Where Beauman recounts the ways in which language has historically been used to make dating more direct and “transactional,” Chen argues we need more vocabulary to figure out what we’re even looking for in the first place. In “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex,” she interviews nearly 100 people who identify as asexual, studying a variety of experiences (including her own) to come up with a unified terminology. Though she writes that asexuality as a sexual orientation is rarely properly acknowledged in society (“aces in general have very few depictions in popular culture,” for example), her goal is not to introduce readers to a new phenomenon, for asexuality — the sexual attraction to no one — existed long before it was defined. But, as Chen recalls of her own first encounter with the word “asexuality” at 14, “learning the term did not change how I viewed myself.” This book is her thoughtful attempt to develop a more useful lexicon for aces than we’ve had before.

Quoting the Polish-American semanticist Alfred Korzybski provides a compass: The map, he once said, is not the territory. What is charted is only the beginning of exploration. Adrienne Rich and critical queer theory provide a framework: Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” sets up Chen’s central argument, which is that asexuality is neither a deviation nor a pathology, but simply a different way of living as a person in the world.

“Ace” is a combination of reportage, cultural criticism and memoir, and the writing attempts the difficult balance between proof and emotion. I was struck most by Chen’s honesty, the sentences of intimate reflection that appear in the margins of her argument throughout: “I believe I am right when I think about compulsory sexuality and its negative effects, but self-righteousness is not as useful an emotion as I once believed,” she admits. “When it comes to the personal, I frequently lack the courage of my convictions.”

By Jane Ward
Illustrated. 207 pp. New York University. $26.95.

If the “insight fallacy” Chen cites is “the mistaken belief that understanding a problem will solve it,” straightness, Ward thinks, is perhaps the most misunderstood sexual orientation of all. “The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” wastes absolutely no time getting to the point, but while many of the sentences (including the title) made me laugh out loud, it is at heart a somber, urgent academic examination of the many ways in which opposite-sex coupling can hurt the very individuals who cling to it most.

Ward distinguishes straightness as a practice from straight culture, which is the very heart of society’s most disgraceful failures. It is not, as one popular joke goes, that straight people are “not OK.” It is that heteronormativity creates a powerful, privileged form of sexuality against which, historically and currently, all other forms are compared. In examining the pressure to partner with the opposite gender we find the extortions of capitalism, the misogyny of violence against women, the racist and xenophobic erasure of nonwhite families, and the homophobic hatreds that pervade so much of everyday life.

Our desires may feel beyond our control, but Ward stresses the importance of understanding sexuality as self-identified. “One of the foundational principles of lesbian feminism is that each person’s sexual desire is their own responsibility,” Ward writes, “if not something they can choose, then at least something they can choose to examine and take ownership of.” As such, she argues, a queer theory — influenced by thinkers of the 1970s and ’80s, like Rich, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith; as well as present-day academics such as Sara Ahmed — might be just the thing to rescue heterosexuality from its unearned hegemony in our shared cultural imagination.

When asked by the editors of her “Compulsory Heterosexuality” essay if she could choose between poetry and history, Rich insisted, “I need to see through both.” To look too far backward is to trip over our own two feet; too far forward, and we miss what’s right in front of our face. These books remind us that neither words nor facts alone can protect us from what we want. Still, that might be the last true constant: that the knowledge wouldn’t stop us from coming back for more. It’s almost enough to break your heart.

Source: Read Full Article