booknotes: sexing the body

I took a class as an undergraduate in the Cultural History of Victorian Science and Technology, which was one of the most awesome classes of my lengthy undergraduate career. One of the conversations I remember from that class was a discussion about how and why some new technologies and scientific theories succeed and some fail. We tend to have a merit-based vision of innovative success and failure: good ideas succeed, bad idea fail. But this isn't necessarily so -- you might have a bad idea but really good marketing skills. You might have a good idea but fail to file your patent paperwork at the right moment. Usually at the beginning of a new technology (take cars for example) the a multitude of products compete for the industry standard. The gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was only one of a number of automobile technologies developed around the turn of the twentieth century: its hegemony today had everything to do with marketing and the availability of cheap oil, rather than its inherent superiority to, say, an electric motor (which was on the scene simultaneously, even a little bit prior to, gasoline-powered motors).

What does this have to do with Anne Faustos-Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000)? I thought of the story of the automobiles and its lesson about the interaction of science, technology, and culture while I was reading Sexing the Body because what my cultural history professor had done for modern technologies, Faustos-Sterling, a trained biologist, does for the scientific exploration of gender and sex in the human body. The work is now a decade old, but still reads (to my eyes anyway) as a fairly current account of how sex and gender have been understood through the lens of science, specifically intersexuality during the twentieth century and how the treatment of intersexual persons is shaped by larger cultural understandings of gender, sex and sexuality.

This exhaustively-researched, amply-footnoted book does a commanding job of balancing the important-yet-technical ins and outs of scientific studies involving rats and hormones with a compelling, readable narrative. Faustos-Sterling documents the way in which the production of scientific knowledge -- specifically the knowledge related to human sex and sexuality -- is inexorably shaped by the cultural understandings of what is normal sex and gender presentation. She begins with external markers of sexuality and a truly horrific chapter concerning how people with unacceptable genitalia have been treated by the medical establishment in the twentieth century. She then moves internally to look at the less visible ways in which scientists have identified the sex of persons, from gonads to hormones. As you might expect, her argument is that "sex" is far from easily established on a medical level, and the standards by which we have chosen to measure sex are hardly objective, unchanging scientific criteria but rather contingent on the narratives concerning sex and gender that scientists performing their laboratory tests take part in and are influenced by.

Warning to anyone who has experienced hospital or medical-related trauma: the descriptions of medical malpractice that included things like operating on infants without painkiller, operating on people of all ages without consent, and providing misleading or outright erroneous medical information to patients or the parents of underage patients are infuriating and painful to read. I find the idea of any medical professional performing invasive, medically unnecessary surgery on a person without their consent or with coerced consent so upsetting that I had to put the book down several times just to let my blood pressure drop.

Much like Hanne Blank's history of virginity, Sexing the Body takes a concept ("sex") that we have come to think of as biologically determined and physically identifiable and questions just how much we really know about what "sex" constitutes. Even if the components of our body that have become markers of "sex" (male or female) are, indeed, physical realities, the decision to establish those particular physical characteristics as markers of sex is, in the end, a socio-cultural decision we make, and one that we can change.

And this, in the end, is Fausto-Sterling's hopeful call: for us all to look beyond the dualities of male versus female, masculine and feminine, and nature (what we have come to label "sex") and nurture (what we have come to label "gender") and acknowledge the reality that we are both and neither, that what we understand as sex and gender identity is both nature and nurture -- and, in fact, more. That we cannot hope to gain more knowledge about human biology and behavior if we continue to constrain ourselves to limited, limiting categories and attempt to shoehorn the diversity of humanity into their narrow confines.


  1. Love this book. Love, love, love it. Fausto-Sterling has written some other great stuff on gender and the social constructions surrounding menstruation and PMS and similar topics as well.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rachel! I haven't had a chance to hunt down Fausto-Sterling's other work, but definitely have to in light of Sexing the Body which was so lucid, eloquent and passionate.