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The Shadow and the Substance The Sex/Gender Debate

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Abstract

In spite of the foundational implications of the distinction between 'sex' and 'gender' for feminism, this chapter seeks to explore ways of reconciling the two concepts, so that a unified field of feminist research could be developed, one that encompasses consider- ation of bodies in the analysis of the social and cultural and that identifies in those bodies, and the interpretation of those bodies, the unmistakeable impact of the social and cultural environments within which they exist. This requires recognizing that the mind that creates these environments is both brain and social and cultural product. The challenge for feminism is to produce a social science that recognizes and understands the biological, without taking biological characteristics as a given, and a biology that takes full account of the fact that human beings are pre-eminently social and cultural creatures who, in shaping the world around them, also shape themselves. It is in this latter area that some of the most exciting developments could lie for a feminist biology.
INTRODUCTION
The sex/gender distinction has been essential to the full flowering of second-
wave feminism. The point of making that initial distinction, however, was not
to create two concepts,but to allow the concept of gender to take off.And take
off it did. There followed over thirty years of enormously productive feminist
scholarship, which made evident that what the term ‘gender’ uncovered was a
vast and intellectually fertile domain. This handbook is itself testament to the
complexity and richness of this new terrain. But accepting the straightforward
existence of something called ‘sex’, which was not – at least initially – to be an
area of investigation for feminism, meant that there was something obdurate
embedded at the edges of feminist scholarship that never quite went away.
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The Shadow and the Substance
The Sex/Gender Debate
Wendy Cealey Harrison
In spite of the foundational implications of the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’for
feminism, this chapter seeks to explore ways of reconciling the two concepts, so that a
unified field of feminist research could be developed,one that encompasses consider-
ation of bodies in the analysis of the social and cultural and that identifies in those
bodies, and the interpretation of those bodies, the unmistakeable impact of the social
and cultural environments within which they exist. This requires recognizing that the
mind that creates these environments is both brain and social and cultural product.
The challenge for feminism is to produce a social science that recognizes and
understands the biological, without taking biological characteristics as a given, and a
biology that takes full account of the fact that human beings are pre-eminently social
and cultural creatures who,in shaping the world around them, also shape themselves.
It is in this latter area that some of the most exciting developments could lie for a
feminist biology.
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Quite early in its history, Christine Delphy declared herself disappointed by
the concept of ‘gender’, which had failed, she said, to live up to the promise it
carried in embryo: in remaining tied to the concept of ‘sex’, it had not ‘taken
wing’ but had ‘on the contrary seemed to cling onto its daddy’ (1984: 24–5).
She was dismayed to find that the term ‘gender’ was so often to be found in
composites such as ‘sex/gender’ or ‘sex and gender’, in which the forward slash
or the ‘and’ denoted the fact that ‘gender’ had not separated itself from, but
always resided with, ‘sex’.
In a sense, the adoption by feminists of the distinction between ‘sex’ and
‘gender’ originally proposed by John Money (1965) and theorized by Robert
Stoller (1968), however radical its impetus and consequences, embodied a
concession. This concession is evident in Ann Oakley’s first formulation
of the feminist concept of gender, and that is that there were ‘natural’ differ-
ences between the sexes which were self-evident and undeniable: ‘The con-
stancy of sex must be admitted,’ she said, ‘but so also must the variability
of gender’ (1972: 16). Yet Oakley’s own work indicated quite clearly that
variability was not the sole prerogative of gender. In Subject Women (1981:
54–5), she pointed out, for example, the impact of social situations on
testosterone levels in animals, research that has since been confirmed by
human studies (Bernhardt et al., 1998). Nevertheless, although the very notion
of ‘sex’ has lately come to seem far more problematical than it used to, and
there have now been a number of forays by feminist scholars into the realm
of the biological, ‘sex’ continues to act as something of a lodestone in the
study of gender, a taken-for-granted binary divide in the population which
unambiguously classifies all human beings, alive or dead.
The concession that was tacitly embodied in Oakley’s formulation has
returned to haunt feminism. Casual Internet searches reveal a wealth of rumi-
nations on the reinvigorated topic of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, with a return to
the claim – believed successfully dispelled and dismissed by feminism in the
1970s – that there are ineradicable behavioural and psychological characteris-
tics peculiar to women (or in a more ‘progressive’ vein, peculiar to women and
to men) which cannot be wished away by feminist social scientists as the prod-
ucts of social and cultural construction. ‘Gender’, in other words, is under
threat as a concept. Even Delphy herself talks of the ‘social aspect of the sexual
dichotomy’ (1984: 24), as if there were something basic and irrefutable about
the dichotomy between the sexes as a biological reality.
But before we simply fall into line and concede what looks like the
inescapable biological case, it is worth opening up the whole issue of biol-
ogy for scrutiny. What R. W. Connell described as the ‘doctrine of natural
difference’, the conviction of the foundational character of biological dif-
ference for gender, forms for many people, he says, ‘a limit beyond which
thought cannot go’ (1987: 66, emphasis added). Indeed, acceptance of the
idea that there are fundamental and foundational differences between the
sexes is sometimes actively embraced by feminists as an acknowledgement of
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the specificity of women’s experience in the flesh. Not only does the doctrine
of natural difference imply that sex forms the bedrock, the foundation for
gender, but the assumption is, as Oakley’s statement indicates, that sex has
constancy: it is a ‘matter of fact’, based in a stable biological reality, which by
definition does not alter.
One problem, then, lies in what precisely it would mean for the concept
of ‘gender’to take wing, as Delphy had hoped it would do. For there appears
to be an unavoidable sense in which gender is ‘about’ sex, which makes it dif-
ficult to see how gender could cease to be, as Delphy puts it, set on ‘anatom-
ical sex like the beret on the head of the legendary Frenchman’ (1984: 25).
Although the concept of ‘gender’ first came into being in order to address
the potential discrepancy between an individual’s anatomy and their attri-
bution of identity to themselves (so that, for example, someone could be
anatomically male but see themselves as female), the notion that gender in
some sense elaborates on, or builds on, sex, and that sex is a given, seems to
obey a compelling logic.
Both of those ideas, the notion that sex is a given and that it is somehow
foundational and more ‘real’ and solid than gender, however, are open to
question – on different kinds of grounds admittedly, as we shall see in what
follows, but neither should be taken for granted. The apparent solidity and
reality of sex is strongly associated with the idea that it is bodies (‘sex’) that
have substance, where minds and relationships (‘gender’) do not. The idea
of what she called the ‘materiality’ of sex was investigated by Judith Butler in
her 1993 book Bodies That Matter. In a complex philosophical discussion,
she unpicks the contradictions involved in endorsing the claim that the body
is somehow outside and beyond minds, relationships, and language (1993:
1–32). How did it come to be the case, she asks, that sex is seen as something
irreducible, in other words as something which is essentially outside and
beyond human thought?
It is this apparent integrity and solidity to ‘sex’ that provides the basis for
Delphy’s disappointment. Particularly problematical for the fate of the
concept of ‘gender’, she says, is the fact that, although ‘sex’ can be spoken of
without ‘gender’, the same is not true the other way around. In remaining tied
to ‘sex’, Delphy argued, ‘gender’ becomes no more than a gesture, a way of
paying lip-service to the social aspects. As the dependent term in the pair,
‘gender’ has a tendency to collapse back onto what is regarded as primary:
‘sex’. The powerful way in which this collapse operates in all our lives is
perfectly encapsulated by a transsexual quoted in Suzanne Kessler and Wendy
McKenna’s pioneering book, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach,who
said: ‘Gender is an anchor, and once people decide what you are they inter-
pret everything you do in the light of that’ (1978: 6). The weight in that
anchor is ‘sex’,or to be more precise,genitalia, which, as Kessler and McKenna
point out, represent the biological insignia which are seen to determine
whether someone is male or female, and are therefore attributed to them as
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of right. These ‘cultural genitals’ are those that it is believed people possess
under their clothing, or if not, ought to possess, as a legitimate member of their
gender category. Gender attribution is therefore in a sense always genital
attribution: ‘The cultural genitals (not some configuration of biological mate-
rial) are the foundation for any gender attribution made’1(Kessler, 1998: 86).
This means that the collapse of ‘gender’ onto ‘sex’ goes even further than
Delphy suspects, since ‘sex’ to all intents and purposes amounts to ‘genitals’.
In keeping with this insight, Delphy’s attempt to retrieve the concept
of ‘gender’ from this collapse lies in exposing what is for her the fact that
‘sex’ is not a fundamental and incontrovertible reality but a marker, the
marker used by a discriminatory and oppressive social system to differentiate
between superordinate and subordinate groups of people.‘Sex’marks out the
exploited group, women. For Delphy, then, ‘sex’ is not a matter of fact; rather,
sexual differentiation serves a social purpose in patriarchal exploitation.
‘Women’ and ‘men’ are social, not biological categories, and the very clarity
of the distinction between them, both in practical terms and in terms of
discourses, is about the maintenance of what Delphy sometimes describes
as two castes within the population. The alleged differences between the sexes
are identified, and indeed ‘found’ to exist, in order to construct the hierarchy
between the two. The traits identified, where indeed they exist, would other-
wise be no more important than the difference between having blue eyes and
having green eyes. One could summarize this by saying that ‘sex’ is to sexism
as ‘race’ is to racism.
Although persuasive, this point of view seems to go against the grain of
common sense, as if it were essentially counter-intuitive. Both Delphy’s notion
of ‘sex’ as a marker and Kessler and McKenna’s use of the notion of ‘cultural
genitals’ seem to call forth the rejoinder that there really is such an entity as sex
and there really are such things as genitalia: their uses may be social, but their
reality is incontrovertible. Against such views, there will also always be those
who, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out over half a century ago (1972 [1949]:
14), will rush to make the claim that women simply are not men and to insist
that the difference between the sexes is the most fundamental of human dif-
ferences, which it is at best foolish and at worst detrimental to ignore. Indeed,
with the recent ascendancy of biologistic explanations in general, and the
increasing prestige of genetics in particular, feminism is now faced with some-
thing like the return of the repressed, the idea that maybe there really are dif-
ferences between the sexes, differences which might have implications for the
ways in which women and men should be treated.
WOMEN ARE BUT MEN TURNED OUTSIDE IN
One of the most revolutionary and compelling pieces of research of the 1990s,
however, is to be found in Thomas Laqueur’s luminous book, Making Sex: Body
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and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. It dislocates our commonsense
understanding of what ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are and how they might be related
to one another.Put briefly, what Laqueur argues is that ‘sex’ is a concept which
was invented at a particular point in time in our culture. ‘Sex’ as a biological
entity was ‘made’ rather than simply discovered, and brought into being for
reasons other than the scientific.
Not only did the idea of ‘sex’ not always exist, but in the past – before
about 1800 in Europe – bodies were seen in radically different ways from
those we take for granted. Far from our ancestors living in a world in which
sex was a fundamental reality given by biology, the primary reality for them
was a divine order,an order in which bodies were oddly insubstantial things.
Women’s and men’s bodies in pre-Enlightenment accounts are indices of
a metaphysical reality – literally a reality beyond the physical – a reality
more profound and more fundamental than the presence and disposition of
organs, like penis or uterus. Indeed the disposition of organs shows a muta-
bility which would simply provoke incredulity in us: a girl chasing her swine
suddenly springs an external penis and scrotum (for vaginas were assumed
to be internal ones – penises turned outside in); men associating too much
with women lose the more perfect hardness of their bodies and regress
towards effeminacy (Laqueur, 1990: 7). As Caroline Walker Bynum (1989)
has pointed out in another context, bodies do strange and remarkable
things – male bodies lactate; the bodies of female saints are miraculously
preserved after death – but these phenomena are related to a completely
different understanding of what bodies are. As Laqueur puts it, rather than
bodily morphology providing evidence of an underlying biological reality,
instead it merely ‘makes vivid and more palpable a hierarchy of heat and
perfection that is in itself not available to the senses’ (1990: 27).
Prior to the Enlightenment, what Laqueur calls the ‘one-sex model’ described
woman as a lesser version of man, in whom a lack of ‘vital heat’ caused her to
retain inside her body structures that in men would have been on the outside:
‘women are but men turned outside in’, as early nineteenth-century doggerel
would have it (1990: 4). Men themselves would, in Christian theology, have
been placed below the diverse orders of the angels, but above the whole of the
animal kingdom. What emerges after the Enlightenment to replace this view
is the notion, familiar to us, of a fundamental polarity between the sexes based
upon discoverable biological differences: ‘No longer would those who think
about such matters regard woman as a lesser version of man along a vertical
axis of infinite gradations but rather as an altogether different creature along a
horizontal axis whose middle ground was largely empty’ (1990: 148).
So important is this sense of an empty middle ground between the sexes,
of a no-(wo)man’s land that separates them and that no human being should
occupy, that surgery carried out on the genitalia of intersexed infants effec-
tively sets out to create it. Suzanne Kessler (1998: 43) points out that there
are published guidelines for clitoral and penile size, which are devised so as
to leave a clear 1.5 cm gap between the two sets of measurements. The result
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is that clitoral lengths above the stipulated maximum will tend to be
surgically reduced, while penises below the required dimensions could even
lead to the reassignment of the child to a gender deemed more appropriate
to the size of his genital.
The temptation, of course, would be simply to say that our ancestors got it
wrong, that scientific advances have revealed the ideas behind the ‘one-sex
model’ to be a myth. But Laqueur does not allow us such comforting rational-
izations. The historical evidence reveals that the reconsideration of the nature
of women and men which is the basis of our understanding occurs roughly 100
years before the scientific discoveries that are brought to bear to support it: ‘In
place of what, in certain situations, strikes the modem imagination as an almost
perverse insistence on understanding sexual difference as a matter of degree,
gradations of one basic male type, there arose a shrill call to articulate sharp
corporeal distinctions’ (Laqueur, 1990: 5). What is also marked after 1800 is
that bodies are being thought of in a different way, as the foundation and guar-
antor of particular sorts of social arrangements (1990: 29). As Laqueur puts it,
‘no one was much interested in looking for evidence of two distinct sexes until
such differences became politically important’ (1990: 10).
SEX AS A MOTIVATED INVENTION?
What Laqueur’s book suggests, then, is that ‘sex’ is a motivated invention,
born, if you like, of gender. In that sense, he might seem to agree with Delphy.
He demonstrates very clearly the inextricable link between the ways in which
bodies are imagined and what we would now recognize as the political and
cultural imperatives of gender. More importantly, what he suggests is that
the body does not automatically give itself to be interpreted in this or that
particular way: ‘Two sexes are not the necessary, natural consequence of cor-
poreal difference. Nor, for that matter, is one sex’ (1990: 243). This contention
is in part an issue about the body itself, as something which is not as unam-
biguous as it first appears, and in part a point about human knowledge.
Talking of the anthropological literature, he has a wonderful description of the
way in which human purposes, symbolism, frameworks of interpretation, and
even fantasy can act to transform things that appear to have an unassailable
reality into something rich and strange:
The cassowary, a large, flightless, ostrich-like, and, to the anthropologist, epicene
bird, becomes to the male Sambian tribesman a temperamental, wild, masculin-
ized female who gives birth through the anus and whose feces have procreative
powers; the bird becomes powerfully bisexual. Why, asks the ethnographer Gilbert
Herdt, do people as astute as the Sambia ‘believe’ in anal birth? Because anything
one says, outside of very specific contexts, about the biology of sex, even among
the brute beasts, is already informed by a theory of sameness and difference.
(1990: 19)
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Laqueur’s point is that human beings impose their own symbolic order onto
what he calls a world of continuous shades of difference and similarity.
Particular symbolic configurations make little sense to an outsider, and the
same object may well appear in widely differing ways within different systems
of meaning. Quoting Clande Lévi-Strauss’s example about the sagebrush,
Artemisia, and the variable parts it plays in association with other plants in
a Native American ritual, Laqueur says: ‘No principle of opposition could
be subtler than the tiny differences in leaf serrations that come to carry such
enormous symbolic weight’ (1990: 19)
In short, carving out what is empirical reality from human purpose is no
straightforward matter. Our obvious rejoinder might be to reach for the
scientific method as the guarantor that what we are dealing with when we
look at cassowaries, sagebrush, or indeed male and female bodies in their
infinite variety is what is really there. Unfortunately, as in every other area of
scientific work, a set of methodological protocols certainly provides some
assistance, but it does not supply any guarantees.
Some of the most interesting recent work, such as that of feminist biolo-
gists like Anne Fausto-Sterling (1989; 1992; 2000), has been invaluable in
uncovering the gendered assumptions embedded in the supposedly cool
neutrality of biological research on ‘sex’. The places in which such gendered
assumptions are to be found can be quite subtle and surprising. In an article
written as early as 1989, entitled ‘Life in the XY Corral’, Fausto-Sterling iden-
tified the complex ways in which gendered assumptions entered into such
obscurely technical issues as the role of the cell nucleus and gene activity
in embryological development. She makes the case that these assumptions
downplay other vital contributory factors, not least of which is the part
played by the cytoplasm of the egg cell. Her more general point is ‘not that
political philosophies cause bad theory choice, but that there are often several
fairly good accounts of existing data available. Which theory predominates
depends on much more than just how well the data and the facts fit together’
(1989: 324).
Does that mean, though, that our whole idea of ‘sex’ is, as Delphy
suggests, a politically constructed fiction? Well, not necessarily. But we
do now have to think very hard about how we should henceforth regard
the scientific discoveries associated with the idea of ‘sex’ that to us seem so
unimpeachable precisely because they are scientific. We might all be famil-
iar with the idea that the science of sexuality can be host to some dubious
gendered assumptions, as Emily Martin (1991) pointed out in her article on
the romance of the egg and the sperm. But none of us doubts the existence
of egg and sperm. Indeed, Laqueur finds himself in some difficulty here
because, on the one hand, he quite clearly believes that scientific advances
have taken place, talking of certain beliefs about sex as ‘patently absurd’,
while on the other, he argues that the whole science of difference is mis-
conceived (1990: 21–2). There is simply no discussion of biological realities
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that does not have its admixture of value, desire, and social and political
exigency:
Sex, like being human, is contextual. Attempts to isolate it from its discursive,
socially determined milieu are as doomed to failure as the philosophe’s search for
a truly wild child or the modern anthropologist’s efforts to filter out the cultural
so as to leave a residue of essential humanity.And I would go further and add that
the private enclosed stable body that seems to lie at the basis of modern notions
of sexual difference is also the product of particular, historical, cultural moments.
It too, like opposite sexes, comes into and out of focus. (Laqueur, 1990: 16)
We might then logically suppose that even eggs and sperm themselves –
regardless of any romance they may be engaged in – are to be cast into doubt.
Laqueur clearly wants to resist any such notion, and what he describes as the
erosion of the ‘body’s priority over language. He identifies what he calls a
powerful tendency among feminists to empty sex of its content by arguing
that natural differences are really cultural. He also says, however, quoting
Maurice Godelier, that ‘society haunts the body’s sexuality’. He describes his
own work and much feminist scholarship in general as caught in the tensions
of this contradictory formulation, ‘between nature and culture; between “bio-
logical sex” and the endless social and political markers of difference’. The
analytical distinction between sex and gender, he suggests, ‘gives voice to
these alternatives and has always been precarious.‘We remain poised,’ he goes
on,‘between the body as that extraordinary fragile, feeling and transient mass
of flesh with which we are all familiar – too familiar – and the body that is so
hopelessly bound to its cultural meanings as to elude unmediated access’
(1990: 11–12).
Judith Butler suggests that talking about the social construction of the
natural appears to produce ‘the cancellation of the natural by the social’:
Insofar as it relies on this construal, the sex/gender distinction founders…if gender
is the social significance that sex assumes within a given culture…then what, if any-
thing, is left of ‘sex’ once it has assumed its social character as gender?…If gender
consists of the social meanings that sex assumes, then sex does not accrue social
meanings as additive properties, but rather is replaced by the social meanings it takes
on; sex is relinquished in the course of that assumption, and gender emerges, not as
a term in a continued relationship of opposition to sex, but as the term which
absorbs and displaces ‘sex’. (1993: 5, original emphasis)
We cannot, however, remain poised over a precarious analytical distinction
between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, in which the former at least comes into and out
of focus, nor can we simply obliterate what is designated by the term ‘sex’ by
bringing it under the heading of ‘gender’ as that is commonly understood.
THE HAUNTING OF THE BODY’S SEX
An abiding theme of the last decade has been the feminist dilemma of
how we should think about the body and ‘sex’ in a context in which we are
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aware that what we have now come to think of as ‘gender’ plays a major role.
Attempts have been made both to recoup and recognize what are deemed to
be the biological realities of women’s lives (often indistinguishable from those
things with which opponents of feminism had weighed women down in the
past) and, by contrast, virtually to dissolve what Laqueur calls that ‘transient
mass of flesh’ into something which appears at first sight to be nothing but
social meanings. Since neither provides a satisfactory alternative, we have to
find a way not so much of maintaining what Butler describes as ‘a continued
relationship of opposition’ between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’, as of bringing them
together and reconciling them.
One way of doing so is to begin to see the relationship between ‘sex’
and ‘gender’ less like a relationship between chalk and cheese, and rather
more in terms of what Laqueur points out is the impossibility of ever
entirely separating the body and our understanding of it from its socially
determined milieu. Part of this reconceptualization involves dismantling
the taken-for-grantedness of ‘sex’ as a form of categorization for human
beings and examining the ways in which such a categorization is built.
As early as 1932, a biologist called John Lillie pointed out that ‘sex’, rather
than being an entity, was just a label which covered our total impression of
the differences between women and men. This view is confirmed by con-
temporary biological research, which is increasingly breaking down what
we label ‘sex’ into its component parts, so that we would now say tha
it takes a number of quite complex processes to come together and cohere
in order to produce what we would spontaneously identify as a male or
female animal.
One of the sharpest and fastest ways to arrive at an understanding of
the complexity of what lies under the heading of ‘sex’ is to look at those who
disturb our conventional sexual categories, for example transsexuals, but
more especially, the intersexed. In this context, undoubtedly one of the most
significant pieces of work of the last twenty-five years has been Michel
Foucault’s (1980) case history of Herculine Barbin, the hermaphrodite who
was brought up as a girl but was subsequently reassigned to the male sex, a
reassignment that resulted in her suicide. It is with Herculine that we first
see doctors assuming that underneath her indeterminate anatomy was
hidden what she really was and striving to decipher ‘the true sex that was hid-
den beneath ambiguous appearances’ (1980: viii). As Foucault points out,
it is the moment in history when hermaphrodites stop being people in
whom a combination of sexual characteristics can be found (and who might
therefore be allowed to choose what they wished to be) and become those
whose bodies deceptively hide their real identities, their true sex, which the
expertise of the doctors can detect. At that point in time, our world becomes
one in which, Foucault says, sexual irregularities are henceforth to be seen
to belong to the realm of chimeras, those fictions which represent errors in
the most classically philosophical sense; in other words, ‘a manner of acting
which is not adequate to reality’ (1980: x, emphasis added).
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Hermaphrodites, or what we would now call the intersexed, become – in
a notion which is entirely familiar to us – ‘errors’ of nature, a way in which
reality is not adequate to itself. This is the point at which we could say that
‘sex’ as an ontological category, as something that defines us in the depths
of our being, is born. Herculine had the misfortune to live on the cusp of
this new world, in which the intersexed are no longer able to be themselves
(providing they did not behave in a licentious manner and take advantage of
their ambiguity by having sex with both women and men alike), but had to
be redefined as ‘really’ something else, a man or a woman. With Herculine’s
case history, we can also watch the doctors strive to identify what might be
the real markers of sex. Despite concluding that Herculine had both vagina
and clitoris, the clinching element for them is the presence of testes and
spermatic cords (even though there are no sperm), which leads them to con-
clude that, upbringing notwithstanding, Herculine is really a man. There
is, in other words, an alignment of the components of sex in such a way as
to tidy up the picture, to produce a clear binary divide when the empirical
evidence provided by Herculine’s body defied all attempts to place it cate-
gorically on one side or the other of that sexual divide. It marks the moment
when a conviction is born that even if the elements that make up a sexed
creature do not line up, they ought to.
Fausto-Sterling’s research indicates just how persistent the notion is that all
of the processes necessary to the creation of a sexed being automatically fall
into place to produce a clear binary divide in the population, and that there is,
furthermore, a single ‘key’ that locks the whole thing into place.Criticizing the
work of David Page et al. (1987) who set out to look for a master ‘sex-deter-
mining locus’ in the Y chromosome of male mammals, she points out just how
many different items we might regard as key to identifying sex:
In both XX males and XY females, then, what does the notion of a sex-determining
gene mean? Is maleness decided on the basis of external genital structure? Often
not, since sometimes physicians decide that an individual with female genitalia
is really a male and surgically correct the external structures so that they match the
chromosomal and hormonal sex. Is it the presence of an ovary or testis that decides
the matter? If so, oughtn’t the gonad to have germs cells in it to ‘count’? Or is it
enough to be in the right place and to have the right superficial histological struc-
ture? There are no good answers to these questions because EVEN biologically
speaking sex is not such an either/or construct. Page and co-workers chose to leave
some of the messy facts out of their account, which makes the story look much
cleaner than it actually is. (1989: 328–9)
Maybe, then, egg and sperm are not as obvious as they might at first appear
to be? If Fausto-Sterling is right, can we any longer be sure that,even if we can
see them under the microscope, our interpretations of egg and sperm are
really correct? What mechanism can we use to separate them clearly from the
admixture of social and cultural concerns with which we imbue them?
Even if we are led to doubt the correctness of our interpretations, however,
awareness of this kind does not lead us to obliterate their existence merely
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because our understanding of them is bound up with the imperatives of the
world in which we live. The key lies in recognizing that entities like egg and
sperm, even if they seem pristinely biological, do not come into being in that
pristine a way for us: we only come to know them in what are very precisely
definable social contexts. The strength of their capacity to exist indepen-
dently, and therefore in some sense their scientific longevity, is marked by
the extent to which they can continue to exist and their existence be con-
firmed in other, quite different contexts. Put very simply, if recognition of
egg and sperm allow in vitro fertilization to take place successfully, we can be
fairly sure that they are what we assume them to be.
Take the notion of sex hormones, which are not only a consistent feature
of our world, but, as pharmaceutical preparations, some of the most widely
consumed of all drugs (not least in the form of the contraceptive pill).
Should the idea that they are social constructs necessarily imply that this is
all that they are, or that their social meaning in some sense cancels their
biological reality? Nelly Oudshoorn’s 1994 book Beyond the Natural Body:
An Archaeology of Sex Hormones would suggest not. The hormones do, never-
theless, emerge from their history as constructs, quite literally things
that were built. But they are built of a combination of things, both ‘natural’
and ‘social’: the concepts that inform their discovery, the investigative con-
text in which that discovery takes place, the professional rivalries and rela-
tionships that shape how they come to be described, the manner in which
the substances are isolated chemically, the uses to which they are put, the
clinical settings in which they are deployed. The sense that emerges from
Oudshoorn’s book is that hormones can be both socially constructed and
historically specific and yet also what we would recognize conventionally as
‘material objects’that have a defined effect on the world around them,in this
case on the bodies of those that ingest them.
One obvious way in which they can be regarded as socially constructed is
to be found in the very name given to them as ‘sex’ hormones. As Oudshoorn
points out, part of the ideas that surrounded their discovery was that, like the
portion of the Y chromosome researched by Page et al. (0.2 per cent of it!),
they might just provide the key to what made women women and men men,
something which is reflected in their subsequent extensive clinical uses in the
restoration of ‘femininity’ to post-menopausal women. The expectation that
they might provide the key to sex was, however, belied by the discovery not
only that women, for example, secrete testosterone (the allegedly ‘male’
hormone) but also by the fact that oestrogen was first isolated in the urine of,
not mares, but stallions.
The social construction of the ‘sex hormones’, then, is about much more
than words and social meanings – although it is about those, too. In a more
profound sense, they are socially constructed through the wide range of ele-
ments that contributed to their birth and maintain and sustain their exis-
tence thereafter. Oudshoorn makes the point that science encompasses
much more than theories and facts: it involves laboratories, investigative
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techniques, relationships between scientists, commercial settings, complex
instrumentation, a whole social reality that also entails a range of what she
calls ‘material conditions’ and ‘material effects’ (1994: 13). Therefore, when
we look at such seemingly simple ideas as that of ‘egg’ and ‘sperm’, we need
to be alive not only to the ways in which the facts and the theories have been
put together but to the whole context in which the objects they identify exist,
a complex combination of ‘social’ and ‘natural’elements. And when we focus
in on the concepts of ‘egg’ and ‘sperm’ themselves, we have to remember the
differences that are wrought in those concepts by the assumptions with which
we imbue them. Thinking of the egg as a large mass that simply waits pas-
sively for the arrival of an aggressive little sperm provides for a very different
picture from the idea of an egg cell whose outer membrane draws the sperm
in or whose cytoplasm plays a key role in embryological cell differentiation
(Fausto-Sterling, 1989: 322).
BODY AND SOUL
There is, nevertheless, another way that we can think about the complexity of
the processes that need to combine in order to produce what we sponta-
neously recognize as male or female animal. One of the major insights of
Kessler and McKenna’s early work (1978) was that when we make a judge-
ment that someone is male or female, what we use in doing so is all of a piece.
For that reason and because that process obeys some key social rules, they
describe it not as the attribution of ‘sex’ but as ‘gender attribution’.2In that
sense, they also refuse to differentiate between the processes employed by
biologists in categorizing people into one sex or another and the processes
used by the rest of us. And there is a kind of wisdom in this.
What we are seeing when we make the instantaneous gesture of classifying
someone as female or male is a seamless combination of the biology of the
body and the social and cultural context in which that body exists. In spite of
the early tussles between feminists and anti-feminists over whether or not a
particular feature belonged more properly to ‘gender’ or to ‘sex’, in practice
the two are indistinguishable from one another. There will never be any
natural experiment in which we might find out what the sexed body entails
entirely outside the ways in which it, and the person whose body it is, has
been gendered. Seeing ‘sex’ and the body as socially constructed, therefore,
could also mean looking at the ways in which the body might itself be shaped
by a social and cultural context. Connell, in keeping with Marx’s notion that
human beings transform the material world they encounter, including them-
selves and their own lives, talks of the practical transformation of the human
body in its encounter with culture. ‘In the reality of practice,’ he says, ‘the
body is never outside history and history is never free of bodily presence and
effects on the body’ (1987: 87). As an example, he describes the way in which
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particular combinations of force and skill become strongly cathected (in
other words, emotionally charged) aspects of an adolescent boy’s life. These
owe as much to fantasy as they do to activity, and together they produce a
model of bodily action and bodily conformation whose result is, as Connell
puts it, ‘a statement embedded in the body’:
The social definition of men as holders of power is translated not only into
mental body-images and fantasies, but into muscle tensions, posture, the feel and
texture of the body. This is one of the main ways in which the power of men
becomes ‘naturalized,’ i.e. seen as part of the order of nature. (1987: 85)
In fact, of course, one needs to go beyond the generality of men as a social
grouping, not merely in terms of the inflections produced by class or culture,
but towards the kind of cultural detail provided by, say, Loïc Wacquant in
Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (2003). Wacquant – who, inci-
dentally, proposes the idea of a somatic sociology – charts his own training as,
and transformation into, a boxer, describing the notion of the pugilist’s honour,
which requires that the boxer develop the mental resolve to fight on, regardless
of pain or discomfort and possible or even actual injury. In other words, the
process of becoming a boxer involves not only the creation of a particular kind
of body but also the shaping of a whole moral and psychological universe
inhabited by the boxer.
An analogous point can be made about developing the body of a classical
ballet dancer, who, in a much more systematic way than the general incorpo-
ration of masculinity into the body of the adolescent boy, learns quite pre-
cisely what the body of a dancer should feel like and the appropriate mental
attitudes to accompany and foster success as a dancer. In that process, the
body itself is literally reshaped – it becomes a particular kind of object, with
distinctive musculature and capabilities – but so too, as the title of Wacquant’s
book indicates, does the soul. Body and mind – musculature and skill, fan-
tasy and conceptualization – are indivisible here. Furthermore, this melding
has to be understood to go much further than mere morphology; it has to be
taken right through to the biochemistry of body and brain. What is happen-
ing here is quite literally an in-corporation, the creation of a particular way
of incarnating masculinity, femininity, or even a transgendered status, in the
body. We shape ourselves at the very moment in which we are shaped.
Although these forms of incorporation describe very well the way in
which gender goes considerably beyond the apparently insubstantial ques-
tions of minds and relationships, understanding of these processes tends to
be limited to the sociology of the body. What is lacking here is much recog-
nition or investigation into the potential for transformation of the human
body from within biology. There is ample attention paid within the pages of
the journal Body & Society, for example, to both the symbolic aspects and
the lived experience of such forms of incorporation as those of, say, women
body builders, but a relative lack of engagement within the biological sciences
with the ways in which social, psychological, and cultural elements interface
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with the physiology of the body. The general way in which transformation
of the body is conceptualized is limited by an assumption, familiar to us from
athletic competition and the controversy over the use of banned substances
(now not even describable as drugs), that the body sets limitations to this
process. There is, apparently, only so much transformation any body can take.
If anything, this assumption is strengthened where sexual difference is con-
cerned, as if it were there to form a counterweight to disturbance caused by
the contemporary blurring of gender boundaries and the fact that we are
routinely witness to transsexual reassignments that are so effective they would
be undetectable without prior knowledge.
FISHES LIVE IN THE SEA
There is some evidence that we have barely begun to understand the
potential malleability of the body, malleability of the kind that was so graph-
ically illustrated over half a century ago by W. B. Cannon’s investigation
into what he called ‘voodoo death’, the situation in which someone with no
apparent physiological abnormalities dies following a curse by a witch doctor
(Cannon, 1942; Sternberg, 2002).3Biological research and the prevalence
and popularity of genetic explanations are largely driving in the opposite
direction.
Part of the revived rhetoric of sexual difference currently in circulation is
the injunction to accept that there might be fundamental genetic, hormonal,
physiological, and psychological differences between the sexes with which
we must all come to terms, and we seem to be particularly enjoined to deny
any malleability in the distinction between women and men. In that context,
our current behaviours and ways of being are believed to reveal our natural
boundaries.
Erving Goffman describes this rather complacent approach to human
behaviour in Gender Advertisements (1979) when he identifies the little bit
of folk wisdom that underpins the ways in which we consider ourselves and
naturalize our own behaviours:
There is a wide agreement that fishes live in the sea because they cannot breathe on
land, and that we live on land because we cannot breathe in the sea. This proxi-
mate, everyday account can be spelled out in ever increasing physiological detail,
and exceptional cases and circumstances uncovered, but the general answer will
ordinarily suffice, namely an appeal to the nature of the beast, to the givens and
conditions of his existence, and a guileless use of the term ‘because.’ Note, in this
happy bit of folk wisdom – as sound and scientific surely as it needs to be – the land
and the sea can be taken as there prior to fishes and men, and not, contrary to
genesis – put there so that fishes and men, when they arrived, would find a suitable
place awaiting them. (1979: 6)
This little parable about the fishes draws attention to the fact that we tend
to explain what happens and how we behave by dint of an appeal to ‘the very
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conditions of our being’. There is a deeply held belief in our culture, which
we apply to ourselves in relation to what Goffman calls ‘gender displays’, that
objects are passively informing about themselves through the imprints they
leave on the surrounding environment, that they give off unintended signs
of what it is that they are: ‘they cast a shadow, heat up the surround, strew
indications, leave an imprint; they impress a part picture of themselves’
(1979: 6). As human beings, says Goffman, we learn not only how to convey
and express who we are to others, but also to abide by our own conceptions
of expressivity, to convey that characterological expression as if it were
natural and unavoidable. In terms of gender, we not only learn to be a par-
ticular kind of object, but to be ‘the kind of object to which the doctrine of
natural expression applies…We are socialized to confirm our own hypo-
theses about our natures’ (1979: 7). We learn how to behave and then, like
learning to ride a bicycle, we forget that we once wobbled and found the
whole thing improbable and impossible, and it all comes naturally. The lack
of conscious intentionality in a large part of our performance then supplies
its ‘naturalness’.
Not to take account of this latent reflexive capacity in human behaviour
is crucially to miss a trick. It is not merely that we can be self-conscious
about particular encounters and our behaviours within them, or indeed about
the whole repertoire we have at our disposal, it is that we need to have an
understanding that behaviours are the behaviours of whole bodies in social
settings, and it is for this reason that Goffman begins by considering gender
displays under the heading of ethology. The application of ethology to human
beings, however, is often interpreted to mean a reduction and simplification
of human behaviours to some allegedly more primitive state of affairs (take
Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape as a caricatural example), which belies and
bypasses the sophistication of the cultures within which human beings operate
and negotiate their being.
Thus, the gender displays we supply to others to provide background infor-
mation about our sex and our selves are no different in kind from the ‘back-
ground information’ that an eighteenth-century slave owner might employ
in addressing his slaves, or a twenty-first-century motorist in responding to
a police officer. They represent our own staging of something which quite
literally embodies discourse and conceptualization,fantasy, social and psycho-
logical knowledge, and so on, and it is there to set the terms of the engage-
ment. Anyone who has ever watched a parent dealing with a child in a way
which is markedly different from the way one would deal with one’s own
child is testament to these processes: the tone of voice that is rather too loud
for someone standing a mere two feet away, the slowed-down speech patterns
that imply some notion of the essential idiocy of children – all of these attest
to a common way of conceptualizing the status and capabilities of the child,
some of which they share with those defined as ‘elderly’ and with foreigners
who, perversely, refuse to speak English. In a more complex vein, in Counting
Girls Out, Valerie Walkerdine and her co-authors give some enlightening
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descriptions of the ways in which the respective behaviours of middle-class
and working-class mothers towards their children reveal assumptions about
what a ‘good mother’ is and how she should conduct herself in relation to
her child – the middle-class-mother-as-educator, for example, for whom
‘every possible permutation of events, actions and conversations becomes
a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity for a valuable lesson’ (Walkerdine et al.,
1989: 46).
The fact of such a staging also being a ‘statement in the body’ naturalizes
the performance, for what could be more ‘natural’ than the body? The over-
loud tone of voice used with children, the elderly, or foreigners is clearly
simply that which is deemed necessary. From the point of view of either the
actor or the recipient of any such performance, it is all a matter of knowing
who one is dealing with. The marked particularity of persons, or for that
matter the specification of objects in the natural world (dangerous or
benign snakes, for example), is there merely to allow one to know how to
respond appropriately, safely, and in a way that allows for some prediction
of the outcome.
It would certainly be naïve therefore to downplay the way in which human
beings actively negotiate and shape such processes, including the represen-
tation of their sex. The biological underpinnings are not the impoverished
reductio ad absurdum given to us by much contemporary evolutionary psy-
chology, but the potential province of a new and dynamic feminist biology –
a socio-biology in the true sense. Until and unless we recognize the unity of
these processes, of the complex human biological apparatus and the sophis-
ticated psychological and social engagements created by that apparatus, which
in its turn shape its creator, we shall be condemned to miss the point in terms
of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and the relationship between them.
NOTES
1 In fact, when Kessler and McKenna’s book was first published, there was arguably
only a single genital being attributed, the penis, with men being defined as possessing
a penis and women as lacking one, just as any good Freudian might have expected. More
recently, in Lessons from the Intersexed, Kessler suggests that there is some evidence that
vaginas may now be emerging as cultural genitals, although ‘there are no cultural cli-
torises’ (1998: 157, n.15).This is in keeping with the dominance of a reproductive imper-
ative in the way in which women’s bodies are read. So it is not only that gender attribution
and genital attribution can be considered synonymous, it is that the only legitimate cul-
tural genitals for women are arguably those which are tied to, the potential at least, of
reproduction.
2 Kessler and McKenna face a similar problem to that confronted by Laqueur insofar as
they have difficulty accommodating the biological itself in their argument about the primacy
of gender attribution. Speculating as to whether or not infants have an inherent capacity
to detect the difference between the sexes prior to their learning the rules for gender
attribution and about the fact that small children are better at ‘seeing through’ the attempts
by transsexuals to ‘pass’ in their chosen gender, Kessler and McKenna find themselves
CURRENT STATE OF WOMEN’S STUDIES, GENDER STUDIES,AND STUDIES OF MEN
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resorting to a concept of ‘gender’ differentiation, which they endeavour to explain, not
entirely successfully, as the identification of whether someone is ‘the same’ as oneself or not,
‘perhaps in terms of some basic reproductive criteria’ (1978:166–67).The quotation marks
around the term ‘gender’ in that formulation reveal the tension within it.
3 Claude Lévi-Strauss (1977) explains ‘voodoo death’ as being produced by the shock
of the withdrawal of all social anchorage points from the person being cursed, who is
effectively declared dead. This is, to all intents and purposes, the dissolution of their
social personality. The result is that their physical integrity thereby collapses with,
amongst other things, a catastrophic and ultimately lethal drop in blood pressure.
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