- Beyond the Natural Body: An Archeology of Sex Hormones
Beyond the Natural Body delineates the scientific and sociocultural forces that brought sex endocrinology into being in the 1920s and 1930s. Nelly Oudshoorn describes and analyzes the material difficulties faced by early researchers in the field, as well as the way in which these material constraints affected the eventual direction that researchers took. She provides an explicitly feminist analysis, examining both how woman became the paradigmatic subject of sex endocrinology and how the field consolidated itself around the production of the birth control pill. Ultimately, she argues that the convergence of material, institutional, and social forces in the field of sex endocrinology worked to create the modern “hormonal body”—the body we now inhabit and believe to be “natural.”
Oudshoorn works with the theories of Ludwik Fleck, who developed the notion that prescientific ideas drive the conceptualization of science. She also examines how distinctions between scientific disciplines—and their signature “disciplinary styles”—affect research materials, research outcomes, and characteristic experimental techniques. In a theoretical move that characterizes her own disciplinary investments, she argues against an exclusively discursive approach to science studies: “In recent studies . . . sex and the body are portrayed as purely linguistic constructions. This approach does not take into account the ways in which bodies, human and animal, have to be manipulated to make them produce knowledge. . . . The development of scientific knowledge depends not only on ideas, ideologies, or theories, but also on complex instruments, research materials, careful preparatory procedures and testing practices” (pp. 12–13). While Oudshoorn’s “hormonal body” may be one discursive effect of science in the twentieth century, she rightly points out that both technology and access to research materials constrain the forms of discourse emanating from scientific practice.
In the first chapter of the book, Oudshoorn argues that the idea that there was only one hormone per sex was later displaced by the observation that both sexes contained both “male” and “female” sex hormones. She writes: “This shift in conceptualization led to a drastic break with the dualistic cultural notion of masculinity and femininity that had existed for centuries” (p. 26). She characterizes this “new model”’ of the hormonal body as revolutionizing the “biological definitions of sex”: “The model suggested that, chemically speaking, all organisms are both male and female. . . . In this model, an anatomical male could possess feminine characteristics controlled by female sex hormones, while an anatomical female could have masculine characteristics regulated by male sex hormones” (p. 39).
In my limited research in this field, however, I did not note the kind of shifting paradigm that she identifies here, especially in popularizations of medical [End Page 444] literature. It seems to me that in this model there is still a significant binarism that directs the perception of the body. Male hormones cause maleness, female hormones cause femaleness: the chemicals themselves are considered to be reduced versions of the sex itself. Even before the period of her investigations, the 1920s and 1930s, there were perceptions that men could have “female” attributes and vice versa (late-nineteenth-century sexology is full of them). Oudshoorn wants the chemical conception of sex hormones to have more scientific and cultural power than it really had (or has). The language about relative amounts of “femininity” and “masculinity”—as measured hormonally in the blood—continues, rather than subverts, established paradigms of bodily sex. This is where Oudshoorn’s disdain of a primarily discursive analysis blurs her usually acute and perceptive vision. Maintaining the biologists’ terminology of “male” and “female” hormones has the effect of erasing (or at least diminishing) the biochemists’ more transformative conception of the hormonal body.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 detail the measurement, synthesis, and marketing of sex hormones. Here, the arguments are straightforward and very convincing. Oudshoorn claims that the gaining of access to raw materials was a crucial factor determining how sex hormones came to be studied, produced, and sold. Intimate partnerships between pharmaceutical companies, clinics, laboratories, and even farmers became essential to the pursuit of research. Female sex hormones became...