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Hypatia 19.3 (2004) 203-208

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The Science and Social World of Sex and Sexuality

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000; and The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation by Edward Stein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

One of the many lessons to be drawn from feminist science studies is that the closer an area of scientific study is to humans and their social world, and the more politically charged the research implications, the more likely it is that the area of scientific research will be problematically shaped by social assumptions. Though feminists have argued that we must consider the role of background assumptions in all areas of science—for example, by examining the choice of conceptual metaphors employed in physics and chemistry—there is no doubt that some of the strongest and most convincing examples of androcentric and gender-biased science have been identified in the social and life sciences, areas closely related to our human social world. We can expect, then, that scientific research into the politically charged topic of the nature and origin of human sexuality and sex differences will be both difficult to do well and fraught with complications stemming from the interaction between the social world and scientific knowledge.

Both Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) and Edward Stein's The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (1999) present ambitious attempts to delve into the difficulties of executing and assessing scientific research on sex and sexuality. Stein narrows his focus to sexual orientation, critically engaging with both common sense conceptions of sexual orientation and the recent proliferation of scientific research on the nature and cause of sexual orientation. Fausto-Sterling, on the other hand, takes up the broader topic of the construction of sexed bodies and sexuality, examining the historical development of several research programs to demonstrate "how the social becomes embodied" (7). Both authors recognize the political stakes in these contentious areas of scientific research, and both strive to reach an interdisciplinary and general audience. They differ, however, in the strategies they employ to convince readers of the close relationship between the politics and [End Page 203] the science of sexuality. Stein, for example, employs a tone and structure that reveals an attempt to draw in those readers who would maintain that we can do good objective science without bringing values and social assumptions into the research, though some of his analysis suggests otherwise. Fausto-Sterling, however, works with a more sophisticated yet radical understanding of science and its necessary interaction with values and social assumptions.

In The Mismeasure of Desire, Stein aims to demonstrate that "much of what most people think about sexual orientations is probably wrong, or at least misguided," and he claims that what most people think is that sexual orientation is "inborn in the sense that a person's eye color is inborn." As he puts it, contemporary theories of the nature and origin of sexual orientation, "in effect, mismeasure desire" (5). The book is organized into three quite distinct sections: metaphysics, science, and ethics. While the first two sections focus on demonstrating that the case for a biologically based understanding of sexual orientation is weak, the final section argues that even if this view of sexual orientation is true, it has less relevance to lesbian and gay rights than many have suggested.

Although Stein clearly identifies his subject matter and resources as multidisciplinary, he takes his method to be primarily informed by philosophy (7). Relying mostly on conceptual analysis, Stein hopes to clarify many of the confusions that have plagued discussions of sexual orientation. For example, in true analytic style, he develops an extended hypothetical case of the "Zomnian society," wherein people are categorized according to sleep position patterns—"fronters" and "backers." He then uses the example of various Zomnian attitudes toward fronters and backers as an analogy to explain the parallel positions and reasoning...


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pp. 203-208
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Archived 2009
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