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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.3 (2001) 457-459
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Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality
Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. By Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Pp. xii + 473. $35.
In recent years, scholars in a variety of disciplines, from sociology to physics, have undertaken to challenge the longstanding, pervasive dichotomy between nature and culture. In disciplines devoted to the study of human beings, that dichotomy takes the form of a division between those aspects of our existence that are given at birth, and those that are shellacked onto us by the societies in which we live. The divergent scholars who challenge this dichotomy argue that its sharpness actually serves to distort, not clarify, our understanding of human development. In its place, some of these scholars have offered interpretations of the relation between nature and culture that attempt to show that the physical and the social aspects of human being are actually mutually constitutive, and are comprehensible only in relation to each other.
These scholars, whom Anne Fausto-Sterling gathers under the label of "developmental systems theorists," "deny that there are fundamentally two kinds of processes: one guided by genes, hormones, and brain cells (that is, nature), the other by the environment, experience, learning, or inchoate social forces (that is, nurture)" (p. 25). Instead, systems theorists seek explanations that understand every process, every state, every entity as a complex interaction between so-called "natural" and so-called "cultural" elements.
Inspired and informed by developmental systems theory, Fausto-Sterling sets out to reconceive the sex/gender dichotomy, a dichotomy that rests squarely on the assumption that nature (sex) can be neatly and definitively separated from culture (gender)--and that the categories of female/male and woman/man are both mutually exclusive and exhaustive (everyone is one or the other, never neither and never both). Sexing the Body is an exhaustive, expansive exploration of the limitations of science's characterizations of sex and gender, and a fruitfully suggestive account of how to reconceive sexuality. In place of a rigid division between naturally given traits and socially constructed behaviors, Fausto-Sterling suggests the image of a Mobius strip of behaviors/ motivations and structures, on which "we move from outside to inside and back out again, without ever lifting our feet from the strip's surface" (p. 29).
Fausto-Sterling--feminist, biologist, historian of science, and author of the widely-cited 1993 article "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough"--constructs a detailed, compelling argument to show that the belief that we are a two-sex species is anything but a raw biological given; there is, in fact, nothing "biologically necessary" about it--though that is not to say it is a flimsy contingent social construct that could be changed tomorrow. It is [End Page 457] (to use a phrase that remains too rooted in the dichotomy to be very illuminating) a bio-social feature of the world we inhabit.
Many of the developmental systems theorists Fausto-Sterling credits as having influenced her have, in their writings, offered suggestive examples to show the limits of the nature/culture dualism. They have used inventive metaphors to help their readers understand the two as deeply interactionist. Such work has been tremendously important, but has often failed to compel readers who seek evidence rooted in the scientific record. Fausto-Sterling significantly advances the cause of developmental systems theory in this book, by presenting detailed historical, scientific evidence of the ways the nature/culture dualism came to be made compelling, convincing, and seemingly essential in those disciplines that study sex and/or gender. Chapter by chapter, and discipline by discipline, she explores the multifarious ways in which the belief that humans (and other animals) come in exactly and only two varieties has shaped the construction of research programs and the interpretation of data--and has played a role in determining which research programs will be successful. (Fausto-Sterling does not suggest that all...