- Making Sex
Making Sex is an ambitious investigation of Western scientific conceptions of sexual difference. A historian by profession, Laqueur locates the major conceptual divide in the late eighteenth century when, as he puts it, “a biology of cosmic hierarchy gave way to a biology of incommensurability, anchored in the body, in which the relationship of men to women, like that of apples to oranges, was not given as one of equality or inequality but rather of difference” (207). He claims that the ancients and their immediate heirs—unlike us—saw sexual difference as a set of relatively unimportant differences of degree within “the one-sex body.” According to this model, female sexual organs were perfectly homologous to male ones, only inside out; and bodily fluids—semen, blood, milk—were mostly “fungible” and composed of the same basic matter. The model didn’t imply equality; woman was a lesser man, just not a thing wholly different in kind.
However, since the Enlightenment, Laqueur argues, males and females have been seen as different in kind, and many social and political consequences have followed. Where theorists of the “one-sex” model saw all human bodies as if resulting from arrows aimed at the target human, before which the arrows producing females fell short, the new “two-sex” model supposed that male and female were separate, opposed targets. Laqueur first noticed this paradigm shift while examining “the question of disappearing orgasm”: once thought biologically necessary for the conception of a child, female orgasm after the appearance of the “two-sex body” became a contingent or coincidental matter bound up with various political interpretations of “women’s nature.” He does not claim that one model definitively supplanted the other at a given historical moment. Traces of the “two-sex body” can be found in Aristotle, and the “one-sex body” lives on in popular myth even today. And he cautions against giving a causal account of the shift, one that relies on social or political explanations of it, since “the remaking of the body is itself intrinsic” to such explanations (11). Nonetheless Laqueur redraws the map of Western sexuality in a breathtakingly grand gesture.
Laqueur describes his book as a history of “bodies and pleasures” (Foucault’s phrase), and begins by situating his work amid current debates about the epistemological status of scientific and historical narratives. Still, his main techniques of inquiry remain those of traditional intellectual history. He combines a chronological tour through the usual philosophers (beginning of course from Aristotle) with ultraclinical discussion of changing anatomical knowledge and medicalizing fantasy, accompanied by startling illustrations. The argument is sweeping, the narrative lumps centuries together, and national differences are given little importance. Scholars of each subspeciality will be kept busy commenting on his work for years, no doubt, and the common reader who has absorbed it will perceive gender-switching plots differently than before.1
Laqueur often seems more interested in how literate Europeans thought about (and pictured) sex than in how most people actually lived sex and gender. Of course, such experience is notoriously difficult to find out about. So like most recent work on the history of sexuality, Making Sex operates within the Foucaultian claim that “discourses” —sets of culturally maintained representations—organize lived experience and human perception. This stance, by implication, narrows the gap between intellectual and social history.
Laqueur’s work also follows Foucault in finding metaphor where we most expect the literal—in biology, on the body—and in often making a “negative case,” showing that advances in the state of medical knowledge haven’t driven ideological change (though he is sensibly coy about exactly what does drive it). “No set of facts ever entails any particular account of difference”—since, given the wealth of detailed evidence for BOTH similarity AND difference between “women” and “men,” any model of sexual difference must always choose to highlight some issues and ignore others. His account of the Renaissance “poetics of biology” is particularly effective in showing that people didn’t make cultural use of what they might have scientifically...