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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 321-324



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Book Review

Sexing the Body:
Gender, Politics, and the Construction of Sexuality

Transmen and FTMS:
Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities


Sexing the Body: Gender, Politics, and the Construction of Sexuality. By Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Pp. xii + 473. $35.00 (cloth).

Transmen and FTMS: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. By Jason Cromwell. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. x + 201. $42.50 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).

A lively, irreverent scholarship characterizes Anne Fausto-Sterling's investigation into the cultural, legal, and medical reasons why only two sexes "naturally" exist. Her work on gender politics and the construction of sexuality differs vastly from that of other scholars because her expertise in both biology and women's studies provides a unique perspective on controversies concerning ways in which inborn qualities and social systems affect sexual identity. It may not be new to challenge the notions "first, that there should only be two sexes; second, that only heterosexuality was normal; and third, that particular gender roles defined the psychologically healthy man and woman," but her ability to reveal the origins of these beliefs in cultural and political developments as well as their influence on current medical interventions performed upon infants of mixed sexuality shows a highly original mind at work.

Fausto-Sterling's arresting thesis that social and cultural expedients--not biological imperatives--work together to enforce a two-party sexual system and that "labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision" receives ample and for the most part convincing elaboration. She exposes the degree to which personal and political ideologies color "pure" science, resulting occasionally in lives and sexualities ruined by the medical profession's propensity to pigeonhole people as exclusively male or female. In one of many startling statistics used to make her case, she points out that more persons of mixed masculinity and femininity are born every year than are albinos. 1 Intersexuals--they eschew the term "hermaphrodite" for reasons not made clear in the book--have since 1993 organized politically to protest surgeries done during infancy, which create scar tissue, making orgasm difficult or impossible to achieve, and which render them socially and sexually disoriented. 2 [End Page 321]

In a book unusual for its combination of rigorous research and readability (192 of its 473 pages consist of bibliography and footnotes well worth bothering with), Fausto-Sterling examines legal, medical, and judicial treatments of sexuality from ancient Rome to the present. She questions the categories typically used to discuss sexuality--sex/gender, nature/nurture, real/constructed--and proposes new ways of conceptualizing them. As an alternative to the nature/nurture dualism, for instance, she suggests developmental systems theory, which sets up these supposed opposites as connected entities. Employing the insights of Elizabeth Grosz, a feminist philosopher, Fausto-Sterling suggests that biological processes possess "a status that pre-exists their meaning," and that "biological instincts or drives provide a kind of raw material for the development of sexuality." Raw materials without a social set of meanings do not, however, develop: "This claim becomes clear if one follows the stories of so-called wild children raised without human constraints or the inculcation of meaning. Such children acquire neither language nor sexual drive." Their bodies provide "raw materials," but without a human social setting the raw material cannot be molded into any "recognizable psychic form."

Fausto-Sterling's rationale for using developmental systems theory is in part politically based. She dislikes dualisms because "unquestioning use of gender dichotomies"--as, for example, in the work of the neuroscientist Simon Le Vay, who reported different brain structures in heterosexual and homosexual men--"have in the past never worked to further equality for women." This reason for rejecting a discovery seems inappropriate, but her description of developmental systems theory suggests that it presents exciting new possibilities for research.

In an impressive second guess, Fausto-Sterling penetrates the faulty logic of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 321-324
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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