- Debating Sex and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Spain by Marta V. Vicente
At least in the scholarly world, the traditional sex and gender binaries have, for the most part, been cast aside. New scientific research has combined with LGBTQ scholarship and activism to force twenty-first-century academics to rethink much of what they thought they knew about being male or female, masculine or feminine. However, we are not the first generation to engage with these issues. In her new book, historian Marta Vicente explores the intense intellectual discussions that emerged in the eighteenth century over the biological meaning of sex and the quotidian performance of gender in the context of the Spanish Enlightenment.
Vicente presents these debates as the clash between theory and reality. Eighteenth-century medical men and philosophers formed their ideas about sex and gender based on generations of scholarship still grounded in the works of Aristotle and Galen. In their manuals and treatises, these scholars finessed, challenged, and sometimes supported an array of ideas about sex sameness and sex difference. At the same time, they were confronted with cases of Spaniards whose bodies or actions did not seem to conform to any of those ideas. In the context of the Enlightenment emphasis on empiricism, these intellectuals had to articulate new responses to the dichotomy between what they thought and what they saw.
In formulating their responses, Enlightenment thinkers encountered some serious challenges. For instance, as late as the seventeenth century, many people believed that adult individuals could undergo spontaneous sex changes, thereby indicating that biological sex was not always fixed. Moreover, it seemed clear that some people’s physical appearance did not [End Page 508] align with their gendered behaviors. Thus, some Spanish intellectuals, like the anatomist Martín Martínez, who composed a medical treatise, The Complete Anatomy of Man (1728), searched for an understanding of bodies that asserted the critical role of sex difference in both biological functions and social norms. From this perspective, sex difference was not only key to facilitating conception but also critical to the maintenance of the social order and the gendered division of labor.
However, not all bodies conformed to the rigid anatomical division between male and female that Martínez and others promoted. Indeed, the most fascinating parts of this book are Vicente’s presentations of the cases of people whose physical selves and/or public presentations posed difficulties for authorities. Take, for instance, the beardless and “feminine” Francisco Roca, who allegedly participated in sex with men as the passive partner. The Inquisition devoted considerable time and energy to determining exactly what type of genitals Roca possessed and whether they were in any way “unusual” or whether he was intersex (the contemporary word was, of course, “hermaphrodite”) in an attempt to explain how he could assert that he was a man despite his feminine appearance and sexual activity. In another interesting case, Sebastián Leirado was accused of being a woman dressed as a man in 1769. His appearance, choice of clothing, and sexual interactions with men confounded authorities despite regular arrests and physical examinations. Finally, Vicente presents “milkman Antonio Lozano,” who in the 1780s was alleged to have been able to breastfeed one of his twins “in the same way as a woman” (88). Those unfamiliar with Spanish judicial practice will be surprised at the curiosity and even open-mindedness that led officials to pursue such detailed investigations in the attempt to determine the biological sex of these individuals. However, understanding the nuances of genitalia and their relationship to participation in sodomitical acts, the meaning of gender-specific clothing choices, and even one’s inclination for particular occupations had serious implications in terms of both the charges that might be brought against them and the punishments that might be applied to those convicted. For instance, hermaphrodites could not be charged with unlawful sex acts, as they were not “misusing” their sex organs, whereas biological males who engaged in sex with other men could. The decision for judges was...