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The Birth of the Two-Sex World

Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud

by Thomas Laqueur
Harvard University Press, 313 pp., $27.95

Several years ago, as I watched Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in the movie version of Same Time, Next Year, I realized that this overt comedy of sex and romance expressed a much more subtle and expansive theme as its primary subject. By featuring a couple that meets but one weekend a year for their well-hidden affair, dramatist (and scriptwriter) Bernard Slade found a wonderful device for telling the cultural history of America during a quarter century. (Alda, for example, turns from a counterculture hanger-on in the later 1960s, espousing a philosophy of “tell all” and “express your feelings” until a call from Burstyn’s husband elicits some last-minute caution, to an embittered, political reactionary after losing a son in Vietnam.) Alda and Burstyn may be sometime lovers, but they are also a synecdoche for American history.

Sex is so pervasive, so powerful, that it both inheres in all our concerns and can stand for almost anything in our culture. Freud had a great insight in identifying this ubiquity, but he missed the greater synthesis that yields such sway. The generating theme is not that “sexuality inheres everywhere and throughout our lives,” but the prior claim that “nature works by Darwinian principles” (which Freud, as a lifelong Lamarckian, never fathomed). Darwinian natural selection is not, as often misportrayed, an overt struggle by necessarily bloody battle, but a more abstract process of “struggle” (often metaphorical) for individual reproductive advantage. The creature that leaves more surviving offspring gets a Darwinian edge; all else follows from this basic principle. Since sexuality is so intimately involved in this struggle for reproductive success, our lives pass in the grip of its continual power. Almost everything that we do has a sexual motif—more for Darwinian than for Freudian reasons.

Laqueur’s Making Sex gains primary importance from this duality—that sex is both so important in itself, and also a sign, symbol, or reflection of nearly everything in our culture. This book has the great virtue, in a genre of academic writing not celebrated for clarity of prose or purpose, of presenting a simple theme with broad and cascading implications. (And remember that the word virtue, from the Latin vir for “male person,” presents just one tiny example of gender-biased pervasiveness.) Laqueur ostensibly writes about one major (and largely forgotten) transition in the history of Western attitudes toward body and gender, but his actual subject is as broad as the bases of culture and epistemology. A largely unheralded but stunning transition in attitude occurred during the century spanning Newton’s revolution in thought and America’s in politics. In classical to Renaissance anatomy, from Aristotle and Galen to Paracelsus and Paré, human bodies were ranged on a continuum of excellence—the “one-sex model” in Laqueur’s terms. Overt morphological expression among human beings might clump in two major groups called male and female, but only one archetypal body existed and all incarnations could only occupy a station along a continuum of metaphysical advance. Needless to say, the usual form of maleness, by virtue of a greater quantity of vital heat, stood near the apex of this sequence, while the characteristic female form, through relative weakness of the same generating forces, ranked far down on the ladder.

This unfamiliar world of the one-sex model expressed its view of sex and gender primarily by the implied notion that only one set of sexual organs exists, with the male facies as a higher form of expression. A woman, in this view, is merely a potential man—more accurately perhaps, an inverted man, bottled in by lack of vital heat. Laqueur writes: “In the one-sex model, dominant in anatomical thinking for two thousand years, woman was understood as man inverted: the uterus was the female scrotum, the ovaries were testicles, the vulva was a foreskin, and the vagina was a penis.”

The “two-sex model” replaced this concept of woman and man as two clumps on a graded continuum with a notion of two fundamentally distinct entities, bearing different organs that imply divergent behaviors and aptitudes; (divergent perhaps, but still eminently rankable, for sexism is the one invariant in this history of transition). Laqueur writes:

Thus the old model, in which men and women were arrayed according to their degree of metaphysical perfection, their vital heat, along an axis whose telos was male, gave way by the late eighteenth century to a new model of radical dimorphism, of biological divergence. An anatomy and physiology of incommensurability replaced a metaphysics of hierarchy in the representation of woman in relation to man.

Why did this transition occur, and why over a broad stretch of time centered on the early eighteenth century? The answer cannot lie in any simplistic notion of empirical discovery wrested from nature by triumphant science (quite a set of male images). I shall return to the role of empirics among other causes of transition later in this review, but a simple reason suffices to debar factual adequacy as a primary agent of the switch: neither model is “correct” by any morphological standard; both capture elements of anatomical reality.

Galen and the single-sexers were wrong (and obviously motivated by an androcentric view of life) in their fanciful identification of a vagina as a penis turned inside out. But true homologies do exist between our external genitalia. The male scrotum and the female labia majora are the same organ, formed from a common embryological precursor. At a high concentration of androgenic hormones, usually reached only by males, the two lips grow longer, fold over, and fuse in the midline to form a scrotal sac during embryological development. The male penis and the female clitoris are also the same structure—again folded over, fused, and enlarged under androgenic influence. This homology explains the primarily clitoral site of orgasm in females—and underscores the cruelty in Freud’s absurd theory that “mature” female sexuality must shift the site of orgasm from clitoris to the relatively insensitive vagina. Freud was trained as an anatomist, and he both knew and recorded the proper homology. But his social attempt at an unachievable biological reconstruction of women (redefined in functional terms more closely linked to male pleasures) sowed incalculable distress among millions of educated women who were taught that their sexual maturity depended upon a biological impossibility.

On the other hand, our internal genitalia are different from the start. The human embryo contains precursors of both sexes—the Müllerian ducts (which form the Fallopian tubes and ovaries of women), and the Wolffian ducts (which form the vas deferens of men). In females, the Wolffian ducts degenerate and the Müllerian ducts differentiate; males develop on the opposite pathway.

The eighteenth-century shift from one-sex to two-sex models occurred for reasons far more complex than simple discovery. This transition is but one manifestation of the greatest intellectual transformation in modern Western thinking—and the transition was, itself, a reflection of still deeper cultural changes. In this crucial sense, Laqueur uses sex much as Alda and Burstyn did in Same Time, Next Year—as an overt expression for something much deeper, more general, and perhaps (if such be possible in comparison with something so riveting as sex) even more interesting.

The larger transition overturned our most fundamental ideas about causality and meaning. Single events are only symbols, not primary causes, but 1687 and the publication of Newton’s Principia mathematica must rank as the mother of symbols. Before Descartes and Newton, concepts of physical causality centered upon the Neoplatonic theory of signs and correspondences. Platonic archetypes formed a universe of ideal constructions, and actual earthly objects could only participate, to varying degrees, in these perfect permanencies (men being closer than women to the telos of humanity in the one-sex model). In such a universe, harmoniously constructed by God in Christian versions, signs and correspondences exist in abundance to teach us the order and evoke our wonder. The task of “science” is to catalog and interpret these correspondences.

The large and the small—macrocosm and microcosm—established the first domain of union. The hierarchy of the heavens (planets around a central earth) reflects the permanent social order (priests around popes or serfs around lords). Objects are linked within as well as across hierarchical levels—and all tell a unified story of intrinsic and coordinated meaning. The unicorn must exist on land, because the narwhal’s tusk graces a sea animal—and correspondences pervade these two domains of life. Male and female must be versions of the same eidos.

This world is so different from ours that we have great trouble grasping its claims without dissolving into frustration or laughter. Causality itself works differently in this universe of the one-sex model. The doing and pushing of palpable forces, what Aristotle called “efficient cause” and what we now represent by the metaphor of the pool cue, is far less important than the Aristotelian “final cause” or purpose. Yet modern science has enshrined efficient causation as the only permissible style, and has banned final cause entirely for physical objects. We can no longer argue that the moon exists to give us light by night, or that male corresponds with female in order to record the harmony of nature.

In a link with this shift in causality, the very nature of what counts as evidence has changed just as dramatically. A seventeenth-century naturalist might record extensive lists of correspondences (fanciful by modern standards)—between rocks and organisms, plants and animals, upper and lower halves of the body, male and female—and view his tabulation as a portal to ultimate reality. We would laugh at his putative resemblances or rage at his willingness to impute deep meaning to the most superficial similarity (but hints, signs, metaphors, and veiled likenesses are guides to deep correspondence in a world that did not insist upon links of efficient causality in discovering relationships).

The major transition in my own field of paleontology occurred at the same time as the shift from one-sex to two-sex models—and both revolutions in concept record the same larger change from Neoplatonic sign theory to modern ideas of mechanical causation. In 1664, in the Mundus subterraneus, the great Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher presented perhaps the last major synthesis of the old view that most fossils are not the remains of organisms, but manifestations of a plastic force in rocks. Their uncanny resemblance to organisms merely records a correspondence between organic and inorganic realms—the closer the similarity, the more the expression of universal harmony.

Fifty years later, the Swiss scholar J.J. Scheuchzer, in a polemical pamphlet entitled Piscium querelae et vindiciae (“Grievances and complaints of the fishes”), allowed fossil fishes to answer Kircher with indignation. How could a man weave such silly arguments to deny their obvious status as ancient organisms? (Scheuchzer, no modernist, argued that the fishes had been buried in Noah’s flood.)

What prompted this change from intelligibility to nonsense for the view that fossils are not organic remains—a change contemporaneous with Laqueur’s transition from one-sex to two-sex models? One might claim with some justice that empirical advances played a role. Kircher knew little about the nature of sediments, and believed that rocks were part of the earth’s original construction rather than products of gradual deposition in lakes, rivers, and oceans. If rocks were part of the original earth, then how did fossils get inside them? They cannot therefore be organisms, and must represent a natural part of the mineral kingdom. But by Scheuchzer’s day, the nature of sediments could no longer be denied, and Kircher’s argument collapsed. The rocks containing fossil fishes had been deposited in lakes and rivers.

But such a conventional account can capture only a small corner of reasons for the change. Fossils became organic primarily because the Cartesian revolution undid the Neoplatonic theory of signs. Kircher’s argument became unintelligible because his world view was incompatible with the new order. All criteria of argument, all assessments of causality, had changed. The very strength of resemblance between fossil and modern fishes—a sign of correspondence between two different realms for Kircher—became proof of similar origin by common causality in Scheuchzer’s world. In other words, Scheuchzer used the same basic datum to affirm an entirely different view. Obviously, the transition did not have a simple empirical base, for the world of interpretation changed but the basic observation remained the same.

The shift from one-sex to two-sex models provides an even better example of the same transition in intellectual worlds—and sex stands for all of culture on the Alda-Burstyn theme. Again, the basic reason for transition cannot be empirical, for new information did not emerge during the shift, and new views did not breed evident enlightenment. The worlds of the one-sex and two-sex models are incommensurate and can scarcely talk to each other; how could the old be disproved by different modes of argument in the new? Suppose a two-sexer derided a one-sexer by saying: “How could you be so stupid to think that a vagina is an inverted penis? Just study their embryological development. Can’t you see that penis and clitoris have the same origin, with the vagina as an entirely different structure?” But the one-sexer would reply; “I know about penis and clitoris, but I would never think of finding a significant resemblance in something so plain and vulgar as a mode of growth and a common stock of tissue. Penis and vagina are not related by the push and shove of efficient cause, Aristotle’s least important concept, but by the higher tie of similar signification in a system of final causes. They are signs of the essential oneness of humans and of hierarchical ordering for the manifestations we call ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ “

The two-sex model is a necessary reformulation in the Cartesian world. The new criteria are embodied in the etymology and practice of the experimentalist’s favorite term, “analysis”—breaking down, discovery of difference, separation, rendering of overt distinction by disparate underlying causes and substances. If men and women are truly different in behavior, intellect, and implied status (a proposition never doubted in the sexist context of the transition), then the new Cartesian world requires a permanent and underlying distinction in substance. The sexes must be primally incommensurate.

If Laqueur’s main theme is a brilliant documentation of differences between the one-sex and two-sex models, then his subtext explores the reasons for transition. As a primary concern, Laqueur documents the nonempirical sources of transition. The last line of his book reads, with slight exaggeration perhaps, but with evident justice in general: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.” What then caused the shift in mind’s play between Newton’s apple and Washington’s cherry tree? What balance can we strike among the correlated contributions of economic, industrial, social, and political changes? Laqueur writes that

the context for the articulation of two incommensurable sexes was, however, neither a theory of knowledge nor advances in scientific knowledge. The context was politics.

I am not comfortable with this ordering of priorities. I accept Laqueur’s denial of “advances in scientific knowledge” (at least about sexuality) but not his dismissal of “theory of knowledge.” For the transition from Neoplatonism to Cartesianism is a new theory of knowledge—and although the main input to this shift may come from politics, some credit must go to Galileo’s telescope (which, of course, was also politics of a sort, but equally a product of technological change).

Yet however scholars may argue about the complex causes of the larger transition that forced the shift from one-sex to two-sex as primary example, we may all agree on one point, brilliantly documented by Laqueur: the context of the shift had nothing to do with the liberation of women. Both the one-sex and the two-sex models have standard sexist versions—and these were the nearly universal interpretations of conventional (that is, male) scholarship on both sides of the shift. Women were lesser men on the one-sex model and, in the two-sex version, victims of the real message in Plessy v. Ferguson—separate and unequal. Laqueur writes:

This radical naturalization, the reduction of women to the organ that now, for the first time, marked an incommensurable difference between the sexes and allegedly produced behavior of a kind not found in men, did not itself logically entail any particular position on the social or cultural place of women.

For me, the richest part of Laqueur’s book lies in his copious documentation and incisive interpretation of social uses for the one-sex and two-sex models—mostly in the sexist mode, and therefore illustrating that the transition produced no increment of liberation. Everything is different under the one-sex model; even something so apparently neutral and descriptive as the taxonomy of sexual organs underwent a major, conceptually based change at the transition. Several female organs had no name in the one-sex world, as they were merely imperfect forms of structures bearing their better developed male moniker. Ovaries were female testicles, or “stones of women”; the vagina did not have a separate name at all before 1700.

So many details and fables, forming major themes in Western thought, only made sense in the one-sex world and passed away at the transition. Many people once believed that female singers did not menstruate because the neck and throat (through which air passes) had a deep connection with the neck of the womb (through which the menses flow)—and substantial activity in one may nullify operation of the other. We would now dismiss such an anatomical comparison as metaphorical and meaningless in causal terms, but upper and lower halves of the body are homologous in the Neoplatonism of the one-sex model, and this comparison is deep and fundamental.

Ambroise Paré, the sixteenth-century French surgeon, tells a story (later repeated by Montaigne) of a young woman (or so it seemed) named Marie who had, in early puberty, jumped across a ditch while chasing pigs through a wheat field. This expenditure of energy had raised her level of heat and fueled a transition to maleness, as her vagina everted to form a penis. She became Germain, grew a thick red beard, and served in the retinue of the king of France. The point here is not veracity, or even possibility, but the simple observation that this story can only be told in the one-sex world, and makes no sense at all under the later two-sex model.

Au contraire, other legends and sexist justifications only have meaning in the two-sex world—and we learn, in Laqueur’s copious examples, just how culturally pervasive such a transition can be. The favored Victorian myth of the passionless female is a tale for a two-sex world, where primordially different organs spawn disparate behaviors. In the one-sex world, females would be depicted as more passionate than males (often dangerously so, in a theme underlying many witchcraft trials and autos-dafé). Females are inferior males and males, by general refinement of their perfection, have tempered passion with intellect and judgment. Therefore, females must be more passionate. Similarly, the justification for such barbarous procedures as ovariectomy to relieve various neurotic ills (a common nineteenth-century operation) lay in the two-sex idea that different organs cause sexually distinctive behavior. (In the one-sex world, such ovariectomy would necessarily imply castration for similar ills in men—a procedure not likely to be sanctioned by the boys in charge!)

An instructive analogy may be drawn between the one-sex, two-sex distinction and debates on the nature of racial difference. Pre-Darwinian anthropology loudly disputed the claims of monogenists (who claimed that all races had descended from an initial Edenic couple) and polygenists (who held that each major race had been separately created, and that Adam was only the ancestor of white men). People often misread this debate today and assume, using inappropriate modern categories, that monogenists were egalitarians and polygenists racists. In fact, both schools were racist, for the scholarly town of the time played no other game. The monogenists (who tended to be Christian traditionalists) held that all races had a common origin, but that lower forms had degenerated further from this original state of Edenic perfection. The polygenists (who viewed themselves as scientific modernists) espoused the Plessy reality of separate and inherently unequal. The comparison of monogeny and the one-sex model (both for their traditionalism and style of ranking) with polygeny and the two-sex model (both for their “modernism” and mode of inherent separation) shows the intriguing isomorphism that often holds among intellectual debates.

The comparison of race and sex merits our attention for another reason. As a practicing scientist, I cannot quite accept the argument that empirical discovery counts for nothing (or precious little) in major theoretical transitions. Yet such a claim does hold for most historical change in attitudes about race and sex—and surely for the one-sex to two-sex transition, as Laqueur so elegantly shows. I have long held (see my book The Mismeasure of Man) that such a situation applies to race because the ratio of scientific data about race to its social importance has been so strikingly low until recently. The subject is vital and we knew virtually nothing of any worth about it. In such situations, we do little more than change fuel for our unaltered prejudices when the general intellectual climate shifts. Laqueur has convinced me that we may advance the same claim of a low ratio of scientific data to social importance for sex.

I do not regard such a situation as curious, unusual, pessimistic, or in any way conducive to cynicism. In one important sense, these fields of low ratio hold special importance. If changes are really driven by data wrested from an objective world, what do we learn about ourselves (except that we are smart enough to fathom some natural truths)? But when the conceptual changes of a discipline only record our own cultural and intellectual peregrinations, and not the influx of an external nature, then we have a much better opportunity to learn about ourselves and our foibles. I didn’t need Laqueur to teach me that sex was interesting, but I now have a broader base for this greatest of certainties.

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