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…

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