Saturday, August 4, 2012

Anne Fausto-Sterling--Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000)

Fausto-Sterling’s primary claim is that “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.  We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender—not science—can define our sex.  Furthermore, our believes about gender affect what kinds of knowledge scientists produce about sex in the first place.”  Rather, she claims that “Our bodies are too complex to provide clear-cut answers about sexual difference.  The more we look for a simple physical basis for ‘sex,’ the more it becomes clear that ‘sex’ is not a purely physical category.  What bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender.”  She notes that it wasn’t until the 1970s that sex and gender were posited as separate categories by sexologists, while second-wave feminists argued that gender differences were primarily the result of social institutions “designed to perpetuate gender inequality.”  However, because feminists left the physical differences of sex unquestioned, they left open the possibilities of “hardwired” differences between the sexes.
Importantly, Fausto-Sterling claims that
Truths about human sexuality created by scholars in general and by biologists in particular are one component of political, social, and moral struggles about our cultures and economies.  At the same time, components of our political, social, and moral struggles become, quite literally, embodied, incorporated into our very physiological being.  (location 129)
More specifically, she acknowledges that “Understanding how race and gender work—together and independently—helps us learn more about how the social becomes embodied.”  And it is this process of the social becoming embodied in which I am interested.  In particular, Fausto-Sterling points to the lack of data collection on the “normal distribution of genital anatomy,” which demonstrates that “from the viewpoint of medical practitioners, progress in the handling of intersexuality involves maintaining the normal.  Accordingly, there ought to be only two boxes: male and female.”
Fausto-Sterling observes that a similarly policed binary exists in general understandings of sexuality—one is either inherently heterosexual, or inherently a lesbian.  Further, even using the Kinsey scale, which acknowledges a more continuum-like understanding of sexual-object desire, is still a linear, two-dimensional scale.  She does acknowledge the existence of more complicated scales, such as that by Fritz Klein (which uses seven variables: sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-identification, hetero/homo lifestyle along with a time scale).  Further, the work of feminist and gay theorists which revealed the social constructed nature of sexuality encouraged the idea that sexual expression was not biologically grounded.  Responding to Halperin’s claim that “sexuality is not a somatic fact, it is a cultural effect,” Fausto-Sterling instead posits that “sexuality is a somatic fact created by a cultural effect.”  Comparing Butler’s idea that the body is completely constructed through discourse with that of Grosz, who thinks there are some biological processes which “precede meaning,” Fausto-Sterling posits that “we need the concept of the psyche, a place where two-way translations between the mind and the body take place.”
Working against this is a deeply entrenched commitment to the idea of only two, discrete sexes: “Reconceptualizing the category of ‘sex’ challenges cherished aspects of European and American social organization.”  Fausto-Sterling gives a detailed account of the development of our understanding of sex and sexuality, primarily in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and shows in painstaking detail how political events and cultural norms of the times shaped scientific inquiry and understanding.  Ultimately, she does denounce her earlier proposed five-sex model, but instead advocates for a much more nuanced understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality, one which takes the idea of systemic interaction into much greater account.  Using a really useful example of the evolution of smiling as one which begins as a somatically neutral, muscularly simple action to one which, over the course of maturation and interaction, becomes a much more emotionally-connected and muscularly complex action, Fausto-Sterling argues that sex, gender, and sexuality need to be analyzed as similarly systems-oriented behaviors.

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