SEX AND BODIES:

SCIENTIFIC SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS

Amanda Roth

 

Arianna Stassinopoulos wrote in the 1973 book The Female Woman: "It would be futile to attempt to fit women into a masculine pattern of attitudes, skills and abilities and disastrous to force them to suppress their specifically female characteristics and abilities by keeping up the pretense that there are no differences between the sexes" (Microsoft Bookshelf). In her statement we see a cultural feminist response to the dominant liberal feminism of the 1970s. Liberal feminism de-emphasized gender differences, claiming that women were the equals of men and that this would be obvious if only they were offered the same opportunities as men with no special privileges necessary. On the other hand, cultural feminists such as Stassinopoulos claimed that women's unique perspective and talents must be valued, intentionally emphasizing the differences between men and women. A third type of feminism, post-modernism, is represented in Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Post-modern feminism questions the very origins of gender, sexuality, and bodies. According to post-modernism, the emphasis or de-emphasis of difference by cultural and liberal feminists is meaningless, because the difference itself and the categories difference creates are social constructions. Fausto-Sterling's post-modernism, however, depicts this social construction in a unique manner; she attempts to illustrate the role of science in the construction of gender, sex, and bodies. In doing so she discusses three main ways in which science aids in the social construction of sex: first, new surgical technology allows doctors to literally construct genitalia; second, socially accepted biases affect the way scientists design, carry out, and analyze experiments and results; and third, bodies can be physically changed by the social conditions of their environment.

In her first chapter, Fausto-Sterling points out that sex was defined by John Money and Anke Ehrhardt in 1972 as "physical attributes . . . anatomically and physiologically determined" (3). It might seem strange then that Fausto-Sterling, or anyone for that matter, would suggest that the physical attributes of sex might be constructed by anything other than nature. Indeed, most children when being taught the basic differences of sex are told "boys have a penis, girls have a vagina." The implication is that there are two categories which are opposites; hence all people must fully fit into one category and not the other. Fausto-Sterling points out, however, that in 1.7% of births the babies do not fit into just one category; these intersex births occur when babies are born with some combination of both female and male genitalia and/or chromosomes or are born lacking some of the genitalia/chromosomes of one sex while showing none of those of the other sex (i.e., Turner syndrome) (51-52). Here, then, Fausto-Sterling makes an apparently simple, yet significant and controversial, point: that nature sometimes produces people who do not fit into the either/or categories of male/female.

Many scientists, however, will not accept the truth of this claim. While they admit the existence of intersex births, Fausto-Sterling claims that they often believe that "an intersex child is 'really' a boy or a girl" (50). This is evident in the terms doctors use when speaking to intersex patients and their parents: "an imperfect organ . . . not suited to life as a female" or "not entirely developed in a female direction" (64-65). They speak as if the child is somehow inherently female or male. But how do doctors decide which sex an intersex child "really" is? Sterling asserts that there are two important factors: ability to reproduce, and adequate size and function of the phallus (57). If female reproductive ability can be salvaged, an intersex child will often be deemed a female; if the penis is large enough to allow the child to urinate while standing and to engage in vaginal penetration, the child will be deemed a male.

But what happens after the child has been deemed male or female? Has the crisis passed now that the child can be said to be "really" female or male despite the ambiguous genitals? One might think that the crisis would have passed at this point. If people truly are naturally meant to be either male or female with no other options, should the medical community not be content to say "this child is 'really' a female even though she has a phallic-like clitoris . . . sometimes nature makes mistakes"? But the medical community says much more than this; they say, "sometimes nature makes mistakes . . .and now we the medical community must fix her mistake . . . since this child is 'really' female we must remove the offending organ . . . females ought not have such large clitorises, hence we will cut off the excess." Doctors thus literally construct a body.

But why do doctors (or society in general) feel the need to construct bodies? Fausto-Sterling believes, and I concur, that doctors react as they do because our culture has constructed the categories of male and female, and we have collectively convinced ourselves that this is the way it ought to be; it is what nature intended. Hence the literal construction is only carrying out nature's intentions. I must wonder, if only two sexes were what nature intended, why are they not what nature delivered? How can we even know what nature "intends"? Did nature intend for people to have blue eyes, or was the trait caused by a permutation in genes somewhere along the evolutionary path of humans? If blue eyes were a mistake, should we not fix them, dye them brown? It also seems to me that the use of the word "ought" in speaking/thinking about bodies is rather out of place; "ought" after all is usually used to indicate some type of moral element. What moral element could possibly be associated with the basic anatomy/physiology of human beings? The anatomy and physiology of human beings is morally neutral; it is only socialization that gives anatomy and physiology moral weight.

These social norms are enforced not only by the general public, but also by the scientific community, which has an ever-expanding role in American life. As society's dependence upon religion for stabilization and meaning has decreased, the dependence on science has increased. This perhaps explains why Fausto-Sterling's ideas are so shocking and even repulsive to many readers. For instance, scientist John Money was outraged at Fausto-Sterling's suggestion that society accept five sexes, and stated that social constructionists aligned themselves against biology and medicine (78). Here Money makes clear that he sees scholars like Fausto-Sterling as "against science," a position that, in his view, is not very intelligent. Money’s claim stems from Fausto-Sterling’s view that surgical/medical intervention in intersex births is unnecessary and harmful, but it is deemed necessary by science to maintain the "natural" categories of male and female. Clearly Fausto-Sterling is not "against" science, but she is questioning a discipline that we often trust blindly. Usually when scientists tell us what they have learned about the world, we have little reservation in believing them; who would dare doubt, for instance, the laws of gravity? This is demonstrated in the way non-scientists easily cite scientific experiments as if they were experts in the field (thanks to popular magazines like Time which run often oversimplified stories on scientific discoveries). Science is often accepted as true and never changing; to question science, thus, would be absurd, or so it seems Money would have one believe.

Fausto-Sterling, however, conceives of a different picture of science. She states outright: "scientists do not simply read nature to find truths to apply in the social world. Instead, they use truths from our social relationships to structure, read, and interpret the natural" (116). This point is illuminated in her discussion of the corpus callosum (CCs). It seems scientists are so conditioned to believe that men and women are fundamentally different that when faced with a physical difference (i.e. differing sizes of CCs in men and women), they immediately try to connect the difference to some gender difference (in this case a difference in mathematical/scientific abilities), even if the existence of the gender difference itself is uncertain. Fausto-Sterling goes even further to point out the disagreement in how to divide and name the CC, and the flawed methods of reporting data and drawing conclusions from CC studies (130, 144).

She also offers an explanation for the continued research in the area despite such conflicting opinions and confusing data; she cites "'persuasive communities,' whose language choices or use of techniques such as sophisticated statistics may condition how its members envision a problem" (141). Thus, for instance, the CC, which was once thought to hold the key to racial difference, is now "at gender's beck and call" (122). Researchers decide which questions to ask according to social forces. Thus the results are always socially useful (i.e. gender, or perhaps, race-related). For instance, finding that the CCs of blue-eyed people are larger than those of green-eyed people would be nowhere near as significant as discovering the same in terms of gender. From a scientific standpoint it seems the two discoveries would be equally noteworthy, yet only the discovery regarding gender would be socially valuable; hence scientists ignore questions about eye-color differences and focus on gender differences. It is no wonder, then, that scientists formulate questions according to social forces; they need an answer that sells.

And since scientists have constructed the question, it is only one small step forward to construct the answer. What makes a man a man and a woman a woman if not genitalia (for obviously the possibility of intersexuality limits the usefulness of genitalia as the answer)? Well, scientists have suggested, it must be sex hormones. Estrogen makes a woman a woman, and testosterone makes a man a man. Never mind that men have estrogen and women have testosterone, or that these hormones affect more unisex body parts than sex-specific ones (178-79). Even more disturbing is the manner in which these hormones came to be defined; the male hormone was defined in terms of secondary sex characteristics, and the female defined in terms of the estrus cycle (185). But what justifies these definitions as opposed to others, and how can we know how a different definition (thus the changing of the question) might affect the answer? Similarly, in hormonal experiments with rodents, as society's understanding of sexual orientation evolved, so too did the results of similar experiments. And of course there is still room for change because there is room to change the question. In order to conduct experiments relating to sexual behavior, these researchers must define terms such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual; but these terms belong to society and not nature. Thus in a few decades, if society's understanding of these terms is reconstructed, the scientific answers regarding sexual behavior will be reconstructed as well.

Fausto-Sterling's last, and what I take to be her most provocative, criticism of science's treatment of sex and gender issues is that science not only constructs genitalia, questions, and answers, but that there is a real possibility that science constructs bodily differences through socialization. I take this criticism to be implied, perhaps inadvertently, in the book, but I believe it is a significant one. Fausto-Sterling discusses the case of two children who were raised by a pack of wolves since infancy. When found, the girls had taken on the characteristics of wolves. They were nocturnal, they craved raw meat, and could communicate with growling dogs; they also learned to run faster than other humans on four limbs. Fausto-Sterling comments: "Clearly these children's bodies—from their skeletal structure to their nervous systems—had been profoundly changed" (239). She goes on to discuss the malleable nature of the nervous system and brain. The implication, I believe, is that if it is possible for an environment created by living with wild dogs to cause bodily changes, then an environment constructed by supposed scientific "facts" can also cause bodily changes. There is at least the possibility, then, that as science discovers "natural" (i.e. socially expected) differences and incorporates that information into our social world, bodies will also begin to incorporate that information. Hence the "natural" truths will be constructed in the literal sense; science can literally create its own truth.

Science, then, as it is practiced by persons involved in our social world, constructs questions, answers, and bodies. As a scientist (and apparently a post-modern feminist), Fausto-Sterling is in a unique position to illustrate that gender, sex, and sexuality are constructed. While philosophers like Judith Butler must rely on theories of performing gender to make this point, Fausto-Sterling is able to point to concrete scientific experiments and explain where they go wrong. And one can conclude from Fausto-Sterling's book that not only do we "do" gender, we also "do" sex and bodies as well.

 

 

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory." 1998.

Excerpt from K. Conboy, N. Medina and S. Stanbury, eds. Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory (401-17). NY: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Stassinopoulos, Arianna. "The Natural Woman." Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.

Entry found under "gender." Microsoft Bookshelf 2000. CD-ROM. 2000.