Ten Years of Sexing the Body

By Matthew Cheney

I don't believe in astrology, but I'm a Libra, which means I see two sides to things, and so I accept my Libra-ish qualities without letting that affect my conviction that belief in astrology is about as valid as belief in the homeopathic idea that water has a memory. My inherently dialectical nature can be annoying, because it makes it difficult ever to feel certain about, well, anything. Seconds after I come up with a thesis, I can come up with its antithesis. Synthesis, though, is rare and seldom solid.

My tendency to be my own Devil's Advocate came out with a vengeance recently as I tried, and failed, to write a tenth anniversary appreciation of a book I love: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling.

To represent what happened, I'll coordinate the voices in my brain into two textual representations, X and Y.


X: Sexing the Body was first published in 2000, which makes it ten years old this year.

Y: Does it? It was published in February 2000. It's almost 2011 now. This column might even be published in 2011, especially because it's late. Again.

X: It's only late because I've spent the last two weeks arguing with you about the book. Look, let's not—

Y: I hate that "look" tic that's gotten so prevalent these days. I blame Obama.

X: Obama? Just because he starts nearly every unscripted sentence with it doesn't mean it began with him. In fact, there's evidence it began with right-wing pundits in the 1990s.

Y: Really? Evidence? I'd like to see that.

X: It's on the Internet. Somewhere.

Y: Oh, the Internet! And do you let your students get away with saying that something is valid because they read it on the Internet?

X: No, of course not. Anyway, what I was saying was that I wanted to talk about Sexing the Body, which was one of those books that, when I first encountered it, completely changed my way of viewing the world.

Y: No it didn't.

X: What?

Y: I was there. You first read it for a graduate course on sexuality and science where a chapter was in the course packet. You sought out the book for a paper you wrote about Eugen Steinach, one of the crazier of the crazy bunch of early endocrinologists. That summer, you read the whole book cover to cover. Then a few months ago, you read the whole thing again.

X: Yes, and it completely changed my—

Y: No, no, no. It confirmed what you already believed, even if you couldn't quite articulate it as well as you could after you read the book.

X: How did it confirm what I already believed if it was full of information I'd never encountered before?

Y: Because you already believed that social construction is a more satisfactory explanation of just about everything than biological determinism is. And you've got a complex relationship to your own gender identity, so naturally you were receptive to a book that complexifies questions of gender.

X: Well, yes. But it also blew my mind.

Y: Because yours was the sort of mind ready to be blown. Plenty of people you've foisted the book off on have found it a good cure for insomnia.

X: Well, anyway, it doesn't really matter. What matters is it's a hugely important book, and the reason I wanted to write about it was that it's such a convincing argument against so many of the idiocies about gender that get tossed around in the media and popular culture, and, indeed, enter academia through pseudosciences like "evolutionary psychology," which seems to me about as valid as Scientology.

Y: Oh, them's fightin' words from somebody who can barely tell a Bunsen burner from a pipette. Pseudoscience?!

X: Yes, and just-so stories. Once upon a time, there were hunters and gatherers, and the women were gatherers and the men were hunters and that explains why women should stay home and bake food for their menfolk, who come home from a hard day of work hunting at the Stock Exchange.

Y: Argument by caricature doesn't really work, you know.

X: You're right. I'm being ridiculously unfair. It's because I've been reading a new book, the second edition of David C. Geary's Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, and I'm annoyed. In some ways, it's an extraordinary book—Geary has made his way through a tremendous amount of research, and the book summarizes it all. Or, not summarizes, exactly. That's the problem. Again and again, he states the conclusions of studies without giving enough information about the methodology. It's a glorified list of every imaginable difference between sexes, and it's backed up with 109 pages of references, so it seems exhaustive and incontrovertible—"Look at all this evidence!" he seems to be saying. "Look at all these differences!"

Y: Well, no, he says in the last paragraph of the book, "I hope to have convinced many readers that Darwin's theory of sexual selection represents a powerful set of processes that has shaped and will continue to shape the evolution of all sexually reproducing species, including our own. To be sure, there is much to be learned, especially how the expression of evolved biases are influenced by developmental experience and cultural context. We will never fully understand the developmental and cultural influences on the many sex differences covered in this book and the many differences that were not covered without placing them in the context of evolution in general and sexual selection in particular. I ask those readers who remain unconvinced to reflect on the theory of evolution, of which sexual selection is one set of pressures. Evolution is not just another psychological, sociological, or anthropological theory; it has proven to be the unifying meta-theory for all of the biological sciences. Eventually, all psychological, sociological, and anthropological models will need to be reconciled with the principles of natural and sexual selection. One can choose to be part of the discovery process or one can let these forthcoming scientific advances pass one by."

X: One theory to rule them all!

Y: So you're choosing to let these forthcoming scientific advances pass one by?

X: I'm choosing to say he's full of horse effluent. It's not that I'm unconvinced that evolution is a powerful mechanism—it's that I think his "You're either with us or you're against us!" philosophy is nuts. More than nuts: dangerous.

Y: There you go with your penchant for hyperbole.

X: No, see, this is where Sexing the Body comes in, and why it's so vital. One of the values of Fausto-Sterling's book is that it historicizes scientific inquiry. This isn't to say it's all relativistic or seeking to undermine science or anything like that—Fausto-Sterling's a developmental biologist, after all. What it says, though, is that science is a cultural activity, and we need to understand the role it plays in culture, and the role culture plays in it, to make good decisions about social policy, funding, etc. Presenting all sorts of different studies as if they are neutral activities, as Geary does, is helpful if you're looking for material for your own research, but it's missing everything that is actually meaningful about those studies.

Y: I don't see what meaning has to do with it. Geary presents lots of conclusions, often from multiple studies, showing, again and again and again, that sex differences are a part of natural selection. You could argue that he's picking only studies that confirm his biases, but he's got 109 pages of citations for them. That's meaning. You just don't like the meaning.

X: No, I think it's superficial and misleading, and because our attitudes toward gender affect people's everyday lives, I therefore think it's dangerous. You quoted Geary's last paragraph, so I'm going to quote Fausto-Sterling's: "The feminist theorist Donna Haraway has written that biology is politics by other means. This book provides an extended argument for the truth of that claim. We will, I am sure, continue to fight our politics through arguments about biology. I want us never, in the process, to lose sight of the fact that our debates about the body's biology are always simultaneously moral, ethical, and political debates about social and political equality and the possibilities for change. Nothing less is at stake."

Y: You left out her endnote about Haraway: "This is a paraphrase of 'Primatology Is Politics By Other Means,' Haraway, 1986, p.77." So you see, she lied. Haraway never wrote, "Biology is politics by other means." If Fausto-Sterling lied about that, what else did she lie about?

X: She admitted it was a paraphrase.

Y: In a note at the end of over a hundred pages of notes in tiny, tiny, tiny font.

X: But her point is a valid one. The reason debates about sex differences get so heated is not because they're neutral, objective observations of Darwinian processes. They're not. They're interventions into our social and political life, because they pose meanings for why we are the way we are. They create the idea of what is and isn't natural, and because so many people equate "natural" with "right," it leads to terrible consequences for social policy, for parenting, for education, for romantic relationships. . . .

Y: But you have no way to judge whether Fausto-Sterling's science is any good. Your knowledge of biology is arguably better than that of the average person on the street, but you don't really have much talent for it, and you certainly don't have the sort of knowledge of biology or evolution that would allow you to judge the work done by people who, you know, have spent their lives actually doing science.

X: I don't deny that. But it's not my point. I'm not saying one is good science and one is bad.

Y: You dismissed an entire academic field when you called evolutionary psychology a pseudoscience.

X: I'm kind of hostile to the field of psychology in general, I'll admit.

Y: You're actively hostile to evolutionary psychology.

X: You're right. I am. But not because I think it's bad science—

Y: Pseudoscience!

X: Let me put it this way: I am open to the idea of evolutionary psychology as a type of scientific inquiry. I'm skeptical, but I can see myself perhaps being convinced by a really strong argument. Or, rather, I'm more open to the possibility of one day believing that evolutionary psychology is a science than I am open to the possibility of one day believing that astrology or homeopathy or Scientology has validity. Ev psych seems like pseudoscience to me now, but my understanding of the field as a whole is limited and biased by years of reading material opposed to it. However, I am much more certain that works like Geary's are so drastically incomplete as to be dangerously useless, because they hide their political and social goals behind a false presentation of objectivity. Read Fausto-Sterling on the history of endocrinology—especially the way growth hormones that do all sorts of things in bodies became labeled as sex hormones because one of the roles they serve is in sex differentiation. Or read her on corpus callosum research and how contradictory and even perhaps impossible it is. Et cetera. But the key isn't even those details—the key is in what she says about interdisciplinary research. None of us can be experts in everything. We need specialists to do their specialist stuff. But when we're talking about ideas and conclusions that will have an effect on society, one specialty isn't enough. As she says on the last page of the book, "Only nonhierarchical, multidisciplinary teams can devise more complete (or what Sandra Harding calls 'less false') knowledge about human sexuality."

Y: So you think Geary needs Fausto-Sterling, and vice versa.

X: More that Geary needs Donna Haraway. Or, much as he would absolutely hate the book, I'd love to see him respond to Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers's Same Difference, which is extremely critical of social biology and evolutionary psychology for the practical and negative effects the just-so stories they create have on people's lives. Or even just Lisa Eliot's recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, which digs into the methodology of some of the studies Geary cites. I'm not under any illusion that he would change his evolutionary psychological ways, but I think an honest engagement with the ideas would strengthen his own work—would, in fact, help give it meaning.

Y: But I bet you don't think Haraway and Barnett & Rivers and Eliot—and Fausto-Sterling, for that matter—should be equally open to Geary's point of view.

X: Well, you're right that that's a harder one for me, because I happen to think their works are more interesting and productive than his, more useful and less destructive. So to me it's a false equivalency. And in some ways Sexing the Body anticipates a lot of what Geary has to say, and Pink Brain, Blue Brain more explicitly tackles some of the same ground. So the problem as I see it—

Y: As someone convinced by the feminists and not the evolutionary psychologists, you mean.

X: Yes. The problem as I see it is that the feminists have done a lot of interesting work around the questions of biology and culture, and the evolutionary psychologists just keep repeating themselves, as if reiteration is argument.

Y: But you haven't made a thorough reading of the evolutionary psychologists in the way you have the feminists.

X: True.

Y: And not all feminists are hostile to evolutionary psychology.

X: Yes, there are still some folks who think Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice is valid.

Y: I admire your restraint.

X: I'll take evolutionary psychologists over Gilliganians any day.

Y: You just don't like Gilligan because she's a feminist and you have a narrow idea of what a feminist can be.

X: No, I won't deny she's a feminist.

Y: You're still holding back. You were going to say, "I also won't deny she's insane."

X: Now you're putting words in my mouth.

Y: We have the same mouth.

X: Well, look—

Y: [cough cough]

X: Sorry. I meant, don't you think we should wrap this up?

Y: Sure. But you haven't even talked about Elizabeth Wilson's recent essay in differences called "Underbelly".

X: True. It's a fascinating essay about biology and psychology and feminism. It complicates this whole discussion.

Y: But you don't want to talk about it.

X: I need to think about it a while longer. And my point here wasn't to talk all about biology and feminism and all that. I just wanted to say, "Hey world! Sexing the Body is ten years old! And it's still utterly great!"

Y: So now you've said that.

X: Which means . . .

Y: . . . there's nothing more to say.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.