Thomas Laqueur, Chapter One of Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud
Thomas Laqueur

“The purported independence of generation from pleasure created the space in which women’s sexual nature could be redefined, debated, denied, or qualified. And so it was of course. Endlessly.”

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex

In the last module we saw that Aristotle argued that female orgasm was not necessary for conception, but Aristotle was disagreeing with what was at the time a widespread belief, and we saw that Galen would disagree with Aristotle, insisting that female orgasm was required for generation. Although we now know that Aristotle was right and Galen was wrong, Galen’s understanding of conception would be the dominant one in the West all the way up until the 18th century. Historian of medicine Thomas Laqueur opens his important book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, by considering the span of decades during which opinion on this matter began to shift towards the Aristotelian view. In particular, he recounts two very different interpretations of a case of a necrophilic monk who impregnated a girl he believed was dead. The girl was in fact in a coma and awoke just before she was to be buried, but was pregnant and could not explain why.

Sir John Everett Millais, “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” (1847)

As Laqueur recounts, a doctor responding to this story in 1752 did not believe it was possible for the monk to have had impregnated the girl without realizing she was alive since, he believed, she had to have had an orgasm to conceive, and the monk would have had to notice this. The 18th-century doctor thus concluded this was a case of fraud in which the girl and the monk had conspired in faking her death until they could get married. {Although Laqueur does not dwell on this aspect of the story of the girl in the coma, one impact of the one sex model of the body that assumed that female orgasm, like male orgasm, was necessary for conception, is that when women conceived it was assumed that they had enjoyed the sex and hence that they had consented. This of course relies on not only a mistake about biology but faulty logic about consent: whether one consents to sex and whether one enjoys the sex are separate issues). What interests Laqueur, however, is that by 1836 the same incident was described by another doctor as evidence that female orgasm is unnecessary for conception to take place. Three decades into the 19th century, the possibility of a man impregnating a body he believes to be a corpse without recognizing his error is not doubted.

“The new biology, with its search for fundamental differences between the sexes, of which the tortured questioning of the very existence of women’s sexual pleasure was a part, emerged at precisely the time when the foundations of the old social order were shaken once and for all.”

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex
The women’s liberation movement

Laqueur argues that this shift in medical opinion and the changing beliefs about the female orgasm are in fact indicative of a larger shift that was taking place: that between the one-sex and the two-sexes models of the body. Importantly, Laqueur insists that this shift did not reflect advances in science but rather the changing needs of patriarchy at a time when “the old social order” was being “shaken” by the emergent women’s liberation movement.

You can find the Laqueur reading below. While the entire book is available online, you only need to read Chapter One.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes” and “The Five Sexes Revisited”
Anne Fausto-Sterling

Anne Fausto-Sterling was trained as a biologist and has an undergraduate degree in zoology with graduate work in genetics. She approaches her research through a feminist lens. Her main contribution to feminist theories of gender is her insistence that biological knowledge is often guilty of being limited and limiting. She is committed to drawing on biological research in order to argue that what we really need are theories of the biological body that recognize and value the richness of human variation. In other words, Fausto-Sterling reveals that people are different, that human bodies exist in a wide variety, and that we ought to be open to new languages for describing gender variance.

Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” published in The Sciences in 1993, was an early writing on intersex that was to be taken up but also challenged by the intersex advocacy movement in the final years of the 20th century. While intersex advocates appreciated Fausto-Sterling’s challenge to the two sex understanding of the body that denied the very existence of intersex and resulted in medical interventions to force intersex bodies into one of the two accepted sexes – often with catastrophic consequences – they challenged Fausto-Sterling’s focus on genitals. Although Fausto-Sterling’s 1993 article was radical in so far as it challenged the two sex model of the body, insisting on the existence of at least five sexes, it continued to define sex by genitals rather than by the choices and identifications of individuals.

Intersex advocates
Intersex advocates

In her 2000 article, “The Five Sexes, Revisited,” also published in The Sciences, Fausto-Sterling engages how intersex advocates had responded to her initial publication, and agrees about the limitations they had identified. Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes, Revisited” is more self-consciously aligned with the intersex advocacy movement, and although she continues to argue against a binary understanding of sex, she now emphasizes the right to self-determination rather than biological variation.

“Sometimes people suggest to me, with not a little horror, that I am arguing for a pastel world in which androgyny reigns and men and women are boringly the same. In my vision, however, strong colors coexist with pastels. There are and will continue to be highly masculine people out there; it’s just that some of them are women. And some of the most feminine people I know happen to be men.”

Anne Fausto-Sterling, The Five Sexes, Revisited”

Fausto-Sterling’s articles provide useful information about both the biology of intersex and the historical treatment of intersex individuals. In addition, the latter article provides insight into the early stages of the intersex advocacy movement.

You can find the two short readings by Anne Fausto-Sterling below.