Thomas Laqueur: The One Sex and Two Sexes Models of the Body

“To be sure, difference and sameness, more or less recondite, are everywhere; but which ones count and for what ends is determined outside the bounds of empirical investigation. The fact that at one time the dominant discourse construed the male and female bodies as hierarchically, vertically, ordered versions of one sex and at another time as horizontally ordered opposites, as incommensurable, must depend on something other than even a great constellation of real or supposed discoveries.”

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex

Thomas Laqueur’s influential argument in his 1990 book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, has been referenced in earlier modules and lectures. For example, Aristotle and Galen’s understandings of male and female reproductive anatomies were explained in the previous module as examples of the “one sex” model of sexuality, where male and female bodies are understood as fundamentally analogous rather than as opposite or opposed. In the first part of this module, you will watch a video that delves into Laqueur’s argument in Making Sex in more detail. Chapter One of Making Sex is the first assigned resource for this module.

Video Lecture: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (48:11)

Christine Helliwell: A Feminist Anthropological Perspective

*Trigger warning: this section of the module discusses sexual assault.

A map showing Indonesian Borneo. The Dayak community of Gerai is in West Borneo.

“…in Gerai, men’s and women’s sexual organs are explicitly conceptualized as the same. This sexual identity became particularly clear when I asked several people who had been to school (and hence were used to putting pencil to paper) to draw men’s and women’s respective organs for me: in all cases, the basic structure and form of each were the same. One informant, endeavoring to convince me of this sameness, likened both to wooden and bark containers for holding valuables (these vary in size but have the same basic conical shape, narrower at the base and wider top). In all of these discussions, it was reiterated that the major difference between men’s and women’s organs is their location: inside the body (women) and outside the body (men). In fact, when I pressed people on this point, they invariably explained that it makes no sense to distinguish between men’s and women’s genitalia themselves; rather, it is location that distinguishes between penis and vulva.”

Christine Helliwell, “‘It’s only a penis’: Rape, Feminism, and Difference”

In “‘It’s only a penis’: Rape, Feminism, and Difference,” feminist anthropologist Christine Helliwell draws on her anthropological fieldwork to provide cross-cultural evidence that the world is not naturally divided into two sexes, male and female, based on anatomical variations that are universally obvious demarcations of difference. Helliwell’s fieldwork entailed living for 20 months among the Gerai, a Dayak community in Indonesian Borneo. In all the time that she spent in this community, Helliwell heard no mention of sexual assault. In the story that she opens her article with, however, she describes interpreting a woman to have been the victim of an attempted rape after this woman angrily shouted at a man for entering her house at night, getting into her bed and indicated that he expected to have sex with her. After the woman shouted at him, the man fled her house and the village in shame. Not knowing the word for “rape” in the Gerai language (since, as it turns out, no such word exists,) Helliwell says to the woman that the man had tried to hurt her. To her surprise, the woman replied, “It’s only a penis? How can a penis hurt anyone?” In fact, Helliwell learns, the woman shouted at the man not because she thought he posed a physical threat to her or would have sex with her against her will, but because she found him presumptuous to have assumed he could get in her bed just because she had accepted gifts from him.

Gift giving

Helliwell then learns that the male genitals are not understood in this culture as a weapon for rape, or as something that makes men capable of hurting women. For the Gerai, women have the same anatomy as men, only their bodies are less vulnerable than men’s since their genitals are located safely inside their bodies, whereas male genitals, while otherwise the same as female genitals, are more vulnerable to harm because they are exposed on the outside of the body. This is a variation on the one-sex model: men and women have the same bodies, including the same genitals, but they are located differently. In this case, however, having the genitals located outside the body is not seen as a sign of male superiority—as it was in Aristotle—but as a liability: it makes men more vulnerable to injury.

Christine Helliwell

We saw that on the one-sex model, it is not that the ancient and Renaissance thinkers didn’t recognize any differences between males and females, however they interpreted these differences as differences in degree, differences in location, or differences in a hierarchy rather than as oppositions or dichotomies. It was not penises versus vaginas but penises outside the body and penises inside the body. It wasn’t male bodies versus female bodies, but bodies that were hotter versus bodies that were colder, or bodies that were more or less mature. Helliwell argues that the Gerai also have a one-body or one-sex view:

“In Gerai, it is thought that males can get pregnant and do the work of carrying a child – but this would be ‘stupid’ since females are better at it (so the male boar that is thought to be pregnant is said to be ‘stupid’). Some men are said to have carried their own children if their wives were too lazy to be pregnant.”

Christine Helliwell, “‘It’s only a penis'”
Two women in Borneo

Helliwell also observes that men are thought to be capable of lactating in Gerai, and, once again, males and females are thought to produce the same seminal fluid: for the Gerai, as for Galen, there is believed to be female semen as well as male semen. Helliwell says that the ability of both men and women to produce the same seminal or genital fluid is “linked in complex ways to the ability of both to menstruate,” as men are believed to sometimes menstruate in Gerai. This is similar to Aristotle saying that if men have sex too often, their sperm gets weak and can be more like menstrual blood, and that menstrual blood and male semen are both just two variations on the same substance.

Like Galen, the Gerai understand conception to occur when the male and female semens mingle. The Gerai believe that if the male and female fluids were not the same they couldn’t mix—they’d be like coconut oil and water – and so what the male and female bodies produce must be semen in each case. They are in fact so convinced that the male and female do the same thing in reproduction that the idea of sex-specific contraceptives doesn’t make sense to them, and Helliwell observes that there are cases of men taking female oral contraceptives because they assume it will work for them as well. Unlike in the Western worldview, the Gerai do not view men as active and females as passive, and they don’t view male’s contribution to reproduction as any more active than or as superior to that of the female. Even in terms of sexual intercourse, Helliwell claims that it is not seen that men are penetrating, women are being penetrated, or that men are active and women are passive in heterosexual intercourse. Rather, intercourse is understood as two of the same kind of body, two of the same kind of force, two of the same kind of fluid are intermingling.

Three Men and a Baby
Kindergarten Cop
Daddy Daycare

While with sex, Helliwell claims that the male and female are seen as doing the same thing (mingling with the other, combining forces), she observes that there is a division in the roles of men and women among the Gerai when it comes to work, but this is not absolute or opposed. In the West we have concepts of “men’s work” and “women’s work” that entail men not just being worse at but being utterly incapable of doing women’s work. In films such as Three Men and A Baby, Daddy Daycare, Kindergarden Cop, The Pacifier—This Navy S.E.A.L. Meets His Match!—men are depicted as almost utterly completely incapable of childcare. Although these men can kill other adult men, they can’t handle a baby or a young child—the Navy S.E.A.L. and The Terminator “meet their matches” in these films! Similarly, women are often represented as simply incapable of doing men’s work.

Private Benjamin

Helliwell says that in Gerai there is a view that men are better at some work (clearing rice fields) and women at others (selecting and storing rice seed), but nurturing and thus childcare aren’t among these tasks that are gendered, and the view is that all people can do all kinds of work, even the most apparently gendered work such as childbearing—so an all-female or all-male household could still produce rice, just not as much or as well (so it is pitied).

Indonesian women harvesting rice

Helliwell recounts that the Gerai were not sure whether she was a man or a woman. Although they realized she had breasts and a vulva, they think she might still be a man – perhaps Western men have breasts and vulvas, they think – since she acts like a man, bravely trekking through the jungle alone, and doesn’t know how to do the work that characterizes women: she can’t sort rice seed! She is eventually categorized as a woman because she learns to sort rice seed, but since she doesn’t do it well, her gender identity remains ambiguous. This shows the contingency of the Western view that the genitals are the primary determining factor of gender.

Scattering rice seed

It is often assumed that rape exists universally, and this belief has been reflected in feminist writings on the topic. Feminists have made claims such as, to quote Susan Brison, “The fact that all women’s lives are restricted by sexual violence is indisputable” and “rape is indigenous, not exceptional, to women’s social condition.” Helliwell argues that feminists assume that rape is universal because this is part of a feminist understanding of sexual difference, and she considers two variations on this argument. The first variation is the view that rape is part of a socially constructed sexual difference. Rape has been theorized by feminists as a fundamental tool of patriarchy and of compulsory heterosexuality. The second variation on the sexual difference argument about rape is the one that Helliwell is most concerned with, however. This is a biologistic or essentialist view of sexual difference according to which men rape and women are vulnerable to rape due to their anatomical differences. That is, men rape because they can, or because they have the equipment to do so, and women are vulnerable to rape because the structure of their bodies makes them rape-able. Rape is assumed to exist in all cultures because men and women have the same bodies in every culture.


Helliwell argues that the belief that rape is universal may also reflect racism. On this view, it isn’t possible that supposedly less “civilized” societies would not have rape if the most “civilized” societies do. Thus when white feminists assume that rape is universal, Helliwell suggests that their implicit logic is that since other cultures are more barbaric than their own, and rape is prevalent in their own culture, other cultures cannot be rape-free.

Rice fields in Borneo

Another problem is that the biologistic view of rape depends on a deterministic understanding of sexual difference. The view is that the world is divided into people with penises and people with vaginas, and these biological differences creates social realities such as that some people can rape and some people are vulnerable to rape, and that these social realities create gender, or men and women. Thus, on this view, gender is an inevitable outcome of biology. Biological facts create social facts that create gender: penises and vaginas create the possibility of rape and the possibility of rape creates men and women. According to Helliwell, however, the assumption that the world is naturally divided into male and female bodies based on clearly opposed anatomies is wrong, as evidenced by the example of the Gerai. Moreover, the absence in Gerai of a word or concept for rape, a word for rape, as well as the disbelief on the part of the Gerai that rape is even possible, refutes the idea that rape simply follows from male and female anatomy.

Helliwell’s article is not available online open access and so is not a required reading for this course. University of Alberta students who are interested can find the article through the university library, however. It was published in the feminist journal Signs in 2000, vol. 25, no. 3.

Anne Fausto-Sterling: The Five Sexes, and More…

Anne Fausto-Sterling

“if the state and the legal system have an
interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system,
they are in defiance of nature. For biologically
speaking, there are many gradations running from
female to male; and depending on how one calls the
shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at
least five sexes-and perhaps even more.”

Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes”

Beyond Male and Female

In her influential 1993 article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough,” feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling observes that biologically speaking, it is simply false to divide human beings – and animals more generally – into only two sexes, male and female, as there are a range of other possibilities that occur regularly in nature. Initially Fausto-Sterling speaks of “five sexes,” drawing upon a traditional way of dividing intersex people into three categories: “true hermaphrodites” (“herms”), “male pseudohermaphrodites” (“merms”), and “female pseudohermaphrodites” (“ferms”). Counting these three categories of people along with males and females would mean that there are five sexes. In fact, however, Fausto-Sterling immediately stresses that there is enormous variation even within any of these given categories, and so we could very easily speak of more than five sexes. In the 2000 article, “The Five Sexes Revisited,” Fausto-Sterling rejects the number five altogether, arguing that sex, like gender and sexuality, should be a personal decision and not dictated by genitals at all. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s two articles, “The Five Sexes” and “The Five Sexes, Revisited,” are the final assigned resources for this module.

Sleeping Hermaphroditus (Louvre). The sculpture of the Greek god Hermaphroditus (offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite) dates to antiquity, but the mattress on which the figure lies was sculpted by the Italian artist Bernini in the 17th century. As soon on the Home page for this module, when one first sees the figure of Hermaphroditus upon entering the room in the Louvre in which it is housed, Hermaphroditus appears to be a woman, however when one circles to the front of the figure one sees breasts and a penis.

The short video below from The Science Show gives an overview of the biology of intersex or, to use the term introduced in the video, Differences of Sexual Development.

“There are More than Two Human Sexes” (13:40)

The Politics of Nomenclature

The words used to refer to intersex people have been hotly contested. Historically intersex people were referred to as “hermaphrodites,” from the Greek mythological figure, Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus’ name is a fusion of his parents’ names: his father was Hermes and his mother was Aphrodite. This label was used by scientists well into the 20th century, however the words “hermaphrodite” and “hermaphroditism” have now been rejected, given the stigma that they accrued over centuries.

An ancient wall painting from Pompeii showing Pan a d Hermaphroditus. Pan assumes that Hermaphroditus is a woman, but when Hermaphroditus reveals their genitals Pan turns away in horror. The degree to which intersex has been stigmatized has varied over time and place.

“The logical structure of the commonly used terms “true hermaphrodite,” “male pseudohermaphrodite” and “female pseudohermaphrodite” indicates that only the so-called true hermaphrodite is a genuine mix of male and female. The others, no matter how confusing their body parts, are really hidden males or females. Because true hermaphrodites are rare – possibly only one in 100,000 – such a classification system supports the idea that human beings are an absolutely dimorphic species.”

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

The language of “pseudohermaphrodites,” seen in Fausto-Sterling’s first article and critiqued in the second, has also been contested, moreover, as it attempts to deny that intersex even exists in the majority of cases. The language of “pseudo” or “false” implies that intersex individuals are in fact really male or female, and that something has simply gone wrong in the development of their bodies. This in turn implies that whatever has gone wrong should be medically corrected if possible, so that these bodies can appear and function as what they really are. As Fausto-Sterling observes, so-called “true hermaphrodites” are rarer than so-called “pseudo-hermaphrodites,” and so by denying that intersex is “real” in the two “pseudohermaphrodite” categories, intersex is rendered such a rare occurrence that it poses no serious challenge to the two sex model of the body.

Five figures wave the intersex flag

Writing “The Five Sexes” in the 1990s and 2000, Fausto-Sterling refers to intersex people as “intersexuals,” however this language too has been rejected. Many parents of intersex children were uncomfortable with the term “intersexual” because it implied that their children did not just have a physical anomaly but that they were sexually anomalous or queer. “Intersexuality” sounded too much like “homosexuality” and implied that these children were not going to be heterosexual. Many parents of intersex children have preferred the language of “intersex conditions” or “Disorders of Sexual Development” (DSDs) since these terms do not suggest that a child is not male or female, or that they are sexually abnormal (or going to grow up to be). Rather, these terms imply that the child is a normal (future heterosexual) male or female who simply has a “condition” or “disorder” that medicine can treat.

Ori Turner

While the intersex advocacy movement has been critical of the homophobia behind parental discomfort with the word “intersexual,” they also reject this phrase since intersex is not a sexuality and many intersex individuals identify as heterosexual. The intersex advocacy movement has moreover resisted the language of “conditions” and “disorders,” as in “Disorders of Sexual Development” or DSDs, as these imply that something is wrong with intersex individuals and justifies medical interventions. For these reason, if we are to speak of DSDs, the intersex advocacy movement has preferred the phrase “Differences in Sexual Development,” seen in the video above.

As was touched upon in the Science Show video above, supposedly “corrective” surgeries on children’s genitals most often take place long before an age at which a child can consent, and intersex advocates argue that the majority of these surgeries are merely cosmetic and not medically necessary. These surgical interventions attempt to force children into a binary system of sex, often causing considerable physical and psychological harm. The TedX Talk below, by Ori Turner and their mother Kristina Turner, further explains why the intersex advocacy movement resists such unnecessary medical interventions and some of the main principles of the contemporary movement.

Kristina & Ori Turner’s TedX Talk, “Intersex is Awesome”