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Sorting by Sex

Celia Moore

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Anne Fausto-Sterling. 473 pp. Basic Books/ Perseus, 2000. $35.

The dust jacket for Sexing the Body shows the lower part of a human torso with hands in the traditional fig-leaf position. There is no doubt that a sexual human body is depicted, but the sex is unknown. Is there an unambiguous answer beneath the hands? The illustration is a fitting visual metaphor for a book that challenges us to take a new look at sexual categories and the medical practices currently used to impose them on human bodies.

Most people believe that there are only two sex categories; this belief is fundamental to many laws, medical practices and ordinary social conventions. Yet 17 out of every 1,000 people fail to meet our assumption that everyone is either male or female. This is the approximate incidence of intersexuals: individuals with XY chromosomes and female anatomy, XX chromosomes and male anatomy, or anatomy that is half male and half female (for example, having one ovary and one testis).

Shown left to right are a masculinized sisterClick to Enlarge Image

Sexing the Body begins with historical and contemporary descriptions of how people who do not fit easily into male or female categories are made to fit through an act of assignment followed by concealment or through the removal of contradictory anatomical parts—often without the knowledge or consent of the individuals or their families. The book, designed to raise awareness of these social issues, is an eye-opening call for social action. But it is more than that. Through deft use of evidence regarding intersexuals and how they are treated, Anne Fausto-Sterling draws us into a deeply questioning analysis of the very process of categorizing all individuals into essential sexual types. Are there only two sexes, or should we expand the list? Are the assignments fixed, or can they be changed? Is it necessary to sort at all?

Questions of sexuality and sex differences are often pursued quite separately by social and natural scientists. Beginning in the 1970s, this division gave rise to the use of the term gender to refer to the social dimension and sex to refer to the biological dimension of the categorization schemes we use. Although Fausto-Sterling acknowledges that there are useful differences between the research agendas of the two traditions, she has made a deliberate choice to integrate them in her work. Indeed, her final chapter is a call for greater attention to theoretical frameworks, such as developmental systems theory, that integrate social and biological science.

The book succeeds in its multidisciplinary ambition, ranging comfortably across the many fields concerned with sexuality and sexual identity—sociology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology and molecular biology. These threads are woven together by focusing on the history of ideas. The result is a highly readable, scholarly narrative, supported by an extensive bibliography and detailed explanatory notes that occupy about a third of the book.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the considerable literature on hormones and their effects on brain and behavioral development. This technical material has been well researched and is presented so as to give nonspecialists a good sense of the current state of the field. Some of the findings cast such a surprising new light on biological sex differences that old formulations of the social-biological dichotomy may disappear into the shadows. We are led to wonder, for example, whether brain differences that arise from social stimulation are biological or social in nature. The chapter on sex hormones makes it clear that testosterone and estrogen are found in both sexes and have many functions that have nothing to do with sex. This observation at the level of cells and molecules brings us back to the central questions of this provocative book: Can the body be sexed? Should it?—Celia L. Moore, Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston

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