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Sexing the BodyReview - Sexing the Body
Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality
by Anne Fausto-Sterling
Basic Books, 2000
Review by M. Michael Schiff
Jun 17th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 25)

Saving Ryan's Privates: Anne Fausto-Sterling again Disarms the Medical Establishment

Five­minute sketches on the popular American live television comedy show "Saturday Night Live" rarely translate well into feature movies. Cogent ideas, expressed well but tersely, might not demand a lengthy exposition. You might assume that the development of a classic five-page essay into an in­depth scholarly book would not sustain. But Anne Fausto­-Sterling's treatise, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, based on her essay "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough" has quickly become an integral text. In 1993, the "Five Sexes" article established the continuum of gender that exists between female and male. It has since been widely cited and routinely included in gender identity curricula. Brown University professor of biology and women's studies Fausto-Sterling, whose earlier Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men proved invaluable for dissolving sexual illusions and earned her much acclaim has succeeded again, as Sexing the Body has quickly become one of the most important books for the understanding of psychology and sexuality. In a neatly structured narrative, the book cleverly repackages and repeatedly revisits Fausto-Sterling's 1993 "Five Sexes" essay, managing to wisely unpack her pointed scientific wisdom about intersexuality, and turning her five-page introduction into a nearly 500­-page exposition (with nearly half of that as detailed endnotes). Sexing the Body greatly defines the current moment in gender identity theory. Referring to Donna Haraway's remark that biology is politics by other means, Fausto­-Sterling adds that ethical, moral, political and social arguments necessitate thinking about human bodies in informed, interdisciplinary ways. And she meets demands that thinking about human sexuality and gender be fixed in the two­sex system with waves of data about the ruin that is exacted on real people's lives in the process.

Fausto-­Sterling's thesis, at heart, involves the contemporary medical establishment's inability to leave ambiguous sexual genitalia alone, instead imposing disturbing disfiguring and desexing operations on young girls and boys, those often referred to as hermaphrodites who are in contemporary speech intersexuals. Fausto-Sterling's documentation of the sad result is by far the most important part of her research. Coincident with the publication of Sexing the Body there has been a sea change in the way children with ambiguous genitalia are being treated. Perhaps as the book becomes even more popular few children at all will undergo unnecessary operations. Would these changes have been possible without her examination of the underpinning of the politics of medical intervention? It's hard to say, but it just doesn't seem likely, given the fact that clinical research in the field is forced to face Fausto-­Sterling's critiques. Yet despite changes in the treatment of intersexuality, it can't be forgotten that her criticism is also to be levelled at the new politics she makes preferable. Fausto­-Sterling's work is as much about challenging established norms and the hierarchies of academic scholarship as it is about creating a new gender system in which every choice is an equal one­­but it remains that her latest book is very much and very specifically an elaboration on the latter. It happens that the result, like all good scholarship, turns hierarchy on its head. Like the "one sex" worldview documented in Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Fausto-Sterling's work readily and easily transforms its close readers into an embrace the book's gender system, in this case that of the continuum of gender.

Fausto-­Sterling establishes that assigning gender, invariably in an accepted sexual dimorphism, is primarily if not perpetually a culturally derived act, a cultural "decision." She asks what would result if genders were allowed the freedom to develop unfettered by moral and medical constraints. Even more interestingly, Fausto­-Sterling interrogates what would happen if her proposed "utopian" gender system came into widespread acceptance, detailing the pitfalls every step of the way. Reminiscent of Emily Martin's 1991 essay in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and in Society, "The Egg and the Sperm and how Science has Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male­-Female Roles Signs," Fausto-Sterling delineates in the chapter "Sexing the Brain: How Biologists Make a Difference" the part that big "S" Science plays in sexing gender, when sex is reduced to the study of body parts forced to fall into one of two categories. Key to understanding intersexuality, Fausto-Sterling relates a period (in the 1930s) when intersexual children were not medically altered, noting that in every case the child grew up relatively well-adjusted.

Positive, even glowing, reviews of this book abound, in the New England Journal of Medicine, in Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, and elsewhere. One review pitted Fausto-Sterling against Judith Butler in an imaginary boxing ring, and given Fausto-Sterling's engaging style, grounding in science and the ability to express herself with alacrity, clarity and aim, imagined Professor Butler knocked out, bell sounding. These violent images and machismo results should be a target for Fausto-Sterlingesque critique, if her book teaches us anything at all. The same reviewer fails to grasp the intent of Fausto-Sterling's chapter on testosterone and estrogen, presumably because she isn't hit over the head with it.

In 1993 my spouse gave birth to girl and boy twins during my stint as a special student in Social & Political Thought at York University. Obviously everything changed. Recovering as a doctoral candidate in the same program in 1996, reading Anne Fausto­Sterling's "Five Sexes" essay and meeting Morgan Holmes, president of the Canadian chapter of the Intersex Society of North America, changed my life again. In 1998, I presented a paper called "From Anne Fausto­Sterling to Morgan Holmes: the 'Unruly Bodies' of Intersexuality," at the Second International Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Tampere, Finland, a paper I later published as "Sexed Bodies and the 'Unruly Bodies' of Intersexuality," in Selected Papers of the Fifth Annual York Centre for Health Studies' Symposium (York University, Toronto: June 2000). It may not be obvious, but Fausto-Sterling's work helps parents of children who define societal norms as well as those who redefine them. It's an honor to have more than five minutes with which to explore the consequences, and to have been provided with the scholarly foundation by the author, with which to undertake the task.

© M. Michael Schiff, 2001

M. Michael Schiff is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Canada. Along with psychoanalysis and gender studies, his academic studies invariably include the work of Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin, and the communication of cultural studies. He co­founded and ­edits j_spot the Journal of Social and Political Thought, and works full-time for the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University.


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