“Sexing the Body” by Anne Fausto-Sterling

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of SexualitySexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fausto-Sterling, in her Sexing the Body (Basic, 2000), explores the trend, over time and across disciplines, of how sexuality and gender have been described and defined by socio-cultural processes. She argues convincingly that facts and nature are rarely, if ever, truly factual or natural. Instead, she claims, “What we call facts about the living world are not universal truths.” (7) She agrees with scholarship that suggests identity is embodied, “not individual and fixed, but irredeemably social and processional.” (4) What is constructed becomes reality…

As new technologies and categories and biological phenomenon are discovered and require description, the very act of describing enters a new ‘thing’ into existence; hence, “scientists create truths about reality.” (5) Varying disciplines have identified and regulated (created?) gender – from religion, to law, science, and (most recently) medicine. However, what we think of as gender has actually been different across time and culture, most often being related directly to male political privilege. These disciplines, instead of merely identifying or categorizing gender, have been used by the status quo to regulate gender and punish or ‘correct’ deviance from a “two-sex system.” Science especially “was used as a tool to obliterate precisely the wonders it illuminated” (37) with scientists defining “some bodies as better and more deserving of rights than others.” (39)

Medicine takes a heavy beating in Fausto-Sterling’s critic, especially the practice of infant genital surgery, variously referred to also as “mutilation.” (79) Surgeries that “correct” biology, she claims, are actually motivated by social concerns, not “nature’s course,” as the language of doctors often suggests. She argues strongly in favor of discontinuing involuntary and unnecessary procedures that often are conducted without parental knowledge or consent.

In her concluding chapter, Fausto-Sterling focuses again on processes as the fundamental character of gender identity formation, that (using the example of blind Braille readers) “the environment and the body co-produce behavior and that it is inappropriate to try to make one component prior to the other.” (241) This fits well with her overriding thesis that “the divide between nature and nurture is indivisible.” [I lost the citation, but credit is hers] The name she gives to this framework is described variously as a “Development [or Dynamic] Systems Theory” and a “Systems Account” (25, 238, 243, 249, 254, etc.) of gender identity.

Obviously, a major theme of her work is that gender (and I kept reading into her claims ‘identity’ as well) is constructed over time and never totally crystallizes into one final and absolute form. Dynamic systems of physiology and environment co-produce the developing gendered person, even as society writ large suggests that gender is produced, perhaps at conception, by biological sex. I don’t know quite what to do with the (mildly amusing) contradiction to her overall claim, namely that if the construction is in fact of a two-sex system, then exactly how is it that these non-binary expressions emerge (if it’s a chicken that produces the egg, then where did this swan come from)? Maybe construction is not actually reality…

Fausto-Sterling suggests that “cells and culture mutually construct each other,” (242) a theme of her work is that nature and nurture are inseparable. Breaking down this dichotomy is helpful and encouraging. However, if we are to “erode the distinctions between the physical and the social body” (20), where does that leave rights claims? Seemingly, one of the classic claims of early feminisms in the West was that women had more claim over their bodies than did political (often masculine) entities, if not an absolute claim; if we are to erode that physical/social distinction, would that not reinforce certain assumptions she is trying to dissolve? Fausto-Sterling should possibly describe in more detail the permeability of this distinction, and defend why some of the distinctions not remain in place.

Finally, as a theology student with particular ethical commitments, I wonder how her use of the word “process” might interact with theological frameworks that share the same name that suggest ‘becoming’ should be privileged over ‘being.’ This might explain her aversion to notions of ‘essence’ and nature, but she does not clearly discredit that school of thought. Instead, she ostensibly suggests a fusion of nature/biology (essence) and nurture/culture (environment), though I am left wondering if in reality she holds more firmly to the latter than the former. After all, she spends little energy or ink to critiquing culture per se, instead focusing her energy on scientific and medical forms of gender essentialism.

• How does DST fit with theological frameworks such as “Narrative/Post-Liberal” or “Process” (235) theological frameworks?
• If culture is so formative and co-productive, how should that shape the ethics of mass media, television, advertising, etc.?

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