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Defining Sex and Gender - Thomas Laqueur

Monday, September 16, 2019 - 07:00

I'm not sure I'm going to manage to do a different publication every week during this "foundational texts" series. This is some fairly dense material. But on the other hand, I'm going to try to be a bit more concise in the future than I was for this work. (I'm fumbling my way to the right balance.) The idea behind this series is that when some other publication makes reference to, for example, "Laqueur's one-sex model," readers will have a basis for understanding what that means. I've tended to pick up that understanding simply by interpolating from how other texts engage with the concepts this series will be covering, but that isn't the ideal method. Anyway, I hope that people will find the choice of these texts useful or at least interesting.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-674-54349-1

This is one of a number of foundational publications on the history of sex, gender, and sexuality that can provide useful context for the field. It does not address lesbian-relevant topics specifically.

The basic premises of Laqueur’s work may seem more obvious now than it did in 1990 when this book was first published. The briefest summary is something like this:

  • Sex (anatomy) and gender (social status) have always been separate concepts (though often described with the same vocabulary) and neither has ever existed in as simple clear-cut categories as cultures pretend to believe.
  • Western cultures have, at various times, had (at least) two different models of the relations of the sexes.
  • Under what Laqueur calls the “one-sex” model, male and female anatomy is understood as topographical variants of the same underlying reality. This model includes a belief in the possibility of anatomical transformation between male and female configurations, as well as embracing the existence of a continuum of intermediate configurations.
  • Under what Laqueur calls the “two-sex” model, male and female are understood as being qualitatively different types of beings. Transformation between male and female anatomy is not part of this model and intersex anatomy must be assigned to one or the other category.
  • Under both models, social gender (man and woman) are cultural constructs that are associated with distinct sets of expected characteristics, behaviors, and are assigned distinct sets of legal and social rights and properties. There is an expected association of sex (male/female) and gender (man/woman) but it is not always fixed, and the logic behind that association may be variable.
  • Attributes of the one-sex and two-sex models existed in parallel in pretty much every era, but at particular times one model or the other may have predominated in philosophical, medical, legal, or cultural discourse.

The book examines the evidence for how these concepts can be identified and examined in a historical context, and how they shifted, overlapped, and evolved across the centuries, with particular focus on the cultural and political contexts of those shifts. The rest of this summary will be a bit stream-of-consciousness.


Laqueur’s study started with the question of why the 17th century (European) belief that female orgasm was essential to conception disappeared. Looking closer, he shifted to the question of the relationship between the body and sexual difference, and the nature of sexual difference in general. A historical biological framework suggests the question should be straightforward with sex being defined by the presence or absence of a penis. But even limiting the definition of sex to anatomy, the question has never been simple when it considers physical alterations, chromosomal testing, etc. There has never been (and still is not) any understanding of sexual difference that is based on undisputed “facts” about bodies.

The erasure of the role of female orgasm in conception occurred at a similar time to the shift from viewing female bodies as “lesser men” (the one-sex model) to seeing male and female as opposites without any common properties. But both the one-sex and two-sex models were always available, even when one or the other predominated.

Chapter 1

The chapter opens with anecdotal framings of the role of female orgasm for conception, e.g., a man having sex with a comatose woman who became pregnant. But if female orgasm was not essential, then it became irrelevant (in male understanding) and opened the door to the model of female passivity/passionlessness. Female sexuality could now be redefined. The previous image of women as sexually voracious changed to an image of women as uninterested in sex.

The earlier model had an image of female sexual organs as an inversion of male organs. But around 1800, scholars began relating the supposed fundamental differences between the sexes as biological differences. In essence, female and male became viewed as different species. This was used as a basis for enforcing social/legal distinctions between the sexes.

The earlier model allowed for what later became considered impossibilities: spontaneous change of (anatomical) sex, and the ability of actions to cause somatic sex changes. Laqueur mentions intersex conditions as a basis for some of these beliefs, but in general does not focus on this topic. To some extent, he proposes, pre-Enlightenment society “considered gender categories as ‘real’ and the sexual body to be the epiphenomenon (i.e., the resulting consequence). Gendered actions could cause anatomy to align to the sex associated with that gender. Man and woman were social/legal/cultural roles, not physical facts.

What changed? Perhaps as scientific observation determined that female orgasm was not essential to conception, culture converted this to a devaluation of the female role in conception entirely? Except that’s not what happened. The conceptual change was not actually predicated on “scientific knowledge” but followed from cultural demands. Both one-sex and two-sex concepts were available, but neither could be “proven” scientifically at the time of the conceptual shift.

“Scientific” data has never been able to conclusively distinguish the sexes in absolute terms. The development of more sophisticated anatomical and developmental knowledge, in fact, supported an understanding of similarity between the sexes, not difference.

The social context of the shift to the two-sex model included marriage as a contract, feminism, restructuring the sexual division of labor due to the factory system, the rise of the market economy. None of these were “causes” but they occurred in the same time-frame. Sexual difference clearly exists, but how it is understood or defined is a product and context for conflicts over gender and power in general.

An outline is given for the remaining chapters: Ch 2 the one-sex body; Ch 3 the relationship of models of sexual difference and science; Ch 4 cultural investment in the one-sex model and the feminist pressures on it; Ch 5 the shift from dominance of the one-sex to the two-sex model; Ch 6 cultural investment in the two-sex model.

Chapter 2

The basic elements of the “one sex, two genders” model is that male and female anatomy are identical except for topography. That is, female anatomy is an inversion of male anatomy and vice versa. This still allows for two genders, as men (gender) are interpreted as having everything in the “right” place, whereas women are variants of the ideal model and therefore less perfect.

The text examines many details of how classical philosophers envisioned and explained this. Behvavioral differences in men and women are due to assumed associations with the anatomical differences. Behavior is not an essential difference but more of a functional one.

In this model, bodily fluids are not clearly distinguished and--as in humoral theory--represent different balances of a set of qualitative attributes. Thus blood, milk, semen, and “female semen” were considered the same underlying substances with difference aspects prevailing. This aligned with the idea that both male and female orgasm were necessary to produce the fluids that combined to form a fetus.

How does the one-sex model allow for social boundaries between men and women? And how did it account for the existence of heterosexual orientation? There is a discussion of philosophical models for sexual desire in Plato’s Symposium (where the anecdote is attributed to the playwright Aristophanes) as based on a “like loves like” principle, but where different types of desire originate in dual-bodied entities, some m/m some f/f some m/f. People desire others of their own type/species but that “type” could be same-sex or different-sex. But at the same time, same-gender love was socially disapproved, at least for the partner who acted “against gender.” It was the conflict of social roles and biological functions that came under disapproval.

Aristotle considered the (anatomical) sex of slaves to be irrelevant as only the social roles belonging to free people had “gender”. In Plato’s Republic, he appears to make a case for the social equality of (free) men and women, but elsewhere adheres to the principle of “male = elevated/perfect” and “female = imperfect.”

The “logical arguments” for this association in pre-Christian philosophy followed humoral principles, but with Augustine and other Christian philosophers, the logic turned to moral precepts where good/evil and salvation/fall were aligned with sex and gender as factors. This allowed for contrasting understandings of the same basic people/functions/acts depending on motivation and purpose.

An essential feature of the one-sex model is that the one sex is male and that female does not exist as a distinct category, only as a variant (and imperfect) form of male. Just as women existed as quantitatively "lesser men," men could also deviation from the ideal male and be considered "less male" on that basis.

Chapter 3

The one-sex model of classical writers continued to be transmitted in medical texts up through the Renaissance, typically without serious question or analysis. Examples are given of vernacular terminology for the reproductive organs that are based on the one-sex model. These terms could add different shades of metaphoric meaning, as in the use of “matrix” versus “purse” for the uterus (a “matrix” has a generative function while a “purse" is simply a container). Within these writings, female orgasm is still strongly associated with reproductive function.

But a more experimental and observational approach to anatomy was shifting people’s understanding, such as the “discovery” of the clitoris. Under the one-sex anatomical model, the vagina was considered to be the direct analogue of the penis -- simply turned inside out. In theory, it couldn’t be both true that the vagina was an inverted penis and that the clitoris was the direct equivalent of the penis, but this contradiction wasn’t noted or considered at the time because philosophy was still predicated on the one-sex model. If the "scientific" evidence didn't fit the dominant model, it was set aside.

In part, the problem was that the state of observable knowledge during the Renaissance could not offer conclusive evidence. And even with observation taking a more central place, anatomical “facts” followed from cultural politics, not the other way around. Women were still asserted to produce semen, female orgasm was still considered essential to conception, despite the continued awareness that there was no direct correlation between the two. Even as women began writing and publishing medical texts in the Renaissance, they followed the mainstream models on sex and gender.

Laqueur points out that many of the principles of the one-sex model still persist in popular culture today, including the necessity of female orgasm to conception. [Note: just look at conservative nonsense in the USA today around pregnancies resulting from rape.]

There is an extended look at illustrated anatomy manuals and gendered examples of cadavers as participants in their own dissection (in artwork). Drawings of male and female genitalia are arranged to emphasize the similarities and supposed correspondences between the sexes.

There is a continued association of “heat” and vital fluids with orgasm and fertility. Medical manuals discuss and recommend foreplay to encourage reproductive success, including the use of embraces, lascivious words, kisses, and flirtation. Men are encouraged to caress their wife’s genitals and breasts in the belief that near-simultaneous orgasm helped conception. Medical treatments for infertility could include a midwife masturbating the woman to orgasm to facilitate conception.

But even while this was the prevaling model, there also existed an anatomical theory that females were unique from males and that the uterus did not have a male analogue.

Chapter 4

The one-sex model had the force of medical prestige behind it but was always in tension with social and political models of two clearly distinct genders. Discussion of the principle of signs, how visual similarity = functional connection. Lots of metaphors for reproduction. Increase in the overlap and mingling of male and female signifiers in the 16th century, e.g.,, in the person of Queen Elizabeth I. Belief in “natural” transformation between sexes and that gender-transgressive behavior could either cause or be caused by physiological blurring.

The (excess) love of women was thought to make men more feminine. Women acting vigorously made them more masculine. But was this metaphor or believed to be physical?

The “sliding scale” of sexual difference on the one-sex axis did not mean that gender was open to free choice or accepted in intermediate proportions, but rather that individuals were positioned relative to the polar “perfect examples” of masculine and feminine.

Just as class-based sumptuary laws enforced rather than reflected distinctions, gendered “sumptuary” rules acted to enforce the stabilization of gender, rather than reflecting a “natural” system. Writers such as Castiglione (The Courtier) reflect deep anxieties about the permeability of gender boundaries and work to police activities that transgress them.

The anxiety about female-to-male transformation is made concrete in the writings of authors like Michel de Montaigne and Ambrose Paré who catalogue examples of cross-gender presentation or cases of anatomical sex change. The latter reflect the one-sex “inversion” concept in how they are described and explained.

Sex is assigned on the basis of the presence/absence of an (external) penis. That, in turn, granted access to or restriction from a vast set of cultural accessories and activities. For the anatomically ambiguous, the question was not “what is their ‘real’ sex?” but what gender could they best perform as. In early modern debates, ambiguous (anatomical) sex was resolved by reference to gendered attributes of personality and behavior. But by the 19th century, anatomy was considered the only metric for sexual categorization. Thus, in early modern views, women engaging in same-sex acts were classified according to the assigned gender of their behavior, but their sexual category could not be reassigned unless anatomy required it.

An example of a how these ideas played out can be seen in the case of Marie de Marcis. Marie was categorized as female/woman until participation in same-sex sexual activity led to a medical examination to look for evidence of male anatomy (i.e., masculine sex). The examiners identified a hidden penis-analogue (i.e., either an enlarged clitoris or a micro-penis) but it was deemed inadequate for reclassification into the legal/social (gender) category of man. Based on this, legal requirements for Marie’s social presentation were imposed. [Note: the case is complicated and I will try to track down the original text, but in essence Marie was required to perform socially as a woman but was forbidden from having any type of sexual relations, but with the conditions only extending to age 25.]

Self-identity was not considered in either the evaluation or imposition of gender/sex categorization in ambiguous cases. And for those with ambiguous genitalia, the requirements for being classified as male set a high bar. One could be recognized as having an ambiguous (anatomical) sex but binary classification into a gender was done according to cultural privilege, not physical form.

The belief in spontaneous anatomical sex change did not view this as equally likely in both directions. The universal belief was that it could only occur from female to male. Philosophical arguments to “explain” this were rationalizations of established gender hierarchies. By this thinking, culture constrains biology. Up through the 17th century, gender was a social rank, not a physical fact.

Scientific observation does not provide new insight into “reality,” rather the prestige of science is used to bolster the culturally prevalent model. Harvey’s observations of the fertilization process is offered as an example of relevant scientific writing of the time. But scientific techniques were not adequate to observe sperm, as such, and preconceptions meant that wrong questions were being asked and answered about the process of conception.

Chapter 5

“Sex as we know it was invented sometime in the 18th century” by which Laqueur means that the dominant model of the sexes shifted to one of two distinct "species" with separate spheres/functions in society, between whom the question of equality or superiority/inferiority doesn’t apply. Various shifts in the rhetoric and representation of male and female bodies accompanied this. The organs and acts related to reproduction were given distinct names when associated with female or male bodies, rather than being treated as analogous. This established physical distinction was then used as the basis for distinguishing the social genders. Among other things, this shift made possible the erasure of female orgasm and erotic desire.

But the one-sex model continued to exist and be promulgated throughout the 18-19th centuries, especially in new medical publications based on the classical texts. A clearer scientific method contradicted much of the supposed physical proof of the one-sex model, such as claims of male lactation, spontaneous sex-change, and miraculous/monstrous births. A distinction between possible and impossible events relating to sex became sharper.

The second process was shifting the cultural work of gender distinction on to sexual distinction. The one-sex model simply assumed women’s inferiority. The two-sex model claimed to prove it. The uterus was no longer an “imperfect” inverted penis, but an entirely different and unrelated organ whose existence in a body caused inferiority. Female and male were no longer polar inversions of each other but complementary opposites. Now desire was assumed to derive from a principle of “opposites attract” rather than being generated by differences in humoral balance that influenced people to attempt to achieve the "ideal" humoral balance (which was the same for both genders).

But new medical knowledge did not actually require the two-sex model that it was invoked to support. (The book goes on to discuss many details of various scientific discoveries relating to the topic of sex.) Political theory, even as it argued against any “natural” hierarchy of class, birth, or gender as being divinely ordained, still fell back on a hierarchy that proceeded from immutable social “facts” such as women’s vulnerability  during pregnancy and motherhood.

Medical illustrations shifted from emphasizing the similarity of female and male reproductive organs to depicting them in ways that emphasized difference and distinction.

Pregnancy from rape was the key context for evaluating the role of female orgasm in conception. In 1785, English legal texts still argued that conception required female pleasure and thus contradicted a conclusion of rape, but this seems rarely to have been applied as a legal standard. By the 1820s, even as a legal theory this concept had been rejected as “ignorant.”

Chapter 6

This chapter discusses two topics that show the persistence throughout the mid-18th though 20th centuries of both the one-sex and two-sex models via discourse around ovulation cycles and Freudian sexual theory. The discussion is primarily an examination of how both models were more political than scientific in nature. Even feminism used the rhetoric of the two-sex model to argue that women’s interests could only be represented in the political and social spheres by women. The chapter includes extensive discussion of philosophy around the nature and purpose of menstruation. There is also a discussion of the “natural” purpose of differential desire (i.e., preference for a particular sex partner rather than simply for the sex act in general).