Day Ten: February 21


Click here to download a handout of these notes. For today's class, we are discussing Sexed Bodies: Does Sex Have a History? 

  • part one: sex, bodies and social construction and deconstruction
  • part two: Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body
Part One
What is sex? Sex is not just about reproduction and the interesting property of some bodies to produce offspring when they are rubbed together at the right time. On the contrary, Sex is the primary property of all human bodies, including those that cannot now or never will participate in procreation, such as infants, adolescents, transsexuals, the very old, women past menopause, sterile and infertile people, vasectomized men, hysterectomized women, the seriously infirm, and some intersexuals (Wilchins, 85). 

Want to know more? Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University, wrote a ground-breaking essay way back in 1993 about "The 5 Sexes: Why Male and Female Aren't Enough" Judith Lorber discusses Fausto-Sterling in the essay that we read two weeks ago, "Beyond Binaries" (Lorber,147). 

The sex (and gender) binary divides us into either male and female categories and then positions those categories against each other. Construction of the "opposite sexes," "the battle between the sexes." One half of the binary (male) is privileged over the other (female) See Ingraham and "Straight Thinking" and "Ways of Talking" on the patriarchy for more on the binary. 

Huh? What does Wilkins mean here: This social industry [the sex industry] has reversed the order to knowledge, so that Sex is no longer something about bodies; rather, bodies have become something about Sex (86). How are bodies about Sex? How are bodies shaped by our constructions--the meanings that we give to--Sex? Can you think of examples from our blog and the "what's sex...." category? 

according to the idea of BODIES AS IMMUTABLE BIOLOGY
  • sex is natural 
  • sexed bodies are just the "facts," Truth, Given, no explanation needed 
  • they are unquestioned, fixed, easily and objectively observed 
  • bodies are passive mediums and texts that are easily read 
But if Sex is such an obvious and natural fact of bodies, why is it something that children must be taught (Wilchins, 87)? 
How we understand bodies is shaped (but not determined) by cultural/social/historical understandings communicated through scientific discourses: 
example one: Emily Martin and descriptions of the egg and the sperm [Martin, Wilchins] 
example two: Thomas Laquer and the one sex model (Male, while female = Male minus the penis)[in Wilchins, 89-92] 
example three: Sibohan Somerville scientific racism, and the racialized/sexed body in late 1800s [Somerville] 

The sex/gender binary--male/female and Men/Women--is a historical system constructed to make sense of, and to organize/order, the body. It involves a particular set of meanings that are given to scientific evidence and observation. These meanings shift over time and are shaped by political, social, culture beliefs, ideologies, agendas. 

  • How does what scientists look for in their experiments shape what they observe? 
  • How does the language scientists and people writing about scientific experiments/discoveries use to describe the sexed body influence how they (and we) make sense of the body? 
Want to read more? Check out this article, "Mad Science," from Bitchmedia. It's one feminist's take on science and scientific discourse and how they get (mis) represented in popular media.

Part Two 
Is it merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either "homosexual" or "heterosexual" emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively policing the imaginary boundary between "black" and "white" bodies (245)? note: Confused about the history of homosexuality and heterosexuality that Somerville references at the beginning of her chapter? We will be discussing this history next Monday when we read J Katz and M Foucault. 

Timeline late 1800s
1883            term Eugenics defined by Francis Galton 
1887            Flower/Murie's "Account of the Dissection of a Bushwoman" 
1892-1900    first use of term "heterosexual" 
1896            Plessy v Ferguson, legally establishes separate but equal 
1897            Ellis' Sexual Inversion 

  • historically and culturally contingent category of identity: constructed 
  • much more than sexual practice one's sexual identity, at times linked to one's sexual activities, a complex ideological position combination of: 1. the culture's mapping of bodies and desires and 2. one's response to that mappings and culture's demands 
  • binary: heterosexual/homosexual 
  • historical, ideological process not a fixed, transhistorical or biological characteristics 
  • binary: white/black 
  • processes of racialization, racial meaning 
Queer method: 
  • Brings into questions ideas of Truth (evidence, proof, argumentation) 
  •  Challenges the natural, denaturalizes, deconstructs 
  • Exposes how texts, bodies, ideas, identities are not transparent 
  • Asks: what gets left out? what is not named, left uninterrogated? 
Sexed Bodies: 
  • bodies assumed to be passive medium, given object to be read, beyond culture, "normal" "natural" 
  • body as "text" to read, with keys/codes for identifying and categorizing 
  • logic of biological determinism: surface/interior of body (rather than social characteristics--behavior or language) as primary sites of meaning 
Raced and Sexed Bodies 
  • reading bodies: anatomy predicted intelligence/behavior, tied to racial ideologies (eugenics) 
  • sexuality and race intertwined: African women's bodies (Hottentot Venus--Saartje Baartman), boundaries of race defined through sexual/reproductive anatomy (buttocks, labia) (252) 
  • body as excess (protuding buttocks, remarkable development of labia minora) 
  • African women's bodies seen as outside of the boundaries of "normal" female 
  • female bodies got more attention than male bodies 
  • certain parts of body (those "sexual"/reproductive parts) got more attention How do certain body parts come to matter more than others? How/why are those parts valued? What are the potential negative effects of how bodies come to matter and gain meaning? 
  • African-American women and lesbians and the myth of the unusually large clitoris (253) ties into "Cult of True Womanhood" and belief in purity of white women versus sexual accessibility of African-American women (254) 
  • anxieties about race and sex resulted in Eugenics and miscegenation laws (256) 
Want to know more? Check out Dorothy Robert's book, Killing the Black Body, for more information about the science of eugenics and its impact on African-American women and their reproductive freedom. 

The Hottentot Venus 
Somerville mentions Sara Baartman in her discussion of black women's bodies. Baartman serves as an important (and much scrutinized figure) within historical/theoretical analyses of black women and their representations within dominant culture. A member of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa, Baartman left her home and was exhibited in England and France (from 1810-1815) as the Hottentot Venus. For more on Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, see the video (available at Walter Library): The Life and Times of Sara Baartman. Many Black feminist thinkers have written about and reflected on the Hottentot Venus. Check out what Janell Hobson has to say about Baartman and her legacy for Black women's history: How Nicki Minaj Stumbled Onto Black History  

note: We will return to the figure of the Hottentot Venus when we discuss Caster Semenya after spring break

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