THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF SEX. HORMONES
What intrigued me most in writing this archeology of sex hormones is the very complex and multileveled impact of the hormonally constructed body concept on our understanding and treatment of the body. The story of hormones exemplifies the transformative power of science and technology. Or to quote Giddens: “Knowledge does not simply render the body more transparent, but alters its nature, spinning it off in novel directions” (Giddens 1990:153). The interpretation of the body in terms of sex hormones contributed to its transformation, ranging from changes in the very words we use to express our bodily experiences to changes in medical practices and power relations.
The chemical model of sex and the body
The most revolutionary change generated by sex endocrinology is the introduction of a chemical model of sex and the body. I have described how sex endocrinologists introduced the concept of sex hormones as chemical messengers of masculinity and femininity. With the introduction of the concept of sex hormones, sex became attached to chemical substances. The hormonal model of the body is thus basically a chemical model. That scientists at the time were aware of this transformation is exemplified in The Male Sex Hormone, a book published in the early 1940s in which the American author describes the role of male hormones in sexual differentiation in terms of “Manhood is chemical” (Kruif undated: 2). The introduction of this chemical model had major consequences for the conceptualization of sex and the body.
First, the very act of attaching sex to chemical substances implies that sex is an entity that can exist apart from any fixed location in the body. If sex is a chemical agent transported by the blood, it can wander around through the whole body. This model meant a crucial change in the conceptualization of sex and the body, both with respect to cultural notions and conceptualizations of preceding disciplines. Prior to the emergence of sex endocrinology, scientists, particularly anatomists, used to locate the “essence” of sex in one specific organ. Femininity was located first in the uterus and later in the ovaries. All through the history of the biomedical sciences, masculinity was primarily located in the testes. Sex endocrinology now had a twofold impact. This new field of the biomedical sciences reinforced, and at the same tune challenged, the earlier conceptualization of sex. The introduction of sex hormones as chemical substances secreted by the gonads initially reinforced the cultural notion that the gonads were the seats of masculinity and femininity. Sex endocrinology focused, however, not on the gonads as such, but on their secretions: the chemical substances. In this manner, sex endocrinology transcended the anatomical model of sex and the body in which sex is located in one specific organ. The chemical model enabled scientists to distract attention away from the gonads as the organs where sex is located. Sex endocrinologists included the hypophysis in the hormonal model of the body, thus extending the “essence” of sex from the gonads to the brain. In the hormonal model, sex is no longer located in one specific organ, but develops in a complex feedback system between the gonads and the brain. This conceptualization of sex and the body meant a break with the cultural notion that masculinity and femininity are solely located in the gonads.8 It also meant a break with the anatomical model of sex and the body.
Second, the introduction of the chemical model led to a shift away from a primarily descriptive approach and toward an experimental approach. While anatomists focused on identifying which organ is the seat of femininity or masculinity, sex endocrinologists looked for the causal mechanisms that control sexual differentiation. Sex endocrinology is basically an experimental science. Locating the “essence” of sex in chemical substances implies that sex is an entity that can be identified and isolated from the organism. Locating sex in chemicals means that there can be too much or too little of these substances in the organism. Sex thus becomes an entity that can be measured, quantified and manipulated with laboratory techniques. Consequently, sex endocrinology became a science that actively intervenes in the lives of women and men, introducing diagnostic and intervention techniques that have profoundly shaped medical practice.
Finally, a chemical model of sex and the body makes it possible to abandon a rigorous dualistic notion of sex, a notion characteristic of cultural ideas of sex differences and of the anatomical model of sex. If one locates the “essence” of sex in specific sex organs such as the gonads, masculinity and femininity can be conceptualized in terms of mutually exclusive entities. In this model, male bodies are simply male, and female bodies simply female. Attaching sex to chemicals rather than organs means that sex becomes an entity with multidirectional capacities. Sex endocrinologists introduced a quantitative model of sex differences, in which all organisms can have feminine as well as masculine characteristics. The original assumption that each sex could be recognized by its own sex hormone was gradually replaced by a model in which male and female sex hormones are present in both sexes. Yet sex endocrinologists did not take the real challenge that their model provided, namely to abandon the dualistic notion that there exist only two sexes. From a standpoint of gender classifications, their revolutionary findings did not mean the end of the two-sexes model. Based on the same knowledge, it might have been possible to introduce a classification system of multiple sexes, just as has been suggested by Anne Fausto-Sterling (1993). In “Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not Enough”, Fausto-Sterling suggested that “biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes—and perhaps even more” (Fausto-Sterling 1993:21). The new science of sex endocrinology, however, decided to adhere to the traditional gender classification system.9