OF DOCTORS AND DICTIONARIES
Despite sometimes sounding as if they were mere cliches, little more than the superannuated jargon of interpersonal relations, phrases like gender role or gender identity are in fact relatively new. Before the Second World War they didn’t exist and other closely connected expressions — such as gender-bender — did not appear until the early 1980s. The Oxford English Dictionary did not begin recording these linguistic innovations until as late as 1989, though its entry for gender includes examples that date back at least to the days of Chaucer. To illustrate the early use of the term, consider the following item of gossip from the Morning Herald, 29 November 1784:
The rumour concerning a Grammatical mistake of Mr. B—————- and
the Hon. Mr. C——- , in regard to the genders, we hope forthe honour
of Nature originates in Calumny! – For, however depraved the being must be, who can propagate such reports without foundation, we must wish such a being exists, in preference to characters, who, regardless of Divine, Natural and Human Law, sink themselves below the lowest class of brutes in the most preposterous rites.
(quoted in Chapman 1937: 185)
As it was designed to do, the publication of this story precipitated a scandal in English upper-class circles. The not-so-mysterious
‘Mr. B——– ’ was easily recognized as the wealthy young author
and Member of Parliament, William Beckford, whom the press accused of entering into what might today be called a homosexual liaison — ‘homosexuality’ being late-nineteenth-century coinage — with the sixteen-year-old son of Lord Courtenay. What really happened remains a matter of dispute, but once the rumour was in print the newspaper attacks rapidly grew bolder and bolder. A little over a week later the veiled language had been dropped and the Herald was openly deriding Beckford and Courtenay as ‘a pair of fashionable male lovers (Chapman 1937: 186). By the following summer Beckford had yielded to his family’s advice and discreetly moved to Switzerland.
Feigning injured piety and outrage at the mischievous rumourmonger, the insinuations in the Heralds original report left no doubt as to who was doing what to whom. What made this brief paragraph such a devastating piece of innuendo? In the report’s very first sentence the rhetorical reference to ‘genders’ would have been read as utterly damning, because it plays upon the different connotations of the word current in this period. According to the sixth edition of Dr Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1785), gender could refer either to the grammatical practice of classifying nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter; or it could mean ‘a sex’. Similarly, the verb ‘to gender’ meant to produce, to beget, to breed, or to copulate, as in Shakespeare’s Othello : ‘A cistern for foul toads/To gender in.’ Thus the ‘Grammatical mistake’ to which the Morning Herald so archly alludes also carries the implication of same-sex desire and points towards the ‘crime’ of sodomy. This inference is further underscored by the columnist’s deft insertion of the verb ‘to
propagate’ and the adjective ‘depraved’, placing ‘Mr. B———- ’ and
the ‘Hon. Mr. C——— ’ ‘below the lowest class of brutes’.
The modern meanings of gender still bear the traces of these older historical usages. Gender continues to function as a grammatical term, for example, as well as being a euphemism for a person’s sex, though it is no longer used as a synonym for the sexual act. So we might be forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed since William Beckford’s time. Yet, compared to today’s complex linguistic flux, these eighteenth-century idioms seem remarkably restricted, as if cut off from the perpetual expansion of meaning that characterizes the present.
Part of the reason for this sense of semantic discontinuity stems from the fact that, beginning in the nineteenth century, sexuality gradually assumed a new status as an object of scientific and popular knowledge. The last two hundred years or so have seen what the critic and historian Michel Foucault once described as a ‘discursive explosion’ around the question of sex, by which he did not simply mean that it came to be talked about more widely or more often or more explicitly, relaxing the grip of repressive conventions or taboos (Foucault 1979: 38). Rather, what really revolutionized sex was the way in which ideas about sexuality began to spread out and touch every aspect of modern social life. According to Foucault:
The most discrete event in one’s sexual behaviour – whether an accident or a deviation, a deficit or an excess – was deemed capable of entailing the most varied consequences throughout one’s existence; there was scarcely a malady or physical disturbance to which the nineteenth century did not impute at least some degree of sexual etiology. From the bad habits of children to the phthises of adults, the apoplexies of old people, nervous maladies, and the degeneration of the race, the medicine of that era wove an entire network of sexual causality to explain them.
(Foucault 1979: 65)
Sexuality is here much more than a facet of human nature, the seat of pleasure and desire. It has become a principle of explanation whose effects can be discerned, in different ways, in virtually any stage and predicament of human life, shaping our capacity to act and setting the limits to what we can think and do. The sexual discourses listed by Foucault are astonishingly diverse, ranging from pedagogical discussions on how to teach and discipline children and minors, to medical and psychiatric case studies of disturbed individuals, to treatises on population and demography, and even to ideas about the proper design of buildings, including family houses, dormitories and classrooms.
To see how dramatically thinking about sexuality has changed, let us consider a particularly challenging example, that of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite named Herculine Barbin whose memoirs Foucault republished in 1978. Today we would define an hermaphrodite as someone who combines features drawn from both sexes: in classical mythology Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, merged with his lover Salmacis to become a being with female breasts and male genitals, after she had prayed to the gods that the two of them might be united for ever. But Foucault’s point is that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the hermaphrodite’s sexual identity was not simply a question of biology: legal, religious and medical codes all had a bearing on how any individual might be treated, and in some circumstances some hermaphrodites could actually choose for themselves whether they wanted to be recognized as a man or as a woman. Not only were the biological facts of the matter subject to interpretation in such cases; more than this, the whole view of human reproductive biology within which these facts were to be understood diverged radically from the dimorphic or two-sex model that seems so obvious to us.
Until at least the middle of the eighteenth century the human body was conceived as being of one flesh: in other words, as consisting of a single, yet capacious sex, an ‘open body in which sexual differences were matters of degree rather than kind’ (Laqueur 1990: 125). Thus the famous sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Pare could write that ‘Sexe is no other thing than the distinction of Male and Female, in which this is most observable, that for the parts of the body, and the site of these parts, their is litle difference betweene them, but the Female is colder than the Male’ (Pare 1634: 27). Consequently he thought it entirely possible for a woman spontaneously to change her ‘sexe’ (or, as he put it, ‘degenerate’ into a man), since ‘women have so many and like parts lying in their wombe, as men have hanging forth’ and these could certainly be externalized. Pare took such stories very seriously, believing that the only real obstacle lay in the fact that ‘a strong and lively heat seemes to bee wanting, which may drive forth that which lyes hid within’ (Pare 1634: 975). However, he felt it to be far less likely that men could turn into women, for ‘Nature tends always toward what is most perfect and not, on the contrary, to perform in such a way that what is perfect should become imperfect’ (Pare 1634: 33).
From the standpoint of twentieth-century clinical medicine this view of sexual difference seems to be incredibly wrong-headed and unenlightened. Yet the story of Herculine Barbin shows that the advances associated with modern anatomy were not without their personal costs. Herculine was raised as a girl in a Catholic orphanage and later worked as a schoolteacher, but, following a medical examination during an illness, she began to have doubts about her sexual identity. A second examination in 1860 led a local court to reverse her civil status and to declare that her ‘true sex’ was that of a ‘young man’. In his medical report Dr Chesnet insisted that, despite all of Herculine’s ‘completely feminine attributes’ including a very small vagina, ‘the whole outer part of her body is that of a man’. The conclusive signs of ‘the predominance of masculine sexual characteristics’ in Herculine were the ‘ovoid bodies and spermatic cords. . . found by touch in a divided scrotum’, features that Chesnet believed to be ‘the real proofs of sex’ (Foucault 1980: 123—8). Devastated by this verdict and forced to leave town, Herculine committed suicide in Paris in 1868. In her memoirs she described herself as ‘a sad disinherited creature’, whose ‘very life is a scandal’ (Foucault
1980: 93, 99).
In a sense, Herculine Barbin was partly the victim of a new drive to investigate the nature of sexual identity and to catalogue its various anomalies and deviations, a drive which, according to Foucault, reached a peak in France in the decade between 1860 and 1870. Today, the strict anatomical division between the sexes sounds inevitable, mere common sense. According to current medico-legal orthodoxy, whatever a person’s sexual tastes may be, it should in principle be possible to classify everyone unambiguously as either male or female. Yet, if one looks at ‘sex’ from the long-term, historical perspective recommended by Foucault, the fate of Herculine Barbin suggests that to define identity like this is also to close down some of the options that once had been available to those who felt themselves to be ‘different’. ‘Do we truly need a true sex?’ asks Foucault: after all, isn’t what truly matters ‘the reality of the body and the intensity of its pleasures’ (Foucault 1980: vii)?
While the case of Herculine Barbin provides an unforgettably bleak illustration of the extent to which the foundations of sexual knowledge were being thoroughly overhauled in the nineteeth century, this is by no means the full story. Paradoxically, the new modes of medical power and expertise that ultimately made Herculine’s life seem no longer bearable also provided the occasion for new voices to make themselves heard, insisting, like the unhappy Herculine, upon the validity and legitimacy of their own experiences. Thus the growing willingness to put ‘sex’ into question, even to search for the scientific truth about sexual behaviour, gradually opened up new ways in which the entire field of sexual possibilities and sexual identities could be imagined, permanently transforming people’s most intimate sense of their sexual selves. ‘The nineteenth century and our own’ represent an ‘age of multiplication’, wrote Foucault, an age in which there is ‘a dispersion of sexualities, a strengthening of their disparate forms’, resulting in nothing less than an ‘epoch’ of ‘sexual heterogeneities’ (Foucault 1979: 37).
Nevertheless, Foucault failed to give enough weight to one of the most momentous changes to occur within the modern sexual sciences: the recognition that a person’s sexual desires cannot be deduced solely from a simple inventory of anatomical facts. This realization was slow in coming, for medical researchers clung to the notion that the human sexual instinct was essentially a physiological phenomenon, initially thought to be localized in the reproductive organs or, on a slightly later view, in the brain’s cerebral cortex. Yet in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual abnormalities, the so-called ‘perversions’ such as sado-masochism, it proved impossible to discover a malfunction in a specific part of the human body that would explain the vicissitudes of the sexual instinct.
We find a profound ambivalence running through the work of writers such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the Austrian psychiatrist who first coined the term ‘sado-masochism’ in 1890. For example, in his massively influential textbook Psychopathia Sexualis (originally published in 1886), Krafft-Ebing wavers between asserting that the sexual instinct is rooted in the brain and admitting that there is as yet no clear evidence as to where exactly in the brain it might be. Ultimately, this was a productive contradiction, for it pushed Krafft-Ebing towards the view that sexual behaviour was always bound up with a certain type of ‘sexual personality’ or ‘sexual sensibility’. But he was not alone in reaching this conclusion. Arnold Davidson has shown in great detail how, in the English language, the nineteenth-century word ‘sexuality’ eventually moved away from its association with the purely biological aspects of ‘sex’, and came instead to refer to someone’s sexual feelings or sexual preferences, reflecting the fact that by the 1890s:
Sexual identity is no longer exclusively linked to the anatomical structure of the internal and external genital organs. It is now a matter of impulses, tastes, aptitudes, satisfactions, and psychic traits.
(Davidson 1987: 21-2)
These novel meanings crystallizing around the concept of ‘sexuality’ are a strong indication that sexual life was beginning to be seen as something more than a mere set of sensations: to possess a sexuality was to lay claim to a distinctive form of subjectivity, or what Krafft-Ebing once termed ‘mental individuality’. Describing what he called the ‘anomalies of the sexual instinct’ (such as same-sex desire), Krafft-Ebing claimed that:
These anomalies are very important elementary disturbances, since upon the nature of sexual sensibility the mental individuality in greater part depends; especially does it affect ethic, esthetic, and social feeling and action.
(Krafft-Ebing 1904: 81)
In other words, ‘tell me what your desire is and I will tell you who you are’ (Foucault, quoted in Macey 1993: 365).
Of course, this cultural shift did not happen overnight, nor did it occur once and for all. Sexual biology and sexual psychology continued to be conflated. Much of the force of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), one of the founding texts of psychoanalysis, lies in his criticism of the widespread belief that achieving sexual satisfaction is ‘analogous to the sating of hunger’, a straightforward function of the human body (Freud 1977: 7.61). By considering the evidence of ‘sexual aberrations’ — including studies of homosexuality, fetishism and scopophilia (compulsive sexual pleasure in looking) — Freud was able to reveal the workings of the sexual instinct to be far more complicated than was generally understood. The sheer variety of the sexual behaviour recorded by Krafft-Ebing and the other early sexologists seemed to undermine the assumption that there was any intrinsic, or even natural, connection between the sexual instinct and the object of desire. On the contrary, argued Freud:
Experience of the cases that are considered abnormal has shown us that in them the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together – a fact which we have been in danger of overlooking in consequence of the uniformity of the normal picture, where the object appears to form part and parcel of the instinct. We are thus warned to loosen the bond that exists in our thoughts between instinct and object.
(Freud 1977: 7.59)
To pursue Freud’s argument to its logical conclusion necessarily means dislodging ‘the normal picture’, undermining its customary dominance by seeing it as just one contingent form of sexual desire among many. For Freud, one could almost say, the perversions disclose the truth of heterosexuality.
Although Freud and the majority of the psychoanalytic movement never abandoned the concept of sexual perversion, the line between ‘these deviations and what is assumed to be normal’ becomes less and less clear as a result of Freud’s intervention — especially since he insisted that there were many situations in which ordinarily acceptable sexual activities such as touching or looking could come to be defined as perverted (Freud 1977: 7.46). It is therefore perfectly plausible to argue on psychoanalytic grounds that ‘human sexuality. . . cannot in any sense be enclosed within a specific pattern which may be considered normal’; or, to turn the proposition around, that ‘all human sexuality is essentially perverse’ (Torres 1991: 73)- Similarly, while Freud always stressed that psychoanalysis shared ‘a common basis with biology’, one effect of his work has been to problematize the relationship between desire and the body (Freud 1979: 9-399)- This remains a controversial issue, but for some of Freud’s successors the most striking aspect of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is ‘the radical loss of the biological’ that his argument seems to imply (Laplanche 1976: 125).
Freud’s debt to his contemporaries in the field of sexology was considerable – Yet in building upon their work to produce a truer, more scientific theory of sexuality in the Three Essays, Freud was also attempting to distance himself from them in order to establish the superior credentials of psychoanalysis, his own distinctive brand of science- For Freud the real interest in studying sexual behaviour lay in its contribution to our understanding of the most inaccessible and troubled regions of mental life; and this meant that he tended to regard sexology as a useful, though ultimately inferior, fact-gathering activity. This spirit of rivalry between the two specialisms has continued down to the present day, but one of the reasons for this tension is that sexology and psychoanalysis obviously overlap – Indeed, Foucault even saw them as being part of the same system of thought, since each is based upon the assumption that the truth about ourselves can be found in our sexual natures – And it is in this area of overlap between sexology and psychoanalysis that we first see the late modern concept of gender beginning to emerge-
In the United States especially, the years following the Second World War produced something of a boom for sexology and psychoanalysis – In sexology this phenomenon is best represented by the massive interest aroused when Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male was published in 1948- Although it was an expensive scientific text filled with statistical tables rather than graphic illustrations, Kinsey’s book sold 200,000 copies in six months – As with earlier work in sexology, the effect of Kinsey’s research was to show how incomplete or misleading popular knowledge about sexuality really was – His findings — like the most widely quoted Kinsey statistic that ‘nearly 2 males out of every 5 that one may meet – – – has at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age’ — not only suggested a sharp divergence between conventional morality and social reality, but they also revealed the inadequacy of existing concepts for describing sexual behaviour (Kinsey et al. 1948: 650). It is notable that throughout his work Kinsey tried to avoid using the condemnatory clinical typology of the perversions.