In addition to the focus on women’s reproduction, there has been a preoccupation in the biological and medical sciences with the question of sexual difference. In medical textbooks prior to the nineteenth century, drawings of male and female anatomy, based on the dissection of dead bodies, had emphasized the degree to which women’s sexual organs were identical to men’s, but inverted and hidden within the body (Laqueur 1990). This was consistent with a gender politics in which women were regarded as an inferior copy of man, and with the Christian myth that Eve was made out of Adam’s rib. But as the bourgeois ideal developed of women’s separate sphere in the private home, so their biological difference from men was given anatomical grounding and their weakness and vulnerability accentuated. Women were conceived of as at the mercy of their reproductive biology, especially their wombs (Lupton 1994: 137).

The construction of sexual difference through anatomy has been superseded by an increasing emphasis on hormones, which ‘have replaced specific organs as the marker and cause of sexual difference’ (Harding 1998: 57). Men and women differ only in the relative amounts of their sex hormones; that is, men have some oestrogen as well as testosterone and women have some testosterone as well as oestrogen. Jennifer Harding (1998) points out that this could have led to a break with dualistic assumptions about sex. Instead hormones have been used to naturalize sexual difference through the designation of ‘male’ and female’ hormones that control our bodies and our behaviour in ways that we are powerless to resist (ibid.: 59). These definitions and the hormonal technologies developed to ‘normalize’ and control sexed bodies are the products of male-dominated scientific institutions. These work to ‘shape the collective creation of scientific facts about sex hormones, their origins and functions and help to secure authority for some, and not other, knowledge claims’ (ibid.: 61).

The binary model of sexual difference as produced by our body chemistry can be seen at work in ‘Raging Teens’, part 4 of The Human Body. Instead of being positioned as in control of the technology of exploration, like Professor Winston, teenagers are on a ‘roller-coaster ride’ and have no control over it because there are ‘chemical messages racing through our bloodstream’, that ‘order our body to change’. But alongside these bodily changes goes a sequence of cultural assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman – assumptions about behaviour, attitudes and sexual desire. In this the programme reflects the culturally positive evaluation of masculinity as compared to femininity without comment or critique. Beatrice, a teen­age girl interviewed for the programme, is very negative about the changes happening to her body, especially her periods and breast and hip development, but Winston tells us ‘like it or not, once the roller coaster ride starts there’s no stopping. With hormones pulsing through her day after day, Beatrice’s body races ahead, out of control.’ It is all happening, we are told, so that Beatrice’s body ‘can nurture new life’, and again, ‘A girl’s body changes to get ready for bearing children’ (over an X-ray of pelvic bones).

This reinforces the equation of women’s bodies with their capacity to reproduce and the erasure of women’s capacity for sexual pleasure.

In contrast, a group of American boys tell us they like the changes happening to them, ‘You feel stuff getting bigger – so you feel kinda manly.’ Instead of period pains and uncomfortable bras they discuss their first experiences of sexual arousal, visualized through heat-imaging shots of an erect penis and endoscope images of an ejaculation from inside the penis. ‘Once the sperm factory is up and running there’s no going back.’ Girls’ pain and discomfort in preparation for reproduction is contrasted with the boys’ growing sense of a powerful masculinity expressed through body size and the ability to ejaculate. In line with evolutionary biology, Winston tells us the changes in a boy’s body stem from his need in times gone by to be strong. ‘The testosterone in his system has dramatic effects’ (over shots of boys playing basketball, cut with internal shots of bone and muscle). The binary construction of masculinity and femininity, the heterosexism, the inability to address female desire and the assump­tion that boys have little control over their sexual desire – in every way this programme conforms to the stereotypical assumptions about sex and gender that Epstein and Johnston (1998) criticize in their study of the baleful state of sex education in British schools. Not surprisingly, this is one of the markets to which the video and DVD versions are targeted.

The normative influence of science is also apparent in Anatomy of Desire, a three – part series on Channel 4 (1998). It doesn’t have the high technology of The Human Body but its budget was sufficient to construct an interdisciplinary analysis of sexual desire drawing on widespread research across the world, and especially in the USA. The perspective of this programme is entirely, and uncritically, patriarchal, although in a secular, libertarian mode in which evolutionary biology is presented as a liberating discourse in the face of a repressive Christianity. In the second episode our sexual identity, sexual orientation and sexual practices are presented as the product of our genes, hormones, childhood experiences and first sexual experience. A sexologist from Johns Hopkins University describes this as our ‘love map’, which remains relatively fixed throughout life, as ‘a template in the brain’. The programme is structured as a series of case studies in a scientific mode, with a male ‘authoritative’ voice-over linking a series of interviews with American and Dutch psychologists, sexologists and sex therapists. It uses a normative framework against which to set abnormal sexual devel­opment. For example, Violet was ‘over-active’ sexually as a child as a result of high levels of testosterone, and now enjoys being dominant in sadomasochistic scenarios, while John, an asexual man, had his desire for sexual relationships displaced by his overly intimate relation with his mother. A third case is an intersex person whose genitals were female at birth but whose hormonal influences led to her being reassigned as a boy by the time she was six months old. The evidence that he really is a man is the fact that he had always preferred boys’ games and desired women rather than men. In all three cases, we can see how their abnormality is measured against normative, binary assumptions about female and male behaviour and sexual orientation.

In the past decade the binary model of sexual difference has been undermined by subcultures where indeterminate, transsexual bodies and queer sexualities are being recognized. Judith Butler’s (1990) influential book Gender Trouble provides the philo­sophical grounding for these cultural developments by questioning whether there is any ontological grounding for a biological differentiation between men and women; the idea of ‘plastic sexualities’ that are open to transformation is challenging the certainties of heterosexual or homosexual identity (Giddens 1992). But these develop­ments are almost entirely invisible in the world of television science, except for a recurring interest in sex reassignment surgery through which the normative alignment between bodies and binary genders is restored. However, there are some exceptions. Cynthia Chris’s (2002) study of the Discovery Channel notes the inclusion of ‘cutting edge, risky programming’ on sexual issues. Is It a Boy or a Girl? (2001), for example, was praised for its sensitive handling of the issues raised by intersex babies both by the Intersex Society of North America and by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAD) (Chris 2002: 11). Another exception is Sex Acts (BBC1 1995), which was part of a science series called QED. A link introduces it by saying: ‘Gender comes under scrutiny now as QED questions traditional stereotypes and considers the acceptance of a third sex, the contents of which could upset some viewers.’ What was so radical about it that it needed a broadcast warning?

This is a much lower budget production than the previous examples. There are no computer graphics and it only lasts thirty minutes. There are only two expert inter­views, both British, plus filming of a gender workshop in London and an interview with its (American) leader, plus interviews with a small group of transsexuals. The overall argument is that sex is a continuum not a binary, and that being forced into a binary model makes some people very unhappy. It also argues that gender is a performance that is learned, although a psychiatrist concedes the influence of anatomy and hormones in directing people in either female or male directions. This process is demonstrated by the drag king workshop in which a group of women learn how to look, move, behave and speak like men before going out in public for the evening, as men. The feminist leader of this workshop explains how the differences between men’s and women’s gestures and behaviour are the product of men’s greater power, which gives them the confidence to take up space and expect to be listened to.

Instead of going inside the body to find out more about sexual difference, this programme provides a different kind of spectacle – the spectacle of transformation through performance and dress. By setting the transsexual interviewees, several of whom had undergone reassignment surgery and hormone treatment, against the drag king workshop, it offers two models of gender transformation. The potentially conservative gender politics of surgical reassignment, in which bodies are realigned with a person’s psychological gender, are set against a more malleable understanding of gender in which a mismatch between one’s anatomical ‘sex’ and one’s social ‘gender’ can be employed as a transgressive act (Wilton 1999). Where these include body modifications that use hormones and other technological interventions it is more in the spirit of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, which looked to technology to destabilize rather than secure gender binaries. The use of hormones to effect bodily changes doesn’t have to involve menopausal women taking replacement oestrogen to make them feel feminine again. There are women taking testosterone to enhance their energy and performance to help them compete on the job market, while others, like the drag king photographer Della Grace, are taking it to grow beards and moustaches in a radical gesture to confuse the markers of gender (Kidd 1999).

Conclusion

Sex Acts was produced by Richard Dale, while the series editor was Lorraine Heggessy. What is perhaps surprising is that these are the same people who made The Human Body. How could the same two people be responsible for programmes making such widely diverging claims about sexual difference? It seems we cannot look to the political and philosophical beliefs of the individual programme-makers to explain the contrast. Nor can we look to channel branding given that they were both broadcast on BBC1. Nor can we assume that society is gradually becoming more progressive in relation to sex and gender and that television documentaries then reflect this. Sex Acts precedes The Human Body by several years. Nor can we simply assume that these two examples exemplify the rich diversity of discourses that can be found in science documentaries. I could find no evidence that this is, in fact, the case. It is safe to say that the vast majority draw on normative science and social science for their validating expertise.

What institutional forces are in play that can explain the very different approaches taken to sexual difference in the programmes discussed? In my view co-productions between the BBC and the Discovery Channel are perhaps part of the answer. The use of American scientific ‘experts’, with a view to marketing the programme more globally, appears to result in an emphasis on evolutionary models of sex and sexuality. The recurrence of sociobiological narratives of gender can be explained by their hegemonic position in American academia as a counterweight to the religious Right and its creationist beliefs. Another characteristic of high-budget co-productions is their use of visual spectacle as a marketing ‘hook’. It promises pleasure to a generation with high expectations of the visual image, built up through computer games and Hollywood films. In marketing terms it is important to be able to offer something ‘new’, that has never been seen before. This takes precedence over saying something new. In fact the familiarity of the narrative forms used and the metaphorical concepts deployed ensures they are less likely to offend against the expectations and beliefs established by the generic form.

It could very well be that a low budget is what allowed Sex Acts to be radical and to risk alienating some sections of the audience. It didn’t have to find co-production money, it wasn’t made with a view to selling it around the world or to maximize

income from educational as well as broadcast markets, it had to rely on people talking about their experiences because it didn’t have the budget for expensive graphics. In these circumstances it was able to say something new – but it didn’t win any industry prizes.