Do women like sex?
- Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laqueur
Harvard, 352 pp, $27.50, October 1990, ISBN 0 674 54349 1
The other day I came across an article by Professor Laqueur, written some fourteen years ago, which makes a striking and dismaying contrast to the book he has just published. The contrast is fairly significant of the destructive potential of the New Historicism for the writing of history. Happily Professor Laqueur’s case is unusual, for the community which has shown by far the most susceptibility to this new and potent intellectual virus is the literary one, rather than the community of historians. And there is no great loss to culture if literary academics turn into New Historicists – to such lengths has the process of self-disablement as an intellectual enterprise been carried by literary studies in the last two decades.
The article which Professor Laqueur wrote before he succumbed was about the working-class demand for elementary education in England around 1800. He argued with considerable force that working-class families not only strongly desired basic education for their children, but were discriminating about what they were offered: preferring to pay at more old-fashioned local establishments when the new free schemes seemed too regimented or ideological. This, it seems to me, was good history. It came up with a novel but plausible insight about our ancestors. Laqueur’s argument may not stand the test of time: it was more than tinged with political prejudice about parental choice in education (and in this Thatcherite bias one may detect the first signs of a fatal liking for intellectual glitz rather than intellectual probity). But it was well-documented, and it was clear what would be involved in refuting it.
Admittedly, the subject he has now taken on is very much more intractable – indeed is fraught with problems of method – but it is nonetheless well worth attempting because of its exceptional interest. His topic is nothing less than the history of biological theories of gender in European culture down to the early 20th century, and their relation to the social perception of the sexes. This hasn’t been undertaken before, and needed to be undertaken, despite the formidable difficulties of the enterprise. But what was always at risk of heading towards incoherence and opacity has taken a nosedive in that direction with Professor Laqueur and his sparkling New Historicism in the pilot’s seat. Perhaps oddest of all, the author of the 1976 article has forgotten that society is stratified. If he had remembered this he might have brought a bit more coherence to his subject in its later stages.
The first part of the story, up until the Enlightenment, is relatively uncomplicated, and I shall not dwell on it. With a narrow band of surviving medical wisdom running from Classical to Neoclassical times, and a relative dearth of commentary on the political relations of the sexes, Professor Laqueur’s main task here is to explain what the authorities taught about sexual anatomy and physiology. He has obviously surveyed a great deal of material, and he brings to bear more sense of what is tellingly counterfactual in the traditional Aristotelian and Galenic teaching than is usual. His father, he tells us, was a pathologist and he himself has attended medical school to pick up basic knowledge. I cannot judge if Laqueur’s accounts of pre-modern medical ideas on gender are accurate, but I must say that he sometimes seems to have been rushed into errors in the later periods. He writes of ‘the advent of ovariotomy in the 1870s’, but he should look in the autobiography of A.B. Granville (1874) for a very much earlier date.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 12 No. 23 · 6 December 1990
Poor Thomas Laqueur! According to Michael Mason’s review of his book Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (LRB, 8 November), Laqueur was once a respectable scholar whose work on Victorian Sunday schools produced a ‘plausible insight about our ancestors’ – but then, alas, he came down with a disease. What is this ‘new and potent intellectual virus’ that has already ravaged the community of literary academics and now shows its ‘destructive potential … for the writing of history’? The dread disease is the New Historicism, and your reviewer’s subtlety as a pathologist enables him to ‘detect the first signs of a fatal liking for intellectual glitz’ even in Laqueur’s Sunday school excursions.
As befits someone who medicalises intellectual disagreement, turning what he does not like into a viral infection, Mr Mason never offers an account of New Historicism. Instead he brings forward against Laqueur’s book a farrago of incompatible charges, all of which are somehow attributable to his illness: incoherence and opacity, an inexplicable forgetting that society is stratified, a ‘Foucaultesque determination’ that politics must be ascendant over the cognitive, a failure to assert this ascendancy, a ‘gloomy disparaging of the past’, a taste for rehearsing the ‘political shortcomings of our ancestors’, a fondness for ‘the sneering stereotype’, ‘a pretty cool piece of insolence’, a ‘disdaining’ of ‘mere causality’, a will ‘to sweep under the carpet the abundant evidence’ that contradicts his narrow thesis, and, ‘bizarrely’, a willingness to cite evidence that contradicts this thesis.
It does not occur to your reviewer, of course, that the ‘bizarre’ inconsistency of this bill of particulars is the consequence not of the book’s limitations but of his own utter failure to understand Laqueur’s argument. In the face of this failure, Mr Mason turns, on the one hand, to the bankrupt rhetoric of anti-intellectual abuse and, on the other hand, to a blustering and equally hollow display of pedantry. He charges Laqueur with a ‘misleading’ and ‘tendentious’ use of Michael Ryan’s Manual of Jurisprudence (1836) as the ‘main evidence’ for the emergence of the view that since women can conceive while asleep, orgasm is not necessary for conception – i.e. that women produce eggs spontaneously. In fact, in the course of a rich and subtle exposition of the history of this view, Laqueur cites, among others, Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace (1756), R. Couper’s Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female (1785), E. Sibley’s Medical Mirror (circa 1790), John Mason Good’s The Study of Medicine (1823), J.A. Paris and J.S.M. Fontblanque’s Medical Jurisprudence (1823), E. Kennedy’s Obstetric Medicine (1834) and T.R. Beck’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1836), along with Kleist’s marvellous story, ‘The Marquise of O’.
But footnote wars (all of which Laqueur would win hands down) are perhaps less interesting than the argument Mr Mason hopelessly botches. That argument is about the relation between progress in scientific knowledge and glacial shifts in collective understanding. Laqueur’s point is that this relation is more complex, over-determined, and at the same time elusive, than anyone has grasped. There is unmistakable progress in the medical understanding of sexuality and there are crucial changes in the conceptualisation of gender, but there is no easy link between them, no overarching pattern of causality, no grand theory of knowledge or institutions that enables the historian to construct a unified explanatory account. At the same time, there is something that needs to be explained: beyond the bewilderingly discontinuous histories, one can discern a momentous cultural passage from what Laqueur calls a one-sex model to a two-sex model of the human body, a passage with consequences not only for medical science but also for the prosecution of rape, the writing of novels, the conception of psyche and society.
Mr Mason shows that he is already hopelessly wide of the mark when he writes dismissively that ‘the first part of the story, up until the Enlightenment, is relatively uncomplicated.’ In fact, the first two-thirds of Laqueur’s book is a brilliant account of just how complicated the Galenic inheritance was – and how amazingly tenacious, since, as he shows, key elements of the one-sex model survive into the present. But for Mr Mason these survivals are evidence only of the deficiencies of the New Historicism (a term nowhere used, by the way, in Laqueur’s book). What the reviewer seems to want of history is a set of boxes neatly nesting one inside the other. The account offered by Laqueur is not so comfortable. He is dealing with a set of semi-autonomous discourses, and his history has in consequence neither the clear boundaries of strictly demarcated disciplines nor the single explanatory formula of the grand récit. In this Laqueur does indeed share with the literary critics Mr Mason despises a sense of the inadequacy of the old causal accounts of the relationship between text and context, imagination and reality, the organisation of knowledge and the organisation of society. He share with them as well, I think, an uneasiness with everything implied by the reviewer’s repeated invocations of ‘our ancestors’. Is there only one set of ancestors whom ‘we’ all share?
University of California, Berkeley
I was aghast when I read Michael Mason’s diagnosis that I had succumbed, without even knowing it, to the destructive virus of New Historicism, although, as someone interested in the cultural power of medicine, I love the metaphor. I could show the ways in which your reviewer either overlooked or misinterpreted, wilfully or by inadvertence, 1. the first four chapters of my book, Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud; 2. the history of ovariotomy; 3. the relation of the discovery of spontaneous ovulation to the novel 19th-century view that menstruation in women was the equivalent of heat in dogs and cats; 4. the very, very minor role I attributed to the urologist William Acton in the important and unprecedented debate about female passionlessness; 5. the perfectly obvious reasons why a discussion of ‘spermatorrhea’ and other male uro-genital disorders are irrelevant to my argument, and so on. But that would require a closer look at my book than your reviewer obviously had time for, and I do not just now want to take up the space necessary to prove him wrong.
I do, however, want to talk aetiology. Neither Foucault, nor Nietzsche, nor New Historicism, nor some even nastier pathogen, made me abandon the micro-economic model of causation I used in my work on education, for which I am faintly praised. Ten years of old-fashioned empirical work – the sort of wallowing in the sources that we historians relish – demonstrated that the relationship of medicine to culture, and that of medicine to the understanding of sexual difference, do not function as do rational actors whose preference functions determine how they spend scarce resources to meet limitless wants. What I call the ‘two-sex’ model is not the necessary or even natural consequence of corporeal difference or what we know about bodies; and neither for that matter is the ‘one-sex’ model. I make this claim based on considerable historical evidence, in five languages and in many different contexts, which convinced me that how sexual difference was imagined in the past was largely unconstrained by what was known about this or that bit of anatomy, this or that physiological process. It derived instead from the particular rhetorical, cultural and political exigencies of the moment. I was further convinced that the processes by which this takes place are not linear. Although, for reasons which I discuss, a two-sex model based on biological reductionism gained ascendancy after the Enlightenment, both one- and two-sex ways of thinking, contrary to what I thought earlier, have always been, and remain, available.
University of California, Berkeley
Michael Mason writes: At no point in my review did I deny that the interplay of cognitive with ideological and political factors in the history of ideas about sexuality is, and is bound to be, horribly complex. I did say that Professor Laqueur seemed to have fallen back on a procedure in which complexity was exaggerated, rather than clarified as far as it truthfully could be. By contrast, it was he who was simplistic, indeed completely negligent, on the differences there might be between the ideas of various social groups, lay and medical, in this domain. Professor Greenblatt speaks of ‘my utter failure to understand Laqueur’s argument’, but it seems to have been exceeded by his own incomprehension of the book he admires so much. Laqueur does not say that women’s conceiving in their sleep, without orgasm, was understood in the early 19th century to mean that they ovulated spontaneously. I’m sure he would have been most irritated if I had attributed this view to him: it forges exactly the kind of ‘easy link’ between science and larger concepts which Professor Greenblatt praises his book for not attempting. Perhaps Professors Greenblatt and Laqueur should exchange a few letters in private.