Do women like sex?

Michael Mason

  • 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.

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