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Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 07:43

Quite some time ago, I pulled out the passages I wanted to use for the teaser series and set them up in a separate file. That way I didn't need to hunt around for something every week and there was no risk of messing with the master file by accident. But that means that for the last few months I've been setting up the teasers while looking at snippets of text in isolation. This past Saturday, I did the review of the final page proofs, which is as close as I've come so far to reading the final novel straight through. (Not quite the same, since I had to keep my awareness on things like formatting and punctuation, rather than reading immersively.) So it's all fresh in my mind at the moment in that way where I simultaneously know how much more there is to go and yet feeling like the story is rushing straight to the finish. I hope other readers feel the same way!

Celeste--like Margerit--takes a fairly mechanistic approach to charms and mysteries. It's inevitable, I think, when you have that rare talent for being able to visualize the process of magic. But in Floodtide, rather than contrasting with a more spiritually-oriented relationship to mysteries, Celeste is contrasted with Roz's matter of fact acceptance of charms as just "something you do because you don't want to think about what might happen if you didn't do them." That makes it a little more pointed on the occasions when Celeste experiences undeniable encounters with the more numinous side of magic. Like when she comes back from participating in the tutela of Saint Mauriz and shares with Roz that the saint spoke to her during the ceremony. Or--on a more practical side--when an essential component for her experiments in charms against river fever turns out not to be used up after all.

* * *

“It’s Liv,” I stammered, not sure how to start. “They’ve got fever and I said I’d do what I can.”

Celeste was right behind her and I added quickly, “Just what you can give me to take. Anything that doesn’t need a charm-wife. I didn’t promise her anything except that I’d come.”

“What have you done, Rozild!” Mefro Dominique said, but not like it was a question.

“Come on up,” Celeste said.

I took off my muddy shoes to go upstairs, where her erteskir was packed tightly between the bolts of fabric and work baskets, and watched as she sorted through all the compartments and drawers of her chest of charm-work.

“This will help for heat in the blood,” she said, putting a candle wrapped in a strip of cloth into a basket. You remember how we used it trying to build the fever charm? Tie it around the neck then light the candle.” She gave me two sealed packets. “These herbs will help even without charms. Tell them to make a tea with it. And—”

Celeste gave a gasp and lifted a small stoppered bottle out of the very bottom of the chest.

“It was all gone. I used it all up. I swear to God I looked and looked.”

It was some of the water from Saint Rota’s well. One bottle overlooked when she’d been sharing the blessing charm around at the beginning of the flood. Celeste closed her eyes and held it tight, moving her lips like she was praying silently.

“Roz, it’s a sign. I’m meant to try one more time.”

I wanted to protest. But I remembered Liv crying. And if Saint Mauriz had told her to go, who was I to say no?

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Monday, September 23, 2019 - 07:00

This turned out to be a good choice to follow directly after Laqueur, as they cover much the same ground but from different angles. (Although I've tried to plan out the order of the publications I'm covering in this "basic theory" group so that I'm following thematic threads, I don't always know how that will play out until I start reading.)

Both authors point to the contrasting ideas of sexual difference in the classical authors that formed the underpinnings of later theory, and to how those ideas were transmitted and interpreted in new contexts. But where Laqueur seems to reach for a relatively tidy notion that the "one-sex" model was dominant in classical and medieval times, Cadden puts a lot more weight on how diverse and contradictory the material was and how those contrasts formed part of the ongoing development of sexual theory.

Both Laqueur and Cadden are clearly distinguishing between ideas about sex/sexual difference--that is, the physiology of male and female--and ideas about gender (masculine and feminine) that relate to idealized prototypes of behavior/roles/social attributes which are associated with, but not identical to, the sexes. I'll come back to this later in the coverage of Cadden when it becomes a focus of one of the chapters. This distinction of sex and gender in earlier historic eras is similar--but not identical--to current gender theory. Earlier concepts of gender were focused on an inherent association of certain behaviors, personalities, and attributes with a gender concept (man or woman), as contrasted with modern theory which focuses more on an individual subjective "sense of self". But the idea that sex and gender were distinct and not always aligned is common throughout (western) history.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6


While covering much of the same timeframe, Cadden takes a broader and more diverse view than Laqueur, while acknowledging the reality of his two models (the one-sex and two-sex models). In all eras, the “facts” about sex and sexuality are filtered through cultural prejudices. Medieval ideas about sex difference were part of the culture’s assumptions about gender. Medieval society was not a single culture, and the era covered several overall shifts in thinking, so there isn’t a single unified “medieval idea” of sex difference that can be pointed to.

Cadden differs from Laqueur, who considered pre-18th century ideas as deriving from a unified “one-sex” concept in which male and female existed on a single scale. Though much of the medieval evidence fits this one-sex model, other views were present throughout. [Note: Laqueur acknowledges this even though he considers one model to have predominated at any given time.] Even when systems of thought (e.g., theology and medicine) agreed on a principle relating to sexuality, they might come to it from different rationales.

It isn’t possible to make an overall judgement of whether medieval thought on sex difference was “good” or “bad” for women. Some concepts, such as the importance of female orgasm to conception, had both positive and negative consequences. In the later middle ages (12-14th century), European culture became more inflexible and intolerant in general, which affected attitudes toward women and sex. Cadden’s book looks at the diversity and eclecticism of medieval thought regarding sexual difference during this period.

Most sources were in Latin and therefore reflect the learned class dominated by men, but these sources also sometimes include “popular” thought, collected into encyclopedic works. This can include material collected from female professionals. The diversity of sources, authors, and genres makes interpretation more complex as it isn't easy to determine whether contrasting opinions reflected different traditions of thought or were simply accepted in their inherent contradiction. Topics include the physical and functional differences between female and male, details of reproduction, and behavioral differences between the sexes. The texts rarely addressed the idea of sex difference directly, but the underlying concepts inform other topics. Masculine and feminine (i.e., gender) were viewed as attributes separate from male and female (i.e., sex).

Cadden points out that Foucault’s History of Sexuality boils down to a history of male sexuality and doesn’t touch on sex difference much at all.

The structure of the work is laid out: Part I (chapters 1-3) traces the evolution of medieval medical and natural philosophy about sex difference. Part II (chapters 4-6) looks at the collection of learned ideas with regard to specific topics. From this, no overall unified picture emerges, rather a cluster of related ideas that didn’t always align or agree.

Misc tags: 
Sunday, September 22, 2019 - 07:00
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Wise’s collection of fantastic (most often futuristic or steam-punkish) short stories is best read in individual bites so that the effect and implications of each piece has time to settle. Many of them focus on the use of language--either as a theme of the story or simply in its presentation. Pain, damage, and disability are strong through-lines. And queerness is an assumed given in most of the pieces. These are not comfortable stories; they’re often angry and many feature characters who can’t easily be framed as likeable. It’s a powerful collection--almost overwhelming in its entirety (hence my reading suggestion).

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Saturday, September 21, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 38c - Book Appreciation with Olivia Waite - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/09/21 - listen here)

Transcript pending

Notes and Links

Links to Olivia Waite Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Friday, September 20, 2019 - 07:00
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I needed something fun and fluffy and light and a quick read. Burgis’s YA magical Regency novel Kat, Incorrigible perfectly hit the spot. Having recently been on a panel discussion about Regency fantasy at Worldcon, I’ve been thinking about the role that magic plays in this sub-genre. It can either be an analog of social rank and privilege, or a forbidden underlayer, or in rarer cases, a subverting force that acts openly across the formal structures of society. But that’s a discussion for a different time and place. In the world of Kat, Incorrigible, magic is of the “forbidden underlayer” kind unless one gains access to the strictly controlled and regulated version that operates as a kind of secret society among the upper crust. We also get the common theme of magic being a secretive “women’s practice” kept hidden from husbands and other male figures which it is presumed to be used to influence and protect against.

But all that operates in the background of Kat’s life. She’s more concerned with the ordinary non-magical problems of an unsympathetic step-mother and how to save her older sister from an unwanted marriage to a wealthy but possibly unsavory man. Kat is at the refreshingly delightful age where questions of romance and desire are among the nonsensical concerns of adults. Her attempts to harness her newly awakened magical powers to solve her family’s problems lie in the realm of action hero. It will be equally delightful to see her non-nonsense, all-speed-ahead, near-bullying approach to problem solving once she becomes older and the tangles she addresses touch her more personally.

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Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 07:00
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Everyone and their cousin is using the relationships and themes of Sherlock Holmes as inspiration for characters in decidedly non-English non-Edwardian non-mimetic settings these days. Some of them are doing it very well--sometimes so well that the Holmesian framework is almost unnecessary as an underpinning for the story. (I’m thinking of more than this one novel in this context, but this is the one I’m reviewing at the moment.) This story retains the mystery framework, the enigmatic and cerebral investigator who plays everything very close to their chest, and the traumatized narrator in a healing-related profession who plays an essential supporting role. But “Watson” is a brain-ship whose deep-space trauma has restricted them to the spaceport profession of creating psychologically active teas to treat people undergoing space travel, and “Sherlock” has a dark history that may or may not be related to the investigation that takes them out into the dangerous parts of space. I enjoyed this contribution to the loosely-connected Xuya story-verse, though it was a bit more relaxed and comfortable than some of my favorite brain-stretching encounters. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to be a Sherlock Holmes story, but that makes a good hook for those who might not otherwise give the story a try.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 07:00
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This is a pleasant (well, maybe wrong word, see futher...) side-story in the Vorkosigan universe focusing on collaborations between Ekaterin and bioengineer Enrique looking for genetically engineered mitigations for the toxic waste site that forms part of Miles’ inheritance. It’s also about the persistance of ingrained prejudices and the ways in which ignorance (on all sides) enables unprivileged people to fall through the cracks in an otherwise progressive society. Although I liked that these issues were highlighted, I’m less enamored of how often the solutions to individual social problems in the Vor universe are for some wealthy privileged person to throw money and influence at the central characters of the narrative. My main beef with the fictional universe is that the positive outcomes rely on the personal goodwill and honor of people who could just as easily be awful and abusive (and whose peers often are). It's not that I expect my fiction to be universally fluffy and progressive, but I've often felt that the Vorkosigan series isn't sufficiently self-aware of how it valorizes a "benevolent dictator" approach to society. There should be more occasions when the system fails badly in horrific ways and can't be tidied up by the personal goodwill of someone with power and privilege.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 08:02

Disasters aren't always sudden and extreme -- sometimes they creep up on you slowly, like the water rising along the steps of the plaiz one at a time. Sometimes disasters consist of tedious waiting as the news dribbles in from those who are harder hit. Sometimes disasters are mere inconveniences to be avoided until they ebb away again. Floodtide in Rotenek has always shown different faces to different people. In the previous Alpennia books, we've mostly seen the "inconvenience" side. Floodtide as a holiday excuse to leave the city.

Knowing the shape of what was to come after the events of Mother of Souls, it was important to me to show the other side. The people who had no where to go. Who had to carry on with their lives, no matter whether the river only left a mess or carried away lives and livelihoods. The people who watch the aristocracy and monied classes hurry out of town in their fine carriages and resent that ability to escape.

Even the upper crust of Rotenek can't always pick up and leave with no warning and no preparation. An unexpected floodtide can democratize disaster. But for a little while yet, the two cities continue their separate ways...

* * *

At Tiporsel House, they talked about floodtide like it was a holiday. The maisetra was always down at her school, making a place for the families of her students who’d been flooded out. Mesner and Maisetra Pertinek left town to go visiting. They wanted to take Maisetra Iulien with them, “to be safe from fever” she told me after she’d refused to go.

“I can’t think that the fever would be worse than sitting around in a parlor listening to all the Pertinek cousins reminiscing about things I don’t know anything about,” she said. “I wish Cousin Margerit would let me go down to Urmai. I want to do something.”

There was plenty to do in the flooded parts of the city, but that wasn’t work for a proper young lady. There wasn’t anything for a proper young lady to do with no parties or visiting. That meant no one asked why I was still giving half-days to Mefro Dominique, when anyone with sense would know we couldn’t be dressmaking right now. I came home bone-tired every afternoon and it was all I could do to keep awake after supper until I saw her tucked into bed. For now I kept going back and forth between worlds—the one where floodtide was a holiday and the one where it was a disaster.

* * *

We're now two months out from the Floodtide release date. I've just plunged into the whirlwind of setting up publicity, arranging for review copies, and making sure the book gets the best launch possible. Just as a reminder, here's some key information about pre-orders, availability, and whatnot.

Pre-orders: Currently you can pre-order the hard copy at Amazon (possibly other online retailers but I haven't checked them all), but pre-orders of both the hard copy and the ebook won't be available from the publisher (Bella Books) until one month before release, i.e., mid-October. If you like buying hard copies from a bookstore, now is the time to check with them and ask if they've ordered it.

Ebooks: Bella Books has a policy of restricting ebook sales to their own site for the first month after release. (I have no control over this.) But if you buy from Bella and especially if you set up an account with them, you get access to all formats (epub, mobi, pdf) in DRM-free format with the ability to re-download anything you've bought in the past if something happens to the file. Otherwise, ebooks should be available through other venues in mid December.

Review copies: Bella is now using NetGalley for review copies. I haven't learned all the details yet, so I don't know whether reviewers have to be individually authorized or simply have accounts in good standing with the right book preferences. NetGalley should have the book a month in advance, so around mid-October. If you're on the list of reviewers I'm putting together, I'll be sending out a notification when I've confirmed it's available there. Bella does not provide hard-copy ARCs (Advance Reading Copies).

Release Party: It looks like I'll be doing a virtual release party in November, given that Chessiecon (my usual November convention) has been cancelled this year, and given that I don't know of any local bookstores that will be stocking the book. So expect to see me doing some serious online blow-out activities, including a few giveaways. So keep an eye out and join the celebrations!

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Monday, September 16, 2019 - 07:00

I'm not sure I'm going to manage to do a different publication every week during this "foundational texts" series. This is some fairly dense material. But on the other hand, I'm going to try to be a bit more concise in the future than I was for this work. (I'm fumbling my way to the right balance.) The idea behind this series is that when some other publication makes reference to, for example, "Laqueur's one-sex model," readers will have a basis for understanding what that means. I've tended to pick up that understanding simply by interpolating from how other texts engage with the concepts this series will be covering, but that isn't the ideal method. Anyway, I hope that people will find the choice of these texts useful or at least interesting.

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Full citation: 

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-674-54349-1

This is one of a number of foundational publications on the history of sex, gender, and sexuality that can provide useful context for the field. It does not address lesbian-relevant topics specifically.

The basic premises of Laqueur’s work may seem more obvious now than it did in 1990 when this book was first published. The briefest summary is something like this:

  • Sex (anatomy) and gender (social status) have always been separate concepts (though often described with the same vocabulary) and neither has ever existed in as simple clear-cut categories as cultures pretend to believe.
  • Western cultures have, at various times, had (at least) two different models of the relations of the sexes.
  • Under what Laqueur calls the “one-sex” model, male and female anatomy is understood as topographical variants of the same underlying reality. This model includes a belief in the possibility of anatomical transformation between male and female configurations, as well as embracing the existence of a continuum of intermediate configurations.
  • Under what Laqueur calls the “two-sex” model, male and female are understood as being qualitatively different types of beings. Transformation between male and female anatomy is not part of this model and intersex anatomy must be assigned to one or the other category.
  • Under both models, social gender (man and woman) are cultural constructs that are associated with distinct sets of expected characteristics, behaviors, and are assigned distinct sets of legal and social rights and properties. There is an expected association of sex (male/female) and gender (man/woman) but it is not always fixed, and the logic behind that association may be variable.
  • Attributes of the one-sex and two-sex models existed in parallel in pretty much every era, but at particular times one model or the other may have predominated in philosophical, medical, legal, or cultural discourse.

The book examines the evidence for how these concepts can be identified and examined in a historical context, and how they shifted, overlapped, and evolved across the centuries, with particular focus on the cultural and political contexts of those shifts. The rest of this summary will be a bit stream-of-consciousness.


Laqueur’s study started with the question of why the 17th century (European) belief that female orgasm was essential to conception disappeared. Looking closer, he shifted to the question of the relationship between the body and sexual difference, and the nature of sexual difference in general. A historical biological framework suggests the question should be straightforward with sex being defined by the presence or absence of a penis. But even limiting the definition of sex to anatomy, the question has never been simple when it considers physical alterations, chromosomal testing, etc. There has never been (and still is not) any understanding of sexual difference that is based on undisputed “facts” about bodies.

The erasure of the role of female orgasm in conception occurred at a similar time to the shift from viewing female bodies as “lesser men” (the one-sex model) to seeing male and female as opposites without any common properties. But both the one-sex and two-sex models were always available, even when one or the other predominated.

Chapter 1

The chapter opens with anecdotal framings of the role of female orgasm for conception, e.g., a man having sex with a comatose woman who became pregnant. But if female orgasm was not essential, then it became irrelevant (in male understanding) and opened the door to the model of female passivity/passionlessness. Female sexuality could now be redefined. The previous image of women as sexually voracious changed to an image of women as uninterested in sex.

The earlier model had an image of female sexual organs as an inversion of male organs. But around 1800, scholars began relating the supposed fundamental differences between the sexes as biological differences. In essence, female and male became viewed as different species. This was used as a basis for enforcing social/legal distinctions between the sexes.

The earlier model allowed for what later became considered impossibilities: spontaneous change of (anatomical) sex, and the ability of actions to cause somatic sex changes. Laqueur mentions intersex conditions as a basis for some of these beliefs, but in general does not focus on this topic. To some extent, he proposes, pre-Enlightenment society “considered gender categories as ‘real’ and the sexual body to be the epiphenomenon (i.e., the resulting consequence). Gendered actions could cause anatomy to align to the sex associated with that gender. Man and woman were social/legal/cultural roles, not physical facts.

What changed? Perhaps as scientific observation determined that female orgasm was not essential to conception, culture converted this to a devaluation of the female role in conception entirely? Except that’s not what happened. The conceptual change was not actually predicated on “scientific knowledge” but followed from cultural demands. Both one-sex and two-sex concepts were available, but neither could be “proven” scientifically at the time of the conceptual shift.

“Scientific” data has never been able to conclusively distinguish the sexes in absolute terms. The development of more sophisticated anatomical and developmental knowledge, in fact, supported an understanding of similarity between the sexes, not difference.

The social context of the shift to the two-sex model included marriage as a contract, feminism, restructuring the sexual division of labor due to the factory system, the rise of the market economy. None of these were “causes” but they occurred in the same time-frame. Sexual difference clearly exists, but how it is understood or defined is a product and context for conflicts over gender and power in general.

An outline is given for the remaining chapters: Ch 2 the one-sex body; Ch 3 the relationship of models of sexual difference and science; Ch 4 cultural investment in the one-sex model and the feminist pressures on it; Ch 5 the shift from dominance of the one-sex to the two-sex model; Ch 6 cultural investment in the two-sex model.

Chapter 2

The basic elements of the “one sex, two genders” model is that male and female anatomy are identical except for topography. That is, female anatomy is an inversion of male anatomy and vice versa. This still allows for two genders, as men (gender) are interpreted as having everything in the “right” place, whereas women are variants of the ideal model and therefore less perfect.

The text examines many details of how classical philosophers envisioned and explained this. Behvavioral differences in men and women are due to assumed associations with the anatomical differences. Behavior is not an essential difference but more of a functional one.

In this model, bodily fluids are not clearly distinguished and--as in humoral theory--represent different balances of a set of qualitative attributes. Thus blood, milk, semen, and “female semen” were considered the same underlying substances with difference aspects prevailing. This aligned with the idea that both male and female orgasm were necessary to produce the fluids that combined to form a fetus.

How does the one-sex model allow for social boundaries between men and women? And how did it account for the existence of heterosexual orientation? There is a discussion of philosophical models for sexual desire in Plato’s Symposium (where the anecdote is attributed to the playwright Aristophanes) as based on a “like loves like” principle, but where different types of desire originate in dual-bodied entities, some m/m some f/f some m/f. People desire others of their own type/species but that “type” could be same-sex or different-sex. But at the same time, same-gender love was socially disapproved, at least for the partner who acted “against gender.” It was the conflict of social roles and biological functions that came under disapproval.

Aristotle considered the (anatomical) sex of slaves to be irrelevant as only the social roles belonging to free people had “gender”. In Plato’s Republic, he appears to make a case for the social equality of (free) men and women, but elsewhere adheres to the principle of “male = elevated/perfect” and “female = imperfect.”

The “logical arguments” for this association in pre-Christian philosophy followed humoral principles, but with Augustine and other Christian philosophers, the logic turned to moral precepts where good/evil and salvation/fall were aligned with sex and gender as factors. This allowed for contrasting understandings of the same basic people/functions/acts depending on motivation and purpose.

An essential feature of the one-sex model is that the one sex is male and that female does not exist as a distinct category, only as a variant (and imperfect) form of male. Just as women existed as quantitatively "lesser men," men could also deviation from the ideal male and be considered "less male" on that basis.

Chapter 3

The one-sex model of classical writers continued to be transmitted in medical texts up through the Renaissance, typically without serious question or analysis. Examples are given of vernacular terminology for the reproductive organs that are based on the one-sex model. These terms could add different shades of metaphoric meaning, as in the use of “matrix” versus “purse” for the uterus (a “matrix” has a generative function while a “purse" is simply a container). Within these writings, female orgasm is still strongly associated with reproductive function.

But a more experimental and observational approach to anatomy was shifting people’s understanding, such as the “discovery” of the clitoris. Under the one-sex anatomical model, the vagina was considered to be the direct analogue of the penis -- simply turned inside out. In theory, it couldn’t be both true that the vagina was an inverted penis and that the clitoris was the direct equivalent of the penis, but this contradiction wasn’t noted or considered at the time because philosophy was still predicated on the one-sex model. If the "scientific" evidence didn't fit the dominant model, it was set aside.

In part, the problem was that the state of observable knowledge during the Renaissance could not offer conclusive evidence. And even with observation taking a more central place, anatomical “facts” followed from cultural politics, not the other way around. Women were still asserted to produce semen, female orgasm was still considered essential to conception, despite the continued awareness that there was no direct correlation between the two. Even as women began writing and publishing medical texts in the Renaissance, they followed the mainstream models on sex and gender.

Laqueur points out that many of the principles of the one-sex model still persist in popular culture today, including the necessity of female orgasm to conception. [Note: just look at conservative nonsense in the USA today around pregnancies resulting from rape.]

There is an extended look at illustrated anatomy manuals and gendered examples of cadavers as participants in their own dissection (in artwork). Drawings of male and female genitalia are arranged to emphasize the similarities and supposed correspondences between the sexes.

There is a continued association of “heat” and vital fluids with orgasm and fertility. Medical manuals discuss and recommend foreplay to encourage reproductive success, including the use of embraces, lascivious words, kisses, and flirtation. Men are encouraged to caress their wife’s genitals and breasts in the belief that near-simultaneous orgasm helped conception. Medical treatments for infertility could include a midwife masturbating the woman to orgasm to facilitate conception.

But even while this was the prevaling model, there also existed an anatomical theory that females were unique from males and that the uterus did not have a male analogue.

Chapter 4

The one-sex model had the force of medical prestige behind it but was always in tension with social and political models of two clearly distinct genders. Discussion of the principle of signs, how visual similarity = functional connection. Lots of metaphors for reproduction. Increase in the overlap and mingling of male and female signifiers in the 16th century, e.g.,, in the person of Queen Elizabeth I. Belief in “natural” transformation between sexes and that gender-transgressive behavior could either cause or be caused by physiological blurring.

The (excess) love of women was thought to make men more feminine. Women acting vigorously made them more masculine. But was this metaphor or believed to be physical?

The “sliding scale” of sexual difference on the one-sex axis did not mean that gender was open to free choice or accepted in intermediate proportions, but rather that individuals were positioned relative to the polar “perfect examples” of masculine and feminine.

Just as class-based sumptuary laws enforced rather than reflected distinctions, gendered “sumptuary” rules acted to enforce the stabilization of gender, rather than reflecting a “natural” system. Writers such as Castiglione (The Courtier) reflect deep anxieties about the permeability of gender boundaries and work to police activities that transgress them.

The anxiety about female-to-male transformation is made concrete in the writings of authors like Michel de Montaigne and Ambrose Paré who catalogue examples of cross-gender presentation or cases of anatomical sex change. The latter reflect the one-sex “inversion” concept in how they are described and explained.

Sex is assigned on the basis of the presence/absence of an (external) penis. That, in turn, granted access to or restriction from a vast set of cultural accessories and activities. For the anatomically ambiguous, the question was not “what is their ‘real’ sex?” but what gender could they best perform as. In early modern debates, ambiguous (anatomical) sex was resolved by reference to gendered attributes of personality and behavior. But by the 19th century, anatomy was considered the only metric for sexual categorization. Thus, in early modern views, women engaging in same-sex acts were classified according to the assigned gender of their behavior, but their sexual category could not be reassigned unless anatomy required it.

An example of a how these ideas played out can be seen in the case of Marie de Marcis. Marie was categorized as female/woman until participation in same-sex sexual activity led to a medical examination to look for evidence of male anatomy (i.e., masculine sex). The examiners identified a hidden penis-analogue (i.e., either an enlarged clitoris or a micro-penis) but it was deemed inadequate for reclassification into the legal/social (gender) category of man. Based on this, legal requirements for Marie’s social presentation were imposed. [Note: the case is complicated and I will try to track down the original text, but in essence Marie was required to perform socially as a woman but was forbidden from having any type of sexual relations, but with the conditions only extending to age 25.]

Self-identity was not considered in either the evaluation or imposition of gender/sex categorization in ambiguous cases. And for those with ambiguous genitalia, the requirements for being classified as male set a high bar. One could be recognized as having an ambiguous (anatomical) sex but binary classification into a gender was done according to cultural privilege, not physical form.

The belief in spontaneous anatomical sex change did not view this as equally likely in both directions. The universal belief was that it could only occur from female to male. Philosophical arguments to “explain” this were rationalizations of established gender hierarchies. By this thinking, culture constrains biology. Up through the 17th century, gender was a social rank, not a physical fact.

Scientific observation does not provide new insight into “reality,” rather the prestige of science is used to bolster the culturally prevalent model. Harvey’s observations of the fertilization process is offered as an example of relevant scientific writing of the time. But scientific techniques were not adequate to observe sperm, as such, and preconceptions meant that wrong questions were being asked and answered about the process of conception.

Chapter 5

“Sex as we know it was invented sometime in the 18th century” by which Laqueur means that the dominant model of the sexes shifted to one of two distinct "species" with separate spheres/functions in society, between whom the question of equality or superiority/inferiority doesn’t apply. Various shifts in the rhetoric and representation of male and female bodies accompanied this. The organs and acts related to reproduction were given distinct names when associated with female or male bodies, rather than being treated as analogous. This established physical distinction was then used as the basis for distinguishing the social genders. Among other things, this shift made possible the erasure of female orgasm and erotic desire.

But the one-sex model continued to exist and be promulgated throughout the 18-19th centuries, especially in new medical publications based on the classical texts. A clearer scientific method contradicted much of the supposed physical proof of the one-sex model, such as claims of male lactation, spontaneous sex-change, and miraculous/monstrous births. A distinction between possible and impossible events relating to sex became sharper.

The second process was shifting the cultural work of gender distinction on to sexual distinction. The one-sex model simply assumed women’s inferiority. The two-sex model claimed to prove it. The uterus was no longer an “imperfect” inverted penis, but an entirely different and unrelated organ whose existence in a body caused inferiority. Female and male were no longer polar inversions of each other but complementary opposites. Now desire was assumed to derive from a principle of “opposites attract” rather than being generated by differences in humoral balance that influenced people to attempt to achieve the "ideal" humoral balance (which was the same for both genders).

But new medical knowledge did not actually require the two-sex model that it was invoked to support. (The book goes on to discuss many details of various scientific discoveries relating to the topic of sex.) Political theory, even as it argued against any “natural” hierarchy of class, birth, or gender as being divinely ordained, still fell back on a hierarchy that proceeded from immutable social “facts” such as women’s vulnerability  during pregnancy and motherhood.

Medical illustrations shifted from emphasizing the similarity of female and male reproductive organs to depicting them in ways that emphasized difference and distinction.

Pregnancy from rape was the key context for evaluating the role of female orgasm in conception. In 1785, English legal texts still argued that conception required female pleasure and thus contradicted a conclusion of rape, but this seems rarely to have been applied as a legal standard. By the 1820s, even as a legal theory this concept had been rejected as “ignorant.”

Chapter 6

This chapter discusses two topics that show the persistence throughout the mid-18th though 20th centuries of both the one-sex and two-sex models via discourse around ovulation cycles and Freudian sexual theory. The discussion is primarily an examination of how both models were more political than scientific in nature. Even feminism used the rhetoric of the two-sex model to argue that women’s interests could only be represented in the political and social spheres by women. The chapter includes extensive discussion of philosophy around the nature and purpose of menstruation. There is also a discussion of the “natural” purpose of differential desire (i.e., preference for a particular sex partner rather than simply for the sex act in general).

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Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 10:00
book cover

I’m coming to the conclusion that when at all possible I should read episodically-written stories in the fashion intended rather than consuming them as if a continuous novel. I loved this portal fantasy of an over-protected girl granted her heart’s desire: to go on adventures. And what adventures! A quest with a mystery and an over-arching peril that turns out to be very different from what all the story tropes set you up to believe. But the reading felt a bit jerky, as each chapter resolves to a stopping point, sometimes in an artificial-feeling way. That’s my only complaint, though. The world building is superb and the supporting characters are well-realized in quirky and inimitably Kingfisher fashion. Like much of Kingfisher’s fiction, the setting conjures a complete mythos that borrows from existing mythology but has an integrated reality of its own. I’d call the book “YA-friendly” in the sense that the protagonist is young, it has coming-of-age themes, and the perils and experiences are ones that will feel both real and manageable for teenage readers, but it probably won’t feel “too young” for adult readers.

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