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The Destiny of Biology
An interview with Anne Fausto-Sterling
Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the leading theorists on science, sexuality, and gender. Trained as a molecular biologist, and a professor of Biology and Womens Studies at Brown University, her research and writing covers a broad rage of topics: the science and politics of sex hormone research, theories of the etiology of sexual orientation, the use of animal models to explain human behavior, the sexual politics behind the medicalization of intersexuality (formally termed hermaphrodism). But through all of Fausto-Sterlings writing her underlying concern is how social attitudes, biases, and prejudicesparticularly about issues of sex, sexuality, and genderinform and influence scientific research, theory, and practice: the social construction of science.
Fausto-Sterlings first book, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men was published in 1986. It has since become a classic in its field. In it she looked at the commonly held assumptions of male and female differencehow much of what men and women feel, think, and do is inherently biological or innate. Are men more aggressive? Women more nurturing? Are men programmed to be more violently sexual? Do womens hormones control their moods and actions? After examining biological, psychological, genetic, and evolutionary evidence her answer was: not much at all. But it was the theme of the booka critique that science was, or ever could be, pure or objectivethat caused the most critical reactions and controversy.
In her new book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Basic Books), Fausto-Sterling examines intersexuality, the politics of researching gender chemistry, and how basic brain anatomy is gendered by scientists and the mainstream media. What she has discovered is not only isnt biology destiny, sometimes it isnt even good biology.
BRONSKI: What started you thinking about and doing this research and writing?
ANNE FAUSTO-STERLING: What pushed me to write Myths of Gender in the first place was involvement in the feminist movement. I would be at meetings, this is in the early 1970s, where people would start having arguments about male rats being more aggressive than female rats. And they would say things like, Well, we know that male rats.... And I thought, Well, do we really? What do we really know about male rats. And can we apply that to human behavior. So that was the beginning of my research and thinking. Up until then most feminist thinking about women and science was about the discrimination women faced in the field. Not many people were conceptualizing or talking about how to bring feminist ideas into the lab, or applying them to how science was done. And I realized that I was trained and had the tools to do that, to look at how preconceptions about gender affected scientific research.
You clearly take a social constructionist line in your work, which many other scientists dont. Do you experience much tension or hostility from colleagues?
It really depends on the setting. Most of what I have been doing is interdisciplinary work, and womens studies, where this is not an issue. I am also on a listserve for people interested in and committed to sexology, and here it is quite different. Many of these people are quite opposed to social constructionist ideas. They exhibit, to my mind, a quite naive, old fashioned view of science as totally and completely objective. Of course, my view is that the social is always involved in how science is done, but you can understand what the process is. Interestingly the people in the molecular biology department at Brown are rather clueless to this debate, they are just busy doing the basic ground work in experiments and research. With Sexing the Body out I am going to do a department seminar on the chapter about sex hormoneswhich I think is very challenging and really pushes the envelope in discussing how scientific research is profoundly affected by prevailing ideas about gender.
What is your argument?
One of the things I do in the book is address what it means to make a claim about social construction. I begin the book with several chapters discussing intersexualityhow many infants born with ambigious genitals, or a combination of external and internal genitals and reproductive organs are fixed by extensive surgical intervention to make them conform to traditional identities of male and female even though the reality of their bodies are far more complex. Often these surgeries cause extensive scarring and ultimately inhibit the possibility of orgasm. They dont make these infants more male or female but are cosmetic solutions.
I begin here because this is a fairly obvious example of how our ideas about gender affect science and medical practice. But I wanted a more complicated example. I wanted to push it further and see what happened when we moved into the interior of the bodyto look at something that is considered natures truth and that would be viewed by most people as untouched by social input. Hormones seemed the perfect subject to study. For one thing, we know what they are, we know the chemical formula.
So I started exploring the history of how what are usually called sex hormones were discovered, named, and how they work in the body. What I found was that before they were ever even identified both estrogen and testosterone were conceived of as being female and male and pertaining to, quite discretely, male or female bodies. When it turned outthrough increasingly sophisticated researchthat all hormones are found in both sexes scientists were quite distressed. It turned out that stallions secreted huge amounts of female hormones in their urine; in fact this was the best source of the hormone for further study. Scientists and researchers were so intent on patrolling the boundaries of male and female that they began by making assumptions about the studies before they did them, and then had to keep revising their ideas to save the early studies.
While estrogen and testosterone do have some specific reproductive functions they have many non-reproductive functions. To say they are sex hormones is misleading; they are hormones, present in both male and female bodies. I chose this because it is less obvious than, say, talking about how external genitals are sexed.
You argue convincingly that society, politics, and all kinds of preconceived ideas about gender and sexuality influence how scientific work is done and how conclusions are reached. What can weas non-scientistsdo to change that?
I am not sure the point is to change it. What we need to do is understand it. There is no pure science. Science is a particular kind of cultural activity and the nature of science is rulesproviding empirical evidence, etc. The point is not to eliminate culture from sciencewhich would be impossiblebut to understand what is going on so we can make appropriate use of science in our social decisions such as how we allocate money, and on choosing research topics. An example, I think, of a socially conscious use of science and research is how to stop the AIDS virus. This would obviously be a good thing. A bad use of science and resourcesand many people, including gay people, would disagree with meis research to find a gay gene. This has no clear purpose, and possibly even negative effects such as a move to abort gay fetuses, if such a gene was identified, which I think is unlikely.
The point I think is to encourage and move with national debates and change society to be more humane. These are all ethics and value questions. Science is not a neutral place but a place where particular kinds of knowledge is produced. We allscientists and non-scientistshave to become more comfortable about engaging in and demanding these public discussions.
In 1993 you printed an essay in The Sciences entitled The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough, this was reprinted in the New York Times a few months later as How Many Sexes Are There? There was a lot of outrage from both scientists and political groupsincluding The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Given how deeply entrenched these ideas and feelings are how is it going to be possible to make any social or political progress in changing how society views sex and gender and patterns of sexual desire?
In the article I claimed that the large number of variations of chromosome makeup, as well as internal and external genital formations found in intersexed people might lead us to reclassify, not two, but five sexes. One of my points was to get people to think outside of a simple binary sex classification system. Of course, claiming that male and female are not our only options will upset people.
I see my writing as a way to make people think about things and I think that if that can happen we will see changes. Many people feel the need to cling to simple explanations, but this doesnt mean that change cant, and doesnt, happen. Look at what feminism has done in a few decades. Look at the gay movement. There are actually serious discussions and actions in legislatures about gay marriage. I think things are changing very quickly.
Some people in the gay community, and even political movement, have turned to science to make homosexuality normal or acceptableparticularly the use of animal models to explain, or justify human homosexual behavior. Last year, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl was published in which he detailed a variety of homosexual or transgender behavior in 190 species. What do you think about using animal models of arguing for acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuality, or sexual deviation in society?
Ive only glanced through that book and it looks fascinating. But animal models have to be used with great caution. They are usually badly done for both their application to humans and even for their application to the animals themselves. A badly done study of rat behavior tells us nothing useful about the rats, and is even more uselessif not dangerouswhen applied to humans. If we are moving towards creating a more humane society, one that is caring and just, we dont need animal models. We are on shaky ground if we base civil rights arguments for gay people on the fact that some animals have same-sex sexual encounters. I think that the questions of politics has to be fought on ethics, values and civicsnot science. You can select some piece of biology and make it fit, and then someone can disagree and can argue with youeven prove you wrong. This is no way to work towards a better society. Biology cannot resolve social equality.
What applications do you think that your work in intersexualism have for lesbian and gay politics today? The past few years have seen a lot of fighting in the mainstream gay and lesbian politics about the role of transgendered people in the movement, with some people not seeing transgendered people or issues as relevant to a gay and lesbian cause. This came to a small crisis this past year when the National Gay and Lesbian task Force [NGLTF] withdrew its support from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] now before Congress unless transgendered people, along with lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, were included in its language. The more conservative Human Rights Campaign [HRC] took exception to this and accused NGLTF of hurting the bills almost non-existent chances of passing. How do we build a movement that can deal with peoples complicated feelings about sexual orientation, gender, and sex?
I think that the movement has to be all embracing. When we use a determinist standpoint to exclude people because they dont fit into a strict, specific category we cut ourselves off at the knees. My political interests go beyond a civil rights agenda. I am interested in broader questions of opening up gender possibilities. No matter what category we want to put be people in there is always a large variabilityboth cultural and biologicalwithin those categories, why not just admit that things are more complicated.
I think, and Im guessing, that some of the hostility to transgender people in the mainstream gay and lesbian movement is because part of being mainstream is convincing straight people that we are just like everyone else. This is harder to do if you include transgender or intersex people in that mix. In any national movementthe history of the womans movement shows us thisa more mainstream wing always appears and is more exclusionary, more conservative in its membership and its goals. But it does gain a certain amount of ground because of this. We always have to remember that it is the radical fringes that creates new space for the movement to grow and that also makes it possible for there to be a middle ground to begin with. Z