Sexuality and Modernity
Enlightenment Transition

To the modern scientifically informed way of conceptualising, the one-sex model seems so far removed from empirical fact that it requires a leap in imagination to comprehend how anyone could have held such views. This is particularly so when one considers the length of time it prevailed (1400 years) and that it was reaffirmed by anatomists time and time again, despite their skills in human dissection. The more they examined the body(flesh) of women the more they became convinced it was a version of man’s. Throughout the 16 century dissections by noted barber surgeons previously performed within medieval academies moved into public, with theatrical display.

Sixteenth-century dissection scene from the frontis piece to Vesalius epochal De humani corporis fabrica (1543) 14

It’s not as if the body was not well examined, so why the sudden emergence of male and female bodies in the eighteenth century?. Organs that previously shared the same name, occupying the same bodies were given their own names - such as vagina. Body structures such as the skeleton and nervous system which were previously held to be common to both women and men were now differentiated according to sex. This is exemplified in the anatomical drawings of the human skeleton which prior to the eighteenth century had been persistently represented as the default male skeleton. It was not until the 1750s in England, France and Germany as part of the fervent search for intrinsic sex differences in every bone, muscle, nerve and cell of the human body that a specifically female skeleton emerged. 15

Female Skeleton 16

Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring (1796)

The answer to the question of why the two sex model emerged cannot be explained simply by advances in medical knowledge nor scientific progress. Rather we need to understand it within the historical context of a tumultuous political transformation to establish a new modern social order. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought forth radically new conceptualisations concerning human beings and their relationships to nature and eachother. The great chain of being was torn apart ushering in the now familiar rise of new political systems of governance, particularly liberal democracy or liberalism inspired by the French revolution in 1789. This parallels the emergence of modern concepts such as liberty, equality, fraternity, individualism, social contract. At the root of the Enlightenment vision was the belief that all "men" are born equal, that the liberty of each individual was sacrosanct. The 1789 declaration of the "rights of man and citizen" made no explicit reference to an individual’s sex or race leading many to believe that the liberties posthumously proclaimed were universal. 17 The hierarchical social order of feudal despotism was seemingly abolished in favour of a modern social order in which an individuals rights and liberties were equal to any other. An argument which posited social difference as a basis for enslavement was necessarily invalid. In other words, for social inequality to exist, it must derive directly from "natural inequality". If "natural inequality" was mirrored as "social inequality" it did not contradict the tenants of Enlightenment freedom. It was left to science to demonstrate whether natural inequalities existed amongst human beings. Suffice to say, science became enmeshed in this process, and in doing so, race and sex become the two fundamental basis upon which to defend emergent modern inequalities. As I pointed out earlier, "nature" played a pivotal role in the rise of liberal political thought. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the study of the intrinsic "natures" and origins of "sex" and "race" became an overwhelming focus of attention for modern science and political theorists. Political struggles over power and position within the post-revolutionary public sphere were fought out in the scientific arena in terms of sex, race and class. Mary Wollstonecraft’s defence of the female sex, along with the suffragette movement in the 19th century comprise feminist challenges to men’s claims that it was women’s sex and nature which should exclude them from public representation and participation.

"Nature" and claims on behalf of the "natural" emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the basis upon which modern writers hinged the legitimacy of their political philosophies. The Appeal to a natural biological "real" or essence continues to be one of the most potent strategies to hinge our conceptions about sexuality and sexual difference. In no other arena of human understanding has "nature" played such a crucial role in informing our common sense understanding of the world and ourselves than sex and sexual difference. The gay gene, DNA, hormones, sexed brains - all illustrate the continued endeavour to legitimate social and political claims by hinging underlying and crucial assumptions upon a pre-social or extra-social basis in "nature". Claims to the natural, operate to fix and solidify our notions of "truth" concerning a supposed "real" self and human potentiality while simultaneously affirming our resistance to all that is deemed corrupting and "unnatural". Nowhere is this more prevalent than in discussions concerning sex, sexuality, sexual difference, sexual disposition and sexual normalcy. Our essences, core identities, social and historical trajectories have all been written in nature, merely revealed, or should I say discovered by the penetrating eye of science. In short, we moderns have become our sex! Foucault writing and reflecting on modern sexuality states that sex has "become the truth of our being". 18 Modern science, particularly since the 18th century has relentlessly pursued the irreducible origins of sexual difference. This secret of our sexual dimorphism has been found in reproductive systems, skulls, skeletons, brains, hormones, chromosomes, genes, and now it is said to be illusively hiding in the molecules of our DNA. It would not surprise me if one day in the near future it is claimed that the proton is an atomic female ovum and the electron an orbiting male sperm.

Sex is more than skin deep 19

Sexual differences are not restricted merely to the organs of reproduction but penetrate the entire organism. J.J Sachs (1830) 20

To invoke sex and race all to often involved an assumption that difference between women and men was reducible to innate biological characteristics. It was commonplace throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for disciplines in the social sciences to assert that cultural differences stemmed from biologically based sexual differences. Social inequality was thus viewed as mirroring ’natural’ inequality.

Throughout this period the notion of evolution in the natural world gained enormous ascendancy informing institutionalised scientific inquiry as well as popular discourses. Charles Darwin’s (1871) work’s The Origin of the Species & The Descent of Man although primarily focusing upon the possible origin and evolutionary development of the natural world, can be seen as representative of how modern British and European cultures had reached a fundamentally new understanding of themselves, and more significantly their relationship to other cultures they were coming into contact with through colonial capitalist expansion.

In the Descent of Man Darwin outlined his notion of "sexual selection" which he argued paralleled the competitive struggle for species survival in driving evolutionary progress. If nature is believed to have progressively evolved from simple "primitive" protozoic states toward highly complex and differentiated organic life forms, it automatically raises the question of human place and purpose (if any) within this new representational schema. Nature and claims to the natural became the focal point for modern discourses across all institutionalised disciplines of knowledge as well as popular cultural expressions of literature and "public" discourse.

Scientific thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be separated form the political forces of capitalism, patriarchy and expansionist colonial domination. In this sense, the notion that differences between "sexes" and "races" reflected varying degrees of evolutionary progress from primitive (frequently referred to as savages) to civilised peoples are inexorably connected to the legitimation of colonial relations of domination. In the nineteenth century it was common belief that the natural dimension of human existence was innately differentiated by sex and race. Even class was frequently identified as possessing some biological predeterminate dimensions. Human evolution was conceptualised as a progressively evolving freedom from the influence and subjection to natural forces. Race and sex became the key signifiers of an individual’s or group’s distance from natures clutches. A group’s and individual’s distance from and degree of domination over nature became the primary basis upon which to legitimate claims concerning exclusion or inclusion from within the civilised rational domain of modern public citizenship. European women along with indigenous cultures subject to colonial invasion, were all seen to be governed by natural forces to a greater degree than rational civilised bourgeois man and therefore denied the liberty, equality and freedom so sacred to modern understandings of social order. Ironically the catch cry of liberal philosophers; (all are born equal in nature so all are equal in society) became hollow rhetoric as science proliferated its production of innate biological differences disguised as discovery. Science and politics become one. Science did more than supply objective and thus neutral data to political forces - it utilised its prestige and authority to support of the whole enterprise.


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