Separate but Equal : MAKING SEX; Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud By Thomas Laqueur (Harvard University Press: $27.95; 302 pp.)

Robinson is professor of history at Stanford University and the author of "The Modernization of Sex" (Cornell University Press)

You might think that the anatomy of male and female genitals is so obvious that there could never be much historical disagreement about them. But the chief virtue of Thomas Laqueur's "Making Sex"--a study of ideas about sexual anatomy and reproductive physiology from the ancient world to the present--is that it disturbs any such easy conviction.

Recent scholarship has made us aware that gender is to a considerable extent "socially constructed," meaning that notions about the differences between men and women vary remarkably over time. But Prof. Laqueur's contention is more radical: He insists that the way people conceive of sexual organs themselves is also historically contingent.

Over the past two millennia, Laqueur contends, there have been two dominant conceptions of sexual difference. The first, which held sway from classical Greece until the Enlightenment, he calls the "one-sex model," while its successor during the past two centuries turns out to be (not surprisingly) the "two-sex model."

The one-sex model was articulated by such ancient medical authorities as Aristotle and Galen. Its central precept was that there is, in essence, only a single sex, namely the male. Laqueur is not so foolish as to argue that the ancients could see no difference between male and female genitalia. His point is that when they thought about the female genitals, they interpreted them as a version of the male organs. To be precise, they believed that female genital anatomy was an involution of male anatomy. Thus they describe the vagina as an internal penis, the womb as an internal scrotum and the ovaries as internal testicles--which, logically, lay outside the womb, since the whole male apparatus has been turned inside out (or, perhaps more accurately, outside in).

From this conception followed several consequences. The most important was that the ancients (and their European successors down to the Enlightenment) took it for granted that women's sexual desire and sexual pleasure were virtually identical to men's. Since women had, in effect, the same organs as men, they naturally had the same feelings. Thus nobody would have thought to propose that they didn't experience orgasms.

What led the ancients to embrace the one-sex model? Laqueur has no difficulty convincing us that it had nothing to do with observation. The very fact that we find their ideas so quaint--if not to say preposterous--relieves him of that responsibility. Instead, he speculates (for speculation is our only recourse when trying to answer such a question) that it reflected a broader conceptual scheme encompassing the whole of reality.

That conceptual scheme held that the world is organized hierarchically, from God at the apex, down through animate beings and plants, and bottoming out in the realm of immaterial objects. In this hierarchy, women were naturally placed below men. More exactly, the interests of patriarchy led ancient authorities to conceive of women as, in effect, lesser men.

The very legitimacy of their hierarchical social order, Laqueur believes, was at stake in such a conception. This imperative in turn inhibited any notion of female anatomy as antithetical to male anatomy, since women's subordination depended precisely on their being conceived of as similar, albeit inferior, to men. They were one rung (or link) lower on the great chain of being, and this assumption made possible the peculiar notion that their genitals were an imploded version of male genitals.

The two-sex model, by way of contrast, holds that women's sexual organs are not lesser versions of men's but simply different. You might say that a vertical conception has given way to a horizontal one. Laqueur shows 18th- and 19th-Century authorities explicitly rejecting the ancient notion of genital resemblance and insisting instead on genital opposition. To be accurate, he concedes that some modern authorities (such as Freud) continued to employ the one-sex model, but the two-sex model became the norm.

A chief result of this change was the belief, introduced in the 19th Century, that women are largely passionless. Laqueur does not take sides in the ongoing debate about how widespread this notion was. He is satisfied to suggest that it could have been broached only when the two-sex model displaced the one-sex model and thus made it conceivable that a woman's sexual response might be utterly unlike a man's.

And what accounts for the triumph of the two-sex model in the modern world? One thing is certain, in Laqueur's opinion: It has not triumphed because it is correct or because it has been championed by modern science. It is, he admits, on the whole closer to the truth than the old model, but he is at pains to discredit the Whiggish notion that we now see the genitals aright because, with the aid of science, we have taken a long, careful, and disinterested look at them. For centuries, science dutifully produced evidence supporting the one-sex model, and since the Enlightenment, it has produced a good deal of bogus physiological evidence that actually contradicts the two-sex model. Once again, larger cultural forces seem to be at work.

To be frank, I find Laqueur's exposition of those larger forces among the more obscure aspects of his argument. If I understand him correctly, he wants to link the idea of radical genital opposition to the emergence of a democratic conception of society during the Enlightenment. That is, the 18th Century rejected the idea of hierarchy and replaced it, in theory, with the idea that human beings are essentially equal.

If taken literally, this idea would have threatened male supremacy, since women could claim to be indistinguishable from men. With the idea of women's hierarchical inferiority discredited, men were forced to substitute the idea of a categorical biological divide between the sexes, from which the two-sex model followed.

I am reluctant to complain that Laqueur's argument is at times overly schematic, or that he occasionally seems to be wrestling his evidence into conceptual submission. Ambitious historical constructs, particularly in the murky region of human sexuality, are rare commodities that need a certain amount of intellectual indulgence, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for proposing so bold and important a hypothesis.

I do wish he had been able to present it more plainly, just as I wish that his publisher had seen fit to supply him with better anatomical illustrations. The latter are so small, dark and blurry that one often cannot identify the telltale physical distinctions that Laqueur explicates so lovingly in his text.

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