The Destiny of Biology
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 Women’s 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-Sterling’s
writing her underlying concern is how social attitudes, biases, and prejudices—particularly
about issues of sex, sexuality, and gender—inform and influence scientific
research, theory, and practice: the social construction of science.
Fausto-Sterling’s 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
difference—how 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 women’s 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 book—a critique that science was, or ever could be, pure or
“objective”—that 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 isn’t biology destiny, sometimes it isn’t 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
You clearly take a “social constructionist” line in your work, which many
other scientists don’t. Do you experience much tension or hostility from
It really depends on the setting. Most of what I have been doing is interdisciplinary
work, and women’s 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 hormones—which
I think is very challenging and really pushes the envelope in discussing
how scientific research is profoundly affected by prevailing ideas about
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
intersexuality—how 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 don’t 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 body—to look at something that is considered “nature’s
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 out—through
increasingly sophisticated research—that 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 we—as non-scientists—do to change
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 rules—providing empirical evidence,
etc. The point is not to eliminate culture from science—which would be
impossible—but 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 resources—and many people, including
gay people, would disagree with me—is 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
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 all—scientists and non-scientists—have 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 groups—including 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 doesn’t mean that change can’t,
and doesn’t, 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 acceptable—particularly 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?
I’ve 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 useless—if not dangerous—when applied
to humans. If we are moving towards creating a more humane society, one
that is caring and just, we don’t 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 civics—not science. You
can select some piece of biology and make it fit, and then someone can
disagree and can argue with you—even “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 bill’s almost non-existent chances of passing. How do we build
a movement that can deal with people’s 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 don’t 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 variability—both cultural and biological—within
those categories, why not just admit that things are more complicated.
I think, and I’m 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 movement—the history of the woman’s movement shows us this—a
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.