From our earliest memories we are told there are only two genders, boys are certain way, girls are a certain way, and these differences can be explained with biology. Girls produce estrogen, which makes them emotional and gives them breasts when they grow up. Boys produce testosterone, which gives them lots of energy and muscles when they grow up. These sorts of message are so ubiquitous we never question them even as adults. We take it for grant that boys have a certain biology, girls have another, and that is what accounts for the differences we see in how women and men interact are treated in society. It is a kind of biological essentialist thinking many have used to justify sexism, cissesexism, heterosexism, and various other forms of oppression for millennia.
Alternatively, many feminists and others have countered biological essentialism in asserting gender is socially constructed and making a distinction between gender and biological sex. In other words, gender is a social category while sex is a biological. From this standpoint these feminists were able to successfully debunk the myth that sexism is the inevitable result of unchangeable biology and assert gender oppression is the result of social forces and, therefore, changeable. However, such theories neglect to account for much of people’s lived, bodily experiences of gender.
Then there are those who assert the typical nature vs. nurture that often rages around sex and gender misses the mark. Humans are complicated social and biological beings, nature does not exist apart from nurture, and nurture does exist apart from nature. Any theory that ignores one or the other will be inadequate. To address these issues feminist and biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World debunks many of the myths about the scientific study of sex differences and offers possible alternative developmental theories on gender and sexual identities. This is all done in an interdisciplinary approach. Not only does Fausto-Sterling draw insights from biology, she also brings insights from other fields such as anthropology, sociology, and even history to the table as well.
The topics Fausto-Sterling covers range from the development of primary sex characteristics, intersex conditions and what they can and cannot tell us about gender, the development of gender identity in early childhood, and the theory of brain sex. In doing so she manages to address the misconception that sex as a biological category is strictly binary as well as the limitations of current research and theories on sex, gender, and the brain. Beyond issues of sex and gender Fausto-Sterling also addresses the history of sexual identity as a concept and its complex relationship to gender and gender expression.
With Fausto-Sterling’s interdisciplinary approach and easy-to understand style, I would recommend Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World to anyone who is new to the field biology or gender studies as well as to more experienced scholars. In a world where there is a divide between the sciences and humanities and misconceptions concerning gender and science run rampant, more interdisciplinary works like Fausto-Sterling addressing issues of science and gender are most welcome.