By Helen King (Regular Contributor)
Tomorrow is a big day for me; finally, my latest book is published. It’s about the claim that there was a clear division in the history of Western Europe between two models of the body: ‘one-sex’ and ‘two-sex’. In the first model, men and women were seen as having exactly the same genital bits and pieces, but with men’s on the outside because they had the ‘heat’ to push them out. In this model, stories of a woman changing into a man later in her life made sense, because she had become ‘hot’ enough for her bits to come out. In the second model, men and women were completely different and there was no point trying to match up the bits in the way the first model encouraged: vagina = penis, womb = scrotum and so on. This picture of two models is most closely associated with the work of Thomas Laqueur, who dated the shift from one to the other to some time in the (long) eighteenth century, and associated it with other changes that created the ‘modern’ world.
Now, as the title suggests, I don’t find this model works for the historical periods with which I’m most familiar, the classical and the early modern. Instead, I’ve argued that back in 5th/4th c Greece, the Hippocratic texts saw women as very different from men; so different, that they needed their own branch of medicine. This suggests one of the reasons why it’s important to know what people believed about sex difference. If you think men and women are pretty well the same, but with a few extra bits or a few of the same bits in different places, then you may as well offer them broadly similar medical treatments. But if women are seen as fundamentally different, this difference extending to every part of their flesh all over their bodies, then that can be an argument for separate doctors and different treatments.
So how did I come to write this book? In a previous job, I realised that Laqueur’s book was the only one in our university library that seemed to be falling apart. Clearly a lot of courses had it as set reading. But the argument made little sense for any of the primary sources I was reading. So in 2005 I wrote an article, but realised there was a book lurking in there somewhere. A few more years down the line, I started working on a Hippocratic case history – Phaethousa, who grew a beard when her husband left her. She didn’t become a man – instead, she died. Was this a one-sex or a two-sex story? Did it suggest movement between the sexes, or total difference? Or – moment of breakthrough – did it suggest that things were a lot more complicated than the ‘one-sex to two-sex in the eighteenth century’ model envisaged?
So I wrote the first draft of a book, and sent it to the editor of a suitable series in which to publish it. He liked it, but decided there was a different book lurking inside that original draft – a book which engaged directly with the Laqueur model and its continued popularity. Hence the choice of title: ‘trial’ and ‘evidence’. So, a total rewrite was needed, and it did indeed become a very different book. And now it gets released to the world. Unlike Laqueur, I’m not offering an attractively simple model of change from weird and old, to sensible and new. But the debate I’m describing still applies to medicine today; just how different are men and women, and where does that difference reside in their bodies?
More on my book, including some sample content, on http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409463351
A pre-print draft of the 2005 article, ‘The mathematics of sex’, is on http://oro.open.ac.uk/28098/1/Mathematics_of_Sex.pdf