Sex, Gender and the Body: Cross-Cultural Approaches to
the Body, Gender, Sexuality and Kinship
ANTH2170 – Fall/Winter 2011/2012 – Karen McGarry
Reading – The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture –
In the Beginning, Nature
- Lucien Herr’s aphorism expresses a partial and provisional truth: We do not
‘posit’ the world around us. We encounter it. So much is self-evident.
o Example: There is a sea, and it is really there and has been from time
immemorial, independent of any human intentions, but all good reasoning
suggests that it was experienced differently by the medieval fishermen
who populated it with monsters then by the modern romantic vacationing
on a cruise liner.
o Example: The sun holds us, too, in its regard, but whether we know it as
God’s first light or as a burning ball of hydrogen, we cannot quite see it the
same way as the Aztecs or the Norse did.
- Not even the most universal occurrences give rise to any clear consensus about
the ‘nature’ of nature or what might constitute its ‘firstness’.
- It will seem self-evident that nature (as in ‘human nature’) is somehow allied with
the body (as against the mind, and all that is conscious and volitional).
- As Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern meticulously show in their classic
collection of essays ‘Nature, Culture and Gender’, not every culture asserts a
continuous line of demarcation between nature and culture, mind and body, and
the other familiar dualisms.
o Not every culture gives place to the singular and unitary concept, ‘nature’.
And even in modern, Western cultures, nature’s place is by no means
stationary or unchanging.
The Natural Body
- In making claims about nature, modern Western people often point to the self-
evidence of the body, its firstness, and the ground it undeniably provides for both
thought and activity.
- Santeros in New York City sometimes insist that there is a hole in the top of the
head, an aperture opened up by Yoruba orishas during spirit-possession rituals.
- More than one culture has projected its social preoccupations as fantastic body
parts: the ‘wandering uteri of early modern medicine, fothinstance, or that magical
substance testosterone, mythologized in so much 20 century folk medicine.
- By the very nature of their existence, nothing is actually self-evident about what
will be seen as self-evident in the nature of the body. And often, what seems so
self-evident about the experience of the body belongs to history, not nature.
- For thousands of years, the genitalia of men and women were each construed as
variations on an essentially ‘phallic’ theme – the man’s parts turning outward, the
woman’s turning inward. But in 18 century medicine, an astonishing
metamorphosis occurred. Male and female bodies took shape as complementary antitheses, each radically different from the other, the one concave where the
other was convex. Men and women became ‘opposites’ – and not just that, but
‘opposites’ held to ‘attract’ each other.
o As counterintuitive a scheme as any ever devised, true heterosexuality
thus was conceived (if not quite yet ‘born’) and we, its heirs, are at pains
to see bodies differently.
- First and second principles, then, for a social history of nature:
o Nature, even in it’s ‘firstness’ is in no small part what we make of it – if we
make anything of it at all.
o Inasmuch as knowing and doing are linked, what we see in nature, in the
world, and in human bodies in very much caught up in questions of a
social and political order – that is, in what we want to see.
Heterosexual by Design
- The perception of bodies is nowhere more saturated with cultural meanings than
around the question of sexual practices, where some are still seen as ‘natural’
and other’s as ‘unnatural’.
- Nowhere is the discourse of nature more resonant with practical, political
implications than in those modern origins stories, models of biological evolution –
our way of thinking about what it is that seems to confront us, ready-made, with a
design of its own from the depth of the flesh.
o This problematic ‘nature’ as visualized in a questionable ‘science’ is
endlessly cited, invoked, and contested in struggles over the sense of the
body and the meanings of sex.
- Martha McCaughey summarizes the matter:
“Anyone questioning the natural and therefore privileged status of