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Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  2,345 ratings  ·  87 reviews
Why do some people prefer heterosexual love while others fancy the same sex? Is sexual identity biologically determined or a product of convention? In this brilliant and provocative book, the acclaimed author of Myths of Gender argues that even the most fundamental knowledge about sex is shaped by the culture in which scientific knowledge is produced.Drawing on astonishing ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published November 30th 2000 by Basic Books (first published February 10th 2000)
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 ·  2,345 ratings  ·  87 reviews

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C.D. Leavitt
Jul 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It's remarkable how quickly some things can become dated in eleven years (transsexuals have a website!), but the scientific history given here still holds. Fausto-Sterling gives a remarkably thorough look at how our current ideas about sex, gender, identity and orientation all came to exist. The most striking fact she illuminates is how as our ideas changed, so did the way these things presented themselves in society.

There's something comforting about biological determinism, which is why people
Gabe Riggs
Nov 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
Great book, as long as you know nothing about race and racism. I would suggest reading it alongside Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo's "In-between Bodies: Sexual Difference, Race and Sexuality," which does a much better job of racially contextualizing our notions of the sexed body. Fausto-Sterling writes in a racial void, missing a great deal of important information on the history of sex as a category of science and silently pedestalizing the white body at the center of her research. Another example of ...more
Jul 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
This fascinating book explores the idea that sex (including gender roles and constructs) is not necessarily a cut-and-dry, two group system... (but you might want to skim the first and the last two chapters.)

Consider the sex of each example (and therefore the marrying and political rights):
-- an XY person who is androgen insensitive, looks physically/genitals feminine, undescended testes, raised female & wants to compete as a female in the Olympics
-- a XX person with facial and body hair,
Julie Winchester
Aug 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is so good - a historical and cultural consideration of how biological knowledge about sex and gender is produced as a social act as well as how biological "facts" are directly incorporated into our bodies via the cultures of medicine and psychology.

Covering many avenues of biological research from studies of human intersex conditions to hormonal rat behavior, Fausto-Sterling makes the argument that many of the binaries we tend to apply to thinking about sex and gender, such as
Jan 19, 2011 is currently reading it
Aug 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Putting the nature vs. nurture debate to bed once and for all
Mar 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: feminism, non-fiction
Fear not, this is a dry academic book and the most lurid parts are probably the chapters describing the sexual behaviour of rats, complete with diagrams.

Despite the in-depth ratology, Fausto-Sterling does a very good job of challenging the very notion of our underlying assumptions of sex and gender. She draws on centuries of research (only her references covered 200 pages) and presents a very good case for how the way we think of bodies, what is normal/abnormal and how our preconceived notions
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Interesting book on the history of gender research. It covers different types of intersexuality (physically ambiguous gender) along with horrifyingly unethical responses to intersex infants by the medical profession. It goes into detail about the social beliefs that went into the naming of the "sex hormones" and the continued failure for these hormones to play along with neat gender lines. You'll learn more than you (probably) ever wanted to know about manipulating sexual orientation in rats.

Dec 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Apparently being either a man or a woman is a lot more complicated than you might think - this book argues that social ideas about gender have a strong influence on what we consider to be the relatively uncontroversial realm of biological sex. Looking at, among other things, how hormones have been gendered, the problems posed to binary sex categories by intersex people and the ways scientists have looked for sexual difference in brain structure, the author argues for a more nuanced understanding ...more
Jan 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"The feminist theorist Donna Haraway has written that biology is politics by other means. This book provides an extended argument for the truth of that claim. We will, I am sure, continue to fight our politics through arguments about biology. I want us never, in the process, to lose sight of the fact that our debates about the body's biology are always simultaneously moral, ethical, and political debates about social and political equality and the possibilities for change. Nothing less is at
May 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: trans
While I've read excerpts of this canonical work mainly through other works, I have never sat down and read it thru. I'm of the nature & nurture school myself, being bisexual and gender nonbinary, so her history of the study of gender and sexuality proving it's mismeasure by man (lots of male mansplaining scientists actually) was fulfilling as a fight song at the gender pep rally. A lot of that history is also pretty dirty, especially in the ways people with intersex conditions were ...more
Jan 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I have read on development and gender theory. The authors makes a big effort to cater the layperson and the scientists and she does a great job. She keeps the main text with an clean prose and leaves the more sophisticated information for the notes. Also, she has great metaphors that let you visualize several key concepts on dynamical systems. Most probably, I will revisit this book over and over. Every person interested on gender studies should read it.
Libby T
May 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
INCREDIBLE BOOK! Possibly the best reason I went back to grad school. Fausto-Sterling takes a critical look at how science and scientific "fact" is socially constructed, and applies this argument to the narrow understanding of sex and gender by the medical community. A biologist and sexuality theorist, Fausto-Sterling brings together excellent insight into the much-too-easily accepted two-gender system, and breaks down intersexuality in a fascinating way.
Zawn V
Aug 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Sometimes I have dreams where Anne Fausto-Sterling is my best friend and we sit around and avoid being gender normative and laugh at the rest of society. And then I wake up to a world where things are, shall we say, not like that. Nevertheless, Anne Fausto-Sterling's existence makes it all a bit better.
Jul 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
So much new info in here, with truly disruptive thoughts - especially the part about intersexuality was amazing. The second half gets a bit too much into details and therefore is quite difficult to read, but overall, it's been great and provides good ammo against people claiming gender expression is solely "natural".
Jul 26, 2007 rated it liked it
Fausto Sterling reconsiders what it means to be man or woman, and along the way exposes why the science backing up traditional definitions may not have such a strong leg to stand on.
Nitika Mummidivarapu
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The intellectual worlds of science and gender studies collide in this scholarly monograph. Fausto-Sterling goes as far as to question the moral qualms in defining gender and the degree to which knowledge is definite. In Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling addresses multiple levels of issues in defining biological sex: genetics, anatomy, psychology, etc. These elements are appropriately addressed in a metaphor of the Russian doll, which is used to represent the interrelating factors and their ...more
Ola Hol
A great book that can also be used for sex ed - it includes drawings, cartoons, interesting (visual) metaphors and graphs. Debunks myths about sex as dichotomous and fixed and reveals the details of research with the purpose to prove sex/gender differences. When discussing methodology of research she recommends that they be interdisciplinary and as she writes in the concluding sentences:

"I want us never, in the process, to lose sight of the fact that our debates about the body’s biology are
Ainhoa Rodriguez
Reading Fausto-Sterling was like attending a good lecture, she must be an amazing professor!

The book has a strong scientific commitment and it requires some scientific knowledge to understand and process all the information provided in the book. At the beginning of the book, I thought it was a biology book for philosophers but, having finished it, I may say it is a philosophy book for biologists! A really good one!

It breaks down the complexity of social (and biological) constructs such as
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
The last paragraph ends with a quote from Donna Haraway: "biology is politics by other means," and that serves as an excellent summary of the argument of the book. Fausto-Sterling recaps the scientific literature on sex difference, showing how our constructions of sex are just as tied to social notions of difference as our constructions of gender.

If you want an in-depth scientific description of rat mating behavior to use to explain to someone that their notion of sexual behavior and sex
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, politics
I'm extremely delighted to see a scientist entering the debate of gender politics. A careful examination of history of political&scientific thoughts emphasizes the long-lasting debate of nature vs nurture. The interactions between those biological and social factors, and between different biological factors are illuminating. I am really looking forward to future scientific studies on this interaction.
Jun 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A thoughtful, nuanced take on the biological complexities of sex and gender, the ways science constructs sex and gender, and a proposed systems approach to the subject. I really liked this, it's staying in my collection for later reference.
Jun 18, 2019 marked it as blog-recs
Included in a blog post and resource list at
Logan Isaac
Sep 25, 2012 rated it liked it
Fausto-Sterling, in her Sexing the Body (Basic, 2000), explores the trend, over time and across disciplines, of how sexuality and gender have been described and defined by socio-cultural processes. She argues convincingly that facts and nature are rarely, if ever, truly factual or natural. Instead, she claims, “What we call facts about the living world are not universal truths.” (7) She agrees with scholarship that suggests identity is embodied, “not individual and fixed, but irredeemably social ...more
Professor Boyd-Kramer recommended this to me after the Lierre Keith transphobia fiasco at Lawrence. I wanted to dive deeper into feminist theories of gender and the biological background of sex and gender.

The book started looking like it was going to scratch those itches, but in retrospect it was kind of disappointing. Sterling spends most of the book critiquing scientific investigations of gender from a biological perspective. For instance, chapters 2-4 cover intersexes (formerly known as
Nathan  Fisher
Mar 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fausto-Sterling perhaps a bit unsure in prescription (not all that awful a criticism, only wish the last chapter was developed longer here) -- but as a straight-forward history of 'sex' as the science community's great white whale, it's rather great.
Ortinbae goes AWOL to read
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: gender-studies
This book is absolutely wonderful and action packed.
Sep 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people who want to learn more about sex and gender
The first few chapters on intersexuality are very informative and really drive home the point that there is a lot of fuzzy area in what is generally believed to be a solid two sex system. The history of how medical science and law have handled this ambiguity (generally, not very well) is quite interesting. The chapter on the corpus callosum was also very informative and shows scientific studies with diverse results and cultural biases, again opposing a popular dichotomous notion: that the corpus ...more
Mar 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
A thorough treatment of how the practices and practitioners of Science and Medicine (in the US and Europe) have used personal and sociocultural investments to shape research into and knowledge production about gender, sex, and sexuality, and how, in turn, the authoritative truth claims of Science and Medicine reinforce normative social and cultural understandings of the same.

This book is quite interesting and is a worthwhile read, although it does take some persistence. An undergraduate-level
Evin Hughes
May 13, 2013 rated it liked it
In my Writing the Body class, we discussed many wonderful things. The focus of our discussion was the idea of the enemy. As I understand it, human emotions are built off of a good/bad system from when we are infants. The “good feeling state” is a state of emotion that we fall into when we are happy, more or less. For example, if I get an A in my Advanced Creative Nonfiction class then I will be happy and in a good feeling state. The “bad feeling state” is just the opposite. For example, if I got ...more
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Anne Fausto-Sterling (born July 30, 1944) is the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University. She participates actively in the field of sexology and has written extensively on the fields of biology of gender, sexual identity, gender identity, and gender roles.

Fausto-Sterling received her Bachelor of Arts degree in zoology from University of Wisconsin in 1965 and
“Scientists do not simply read nature to find truths to apply in the social world. Instead, they use truths taken from our social relationships to structure, read, and interpret the natural” 6 likes
“Ever since the field of biology emerged in the United States and Europe at the start of the nineteenth century, it has been bound up in debates over sexual, racial, and national politics. And as our social viewpoints have shifted, so has the science of the body.” 4 likes
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