Beyond the Natural Body: An Archaeology of Sex Hormones

Beyond the Natural Body: An Archaeology of Sex Hormones

Beyond the Natural Body: An Archaeology of Sex Hormones

Beyond the Natural Body: An Archaeology of Sex Hormones


It is now impossible to imagine a world without sex hormones. Women all over the world take hormonal pills to control their fertility and estrogen and progesterone have become the most widely used drugs in the history of medicine. But why has the female rather than the male body become increasingly subjected to hormonal treatment?Nelly Oudshoorn challenges the idea that there exists such a thing as a natural body and shows how concepts such as the hormonal body assume the appearance of natural phenomena by virtue of the activities of scientists, rather than being rooted in nature. Beyond the Natural Body tells the fascinating story of scientists'search for the ovaries, testes and urine required to develop the hormonal body concept; investigating how sex hormones have shpaed our understanding of sex and the body, transforming science and medicine and ultimately redefining the relationship of women to reproduction. Nelly Oudshoorn concludes by evaluating the mixed blessings of the hormonal revolution.


"When you meet a human being," Freud has said, "the first distinction you make is 'male or female', and you are accustomed to making the distinction with unhesitating certainty," (Freud 1933:120 as cited in Strachney 1965). In the early decades of the twentieth century, scientists were less confident about the distinctions between female and male characteristics:

Although the classification into male and female sex hormones seems self-evident, it is nevertheless rather difficult to define; the changing opinions hereabout have succeeded one another so fast in such a small number of years, that at present it looks like chaos.... The major problem is that precise notions associated with the words male and female are, alas, merely the property of the laymen, and fade away more and more if one becomes acquainted with the progressing experimental-biological research. We find it increasingly difficult to define which observed characteristics can be considered decisive for our judgement: male or female.

(Jongh 1936:5, 306)

Beyond the Natural Body focuses on this episode in the 1920s and 1930s in which scientists became confused by their own assumptions about sex and the body.


What about sex and the body? Early-twentieth-century scientists were definitely not the only ones who struggled with the question of how we can think about female and male bodies. During the second wave of feminism that started in the 1970s, (fe)male bodies were of central concern in many debates, although in a rather peculiar way. Feminist biologists, like myself, were certain that biological determinism had to be rejected. We knew that nature does not determine what we mean when we use terms such as woman, body, femininity. We chose this position to contest those opponents of feminism who suggested that social inequality between

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