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Unformatted text preview: . Before he knew what was happening,
she was on him, wrapping her arms and legs around him and clinging
to him tightly. He tried to get away, but she was strong. As Salmacis
clung to Hermaphroditus, she prayed to the gods that the two of them
would never be parted. The gods heard, and in answer to her prayer,
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus became one being—half man and half
woman—the first human hermaphrodite.20
In spite of their godly beginnings, among common folk the concepts
of androgyny and hermaphroditism remained anathema. In ancient
Greece, the birth of an androgyne threatened the social order. The birth
might be a warning that all of humankind was about to change or, at the
very least, deliver into this world a creature with no clear social position. Either way, such a child opened a crack in the civilized world. Men
and women had very clearly defined social, sexual, and political roles.
Androgynes did not. So the good citizens of Greece created rules about
what do when a child of unusual sex fell into their lives.
First, something had to be done with the child; it was an offense
to the gods, not to mention friends and family. Usually the child was
drowned, preferably in the sea. As soon as possible after the birth of an
afflicted child, people who understood what must be done lifted the liv- A Brief History of Sex 27 ing child into a crude basket, carried the baby out to sea in a boat, and
cast the child overboard.
Once again ashore, reparations had to be made. According to one
oracle these should include:
1. a collection of money to offer to Demeter (the goddess of
2. the sacrifice of twenty-seven bulls
3. the sacrifice of white cows by twenty-seven girls and
prayers said by the same twenty-seven girls, according to a
Greek rite in honor of Hera Basilissa (Juno the Queen)
4. an offering made by maidens (a daily libation)
5. an offering of torches for Demeter
6. another offering by matrons, with a triple libation for Demeter
7. a similar offering to Persephone (the Queen of the Under
8. another collection of money for an offering
And that was the minimum needed for a people’s salvation. Clearly
the birth of an androgyne was on par with the appearance of a comet
and not something these people or their gods could take lightly.
Things remained pretty much the same until the time of the Roman
scholar Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79), over two hundred years later. Pliny
was among the first to use the word hermaphrodite, after Hermaphroditus, for beings who seemed to fall between men and women. Pliny was
also among the first to suggest that these people were just that, people,
who suffered from an accident of nature—not oracles or ill omens.
During the Enlightenment—nearly sixteen hundred years after
Pliny the Elder had done his best to lift up the light of reason and scatter the darkness of myths and preconceptions—things shifted. Oracles
and ghosts had fallen into disfavor. Ambiguity and indeterminacy were
no longer options. Children born into that enlightened world had to be
either boys or girls, regardless of how little they might resemble either.
Now, rather than cast an ambiguous child out to sea, doctors, midwives,
fathers, and mothers simply took a look between a newborn child’s legs 28 Between XX and XY and chose a sex. Sometimes that required a moment or two of reflection,
or a stretch of the imagination, but it was never impossible. Everyone
needed and received one of two sexes.
Sex Under the Microscope
In the 1800s, histologists (those who first used a microscope to probe
the depths of human tissues) and anatomists raised their lamps and
offered to show us another path through the labyrinth. Eyes, which had
served us so well for so long, just weren’t enough. As Descartes had
shown, our senses could deceive us. The faint candles of our eyes could
light only the shallowest of this world’s dark pools. Now people and
their parts could be dissected and deconstructed under the unflinching eyes of the microscope, opening up an entire universe beyond the
curtains of our eyesight. Nothing was exempt from these scientists
and their tools, not human anatomy or physiology, not reproduction,
certainly not sex, not even the sticky problem of sex assignment. The
microscope told all. Testes were unmistakably testes and ovaries always
ovaries. It seemed the riddle had been solved, scientifically.
But nearly as soon as scientific precision inserted itself between
parent and child, the monster of indeterminacy raised its seven heads.
When scientists began to look more carefully through their microscopes
at ovaries and testes, they soon found it wasn’t always possible to lay
those precious organs into one basket or the other. Sometimes gonads
didn’t really develop, and the examiners were left with only streaks
of tissue—smears of cells that never quite organized themselves into
functional organs—to characterize. Other times the gonads looked like
both ovaries and testes, sometimes neither. As powerful as the sciences
of anatomy and histology were, the false twin...
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- Spring '14