This preview shows page 1. Sign up to view the full content.
Unformatted text preview: rences were
of process—like subject and exposition, parts of a single fugue—not
basic differences in nature, and certainly not opposite sexes. He even
proposed that both men and women produced sperm, or seed, and that
only the strength of their seed differed. Even then, he said, sometimes
men produced strong sperm and at other times weak sperm, and the
same was true for women. Men, of course, because they were stronger,
came from the strong sperm. Nevertheless, to Hippocrates, men and
women came from a single mold.
Aristotle, whose life overlapped briefly with that of Hippocrates,
studied under Plato and schooled Alexander the Great. Aristotle wrote
about nearly everything: philosophy, physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology, zoology, and sex.
Aristotle’s notions about sex appear to be divided. At times, his basic
philosophy seemed to commit him to the two-distinct-sexes model of
men and women. But his writings often expressed a different view. Aristotle certainly didn’t think that men and women were identical, but
neither did they appear in his writings as polar opposites. The major
differences between men and women, he said, involved the internal
and external genitalia (both were parts of the gastrointestinal system in
his anatomy) and the roles men and women played in procreation. He
wrote, “The female always provides the material, the male that which
fashions it, for this is the power we say each possess, and this is what for
them is to be male and female. . . . While the body is from the female, it
is the soul that is from the male.”1
Likewise, according to Aristotle, a castrated male became essentially a female. The womb was the distinctive part of the female, and
the penis the distinguishing male feature. Otherwise, they were mostly A Brief History of Sex 11 alike. The differences in anatomy allowed for differences in function,
but not differences in kind. Aristotle even went so far as to suggest
that the womb was in essence the homologue of the scrotum. Men and
women were not two poles of humanity, but one people provided with
essential, minor differences that allowed for procreation.
Five hundred years later, in the second and third centuries, Galen,
in the Greek city of Pergamum, was the single most influential physician and anatomist in the world. He changed nearly everything everyone thought about human anatomy and medicine. Many of his thoughts
about these disciplines would dominate human medicine for the next
fifteen hundred years, some for even longer.
Medically, Galen was a true radical. He successfully performed bold
surgeries that no one else would dare to duplicate for nearly two millennia. He performed cataract surgeries by inserting needles into his
patients’ eyes. He routinely opened up people’s skulls and worked on
their brains. Galen revolutionized nearly every aspect of medicine that
he touched—with one notable exception.
Galen wrote at length about the differences between men and
women, but, unlike most of his other endeavors, in this arena he came
to think much like those who had come before him, and his conclusions were more or less the same as those of Hippocrates and Aristotle—
that humans truly are not so very different from one another. Galen
proposed, in essence, that women were simply men turned inside of
Think first, please, of the man’s “[external genitalia]” turned in
and extending inward between the rectum and the bladder. If
this should happen, the scrotum would necessarily take the
place of the uterus with the testes lying outside, next to it on
Think too please, of . . . the uterus turned outward and
projecting. Would not the testes “[ovaries]” necessarily then be
inside of it? Would it not contain them like a scrotum? Would
not the neck “[the cervix and vagina],” hitherto concealed
inside of the perineum but now pendant, be made into the 12 Between XX and XY male member? . . . you could not find a single part left over that
had not simply changed its position.2
In other words, we were first of all human beings, with all the same
parts. Our only differences, according to Galen, arose from variations in
the arrangement of those parts.
The Greeks’ ideas about sex may seem strange or silly to us today,
but the accuracy of their beliefs is not the point. It is how the ways
we have thought about sex have changed over time that is important.
Absurd or not, the Greeks’ views remained dominant among physicians,
scientists, and laypeople alike until around the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.
Renaissance Sex: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Andreas
One way to examine how our thoughts about sex have changed is
to compare anatomical depictions from centuries past with those of
modern scientists. Some of our greatest windows into our past are the
drawings and paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was a curious
man, in almost every sense of the word. It was curiosity that drove him
to split open human...
View Full Document
This document was uploaded on 02/04/2014.
- Spring '14