You might think that the anatomy of male and female genitals is so obvious that there could never be much historical disagreement about them. But the chief virtue of Thomas Laqueur's "Making Sex"--a study of ideas about sexual anatomy and reproductive physiology from the ancient world to the present--is that it disturbs any such easy conviction.
Recent scholarship has made us aware that gender is to a considerable extent "socially constructed," meaning that notions about the differences between men and women vary remarkably over time. But Prof. Laqueur's contention is more radical: He insists that the way people conceive of sexual organs themselves is also historically contingent.
Over the past two millennia, Laqueur contends, there have been two dominant conceptions of sexual difference. The first, which held sway from classical Greece until the Enlightenment, he calls the "one-sex model," while its successor during the past two centuries turns out to be (not surprisingly) the "two-sex model."
The one-sex model was articulated by such ancient medical authorities as Aristotle and Galen. Its central precept was that there is, in essence, only a single sex, namely the male. Laqueur is not so foolish as to argue that the ancients could see no difference between male and female genitalia. His point is that when they thought about the female genitals, they interpreted them as a version of the male organs. To be precise, they believed that female genital anatomy was an involution of male anatomy. Thus they describe the vagina as an internal penis, the womb as an internal scrotum and the ovaries as internal testicles--which, logically, lay outside the womb, since the whole male apparatus has been turned inside out (or, perhaps more accurately, outside in).
From this conception followed several consequences. The most important was that the ancients (and their European successors down to the Enlightenment) took it for granted that women's sexual desire and sexual pleasure were virtually identical to men's. Since women had, in effect, the same organs as men, they naturally had the same feelings. Thus nobody would have thought to propose that they didn't experience orgasms.
What led the ancients to embrace the one-sex model? Laqueur has no difficulty convincing us that it had nothing to do with observation. The very fact that we find their ideas so quaint--if not to say preposterous--relieves him of that responsibility. Instead, he speculates (for speculation is our only recourse when trying to answer such a question) that it reflected a broader conceptual scheme encompassing the whole of reality.
That conceptual scheme held that the world is organized hierarchically, from God at the apex, down through animate beings and plants, and bottoming out in the realm of immaterial objects. In this hierarchy, women were naturally placed below men. More exactly, the interests of patriarchy led ancient authorities to conceive of women as, in effect, lesser men.
The very legitimacy of their hierarchical social order, Laqueur believes, was at stake in such a conception. This imperative in turn inhibited any notion of female anatomy as antithetical to male anatomy, since women's subordination depended precisely on their being conceived of as similar, albeit inferior, to men. They were one rung (or link) lower on the great chain of being, and this assumption made possible the peculiar notion that their genitals were an imploded version of male genitals.
The two-sex model, by way of contrast, holds that women's sexual organs are not lesser versions of men's but simply different. You might say that a vertical conception has given way to a horizontal one. Laqueur shows 18th- and 19th-Century authorities explicitly rejecting the ancient notion of genital resemblance and insisting instead on genital opposition. To be accurate, he concedes that some modern authorities (such as Freud) continued to employ the one-sex model, but the two-sex model became the norm.
A chief result of this change was the belief, introduced in the 19th Century, that women are largely passionless. Laqueur does not take sides in the ongoing debate about how widespread this notion was. He is satisfied to suggest that it could have been broached only when the two-sex model displaced the one-sex model and thus made it conceivable that a woman's sexual response might be utterly unlike a man's.