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by Joanne Meyerowitz
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 29th 2004

How Sex Changed

To give a history of transsexuality means discussing the development of medical opinion, popular culture, and some trends in how people described themselves and what they did.  It means entering into some conceptual discussion of what we mean by transsexuals, and the way that the developing ways of thinking among different groups affected each other.  Joanne Meyerowitz does all this quite proficiently, starting at the beginning of the twentieth century, going up to the 1990s.  Her main focus is on the decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and much of her discussion revolves around the case of Chris Jorgensen, which made the public aware of the possibility of sex changes in the 1950s, which she describes in the chapter, "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty."  She details some of the ideas of well-known theorists such as Harry Benjamin, Robert Stoller, and John Money.  She chronicles the complexities of public opinion, which gradually grew more accepting of gender reassignment.  While she addresses the relation between gender, sex, sexuality, and the law, How Sex Changed does not spend much time on theoretical issues.  It is a well-written book that deserves a wide readership.

It is particularly interesting that at the beginning of the century, many theorists accepted that there is not an absolute distinction between male and female, especially in  psychology, but also in biology.  According to the theory of bisexuality, everyone is to some extent male and to some extent female.  But this theory has only won limited acceptance in popular culture, which is uneasy with people who are hard to classify as either male or female.  Yet, surprisingly, it was in the 1950s that the theory of human bisexuality had its heyday.  Oddly, it seems that in some ways, the public was more open to the fluid nature of biological sex than it is today. 

These days we tend of think of sex as a biological category while gender is a psychosocial category.  One of the merits of Meyerowitz's book is that it shows not only how we arrived at viewpoint, but also how our current view is not necessarily our final one.  Certainly, to describe a person who wants surgery changing male genitals to female as a woman locked in a man's body is just one possible portrayal, and it is not necessarily any more accurate than any other.  Meyerowitz never addresses the larger question of why we feel so compelled to divide people up in such a binary fashion into male and female, trying to minimize the diversity among people.  So, while this work will be an important contribution to the history of sexuality, it nevertheless raises more philosophical and theoretical questions than it answers. 



© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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