02 June 2006

"The Gonads are the Very Citadels of Sex"

One of the mottoes that has served me well in life is, "When all else fails, talk about sex hormones."

Classes for my masters degree are winding to an end, and the last one, soon to be finished, has been "Sexuality and Science", a marvelous exploration of everything from gay genes to intersex surgery to the case of the female orgasm. I wrote a paper on two SF stories, David H. Keller's "The Feminine Metamorphosis" and Theodore Sturgeon's "The Sex Opposite" and their relation to the sexology of their time. It's an adequate paper, but not much more, since I've been so scattered and busy that I couldn't give it the time it deserved, but the research was great fun, and I thought I'd share a little bit of what I discovered about a bizarre man named Eugen Steinach. (Well, I don't know if he was bizarre himself, but his experiments certainly were.)

Steinach was fascinated by sex hormones, and in 1912 and 1913 began experimenting with guinea pigs, neutering infants and then inserting glands from guinea pigs of the opposite sex into them. Writing about these experiments later, he was able to insert such marvelous sentences as, "For, after all, the gonads are the very citadels of sex." (That comes from his 1940 book Sex and Life, p.61.)

The effect of the gland transplants on the guinea pigs was that the animals took on characteristics and behaviors of guinea pigs of the opposite sex (e.g., formerly female guinea pigs mounted unaltered females). For a good analysis of these experiments, see Anne Fausto-Sterling's book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.)

Steinach didn't stop with animals. In 1915, a colleague of his, Robert Lichtenstern, performed a testicular transplant on a man wounded in World War I. The soldier's testicles had been lost as the result of a gunshot wound, and so Lichtenstern transplanted into him the undescended testicles of another man conveniently waiting for surgery for this condition. Of the man who received the transplant, Steinach wrote:
His appearance was improved and his intelligence was strikingly increased: the facial expression now became lively, the adipose tissue on the neck gradually disappeared, and the moustache grew again. He married a year after the operation, and eight years later (Lichtenstern's paper is dated 1924) all his secondary sex characteristics were in normal condition, his body hair of normal masculine distribution. He had to shave himself several times a week, just as before his injury. He was normally muscular and could satisfactorily pursue his calling as a farmer. Neither had he any complaint about his psychosexual life, even though he has lost his capacity for propagation. To the particulars supplied by Lichtenstern in the year 1924 may here be added that Leopold M., even today, more than twenty years after the operation, is still quite normal in masculine appearance, intelligence, and sex instinct, and enjoys a happy married life. (76-77)
Steinach was inspired, and quickly joined with Lichtenstern to perform surgery that he would not write about in Sex and Life -- surgery to cure homosexuals. In a 1945 overview of Steinach's work for The Scientific Monthly, Harry Benjamin wrote:
In 1918 ... Steinach and the Viennese urologist Lichtenstern published a paper with the optimistic title "Conversion of Homosexuality through Exchange of Puberty Glands." This was a practical application of Steinach's researches. Homosexual men were castrated and another man's cryptorchic (undescended) testicle, which consists of predominantly interstitial tissue, was implanted. The homosexual tendencies disappeared and a normal (heterosexual) libido developed. Such, at least, was the conclusion that the authors drew from the report of their patients.
Benjamin expressed skepticism about the "success" of the experiments, noting that "homosexual" is not a simple category or condition that can be isolated and treated. Anne Fausto-Sterling said of the experiments on gay men, ""As time went on ... the failure of the operations became evident, and after 1923 no further operations were done."

Soon after, though, Steinach became famous as a proponent of rejuvenation therapies, and he created the Steinach Operation (PDF), a vasectomy surgery that would supposedly revive and prolong male potency -- its supporters included, among others, W.B. Yeats and Sigmund Freud.

Eventually, Steinach's work fell out of fashion and he was considered more of a quack than anything, but he is a useful exemplar of scientific attitudes and assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality in the first part of the 20th century. Which brings us to David H. Keller's story "The Feminine Metamorphosis" (published originally in Science Wonder Stories in 1929 and reprinted in Sam Moskowitz's anthology When Women Rule, which I discovered via Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). Keller's story involves a group of smart, liberated women, angry about inequalities of work and pay, who go to China, perform numerous "gonadectomies" on Chinese men, and transplant the male extracts into themselves. Soon, they are men, but men with all the wiles and fashion sense of women, which means they can take over the entire world if they're not stopped (of course, they are, and everything is returned to the natural order God created). I can't resist quoting the story:
We built up an organization and went to China. There we secured material for twenty-five thousand ampules of male gonadal solution, highly concentrated and of uniform strength. We purchased our so-called College in France and there, after all forms of imaginary deaths, our five thousand heroines came. First, they were thoroughly treated with radium and the X-ray to produce bodies that were neutral, as far as sexual characteristics were concerned, and, after that, each one was given five doses of the substance that I was able to isolate and which, for convenience, I called MALE-FINE XXX. In a remarkably short time, these heroines experienced the desired physical changes, their voices deepened, became wonderfully masculine; they developed such growth of hair on the face that they had to begin shaving once a day. There was also a rather typical change in certain deposits of subcutaneous fat. But why go into all these details? It is sufficient to say that five thousand well educated, rather beautiful women entered our French laboratory and five thousand persons who looked like well-bred cultured men left it.
This relates to Steinach not only because of the science and pseudoscience of hormone transplantation, but also because of Steinach's theory of "hormone antagonism", which he described in Sex and Life:
If an ovary is implanted in a male whose testicles are intact, the ovary is unable to hold its own for any length of time, and the same applies to testicles when implanted in the body of a female with normal ovaries. They cannot survive. This lack of accommodation indicates a certain antagonism between the sex glands. (83)
Keller's story is an allegory warning against letting female human beings stray too far from their "natural" roles as wives and mothers. He shows what the liberal women of the time really want to do, which is destroy men. It's not about equality, it's about androcide. At the end of the story, the leader of the masculinized women details her "final dream of a manless world":
We do not want two sexes in this fair world of ours, not as long as one sex can run it so efficiently. But, of course, that sex has to continue on in its existence; we do not plan to destroy humanity. What I have in mind is the perfecting of parthenogenesis. By that I mean the reproduction by virgin females of eggs which develop without being fertilized by the male principle or sperm cell. ... Later on, we will consider the production of females from ovamaters in the laboratory and thus save our mature females the time and suffering of bearing their young. The growth of the young female, from the egg up to the second or third year of life, will be provided for in our Government laboratories and nurseries. I am at work on these problems now, and, just as soon as we feel strong enough to take over the government, I shall be able to present a perfect plan for the development of future feminine generations that will in no way have the curse of masculine associations.
What she doesn't know is that the male gonadal solution is filled with a disease that causes only minor trouble to Chinese men, but that makes anyone else go insane. And so their plan is foiled! The message is clear: If women aspire to leave the roles nature (aka "God" in the story) has created for them, they will decide that men are extraneous and then they will go insane. Just like lesbians.

(As for the other story I wrote about in the paper, Sturgeon's "Sex Opposite", all I said was that Sturgeon and Alfred Kinsey had similar attitudes. I'll post some thoughts on that later.)

3 comments:

  1. As for the other story I wrote about in the paper, Sturgeon's "Sex Opposite", all I said was that Sturgeon and Alfred Kinsey had similar attitudes. I'll post some thoughts on that later.

    Looking forward to that . . .

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  2. Plus the word "gonads" is just funny. Gonads. Gonads! Gon ads! Go nads!

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  3. There's an excellent scientific e-book on the subject of the practical rather than theoretical female orgasm.

    It's written by Dr Irene Cooper, a professional sex therapist in the UK and you can find it and other resources at:

    My Female Orgasm

    Linda

    ReplyDelete