5 Questions for Anne Fausto-Sterling

I've been subconsciously challenging the binary system ever since I was a child. As I continued to grow and mature, I found myself increasingly perplexed by the pervasive imposition of the rigid categories of "Male" and "Female" on virtually every aspect of our lives. This rigid binary system seemed inadequate to me as it does not represent the rich and diverse reality of so many people who do not neatly fit into these predefined categories. It raised so many questions about inclusivity, a societal structure's fairness and the equality of marginalised people who just do not conform (good ol Libra always striving for balance).

In 2002, my friend Karin played me the "Allegory and Self", a music album by Psychic TV. Little did I know that delving into the story of Psychic TV would lead me to discover the science and literature behind the construction of sexuality and identity. Though I never struggled with my identity, I could undoubtedly feel a sense of 'belonging' as the visibility for non-binary people became more accepted within the dominant culture.

Subsequently, the book "Sexing the Body" became an eye-opening cornerstone in my maturation towards who I am today, and it is with great honour to have had a discourse with the Author Anne Fausto-Sterling. The following interview was conducted via email over the past couple of weeks. I patiently awaited Anne's responses while she probably hid from the influx of tourism on the Northeastern cost of the USA.



1. Throughout your career, what would be the most surprising shift in our understanding of gender construction that have led you to reevaluate beliefs you held for example in your thirties?


In my thirties (i.e. during the 1970s) we were elated to have a new distinction--sex versus gender, which we feminists used to argue against biological determinism and for social, political and economic equality. At the time I did not really recognize that the distinction, which had immense political utility, still had a problematic binary core. Currently, in my 70s, I have been trying to reconceptualize matters to allow non-binary diversity. The biggest conceptual tool now at my disposal is the recognition that sex (a.k.a. biology) is changed by gendered experience and that most things that we have in the past tried to assign on a sex VERSUS gender basis are really the overlapping portion of a Venn Diagram that we call  gender/sex. Or, if we are including sexual orientation in the discussion: gender/sex/uality. (I can provide you with an image of this, or see diagram in Chapter 10 of the 2020 edition of Sexing the Body.)

When I started at Uni beginning of this year I bought some textbooks and the woman at the counter asked me what my Major was.
When I replied Gender Studies with a minor in Criminology she said that everyone who starts Gender Studies turns so angry as their study progresses… I believe that is because we are confronted with so much data that is often aggravating.

2. In your opinion, how can we avoid getting angry and bitter while exploring the complexities of gender, its relationship with societal injustices, and the challenges it presents while staying on our goals and maintain a positive outlook?

I think anger is the first stage of struggle and it can lead toward reconciliation. I do not think bitterness needs to be attached to it. Back in the day, I used to watch people struggle with inequities and make all sorts of compromises because they were in no position to truly contest what was happening. (They needed a job, they needed their thesis advisor, they needed to retain custody of their children, etc.). They willed themselves, I said only partially in jest, not to "catch" the disease of feminism, because "catching" it would release a lot of anger and could result in personal damage. But when they found a moment of relative safety, watch out! 
Most people eventually transform anger into measured determination, becoming long haul social change activists. When as a youngster I struggled with exactly this question, I had a colleague who was a much older activist. He counseled me about a good cop, bad cop strategy. If one person goes haywire, say at a faculty meeting, and everyone's eyes widen at how crazy they sound, their "reasonable" confederate can step up and offer a solution that people will respond to because they want to get away from the crazy angry person. Use anger deliberately to open a space for change (and also have a private space where you can safely vent).
I have reached an age where my anger is tempered with weariness. I think, "oh no, not THAT again." And I sigh and hitch up my pants, reach out to my networks (so much easier with the internet--remember I started in the 1960s) and we use our collective experience to push back. I see this process, that draws on accumulated skills AND anger, at work in the U.S. as the progressives push back against abortion bans.

3. Why do you think academia continues to showcase one-sided and outdated research, such as the studies by Bailey and Zucker on sexual orientation or the controversial work of Dr. Money, who fabricated the debunked John/Joan case? Do you think potential dangers arise from solely focusing on outdated research without acknowledging current knowledge?

The practice of science is in some ways quite conservative. In a Kuhnian sense, changing paradigms is heavy lifting if you are in a period of so-called normal science.  We are in a period now in which feminist scientists, LGBTQI scientists, anti-racist scientists and others are actively reconfiguring the science of gender/sex and of race and there is a lot of resistance to it.  This is annoying but not surprising, because we are saying that a lot of currently established scholars, especially some of the older ones with fancy professorships and big profiles, have it wrong. Who likes to be wrong? Often the political nature of the differences are obvious, but the ones defending the Citadel (now riffing on Latour) still have a strong influence in academic journals, tenure-granting and the shaping of PhD theses. So change is slow. Some of it comes from building structures outside the citadel, laying siege to it as it were.  This might mean founding new journals that will publish the new work. Or holding conferences and writing books and talking it up on social media and writing accessible blogs that introduce new ways of thinking. It is important to keep an eye on the new ways of thinking forward, of creating new and better knowledge, and not just debunking the old ways.

4. A fashion question :)
Many scholars have highlighted the ways that gender is performative. Clothing can be a great and also fun tool to express one's identity.
Do you use fashion to express yourself or have a different approach to how you dress, and if so, who are your favourite designers?

I am afraid I am one of those old ladies who likes comfortable shoes and clothing. I am outdoors a lot so I am kind of a geek about hi-tech clothing and outdoor gear. I do dressy LLBean and technical REI pants. And a really solid Patagonia rain jacket for camping in a monsoon brings me a lot of pleasure.

5. On a personal note, I hold great respect for your work and admire your contributions to the field of Gender studies. With that in mind, if you had the opportunity to make a wish for one scientific advancement that could be proven, what would it be, and what is the reason behind your choice?

This is a tough one because I don't see the world that way. What I really wish for has started to happen, which is a paradigm shift from the over-simplified understanding of organismal development as linear and gene based, to an embracing of complexity, to seeing organisms as dynamic bio-environmental productions.


Thank you Anne for taking the time to answer these questions and thank you for your immense contribution to making the world a more inclusive and understanding place.

You can follow Anne Fausto-Sterling on her:


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