The Opposite Sex: A History

In my current book project, “The Opposite Sex: A History,” I illuminate the construction of a tenacious modern mythology of sex that emerged, I claim, along with a shift from anatomical to physiological understandings of life in the late 18th century. Envisioned dynamically and reciprocally as both identity (male/female) and an act (intercourse), sex grounded new formulations of the relationship of the human to the social and natural world, and became essential to biological, epistemological, ethical, and ontological theories. Questions about social values relating to sexual practices and identities become interwoven with basic premises about the construction of the world. This paradigm has recently taken on urgent significance in the US in debates and legal cases regarding issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and trans rights.  

Since the work of scholars such as Thomas Laqueur and Londa Schiebinger three decades ago, there has been an ongoing critical debate about how conceptions of sex and gender changed during the transition to the modern western world. Both thinkers illuminated a new constellation in which the sexes came to be seen as complementary and the empirical body took on the role of the central authority for legitimating claims about broader sexual difference. The body, however, was itself a concept under construction, in a process that my book will address.  

In the 18th century, physics turned from mechanics to the polar dynamics of magnetism and electricity. Influenced by physics, the emerging field of biology at the end of the century also began to focus on forces and on dynamic polarity, partly through a turn to sex. Around 1800, a new understanding of the individual living being arose as delineated through the interplay of internal and external forces against each other. At the same time, the literature of Romanticism and Classicism played a leading role in envisioning the relationship between forces and form, in conceptualizing the relationship between human and environment, and in positing identity through interaction. Naturalists, literary authors, and Naturphilosophen began to refer to the sexes in terms that go beyond complementarity to posit interactive opposition. In English, usage of the expression “the opposite sex” is rare before 1800, and gains ground slowly to replace the older phrase “the other sex” in the early 20th century.  

This emerging sexual dynamic was perceived as an active and interactive constellation that also reproduced itself. The process of attraction, unification, and separation leading to procreation constituted a system in motion at any moment, but also productive of futurity, with its potential for ensuring—or disrupting—continuity. Situating sexual difference as a bridge between physiological views of life and the imagined constitution of the world will allow me to illuminate why the concept of complementary opposition has proven so intertwined with social values for so long.


Fig. above: Drawing of an electrostatic experiment by Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1660–1713) using an electrostatic generator of his design, in: Jean-Antoine Nollet: Leçons de Physique, 1767.

2024 Guggenheim Fellowship
2023–2024 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and Fulbright Fellowship
Head researcher(s): Stefani Engelstein