The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy (Book Review)

Author:  Thurer, Shari
Publisher: Routledge
Reviewed By: Sharon Farber, PhD, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 67-69

Both the cover and the title of Shari Thurer’s book may strike the reader as provocative, offensive, confrontational. As I read the book, I found myself challenged, provoked, and grateful. I imagine that most readers, if not grateful, will be challenged and provoked too.

A characteristic of psychoanalytic thinking is a tolerance for ambiguity, which made it a revolutionary and mind altering theory. That was true of psychoanalysis during the first half of the last century, says Thurer, but since then, when it comes to thinking about gender, psychoanalysis has had little tolerance for ambiguity. Her combination of irony, humor, empathy, conversational language, and accessible writing is irresistible, making this brilliant feat of scholarship a pleasure to read. The End of Gender challenges us to examine our thinking about sex and gender, because as the title suggests, we are witnessing the end of gender in the way it has customarily been defined.

The book was conceived when Thurer discovered that her patients’ dreams and fantasies did not conform to traditional psychoanalytic concepts of gender. They were often genderless, or what might be more accurately characterized as omni-gendered. This in itself should have posed no problem, as the unconscious is polymorphously perverse. But it was problematic because Thurer found that Freud’s revolutionary theory of sexuality had hardened over the years into a theory that endorsed only a heterosexual line of human development and nothing else. Thurer dedicates her provocative book to “everyone on the gender continuum” and raises some provocative questions: Does a sexual act have a fixed sexual orientation? Are insertion and aggression male, and passivity, receptivity, and masochism female? Should we define sexual conduct by measurable, observable behavior, or by what is going on in the minds of the participants?

Thurer faults psychoanalysis with adhering to outdated binaries of male/female and gay/straight, conflating the shape of one’s genitals with one’s sexual orientation, or as she puts it, “vaginas exclusively seek penises and vice versa.” She faults psychoanalysis, which was once a liberating paradigm, for becoming a repressive one. While the rest of the culture began acknowledging in the sixties that gender categories are blurring not only at the “fringes” of society but in mainstream lifestyle, media, fashion, and art, psychoanalysis buried its head in the sand, ignoring the findings from the fields of neurophysiology, genetics, and hormonal studies. “Not only is each sex playing with each other’s toys, wearing each other’s clothes, and adopting each other’s neuroses—each is usurping the other’s lovers.” She points to the new visibility of homosexuality: many bisexual young women on college campuses who are “LUGs,” or “lesbian until graduation,” when they marry a man; or individuals who insist they not be categorized as male or female because they really are some mix of both. She points out the familiar phenomenon of gay commitment ceremonies which are now routinely announced in The New York Times, of apparently heterosexual woman marrying, having children, and in middle age, finding themselves sexually drawn to women. Gender identity or sexual identity is not always congruent with society’s expectations for that individual’s biological sex. She defines the term “gender-bender” as an inclusive term which refers to anybody who defies gender expectations, including female body builders, the straight male lovers of men who cross-dress, the transgendered people whose mental gender does not synchronize with their congenital anatomy. As she puts it, what was deviant for baby boomers has become far more mainstream for their offspring.

Thurer claims that it is an error to presume that all such individuals suffer from serious psychopathology, as psychoanalysis has done and continues to do. Ever since the 1980s, many psychoanalysts recognized that the level of a patient’s personality organization was independent of his sexual orientation. Even mainstream psychiatry, which lagged behind the culture, was ahead of psychoanalysis when it removed the description of homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. It is only recently that psychoanalytic institutes have begun to accept homosexual candidates for psychoanalytic training.

The cause of the problem, she claims, comes from a slavish adherence to Freudian theory about gender, a kind of psychoanalytic chutzpah in failing to recognize that while psychoanalytic theory is the story of human functioning, it is only one story of human functioning. And it is a story whose trajectory is quite inconsistent and contradictory, leading psychoanalytic thinking about sex/gender astray. “Freud’s genius was to create a box; unfortunately, it was a box outside of which later analyst’s tend to think. Or more accurately, later analysts focused on only a part of the box, the part that emphasized the importance of the body on sexuality.” In addition, claims Thurer quite convincingly, Freud’s theory of sexuality changed remarkably from the early to the later years, a shift that has barely been noted or considered. Early on, Freud recognized that all perverse behaviors are normal to the child at some time in childhood, making a disposition to perversions a fundamental human characteristic (Freud 1905). He presumed an innate bisexuality in human beings and noted that adult perversions, such as spanking, coprophilia, and so forth, resemble the polymorphous perversity of childhood, which Thurer calls “that blissful Arcadian period in human life when sexuality might be enacted via many means and erotic value could be freely and flamboyantly attached to any object” (p. 175). Following Freud’s early theorizing, either we harbor perverse wishes or we enact them in one form or another, making the line between the abnormal and the normal, the creative and the perverse, an ambiguous one indeed. At this time, Freud did not regard male homosexuality as a perversion but as a naturally occurring peculiarity of object choice, an alternative outcome of the Oedipus complex, as natural as a heterosexual outcome.

That was in the good old days when psychoanalysis was about ambiguity. Had Freud stopped theorizing in 1905, says Thurer, he might now be considered more “queer friendly.” But Thurer clearly points out, that later in Freud’s (1927) thinking he elaborated at least four theories of male homosexuality, which have all been used to imply that something has gone very wrong in their development to result in their being so damaged. For Freud, resolving the Oedipus complex with a heterosexual outcome had become the best resolution, necessary for the survival of the species.

Queer theory, on the other hand, emphatically denies that any one sexual orientation is more appropriate than another, and rejects the universality and importance of the Oedipus complex, with its valorization of the penis. Queer theory regards the centrality of penis envy and castration anxiety as arrogant male chauvinism and offensive. Freud, who openly was puzzled about just what it was that women wanted, had conspicuously little to say about lesbianism, and wrote about it in only two places, in the footnotes of his famous Dora case, “Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” (Freud 1905) and in “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” (Freud 1920). And what Freud did have to say about lesbianism did not disguise his distaste for such women. Until recently, it was presumed in the psychoanalytic literature that any woman who had erotic desire for another woman wished to be a man, a presumption that reflected Freud’s bias. What psychoanalysis has inherited from Freud, says Thurer, is the implicit belief in the sex/gender binary. This binary does not allow for the recognition that an individual can want both to be a woman and to have a woman. Or that the same person who is glad to be a woman, and wants to have a woman, can want to have a man tomorrow or the next day.

Freud engaged in a conservative sex/gender stereotyping, painting the topic of fetishism with a phallic brush. That is, the fetish is a substitute for the mother’s missing penis that the little boy believed was there. It is a denial of her castration, reassuring him that he need not worry about losing his penis. According to this logic, the fetishism saves the boy from becoming a homosexual by endowing women with a characteristic that makes them tolerable as sexual objects. As Thurer says, when Freud saw the vagina as a wound of castration instead of seeing the penis as an enlarged clitoris, he was using a stereotyped binary logic and elevating the male organ.

Thurer argues persuasively that a new sexual revolution is occurring and that it is time for psychoanalysis to lift its head out of the sand and look to other disciplines, such as biology, neuroscience, sociology, literary and cultural studies, queer theory, and feminist theory to become more informed about constructs of sex and gender. If you have dipped into postmodern theory and been intrigued but irritated by the inscrutable writing style and endless droning in French, you might stand up and cheer Thurer for her chapter called “Postmodernism for Those Who Missed It.” Calling postmodernism “the theory you love to hate,” she tells us that while postmodernists are politically correct, they all too often live in an academic ivory tower of theory, which makes them lack plain common sense and empathy for people in pain. In other words, they do not deal with actual patients, only “positions in discourse.”

Despite this objection, Thurer urges us not to be put off by postmodernism, because psychoanalysis has been cut off from the real world too, and should take advantage of what postmodern theory has to offer. By using queer theory in selective ways, we might make psychoanalysis’ brilliant insights about the unconscious more relevant to the twenty-first century, and help us to make it more possible for all potential patients, wherever they may be on the gender continuum, to have increased access to their sexual selves.

A tolerance, for and even an embrace of, ambiguity are hallmarks of postmodern thinking, from which psychoanalysis can learn a good deal, says Thurer. The virtue of postmodern theory is that it entails the systematic questioning of existing categories and even of the process of categorization itself. She observes,

“Hence, queer theory has no truck with fixed sex/gender identities. It transcends labels of male, female, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, transsexual, etc., opting instead to consider gender identity and sexual orientation as culturally invented, fluid, eternally unstable constructs that derive what meaning they have from their context” (p. 97).

With delightful irony and humor, she tells us, “Queer theory is best understood as an intellectual movement that is in the business of perpetually doubting the Grand Narratives of Sexuality, the ever-mutating “operating instructions” for gender identity and sexual orientation (p. 99).” She explains queer theory in clear and understandable language, and illustrates how useful it can be for psychoanalysts in understanding and treating patients. Although Thurer does not present a theory of gender and sexuality by which psychoanalytic clinicians may formulate workable hypotheses for use in clinical practice, she raises critical questions about the commonly held views regarding gender and sexuality. She finds that traditional psychoanalytic theory is too value-laden, and postmodern gender theory, which is presumably value-free, ultimately does away with the patient. The best that we can do right now regarding explaining sex and gender, is not to try to figure it all out, but to mix and match theories. She reminds us of what many who have been doing this work a long time have discovered, that in the end, good treatment seems to preclude theoretical purity. Thurer urges us to maintain an actively skeptical stance, allowing ourselves to remain uncertain and tolerant of ambiguity. She has found that ironically, it is the postmodernist theorists who provoke us to reread Freud.

The organization of the book reflects Thurer’s intellectual journey in synthesizing and critiquing the various theories about sexual orientation and gender identity. Chapter 1 is an overview of the crumbling of sex/gender categories, and introduces postmodern gender theory as a possible way of sorting out some of the contradictions in our understanding of sexuality. Chapter 2 looks at postmodernism, recent queer theory, and the cultural scene more closely, introducing a compelling case description in which she incorporates some postmodern concepts. In Chapter 3, she critiques some of the premises employed in the “harder” sciences—neurophysiology, genetics, hormonal studies, anatomy—as well as the “softer” ones—data-based psychology, anthropology, sociology, and evolution, finding them too reductionistic. (I found this to be a particularly dense and difficult chapter to read, unlike the others.) In chapter 4, Thurer presents a history of queer theory, from its origins in feminism, gay theory, and French philosophy, to its status today in literature, arts, and philosophy departments. In Chapter 5, she reviews psychoanalytic theory, incorporating some ideas from postmodern theory. While understanding that the differences between the various schools of psychoanalysis are more apparent than real and often blur in clinical practice, she has found the relational model to be more compatible with postmodern theory than the more classical models, specifically because they think more deeply about the relationship between patient and analyst and their mutual influence. Thurer shows us how it is the relational school that began incorporating a sense of fluidity about gender into their theorizing in the past decade. She cites the work of Jessica Benjamin, who recently suggested that the sex/gender possibilities of our early bisexual period need not be given up, even after we discover the reality of anatomical sex difference. Such attachments and identifications may be revived later on without troubling consequences. That is, ambisexual feelings may oscillate in and out of people over their lifetime.

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, thoroughly enjoyable. Notable is Thurer’s ability to present so much in so little space, in seemingly effortless fashion. That takes a tremendous effort indeed.

Reviewer Note

Sharon K. Farber

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