Keele University Law Professor Michael Thomson has published his second book (first book Reproducing Narrative: Gender, Reproduction and Law, Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1998), and it’s a flawed yet truly thought-provoking examination of various aspects of the male body’s treatment in law and culture. (Full disclosure: I met Professor Thomson at a conference in 2006 and spent some brief yet treasured time with him.)
Thomson addresses a variety of seemingly disparate topics, including the law and ethics of male circumcision, legal developments relating to protecting women of reproductive age (or all women) from workplace hazards, the path of Viagra and its competitors through our society including advertising and promoting of it, sperm donor identification policies, and the interrelationship of sports, sexual violence, and normative masculinity. The author convincingly demonstrates that the shifting sands of donor identification policies constitute responses to changing perceptions of the interests of a perceived normative, “most deserving” heterosexual married couple as the putative recipients. Often policies seem to reflect the impulse to protect the sensitivities of an imagined husband whose wife becomes pregnant via sperm donation.
Highlights are the chapters on circumcision and on Viagra, in which Thomson’s integrative and analytical skills particularly shine. Thomson notes that “while female circumcision is constructed as morally and legally unacceptable within a civilized society, male circumcision is characterized as a standard and benign medical practice.” He later adds, “Gender is crucially implicated in this failure to publicly recognize the pain and risks experienced by male neonates.” He (and his co-author for the original version of this chapter, Marie Fox) usefully propose a possibility for an improved legal standard: “Addressing the issue in terms of the ‘needs’ of children rather than the nebulous notion of best interests might be a more productive way to start to think about circumcision.” Thomson comments that discussions of circumcision often omit the significant issue of pain. Circumcision “is understood as sexing the infant body in two related ways. The first was the removal of feminised tissue. The second concerns the risk between pain, risk, and the process of defining the male body and masculinity.” “As well as minimizing risks, commentators are equally prone to exaggerate putative benefits of infant circumcision.” Later he notes that notions of harm and risk are culturally specific and “dependent on contemporary notions of what harms are acceptable.” Surprisingly, Thomson himself omits any discussion of the loss of the tissue, following the path of countless prior authors, who limit themselves to “risks” v. “benefits.”
Similarly excellent is the chapter on Viagra. Thomson demonstrates that a fixation on heterosexual penetrative sex that can be ascribed to the legal system leads to male sexuality being constructed as “as naturally active, penetrative, as forming the identity of the male.” So “if penetration with the erect penis defines masculinity then a man’s failure to consummate is a failure of masculinity.” Moreover, “[d]efining masculinity through performance leaves those unable to consummate—due to impotence or for other reasons—not only emasculated but also dangerous.” Public discourses, the author shows, privilege the idea of the family man. Moreover, “the masculinity/masculine body that is imagined and privileged is generally an (otherwise) able-bodied, white and middle-class one.” According to these concepts, “intercourse should be heterosexual and familial.”
However, as Thomson also demonstrates, surprisingly, it need not necessarily be procreative. The author also pointedly comments on the “almost complete absence of explicit consideration of gay use of the drug in mainstream press,” which may be particularly incongruous given the absence of emphasis on procreative sex. What is going on, Thomson usefully concludes, is that “particular masculinities are sanctioned and privileged. Most notable is the privileging of a familial masculinity, or more correctly, familial masculinities.” Viagra, ultimately, is a cure-all for one of the most serious ailments a man can imagine, and its symbolic role is as potent as its literal one: “The primacy of the erection and penetration to definitions of masculinity is re-inscribed by a technology that promises that men can always perform in a way that is expected, no matter the reason for the inability to attain or maintain an erection.”
In discussing protective workplace legislation in the US and the UK, Thomson observes that seemingly men and women are viewed differently, in a way that will lead to women being the ostensible beneficiaries of protective legislation, whether they wish to be so safeguarded or no. ”Men’s bodies are constructed as safe and impermeable. Women are constructed as unsafe and permeable.” In short, men’s bodies are not identified with reproductive capabilities in the way that women’s bodies are. “A consideration of the male body as reproductive and also as susceptible to reproductive harm disrupts the idea of an invincible/male public body.” Interestingly, Thomson later shows that this asymmetry even shows up with societal beliefs regarding infants and regarding assignment of sex to intersex infants. “Guidelines for assigning sex usually focus on anatomy in the case of infants to be brought up as boys, while in the case of infants to be brought up as girls, they usually focus on chromosomes, regardless of anatomy.” The author makes the provocative point that concern for protecting women from workplace danger seems to only arise when women enter traditionally males areas of employment and not, for example, regarding hazards from laundries and health care.
Thomson draws numerous illuminating and in many cases far from obvious connections between disparate topics. He makes excellent, judicious use of sources from a wide variety of disciplines. Interrelationships between risk, pain, and masculinity are analyzed in a variety of contexts. The repeated analysis of these topics from different points of view and with reference to various issues adds depth and perspective to the analysis. Clearly Thomson is not a fan of normative, heterosexual masculinity, or at least of any favoritism it may receive in culture and law, which is certainly fair enough.
Regarding the custom among some sportsmen of sharing (female) sexual partners amongst themselves, Thomson trenchantly observes, “In a fragile paradox the homoeroticism of team sports is negotiated by a heterosexual performance that can be read as a homosexual exchange enabled and made safe by the presence of the [shared] woman.” Puzzlingly, Thomson laments that Kobe Bryant continued to receive his salary until the trumped up rape charges against him could be brought to trial. Is Thomson unaware that the criminal system generally presumes one innocent until proven guilty? The accusations against Bryant were particularly frivolous and ungrounded.
While making no effort to check references, I came across a number of disturbing discrepancies, errors, and omissions. Any work that goes to the trouble of providing footnotes in the first place ought not partially squander the value of the notes by providing secondary references where primary ones could easily be obtained, as Thomson repeatedly does. This is not merely a theoretical objection, as it requires a reader to do extra work to learn more about a proposition of interest, and it runs the risk of needlessly leaving doubt in the reader’s mind regarding the author’s diligence and reliability. This is all the more true when an author labors in relatively disputed waters, as does Thomson. William Stowell, successful plaintiff in the only known successful circumcision lawsuit to date involving neither a botch nor a lack of consent, has his name misspelled as “Stowells.” On the same page, the American Academy of Pediatrics is mislabeled as the “American Pediatric Association,” a bit surprising given the AAP’s central role with its periodic position statements regarding circumcision. Numbers cited on page 56 regarding women’s and men’s relative earnings are inconsistent with a percentage provided that professes to be based on these numbers. (Thomson also fails at this same point to unpack the standard yet, as Warren Farrell has shown, erroneous view that women are paid less than men for the same work.) On page 8, he provides an outdated statistic on men’s higher death rates for leading causes of death. Versions of his source are available online for more recent years, and use of this more reliable data would have enabled him to update his information. The basic point about men dying earlier is still valid, but the details have changed. Similarly, the AAP never said that 85% of boys were circumcised in 1999. (In their 1999 statement, they mentioned “circumcision rates of 84% to 89% in the period 1985 to 1986.”) Thomson’s suggestion that the very next year, the rate had dropped to 65% is therefore mistaken. When—as here–several such errors and omissions crop up, the larger points the author is making may, undeservedly but understandably, be seen by some readers as thereby undercut.
I found the discussions at the very beginning of the book of author Jim Crace, and at the very end of artist Matthew Barney, a bit incongruous. (The discussion of Fritz Lang’s famous film Metropolis seems to have been more skillfully integrated into its chapter, on protective workplace legislation.) It was not obvious to me why Crace and Barney and the particular works discussed were chosen, nor was it clear how these artistic creations related to the sociological, cultural, and legal issues discussed throughout the rest of the book. Barney is examined in what Thomson labels as the book’s “Conclusion,” though I did not feel this final section drew together concerns from throughout the book in the way that is typically done in conclusions. The book more or less trailed off at the end without the sort of synthesis that helps readers to follow the author’s reasoning. An earlier reference to the suggested homoeroticism and libidinous nature of sports spectatorship seems overly speculative and inadequately explained and substantiated.
Michael Thomson has written an imperfect, yet often enlightening and always fascinating survey of a number of interrelated issues bearing on cultural and legal views of the male body. He is to be congratulated for his successes and forgiven his occasional lapses, as they are far outshone by his book’s undeniable strengths.
This review also appears in Social & Legal Studies:
Review of Endowed: Regulating the Male Sexed Body, by Michael Thomson, Social & Legal Studies (forthcoming, 2009).