Artificial Authenticity? Eugen Steinach and the Surgical Creation of True Men

Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:50 PM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Tom Butcher, University of Virginia
In the early twentieth century, the new science of endocrinology established sexual hormones, in both scientific and popular circles, as the arbiter of truth for the sexed body. It also opened a door toward a “remaking” of those who seemed not to conform to the expectations of the dominant gender binary. For many men living at this time, endocrinology offered the possibility of a return to a lost, or never attained, sense of authentic, personal masculinity.

In this essay, I will examine this phenomenon through the work and the popular reception of the Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinach, one of the foremost endocrinologists of the early twentieth century. In the 1910s and ‘20s, Steinach developed two major medical procedures, in which he sought to cure (first) homosexuality and (second) old age. He defined both “conditions” as symptoms arising from a deficit of biological masculinity, and proposed that both could be cured through inducing the patient’s testicles to produce more male sex hormone. This, Steinach believed, would “masculize” the patient’s body, and cause him to behave in a gender-normative manner, becoming straighter, stronger, more intelligent, and more able to compete with others in the capitalist economic system.

As I will show, Steinach relied on an unstated belief that “real” or “authentic” masculinity is something that can be defined both precisely and biologically. And the many people who underwent his procedures seem to have agreed. Ironically, this meant that an authentic gender performance could be achieved through artificial, surgical stimulation of the sex glands. This paper thus calls into question the dividing line between “authentic” and “artificial” in the early twentieth century, and suggests that cultural preoccupation with gender normativity may be more powerful than conceptions of “nature” in defining the “real” or “true” male body.

See more of: A History of Authenticity
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