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Third Sex, Third Gender:
Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History

Gilbert Herdt (ed.)

1994, Zone Books

485 Pages + 110 Pages of Notes

From the Cover

Most modern discussions of the relationship of biological sex to gender presuppose that there are two genders, male and female, founded on the two biological sexes.  But not all cultures share this essentialist assumption and even Western societies have not always embraced it.  In the wake of recent scholarship emphasizing the historical and social construction of gender roles, and the boundaries of sexual difference, the essays collected in this volume explore the different cultural definitions of a third sex or gender - a diverse and shifting category of people who have been at various times abhorred, celebrated, repressed, fully integrated into society or confined to its margins.

Bringing together historical and anthropological studies, Third Sex, Third Gender challenges the usual emphasis on sexual dimorphism an reproduction, providing a unique perspective on the various forms of socialization of people who are neither "male" nor "female."  The existence of a third sex or gender enables us to understand how Byzantine palace eunuchs and Indian hijras met the criteria of special social roles that necessitated practices such as self-castration, and how intimate the forbidden desires were expressed among the Dutch Sodomites in the early modern period, the Sapphists of eighteenth-century England or the so-called hermaphrodite-homosexuals of nineteenth-century Europe and America.  By contextualizing these practices and by allowing these bodies, meanings and desires to emerge, Third Sex, Third Gender provides a new way to think about sex and gender systems that is crucial to contemporary debates within the social sciences.

"This book introduces a significantly new dimension into current debates on gender and sexuality.  An impressive range of cross-cultural materials, from historical and contemporary societies, comments on the way the 'third term' can become an end in itself.   Where sex is not tied to reproduction alone nor gender only to dualistic thinking, 'third' possibilities emerge in people's social and existential strivings.  There is much here to challenge those suppositions - whether taken for granted or the fuel for critique - based on a two-sex gender model.  The authors are at once serious and adventurous in their task, and the result in an original, courageous collection."
- Marilyn Strathern, author of The Gender of the Gift.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Third Sexes and Third Genders by Gilbert Herdt


  1. Living in the Shadows: Eunuchs and Gender in Byzantium, by Kathryn M. Ringrose
  2. London's Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture, by Randolph Trumbach
  3. Sodomy and the Pursuit of a Third Sex in the Early Modern Period, by Theo van der Meer
  4. "A Female Soul in a Male Body": Sexual Inversion as Gender Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Sexology, by Gert Hekma
  5. Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans, by Rene Gremaux


  1. 6. Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, by Niko Besnier
  2. 7. How to Become a Berdache: Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender Diversity, by Will Roscoe
  3. 8. Hijras: An Alternative Sex and Gender Role in India, by Serena Nanda
  4. 9. Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology and the Third Sex in New Guinea, by Gilbert Herdt
  5. 10. Transcending and Transgendering: Male-to-Female Transsexuals, Dichotomy and Diversity, by Anne Bolin

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