Third Sex

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Third Sex

The term third sex originated in the late nineteenth century among sexologists as a way to describe homosexual men and lesbians. It did not carry the moral or legal stigma of sodomite, and suggested an innate or biological factor existed in behaviors that fell outside traditional categories of male and female. However, it also conflated same-sex desire with gender variance. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs used the word Urning in the 1860s to describe a third sex male being who desired other men; Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the term sexual invert to describe a similar being in his 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis. Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds followed suit in their 1896 study, Sexual Inversion, and Edward Carpenter followed the third-sex model in his 1908 work, The Intermediate Sex. The notion of sexual inversion insisted on a two-gender system, regarding homosexual men as women trapped in men's bodies and homosexual women as men trapped in women's bodies. The notion of an intermediate sex offered possibilities beyond two genders, allowing for three or more genders, with at least one of these being neither male nor female.

The ascendancy of psychoanalysis in twentieth-century Europe and North America, with its interest in sexual desire, spelled the demise of the third sex model. Homosexual, coined in the 1860s, eventually replaced such terms as urning, invert, intermediate type, third sex, and psychic hermaphrodite to describe subjects with same-sex desires. Female homosexual became interchangeable with lesbian, a term Ellis helped popularize, referring to the same-sex desires of the women of Lesbos. Radclyffe Hall returned to the idea of sexual inversion in her 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness because it offered her heroine a way to desire other women that was honorable; if one's inner self was really male, then desiring a woman would be normal rather than perverse. However, the third-sex model largely disappeared. Missing was the notion of gender variance, which might or might not be included in homosexual or lesbian. Gay eventually replaced homosexual as a less medicalized term, and was sometimes extended to women as well. Sometimes the term third sex occurred in pulp novels to sensationalize homosexuality, and to make gay men and lesbians seem freakish and less than human.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in gender among urban sex radicals, feminists, lesbians, gay men, intersex activists, and people who felt increasingly alienated from sexual categories that erased gender variety. The word queer began to circulate as an umbrella term for those who disavowed normal gender and sexual categories, and more and more people began to experiment with alternative gender expression through hormone therapy, surgery, dress, and gesture. As queer and transgender people began to question sexual taxonomies, the idea of three or more genders caught on once more. Sex researchers uncovered the normative assumptions of medical professionals who routinely forced parents to impose one sex or another on their intersex infants. Some queer and transgender activists and theorists argued that being public about one's queer gender, intersex body, or transgender status made alternatives to the two-gender system more visible, subverting the fiction that human beings are naturally dimorphic. Others argued that transitioning from one gender to another upheld the notion that there are only two genders.

Queer, intersex, and transgender visibility has resulted in the return of the third sex as an alternative to normal heterosexual male and female bodies and desires. Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) has argued that there are at least five sexes that occur naturally in human beings, and that medical intervention can rob an intersex child of what might otherwise be a healthy gender identity and sexual and reproductive life. Leslie Feinberg (1997) has traced the presence of transgender people back thousands of years in cultures around the world. In the early twenty-first century, the hijras of India, kathoeys of Thailand, two-spirit Native Americans, travestis of Brazil, intersex people among the nomadic Bugis of the Sulawesi, xanith of Oman, fa'afafine of Polynesia, sworn virgins in the Balkans, ashtime of Ethiopia, mashoga of Kenya, and the drag queens, butch lesbians, transgender activists, and intersex people of North America and Europe, all constitute an alternative to the two-sex system, although they do not necessarily see themselves as members of a "third" sex. Regardless of how they view themselves, however, the presence of so many alternatively gendered people cannot help but expand traditional ideas of what it means to be embodied, gendered, and human in the early-twenty-first-century world.


Carpenter, Edward. 1983. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women. New York: AMS Press. (Orig. pub. 1908.)

Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. 1975. Sexual Inversion. New York: Arno Press. (Orig. pub. 1897.)

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1997. Transgender: Making Warriors History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herdt, Gilbert, ed. 1994. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin S. Klaf. New York: Bell Publishing.

                                                 Jaime Hovey