“Beautiful and Lofty Things”: Queer Appeals to Power and Turn of the Century Sexology

A presentation given at the trans/forming feminisms conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, on the 25th of November 2015. An expanded version of an earlier essay.


“How could it be unhealthy, that which makes a man happy and inspires in him beautiful and lofty things! His only misfortune is that social barriers and penal codes stand in the way of ‘naturally’ expressing his drive. This would be a great hardship.”[1]

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[2] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary, and its agents of influence have been heavily criticised both within academia and in queer circles. Today’s talk is in two parts: the first is a focus on Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his work and influence; the second continues a more general look at developments within sexology and their continuing influence on discourse.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[3] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[4] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[5] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published the first edition of Psychopathia sexualis, a psychiatric text intended for lawyers and use in the justice system in distinguishing between crime and disease – the primary way same-sex attraction and behaviour was discussed in the era. Psychopathia sexualis categorised many forms of non-normative non-procreative sexuality, including sadism, masochism, fetishism, and ‘contrary sexual feeling’ or inversion – that is, same-sex attraction and behaviour. The work has been heavily criticised by many people from many backgrounds. Presentist historians, antipsychiatrists, queer theorists and historians alike have criticised Psychopathia sexualis for a form of medical colonisation and for medicalising sexuality and queerness. Thomas Szaz criticised Krafft-Ebing for aiming to “supplant the waning power of the church with the waxing power of medicine” and claimed that Psychopathia sexualis was full of unscientific falsehoods.[6] Some of these are not necessarily unfair critiques, but early sexology and Psychopathia sexualis in particular remains especially worthy of study considering its extensive autobiographical content and its pervasive influence on queer community and discourse as well as on the shaping of our model of sexuality.

Psychopathia sexualis’ significance, for me, comes from the extensive amount of autobiographies within the text and the relative freedom under which they were given. Earlier in his career Krafft-Ebing worked in places such as the overcrowded Feldhof Asylum, with generally poor and uneducated patients who were institionalised more for custodial care than treatment and who had no choice but to conform to medical standard and rule and share their stories involuntarily and surely with less respect and agency. But later and later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained more and more volunteered autobiographical content from queer men. Unfortunately, these men were from a very singular and homogenous social and cultural class and experience – white, educated, wealthy, aristocratic, bourgeoisie. Krafft-Ebing eventually established a clinical ward in the university hospital as well as a private sanatorium led to more and more wealthy, educated, upper-class patients whose case histories were a lot more autobiographical and who would have had a lot more agency in telling their stories. Oosterhuis notes that homosexual men particular seized this opportunity.[7] Krafft-Ebing as well as Albert Moll, writing soon after, worked with both upper class clients with agency as well as lower class patients and those with otherwise lessened agency. Oosterhuis points this out nicely: “Lower class men, prosecuted sexual offenders, the hospitalised and most female patients were generally not in a position to escape the coercion which undeniably was part of psychiatric practice.”[8]

The primary focus of critiques of Krafft-Ebing and Psychopathia sexualis is one of medicalization. As Foucault claims, the delegating of sexuality to the realm of medicine started with the sexologists of the late 19th century. Our model of sexuality is medicalised because of them, and hard work has been done and continues to be done to undo this influence. However, a brief look at the alternative contemporary models of sexuality and queerness in particular reveals that we perhaps could have had it a lot worse. Urlich’s contemporaries in Britain were also advocating for decriminalisation and acceptance, but the prevalent model and experience of queerness among the British upper class was one of age difference. The ‘accepted’ queer among this class was an older aristocratic man who slept with much younger boys, both aristocratic and from lower classes. Although there were other factors in play, if the influence of this British aristocratic queer had been more pervasive than the German sexological influence, it could have resulted in a very different model to the medicalised Born This Way archetype we have today.

I am not as ready to defend Krafft-Ebing and sexology as a whole as historians such as Oosterhuis, nor am I as ready as Oosterhuis to dismiss the idea that sexuality was comprehensively medicalised by sexology and psychiatry in the era. Oosterhuis, in multiple papers on the subject, seems to believe that medicalization requires the complete, overt, and explicit domination of its subjects, and that as a result the subjects must have zero agency in the process. It seems to be his belief that because of the autobiographical content and because of the way at least those upper-class men were able to tell their stories freely and with agency that the concept of medicalization does not apply. It is true that Psychopathia sexualis and its autobiographies enabled ‘perverts’ and queer men to speak and be heard, and that it enabled voices usually silenced to be seen, and it is necessarily true that such autobiographical content exemplifies a level of agency not typically seen in some interpretations of Foucault’s theories of medicalisation. However, I assert that theorists like Oosterhuis are critically misunderstanding these theories, and suggest that the existence of a modicum of agency does not negate nor preclude the domination or hegemony of medicine and medicalisation. While the subjects may be given a voice, the medical field then utilises that voice to its own advantage – the agency of the autobiographies given by queer men of the time is used to strengthen the hold of medicalisation in the same way that queer men used the medicalisation of their sexuality to challenge the rule of law over their identity.

Because it is very clear that these men knew what they were doing in sending Krafft-Ebing their autobiographies; their appeal to power and the legitimacy of medicine is often made explicit in the autobiographies themselves. A ‘highly placed man from London’ (Oosterhuis’ words) wrote to Krafft-Ebing and said: “I believe that your perspective [that of same-sex attraction being an illness or disease instead of moral corruption] is most advantageous for us” even as in the same paragraph he rejected the word ‘unhealthy’ and indulged in “giving you some more relevant explications”.[9] In appealing to medicine, they strove to shift same-sex attraction and behaviour from the realm of crime and law to the realm of health and medicine – the primary drive in activism of the time, even as the men themselves vehemently denied being sick. In these autobiographies we see a very early example of the phenomenon made explicit by Lady Gaga in 2011: the ‘born this way’ archetype of queerness, or, in more academic terms, the innate or biological model of sexuality. Later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained many letters discussing the fact that their perceived illness stemmed not from their nature or their sexual identity, but from the social barriers to that identity.

One man wrote in 1890: “Unfortunately, we are considered sick for a completely valid reason, namely, that we really became sick and that one then confuses cause and effect…”[10] These appeals surely had at least a modicum of success: by the 1890s Krafft-Ebing himself was putting his name to petitions to repeal laws criminalising same-sex behaviour; the early protest movements of the end of the century referred to Krafft-Ebing as a scientific authority; and after signing Magnus Hirschfeld’s petition in 1897 Krafft-Ebing contributed his last article on homosexuality in which he stated that there was truth to the opinion of his queer correspondents, argued that it was a condition that had to be accepted, and even attributed an equal ethical value to same-sex and heterosexual love.[11]

The appeals to power we see in the autobiographical content in Psychopathia sexualis are not a thing of the past – today we would probably refer to them as respectability politics, playing to the desires and norms of those in power in order to obtain a modicum of that power – or more likely simply a modicum of humanity – ourselves. The case for gay marriage is a significant example of this kind of appeal to power; moulding ourselves and our relationships to a heterosexual standard to the detriment of those who do not wish to conform or play to respectability. Instead of extending the rights of the married – such as immigration policies, adoption, healthcare and insurance coverage, even simple things such as visitation rights to a hospitalised partner – to those who are unmarried or not in a civil partnership, the gay marriage campaign has simply extended the right to marry. It is worth noting that this particular appeal to power gained so much popularity and focus within the community and without that other issues, such as the wellbeing of queer and trans youth, the treatment of transgender prisoners, the life expectancy and death rates of trans women of colour – have fallen to the wayside.

Money also plays a big part in the gay marriage issue – in California, gay marriage campaigners spent $48 billion opposing prop 8 when California’s provisions for domestic partnership provide almost the exact same benefits – $48 million on essentially symbolic acceptance.[12] It’s also interesting to note that in countries that have legalised gay marriage, funding to queer organisations and activists has dropped significantly – there’s an obvious pattern in the states of once multimillion dollar statewide equality organisations either shutting down or being rendered useless due to a lack of funding.

Appeals to power and respectability politics can be utilised positively, however, even in radical queer activism. For example, No Pride in Prisons is a resolutely abolitionist organisation, but that aspect of our politics is necessarily played down in media releases and social media communications in order to gain the support of the more liberal majority and especially in order to successfully communicate and negotiate with the officials we desperately despise and wish did not exist at all. It has results; during our hunger strike for Jade Follett, a trans woman being held against her will in a men’s facility, No Pride in Prisons remained in the media well beyond the 24 hour cycle that typically decimates activism, making it to the front pages of Stuff, TVNZ, 3 News, and the Herald three times that week and obtaining a significant-length report on the 6 o’clock news. The strike was quickly successful, and this can be attributed to the amount of pressure on the Department of Corrections that stemmed from both extensive media coverage and significant online support. Such coverage and support would not have been possible if we instead sat on K Rd with signs saying “move Jade Follett and close down Rimutaka” – in this case, the appeal to power is not the end game, but rather a step towards full abolition. The goal is not immediately feasible, so we must make sure that those subjected to the violence of the prison system are kept as safe as possible until the prison system no longer exists.

Unfortunately, there is no sign of the ‘born this way’ appeal to power of queer men at the turn of the century being a step in a larger plan, and it is only in relatively recent years that the medicalisation of queerness and transness in particular has begun to be addressed in queer activism; for example in the challenges to the placement of homosexuality and the shift from ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’ in the DSM. Current activism seeks to remove transness from the DSM completely, instead focussing on its placement in the more extensive International Classification of Diseases, where it could be placed in a category of health conditions instead of disease or illness.

Sexology’s initial discussion of same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease in order to argue that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct.[13] Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[14] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[15] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[16] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction.

His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[17] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[18]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[19] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[20] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[21][22]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[23] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorphous model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[24] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[25] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality.

Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[26] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[27] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[28]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[29] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[30] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships.

By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[31] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[32]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[33] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[34]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[35] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[36] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[37] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[38]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[39]  

Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men, which refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with, and the “g0y” movement, an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[40]






Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912

Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994

Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980

[1] Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882, pg 213-14.

[2] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[3] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[4] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[5] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[6] Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980, pg 19-20

[7] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, pg 279

[8] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[9] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912, pg 430 (quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[10] Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980, pg 129-30. (Quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[11] Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 283.

[12] Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

[13] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[14] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[15] Ibid.

[16] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[17] Ibid, 431.

[18] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[19] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[20] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[21] Ibid, 87.

[22] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[25] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 124.

[28] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[30] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[31] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[32] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[33] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[34] Ibid, 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[37] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[38] Ibid, 143.

[39] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity’

[40] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.


How Does Stats NZ Define ‘Gender Diverse’?

Earlier this week Statistics NZ released their new standard for collecting information on gender. I’ve already pointed out some problems in the standard, but more information has arisen.

The government-sponsored Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Te Ara, has a definition for ‘gender diverse’. It’s not good.

Te Ara lists as examples of gender diverse people:

  • transsexual people, a term most of the trans community does not identify with – and specifically transsexual people who are medically and/or surgically transitioning,
  • cross-dressers, who are cis and not trans,
  • intersex people, for most of whom intersex is not a gender identity,
  • Māori and Pacific gender identities, the one good thing about this list,
  • and drag kings and queens, usually cis people who are valued more highly than actual trans people.

If this is the standard for which ‘gender diverse’ in New Zealand is referenced back to, then Statistics NZ’s decision is even more harmful. We thought the standard would collect data on non-binary people but make it difficult for other trans people to identify themselves, but this list excludes massive swathes of the community, many of whom have it worst off. If this is what Statistics NZ means by ‘gender diverse’ then they are not going to collect data that accurately represents our experiences and our needs.

Statistics NZ’s ‘Gender Diverse’ Decision

Today Statistics NZ released their decision on creating a new standard for gender identity classification, including “gender diverse” alongside “male” and “female”. You’ll remember that they held extensive discussions with the community via loomio, but today, coincidentally timed, those discussions are no longer publicly available, and the loomio group that gender identity fell under, “ethnicity, culture, and identity” has been closed off. Luckily, I never turned off email notifications from Loomio, so I have most of the discussion archived in my inbox.

The original issue was one of potential confusion, and I’m glad to see that StatsNZ has got past that very very weak excuse. However, the standard they have developed is insufficient and ignores concerns voiced by the community in the loomio discussion process.

(image via GayNZ)

As you can see, this standard separates anyone who identifies as gender diverse from the cis population, only othering us further. As Megan pointed out on twitter, it will capture data on the non-binary population relatively well, but is insufficient for capturing actual data on gender identity overall. It also relies on terminology many in the community refuse to use – such as the typical and frustrating MtF/FtM. It leaves no space for trans women to identify as women, but instead as something Other that relies heavily on “born a man” rhetoric.

Kelly Ellis makes a relevant point on GayNZ: a binary trans woman may elect to tick ‘female’ to not Other herself or invalidate her gender, while someone who, for example, does not experience transmisogyny may tick one of the gender diverse options and thus “skew the picture of poverty that transgender people face.” Essentially, this system would require many of us to marginalise ourselves and our identities by selecting an Othered category in order for important data about our lives and experiences to be collected.

Duncan Matthews, General Manager of Rainbow Youth spoke in the discussion about the importance of accurate data:


[“A key thing that prevents organisations that are supporting gender diverse communities (RainbowYOUTH, Agender, Genderbridge, OUTLine, to name but a few) is a lack of nationally representative data on the gender identity of New Zealanders.

We have some nationally representative data from the Youth’12 report – where young people were asked the question ‘Are you transgender?’. This provides some information, such as 1.2% of high school students self identify as transgender. But does not provide a broader picture of the gender diverse community across all ages, and ‘transgender’ may not be a term all gender diverse people identify with.

Government organisations, such as DHBs, because of a lack of data around gender diverse people do not allocate funding to services for gender diverse people, and DHBs that are being progressive in attempting to provide services for gender diverse people struggle to determine the demand for the service they will receive. 

In short, until we collect data around gender identity, these populations will continue to remain invisible and not receive the services and support needed.“]

Another important point brought up in the discussion that has not been addressed by this classification standard is one of culturally specific identities. This is especially relevant considering the history of the settler state we live in and the impact colonialism has had on indigenous queer identities. Under this standard, non-Western identities are marginalised further and lumped under “gender diverse not further defined” or “gender diverse not elsewhere classified”. Kiran Foster said it better than I ever could in the discussion:


[“Aside from what everyone including myself has already said, I’ll speak here as a person of color and a migrant: I have lived experiences of gender systems and understandings of gender that are different from the pākehā one. Many of my friends are Māori and other people of color whose gender is, similarly, something not adequately documented by the current system or recognised in any way.

Especially as this relates to Māori, I feel that there is an obligation to expand the understanding of gender and the collation of gender data in order to more accurately represent the needs of the people that this colonist state has marginalised.

I don’t think the census can claim to have an accurate result if it does not account for this very fundamental way in which a lot of people of color are alienated and unable to discuss their experience of gender (which is so fundamental to our society), and I think it’s very important for basically every organisation which focusses on especially young people of color or queer people or other marginalised groups to have this information and know how best to support the demographics they are targetting.“]

These concerns all were brought up in the discussion thread and sadly seem to have been ignored. Statistics NZ, the media, and now also the NZ Human Rights Commission are all hailing this as a success, a world first. All this shows is that our concerns have not been heard. The standard, as far as I understand, has only been recommended to be included in the 2018 census (which is also when the next standard review is) so it’s likely it won’t be fixed and included properly until 2023 at the earliest. That’s another 8 years of potentially flawed and insufficient data – data that could save lives.

Update 7:00pm 17/07: Stats NZ have responded to GayNZ’s questions about inclusion in the census and more details on how the standard will be used: they are keeping very vague about its inclusion and say “public submissions on the topics for the 2018 Census closed on 30 June so Statistics New Zealand now has to assess all topics to see what should be included. We have criteria against which all topics are assessed, before testing, and then making a final decision.”

Stats NZ also states that this is a standard and not mandatory for people to use – “so we can’t say how people will apply it.” This leaves the standard open to harmful misuse or misinterpretation – but it may also lessen the harm if organisations allow for people to check multiple boxes in this question – being able to check “female”, “gender diverse not further defined,” and “transgender male to female” as I would. However this does not solve either the wording problems, the Othering problems, nor the problems of culturally specific identities.

Update 7.14pm: A friend just pointed out that StatsNZ’s questionnaire module document states “multiple responses are acceptable” in the standard requirements. StatsNZ also state that a write-in option is preferable, although not mandatory.

Statistics NZ has also confirmed that the loomio discussion is now visible again.

Update 7.49pm: The same friend has pointed out this section on a “synonym report”, which “lists all variations of gender identities, and popular and similar gender identity terms used by the population. This can include abbreviations, slang, and some common misspellings.” We are currently waiting on a copy of this report to examine its scope and see what it includes: my concern is that it will count many identity terms toward a simplistic umbrella such as “diverse”.

The “Normal Body”, its Construction, and its Abolition.

written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The “normal” body is obviously a highly contentious issue. A “normal” body in the West is white, cisgender (one could argue even male), able both physically and mentally, is skinny, toned, or muscly, and is a lot rarer than the concept of “normal” would suggest. As Audre Lorde says, this norm is mythical, and “each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me’’.[1]

The concept of a “norm” is complex, and one that the theorist Foucault did a lot of work on, especially in how power relates with and resides within this norm. By examining places of deviance both physical – hospitals, asylums, and prisons – and otherwise (most notably sexuality) Foucault theorised the concept of the “Eye of Authority” – we are being watched by ‘Authority’, or those residing within the norm, and being judged for deviating.[2] It is this judgement and the threat of social ostracism that attempts to push people to confine to the norm.

The existence of a norm naturally creates an Other, and this is another function that is used to further coerce people into confining as much as possible and challenging as little as possible. The process of Othering, as Foucault describes it, is the disciplining of us into a (normative) social pattern – it is the “process whereby the subject is defined by identifying it against what it is not”.[3] As Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex”: “She [woman] is defined & differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her. She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”[4] This is notably in opposition to biological research in which the female is the biological norm, and the male is a variation on this norm – that is, female is default.  It is also not a universal idea – in Ancient Greece, masculinity was earned though masculine acts, and every man had the threat and terror of reverting to the default of femininity through losing his masculinity. This shows the power of the constructed norm and of the systems within society that support it.

Systems and institutions within society are created around this concept of the norm and serve the function of supporting it while punishing the Other. This becomes especially obvious where the Other comes into contact with a system that should be relatively neutral – the medical system is a good example. When an Other makes it to the system – which is not always a guarantee, considering many Othered people have lower chances of seeing a doctor in New Zealand, perhaps due to the way the system treats them – that system treats them inadequately, often taking assumptions on race or gender as to how the patient wishes to be treated or how the patient could be treated.[5] This is exemplified in the NZ medical system by the fact that only 2% of Maori diagnosed with clinical depression were offered medication as opposed to 45% of non-Maori patients with the same diagnosis.[6] It is also exemplified by the non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants, with the sole purpose of “normalising” in the malformed belief that a child cannot grow up healthy if their body and thus developing gender identity does not fit within a certain binary system.

These systems and societal ideas form a feedback loop that serves only to strengthen this “mythical norm”. The norm benefits a small portion of Western society and is detrimental to the rest. It sees both women and men striving to achieve largely detrimental physical forms, it sees children operated on at birth, an operation which is often never talked about, and growing up with severe trauma, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this norm is the cause of many deaths per year.[7] I would extend Audre Lorde’s quote to: “that is not me, it has never been me, it will never be me, and I will have nothing to do with it outside the cause of dismantling it.”


[1] Phyllis Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, July 24, 2014)

[2] Phyllis Herda, “Constructing Normality”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, August 26, 2014)

[3] Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A fair go in Health,” Human Rights Commission NZ, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.hrc.co.nz/key-projects/a-fair-go-for-all/a-fair-go-in-health/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tamara Alexander, “The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse”, Intersex Society of North America, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog

The Significance of Gender as it Relates to the “Human Experience”

Written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The significance and relevance of gender today, along with ‘biological’ sex, is hotly contested in progressive gender theorist circles. The impact of transgender and intersex people and their own lived experiences on the discourse around gender has meant that the various constructions of gender is now significantly more obvious, and the discourse in some spheres is becoming more critical.

Specifically, the significance in using gender to relate some overall “human experience” is doubted. Do women have all that many shared experiences with men? How about people who exist outside the gender binary, do they really use their gender to relate to others within the binary? Instead, gender’s significance relies on shared experiences within shared gender – women both cis and trans can relate to each other via the shared experiences that come with being a woman.  For some this becomes somewhat of a loop – the affirmation shared experiences bring to one’s gender identity further shapes and socialises that identity, which may then lead to further shared experiences.

These shared experiences manage to highlight the construction of gendered identity when we look at toddlers. Before a certain age, and before the part of Western gender that segregates boys and girls is socialised into our young, infant children are happy to play with each other regardless of gender. But the more salient interaction our children have with the outside world, with their parents (who more often than not will reinforce rather than challenge constructed norms), and with other children, the more this constructed identity forms according to the way our binary world works, and they will no longer be as willing to play with other genders – as exemplified in Michael Messner’s “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”.[1]

Gender is also useful in relating to those who have perhaps similar but not shared experiences, and understanding different cultures, ways of life, and of doing gender. For example, Susanna Trinka’s lecture on women in Morocco and the Czech Republic exemplified ways in which women in other parts of the world have different attitudes towards womanhood and what “liberation” is – the women of Morocco follow what we would view in Western feminist theory as liberation, that is: women moving from private space into public space, and occupying typically masculine spaces. However, the women in the Czech spoke highly of domestic space and found being in that space liberating after being workers under communism – an ideal that is contentious within Western feminist theory.[2] However at no point is our understanding of these women as women challenged, and both examples are relatively easily understood – we use our experiences as women in the West (ie typically regarded as domestic, idealised as either the mother, the virgin, or the whore, et cetera) to understand similar but different experiences in Morocco (previously regarded as domestic, but being encouraged by the government to become more public, more educated, become workers) and the Czech Republic (valued as nominally equal to men, value placed on work over domestic life).

These similar but not shared experiences are also the basis of many communities of transgender people – trans women, trans men, and other nonbinary identities, while not sharing gendered experiences, do share experiences related to how the norm of Western gender erases them. It is around the understanding of these experiences – things like the feeling of dysphoria, dealing with the medical system, operating within a system of gender that often does not want to accept them in the same way it accepts cisgender people – that community is formed.

It is in these ways that gender is significant – not in forming some common identity or understanding relevant to an overarching “human experience,” but in connecting with those who are in some way alike, regardless of how they may be different in other ways.


[1] Michael A. Messner, “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”, Gender and Society 14, no. 6 (2000): 767-769

[2] Susanna Trinka, “Gender and the Politics of Space”, (lecture, WOMEN 101, University of Auckland, August 5, 2014)

Hale, Bergstedt, and Gender Performativity within SM Subcultures

An Analysis of C. Jacob Hale’s ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’

Written for a coursework essay for a sexual history paper (History 102) at Auckland University in June 2014.

In ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’, originally published in a 1997 issue of Social Text, C. Jacob Hale outlines specific gender performativities in specific SM contexts, and ways performances in these contexts can be used by assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) transgender people, specifically trans men, to explore masculinity in a way that contributes to their transition.

Hale is writing primarily from and about his own personal experiences as a trans man who transitioned from leatherdyke to leatherfag – he is able to bring a kind of subjectivity which is important and common in queer theory, as Stephen Whittle once pointed out.[1] However, Hale also references an interview with another trans man who went through a similar process, Spencer Bergstedt, along with academic references to Rubin and Garfinkel throughout the text.

Inherent to this function of gender performances and play in SM contexts as a way to explore masculinity is the distinctive blurring of gender across social and cultural contexts and situations. Gender and its construction often rely on performance (though this is perhaps a contested point). Hale points out that “since leatherdyke boys’ masculine performativities often occur in contexts separate from interactions with” others in all other realms of their life – work, legal family, et cetera, they are less constricted by social and cultural expectations and constrictions of masculinity.[2] They are not as impacted by intersections of class, power, race, et cetera. In fact, the queer SM leather context is distinct enough from the dominant culture to be considered a culture of its own, with its own constructions and expectations. It is this factor that allows genderplay within this context to be not only possible, but effective enough to potentially construct a self-identity which can be accepted, developed, and extended beyond this sphere by the transgender individual.

Hale relates three ways he sees in leather SM play to explore masculinity: “the conception of submission, especially to pain, as the most masculine SM position,”[3] exploring masculine dominance more fully and thoroughly than is otherwise possible in alternative aspects to one’s life, and through the exploration of boyhoods not present in the lives of those who lived through female pubescent development. Bergstedt exemplifies the second method, as he had trouble expressing masculine dominance in other aspects of his life – while serving on the Seattle City Commission on Lesbians and Gays, and still identifying as a dyke, Bergstedt encountered resistance from women on the way he expressed leadership – “the way I was expressing my dominance and my personality was inappropriate for the gender role that those people perceived me to be in.”[4] Hale himself exemplifies the third example, and describes his transition from curiosity to play as a leatherboy to internalising a masculine self-constructed identity – for him, “SM as gender technology allowed me to experiment with masculinities as part of a process of self-construction in which I became more masculine, in embodiment, in self-presentation, and in identification.”[5] This is in opposition to Bergstedt’s experience, in which his SM play allowed him to explore a pre-existing identity.

However there are critiques of such play and exploration. Seeing as gender performativity “must occur within social constraints to be intelligible,”[6] it often relies on constraints and ideals that are viewed by others as negative. For example, though Hale makes explicit note of the fact that in his interview with him, Bergstedt is “aware that dominance can be feminine and did not simply equate masculinity with dominance,”[7] in a later article for the journal FORGE, Bergstedt himself equated femininity with weakness and expressing emotion (and avoided doing to so prevent damage to his own masculinity).[8] In relating the way his attitudes to sex also changed, Bergstedt implies a sort of inherent masculine demand and dominance, almost a greed.[9]This is, however, a heavily contested issue, seeing as societal – and often medical and psychological – expectations of transgender people is that their outward expression match their internal gender identity, while at the same time much of queer theory, gender critics, and feminist theory heavily criticises us for relying on constructed stereotypes and signifiers to do so.

While genderplay within leather SM contexts often relies on masculine-coded clothing such as Boy Scout or school uniforms, it also utilises less reliant, more subversive techniques such as the remapping and resignifying of sexed bodily zones found in trans contexts. Such remapping often involves decoupling “genital sexuality from bodily pleasures”[10] and phenomenology. A leatherdaddy’s dildo or strapon becomes his penis, a leatherboy’s vagina can be remapped and called neutral terms like “fuckhole”. A similar phenomenon is found in Bergstedt’s FORGE article – prior to transition he was a stone butch – that is, a top butch who has an aversion to her genitalia being touched. He relates this to us: “I could not stand the caresses of another on my breasts or worse yet, my genitals.”[11] However, after transition (it is important to note that nowhere in the piece does he make reference to bottom surgery, and he relates a concern that sex with femme women would look like lesbian play – both of these indicate to me that he, at least at this point, has not had bottom surgery and retains the genitalia he had while identifying as a stone butch) he discovers “that I really did like being touched, so long as my partners saw me and treated me as a man.”[12] This is an extremely important point, and links to something Hale relates to us: “I needed to know that my gender identification could be enacted legibly to at least one other person for it to be convincing enough to me that it could transform from a self-identification fully contained within my fantasy structure to a self-identification with a broader social sphere of enactment.”[13]

By having their gender identities validated within a sexual context, both Hale and Bergstedt were able to take that identity from that small isolated sphere and transfer and project it across to other aspects of their lives. To both, their experiences as leatherdykes and the freedom to experiment and explore within a safe and accepting context and community was integral to their transition.



[1] Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex-Changing, London, 1996, pp.198-202

[2] Hale, C.J, ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to have Sex without Women or Men’, in K.M. Philips and B. Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.423

[3] Ibid, p.424

[4] Ibid, p.425

[5] Ibid, p.426

[6] Ibid, p.423

[7] Ibid, p.45

[8] Bergstedt, S., ‘Diary of a Leatherman’, FORGE, 5, 4, 2000, p.16

[9] Ibid

[10] Hale, p.427

[11] Bergstedt, p.16

[12] Ibid

[13] Hale, p.427

Postmodern sex and the construction of sex and gender

Written in May 2014 for a Sexual Histories paper at University of Auckland

The late 20th and early 21st century has seen a freeing of sex, sexuality, and gender. Anthony Giddens described this freeing of sex as “plastic”, attributing it to a variety of social and cultural changes such as effective contraception and the liberation of women disconnecting sex from the sole purpose of reproduction.[1] But perhaps more notable, especially in recent years, is the freeing of gender and sex from the binaries of modernist thought.

As Stephen Whittle writes in 1996, feminist theory became concerned with the dichotomy of sex and gender, the genital essentialism that dominated modernist thought.[2] This concept – that sex, and thus gender, was determined and irrevocably fixed at birth by an individual’s genitalia has been challenged not only in the medical sphere by intersexed bodies and the discovery of physical determiners of sex other than the presence of certain genitalia, but also in the social and academic spheres by feminist and transgender activists and academics – the likes of Kate Bornstein and Loren Cameron, to name a few.

However, while the transgender community has been influential recently in breaking down this dichotomy, the community in the early 1980s was not so revolutionary. Anne Bolin, in her research of the transsexual community and the Berdache Society points out that these male-to-female transsexuals (the term being used to very specifically to refer exclusively to those who sought out medical treatment and surgical transition) inadvertently supported the dichotomy between gender and genitalia: “male to female transsexualism endorses a formula for gender construction in which social woman is conflated with genital woman”.[3] However, Bolin also acknowledges that this is likely because of prevalent ideals about sex and gender – the conflation of sex with gender in particular means that it was not surprising that the transsexual identity emerged as a highly medicalised one. Early critiques of transsexualism point to the rigidity of gender at its core[4] – this particular criticism, however, comes from a noted trans-exterminationist radical feminist who actively fought to revoke transgender healthcare access in America, and is currently not viewed in a positive light. However, even this relatively early stage of transsexualism was a challenge to hegemonic binary ideals – as Bolin points out:

“As a social identity, transsexualism posits the analytic independence of the four gender markers – sex, gender identity, gender role or social identity (including behaviours and appearances) and sexual orientation – that are embodied in the Western gender schema as taken-for-granted premises and regarded in a number of scientific discourses as “naturally” linked.”[5]

Bolin writes in 1994 of the beginnings of the “transgenderist” movement, one in which gender was viewed less in categories and more as a continuum, “supplanting the dichotomy of transsexual and transvestite with a concept of continuity”.[6] Whittle, two years later in 1996, attributes the potential deconstruction and reconstruction of sex, sexuality, and gender to “the real-life postmodernist practice of hearing (and listening to) many voices and the acknowledgement of their individual truisms”[7] – that is, he acknowledges the variance of transgender individuals and the continuity rather than dichotomy of their identities. This continuity and fluidity is being referenced continually more often in academia – C. Jacob Hale, in an essay about sado-masochism as a gender technology and exploring masculinity addresses fluidity in his gender and how it relates to the essentialism of the binary model:

“In my self-conception, who I ‘really’ am is a matter of social/cultural facts about my categorical locations; there is facticity here, but it is not natural or essential and is continually changing as culturally available categories change and as I change relative to them.”[8]

Elkins and King also refer to varying types of fluid gender identities; those outside the rigid gender binary and those who travel within and between categories of male and female. In particular, two of the modes of transgendering they outline in their 1999 essay ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies’ highlight these experiences – the modes of oscillating (that is, shifting between male and female at varying rates) and transcending, mode which “renders problematic the binary gender divide”.[9] Referenced by Elkins and King, Kate Bornstein advocates for gender fluidity: “the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders for any length of time, at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognises no borders or rules of gender”[10] – that is, gender fluidity by definition must exist outside of and challenge the binaries of sex and gender and the immutability of the same.

Sex, in a similar fashion, has been uprooted in recent years. No longer is it simple to assume that sex exists in a simple and clear cut binary of male and female. Intersexual bodies have existed throughout history and each culture has dealt with them in differing ways – for example, ancient Jewish law established guidelines for proper gender etiquette for hermaphrodites (a term used only because the less stigmatised “intersexual” was not available then) that comprised of a combination of rules for males and females, and early 17th century French hermaphrodites had to operate in “the sex which dominates their personality”.[11] [12] Today, by and large, the standard procedure is perhaps more conservative – what is perceived as an abnormality, a transgression against the “natural” hegemonic binary of sex is literally erased at birth. Parents are kept largely uneducated, and intersex children are often lied to about their bodies throughout their lives, ostensibly to create a strong sense of gender identity – the effectiveness and ethicality of this is controversial. Anne Fausto-Sterling points out that “in their extensive discussions about what not to tell parents, medical practitioners reveal the logical bind they face when they try to explain to patients and parents that the gender they have assigned – and often performed surgery to create – is not arbitrarily chosen, rather, it is natural and somehow inherent to the patient’s body all along”[13] – that is, they “reveal their anxieties that a full disclosure of the facts about intersex bodies would threaten individuals’ – and by extension society’s – adherence to a strict male-female model”.[14] The gender assigned often does seem arbitrary – chosen by virtue of the size of the phallus (from 0-1cm is considered acceptable for a clitoris, while 2.5-4.5cm is acceptable for a penis), for example.[15] Intersexual surgeries are usually heteronormative – both a prospective penis and vagina must be able to participate in heterosexual sex – and “physicians… do far more to preserve the reproductive potential of children born with ovaries than that of children born with testes”.[16] In the 1950s the standards of treatment stressed that “properly treated intersex children posed no threat of homosexuality”.[17] Meanwhile, an article published by the Intersex Society of North America (who, notably, refer to themselves as “Building a world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted sexual surgeries since 1993”[18]) draws disturbing similarities between trauma experienced by intersex adolescents and adults and trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse – both contain “secrecy, misinformation, betrayal by a caregiver, and dissociative processes”.[19]

All this may suggest a solidification of sex – medical professionals are actively erasing variance beyond the male/female sex binary, after all. But the ISNA, among other intersex rights and activist groups are challenging and campaigning to change these standards – the Third International Intersex Forum released a public statement in which they called for “an end to mutilating and ‘normalising’ practices such as genital surgeries, psychological and other medical treatments through legislative and other means. Intersex people must be empowered to make their own decisions affecting own bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self-determination”[20] as well as an end to prenatal screening and treatment. The Australian Senate released a report in 2013 recommending ending cosmetic genital surgeries on infants.[21]

As the treatment of intersex individuals is questioned the necessity of gender assignment at birth is subsequently also questioned, as well as the necessity of strict adherence to the male/female sex binary. The Australian Senate sums it up well: “Enormous effort has gone into assigning and ‘normalising’ sex: none has gone into asking whether this is necessary or beneficial”.[22]

The transgender experience, gender fluidity and genders outside the male/female binary, intersex bodies and the challenging of prevalent medical thought are all significant indicators of the freeing and loosening of sex and gender and the challenging of binary, heteronormative, and cisgenderist[23] ideals. The dichotomy of sex and gender and the essentialism of genitalia to both are in the process of being thoroughly deconstructed and reconstructed. The binary two-sex model of gender is being challenged whole-heartedly and no longer holds true. Sex is being unsettled across the board, and normative hegemonic ideals are no longer thought of as untouchable truths. As Whittle so eloquently puts it: “Gender, like God, is a concept of the imagination that belongs within and supports the foundations of a patriarchal heterosexist hegemony.”[24]




Alexander, T., ‘The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse’, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog, accessed 22/05/14

Bolin, A., ‘Transcending and Transgendering: Male-to-female Transsexuals, Dichotomy and Diversity’, in G. Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York, 1994, pp.459-460

Bornstein, K., Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, London, 1994, p.52

Dreger, A.D., ‘”Ambiguous Sex” – Or Ambivalent Medicine?’, The Hastings Center Report, 28, 3, 1998, pp.24-35

Elkins, R. and D. King, ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies, Sociological Review, 47, 1999, p.595

Fausto-Sterling, A., Sexing the Body, New York, 2000, pp.36-72

Hale, C.J., ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to Have Sex Without Women or Men’, in K.M. Phillips and B. Reay, eds, Sexuality in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.426

Hawkes, G., ‘Plastic Sexuality’., in G. Ritzer, ed., Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_yr2013_chunk_g978140512433122_ss1-23, accessed 22/05/14

http://www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/latest/intersex_forum_2013, accessed 22/05/14

http://www.isna.org/, accessed 22/05/14

Jones, A.R. and P. Stallybrass, ‘Fetishising Gender: Constructing the hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’, in J. Epstein, ed., Bodyguards: The Cultural Policies of Gender Ambiguity, New York, 1991, p.90

Kennedy, N., Cultural Cisgenderism: Consequences of the Imperceptible, Psychology of Womens Section Annual Conference, London, 2012.

Raymond, J., The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, Boston, 1979

Siewert, R. et al, Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, Community Affairs Committee, Senate of Australia, 2013, p.117

Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-dressing and Sex-changing, London, 1996, pp. 203-210




[1] Hawkes, G., ‘Plastic Sexuality’., in G. Ritzer, ed., Blackwell Encylopedia of Sociology, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_yr2013_chunk_g978140512433122_ss1-23, accessed 22/05/14

[2] Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-dressing and Sex-changing, London, 1996, p. 203.

[3] Bolin, A., ‘Transcending and Transgendering: Male-to-Female Transsexuals, Dichotomy and Diversity’, in G. Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York, 1994, p. 460.

[4] Raymond, J., The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, Boston, 1979.

[5] Bolin, p. 459.

[6] Ibid, p. 460.

[7] Whittle, p.204.

[8] Hale, C.J., ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to Have Sex Without Women or Men’, in K.M. Phillips and B. Reay, eds., Sexuality in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.426.

[9] Elkins, R. and D. King, ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies’, Sociological Review, 47, 1999, p.595.

[10] Bornstein, K., Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, London, 1994, p.52.

[11] Jones, A.R., and P. Stallybrass, ‘Fetishising Gender: Constructing the hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’, in J. Epstein, ed., Bodyguards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, New York, 1991, p.90.

[12] Fausto-Sterling, A., Sexing the Body, New York, 2000, p.36.

[13] Ibid., p.64.

[14] Ibid., p.65.

[15] Ibid., p.57.

[16] Dreger, A.D., ‘”Ambiguous Sex” – or Ambivalent Medicine?’, The Hastings Center Report, 28, 3, 1998, pp. 24-35

[17] Fausto-Sterling., p.72.

[18] http://www.isna.org/, accessed 22/05/2014.

[19]Alexander, T. ‘The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse’, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog, accessed 22/05/14

[20] http://www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/latest/intersex_forum_2013, accessed 22/05/14

[21] Siewert, R. et al, Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, Community Affairs Committee, Senate of Australia, 2013

[22] Ibid., p.117.

[23] Term coined by Natascha Kennedy to encapsulate the cultural impact of normative cisgenderism.

Kennedy, N. Cultural Cisgenderism: Consequences of the Imperceptible, Psychology of Women Section Annual Conference 2012, London

[24] Whittle, p.210