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Shamanism and gender variance: the eighteenth century – two sexes, three genders?

“Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men. The commander called them amaricados, perhaps because the Yumas call effeminate men maricas. I asked who these men were, and they replied that they were not men like the rest, and for this reason they went around covered in this way. From this I inferred that they must be hermaphrodites but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices. …I conclude that in this matter of incontinence there will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them.”Fray Pedro Font, Font’s Complete Diary of the Second Anza Expedition 1775-1776

For this post, I’m going to briefly summarise some themes in contemporary scholarship relating to eighteenth century attitudes to sex and gender, which underwent great changes throughout the century. This is useful for understanding eighteenth century accounts of shamanism, as many of these accounts throughout the century increasingly focused on what we would now call “gender-variance” as a marker for shamanic behaviour. Several scholars have argued that due to changes in the way sexuality and gender were understood in eighteenth-century European culture, contact accounts of primitive cultures shifted from a general representation of whole cultures being inclined towards same-sex relations towards an increased focus upon same-sex desires as a special case – that of the “effeminate sodomite”. According to Rudi Bleys (1996):

The actual or presumed coincidence of cross-gender roles with same-sex praxis made the former instrumental to new sexual theory in Europe that locked sodomy inexorably into the corset of femininity. Passivity, more particularly, as located in the receptive use of the anus, became quintessential to the ‘sodomite’ identity – a different idea, altogether, from previous notions of sodomy, which included the active partner as well as the passive one, men as well as women.(p81)

Mark Johnson (2009) argues that European encounters with males who dressed as women and engaged in women’s occupations were both fascinating and a source of consternation for European travellers, and that encounters with these “primitive” others were both shaped by, and themselves influenced changing discourses about the nature of sex and gender – in particular, informing what was to become the dominant image of homosexuality. I will look at some of these accounts in more detail in future posts, but for now I’m going to briefly examine the ideas of two influential theorists – Thomas Laqueur and Randolph Trumbach.

From one sex to two sexes?
The central argument of Thomas Laqueur’s Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (1992) is that the understanding of the relationship between men and women underwent a major transformation over the course of the eighteenth century. Prior to this transformation, a ‘one-sex model’ was the dominant scheme, based on the idea that the body was composed of four humours – cold, hot, moist and dry – and that men were dominantly composed of hot and dry humours, and women by cold and moist humours – and that differences of sex were differences of degree. Semen, for example, was produced by bodily heat, and it was thought that women with too much bodily heat could produce semen and even, if they became too hot through excessive exercise, suddenly develop a penis. Menstruation was similarly understood not as something unique to women, but as an example of the body’s propensity to bleed in order to expell excess materials. Only one body existed, and it was represented as essentially male, and whilst females were thought of as “lesser males” with outside-in bodies; men and women were not considered to be radically different in terms of bodily constitution. Medical literature conceptualised the female body as an “inferior” version of the male body, with equivalences between testicles and ovaries; scrotum and uterus; foreskin and labia. Some physicians believed that men’s genitalia were externalised due to the heat of male bodies, which “drove” their organs outwards. Metaphysical understandings of the hierarchy of nature made men and women part of the same order, with men placed above women. However, whilst women becoming men due to excess heat was accepted, the notion that men could become women was not, due to the belief that nature tended towards perfection – and for a man to become a woman would be unnatural – the perfect becoming imperfect.

Laqueur argues that during the eighteenth century, this ‘one-sex model’ was replaced by a ‘two-sex model’ in which men and women became anatomically, opposites, radically different from each other:

“Thus the old [Galenic] model, in which men and women were arrayed according to their degree of metaphysical perfection, their vital heat, along an axis whose telos was male, gave way by the eighteenth century to a new model of radical dimorphism, of biological divergence. An anatomy and physiology of incommensurability replaced a metaphysics of hierarchy in the representation of woman in relation to man.”

Laqueur proposes that the “two-sex” model emerged primarily due to political changes and the decline of religious authority and not to medical discoveries. Laqueur proposes that in order to reinforce the political notion of natural rights, bodies were redefined in terms of opposite sexes. Power could only be formally granted to one group (men) and withheld from another group (women) if the two were distinct and incommensurable – and Political theorists turned to biology and medical treatises in order to justify this view in terms of emerging scientific discourse, rather than Adam’s dominance over Eve. So for example, The demotion of the pre-Englightenment metaphysical order took place at the same time as the fragmentation of social order:

“The rise of evangelical religion, Enlightenment political theory, the deveopment of new sorts of public spaces in the eighteenth century, Lockean ideas of marriage as a contract, the cataclysmic possibilities for social change wrought by the French revolution, postrevolutionary conservatism, postrevolutionary feminism. the factory system with its restructuring of the division of labour, the rise of a free market economy in services or commodities, the birth of classes, singly or in combination – none of these things caused the making of a new sexed body. Instead, the remaking of the body is itself intrinsic to each of these developments.” (1992, p11)

There is some debate amongst scholars over the timing of this shift to the “two-sex model” with some historians locating the shift beginning to occurr in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, whilst others have pointed out that this process was also historically uneven, with the single-sex and two-sex frameworks continuing to exist side-by-side for some time. Despite critiques however, Laqueuer’s work has had a considerable impact on contemporary studies of sexuality & gender.

Mollies: a third gender?
Randolph Trumbach, in his book Sex and the Gender Revolution proposes that:

“Around 1700 in northwestern Europe, in England, France and the Dutch Republic, there appeared a minority of adult men whose sexual desires were directed exclusively toward adult and adolescent males. These men could be identified by what seemed to their contemporaries to be effeminate behaviour in speech, movement and dress. They had not, however, entirely transformed themselves into women but instead combined into a third gender selected aspects of the behavior of the majority of men and women. Since a comparable minority of masculinised women who exclusively desired other women did not appear until the 1770s, it is therefore the case that for most of the eighteenth century there existed in northern Europe what might be described as a system of three genders composed of men, women, and sodomites”

According to Trumbach, prior to the eighteenth century in European societies, same-sex desire between males was organised around differences in age, between active, adult men and passive boys – a pattern which he points out, was present in ancient Greece and Rome, and in early Christian Europe and in the later Middle Ages. Trumbach cites the work of Michael Rocke (see Forbidden Friendships) in demonstrating that in Renaissance Florence, sodomy was nigh on universal between men, but always structured by age. Trumbach points out that although sodomy was illegal, and the church spoke out against it as immoral “the actual sexual behaviour of men had changed very little from what it had been in the ancient pagan Mediterrranean world” (p5).

From the 1690s onwards, opinion changed from the old system, which was characterised by all males passing through a period of sexual passivity in adolescence, to a new system, wherein sexual passivity and homosexual desire was presumed to be indicative of an effeminate minority. These “new” adult sodomites were known colloquially as mollies – a term which, Trumbach says, was first applied to female prostitutes, and were charactised he argues, by playing two roles – one in the public world and another in the so-called “molly-house” inside which they took women’s names and adopted the speech and body movements of women. Historians have uncovered a well-established network of molly-house and open-air meeting places distributed throughout London in the early eighteenth-century. In addition to Mother Clap’s molly-house in Holborn, there were also houses near the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison, in Soho, Charing Cross, Drury Lane and St. James’s Square. A pamphlet attacking Charles Hitchins, a prominent thief-taker in London in the 1710s describes the behaviour inside a molly-house:

…they had no sooner entered but the Marshal was complemented by the company with the titles of Madam and Ladyship. The man asking the occasion of these uncommon devoirs, the Marshal said it was a familiar language common to the house. The man was not long there before he was more surprised than at first. The men calling one another ‘my dear’ and hugging, kissing and tickling each other as if they were a mixture of wanton males and females, and assuming effeminate voices and airs; some telling others that they ought to be whipped for not coming to school more frequently … Some were completely rigged in gowns, petticoats, headcloths, fine laced shoes, furbelowed scarves, and masks; some had riding hoods; some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats and petticoats; and others had their faces patched and painted and wore very extensive hoop petticoats, which had been very lately introduced.”
(quoted in Hitchcock, p68)

Mollies became the focus of increased public scrutiny and condemnation, and some historians have argued that the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, which attacked effeminate sodomites in print, helped forge a link between the flouting of codes of masculine behaviour with the idea that such men were exclusively interested in sex with other men. These societies were concerned with social reform, particularly the elimination of blasphemy, idleness, and lewd and disorderly behaviour. They frequently relied on informers and agents to gather evidence, and although their most frequent targets were prostitutes, it is their attacks on molly houses (1699, 1707 and 1726) which has provided much of the historical evidence for the existence of molly culture. The Societies published trial reports, public sermons and accounts of their own activities, and from the late 1690s onwards there were frequent references to both molly-houses and sodomites in printed pamphlets and newspapers. Hitchcock points out that whilst the Reformation Societies closed down molly-houses, those men who were publicly exposed on the pillory were sometimes savagely treated by the London crowd – many were severely injured and some men died. (see secret sexualities for further discussion).

Men displaying effeminate mannerisms were increasingly subject to blackmail, persecution and punishment and it is argued that the increased emphasis on legal regulation also contributed to the idea that the sodomite was a distinct social and sexual type. Prior to the eighteenth century, the term “sodomite” encompassed a wide range of acts, but by the early eighteenth-century, it came to denote almost exclusively sexual acts between men. Trumbach discusses how many boys and men charged with sodomy were represented, at their trials as ‘mollies’ (regardless of whether or not they exhibited signs of effeminacy) and suffered the stigma and the harsh punishments associated with such an attribution. Such developments, he contends, obliged men to present their masculine status exclusively through their interest in women – and sex ceased to be represented as that which took place between an active and passive partner (regardless of gender) but as an act between men and women.

As the eighteenth century progressed, sodomy and effeminacy came under increasing scientific scrutiny. Some social theorists interpreted same-sex desire as being produced by luxury, excess and idleness – an explanation which pointed not only to modern European cultures, but also “primitive” societies (see previous post for some related discussion). The sailor John Marra for example, in his Journal of the Resolution’s Voyage in 1772, 1773, 1774 and 1775 on Discovery in the Southern Hemisphere (published in London in 1775) described the polynesians as “an effeminate race, intoxicated with pleasure, and enfeebled by indulgence” (Wilson, 2004, p351). Effeminacy could also be a product of cultures where men spent too much time around women, or as John Millar theorised, societies where women had too much political or social status.

Rudi Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-male Sexual Behaviour outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination 1750-1918 (Cassell, 1996)
Martin B. Duberman (ed) A queer world: the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies reader (New York University Press, 1997)
Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Tim Hitchcock English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997)
Thomas Laqueur Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1992)
Mark Johnson Transgression and the Making of ‘Western’ Sexual Sciences in Donnan, Magowan (eds) Transgressive sex: subversion and control in erotic encounters (Berghahn Books, 2009)
Bradford Mudge (ed) When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Kim M. Phillips & Barry Reay Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History (Polity Press, 2011)
Michael Rocke Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford University Press 1996)
Will Roscoe Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
Rousseau, Porter (eds) Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (Manchester University Press, 1987)
Randolph Trumbach Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the third gender in Enlightenment London v. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1998)
Kathleen Wilson (ed) A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840 (State University of New York, 2004)

One comment

  1. Brian P
    Posted April 7th 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I can also recommend Mother Clap’s Molly House:

    A very good read and covers some of this subject area with some sensitivity and clarity.