Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology and the Third Sex in New Guinea

In Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology, and the Third Sex in New Guinea, Gilbert Herdt examines two cultural cases of hermaphroditism and illustrates the role of a third-sex category within each culture. His review of these cases is a critical analysis and investigation of not only Western medical models of gender, but also local ideologies about sex assignment.

Herdt begins by providing an overview of anthropology as it pertains to the third sex. He writes that much sex and gender research in anthropology takes an essentialist view of sexual dimorphism. That is, many anthropologists view the systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex as innate and crucial to sex assignment and gender development.  Because sexual dimorphism is so central to Western biological theory and culture, Western science sometimes injects sex research with the notion that certain theories regarding sex and gender are absolute and not relevant or changeable.

To answer why the Western model of sex and gender assumes sexual dimorphism in humans, Herdt writes that anthropologists and social histories have had a strong tendency to reduce variations in individuals to male and female sex because neither of these fields highlight the role of culture or personal desire as the concentration of gender and sexuality. To explain, then, why individuals do not meet the two-sex system, two ideas have been promoted:

1. In what Herdt calls the deficit model of human development, individuals who do not meet the two-sex system are considered biologically anomalous with regard to their genetic and/or hormonal development.
2. In the social constructionist model, societal and historical reasons for constructing an alternate identity are explored, but they do not challenge the existence of the two-sex model.

Herdt describes dimorphic Euro-American cultures as those that define individuals biologically and maintain that this essence does not vary through life and polymorphous cultures are those that use a more fluid model of definition and define individuals according to social characteristics.

The first such polymorphous culture that Herdt reviews is the Dominican Republic. A steroid 5-alpha reductase deficiency, also called the Dominican Republic syndrome, is responsible for individuals being born sexually ambiguous, with physical characteristics such as a bifid scrotum that appears labial-ike, a clitoris-like penis, and undescened testes. Because of these hermaphroditic traits, some individuals are characterized as females at birth and socialized according to that characterization. At puberty, however, a subsequent virilization occurs. The voice becomes deeper, the muscles develop, the testes descend, and the penis shows growth. Locally, this condition is called guevedoche, which means “penis at twelve.” Research showed that Dominican Republic hermaphrodites changed their sex roles from female to male around the age of 16. Medical researched concluded that biological sex prevails and supersedes the individual’s previous gender socialization.

The second polymorphous culture explored by Herdt is Sambia of New Guinea. While the Sambia employ a rigid institutalized system of gender dimorphism, they recognize a third sex. The locals call these individuals kwolu-aatmwol, which means “changing into a male thing.” The Sambia also use another term, turnim-man, which means, “turning into a man.” Infants with sexual ambiguity at birth are considered kwolu-aatmawol, not male.

What I found most interesting about this reading was the blending of medical causes and cultural interpretations related to the third sex. In both cases, 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome was responsible for individuals being assigned as guevedoche or kwolu-aatmwol at birth. While this condition prompts virilization at puberty toward male characteristics, not all individuals change their sex role from female to male. The variance in response challenges the Dominican Republic medical research team’s assertion that, “in a laissez-faire environment, when the sex of rearing is contrary the testosterone-mediated biological sex, biological sex will prevail.” And even when biological sex did prevail, it is important to consider the other cultural and social elements that shaped that decision. It is evident that there are clear social advantages to switching from a mistakenly-identified female to a male identity. In both the Dominican Republic and Sambia, power dynamics shape the interactions between men and women and the social and economic opportunities allotted to either sex. Culture largely creates motivation to “switch” to identifying oneself as a male.

In both cultures, the socially and historical institutionalized category of a third sex reflects a tendency toward polymorphous sexual expression. I think this reading does a good job exploring not only the significance of gendered identity in a cultural sense, but also how third sex categories emerge. Herdt highlights the key debates and criticisms of the notion of the third sex, and he asserts that gender identity and sexual variance have biological and cultural precursors. While gender is not completely socially constructed, it would be very difficult to examine, analyze, and understand the issues related to mistaken sex without delving into the roles of society, culture, and individual desire.

Herdt, Gilbert H. “Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology, and the Third Sex in New Guinea.” Third Sex, Third Gender: beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone, 1996. 419-45. Print.


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