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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 263 – Lesbians as a “Third Sex”

Saturday, July 15, 2023 - 14:14

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 263 – Lesbians as a “Third Sex” - transcript

(Originally aired 2023-07-15 - listen here)

I always enjoy getting inspiration for an episode topic from questions that people present to me. This show was inspired by someone on social media noting that they identified as lesbian but considered themselves to belong to a “third sex” – not male, not female, but if I understand correctly, not non-binary in the usual sense. (I’m referring to the person using “they” due to uncertainty—I can’t find the thread again to check preferences.) They asked if this was “a thing” historically, and my response was, “Well, it's complicated, but that would make a great podcast topic!” So here we are.


It’s also important to note that we’re concerned only with third-sex concepts that are defined in relation to sexual orientation, and not those that are concerned with social gender roles, such as the hijra of India or Native American third or fourth gender categories.

Given that, we can distinguish three spheres in which a third sex concept might come up.

One possibility is that an individual—like the person who raised the question—understands themself to be neither male nor female, but as belonging to a third (or at least a different) gender category, and describes their identity in terms equivalent to that. This doesn’t necessarily mean using the specific phrase “third sex” or “third gender” – and I’ll note that, historically, someone would be far more likely to use the word “sex” rather than “gender” in this context. It’s relatively recent for us to distinguish the two in any systematic way. But in the context of this conversation, I think the idea of being a third sex can be distinguished from considering oneself a mix of male and female, or as being intermediate within a male-female sliding scale, although these framings might be used at the same time. Within this context we can contrast a third-sex concept to the gender-performative concept of hermaphroditism—and here I want to emphasize that I’m not speaking of being physiologically intersex (for which the word is deprecated), but of the idea that certain mental, emotional, and behavioral characteristics are inherently gendered masculine or feminine, and that partaking of characteristics from both categories places a person outside of either category or perhaps situates them at an overlap of male and female. As we discuss the topic, it will be interesting to see if this distinction is articulated, and if so, when and by whom. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to invent the term “performative-hermaphrodite” for this concept, to make it clear that I’m not referring to intersex persons.

The second possibility is that people within a particular historic culture viewed people with same-sex desire as belonging to a “third sex” and expressed that category assignment by using language indicating some version of the concept. In many—indeed, most—historic eras, we are far more likely to have data available on this sort of outsider labeling, than we are to have evidence of how people viewed and described their own identities. Someone living within such a culture might reasonably adopt the concept and language for themselves, even if we have no direct evidence of them doing so. But it’s also possible that someone living in such a culture might reject the framing and the label and view themselves in a different way.

The third possibility is that modern scholars writing about theories of sex and gender may identify a historic culture as having a concept of homosexuals as a “third sex”, perhaps using the current differing definitions of sex and gender, regardless of whether people in that culture described their understanding in those terms. For example, Randolph Trumbach in his article “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” and expanded in his book Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, applies a modern lens to understanding ideas about sex, gender, and sexual orientation around the 18th century and makes some idiosyncratic definitions and distinctions in order to present his theories, without these definitions necessarily having been part of 18th century discourse itself.

Another thing to consider in addressing the question of whether we can find a concept of “homosexuals as a third sex” in the past is that in some cultures, questions of the object of one’s desire intersected with ideas about “active” and “passive” partners in sex. The culture might have identifiable categories for what types of partners an “active” person desired, while not considering it relevant whether a “passive” partner had preferences. So one type of “third sex” concept that we might encounter would be one where an assigned-female person who desires women might be considered to belong to a third sex, but the object of their desire was not.

I’m going to mostly side-step the question of whether—under a “third sex” concept—female and male homosexuals are viewed as belonging to the same category, or whether we’re really talking about four sexes. Just don’t worry about that detail for now.

So, you see, even setting out the ground rules for the present discussion involves a lot of complexity!

That said, how did I do the research for this episode? Honestly, I’m cutting corners a bit due to time constraints. I ran a search in the blog for the phrase “third sex” or “third gender” working on the assumption that if an article used those phrases, either from an academic point of view, or quoting original sources, it was likely to appear in my summary of the work’s content. So don’t take this as an exhaustive deep dive into the topic. I’m really only skimming the surface.

Continuums versus Boundaries

One of the studies that provides an overview timeline of concepts of sex categories in Western culture is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, in which he posits that there was a progression from a “one sex” model, in which sex operates on a continuum between male and female, with women often being considered “imperfect men”, shifting later to a “two sex” model in which men and women were viewed as being the equivalent of separate discrete species. Laqueur considered this shift to have happened around the 18th century—a reference point that we’ll come back to when we discuss Trumbach’s theories--but other scholars offer evidence that “continuum” and “discrete categories” models operated in parallel for a much longer period, often being deployed for specific purposes, depending on what suited the goals of the rhetoric. (I note that the index to Laqueur’s book doesn’t include any references to a third category.)

Within the context of today’s topic, it would appear that a pre-requisite for identifying a “third sex” would be a clear premise that there are at least two other sexes to contrast with. The idea of a third sex wouldn’t necessarily make sense within a one-sex continuum model. But another way to approach the question is to look for evidence that women who desire women were treated as belonging to a separate category from women who desire men.

Here, we might be tempted to harken back to the “divided being” myth offered up in Plato’s Symposium (setting aside the question of whether this oratorical exercise was intended to represent an actual belief). If heterosexual women derive from the division of double-bodied beings whose other half was male, while homosexual women derive from double-bodied beings where both were female, then these two orientations could be considered to represent distinctly separate types of beings. This is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of what is a rather complex philosophical model. Sandra Boehringer does a detailed dissection of the whole scenario and its implications. But we can certainly see the story as envisioning an interpretation of homoerotic and heteroerotic desire in women reflecting different categories of being. Interestingly, to the extent that the three categories of humans in the “divided being” myth represent gender categories, those categories are “heterosexual people,” “homosexual men,” and “homosexual women.”

Physical Category versus Behavioral Category?

In the article “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe,” Nederman and True argue that there is evidence for professional writings indicating an acceptance of a third sexual category, but this particular study is concerned with physiological ambiguity and so is not pertinent to our discussion. The 12th century discourse was primarily concerned with correctly assigning individuals to binary legal categories, even when recognizing a third physical category.

Authors in the later middle ages and Renaissance who touched directly on sex between women tended to frame it as an individual taste that could be experienced by any woman rather than arising out of a separate gender category.

When fascination with, and anxiety around, gender categories comes to the fore again around the 17th century, it is more focused on a performative-hermaphroditism that is viewed—though not necessarily labelled—as a “third sex,” based on personality, social behavior, and mixing clothing styles assigned to both male and female categories. Figures such as Moll Cutpurse in the 17th century (whether we are considering the historic figure or the fictionalization of her in contemporary literature) represented an “other category” that it was hinted might include bisexual leanings, but the fictional Moll suggests she is instead set apart from sexual desire of any type, in the same way that she is set apart from binary gender.

One context in which ideas about a “third sex” were recorded in the early modern period and later were cases of “female husbands” where people might speculate that a person assigned female, who had been inhabiting a male social role even to the point of marrying a woman, might have been driven by “possibly belonging to a third sex” but by this they generally meant some type of intersex condition, that is, that classification as female was a category error and explained any desire for women. By the 19th century, this idea was going out of fashion as an explanation or signifier of cross-gender behavior (including apparent female homoeroticism)

Randolph Trumbach’s Elaborate Chronology

Randolph Trumbach extensively uses the concept of a “third sex” or “third gender” in discussing his theory about a seismic shift in how European society understood the relationships between sex, gender, and orientation around the beginning of the 18th century. In this case, Trumbach is the one applying the label to what he sees as commonly-understood classifications of people. While I feel his model is weak when applied to women, the essence is that he considers that before the 18th century, people understood there to be two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female). A new sex category emerged, understood as being driven by biological indeterminacy, but where members were expected to behave according to male or female gender roles. (Note that this indeterminate sex category is actually seen much earlier, as in the article about 12th century examples.)

In this framework, same-sex acts were understood to exist within a hierarchy of power in which high-status men were the active participants in sex regardless of partner, while women and low-status men had those relations imposed on them without regard to personal preference.

Early in the 18th century, goes Trumbach’s chronology, the categorization of men shifted from a 2 gender/3 sex system (with the third sex being biologically intermediate), to a 3 gender/2 sex system, with the 3rd gender being “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation towards men.

An equivalent 4th gender role for women emerged later in the 18th century, represented by the mannish woman who had a sexual orientation toward women. This role emerged out of the remnants of the “third sex” category defined by biology.

All this was followed in the late 19th century by the collapse of these additional gender categories into the concept of homosexual orientation, in which we return to a “two sex” model that intersects with orientation options, such that one’s gender was no longer viewed as being defined by the object of one’s desire.

I will repeat that I have issues with his evidence regarding women and how he interprets it, particularly in terms of chronology. But one of his ideas is that the “third sex” role was a transitional state, intended to imply a biological basis for certain types of homoerotic desire, that were later subsumed into the concept of sexual orientation. This transitional “third sex” category originally included people assigned either male or female, but men were extracted from it earlier, leaving the category as “sort-of but not-quite women.” I have a fairly extensive discussion of Trumbach’s ideas in the blog, including a lot of critical comments, so if this all sounds a bit confusing, that discussion might help.

A Vain Search for Contemporary Citations

Usually, when we look for the rare instances of self-description around queer sexuality, Anne Lister comes to our rescue with her private diary entries, but although Lister does discuss feeling that she had both masculine and feminine qualities, I haven’t been able to identify any passages where she expresses identification with a “third sex” category. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t use it, because the available publications aren’t indexed on that level.

I also searched around in several of the 18th century novels that seemed most likely to have characters describe mannish women with homoerotic interests as belonging to a “third sex” but I haven’t found any citations yet. So we’re largely left with modern academics interpreting various ideas as representing a “third sex” in the context of homoerotic desire, but no solid evidence that people in earlier eras were using that phrase, much less of individuals describing themselves using that phrase.

The Third Sex of the Sexologists

It was around the turn of the 20th century, amid the combination of sexological theories and the rise of a more self-conscious community of women with homoerotic desires that we find clear examples of the concept of lesbians as a “third sex.” This is articulated in works like the 1901 German novel Are These Women? A Novel about the Third Sex by Aimée Duc, which explores lesbian identities sympathetically and has the characters identify as a “third sex.”

The novel contrasts with the more usual approach of sexological theories of the late 19th and early 20th century which framed third-sex concepts as something more like what we would consider transgender identity today. That is, a third-sex person was someone whose personality and desires aligned with a different gender than the one assigned to their body, and that misalignment included sexual desire. Thus, within this reasoning, a “third-sex” woman was one who was assigned female but had a male personality and desires, including sexual desire for women. In contrast, her female partner was not (necessarily) considered to belong to the third sex. (Remember that this is Trumbach’s “fourth gender” concept.)

Given this framing, a third-sex woman wasn’t necessarily defined by homoerotic desire, but could be defined solely by anything considered transmasculine performance, including an interest in male-coded professional and intellectual activities.

While psychologists who applied concepts such as “gender inversion” and “third sex” to people with homoerotic desires were, to some extent, concerned with being able to categorize people as “normal” or “abnormal,” thus the interest in defining femme partners as “normal women” and not part of the third sex category, individual women might adopt the terminology and ideas to understand and communicate their own identities, as author Radclyffe Hall did.

The novel Are These Women? was not typical in its sympathetic portrayal. More common are fictional depictions such as that seen in Eliza Lynn Linton’s 1895 novel The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure in which the lesbian-coded feminist character is specifically identified as belonging to a “third sex” of “manly women and effeminate men” for whom the author-insert character expresses horror.


As a commonly accepted social model, the notion of homosexuality as representing a “third sex”—whether applied to both partners or only one—appears to have had a limited run in the later 19th century and early 20th. As a universal explanatory mechanism for same-sex desire, it has a number of problems and erases the more fluid and amorphous experiences of many people—not only modern people, but also people in some past ages when same-sex desire was considered within the potential experience of all people. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a useful and explanatory identity for some who feel that their orientation does set them apart from the simple categories of male and female.

In some ways, the cyclicity of history has brought us around again to the idea that sexuality is an amorphous, undefined continuum and that everyone is free to set up their own circles to say, “These are the people whose experiences are similar enough to mine that I feel we represent an identifiable category.” Or not.

One of these days I’ll return to my favorite topic of cognitive category theory and how it helps me to integrate gender and sexuality data from the past. But until then …

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Historic contexts in which people conceived as lesbians as belonging to a “third sex”
  • Academic studies that use the concept of a “third sex” as a way of understanding historic models of gender and sexuality

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: