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Question: “How has ONE of the following shaped the way you think about gender:
your parents OR the internet OR studying at university

write a reflection paper base on this question and this reading, do not use outside source,only need the reading and use the concept and cite from the reading the whole reflection paper is about you own idea, do not use someone else , maximum 150 words

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The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical
Male-Female Roles
Author(s): Emily Martin
Source: Signs, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring, 1991), pp. 485-501
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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The theoryo f the humanb ody is always a parto f a worldpicture….
The theoryo ft heh umanb odyi s alwaysa parto f
a fantasy. [JAMESH ILLMANT,h e Myth of Analysis]’
As an anthropologisIt ,a m intriguedb y the possibilityt hatc ulture
shapes how biologicals cientistsd escribew hatt heyd iscovera bout
then aturawl orld.I f thisw ere so, we would be learninga boutm ore
thant he naturalw orldi n high school biologyc lass; we would be
learninga boutc ulturalb eliefsa nd practicesa s ift heyw ere parto f
nature.I n the course of myr esearchI realized thatt he pictureo f
egg and spermd rawni n populara s well as scientifica ccountso f
reproductivbe iologyr elies on stereotypesc entralt o our cultural
definitionosf m ale and female.T he stereotypeism plyn oto nlyt hat
Portions of this article were presented as the 1987 Becker Lecture, Cornell
University. I am grateful for the many suggestions and ideas I received on this
occasion. For especially pertinenth elp with my argumentsa nd data I thank Richard
Cone, Kevin Whaley, Sharon Stephens, Barbara Duden, Susanne Kuechler, Lorna
Rhodes, and Scott Gilbert. The article was strengthened and clarified by the
comments of the anonymous Signs reviewers as well as the superb editorial skills of
Amy Gage.
‘James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis (Evanston, Ill.: NorthwesternU niversity
Press, 1972), 220.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1991, vol. 16, no. 3]
? 1991 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/91/1603-0003$01.00
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femaleb iologicalp rocessesa re less worthyth ant heirm ale counterpartsb
uta lso thatw omena re less worthyth anm en.P arto fm yg oal in
writintgh isa rticlei s to shinea brightli ghto n theg enders tereotypes
hiddenw ithint he scientifilca nguageo fb iologyE. xposed in such a
light,I hope theyw ill lose mucho ft heirp owert o harmu s.
Egg and sperm:A scientififca iryt ale
At a fundamentalle vel, all majors cientifict extbooksd epict male
and femaler eproductiveo rgansa s systemsf ort he productiono f
valuable substances,s uch as eggs and sperm.2I n the case of
women, the monthlyc ycle is described as being designed to
producee ggs and preparea suitablep lace fort hemt o be.f ertilized
and grown-all to the end of makingb abies. But the enthusiasm
ends there.B y extollingt hef emalec yclea s a productivee nterprise,
menstruatiomn ustn ecessarilyb e viewed as a failureM. edical texts
describe menstruationas the “debris” of the uterinel ining,t he
resulto fn ecrosis,o r death oft issue.T he descriptionsim plyt hata
systemh as gone awrym, akingp roductso f no use, nott o specification,
unsalable, wasted, scrap. An illustrationin a widely used
medicalt exts howsm enstruatioans a chaoticd isintegratioonf f orm,
complementingth e manyt extst hatd escribe it as “ceasing,”” dying’,
“losing,”” denuding,”” expelling.”3
Male reproductivpeh ysiologyis evaluatedq uited ifferentlOyn. e
of the textst hats ees menstruatioans failedp roductione mploysa
sorto fb reathlessp rosew hen it describest he maturationof s perm:
“The mechanismsw hichg uide ther emarkablec ellulart ransformationf
roms permatidt o matures permr emainu ncertain. … Perhaps
them osta mazingc haracteristiocf s permatogenesiiss itss heerm agnitude:
t he normalh umanm ale maym anufactursee veralh undred
million spermp er day.”4I n the classic textM edical Physiology,
edited by VernonM ountcastle,t he male/femalep, roductive/destructivec
omparisoni s more explicit:” Whereas the females heds
onlya singleg ametee ach montht, hes eminiferoutsu bulesp roduce
hundredso f millionso f sperme ach day” (emphasis mine).5T he
2 The textbooks I consulted are the main ones used in classes for undergraduate
premedical students or medical students (or those held on reserve in the library for
these classes) during the past few years at JohnsH opkins University.T hese textsa re
widely used at other universities in the country as well.
3 Arthur C. Guyton, Physiology of the Human Body, 6th ed. (Philadelphia:
Saunders College Publishing, 1984), 624.
4 ArthurJ .V ander,J ames H. Sherman,a nd DorothyS . Luciano, Human Physiology:
The Mechanisms of Body Function, 3d ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1980), 483-84.
Vernon B. Mountcastle, Medical Physiology, 14th ed. (London: Mosby, 1980),
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Spring1 991 / SIGNS
femalea uthoro fa nothert extm arvelsa tt hel engtho ft hem icroscopic
seminiferoutsu bules,w hich,i f uncoiled and placed end to end,
“would span almosto ne-thirdo f a mile!” She writes,” In an adult
male these structureps roduce millionso f spermc ells each day.”
Laters he asks,” How is thisf eata ccomplished?”N6 one oft heset exts
expressess uch intensee nthusiasmf ora ny femalep rocesses.I t is
surelyn o accidentt hatt he “remarkable”p rocesso f makings perm
involvesp reciselyw hat,i n them edicalv iew,m enstruatiodno es not:
productiono f somethingd eemed valuable.7
One could arguet hatm enstruatioann d spermatogenesiasr e not
analogousp rocessesa nd,t herefores,h ouldn otb e expectedt o elicit
the same kindo fr esponse.T he properf emalea nalogyt o spermatogenesis,
biologically,i s ovulation.Y et ovulationd oes not merit
enthusiasmin these textse ither.T extbookd escriptionss tresst hat
all of the ovarianf olliclesc ontainingo va are already presenta t
birthF. ar fromb eingp roduced,a s sperma re,t heym erelys ito n the
shelf,s lowlyd egeneratinga nd aging like overstockedi nventory:
“Atb irth,n ormalh umano variesc ontaina n estimatedo ne million
follicles [each], and no new ones appear after birth. Thus, in
markedc ontrasto them ale,t hen ewbornf emalea lreadyh as all the
germc ells she will everh ave.O nlya few,p erhaps4 00, are destined
to reach full maturityd uringh er active productivel ife. All the
othersd egeneratea t somep ointi n theird evelopments o thatf ew,i f
any,r emainb y the time she reaches menopausea t approximately
50 yearso f age.”8N ote the “markedc ontrast”t hatt hisd escription
sets up between male and female: the male, who continuously
producesf reshg ermc ells,a nd thef emale,w ho has stockpiledg erm
cells by birtha nd is facedw itht heird egeneration.
Nor are the femaleo rganss pared such vivid descriptionsO. ne
scientistw rites in a newspaper article that a woman’s ovaries
become old and worno ut fromr ipeninge ggs everym onth,e ven
thought hew omanh erselfis stillr elativelyy oung:” Wheny ou look
througha laparoscope … at an ovary that has been through
hundredso f cycles,e ven in a superblyh ealthyA mericanf emale,
you see a scarred,b atteredo rgan.”9
To avoid the negativec onnotationtsh ats ome people associate
with the female reproductives ystem,s cientistsc ould begin to
describe male and femalep rocesses as homologous.T hey might
6 Eldra Pearl Solomon, Human Anatomy and Physiology (New York: CBS
College Publishing, 1983), 678.
7 For elaboration, see Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural
Analysis of Reproduction (Boston: Beacon, 1987), 27-53.
8 Vander, Sherman, and Luciano, 568.
9 Melvin Konner, “Childbearing and Age,” New York Times Magazine (December
27, 1987), 22-23, esp. 22.
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credit females with “producing” mature ova one at a time, as they’re
needed each month,a nd describe males as havingt o face problems of
degenerating germ cells. This degeneration would occur throughout
lifea mong spermatogoniat, he undifferentiategde rmc ells in the testes
thata re the long-lived,d ormantp recursorso f sperm.
But the texts have an almost dogged insistence on casting female
processes in a negative light. The texts celebrate sperm production
because it is continuousf romp ubertyt o senescence, while they portraye
gg production as inferiorb ecause it is finished at birth. This
makes the female seem unproductive,b ut some textsw ill also insist
that it is she who is wasteful.’?I n a section heading for Molecular
Biology of the Cell, a best-sellingt ext,w e are told that” Oogenesis is
wasteful.” The text goes on to emphasize that of the seven million
oogonia, or egg germc ells, in the female embryo,m ost degenerate in
the ovary.O f those thatd o go on to become oocytes,o r eggs, manya lso
degenerate,s o thata t birtho nlyt wo millione ggs remaini n the ovaries.
Degeneration continues throughout a woman’s life: by puberty
300,000 eggs remain,a nd onlya few are presentb y menopause. “During
the 40 or so years of a woman’s reproductivel ife,o nly 400 to 500
eggs will have been released,” the authorsw rite.” All the restw ill have
degenerated. It is stilla mysteryw hy so manye ggs are formedo nly to
die in the ovaries.”‘1
The real mysteryi s why the male’s vast production of sperm is
not seen as wasteful.12 Assuming that a man “produces” 100 million
(108) sperm per day (a conservative estimate) during an average
reproductive life of sixty years, he would produce well over two
10I have found but one exception to the opinion that the female is wasteful:
“Smallpox being the nasty disease it is, one might expect nature to have designed
antibody molecules with combining sites that specifically recognize the epitopes on
smallpox virus. Nature differs from technology, however: it thinks nothing of
wastefulness. (For example, rather than improving the chance that a spermatozoon
will meet an egg cell, nature finds it easier to produce millions of spermatozoa.)”
(Niels Kaj Jerne, “The Immune System,” Scientific American 229, no. 1 [July 1973]:
53). Thanks to a Signs reviewer for bringing this reference to my attention.
” Bruce Alberts et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell (New York: Garland, 1983),
12 In her essay “Have Only Men Evolved?” (in Discovering Reality: Feminist
Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science,
ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka [Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983], 45-69,
esp. 60-61), Ruth Hubbard points out that sociobiologists have said the female
invests more energy than the male in the production of her large gametes, claiming
that this explains why the female provides parental care. Hubbard questions
whether it “really takes more ‘energy’ to generate the one or relatively few eggs than
the large excess of sperms required to achieve fertilization.”F or furtherc ritique of
how the greater size of eggs is interpreted in sociobiology, see Donna Haraway,
“Investment Strategies fort he Evolving Portfolioo f Primate Females,” in Body/Politics,
ed. Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth (New York:
Routledge, 1990), 155-56.
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Spring1 991 / SIGNS
trillions permi n his lifetimeA. ssumingt hata woman” ripens”o ne
egg per lunarm onth,o r thirteenp er year,o ver the course of her
forty-yearre productiveli fe,s he would totalf iveh undrede ggs in
her lifetimeB. ut the word “waste” implies an excess, too much
produced.A ssumingt woo rt hreeo ffspringfo, re veryb abya woman
produces, she wastes only around two hundred eggs. For every
babya manp roduces,h e wastesm oret hano ne trillion(1 012s) perm.
How is itt hatp ositivei magesa re deniedt o theb odies ofw omen?
A looka tl anguage-int hisc ase,s cientifilca nguage-providest hef irst
clue. Taket hee gga nd thes perm.1I3t is remarkablheo w “femininely”
thee gg behavesa nd how “masculinelyt”h es perm.’T4 he egg is seen
as largea nd passive.1I5t does notm oveo rj ourney, but passively” is
transported”,i”s swept,”‘o6r e ven” drifts”a’7lo ngt hef allopiantu be.I n
utterc ontrasts,p erma re small,” streamlined1,”8a nd invariablyac tive.
They “deliver”t heirg enes to the egg, “activatet he developmental
programo f the egg,”1a9n d have a “velocity”t hati s oftenr emarked
upon.2 Their tails are “strong”a nd efficientlpyo wered.21T ogether
witht he forceso f ejaculationt, heyc an “propelt he semen intot he
deepestr ecesseso ft hev agina.”2F2o rt hist heyn eed “energy,””f uel,”3
so thatw itha “whiplashlikem otiona nd stronglu rches”2t4h eyc an
“burrowt hroughth ee gg coat”5a nd “penetrate”it .26
13 The sourcesI used fort hisa rticlep rovidec ompellingi nformatioonn interactionsa
mongs perm.L ack ofs pace preventsm e fromt akingu p thist hemeh ere,b ut
thee lementsi ncludec ompetitionh,i erarchyan, d sacrificeF. ora newspaperr eport,
see MalcolmW . Browne,” Some Thoughtso n Self Sacrifice,N” ew YorkT imes( July
5, 1988),C 6. For a literaryr enditions,e e JohnB arth,” Night-SeaJ ourney,i”n his
Lost in theF unhouse( GardenC ity,N .Y.: Doubleday,1 968),3 -13.
14S ee Carol Delaney,” The Meaningo f Paternityan d the VirginB irthD ebate,”
Man 21, no. 3 (September1 986): 494-513. She discusses the differencbe etween
thiss cientifivci ewt hatw omenc ontributgee neticm ateriatl ot hef etusa nd thec laim
ofl ong-standinWg esternf olkt heoriest hatt heo rigina nd identityof t hef etusc omes
fromt he male,a s in the metaphoro fp lantinga seed in soil.
“5F or a suggestedd irectl inkb etweenh umanb ehaviora nd purportedlpya ssive
eggsa nd actives perm,s ee ErikH . Erikson”, Innera nd OuterS pace: Reflectionosn
Womanhood,D”a edalus 93, no. 2 (Spring1 964): 582-606, esp. 591.
16 Guyton( n. 3 above),6 19; and Mountcastle(n . 5 above), 1609.
‘7 JonathanM iller and David Pelham, The Facts of Life (New York:V iking
Penguin,1 984),5 .
18 Alberts et al., 796.
19I bid., 796.
20 See, e.g.,W illiamF . Ganong,R eviewo fM edicalP hysiology7,t he d. (Los Altos,
Calif.:L ange Medical Publications1, 975),3 22.
21 Albertse t al. (n. 11 above), 796.
22G uyton6, 15.
23 Solomon (n. 6 above), 683.
24V anderS, hermana, nd Luciano (n. 4 above),4 the d. (1985),5 80.
25 Alberts et al., 796.
26A ll biologyt extsq uoted above use the word” penetrate.”
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At its extreme, the age-old relationship of the egg and the sperm
takes on a royal or religious patina. The egg coat, its protective
barrier,i s sometimes called its “vestments,”a termu sually reserved
for sacred, religious dress. The egg is said to have a “corona,”27a
crown, and to be accompanied by “attendant cells.”28I t is holy, set
apart and above, the queen to the sperm’s king. The egg is also
passive, which means it must depend on sperm for rescue. Gerald
Schatten and Helen Schatten liken the egg’s role to that of Sleeping
Beauty: “a dormant bride awaiting her mate’s magic kiss, which
instills the spiritt hat brings her to life.”29S perm, by contrast,h ave
a “mission,”30w hich is to “move throught he female genital tracti n
quest of the ovum.”31O ne popular account has it that the sperm
carry out a “perilous journey” into the “warm darkness,” where
some fall away “exhausted.” “Survivors” “assault” the egg, the
successful candidates “surroundingt he prize.”32P art of the urgency
of thisj ourney,i n more scientifict erms,i s that “once released from
the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within
hours unless rescued by a sperm.”33T he wording stresses the
fragilitya nd dependency of the egg, even though the same text
acknowledges elsewhere that sperm also live for only a few hours.34
In 1948, in a book remarkable for its early insights into these
matters,R uth Herschberger argued thatf emale reproductiveo rgans
are seen as biologically interdependent, while male organs are
viewed as autonomous, operating independently and in isolation:
At present the functional is stressed only in connection with
women: it is in them that ovaries, tubes, uterus, and vagina
have endless interdependence. In the male, reproduction
would seem to involve “organs” only.
Yet the sperm, just as much as the egg, is dependent on a
great many related processes. There are secretions which
mitigatet he urine in the urethrab efore ejaculation, to protect
the sperm. There is the reflex shutting off of the bladder
connection, the provision of prostatic secretions, and various
types of muscular propulsion. The sperm is no more inde-
27 Solomon,7 00.
28 A. Beldecos et al., “The Importance of Feminist Critique for Contemporary
Cell Biology,” Hypatia 3, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 61-76.
29G erald Schatten and Helen Schatten, “The Energetic Egg,” Medical World
News 23 (January2 3, 1984): 51-53, esp. 51.
30A lberts et al., 796.
31 Guyton (n. 3 above), 613.
32 Miller and Pelham (n. 17 above), 7.
33 Alberts et al. (n. 11 above), 804.
34I bid., 801.
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Spring1 991 / SIGNS
pendento f its milieu thant he egg, and yetf roma wish that
it were,b iologistsh ave lent theirs upportt o the notiont hat
the humanf emale,b eginningw itht he egg, is congenitally
mored ependentt hant he male.35
Bringingo ut anothera spect oft he sperm’sa utonomya,n article
in thej ournalC ell has the spermm akinga n “existentiadl ecision”
to penetratet he egg: “Sperm are cells with a limitedb ehavioral
repertoireo,n e thati s directedt owardf ertilizinegg gs. To execute
the decision to abandon the haploid state,s perms wim to an egg
and therea cquire the abilityt o effectm embranef usion.”3I6s thisa
corporatem anager’sv ersiono f the sperm’sa ctivities-“executing
decisions” while fraughtw ith dismayo ver difficulot ptions that
bringw itht hemv eryh ighr isk?
Therei s anotherw ayt hats perm,d espitet heirs malls ize, can be
made to loom in importanceo ver the egg. In a collection of
scientifipc apers,a n electronm icrographof an enormouse gg and
tinys permi s titled” A Portraiot f the Sperm.”3T7h is is a littlel ike
showing a photo of a dog and calling it a picture of the fleas.
Granted,m icroscopics perma re hardert o photographt han eggs,
which are just large enough to see with the naked eye. But surely
the use oft he term” portrait,a” worda ssociatedw itht he powerful
and wealthyi,s significanEt.g gs have onlym icrographosr p ictures,
not portraits.
One depictiono fs perma s weak and timid,i nsteado fs tronga nd
powerful-theo nlys uch representatioinn westernc ivilizations, o
fara s I know-occurs in Woody Allen’s movie EverythingY ou
Always Wanted To Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask.
Allen, playingt he parto f an apprehensives permi nside a man’s
testiclesi,s scaredo ft hem an’sa pproachingo rgasmH. e is reluctant
to launchh imselfin tot hed arknessa, fraido fc ontraceptivdee vices,
afraido f windingu p on the ceilingi ft he man masturbates.
The morec ommonp icture-egg as damsel in distress,s hielded
only by her sacred garments;s perm as heroic warriort o the
rescue-cannot be proved to be dictated by the biology of these
events.W hilet he “facts”o fb iologym ayn ota lways be constructed
in culturalt erms,I would argue thati n this case they are. The
35 Ruth Herschberger, Adam’s Rib (New York: Pelligrini & Cudaby, 1948), esp. 84. I am indebted to Ruth Hubbard for telling me about Herschberger’s work,
although at a point when this paper was already in draftf orm.
36 Bennett M. Shapiro. “The Existential Decision of a Sperm,” Cell 49, no. 3 (May
1987): 293-94, esp. 293.
37 Lennart Nilsson, “A Portraito f the Sperm,” in The Functional Anatomy of the
Spermatozoan, ed. Bjorn A. Afzelius (New York: Pergamon, 1975), 79-82.
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degree of metaphorical content in these descriptions, the extent to
which differencesb etween egg and sperm are emphasized, and the
parallels between cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior
and the character of egg and sperm all point to this conclusion.
New research,o ld imagery
As new understandings of egg and sperm emerge, textbook gender
imagery is being revised. But the new research, far from escaping
the stereotypical representations of egg and sperm, simply replicates
elements of textbookg ender imagery in a differentf orm.T he
persistence of this imagery calls to mind what Ludwik Fleck
termed “the self-contained” nature of scientific thought. As he
described it, “the interactionb etween what is already known, what
remains to be learned, and those who are to apprehend it, go to
ensure harmony within the system. But at the same time they also
preserve the harmony of illusions, which is quite secure within the
confines of a given thoughts tyle.”38W e need to understand the way
in which the cultural content in scientific descriptions changes as
biological discoveries unfold, and whether that cultural content is
solidly entrenched or easily changed.
In all of the texts quoted above, sperm are described as penetrating
the egg, and specific substances on a sperm’s head are
described as binding to the egg. Recently, this description of events
was rewritten in a biophysics lab at Johns Hopkins Universitytransformingth
e egg fromt he passive to the active party.39
Prior to this research, it was thought that the zona, the inner
vestments of the egg, formed an impenetrable barrier. Sperm
overcame the barrier by mechanically burrowing through, thrashing
their tails and slowly working their way along. Later research
showed that the sperm released digestive enzymes that chemically
broke down the zona; thus, scientists presumed that the sperm used
mechanical and chemical means to get through to the egg.
In this recent investigation, the researchers began to ask questions
about the mechanical force of the sperm’s tail. (The lab’s goal
was to develop a contraceptive that worked topically on sperm.)
They discovered, to their great surprise, that the forward thrust of
sperm is extremely weak, which contradicts the assumption that
38 Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, ed. Thaddeus J.
Trenn and Robert K. Merton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 38.
39 Jay M. Baltz carried out the research I describe when he was a graduate student
in the Thomas C. Jenkins Department of Biophysics at Johns Hopkins University.
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Spring1 991 / SIGNS
sperma re forcefupl enetrators.R40at hert hant hrustinfgo rwardt,h e
sperm’sh ead was now seen to move mostlyb ack and forthT. he
sidewaysm otiono ft he sperm’st ail makest heh ead move sideways
witha forcet hati s tent imess trongetrh ani tsf orwardm ovementS. o
even if the overall force of the sperm were strong enough to
mechanicallyb reak the zona, mosto f its forcew ould be directed
sideways rathert han forwardI.n fact,i ts strongestt endency,b y
tenfoldi,s to escape by attemptintgo pryi tselfo fft he egg. Sperm,
then, must be exceptionallye fficienta t escaping froma ny cell
surfacet heyc ontactA. nd the surfaceo f the egg mustb e designed
to trapt he sperma nd preventt heire scape. Otherwise,f ew if any
sperm would reach the egg.
The researcherast JohnsH opkinsc oncludedt hatt hes perma nd
egg stickt ogetherb ecause ofa dhesivem oleculeso n the surfaceso f
each. The egg trapst he sperma nd adherest o it so tightlyth att he
sperm’sh ead is forcedt o lie flata gainstt he surfaceo f the zona, a
littleb it,t heyt old me, “like Br’er Rabbitg ettingm ore and more
stuck to tar baby the more he wriggles.” The trapped sperm
continuest o wigglei neffectuallsyid e to side. The mechanicalf orce
of its tail is so weak thata spermc annotb reake ven one chemical
bond. This is wheret he digestivee nzymesr eleased by the sperm
come in. If theys tartt o softent he zona just at the tip oft he sperm
and the sides remains tuck,t hent he weak, flailings permc an get
orientedi n the rightd irectiona nd make it throught he zonaprovidedt
hati ts bonds to the zona dissolve as it moves in.
Althought hisn ew versiono ft he saga oft he egg and the sperm
broket hroughc ulturale xpectationst,h e researcherws ho made the
discoveryc ontinuedt o writep apers and abstractsa s if the sperm
were thea ctivep artyw ho attacksb, inds,p enetratesa,n d enterst he
egg. The onlyd ifferencwe as thats permw ere now seen as performing
these actions weakly.4′ Not until August 1987, more than three
yearsa ftert he findingsd escribeda bove, did these researchersr econceptualizet
he processt o give the egg a morea ctiver ole. They
began to describet hez ona as an aggressives permc atcherc, overed
40F ar less is known about the physiology of sperm than comparable female
substances, which some feministsc laim is no accident. Greater scientifics crutinyo f
female reproduction has long enabled the burden of birth control to be placed on
women. In this case, the researchers’ discovery did not depend on development of
any new technology. The experiments made use of glass pipettes, a manometer, and
a simple microscope, all of which have been available for more than one hundred
41 Jay Baltz and Richard A. Cone, “What Force Is Needed to Tether a Sperm?”
(abstract for Society for the Study of Reproduction, 1985), and “Flagellar Torque on
the Head Determines the Force Needed to Tether a Sperm” (abstract for Biophysical
Society, 1986).
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with adhesive molecules that can capture a sperm with a single bond
and clasp it to the zona’s surface.42In the words of their published
account: “The innermost vestment, the zona pellucida, is a glycoprotein
shell, which captures and tethers the sperm before they
penetrate it. … The sperm is captured at the initial contact between
the sperm tip and the zona …. Since the thrust [of the sperm] is
much smaller than the force needed to break a single affinityb ond,
the firstb ond made upon the tip-firsmt eeting of the sperm and zona
can result in the capture of the sperm.”43
Experiments in another lab reveal similar patterns of data
interpretationG. erald Schatten and Helen Schatten set out to show
that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the “egg is not merely a
large, yolk-filled sphere into which the sperm burrows to endow
new life. Rather, recent research suggests the almost heretical view
thats perm and egg are mutually active partners.”4T4 his sounds like
a departure from the stereotypical textbook view, but further
reading reveals Schatten and Schatten’s conformity to the
aggressive-sperm metaphor. They describe how “the sperm and
egg firstt ouch when, fromt he tip of the sperm’s triangularh ead, a
long, thin filaments hoots out and harpoons the egg.” Then we learn
that “remarkably,t he harpoon is not so much fireda s assembled at
great speed, molecule by molecule, froma pool of protein stored in
a specialized region called the acrosome. The filamentm ay grow as
much as twenty times longer than the sperm head itself before its
tip reaches the egg and sticks.”45W hy not call this “making a
bridge” or “throwing out a line” rather than firing a harpoon?
Harpoons pierce prey and injure or kill them, while this filament
only sticks. And why not focus, as the Hopkins lab did, on the
stickiness of the egg, rathert han the stickiness of the sperm?46L ater
42 Jay M. Baltz, David F. Katz, and Richard A. Cone, “The Mechanics of the
Sperm-Egg Interaction at the Zona Pellucida,” Biophysical Journal 54, no. 4
(October 1988): 643-54. Lab members were somewhat familiar with work on
metaphors in the biology of female reproduction. Richard Cone, who runs the lab, is
my husband, and he talked with them about my earlier research on the subject from
time to time. Even though my current research focuses on biological imagery and I
heard about the lab’s work from my husband every day, I myself did not recognize
the role of imagery in the sperm research until many weeks after the period of
research and writing I describe. Therefore, I assume that any awareness the lab
members may have had about how underlying metaphor might be guiding this
particular research was fairly inchoate.
43 Ibid., 643, 650.
44 Schatten and Schatten (n. 29 above), 51.
45 Ibid., 52.
46 Surprisingly,i n an article intended fora general audience, the authors do not
point out that these are sea urchin sperm and note that human sperm do not shoot out
filaments at all.
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in the article, the Schattens replicate the common view of the
sperm’sp erilousj ourneyi ntot hew armd arknesso ft hev agina,t his
time fort he purpose of explainingi ts journeyi nto the egg itself:
“[The sperm]s tillh as an arduousj ourneya head. It mustp enetrate
fartheirn tot hee gg’s huge sphereo fc ytoplasman d somehowl ocate
the nucleus, so that the two cells’ chromosomesc an fuse. The
spermd ives down intot hec ytoplasmi,t st ail beating.B ut it is soon
interruptebdy the sudden and swiftm igrationo f the egg nucleus,
which rushest owardt he spermw ith a velocityt riplet hato f the
movemento fc hromosomeds uringc ell division,c rossingt hee ntire
egg in about a minute.”47
Like Schatten and Schatten and the biophysicistsa t Johns
Hopkins,a notherr esearcherh as recentlym ade discoveriest hat
seem to pointt o a morei nteractivve iew oft he relationshipo f egg
and sperm.T his work,w hich Paul Wassarmanc onductedo n the
sperma nd eggs of mice, focuseso n identifyintgh e specificm olecules
in the egg coat (the zona pellucida) that are involved in
egg-spermin teractionA. t firstg lance, his descriptionss eem to fit
the model ofa n egalitarianr elationshipM. ale and femaleg ametes
“recognizeo ne another,a”n d “interaction.s. . takep lace between
sperma nd egg.”48B ut the articlei n ScientificA mericani n which
thosed escriptionsa ppear begins witha vignettet hatp resagest he
dominantm otifo f theirp resentation”: It has been more than a
centurys ince Hermann Fol, a Swiss zoologist,p eered into his
microscopea nd became thef irspt ersont o see a spermp enetratea n
egg, fertilizei t and formt he firstc ell of a new embryo.”4T9h is
portrayaolf t he sperma s the activep arty-theo ne thatp enetrates
andf ertilizest he egg and producest he embryo-is notc ited as an
example of an earlier, now outmoded view. In fact, the author
reiteratest he pointl ateri n the article:” Many spermc an bind to
and penetratet he zona pellucida, or outerc oat,o f an unfertilized
mouse egg, but onlyo ne spermw ill eventuallyf usew itht he thin
plasma membranes urroundingt he egg proper (inner sphere),
fertilizintgh e egg and givingr ise to a new embryo.”50
The imageryo fs perma s aggressoris particularlsyt artlinign this
case: the maind iscoveryb eing reportedi s isolationo fa particular
molecule on the egg coat thatp lays an importanrto le in fertilization!
W assarman’cs hoice ofl anguages ustainst he picture.H e calls
the molecule thath as been isolated,Z P3, a “spermr eceptor.”B y
7 Schatten and Schatten, 53.
8 Paul M. Wassarman, “Fertilization in Mammals,” Scientific American 259, no.
6 (December 1988): 78-84, esp. 78, 84.
49 Ibid., 78.
50 Ibid., 79.
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allocating the passive, waiting role to the egg, Wassarman can
continue to describe the sperm as the actor,t he one thatm akes it all
happen: “The basic process begins when many sperm firsta ttach
loosely and then bind tenaciously to receptors on the surface of the
egg’s thick outer coat, the zona pellucida. Each sperm, which has a
large number of egg-binding proteins on its surface, binds to many
sperm receptors on the egg. More specifically,a site on each of the
egg-binding proteins fitsa complementarys ite on a sperm receptor,
much as a key fitsa lock.”51W ith the sperm designated as the “key”
and the egg the “lock,” it is obvious which one acts and which one
is acted upon. Could this imagery not be reversed, letting the sperm
(the lock) wait until the egg produces the key? Or could we speak
of two halves of a locket matching, and regard the matching itself as
the action that initiates the fertilization?
It is as if Wassarman were determined to make the egg the
receiving partner. Usually in biological research, the protein member
of the pair of binding molecules is called the receptor, and
physically it has a pocket in it rather like a lock. As the diagrams
that illustrate Wassarman’s article show, the molecules on the
sperm are proteins and have “pockets.” The small, mobile molecules
that fiti nto these pockets are called ligands. As shown in the
diagrams, ZP3 on the egg is a polymer of”keys”; many small knobs
stick out. Typically, molecules on the sperm would be called
receptors and molecules on the egg would be called ligands. But
Wassarman chose to name ZP3 on the egg the receptor and to create
a new term, “the egg-binding protein,” for the molecule on the
sperm that otherwise would have been called the receptor.52
Wassarman does credit the egg coat with having more functions
than those of a sperm receptor. While he notes that “the zona
pellucida has at times been viewed by investigators as a nuisance,
a barrier to sperm and hence an impediment to fertilization,”h is
new research reveals that the egg coat “serves as a sophisticated
biological security system that screens incoming sperm, selects
only those compatible with fertilizationa nd development, prepares
sperm for fusion with the egg and later protects the resulting
embryo from polyspermy [a lethal condition caused by fusion of
more than one sperm with a single egg].”53A lthough this description
gives the egg an active role, that role is drawn in stereotypically
51 Ibid., 78.
52 Since receptor molecules are relatively immotile and the ligands that bind to
them relatively motile, one might imagine the egg being called the receptor and the
sperm the ligand. But the molecules in question on egg and sperm are immotile
molecules. It is the sperm as a cell that has motility,a nd the egg as a cell that has
relative immotility.
53W assarman,7 8-79.
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femininet ermsT. he egg selectsa n appropriatem ate,p reparesh im
forf usiona, nd thenp rotectst her esultingo ffsprinfgr omh arm.T his
is courtshipa nd matingb ehaviora s seen throught he eyes of a
sociobiologist:w oman as the hard-to-gept rize, who, following
unionw itht hec hoseno ne, becomesw omana s servanta nd mother.
And Wassarmand oes not quit there. In a review article for
Science,h e outlinest he” chronologyof f ertilization.”N5e4a rt hee nd
oft hea rticlea re twos ubjecth eadings.O ne is “SpermP enetration,”
in whichW assarmand escribesh ow the chemicald issolvingo ft he
zona pellucida combines with the “substantialp ropulsive force
generatedb y sperm.”T he nexth eading is “Sperm-EggF usion.”
This sectiond etails what happens inside the zona aftera sperm
“penetrates”i t. Sperm” can makec ontactw ith,a dheret o,a nd fuse
with( thati s, fertilizea) n egg.”5W5 assarman’ws ordc hoice,a gain,i s
astonishinglsyk ewedi n favoro ft he sperm’sa ctivityf,o ri n then ext
breathh e says thats perml ose all motilityu pon fusionw ith the
egg’s surfaceI.n mousea nd sea urchine ggs,t hes perme ntersa t the
egg’s volition,a ccordingt o Wassarman’sd escription”: Once fused
withe gg plasma membrane[ the surfaceo f the egg], how does a
sperme ntert he egg? The surfaceo f both mouse and sea urchin
eggs is coveredw itht housandso fp lasmam embrane-bounpdr ojections,
called microvilli[ tiny” hairs”]. Evidence in sea urchins
suggestst hat,a fterm embranef usion,a group of elongated microvillic
lustert ightlya round and interdigitatoe ver the sperm
head. As these microvillai re resorbed,t he spermi s drawni ntot he
egg.T herefores,p ermm otilityw, hichc eases at thet imeo ff usioni n
boths ea urchinsa nd mice, is not requiredf ors perme ntry.”5T he
sectionc alled “Sperm Penetration”m ore logicallyw ould be followed
bya sectionc alled “The Egg Envelops,”r athert han” Sperm-
Egg Fusion.” This would give a parallel-and more accuratesense
thatb otht he egg and the spermi nitiatea ction.
Anotherw ay thatW assarmanm akes less of the egg’s activityis
by describingc omponentso ft he egg but referrintgo the sperma s
a whole entityD. eborah Gordonh as describeds uch an approacha s
“atomism” (“the part is independento f and primordialt o the
whole”) and identifiedit as one oft he “tenaciousa ssumptions”o f
Westerns cience and medicine.5W7 assarmane mploysa tomismt o
4 Paul M. Wassarman, “The Biology and Chemistry of Fertilization,” Science 235,
no. 4788 (January3 0, 1987): 553-60, esp. 554.
55I bid., 557.
56Ibid., 557-58. This finding throws into question Schatten and Schatten’s
description (n. 29 above) of the sperm, its tail beating, diving down into the egg.
57D eborah R. Gordon, “Tenacious Assumptions in Western Medicine,” in Biomedicine
Examined, ed. Margaret Lock and Deborah Gordon (Dordrecht: Kluwer,
1988), 19-56, esp. 26.
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his advantage.W henh e referst o processesg oingo n withins perm,
he consistentlyre turnts o descriptiontsh atr emindu s fromw hence
these activitiesc ame: theya re parto f spermt hatp enetratea n egg
or generatep ropulsivef orce.W henh e referst o processesg oingo n
withine ggs, he stops there.A s a result,a ny active role he grants
thema ppearst o be assignedt o the partso ft he egg, and nott o the
egg itself.I n the quote above, it is the microvillit hat actively
clustera roundt hes perm.I n anothere xample,” thed rivingf orcef or
engulfmenotf a fuseds permc omes froma regiono fc ytoplasmju st
beneath an egg’s plasma membrane.”58
Social implicationsT: hinkingb eyond
All three of these revisionista ccounts of egg and sperm cannot
seem to escape the hierarchicali mageryo f older accounts.E ven
thoughe ach new accountg ives the egg a largera nd more active
role, taken togethert heyb ringi nto play anotherc ulturals tereotype:
woman as a dangerousa nd aggressivet hreat.I n the Johns
Hopkins lab’s revised model, the egg ends up as the female
aggressorw ho “capturesa nd tethers”t he spermw ith her sticky
zona, ratherl ike a spiderl yingi n wait in her web.59T he Schatten
lab has the egg’s nucleus “interrupt”t he sperm’s dive with a
“sudden and swift” rush by which she “clasps the sperm and
guides its nucleus to the center.”6W0 assarman’sd escriptiono f the
surfaceo f the egg “covered witht housandso f plasma membranebound
projectionsc, alled microvilli”t hatr each out and clasp the
sperma dds to the spiderlikei magery.61
These images grantt he egg an active role but at the cost of
appearingd isturbinglayg gressive.I mages ofw omana s dangerous
and aggressive,t he femmef atalew ho victimizesm en, are widespread
in Westernl iteraturea nd culture.6M2 ore specific is the
connectiono fs pideri mageryw itht hei dea ofa n engulfingd,e vouring
mother.6N3e w data did not lead scientistst o eliminateg ender
stereotypeisn theird escriptionso f egg and sperm.I nstead,s cien-
5 Wassarman, “The Biology and Chemistry of Fertilization,” 558.
59 Baltz, Katz, and Cone (n. 42 above), 643, 650.
60S chatten and Schatten, 53.
61 Wassarman, “The Biology and Chemistry of Fertilization,” 557.
62 Mary Ellman, Thinking about Women (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1968), 140; Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1982), esp. 186.
63 Kenneth Alan Adams, “Arachnophobia: Love American Style,” Journal of
Psychoanalytic Anthropology 4, no. 2 (1981): 157-97.
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tistss implyb egan to describe egg and spermi n differentb,u t no
less damaging,t erms.
Can we envisiona less stereotypicavl iew? Biologyi tselfp rovides
anotherm odelt hatc ould be applied to thee gg and thes perm.
The cybernetimc odel-with itsf eedbackl oops,f lexiblea daptation
to change,c oordinationo ft he partsw ithina whole,e volutiono ver
time,a nd changingr esponse to the environment-isc ommoni n
genetics,e ndocrinologya,n d ecologya nd has a growingi nfluence
in medicinei n general.4T his model has the potentialt o shifto ur
imagery from the negative, in which the female reproductive
systemi s castigatedb othf orn otp roducinge ggs afterb irtha nd for
producing( and thusw asting)t oo manye ggs overall,t o something
morep ositive.T he femaler eproductives ystemc ould be seen as
respondingt o the environmen(tp regnancyo r menopause),a djusting
to monthlych anges( menstruationa)n, d flexiblyc hangingf rom
reproductivitayf terp ubertyt o nonreproductivitlayt eri n life.T he
sperma nd egg’s interactionco uld also be describedi n cybernetic
terms.J . F. Hartman’sr esearchi n reproductiveb iology demonstratedf
ifteeny earsa go thati f an egg is killed by being pricked
witha needle, live spermc annotg et throught he zona.65C learly,
this evidence shows thatt he egg and spermd o interacto n more
mutualt ermsm, akingb iology’sr efusalt o portrayth emt hatw ay all
the more disturbing.
We wouldd o well to be aware,h owevert, hatc ybernetiicm agery
is hardlyn eutral.I n the past, cyberneticm odels have played an
importanpt art in the impositiono f social control.T hese models
inherentlypr ovidea way of thinkingab out a “field”o f interacting
componentsO. nce the fieldc an be seen, it can become the object
of new formso f knowledge,w hichi n turnc an allow new formso f
social control to be exerted over the components of the field.
During the 1950s, for example, medicine began to recognize the
psychosociael nvironmenotf t hep atientt: hep atient’sf amilyan d its
psychodynamicPs.r ofessionsu ch as social workb egan to focuso n
this new environmenta,n d the resultingk nowledgeb ecame one
way to furthecro ntrolt he patient.P atientsb egan to be seen nota s
isolated,i ndividualb odies, but as psychosociale ntitiesl ocated in
an “ecological” system:m anagemento f “the patient’sp sychology
was a new entreet o patientc ontrol.”66
64W illiam Ray Arney and Bernard Bergen, Medicine and the Management of
Living (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
65 J. F. Hartman, R. B. Gwatkin, and C. F. Hutchison, “Early Contact Interactions
between Mammalian Gametes In Vitro,” Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (U.S.) 69, no. 10 (1972): 2767-69.
6 Arney and Bergen, 68.
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The models thatb iologistsu se to describet heird ata can have
importansto ciale ffectsD. uringt hen ineteenthce nturyt,h es ociala nd
naturals ciences stronglyin fluencede ach other:t he social ideas of
Malthusa bouth ow to avoidt hen aturailn creaseo ft hep oori nspired
Darwin’sO rigino fS pecies.6O7n ce theO rigins tooda s a descriptionof
then aturawl orld,c ompletew ithc ompetitioann d marketst rugglesi,t
couldb e reimporteidn tos ocial sciencea s social Darwinismi,n order
toj ustifyth es ocialo rdero ft het imeW. hatw e ares eeingn owi s similar:
the importatioonf culturali deas about passive femalesa nd heroic
males intot he “personalitieso” f gametes.T his amountst o the “implantingof
s ociali mageryon r epresentatioonfsn atures o as tol aya firm
basisf orr eimportinegx actlyt hats amei mageryas naturael xplanations
of social phenomena.”6
Furtherr esearchw ould show us exactlyw hats ocial effectsa re
beingw roughtf romt heb iologicali mageryo fe gg and sperm.A tt he
very least, the imagery keeps alive some of the hoariest old
stereotypesa bout weak damsels in distressa nd theirs trongm ale
rescuers.T hat these stereotypesa re now being writteni n at the
level oft he cell constituteas powerfuml ovet o maket hems eem so
naturala s to be beyonda lteration.
The stereotypicali magerym ight also encourage people to
imaginet hatw hatr esultsf romt he interactionof e gg and sperm-a
fertilizede gg-is the resulto f deliberate” human” action at the
cellularl evel. Whatevert hei ntentionos ft heh umanc ouple, in this
microscopic” culture” a cellular “bride” (or femmef atale)a nd a
cellular “groom” (her victim) make a cellular baby. Rosalind
Petcheskyp oints out thatt hroughv isual representationssu ch as
sonograms,w e are given “images of youngera nd younger,a nd
tiniera nd tinierf, etusesb eing ‘saved.’ ” This leads to “the pointo f
visibilityb eing ‘pushed back’ indefinitely.”E6n9 dowing egg and
spermw ith intentionaal ction,a key aspect of personhoodi n our
culture,l ays the foundationf ort he pointo fv iabilityb eing pushed
back to the momento f fertilizationT.h is will likelyl ead to greater
acceptanceo f technologicald evelopmentsa nd new formso f scrutinya
nd manipulationf, ort he benefito f these inner “persons”:
court-ordererde strictionosn a pregnantw oman’sa ctivitiesi n order
to protecth er fetus,f etals urgerya,m niocentesisa,n d rescindingo f
abortionr ightst, o name but a fewe xamples.70
67 Ruth Hubbard, “Have Only Men Evolved?” (n. 12 above), 51-52.
8 David Harvey, personal communication, November 1989.
69 Rosalind Petchesky, “Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics
of Reproduction,” Feminist Studies 13, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 263-92, esp. 272.
70R ita Arditti,R enate Klein, and Shelley Minden, Test-Tube Women (London:
Pandora, 1984); Ellen Goodman, “Whose Right to Life?” Baltimore Sun (November
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Even ifw e succeed in substitutinmg oree galitariani,n teractive
metaphorst o describet he activitieso fe gg and sperm,a nd manage
to avoid the pitfallso f cyberneticm odels,w e would stillb e guilty
ofe ndowingc ellulare ntitiesw ithp ersonhood.M ore crucial,t hen,
thanw hatk indso fp ersonalitiesw e bestowo n cells is the veryf act
thatw e are doing it at all. This processc ould ultimatelyh ave the
mostd isturbingso cial consequences.
One clear feminiscth allengei s to wake up sleepingm etaphors
in science, particularlyth ose involvedi n descriptionso f the egg
and the sperm.A lthought he literaryc onventioni s to call such
metaphors” dead,” theya re not so muchd ead as sleeping,h idden
withint he scientifico ntento ft exts-and all them orep owerfufl or
it.7W1 akingu p such metaphorsb, y becominga wareo fw hen we are
projectingc ulturali mageryo nto what we study,w ill improveo ur
ability to investigate and understand nature. Waking up such
metaphorsb, y becominga wareo ft heiri mplicationsw, ill robt hem
oft heirp owert o naturalizeo ur social conventionsa bout gender.
Departmento f Anthropology
JohnsH opkinsU niversity
17, 1987); Tamar Lewin, “Courts Acting to Force Care of the Unborn,” New York
Times (November 23, 1987), Al and B10; Susan Irwin and Brigitte Jordan, “Knowledge,
Practice, and Power: Court Ordered Cesarean Sections,” Medical Anthropology
Quarterly 1, no. 3 (September 1987): 319-34.
71 Thanks to Elizabeth Fee and David Spain, who in February 1989 and April
1989, respectively, made points related to this.
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American Anthropologist.
The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes
Author(s): Don Kulick
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 574-585
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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One of the basic things one quickly learns from any
analysis of Latin American sexual categories is that sex
between males in this part of the world does not necessarily
result in both partners being perceived as homosexual.
The crucial determinant of a homosexual classification
is not so much the fact of sex as it is the role
performed during the sexual act. A male who anally
penetrates another male is generally not considered to
be homosexual. He is considered, in all the various local
idioms, to be a Uman”i;n deed, in some communities,
penetrating another male and then bragging about it is
one way in which men demonstrate their masculinity to
others (Lancaster1 992:241;c f. Brandes 1981:234).Q uite
different associations attach themselves to a male who
allows himself to be penetrated. That male has placed
himself in what is understood to be an unmasculine,
passive position. By doing so, he has forfeited manhood
and becomes seen as something other than a man. This
cultural classification as feminine is often reflected in
the general comportment, speech practices, and dress
patterns of such males, all of which tend to be recognizable
to others as effeminate.
A conceptual system in which only males who are
penetrated are homosexual is clearly very different
from the modern heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy
currently in place in countries such as the United States,
where popular understanding generally maintains that a
male who has sex with another male is gay no matter
how carefully he may restrict his behavior to the role of
penetrator.3 This difference between Latin American
and northernE uro-Americanu nderstandingso f sexuality
is analyzed with great insight in the literature on
male same-sex relations in Latin America, and one of
the chief merits of that literature is its sensitive documentation
of the ways in which erotic practices and sexual
identities are culturally organized.
Somewhat surprisingly, the same sensitivity that
informs the literature when it comes to sexuality does
MALES WHO ENJOY being anally penetrated by other
males are, in many places in the world, an object of special
cultural elaboration. Anywhere they occur as a culturally
recognized type, it is usually they who are
classiEled and named, not the males who penetrate them
(who are often simply called men”). Furthermore, to
the extent that male same-sex sexual relations are stigmatized,
the object of social vituperation is, again,
usually those males who allow themselves to be penetrated,
not the males who penetrate them. Anywhere
they constitute a salient cultural category, men who enjoy
being penetrated are believed to think, talk, and act
in particular, identifiable, and often cross-gendered
manners. What is more, a large number of such men do
in fact behave in these culturally intelligible ways. So
whether they are the maVus, hijras, kathoeys, xaniths,
or berdaches of non-Western societies, or the mollies
and fairies of our own history, links between habitual
receptivity in anal sex and particular effeminate behavioral
patterns structure the ways in which males who
are regularly anally penetrated are perceived, and they
structure the ways in which many of those males think
about and live their lives.l
One area of the world in which males who enJoy being
anally penetrated receive a very high degree of cultural
attention is Latin America. Any student of Latin
America will be familiar with the effervescent Elgure of
the effeminate male homosexual. Called mar>con, cochon,
joto, marzea, pajara, loca, frango, bicha, or any
number of other names depending on where one Emds
him (see Murray and Dynes 1987 and Dynes 1987 for a
sampling), these males all appear to share certain behavioral
characteristics and seem to be thought of,
throughout Latin America, in quite similar ways.2
DONK ULICiKs a n associatep rofessorin the Departmenotf Social
AnthropologyS,t ockholmU niversity1,0 691 StockholmS, weden.
AmencanA nthropologist99(3):574-585.C opyrigh6t 3 1997, AmericanA nthropologicaAl ssociation.
The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered
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not extend to the realm of gender. A question not
broached in this literature is whether the fundamental
differences that exist between northern Euro-American
and Latin American regimes of sexuality might also result
in, or be reflective of, different regimes of gender.
This oversight is odd in light of the obvious and important
links between sexuality and gender in a system
where a simple act of penetration has the power to profoundly
alter a male’s cultural deEmition and social
status. Instead of exploring what the differences in the
construction of sexuality might mean for differences in
the construction of gender however analysis in this literature
falls back on familiar concepts. So just as gender
in northern Europe and North America consists of
men and women, so does it consist of men and women
in Latin AmericaXw e are told. The characteristics ascribed
to and the behavior expected of those two different
types of people are not exactly the same in these two
different parts of the world, to be sure, but the basic
gender categories are the same.
This article contests that view. I will argue that the
sexual division that reseachers have noted between
those who penetrate and those who are penetrated extends
far beyond sexual interactions between males to
constitute the basis of the gender division in Latin
America. Gender, in this particular elaboration, is
grounded not so much in sex (like it is, for example, in
modern northem European and North American cultures)
as it is grounded in sexuality. This difference in
grounding generates a gender conElguration different
from the one that researchers working in Latin America
have postulated, and it allows and even encourages the
elaboration of cultural spaces such as those inhabited
by effeminate male homosexuals. Gender in Latin
America should be seen not as consisting of men and
women, but rather of men and not-men, the latter being
a category into which both biological females and males
who en,ioy anal penetration are culturally situated. This
specific situatedness provides individuals-not just
men who enJoy anal penetration, but everyone with a
conceptual framework that they can draw on in order to
understand and organize their own and others’ desires,
bodies, affective and physical relations, and social
The Body in Question
The evidence for the arguments developed here
will be drawn from my fieldwork in the Brazilian city of
Salvador, among a group of males who enJoy anal penetration.
These males are effeminized prostitutes known
throughout Brazil as travestis (a word derived from
transvestir, to cross-dress).4
Travestis occupy a strikingly visible place in both
Brazilian social space and in the Brazilian cultural
imaginary.5 All Brazilian cities of any size contain travestis,
and in the large cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao
Paulo, travestis number in the thousands. (In SalvadorX
travestis numbered between about 80 and 250, depending
on the time of year.)6 Travestis are most exuberantly
visible during Brazil’s famous annual Carnival, and any
depiction or analysis of the festival will inevitably include
at least a passing reference to them, because their
gender inversions are often invoked as embodiments of
the Carnival spirit. But even in more mundane contexts
and discourses, travestis figure prominently. A popular
Saturday afternoon television show, for example, includes
a spot in which female impersonators, some of
whom are clearly travestis, get judged on how beautiful
they are and on how well they mime the lyrics to songs
sung by female vocalists. Another weekly television
show regularly features Valeria, a well-known travesti.
Tieta, one of the most popular television novelas in recent
years, featured a special guest appearance by
Rogeria, another famous travesti. And most telling of
the special place reserved for travestis in the Brazilian
popular imagination is the fact that the individual
widely acclaimed to be most beautiful woman in Brazil
in the mid-1980s was … a travesti. That travesti,
Roberta Close, became a household name throughout
the country. She regularly appeared on national television,
starred in a play in Rio, posed nude (with demurely
crossed legs) in Playboy magazine, was continually interviewed
and portrayed in virtually every magazine in
the country, and had at least three songs written about
her by well-known composers. Although her popularity
declined when, at the end of the 1980s, she left Brazil
to have a sex-change operation and live in Europe,
Roberta Close remains extremely well-known. As recently
as 1995, she appeared in a nationwide advertisement
for Duloren lingerie, in which a photograph of her
passport, bearing her male name, was transposed with a
photograph of her looking sexy and chic in a black lace
undergarment.T he caption read, ‘4Vocen ao imagina do
que uma Duloren e capazf (You can’t imagine what a Duloren
can do).
Regrettably, the fact that a handful of travestis
manage to achieve wealth, admiration, and, in the case
of Roberta Close, an almost iconic cultural status says
very little about the lives of the vast majority of travestis.
Those travestis, the ones that most Brazilians only
glimpse occasionally standing along highways or on
dimly lit street corners at night or read about in the
crime pages of their local newspapers, comprise one of
the most marginalized, feared, and despised groups in
Brazilian society. In most Brazilian cities, travestis are
so discriminated against that many of them avoid
venturing out onto the street during the day. They are
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regularly the victims of violent police brutality and murder.
7 The vast maJority of them come from very poor
backgrounds and remain poor throughout their lives,
living a hand-to-mouth existence and dying before the
age of 50 from violence, drug abuse, health problems
caused or exacerbated by the silicone they inJect into
their bodies, or, increasingly, AIDS.
The single most characteristic thing about travestis
is their bodies. Unlike the drag performers examined by
Esther Newton (1972) and recently elevated to the
status of theoretical paragons in the work of postmodernist
queer scholars such as Judith Butler (1990), travestis
do not merely don female attributes. They incorporate
them. Sometimes starting at ages as young as 10
or 12, boys who self-identify as travestis begin ingesting
or inJecting themselves with massive doses of female
hormones in order to give their bodies rounded features,
broad hips, prominent buttocks, and breasts. The
hormones these boys take either are medications designed
to combat estrogen deficiency or are contraceptive
preparations designed, like the pill,” to prevent
pregnancy. In Brazil such hormones are cheap (a
month’s supply, which would be consumed by a travesti
in a week or less, costs the equivalent of only a few dollars)
and are sold over the counter in any pharmacy.
Boys discover hormones from a variety of sources.
Most of my travesti friends told me that they learned
about hormones by approaching adult travestis and asking
them how they had achieved the bodies they had.
Others were advised by admirers, boyfriends, or clients,
who told them that they would look more attractive and
make more money if they looked more like girls.
Hormones are valued by travestis because they are
inexpensive, easy to obtainy and fast working. Most hormones
produce visible results after only about two
months of daily ingestion. A problem with them, however,
is that they can, especially after prolonged consumption,
result in chronic nausea, headaches, heart
palpitations, burning sensations in the legs and chest,
extreme weight gain, and allergic reactions. In addition,
the doses of female hormones required to produce
breasts and wide hips make it difficult for travestis to
achieve erections. This can be quite a serious problem,
since a great percentage of travestis’ clients want to be
penetrated by the travesti (a point to which I shall return
below). What usually happens after several years
of taking hormones is that most individuals stop, at
least for a while, and begin inecting silicone into their
Just as hormones are procured by the individual
travestis themselves, without any medical intervention
or interference, so is silicone purchased from and administered
by acquaintances or friends. The silicone
available to the travestis in Salvador is industrial silicone,
which is a kind of plastic normally used to manufacture
automobile parts such as dashboards. Although
it is widely thought to be illegal for industrial outlets to
sell this silicone to private individuals, at least one or
two travestis in any city containing a silicone manufacturing
plant will be well connected enough to be able to
buy it. Whenever they sense a demand, these travestis
contact their supplier at the plant and travel there in
great secrecy to buy several liters. They then resell this
silicone (at a hefty profit) to other travestis, who in turn
pay travestis who work as bombadeiras (pumpers) to
irMecitt directly into their bodies.
Most travestis in Salvador over the age of 17 have
some silicone in their bodies. The amount of silicone
that individual travestis choose to iIuect ranges from a
few glasses to up to 18 liters. (Travestis measure silicone
in liters and water glasses (copos), six of which
make up a liter.) Most have between two and five liters.
The maiiorityh ave it in their buttocks, hips, knees, and
inner thighs. This strategic placement of silicone is in direct
deference to Brazilian aesthetic ideals that consider
fleshy thighs, expansive hips, and a prominent,
teardrop-shaped bunda (buttocks) to be the hallmark of
feminine beauty. The majority of travestis do not have
silicone in their breasts, because they believe that silicone
in breasts (but not elsewhere in the body) causes
cancer, because they are satisfied with the size of the
breasts they have achieved through hormone consumption,
because they are convinced that silicone inections
into the chest are risky and extremely painful, or
because they are waiting for the day when they will have
enough money to pay for silicone implants (protese)
surgically inserted by doctors. A final reason for a general
disinclination to inJect silicone into one’s breasts is
that everyone knows that this silicone shifts its position
very easily. Every travesti is acquainted with several unfortunate
others whose breasts have either merged in
the middle, creating a pronounced undifferentiated
swelling known as a pigeon breast” (peito de pomba),
or whose silicone has descended into lumpy protrusions
just above the stomach.
The Body in Process
Why do they do it? One of the reasons habitually
cited by travestis seems self-evident. Elizabeth, a 29-
year-old travesti with ll/2 liters of silicone in her hips
and one water-glass of silicone in each breast, explained
it to me this way: To mold my body, you lmow,
be more feminine, with the body of a woman.” But why
do travestis want the body of a woman?
When I first began asking travestis that question, I
expected them to tell me that they wanted the body of a
woman because they felt themselves to be women. That
was not the answer I received. No one ever offered the
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explanation that they might be women trapped in male
bodies, even when I suggested it. In fact, there is a
strong consensus among travestis in Salvador that any
travesti who claims to be a woman is mentally disturbed.
A travesti is not a woman and can never be a
woman, they tell one another, because God created
them male. As individuals, they are free to embellish
and augment what God has given them, but their sex
cannot be changed. Any attempt to do so would be disastrous.
Not only do sex-change operations not produce
women (they produce, travestis say, only bichas
castradas, castrated homosexuals), they also inevitably
result in madness. I was told on numerous occasions
that, without a penis, semen cannot leave the body.
When trapped, it travels to the brain, where it collects
and forms a Zstone”t hat will continue to increase in size
until it eventually causes insanity.
So Roberta Close notwithstanding, travestis modify
their bodies not because they feel themselves to be
women but because they feel themselves to be feminine”
(femtntno) or Ulike a woman” (se sentir mulher),
qualities most often talked about not in terms of inherent
predispositions or essences but rather in terms of
behaviors, appearances, and relationships to men.8
When I asked Elizabeth what it meant when she told me
she felt feminine, for example, she answered, I like to
dress like a woman. I like when someone when
men admire me, you know?. . . I like to be admired,
when I go with a man who, like, says: ‘Sheez, you’re really
pretty, you’re really feminine.’ That . . . makes me
want to be more feminine and more beautiful every day,
you see?” Similar themes emerged when travestis
talked about when they first began to understand that
they were travestis. A common response I received
from many different people when I asked that question
was that they made this discovery in connection with attraction
and sexuality. Eighteen-year-old Cintia told me
that she understood she was a travesti from the age of
I already liked girls’ things, I played with dolls, played with
. . . girls’ things; I only played with girls. I didn’t play with
boys. I just played with these two boys; during the afternoon
I always played with them . . . well, you know, rubbing
penises together, rubbing them, kissing on the mouth.
Forty-one-year-old Gabriela says that she knew
that she was a travesti early on largely because since
childhood I always liked men, hainr legs, things like
that, you know?” Banana, a 34-year-old travesti, told me
the [understanding that I was a] travesti came after,
you know, I, um, eight, nine years, ten years old, I felt attracted,
really attracted to men.”
The attraction that these individuals felt for males
is thus perceived by them to be a maiior motivating force
behind their self-production as travestis, both privately
and professionally. Travestis are quick to point out that,
in addition to making them feel more feminine, female
forms also help them earn more money as prostitutes.
At night when they work on the street, those travestis
who have acquired pronounced feminine features use
them to attract the attention of passing motorists, and
they dress (or rather, undress) to display those features
But if the goal of a travesti’s bodily modifications is
to feel feminine and be attractive to men, what does she
think about her male genitals?
The most important point to be clear about is that
virtually every travesti values her penis: aThere’s not a
better thing in the whole world,” 19-year-old Adriana
once told me with a big smile. Any thought of having it
amputated repels them. aDeus e maist (God forbid),
many of them interject whenever talk of sex-change operations
arises. bWhat, and never cum (i.e., ejaculate,
gozar) again?!”t hey gasp, horrified.
Despite the positive feelings that they express
about their genitals, however, a travesti keeps her penis,
for the most part, hidden, aimprisoned”( presa) between
her legs. That is, travestis habitually pull their penises
down between their legs and press them against
their perineums with their underpanties. This is known
as making a cuntX (fazer uma buceta). This cunt is an
important bodily practice in a travesti’s day-to-day public
appearance. It is also crucial in another extremely
important context of a travesti’s life, namely in her relationship
to her marido (live-in boyfriend). The maridos
of travestis are typically attractive, muscular, tattooed
young men with little or no education and no jobs. Although
they are not pimps (travestis move them into
their rooms because they are impassioned lapaixonadal
with them, and they eject them when the passion
wears thin), maridos are supported economically
by their travesti girlfriends. All these boyfriends regard
themselves, and are regarded by their travesti girlfriends,
as homens (men) and, therefore, as nonhomosexual.
One of the defining attributes of being a homern
(man) in the gender system that the travestis draw on
and invoke is that a man will not be interested in another
male’s penis. A man, in this interpretative framework,
will happily penetrate another male’s anus. But
he will not touch or express any desire for another
male’s penis. For him to do so would be tantamount to
relinquishing his status as a man. He would stop being a
man and be reclassified as a viado (homosexual, faggot),
which is how the travestis are classified by others
and how they see themselves.
Travestis want their boyfriends to be men, not
viados. They require, in other words, their boyfriends to
be symbolically and socially different from, not similar
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to, themselves. Therefore, a travesti does not want her
boyfriend to notice, comment on, or in any way concern
himself with her penis, even during sex. Sex with a boyfriend,
consists, for the most part, of the travesti sucking
the boyfriend’s penis and of her boyfriend penetrating
her, most often from behind, with the travesti on all
fours or lying on her stomach on the bed. If the boyfriend
touches the travesti at all, he will caress her
breasts and perhaps kiss her. But no contact with the
travesti’s penis will occur, which means, according to
most travestis I have spoken to, that travestis do not
usually have orgasms during sex with their boyfriends.
What surprised me most about this arrangement
was that the ones who are the most adamant that it be
maintained are the travestis themselves. They respect
their boyfriends and maintain their relationships with
them only as long as the boyfriends remain Umen-“If a
boyfriend expresses interest in a travesti’s penis, becomes
concerned that the travesti ejaculate during sex,
or worst of all, if the boyfriend expresses a desire to be
anally penetrated by the travesti, the relationship, all
travestis told me firmly, would be over. They would
comply with the boyfriend’s request, they all told me,
because if someone offers me their ass, you think Im
not gonna take it?” Afterward, however, they were
agreed, they would lose respect for the boyfriend.
You’ll feel disgust (nojo) toward him,” one travesti put
it pithily. The boyfriend would no longer be a man in
their eyes. He would, instead, be reduced to a viado.
And as such, he could no longer be a boyfriend. Travestis
unfailingly terminate relationships with any boyfriend
who deviates from what they consider to be
proper manly sexuality.
This absolute unwillingness to engage their own
penises in sexual activity with their boyfriends stands in
stark contrast to what travestis do with their penises
when they are with their clients. On the street, travestis
know they are valued for their possession of a penis. Clients
will often request to see or feel a travesti’s penis before
agreeing to pay for sex with her, and travestis are
agreed that those travestis who have large penises are
more sought after than those with small ones. Similarly,
several travestis told me that one of the reasons they
stopped taking hormones was because they were losing
clients. They realized that clients had begun avoiding
them because they knew that the travesti could not
achieve an erection. Travestis maintain that one of the
most common sexual services they are paid to perform
is to anally penetrate their clients.
Most travestis eruoy this. In fact, one of the more
surprising findings of my study is that travestis, in significant
and highly marked contrast to what is generally
reported for other prostitutes, enJoy sex with clients.9
That is not to say they enoy sex every time or with every
client. But whenever they talk about thrilling, fulfilling,
or incredibly fun sex, their partner is always either a client
or what they call a vtcio, a word that literally means
vice” or uaddiction”a nd that refers to a male, often encountered
on the street while they are working, with
whom they have sex for free. Sometimes, if the vicio is
especially attractive, is known to have an especially
large penis, or is known to be especially versatile in bed,
the travesti will even pay him.
The Body in Context
At this point, having illustrated the way in which
the body of a travesti is constructed, thought about, and
used in a variety of contexts, I am ready to address the
question of cultural intelligibility and personal desirability.
Why do travestis want the kind of body they create
for themselves? What is it about Brazilian culture
that incites and sustains desire for a male body made
feminine through hormones and silicone?
By phrasing that question primarily in terms of culture,
I do not mean to deny that there are also social and
economic considerations behind the production of travesti
bodies and subjectivities. As I noted above, a body
full of silicone translates into cash in the Brazilian sexual
marketplace. It is important to understand, however
particularly because popular and academic discourses
about prostitution tend to frame it so narrowly
in terms of victimization, poverty, and exploitationthat
males do not become travestis because they were
sexually abused as children or just for economic gain.
Only one of the approximately 40 travestis in my close
circle of acquaintances was clearly the victim of childhood
sexual abuse. And while the vast mqority of travestis
(like, one must realize, the vast majority of people
in Brazil) come from working-class or poor backgrounds,
it is far from impossible for poor, openly effeminate
homosexual males to find employment, especially
in the professions of hairdressers, cooks, and
housecleaners, where they are quite heavily represented.
Another factor that makes it problematic to view
travestis primarily in social or economic terms is the
fact that the sexual marketplace does not require males
who prostitute themselves to be travestis. Male prostitution
(where the prostitutes, who are called miches,
look and act like men) is widespread in Brazil and has
been the topic of one published ethnographic study
(Perlongher 1987). Also, even transgendered prostitution
does not require the radical body modiElcations
that travestis undertake. Before hormones and silicone
became widely available (in the mid-1970s and mid-
1980s, respectively) males dressed up as females, using
wigs and foam-rubber padding (pirelli), and worked
successfully as prostitutes. Some males still do this today.
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Finally, it should be appreciated that travestis do
not need to actually have sex with their clients to earn
money as prostitutes. A large percentage (in some
cases, the bulk) of a travesti’s income from clients is derived
from robbing them. In order to rob a client, all that
is required is that a travesti come into close physical
proximity with him. Once a travesti is in a client’s car or
once she has begun caressing a passerby’s penis, asking
him seductively if he Uquerg ozar”( wants to cum), the
rest, for most travestis, is easy. Either by pickpocketing
the client, assaulting him, or if she does have sex with
him, by threatening afterward to create a public scandal,
the travesti will often walk away with all the client’s
money (Kulick 1996a). Thus it is entirely possible to derive
a respectable income from prostitution and still not
consume hormones and inJect silicone into one’s body.
In addition to all those considerations, I also phrase
the question of travestis in terms of culture because,
even if it were possible to claim that males who become
travestis do so because of poverty, early sexual exploitation,
or some enigmatic inner psychic orientation, the
mystery of travestis as a sociocultural phenomenon
would remain unsolved. What is it about the understandings,
representations, and definitions of sexuality,
gender, and sex in Brazilian society that makes travesti
subjectivity imaginable and intelligible?
Let me begin answering that question by noting an
aspect of travesti language that initially puzzled me. In
their talk to one another, travestis frequently refer to
biological males by using feminine pronouns and feminine
adjectival endings. Thus the common utterance
Uela ficou doida” (she was furious) can refer to a travesti,
a woman, a gay male, or a heterosexual male who
has allowed himself to be penetrated by another male.
All of these different people are classified by travestis in
the same manner. This classiElcatory system is quite
subtle, complex, and context sensitive; travestis narrating
their life stories frequently use masculine pronouns
and advjectivael ndings when talking about themselves
as children but switch to feminine forms when discussing
their present-day lives. In a similar way, clients are
often referred to as she,” but the same client will be referred
to with different gendered pronouns depending
on the actions he performs. When a travesti recounts
that she struggled with a client over money or when she
describes him paying, for example, his gender will often
change from feminine to masculine. The important
point here is that the gender of males is subject to fluctuation
and change in travesti talk. Males are sometimes
referred to as she” and sometimes as “he.” Males, in
other words, can shift gender depending on the context
and the actions they perform. The same is not true for
females. Females, even the several extremely brawny
and conspicuously unfeminine lesbians who associate
with the travestis I know, are never referred to as “he”
(Kulick 1996b). So whereas the gender of females remains
Elxed, the gender of males fluctuates and shifts
Why can males be either male or female, but females
can only be female? The answer, I believe, lies in
the way that the gender system that the travestis draw
on is constituted. Debates about transgendered individualss
uch as 18th-centurym ollies, Byzantinee unuchs,
Indian huras, Native American berdaches, U.S. transsexuals,
and others often suggest that those individuals
constitute a third, or intermediate, gender, one that is
neither male or female or one that combines both male
and female.lo Journalists and social commentators in
Brazil sometimes take a similar line when they write
about travestis, arguing that travestis transcend maleness
and femaleness and constitute a kind of postmodern
My contention is the opposite. Despite outward
physical appearances and despite local claims to the
contrary, there is no third or intermediate sex here; travestis
only arise and are only culturally intelligible
within a gender system based on a strict dichotomy.
That gender system, however, is structured according
to a dichotomy different from the one with which many
of us are familiar, anchored in and arising from principles
different from those that structure and give meaning
to gender in northern Europe and North America.
The fundamental difference is that, whereas the
northernE uro-Americang ender system is based on sex,
the gender system that structures travestis’ perceptions
and actions is based on sexuality. The dominant idea in
northern Euro-American societies is that one is a man
or a woman because of the genitals one possesses. That
biological difference is understood to accrete differences
in behavior, language, sexuality, perception,
emotion, and so on. As scholars such as Harold Garfinkel
(1967), Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna
(1985[1978]), and Janice Raymond (1979) have pointed
out, it is within such a cultural system that a transsexual
body can arise, because here biological males, for example,
who do not feel or behave as men should, can
make sense of that difference by reference to their genitals.
They are not men; therefore they must be women,
and to be a woman means to have the genitals of a female.
While the biological differences between men and
women are certainly not igncxredi n Brazil, the possession
of genitals is fundamentally conflated with what
they can be used for, and in the particular conElguration
of sexuality, gender and sex that has developed there,
the determinative criterion in the identification of
males and females is not so much the genitals as it is the
role those genitals perform in sexual encounters. Here
the locus of gender difference is the act of penetration.
If one only penetrates, one is a man, but if one gets
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penetrated, one is not a man, which, in this case, means
that one is either a viado (a faggot) or a mulher (a
woman). Tina, a 27-year-old travesti, makes the parallels
clear in a story about why she eventually left one
of her ex-boyfriends:
1. TINA: For three years [my marido] was a man for me. A
total man (foi homtssimo). Then I was the man, and he was
the faggot (viado).
2. DON: What?
3. TINA: Do you see?
4. DON: Yes…. But no, how?
5. TINA: For three years he was a man for me, and after those
three years he became a woman (elefoi mulher). I was the
man, and he was the woman. The Elrst three years I was
together with him, do you see, he penetrated me (ele me
comia) and I sucked [his penis]. I was his woman.
6. DON: Yeah . . .
7. TINA: And after those three years, I was his man. Do you
understand now? Now you get it.
8. DON: But what happened? What, what made him . . .
9. TINA: Change?
10. DON: Change, yeah.
1l. TINA: It changed with him touching my penis…. He
began doing other kinds of sex things. UYou don’t have to
cum [i.e., have orgasms] on the street [with clients]” [he
told me], UI can jerk you off (eu bato uma punhetinha pra
voce). And later on we can do other new things.” He gives
me his ass, he gave me his ass, started to suck [my penis],
and well, there you are.
Note how Tina explains that she was her boyfriend’s
woman, in that he penetrated me and I sucked
[his penis]” (line 5). Note also how Tina uses the words
vtado (faggot) and mulher (woman) interchangeably
(lines 1 and 5) to express what her boyfriend became after
he started expressing an interest in her penis and after
he started “giving his ass” to her. This discursive conflation
is similar to that used when travestis talk about
their clients, the vast majority of whom are believed by
travestis to desire to be anally penetrated by the travesti
a desire that, as I just explained,d isqualifiest hem
from being men and makes them into viados, like the
travestis themselves. Hence they are commonly referred
to in travestis’ talk by the feminine pronoun ela (she).
Anal penetration figures prominently as an engendering
device in another important dimension of travestis’
lives, namely, their self-discovery as travestis. When
I asked travestis to tell me when they first began to understand
that they were travestis, the most common response,
as I noted earlier, was that they discovered this
in connection with attraction to males. Sooner or later,
this attraction always led to sexuality, which in practice
means that the travesti began allowing herself to be
penetrated anally. This act is always cited by travestis
as crucial in their self-understanding as travestis.
A final example of the role that anal penetration
plays as a determining factor in gender assignment is
the particular way in which travestis talk about gay
men. Travestis frequently dismiss and disparage gay
men for pretending to be men” (landar/passar] como
sefosse homern), a phrase that initially confounded me,
especially when it was used by travestis in reference to
me. One Sunday afternoon, for example, I was standing
with two travesti friends eating candy in one of Salvador’s
main plazas. As two policemen walked by, one
travesti began to giggle. They see you standing here
with us,”s he said to me, Uandth ey probablyt hink you’re
a man.” Both travestis then collapsed in laughter at the
sheer outrageousness of such a profound misunderstanding.
It took me, however, a long time to figure out
what was so funny.
I finally came to realize that as a gay man, a viado, I
am assumed by travestis to dar (be penetrated by men).
I am, therefore, the same as them. But I and all other gay
men who do not dress as women and modify their bodies
to be more feminine disguise this sameness. We
hide, we deceive, we pretend to be men, when we really
are not men at all. It is in this sense that travestis can
perceive themselves to be more honest, and much more
radical, than “butch” (machuda) homosexuals like myself.
It is also in this sense that travestis simply do not
understand the discrimination that they face throughout
Brazil at the hands of gay men, many of whom feel
that travestis compromise the public image of homosexuals
and give gay men a bad name.
What all these examples point to is that for travestis,
as reflected in their actions and in all their talk about
themselves, clients, boyfriends, vicios, gay men, women,
and sexuality, there are two genders; there is a binary
system of opposites very firmly in place and in operation.
But the salient difference in this system is not between
men and women. It is, instead, between those
who penetrate (comer, literally uto eat” in Brazilian Portuguese)
and those who get penetrated (dar, literally
to give”), in a system where the act of beingpenetrated
has transformative force. Thus those who only eat”
(and neverigive”) in this system are culturally designated
as “men”; those who give (even if they also eat)
are classified as being something else, a something that
I will call, partly for want of a culturally elaborated label
and partly to foreground my conviction that the gender
system that makes it possible for travestis to emerge
and make sense is one massively oriented towards, if
not determined by, male subjectivity, male desire, and
male pleasure, as those are culturally elaborated in Brazil:
Unot men-” What this particular binarity implies is
that females and males who enJoy being penetrated belong
to the same classificatory category, they are on the
same side of the gendered binary. They share, in other
words, a gender.
This sharing is the reason why the overwhelming
majority of travestis do not self-identify as women and
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have no desire to have an operation to become a woman
even though they spend their lives dramatically modifying
their bodies to make them look more feminine. Culturally
speaking, travestis, because they enXioyb eing
penetrated, are structurally equivalent to, even if they
are not biologically identical to, women. Because they
already share a gender with women, a sex-change operation
would (again, culturally speaking) give a travesti
nothing that she does not already have. All a sexchange
operation would do is rob her of a significant
source of pleasure and income.
It is important to stress that the claim I am making
here is that travestis share a gender with women, not
that they are women (or that women are travestis). Individual
travestis will not always or necessarily share individual
women’s roles, goals, or social status. Just as
the worldviews, self-images, social statuses, and possibilities
of, say, a poor black mother, a single mulatto
prostitute, and a rich white businesswoman in Brazil
differ dramatically, even though all those individuals
share a gender, so will the goals, perspectives, and possibilities
of individual travestis differ from those of individual
women, even though all those individuals share a
gender. But inasmuch as travestis share the same gender
as women, they are understood to share (and feel
themselves to share) a whole spectrum of tastes, perceptions,
behaviors, styles, feelings, and desires. And
one of the most important of those desires is understood
and felt to be the desire to attract and be attractive
for persons of the opposite gender.ll The desire to
be attractive for persons of the opposite gender puts
pressure on individuals to attempt to approximate cultural
ideals of beauty, thereby drawing them into patriarchal
and heterosexual imperatives that guide aesthetic
values and that frame the direction and the
content of the erotic gaze.l2 And although attractive
male bodies get quite a lot of attention and exposure in
Brazil, the pressure to conform to cultural ideals of
beauty, in Brazil as in northern Euro-American societies,
is much stronger on females than on males. In all
these societies, the ones who are culturally incited to
look (with all the subtexts of power and control that
that action can imply) are males, and the ones who are
exhorted to desire to be looked at are females.
In Brazil, the paragon of beauty, the body that is
held forth, disseminated, and extolled as desirable in
the media, on television, in popular music, during Carnival,
and in the day-to-day public practices of both individual
men and women (comments and catcalls from
groups of males at women passing by, microscopic
string bikinis, known throughout the country asfio dentat
[dental floss], worn by women at the beach) is a
feminine body with smallish breasts, ample buttocks,
and high, wide hips. Anyone wishing to be considered
desirable to a man should do what she can to approximate
that ideal. And this, of course, is precisely what
travestis do. They appropriate and incorporate the ideals
of beauty that their culture offers them in order to be
attractive to men: both real men (i.e., boyfriends, some
clients, and vicios), and males who publicly pretend to
be men” (clients and vicios who enJoy being penetrated).
Conclusion: Penetrating Gender
What exactly is gender and what is the relationship
between sex and gender? Despite several decades of research,
discussion, and intense debate, there is still no
agreed-upon, widely accepted answer to those basic
questions. Researchers who discuss gender tend to
either not define it or, if they do define it, do so by placing
it in a seemingly necessary relationship to sex. But
one of the main reasons for the great success of Judith
Butler’s Gender Trouble (and in anthropology, Marilyn
Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift) is surely because
those books called sharp critical attention to understandings
of gender that see it as the cultural reading of
a precultural, or prediscursive, sex. And what is ‘sex’
anyway?” asks Butler in a key passage:
Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and
how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses
which purport to establish such facts” for us? Does sex
have a history? Does each sex have a different history, or
histories? Is there a histoxy of how the duality of sex was
established, a genealogy that might expose the binary options
as variable construction? Are the ostensibly natural
facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific
discourses in the service of other political and social interests?
If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps
this construct called sex” is as culturally constructed
as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender,
with the consequence that the distinction between sex and
gender turns out to be no distinction at all. [1990:S7]
It is only when one fully appreciates Butler’s point
and realizes that sex stands in no particularly privileged,
or even necessary, relation to gender that one can
begin to understand the various ways in which social
groups can organize gender in different ways. My work
among travestis has led me to define gender, more or
less following Eve Sedgwick (1990:27-28), as a social
and symbolic arena of ongoing contestation over specific
identities, behaviors, rights, obligations, and sexualities.
These identities and so forth are bound up with
and productive of male and female persons, in a hierarchically
ordered cultural system in which the male/
female dichotomy functions as a primary and perhaps a
model binarism for a wide range of values, processes,
relationships, and behaviors. Gender, in this rendering,
does not have to be about men” and women.” It can
just as probably be about amen” and anot-men,” a
slight but extremely significant difference in social
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classification that opens up different social configurations
and facilitates the production of different identities,
understandings, relationships, and imaginings.
One of the main puzzles I have found myself having
to solve about Brazilian travestis is why they exist at all.
Turning to the rich and growing literature on homosexuality
in Latin America was less helpful than I had
hoped, because the arguments developed there cannot
account for (1) the cultural forces at work that make it
seem logical and reasonable for some males to permanently
alter their bodies to make them look more like
women, even though they do not consider themselves to
be women and (2) the fact that travestis regularly (not
to say daily) perform both the role of penetrator and
penetrated in their various sexual interactions with clients,
vicios, and boyfriends. In the first case the literature
on homosexuality in Latin America indicates that it
should not be necessary to go to the extremes that Brazilian
travestis go to (they could simply live as effeminate,
yet still clearly male, homosexuals), and in the second
case, the literature leads one to expect that
travestis would restrict their sexual roles, by and large,
to that of being penetrated.l3 Wrong on both counts.
What is lacking in this literature, and what I hope
this essay will help to provide, is a sharper understanding
of the ways in which sexuality and gender con-
Elgure with one another throughout Latin America. My
main point is that for the travestis with whom I work in
Salvador, gender identity is thought to be determined by
one’s sexual behavior.l4 My contention is that travestis
did not just pull this understanding out of thin air; on the
contrary, I believe that they have distilled and clarified
a relationship between sexuality and gender that seems
to be widespread throughout Latin America. Past research
on homosexual roles in Latin America (and by
extension, since that literature builds on it, past research
on male and female roles in Latin America) has
perceived the links to sexuality and gender to which I
have drawn attention (see, for example, Parker 1986:
157; 1991:43-53, 167), but it has been prevented from
theorizing those links in the way I have done in this article
because it has conflated sex and gender. Researchers
have assumed that gender is a cultural reading
of biological males and females and that there are,
therefore, two genders: man and woman. Effeminate
male homosexuals do not fit into this particular binary;
they are clearly not women, but culturally speaking they
are not men either. So what are they? Calling them 66not
quite men, not quite women,” as Roger Lancaster (1992:
274) does in his analysis of Nicaraguan cochones, is
hedging: a slippage into third gender” language to describe
a society in which gender, as Lancaster so carefully
documents, is structured according to a powerful
and coercive binary. It is also not hearing what cochones,
travestis, and other effeminate Latin American
homosexuals are saying. When travestis, maricas, or cochones
call each other Ushe”o r when they call men who
have been anally penetrated ashe,” they are not just being
campy and subcultural, as analyses of the language
of homosexual males usually conclude; I suggest that
they are perceptively and incisively reading off and
enunciating core messages generated by their cultures’
arrangements of sexuality, gender, and sex.
I realize that this interpretation of travestis and
other effeminate male homosexuals as belonging to the
same gender as women will seem counterintuitive for
many Latin Americans and students of Latin America.
Certainly in Brazil, people generally do not refer to travestis
as she,” and many people, travestis will be the
first to tell you, seem to eIuoy going out of their way to
offend travestis by addressing them loudly and mockingly
as ao senhor” (sir or mister).l5 The very word travesti
is grammaticallym asculinei n BrazilianP ortuguese
(o travesti), which makes it not only easy but logical to
address the word’s referent using masculine forms.l6
There are certainly many reasons why Brazilians
generally contest and mock individual travestis’ claims
to femininity, not least among them being travestis’
strong associations with homosexuality, prostitution,
and AIDS all highly stigmatized issues that tend to
elicit harsh condemnation and censure from many people.
Refusal to acknowledge travestis’ gender is one
readily available way of refusing to acknowledge travestis’
right to exist at all. It is a way of putting travestis
back in their (decently gendered) place, a way of denying
and defending against the possibilities that exist
within the gender system itself for males to shift from
one category to the other.l7
During the time I have spent in Brazil, I have also
noted that the harshest scorn is reserved for unattractive
travestis. Travestis such as Roberta Close and some
of my own acquaintances in Salvador who closely approximate
cultural ideals of feminine beauty are generally
not publicly insulted and mocked and addressed as
men. On the contrary, such travestis are often admired
and regarded with a kind of awe. One conclusion I draw
from this is that the commonplace denial of travestis’
gender as not-men may not be so much a reaction
against them as gender crossers as it is a reaction against
unattractiveness in people (women and other not-men),
whose job it is to make themselves attractive for men.
Seen in this light, some of the hostility against (unattractive)
travestis becomes intelligible as a reaction against
them as failed women, not failed men, as more orthodox
interpretations have usually argued.
Whether or not I am correct in claiming that the patterns
I have discussed here have a more widespread
existence throughout Latin America remains to be seen.
Some of what I argue here may be specific to Brazil, and
some of it will inevitably be class specific. In a large,
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extraordinatily divided, and complex area like Latin
America, many different and competing discourses and
understandings about sexuality and gender will be
available in different ways to different individuals.
Those differences need to be investigated and documented
in detail. My purpose here is not to suggest a
monolithic and immutable model of gender and sexuality
for everyone in Latin America. I readily admit to having
close Elrsthandu nderstandingo nly of the travestis
with whom I worked in Salvador, and the arguments
presented in this essay have been developed in an ongoing
attempt to make sense of their words, choices, actions,
and relationships.
At the same time, though, I am struck by the close
similarities in gender and sexual roles that I read in
other anthropologists’ reports about homosexuality
and male-female relations in countries and places far
away from Salvador, and I think that the points discussed
here can be helpful in understanding a number
of issues not explicitly analyzed, such as why males
throughout Latin America so violently fear being anally
penetrated, why men who have sex with or even live
with effeminate homosexuals often consider themselves
to be heterosexual, why societies like Brazil can
grant star status to particularly fetching travestis (they
are just like women in that they are not-men, and
sometimes they are more beautiful than women), why
women in a place like Brazil are generally not offended
or outraged by the prominence in the popular imagination
of travestis like Roberta Close (like women, travestis
like Close are also not-men, and hence they share
women’s tastes, perceptions, feelings, and desires),
why many males in Latin American countries appear to
be able to relatively unproblematically enJoy sexual encounters
with effeminate homosexuals and travestis
(they are definitionally not-men, and hence sexual relations
with them do not readily call into question one’s
self-identity as a man), and why such men even pay to be
penetrated by these not-men (for some men being penetrated
by a not-man is perhaps not as status- and identity-
threatening as being penetrated by a man; for other
men it is perhaps more threatening, and maybe, therefore,
more exciting). If this essay makes any contribution
to our understanding of gender and sexuality in
Latin America, it will be in revitalizing exploration of
the relationship between sexuality and gender and in
pronding a clearer framework within which we might be
able to see connections that have not been visible before.
Acknowledgments. Research support for fieldwork in Brazil
was generously provided by the Swedish Council for Research
in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSFR) and the
Wenner-GrenF oundation for AnthropologicalR esearch. The
essay has benefited immensely from the critical comments of
Ines Alfano, Lars Fant, Mark Graham, Barbara Hobson, Kenneth
Hyltenstam, Heather Levi, Jerry Lombardi, Thais
Machado-Borges, Cecilia McCallum, Stephen Murray, Bambi
Schieffelin, Michael Silverstein, Britt-Marie Thuren, David
Valentine, Unni Wikan, and Margaret Willson. My biggest debt
is to the travestis in Salvador with whom I work and, especially,
to my teacher and coworker, Keila Simpsom, to whom
I owe everything.
l. Chauncey 1994; Crisp 1968; Jackson 1989; Nanda 1990;
Trumbach 1989; Whitehead 1981; Wikan 1977.
2. See, for example, Almaguer 1991, Carrier 1995, FIY 1986,
Guttman 1996, Lancaster 1992, Leiner 1994, Murray 1987,
1995, Parker 1991, Prieur 1994, and Trevisan 1986.
3. One of the few contexts in which ideas similar to Latin
American ones are preserved in North American and northern
European understandings of male sexuality is prisons. See,
for example, Wooden and Parker 1982.
4. This article is based on ll months of anthropological
fieldwork and archival research and more than 50 hours of
recorded speech and interviews with travestis between the
ages of ll and 60 in Salvador, Brazil’s third-largest city, with
a population of over 2 million people. Details about the fieldwork
and the transcriptions are in Kulick n.d.
5. Travestis are also the subject of two short anthropological
monographs in Portuguese: de Oliveira 1994 and Silva
1993. There is also an article in English on travestis in Salvador:
Cornwall 1994. As far as I can see, however, all the
ethnographic data on travestis in that article are drawn from
de Oliveira’s unpublished master’s thesis, which later became
her monograph, and from other published sources. Some of
the information in the article, such as the author’s claim that
90 percent of the travestis in Salvador are devotees of the
Afro-Brazilianr eligion candomble, is also hugely inaccurate.
6. In the summer months leading up to Carnival, travestis
from other Brazilian cities flock to Salvador to cash in on the
fact that the many popular festivals preceding Carnival put
men in festive moods and predispose them to spend their
money on prostitutes.
7. de Oliveira 1994; Kulick 1996a; Mott and Assuncao 1987;
Silva 1993.
8. The literal translation of se senttr mulher is zto feel
woman,” and taken out of context, it could be read as meaning
that travestis feel themselves to be women. In all instances in
which it is used by travestis, however, the phrase means to
feel like a woman,” Zto feel as if one were a woman (even
though one is not).” Its contrastive opposite is ser mulher (to
be woman).
9. In her study of female prostitutes in London, for example,
Day explains that Ua prostitute creates distinctions with
her body so that work involves veiy little physical contact in
contrast to private sexual contacts. Thus . . . at work . . . only
certain types of sex are acceptable while sex outside work
involves neither physical barriers nor forbidden zones”
(1990:98). The distinctions to which Day refers here are inverted
in travesti sexual relationships.
10. Bornstein 1994; Elkins and King 1996; Herdt 1994.
11. One gendered, absolutely central, and culturally incited
desire that is almost entirely absent from this picture is
the desire for motherhood. Although some readers of this
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article have suggested to me that the absence of maternal
desires negates my thesis that travestis share a gender with
women, I am more inclined to see the absence of such desire
as yet another reflex of the famous Madonna-Whorceo mplex:
travestis align themselves, exuberantly and literally, with the
Whore avatar of Latin womanhood, not the Mother incarnation.
Also, note again that my claim here is not that travestis
are women. The claim is that the particular configurations of
sex, gender, and sexuality in Brazil and other Latin American
societies differ from the dominant configurations in northern
Europe and North America, and generate different arrangements
of gender, those that I am calling men and not-men.
Motherhood is indisputably a crucial component of female
roles and desires, in that a female may not be considered to
have achieved full womanhood without it (and in this sense,
travestis [like female prostitutes?] can only ever remain incomplete,
or failed, women). I contend, however, that motherhood
is not dete7minative of gender in the way that I am
claiming sexuality is.
12. I use the word heterosexuality purposely because tra
vesti-boyfriend relationships are generally considered, by travestis
and their boyfriends, to be heterosexual. I once asked
Edilson, a 35-year-old marido who has had two long-term
relationships in his life, both of them with travestis, whether
he considered himself to be heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual.
I’m heterosexual; I’m a man,” was his immediate
reply. gI won’t feel love for another heterosexual,” he continued,
significantly, demonstrating how very lightly the northern
Euro-American classificatory system has been grafted
onto more meaningful Brazilian ways of organizing erotic
relationships: [For two males to be able to feel love], one of
the two has to be gay.”
13. One important exception to this is the Norwegian sociologist
Annick Prieur’s (1994) sensitive work on Mexican jotas.
14. Note that this relationship between sexuality and gender
is the opposite of what George Chauncey reports for
early-20th-centuryN ew York.W hereasC haunceya rgues that
sexuality and gender in that place and time were organized
so that one’s sexual behavior was necessarily thought to be
determined by one’s gender identity” (1994:48), my argument
is that for travestis in Salvador, and possibly for many people
throughout Latin America, one’s gender identity is necessarily
thought to be determined by one’s sexual behavior.
One more point here. I wish to note that Unni Wikan, upon
reading this paper as a reviewer for the Amertcan Anthropologist,
pointed out that she made a similar claim to the one
I argue for here in her 1977 article on the Omani xanith.
Rereading that article, I discovered this to be true (see Wikan
1977:309), and I acknowledge that here. A major difference
between Wikan’s argument and my own, however, is that it is
never entirely clear whether Omanis (or Wikan) conceptualize(
s) xaniths as men, women, or as a third gender. (For a
summary of the xanith debate, see Murray 1997.)
15. The exceptions to this are boyfriends, who often but,
interestingly, not always use feminine grammatical forms
when speaking to and about their travesti girlfriends, and
clients, who invariably use feminine forms when negotiating
sex with travestis.
16. In their day-to-day language practices, travestis subvert
these grammatical strictures by most often using the
grammatically feminine words mona and bicha instead of
17. The possibility for males to shift gender-at least temporarily,
in (hopefully) hidden, private encounters seems to
be one of the major attractions that travestis have for clients.
From what many different travestis told me, it seems clear
that the erotic pleasure that clients derive from being anally
penetrated is frequently expressed in veIy specific, heavily
gender-saturated, ways. I heard numerous stories of clients
who not only wanted to be penetrated but also, as they were
being penetrated, wanted the travesti to call them gostosa
(delicious/sexy, using the feminine grammatical ending) and
address them by female names. Stories of this kind are so
common that I find it hard to escape the conclusion that a
significant measure of the erotic delight that many clients
derive from anal penetration is traceable to the fact that the
sexual act is an engendering act that shifts their gender and
transforms them from men into not-men.
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