Researching the history of transsex is not at all easy. In the first place, the activities of transwomen, feminised males and sex workers are rarely considered appropriate material for men of letters to discuss. Even where such histories were written, cultural revisionists have done everything they could to erase them, with much original material being deliberately destroyed.
However, here are a few examples.
The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the borders of the Scythian steppe in the first century BC, provides a tantalising hint of the practice there of drinking mare’s urine, a substance so high in oestrogens that it is still used as the source of a proprietary drug, ‘premarin’, widely used still for hormone replacement therapy – and to feminise male-to- feminine transsexuals. ‘
“Other parts of ancient Eurasia had traditions of third-gender spirit-people. Herodotus and Hippocrates both discuss the “enarees”, or male-to-female transsexual shamans among the ancient Scythians, who “mutilated” their genitalia and took on female roles. They were said to be the most powerful shamans of their people. Ovid actually claimed that some Scythian priestesses knew how to extract “female poison” distilled from the urine of a mare in heat, with which to dose men in order to feminize them. The average person might throw this off as silliness, if they didn’t know that pregnant mare’s urine is the main source of Premarin, the most widely used estrogen drug today. They also ate a lot of licorice root – so popular among them that the Greeks to whom they exported it referred to it as “the Scythian root” – which is also an anti-androgen” and these are mentioned in Herodotus, Hippocrates, and Ovid.”
In ‘The Prehistory of Sex’, Timothy Taylor observes that the practice of drinking animal urine is still not unusual among pastoralist peoples. He suggests that if the Scythians drank this potent liquid it would be hardly surprising if they experienced some transformative effects from it. (These claims have been challenged by people with about as much evidence as Taylor, which is practically none! Make up your own mind.)
We do have evidence that the enarees were feminised male shamans, but whether or not theywere feminised by sustaining damage to their testes, by castration — a common practice at the time — or by the effects of oestrogen, we cannot be sure. However, as the feminising effect of drinking hormone-rich urine was known elsewhere and as there seems to be no evidence that anyone was forced to take it against their will, some measure of willing compliance in a process of feminisation, for whatever reason, seems at least plausible.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher and historian of Alexandria, wrote, of what he called ‘eunuchs’ but who were transwomen or ladyboys as they are known today.
‘Expending every possible care on their outward adornment, they are not ashamed even to employ every device to change artificially their nature as men into women … Some of them … craving a complete transformation into women, they have amputated their generative members.’
‘They … leave no ember of their male nature to smoulder. Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn their hair, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like. In fact, the transformation of the male nature to the female is practiced by them as an art and does not raise a blush. Certainly you may see (them) continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who, by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty, have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs, are clad in purple.’
Naturally, to a first-century man like Philo, the wilful amputation of the penis, in order to transform oneself into a woman, was indicative of utter insanity.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria provided the first real indication of transgender sex work by describing a custom at slave auctions where boys were ‘beautified to attract potential buyers.’ The habit of buying boys to serve as sexual playthings was commonplace in the Hellenistic world, especially after the Romans took over. They had a particular taste for pueri delicatii, the sweet boys.
This propensity — which was widespread and widely remarked — has been seized on by modern ‘gay’ activists to suggest that ‘homosexuality was common in Rome’ but this is a barefaced lie. The concept of sex in Roman and indeed in many other cultures actually had little to do with physical sex and much to do with appearance and more importantly, sexual role.
Roman men and pretty boys
Roman men saw nothing out of the ordinary in penetrating a pretty boy, as is evidenced by the Emperor Hadrian and his beloved boy Antinous. In Rome, as in most of the world today, only the submissive partner in anal sex was a catamite, roughly equivalent to homosexual today. The Roman’s didn’t care whom (or what) one penetrated; as long as one was penetrating, one remained a man.
The act of sex is definitive
Thus it should be seen that the act of sex defines one’s sex. The penetrator is always a man and the penetrated always not so; a type of woman or ‘not-man’. So these exchanges are always heterosexual, since they were between a man and a ‘not-man’, Just because someone might have a penis, in this sense, absolutely does not mean that person is a man, necessarily. It is only if he uses that penis like a man — that is to penetrate — that he can be a man. Similarly, all males have an opening which can serve to allow a lover to enter. In fact she is actually female because she takes the man inside her. If a male does so, he immediately ceases to be a man and becomes a ‘not-man’ — and his own penis becomes just as unmasculine as the rest of him — a girl-cock.
To put that another way, the act of sex creates a hierarchy gradient with the penetrator at one end and the penetrated at the other. In normal sex between males and females, this gradient is already in place, (despite the efforts of feminists.) At one and of the scale is a man and at the other is a ‘not-man’ or a woman. Just because the same gradient is recreated in the act of sex itself between two males, matters neither to the gradient nor to the parties. One is a man and the other is a type of woman, a ‘not-man.’ There is no such thing as ‘egalitarian sex’.
In other words, these couplings are actually heterosexual.
Even more importantly, perhaps, as long as the catamite in question was young and beautiful, she would encounter no social issues. It was only as she got older and began to appear to be ‘not quite a man but not quite a woman’ that the opprobrium began — and this would be especially severe if she had not taken care of her appearance, had lost teeth or her hair and so on. So she who might have been the belle of the ball at thirteen, at thirty would be a laughing stock, unless she were castrated to remove testosterone from her body.
Herodotus wrote that Aphrodite cursed a group of Scythians who pillaged Venus’ temple at Ascalon by making them effeminate:
“…most of the Scythians passed by and did no harm, but a few remained behind and plundered the temple of Heavenly Aphrodite… But the Scythians who pillaged the temple, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the goddess with the “female” sickness: and so the Scythians say that they are afflicted as a consequence of this and also that those who visit Scythian territory see among them the condition of those whom the Scythians call “Hermaphrodites”. — The Histories, book I, chapter 105. Herodotus.
Hippocrates, describing among the Scythians “No-men” who resembled eunuchs, wrote,
“they not only follow women’s occupations, but show feminine inclinations and behave as women. The natives ascribe the cause to a deity…” (cited by Hammond, 1887).
During the 20th century, extensive data were gathered on traditional practices among several tribes of North American Indians.
“In nearly every part of the continent there seem to have been, since ancient times, men dressing themselves in the clothes and performing the functions of women.”
‘at the Golden Rule Pleasure Club on West Third Street, (New York)… one was “buzzed” into a room with a table, two chairs, and a young man dressed as, and identifying as, a woman.’
‘This rise of transgender sex work (in the USA) was noted in an 1894 medical report:
In many large cities the subjects of contrary sexual impulse form a class by themselves and are recognized by the police . . . They adopt the names of women, and affect a feminine speech and manner, “falling in love” with each other, and writing amatory and obscene letters. In New York City alone there are no less than one hundred of these, who make a profession of male prostitution, soliciting upon the streets and in parks when they get the opportunity.’
‘…the situation in Britain … meant sticking with one’s biological gender…Transgender people, in fact, were arrested simply for cross-dressing, charged with male prostitution, and often convicted on conjecture. This fit into the subliminal mores of fin de siècle Britain, which punished biological males presumed to be “inverts,” people who acted effeminate or otherwise eschewed their biological gender role.’
Male Sex Work from Ancient Times to the Near Present, Mack Friedman.
The history of transsex in Japan
The modern history of Japan’s transwomen, commonly known in the West as ‘newhalf’ dates back to 1965, when police raided a bar in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and arrested ten women on charges of prostitution, according to historian Junko Mitsuhashi. (Newhalf are also commonly known, in Japan, as ‘ocama’.)
However, three of these women were male on paper, but had undergone GRS to remove their external male genitalia. We do not know if this amounted to full vaginoplasty or rather, was simply a complete emasculation. Japan’s prostitution law meant that the police could not charge them with prostitution, as only women could be charged for this.
In the early years of the 21st century, newhalf became better known outside Japan, often performing in porn movies. Inside the country, many work as prostitutes but these constitute only a part of the broader trans scene. We don’t know the relative proportions of HSTS and autogynephilic transvestite forms, but we do know that both exist.
Recently an association of Japanese women contacted an associate of mine to see if they could make a translation of one of his books and publish it online, for the information on Autogynephilia it contains. That is hardly likely to have happened, had Autogynephilia not been present in the culture. No research has been done that might inform us as to the total numbers or the breakdown, however.
Theatre and Geisha
The phenomenon is much older than this, though. Kabuki theatre first appeared in Japan in the early 17th century, at which time it was performed entirely by women, who played both male and female roles. However, in 1629, the authorities banned this, which immediately promoted another form of kabuki, in which males played all the parts. Those who played women in the theatre were called ‘onnagata’ and were seen not as actors playing women, but as real women.
This association of transwomen with theatre and entertainment persisted right up to the modern era. However, kabuki itself is related to an even older tradition of entertainment, geisha. This had already appeared by the 13th century. While geisha became open to women in the 17th century, prior to this, all geishas were male, called taikomochi. These still exist within contemporary geisha, though there are few left.
Geishas are entertainers, not prostitutes. Nevertheless, taikomochi have traditionally appeared to be, and lived as, women.
Westerners usually think that geishas are a form of courtesan, that it is, essentially, very glamorous sex workers. But this is not the case and indeed the association of geishas with sex work, at least in such a commercial manner, only happened after the fall of Japan in 1945, when the people were desperate for money and there were many US soldiers prepared to pay for sex. (For a moving account of this, see the film Memoirs of a Geisha. 2005, Dir Rob Marshall.)
However, sex work is a form of entertainment, principally for men, so the line between prostitution and theatre is necessarily vague. There is no doubt that even in previous eras, it was often crossed and it certainly is today. Cabaret dancers are seen as being available for hire and this especially applies to foreign ladyboys, usually from southeast Asia.
This form of sex work extends from the familiar ‘short-time’ and ‘long-time’ engagements, the latter being essentially all night, to longer engagements lasting weeks, months or occasionally years, where the girl becomes a sort of surrogate wife for the man. In these she will usually be on sabbatical from the cabaret – which will take a cut of her stipend, to ‘keep her job open.’
Asians do not see either sex work or the history of transsex through the same lens as Westerners, especially those informed by USican Puritanism, do. So the newhalf’s connection to the earliest forms of geisha and kabuki is clear. Every society has niches where transwomen can feel fulfilled and have good lives and this is one of them; it fits into a global pattern of similar lifestyles.
The attraction felt by heterosexual men to feminised males performing the role of women is a fascinating subject and I will come back to it. One thing is sure, this and the history of transsex generally, is much overlooked.