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Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas.

Looking at the title of this book, many readers may expect a study of the multitudes of Indian women taken over by invading Europeans (usually Iberians) for various uses. Trexler focuses, however, not at all on women but on the Indian biological male transvestite; the "berdache," a passive homosexual who differed from European transvestites in his life-long retention of the female clothing, mannerisms, and activities that were often adopted in early childhood (8). Six of the eight chapters of the study treat this phenomenon; indeed, Trexler states from the beginning that his "first and primary purpose is to describe American homosexual practices and the male transvestism associated with them" (2).

One major assumption underlies the author's presentation: warfare is the "incubator of civil institutions" (141), not vice versa. Conquering armies have very frequently gendered their defeated rivals as women, often sodomizing or castrating fallen warriors. Further, the older soldiers in an army, deprived of female companionship, entered on occasion into sodomitic relationships, forcing young boys to do their will and reducing the passive partner to feminine gender; such practices might be continued when men returned from the battle-front. Trexler aptly quotes Foucault in his observation that sexuality is basically not opposed to power but "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population" (2-3).

How then and for what purposes were the berdaches created? The choice was not theirs - it was forced upon them in almost every case. Chieftains selected certain young boys for this role to serve in the army as loadbearers or to fight with clubs - not with the proud male warriors' bow and arrow (66, 116) - and to accompany them on ceremonial occasions "as signs of their masters' power and authority" (129). Some chieftains might establish a berdache brothel that produced an income for them from active homosexual clients. Caciques and priests also placed berdaches in temples so that lords and headmen might copulate with them at religious festivals (106-07). Berdache male prostitutes, like their female counterparts, served the social purpose of providing sexual satisfaction for young actives who otherwise might attack the property of powerful chiefs, namely, their wives and daughters. Parents sometimes chose one of their sons to become a berdache, because a family with, for instance, six sons and no daughters badly needed an offspring who would perform the endless labor assigned to females. This young male passive could also produce income for his family if rented out to young actives.

Berdaches might be created shortly after birth or in adolescence; they were forever transvested after the first penetration. Some older men also transvested. Practically nothing is known about how the berdache lived outside the sexual arena. Some were sought by men as marriage partners, since they could not only do the woman's work expected of a wife but were stronger and able to do more.

The sources of this information about berdaches are solely the accounts of Europeans, primarily conquistadores or missionaries. They do not cover all Indian groups, are often contradictory, and provide no statistics. From the beginning, however, all comment on the sodomy practiced by Indians showed it to be viewed as evidence of primitivism, only one step less abominable than barbaric cannibalism. Therefore, the sources tend to deny sodomy as a condoned and common practice among the "high" Indian civilizations, the Aztecs and the Incas.

Admitting the incomplete and faulty nature of these sources, Trexler nevertheless extrapolates from them to con-dude that in North and South America it would be difficult to find a single tribe without berdaches (121); probably each village had at least two or three, and in cities there were many more in temples and chieftains' retinues (125). Aztecs and Incas, whatever the Spanish observers may have wished to believe, followed the same patterns and had few, if any, laws to punish sodomy.

Sex and Conquest, an informative treatment of Indian society, should stimulate discussion among students of Indian culture. It may be faulted for considerable repetitiveness and an irritating conviction that the author's views are the only possible correct interpretation (141-42), as well as for a certain animus against the Spaniards, who degraded their conquered rivals by calling attention to sodomy and berdaches. Yet it was Spanish missionary preaching and Spanish laws that soon put an end to the child abuse represented by the creation of berdaches, one benign effect of the Conquest that Trexler does not mention.

WILLARD F. KING Bryn Mawr College (Emerita)
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Author:King, Willard F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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