Gender Benders

"The notion that gender has a continuum, a fluid range of possibilities, seems to produce such anxious rigidity in many of us that we ignore everything we've learned through our own lives about the complexities of men and women, and seek refuge in explanations and expectations of gender that are . . . magical, romantic, and unrealistic." Amy Bloom offers this provocative observation in her first nonfiction book, Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (Random House, $23.95).

Bloom's curiosity about transsexuals, cross-dressers and hermaphrodites leads her into their respective worlds to ask how gender difference has affected their daily existence and what their lives have to tell us about mainstream norms and assumptions. She interviewed rural and urban female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, boarded a cross-dressers' cruise full of otherwise conservative heterosexual men (and their indulgent wives), and traced the groundbreaking path forged by activists such as hermaphrodite Cheryl Chase, as well as the evolution of gender-shifting surgeries.

Bloom is a fabulous fact-collector. As a social commentator, however, she rapidly runs out of breath, bypassing nuanced explication to frequently sigh in favor of less prejudice and more forgiveness with regard to gender definition. Bloom's hesitation to judge is commendable, but her repeated emphasis on the (deep sigh) essential humanity of her subjects has a dulling effect. The narrative drifts inoffensively by, like so many PBS documentaries under the bridge. One yearns for some tart analysis, some bite.

What edge there is comes from her subjects, such as the wife frustrated by her cross-dressing husband, whose gender divergence is strictly sartorial: "For twenty years he couldn't help with the dishes because he was watching football," she says. "Now he can't help because he's doing his nails. Is that different?" Normal manages to be simultaneously too much and too little: too much subject matter sketched in too little space, too much of the royal "we" and too little particularity. While admirable in intention, Normal feels like a Cliffs Notes version of a spellbinding lengthier text.

Naked Truths

In her early twenties, Elisabeth Eaves became intrigued by strippers -- she wondered if stereotypes about them were valid, if their lives were as free from social restriction as they appeared, and if she herself could stand in their sparkly platform shoes. She figured there was but one way to find out, so in between earning her bachelor's degree in Washington and shipping off to New York for grad school and a journalism career, Eaves danced for a year at Seattle's all-nude peep show, the Lusty Lady. In her memoir, Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power (Knopf, $24), Eaves recounts her initial stint as a "girl-in-the-box," profiles a sampling of fellow co-workers, explores other local ecdysiast venues, and emerges with a clear-headed, thoughtful portrait of a controversial business much like photojournalist Erika Langley's underappreciated 1997 book, The Lusty Lady.

Bare favors sociopolitical inquiry over prurience, using non-sensationalist language and stripper vernacular to explore whether the benefits of stripping outweigh the considerable costs. Unlike other postcard-from-the-edge memoirs such as Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight or Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, Bare exhibits little angsty hipster flash or confessional urgency. Rather, Eaves's writing evinces her journalistic training. No matter how intimate the matter described, the reportorial remove lends an almost mentholated coolness to the book -- a useful means of keeping readers engaged in such an incendiary subject without triggering repugnance or pathos flame-out.

Bare has much in common with Ted Conover's Newjack and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as a first-rate, first-person work of social anthropology, in which the writer is immersed in a certain line of work for reasons more exploratory than financial. Impressively assured and astute, Bare reveals the working conditions and personal challenges inherent in taking it off to get ahead.

Trans-Formations

Christine Jorgensen, a Bronx-born former GI who underwent gender-reassignment surgery in the 1950s, had a life that made headlines ("Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty," New York Daily News, Dec. 1, 1952). She performed in her own successful nightclub act and published a popular autobiography that was made into a film in 1970. Jorgensen was our nation's first transsexual superstar. Joanne Meyerowitz, editor of the Journal of American History and author of How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Harvard Univ., $29.95), turns this star into the sun by organizing her book around her. Meyerowitz may present Jorgensen as something of an Ur-trans as a means of attracting readers and giving them a distinct personality to whom they can attach. But given the book's survey-like scope, this seems awkward. Jorgensen was important, surely, but she's not transgenderism's Joan of Arc or even Rosa Parks.

How Sex Changed is wonderfully readable, if woefully incomplete. Despite ample material on the early days, oversights abound from the '80s onward. A history of transsexuality that doesn't mention male-to-female transsexual performer/writer Kate Bornstein is like a history of rock-and-roll that doesn't mention Nirvana. Failing to mention the 1994 murder of Brandon Teena (a transgendered teen who did not surgically transition to male but successfully passed for a long time preceding his death) is akin to overlooking the assassination of John Lennon. The tragedy -- later chronicled in the acclaimed 1999 movie "Boys Don't Cry" -- sent shock waves through the queer community, galvanizing gender activism for years to follow.

Meyerowitz rushes through the past two decades, a crucial period when self-publishing, the queer movement and the Internet accelerated grassroots organizing and information exchange. It's a quirk of many historians: painstakingly mapping the past only to trip over the present. Up to the 1970s, Meyerowitz's history is thorough and engaging. After that, it's a mad dash for the finish line. Pity.

Titillating Tattle

A kept man threatens to squeal on his married benefactor unless she continues supporting him. A band of thugs shakes down prominent closeted gays by brandishing incriminating photographs. The purportedly illegitimate daughter of a famous actor sues for increased support. Scandal will grab anyone's attention, especially if there's sex involved, but tales of sexual blackmail are more than just a means of selling newspapers or entertaining colleagues by the water cooler. So contends historian Angus McLaren in Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Harvard Univ., $35). "Blackmail stories," he writes, are "the product of a culture going through important transformations in attitudes toward sex and gender."

By culling examples from the New York Times and the Times of London, legal reports, film, TV and tabloids, McLaren shows not just how sexual blackmail reflects social mores, but also the ways in which sexual deceit and secrecy have affected legislation. For example, Americans used to be legally entitled to financial compensation if they were dumped. Called "heart balm statutes," the laws were repealed by many states in the 1930s for fear that they would be exploited by "gold diggers" who manipulated the truth to fatten their wallets. And in the 1950s and '60s, the British Parliament partially decriminalized homosexuality when MPs realized that outlawing homosexual practices fostered blackmailing of gays and lesbians.

The book tracks sexual blackmail from repressive Victorian times to today, when exposure of sexual secrets is far less damaging. "Our culture continues to regard a number of sexual practices as transgressive," says McLaren, " but it has seriously downplayed the significance of sex as the final social arbiter of one's character."

Deftly organized and full of gripping facts and critique, Sexual Blackmail makes reading history a wicked indulgence.

Girl Talk

It's no secret that men and women exist in separate sexual spheres and that the rules for the sexes differ greatly. We expect that men advance while women receive. Men can flaunt sexual experience while women are urged toward discretion. The erotic divide becomes apparent with the first hormonal stirrings of adolescence, and Wellesley research scientist Deborah L. Tolman aimed to explore the female side of the schism. Her book Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality (Harvard Univ. $26.95) includes interviews with 30 urban and suburban teenage girls about their experience of desire (or lack thereof).

For such a fresh concept, this book feels mighty stale. Tolman sullies the girls' candid tales of wanting, trepidation, restraint and indulgence with tedious generalizations such as "we so rarely think of sexuality in positive or healthy terms." (Um, we do?) When not generalizing, Tolman waffles, on one page blaming society for forcing "a wedge between (women's) psyches and their bodies," then later bemoaning the bedrock assumption that women favor sex within the context of emotionally intimate relationships. Tolman's references to the big bad patriarchal bogeyman who is responsible for the natural sexual confusion of adolescents (female or male) may elicit chuckles from the most sympathetic of feminists. Owing to the book's shoddy structure, non-feminist readers will more likely scratch their heads and say, "Am I missing the point here, or is there no point to be missed?"

The conclusion of Dilemmas of Desire urges greater communication between women and teenage girls regarding sex, better sex ed, and an upending of stereotypes. What novel suggestions! When a crass locker-room-humor flick such as "American Pie" offers a more coherent and engaging picture of adolescent female desire than a lofty academic tome, something's amiss. Pick up this one if you want a muddled bulletin from Planet Obvious. Otherwise, hit the video store. *

Lily Burana is the author of "Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America."