I’m bored with writing about politicians and Brexit so this is an article about genitals instead.
Feel free to make your own jokes about the sentence above, but I promise what follows is not funny. You could not, as the old phrase goes, make it up.
Most of us, I think, like to see ourselves as tolerant and open-minded. Live and let live is the prevailing social attitude of our times. For all the division and acrimony in political debate and online, British society is, by international and historical standards, strikingly liberal and tolerant.
This is a good thing. People should not face abuse or exclusion or hostility because of who or what they are; we all should be judged on what we do.
The eternal question of tolerance is how far it extends. We are all familiar with the old debates about whether toleration requires accepting acts of intolerance that you find distasteful, but that’s not what this article is about. It’s about whether toleration requires accepting genitals that you don’t fancy.
And yes, this relates to transgender people and the notion of transphobia.
A lot of institutions, companies and organisations are terrified of being seen to be transphobic. Even the allegation, however baseless, that someone discriminates against others on the grounds of their gender can cause enormous harm to a reputation.
So keen are public bodies to avoid this fate that they overstep the relevant laws. The Equality Act 2010 says you can’t discriminate against someone because of either their sex (whether they are anatomically male or female) or their ‘gender reassignment’ (such as when a person born male decides to ‘live as a woman’). But quite a lot of councils and other public bodies routinely ignore physical sex and base their work solely on questions of the social concept of ‘gender’.
That’s a problem, and not just because it ignores the law. It’s a problem because it overlooks the physical differences between people born male and people born female. Those differences exist and they matter, for reasons that I hope don’t need setting out here.
After all, most people instinctively understand those differences, because those physical differences are not just a foundation of how societies have organised themselves, they are the basis of sexuality and sexual attraction.
This is, again, something I hope I don’t have to spell out too clearly, but I think most people would accept that when it comes to sexual attraction and activity, anatomy matters: heterosexual people are sexually attracted to people who have different bodies and genitals to their own; homosexual people to those with the same.
But in the looking-glass world of transgender rights, the proposition I’ve just set out is contested and even controversial. For some people, reducing sexuality to a simple question of ‘genital preference’ is reductive, exclusionary and yes, transphobic.
How so? Well, consider the trans-rights mantra that ‘transwomen are women’. It means that someone who feels themselves to be a woman, who says they are a woman, is a woman, full stop. That person’s biology is irrelevant, because the idea of gender trumps the fact of sex. It’s not necessary or even common for transwomen to have sexual reassignment surgery. Some women have penises: get over it.
That raises many questions, including about sexual attraction. If you’re a heterosexual woman attracted to men with male bodies and genitals, would you consider sex with a person who did not have such a body or such genitals? If you’re a man who is sexually excited by women with breasts and vaginas, would you be aroused by someone who had neither?
These aren’t quite the questions asked in a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, but that’s what it boils down to. In the study, people were asked to imagine they were ‘single and looking’ and then to say which of the following they would consider as a ‘potential dating partner’: a cisgender woman; a cisgender man; a transgender woman; a transgender man; or a person with a non-binary gender identification. (‘cis’ means ‘not trans’. The simple fact that the study used the term is telling, since not everyone accepts the term.)
You might not be completely flabbergasted to learn that 87.5 per cent of the respondents said they would only consider ‘cis’ people as potential sexual partners.
And if that was all the study and its authors had to say, I wouldn’t be writing about it: ‘dog bites man’ isn’t a story.
But one of the authors of that study wasn’t willing to confine herself to accurately and fairly reporting the results of that study.
That author is Karen Blair. To give her full bio, she is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia; an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and Chair of the Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Issues (SOGII) Section of the Canadian Psychological Association.
In a blog, Blair has been pondering her findings and what they tell us about how tolerant we are. She doesn’t seem happy that most people wouldn’t consider dating a trans person, or, as she puts it, would ‘exclude’ them from their pool of potential romantic partners.
Refusing to consider dating trans people, Blair suggests, contributes to trans people suffering mental and physical harm:
Why might people be reluctant to consider dating trans people? Blair doesn’t know, because her study didn’t ask them. But that doesn’t stop her speculating. It’s because of prejudice and ignorance, she says:
And what does Blair suggest we all do about this? The — delicately implied — answer might not surprise you:
Got that? Toleration doesn’t just mean treating transgender people fairly and equally, ensuring they have the same rights, freedoms and entitlements as anyone else. It means being willing to have sex with people, not on the basis of the body and genitals they have, but because of the gender they say they are.
It means that straight men who exclusively seek sexual partners with vaginas should instead expand their ‘prospective dating pool’ to include people who describe themselves as women and just happen to have penises. It means that lesbians who incline towards sex with people who have vaginas, also need to widen their horizons and be open to sex with women who have penises.
And if you’re not prepared to have sex with a transgender person, you’re contributing to a transphobic social climate that causes real mental and physical harm to trans people. If you want to be really progressive and inclusive, you know what to do.
Here, a thought experiment is in order. Try to imagine this line of argument being pursued in a different context, away from the transgender debate.
Imagine someone making a serious and sustained argument of the following sort:
What would we think about that argument? What words would we use to describe these notions and the people who promote them? I leave it to others to answer that question.
Here’s another question. So what? Is one short, silly blog by a non-famous junior academic worthy of attention? I think so. Blair’s blog was published by Cambridge University Press, an offshoot of one of the world’s great universities. Blair has made similar points in Psychology Today too.
Like it or not, that matters. It lends weight, legitimacy. If it’s OK to say this stuff at Cambridge University Press or in Psychology Today, it’s OK to say it in other places too. This is how the window of what is acceptable to discuss moves. This is normalisation.
I recently spoke to a lesbian friend who is active in the Labour party who said that she routinely comes under social, and sometimes quite explicit, pressure from ‘progressive’ friends to sleep with transwomen. ‘I’m sick of being told I should like penis. I don’t like penis. That’s why I’m a lesbian. That’s the whole point,’ she said.
Since I started writing about sex and gender last year, I’ve had a lot of conversations with women – and a few men – who say they worry that some of the people promoting transgenderism are advocates of ‘queer theory’, and are engaged in a quite deliberate attempt to break down societal norms and barriers in order to make it a lot easier for people with penises to put those penises into a much greater range of people than is currently permitted.
I generally view that worry with a fair bit of scepticism; it all sounds a bit far-fetched and even conspiratorial. But then I read things like Karen Blair’s blog, and I wonder.
James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph
Is it gay to date a trans woman?
So I’ve been watching a few people in my mentions have arguments about the bullshit Blanchardian hypothesis of trans women. I’ve talked on Twitter threads about how I’ve tried to tackle the subject before but have always found my self exhausted at the mountain of complete horse shit that needs to be waded through. So I want to try and address some of the parts of the idea instead in a few posts. Maybe at some point I’ll put them…
Yes, being trans attracted is a normal part of heterosexuality. but why is heterosexuality normal?
In August, video of a 20-year-old Philadelphia man named Maurice Willoughby being harassed and bullied for having a transgender girlfriend went viral. The video circulated on Twitter and Facebook for several days. Days later, the news broke that Willoughby allegedly died by suicide on August 18, just days after the video’s events.
Willoughby’s death, and the harassment that preceded it, sparked a public conversation about the trauma and hardship faced by men who publicly admit to finding trans women attractive. Willoughby’s suicide was framed as a sort of martyrdom — a call on straight men to overcome “shame” brought on by their trans attraction and instead celebrate it. The queer media site them even called Willoughby “a beacon of hope” for those straight men attracted to, and in relationships with, trans women.
Soon after, American actor Malik Yoba (Cool Runnings, NYPD Blue) announced that he, too, was “trans attracted,” calling for it to be recognized as a normal and acceptable form of heterosexual love.
But, as with most things online, these stories are more complicated and far darker. Willoughby had been a victim of abuse himself, and his relationship with his girlfriend, a woman named Faith Palmer was also frequently abusive. Poverty and substance-abuse led to violent tendencies in their relationship. After their most recent breakup, Willoughby threatened to kill Palmer; on August 16, she sought a restraining order. The police didn’t take her seriously, and refused to provide it.
After Willoughby’s death, Palmer said she was harassed online and received death threats, mostly from Willoughby’s friends and family. And the same week that Yoba announced his “trans attraction,” a Facebook post by a trans sex worker named Mariah Lopez Ebony revealed that Yoba’s “love��� for trans women was more accurately a bid to cover up what she alleged to be a pattern of him buying sex from underage trans girls. She said his announcement was a way to mask his abuse of women in the convenient language of victimhood (when asked about it in an interview with The Root, Yoba compared the allegations to being misgendered).
For any woman who has been involved in an abusive relationship, these stories are painfully familiar. Intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse have an impact on nearly all women, even indirectly, but it’s long been observed that transgender women are remarkably vulnerable to these forms of abuse, especially when they are disabled, undocumented, Indigenous, or Black.
The Willoughby case, and Yoba’s subsequent announcement, reveal the threat of violence that animates narratives of trans womanhood in mainstream media. Yoba’s specific mental gymnastics, and the press’ positive response, demonstrates how powerful men can manipulate certain ideas about trans womanhood to their own benefit. Browse Instagram, Twitter, or any media site you’d like — them, Out, VICE, Mic, the now-defunct Into, whichever. Time and again, trans women’s stories are packaged by cisgender people for cisgender audiences with men at their centers. The stories that are told about trans women are ones in which we are either victims or partners to men. We are only recognized as women through the actions and beliefs of the straight men who fuck and love us. Our place is in a straight man’s orbit.
Stigma and misinformation makes it difficult to talk about domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships and households. For trans people in particular, data issues are exacerbated by the dearth of competent services for trans survivors. The statistics that do exist are telling. Research by the British LGBTQ organization Stonewall showed that one in five trans people (women, men, and nonbinary) experienced abuse from a partner in 2017. A 2015 American survey by The National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 54 percent of respondents have experienced some form of domestic abuse, and nearly one in four trans people have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner (compared to the U.S. average of 18 percent). And according to one 2017 American study, transgender women experienced intimate partner violence at more than five times the rate of cisgender women.
To get a sense of scale, organizations that deal with violence against women estimate that around three women are murdered by their intimate partners per day in the U.S.; one-third of all homicides of female victims in the United States are committed by intimate partners, most of whom are men.
Simply put, trans women are at high risk of violence for similar reasons as other vulnerable women. These are interpersonal symptoms of a broader societal condition, wherein some people’s lives are figured as simply less valuable than others. For those who are trans, Black, Indigenous, disabled, or undocumented, to try to be normal — to fall within the bounds of a body that our society considers worthy of love — feels like striving for the impossible. Life for “normal” women, as bad as it is, is still far beyond our reach.
In her fabulous essay Pussy, the poet and activist Gwen Benaway writes that one of the conditions that defines trans womanhood is the constant demand to provide perfect accounts of ourselves. In navigating medical providers, political institutions, social services, family conversations, and casual interactions, we are asked to explain the fact of our existence. This spills into our romantic and domestic lives, creating an uncomfortable cocktail that manipulative people know how to mix and spike. This societal demand for — and entitlement to — perfect and highly personal information about ourselves defines and limits the spaces available for trans women to tell our stories. Cissexism and transmisogyny consistently reduce us to trans tragedy or trans spectacle.
Trans writers have unfortunately had to play into this narrative — devoting ourselves primarily to the crusade of making it “normal” for straight men to date trans women — all at the behest of cisgender editors, producers, and executives. In the process, we have aided in the dissemination of the idea that there is anything normal about a type of “love” that results in three murders per day.
Egged on by surface-level “LGBTQ-friendly” businesses with cisgender boardrooms and magazines with trans women on their covers but don’t employ any, the public-health crisis that is transmisogyny is mostly addressed by diving into the minds of cis people — namely, men — and appealing to their good graces, massaging their heterosexuality, reminding them that trans women are just as fuckable and lovable as our cisgender counterparts. We are drafted by cis people into collaborating with them in constructing the argument that trans women’s womanhood is only accessible and expressible through straight male desire. Perhaps, we are told, if we try hard enough to look and sound and act like “real women,” we’ll become real enough to be fucked, married, and killed like they are. If it sounds grim, then imagine how tired we feel.
Womanhood is often imagined as something that follows from men, rather than existing apart from or alongside them. And heterosexuality is a product of this; it is the yardstick by which womanhood is measured, even by the most ostensibly progressive creators of popular culture. As Adrienne Rich wrote in her famous 1980 essayCompulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence “the constraints and sanctions which, historically, have enforced or insured the coupling of women with men and obstructed or penalized our coupling or allying in independent groups with other women.”
We see heterosexuality as natural because it is compulsory. And while this is certainly true of all women, it’s weirdly explicit when it comes to depictions of trans women. In fact, heterosexuality even formed an essential diagnostic criteria through which medical gatekeepers defined someone as trans. The patients of early sexologists like Dr. Harry Benjamin were persistently interrogated about their sexual histories and preferences, such that to be called a “true transsexual” meant a desire for a vagina and a male partner to penetrate it (this, despite many patients stating their fluid sexualities or disinterest in sex altogether).
That perception has bled into the very process of transition. When Christine Jorgensen came back to America with her new vagina in 1952, the press misgendered her when she described herself as anything short of the perfect straight girl, and continually asked her about potential husbands and former partners. Last year, I wrote about how trans women are often over-prescribed spironolactone, an anti-androgen with dangerous side effects when consumed in excess. There’s an expectation that we want to be as conventionally feminine as possible, as quickly as possible, whatever the cost. And it impacts trans men, too: recall the case of Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who couldn’t access hormones in the US for years because treatment facilities couldn’t make sense of a gay trans person. Heterosexuality, no matter how constructed, is the matrix that made gender real.
Despite our imagined enlightenment on trans womanhood, this same formulation is what animates the bulk of the mainstream writing you find today — variously obsessed with the who, what, where, why, and how of fucking trans people, presented as the primary way that cis people can perceive us as our correct genders. In an infamous essay for VICE titled, "Why Can’t My Famous Gender Nonconforming Friends Get Laid?” nonbinary “advocate” Jacob Tobia jokes about taking hormones and getting hair removal — two common transition-related treatments — in order to attract straight boys on Tinder. The line is unsettlingly similar to the plot of a viral teaser promoted by the gay porn company Men Dot Com. In it, the main characters asked to be transformed into beautiful women by a fairy godmother (played by Ru girl Farrah Moan) in order to sleep with straight guys. Both cases are intended to be jokes, but the underlying premise is familiar: people become girls so straight men will fuck them. It’s the same concept that animated earlier treatments of transsexuality, albeit expressed through a queer and comic sensibility. Women don’t make women. Men do.
If, even among those with the best intentions, the view that is offered of trans womanhood is one centred around male partners and their sexual practices, perhaps it is not surprising that trans women so frequently find themselves trapped in situations where a partner is willing and able to break down their sense of selves. Perhaps this is less an accident than an expression of the material interests of the men who abuse us. Men don’t seem to mind harming women, and if the evidence offered by the cases of Yoba and Willoughby tell us anything, it’s that the wider world doesn’t mind much either. In fact, they’ll likely just be celebrated by our “allies” for liking us at all. Maybe the issue isn’t that men feel too much shame; perhaps, they don’t feel enough.
This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s a feature of how heterosexuality works and sustains itself. And I don’t blame my sisters for producing work that’s occasionaly retraumatizing, sexualizing, or sensationalizing — when all you can get paid for is trans sex stories, then trans sex stories become your brand, if only until cis people get bored of watching. But as trans women, we are rarely given space to be complete people outside of the men we date.
In the end, the people who gain from this are mostly men. The ones who fuck us get raised up as heroes. Our love is imagined as their healing, nevermind how we feel. Our sex is imagined as the sex they truly crave, even if that also means they might want to hurt us. Our transitions are imagined as being for men or about them, because why should a woman want something for herself — or, god forbid, for other women?
So perhaps “trans attraction” is a normal part of heterosexuality. But why is heterosexuality normal?