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Trans Segment #45: Hypersexualization of trans women

November 6, 2012

In the last segment I talked about a little about the hypersexualization of trans women. I said that since most people can’t envision why a “man” would “want to become” a woman, they assume that it must be for one thing only: a sexual fetish or kink. Let’s discuss that some more today.

This idea comes from a variety of angles. First and foremost, it comes from cis people feeling entitled to—and usually not realizing that they are behaving with entitlement—objectify trans people by obsessing over our bodies and what kinds of sex we must be having with them, reducing us to hormones and surgeries, and having an intense interest about the minutiae of our lives that exceeds natural and *passing* curiosity. Since most cis people’s first instinct is to locate sex in the genitals, many times to the exclusion of those other 5 categories of sex, that leads them to have strong reactions to The Surgery, meaning genital reconstructive surgery, without noticing the ridiculousness of the idea that transition happens in one fell swoop. The nature of genitals being what it is, a lot of people seem unable to view us as anything other than perverts and sexual freaks right off the bat.

As you’ve seen in recent posts, since most cis people assume they don’t know any trans people or think they have “only seen them a few times,” media is the biggest influence on their ideas of what trans people look like. But there is a specific type of media that reinforces these ideas more strongly than anything else: pornography. Most people are able to immediately start conjuring up images of “tranny hookers,” prostitutes, “shemales,” “chicks with dicks,” and the like.

Notice that trans men are very, very rare among these images. I really only notice people picturing trans men if they are GLBT- or queer-identified or otherwise have some kind of personal exposure to trans men. For most cis people, especially heterosexual ones, it’s going to be the former rather than the latter, in no small part because that is what is most taboo and makes up easily 97 percent of the images of trans people they see.

Before you think about mentioning Buck Angel, the trans male porn actor, please note the huge disparity in power dynamics. First, Buck Angel controls his own image since he is a small, independent producer. Most trans women who appear in mainstream trans pornography—and often they are actually cis male crossdressers—are not controlling the direction, casting, production, marketing, or anything else about the work they are appearing in. I would also note that while he did receive Transsexual Performer of the Year at the AVN Awards in 2007, his reception was pretty chilly, maybe lukewarm at best.

Second, Buck Angel targets a niche market and most of his client base is cis gay/bi men and queer-identified people. Mainstream porn targets straight-identified cis men. Contrary to what lots of people believe, attraction is based on much more than just the genitals. Not all the men who are into the trans porn are closeted gay guys or confused straight guys. While we generally watch pornography to see genitals, that isn’t all there is to sex, even for cis, straight men. Men might be specifically attracted to trans women, which is sometimes an all right thing (depending how the trans person in question feels about it) and sometimes it’s just icky. When it comes in the form of “trannychasers” or simply “chasers,” it can be gross.

Many times since people can only picture trans people as sexual things, they develop a particular attraction toward us, which borders on or explicitly is a fetish for some people. While most chasers are relatively benign, if annoying and entitled and mildly creepy, some are more harmful. Trans women bear the brunt of this, and I have had way, way too many friends who have been in abusive relationships and treated like absolute crap by guys who only fetishized them for being a sexual oddity, a novelty, a plaything, a slave, a dirty little secret, or a dirty whore who will take a lot of abuse in a not-fun way. This is an element of relationships that trans women often find themselves in. These kinds of chasers are adept at manipulating trans women’s insecurities and fears that no one else will ever love them.

Yes, trans men sometimes are fetishized, but my admittedly limited experience leads me to perceive that we get it much, much less frequently and that those who target us tend to have very particular physical interests that cause them to typically ignore us after we begin to be presumed cis males. I notice that chasers of trans men, who are usually cis queer women but occasionally cis males of any orientation, seem to expect us to look like boyish or butch women or a young Adonis. Most will not likely be attracted to a fat, hairy guy like me, even though I otherwise have a body they might like. In any event, while some folks have no doubt been icky in their expression of interest in trans men, we are more often lionized in cis female-dominated GLB/queer spaces (“trans men are so hot/cute/ handsome/sexy”) or desexualized in cis gay male and straight spaces (“[no tits and] no dick, what’s fun or hot about that?”).

For trans women, hypersexualization also stems from academia, especially psychiatry and sexology, which has a more direct effect on trans women’s access to medical care. Throughout the history of transsexuality being treated in the United States, psychiatrists and sexologists have largely judged trans women’s “fitness” to transition based on how sexually attractive and desirable they would be as women. In fact, there is strong correlation between the use of the word “attractive” in reports and those who were allowed to transition. Basically, if you weren’t pretty or sexy enough to the doctors, you could forget about transitioning.

I remember being in a contemporary social theory class in 2008 and having one of our reading assignments be the 1967 “Agnes” case study by the ethnomethodologist, Harold Garfinkel. She is described in extreme detail:

“Anges’ appearance was convincingly female. She was tall, slim, with a very female shape. Her measurements were 38 – 25 – 38. She had long, fine dark-blonde hair, a young face with pretty features, a peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick. At the time of her first appearance she was dressed in a tight sweater which marked off her thin shoulders, ample breasts, and narrow waist. Her feet and hands, though somewhat larger than usual for a woman, were in no way remarkable in this respect. Her usual manner of dress did not distinguish her from a typical girl of her age and class. There was nothing garish or exhibitionistic in her attire, nor was there any hint of poor taste or that she was ill at ease in her clothing, as is seen so frequently in transvestites and in women with disturbances in sexual identification. Her voice, pitched at an alto level, was soft, and her delivery had the occasional lisp similar to that affected by feminine appearing male homosexuals. Her manner was appropriately feminine with a slight awkwardness that is typical of middle adolescence.”

This idea that “real” trans women can be distinguished from “transvestites” who just “think” they’re trans goes a long way back, and it is still a prevalent idea today in both psychiatric/sexological establishment and also, sadly, in trans communities themselves. See, I don’t think anyone has ever given me a satisfactory answer as to what the difference between being trans and “thinking you’re trans” might be. Because from where I am standing, being trans *is* mostly about what you think about yourself and what, in relationship to that, makes you feel happiest, most authentic, and most relaxed in expressing that self-understanding and occupying your own body.

There is this concept of “autogynephilia,” popularized by the Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard in the 1980s and 1990s and building off the earlier work of Kurt Freund, that is still around, including being listed in the DSM, despite its flimsy theoretical premises and lack of evidence. Essentially, Blanchard’s theory is that all transsexual women belong to one of two types: “autogynephiles” and “homosexual transsexuals.” He believes “autogynephiles” are otherwise “normal” straight men who are turned on by the idea of themselves as women, and they are generally oversexed. “Homosexual transsexuals” are those he posits as highly feminine gay men who want to be sexual objects of desire for straight men, and he believes they are stone in sex, covering their bodies and especially their genitals as much as possible, or are celibate pre-transition.

The reality of how the trans women that I know have sex is much more complex than this false dichotomy. Comfort levels shift with the days, with emotions, with different partners, and lots of other things. It is not this strict either/or thing that Blanchard and his acolytes propose. More accurately, “autogynephiles” are called bisexual or lesbian trans women; “homosexual transsexuals” are straight trans women. The “homosexual/autogynephile” theory fails the most fundamental test of scientific validity by being unfalsifiable, because any evidence that conflicts with the hypothesis is discarded prima facie as being biased and corrupted.

There is the analogous term “autoandrophilia” (women who are turned on by thought of themselves as men), but it is used very rarely. Once again, I suppose that women who are masculine, female crossdressers, and trans men just aren’t as fascinating to cis, straight male researchers. The reason this doesn’t happen? It would require these researchers to view masculinity and male bodies as being worthy of the same form of sexualization as femininity and female bodies are considered.

This theory was further popularized in the 2003 book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, by J. Michael Bailey, a research psychologist at Northwestern University. It was published with a National Academy of Sciences imprint, indicating the kind of support it found in academia. Bailey directly uses Blanchard’s “autogynephile” and “homosexual transsexual” terminology and adds in his own spin on this already rickety notion. He throws in racism by explicitly stating that trans women of color, those who are most vulnerable to discrimination and violence, are “usually homosexual” (read: heterosexual trans women) and therefore “exceptionally well-suited to sex work.”

In another passage, he writes, “There is no way to say this as sensitively as I would like, so I will say it bluntly: Homosexual transsexuals are usually much better-looking than autogynephiles.” That is, he is reasserting that the sole purpose of heterosexual trans women is to serve as a sex object for heterosexual cis men. He repeatedly refers to the women as “men” throughout the book and dismisses many of their experiences of living and identifying as women when they aren’t convenient to his theory. Naturally, he makes no attempt to account for trans men in his model.

Fun fact: The Man Who Would Be Queen was a finalist for the 2003 Lambda Literary Awards in the Transgender category. After trans people organized a petition to the Foundation protesting this nomination, the judges “reconsidered” the book and pulled it.

Bailey based his “research” for the controversial book—his use of phallometry and his studies of bisexuality, which effectively concluded that male bisexuals didn’t exist or were lying about their true attractions, have also been widely criticized—on 12 people that he found in Chicago area gay bars, most of them Latina or black and living in poverty. There have been allegations of impropriety surrounding his behavior with research participants.

Researchers such as Charles Moser, Jaimie Veale, John Bancroft, and Larry Nuttbrock have challenged the assumptions and faulty data in Blanchard and Bailey’s theory, which conflict with their own hypothesis. I will link to these rebuttals of the Blanchard typology, but I agree most strongly with them when they point out that cis women could be said to have “autogynephilia” as well, yet this is not considered a paraphilia. And really, I agree with the writer/blogger and activist Tobi Hill-Meyer: “When the main way to diagnose fetishistic transvestitism or autogynephilia is to look for the presence of sexual enjoyment, and trans women who enjoy their sexuality risk being given one of those diagnoses and denied trans related health care, that’s transmisogyny.” What is so wrong with thinking you are sexy or having a benign fetish? Smells like the same old sex-negativity to me.

There is also the matter of trans women being stereotyped as rapists for merely existing. This makes it virtually impossible to have an unbiased conversation about and addressing of sexual assault against trans women. You see this stereotype in bathroom panic and at sex-segregated events like Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but not surprisingly, it also comes from academia. Here again we meet Janice Raymond and her book, The Transsexual Empire. In it, she writes, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit as well.” She also states that it is impossible for trans lesbians to have a consensual sexual experiences with cis women. “Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”

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