In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet


I’ve told you all about how my parents’ greatest fear is that I’ll never find love again, right? That and the whole getting killed thing?

I was discussing dating while trans with a friend who’s also a transguy. We were talking about the advice we’d give a newly-out or new-in-transition ftm about romance. Most of it is what you’d tell any teenager: Be your own person with your own life and your own interests. Your ability to find and retain relationships with worthwhile people depends on your ability to love and value yourself as much as on the love and respect you have for your partner. Don’t assume that celibacy is due to you being unattractive rather than your schedule, energy level, social setup, or any of a number of other factors. Don’t assume it’s permanent. Don’t assume it’s bad. Don’t assume that ending it is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. Most important of all, never settle for a person you aren’t crazy about because you don’t think you’ll find anything better. And never assume that self-loathing won’t attract all the worst people for all the wrong reasons.

That last one has more to do with what I’m about to talk about: fetishism, and why I’m so personally resistant to it. The problem is this: for transpeople (and, I think, for most other fetishized groups) the fetish is often as much about the social position of the person as it is about the body.

That’s the problem with a fetish based on the transgressive nature of a sexual encounter with whatever group. (As opposed to a sexual encounter that’s equally transgressive for both parties, e.g. a lesbian pairing.) In order for that sexual encounter to be transgressive, that group has to remain subhuman, and that type of body has to remain disgusting. Some people on the receiving end can enjoy that dynamic, and some can put up with it, but its attraction does revolve around inequality. So much of tranny porn is based on that understanding of a transsexual body as freaky, freakish. It amounts to sexual slumming.

That hierarchy is also necessary to the consumer’s claim to normalcy. In a transphobic society, sexual encounters with transpeople are segregationist: intimacy is allowed only insofar as it preserves a hierarchy between “real” men and women and the aspiring, failed, lesser, fake kind. Demeaning objectification is not merely natural to a society in which trans bodies are reviled, but a reinforcement of its beliefs.

People can also be attracted to us not because we’re subhuman, but because we’re factory rejects; a mercenary evaluation of the disparity rather than an adventurous one, but no less exploitative. In other words, people are attracted to us because they think we’re not worth very much, or because they think we think we’re not worth very much. We are supposedly so lonely and desperate that we’ll be grateful for any kind of attention, no matter how coarse or selfish. We won’t complain. We won’t be the ones to leave. It’s very easy to find people who have internalized hatred, particularly if they haven’t had time to figure out the truth. Once you’ve found them, you have the perfect opportunity to convince them that they aren’t attractive to anyone else. I have encountered the idea that people who are attracted to transfemale or transmale bodies “validate” our post-transition gender.

That’s the context in which I read this question, which has come up in the context of transpeople as well:

In that same educational vein, especially since strangers and acquaintances have sometimes bothered with questions about disability and sex (and pregnancy and orgasms, etc.), I’m conflicted. Does mainstreaming disabled people into pornography help disabled people? Does it help disabled women be seen as less asexual? Does it educate nondisabled people at all or does it just create a bigger fetish market?

This same friend told me about some really disturbing circus porn that involved Buck Angel (google him yourself). It was all blah blah blah nasty things involving clowns but there was one scene where Angel was outed to the other participants, and then suddenly he was kneeling naked on a table while they all inspected his junk.

“That sounds like the nightmare you’d have after watching the tranny clown porn,” I said.

There’s another problem with the transsexual-as-fetish: it involves attraction to a transsexual body as a transsexual body. This can mean seeing a transsexual as the man or woman they were, or seeing them as a “two-spirit” or a “third gender” or “the best of both worlds.” . It can mean seeing transsexuals as specially feminine or masculine or imbued with male or female “energy.” It can mean seeing transsexuals as a special kind of man or woman, or seeking out transsexuals at a particular stage of transition. It can mean feeling a particular attraction to transsexual bodies or body parts or genitalia.

Some transpeople have no problem with this, because it more or less meshes with the way they see and feel their bodies. Some transpeople put up with it. Some transpeople find it alienating, even when it does not rest on denigrating stereotypes about transsexual bodies. For them, it turns them off at best and induces dysphoria at worst, because it emphasizes parts and roles that make them extremely uncomfortable. Some of us see ourselves as simply men and women, and we need our partners to see us that way, too. Some of us who are comfortable with their sexual bodies are not comfortable with those bodies being fetishized.

Even when we feel transgendered in one way or another, that sense of self might not mesh with the definitions our partners have. It might be based on an affinity with our post-transition gender and pre-transition history more complex than they understand, one which pop culture will not help them understand. A transwoman who feels comfortable with her non-surgically-modified genitalia and body is not a she-male. That transgender identity might also be based on an understanding of “male” and “female” broader than the one they hold. Explaining all of that can be exhausting. Explaining it while naked , to someone we happen to like like, can make us feel extremely vulnerable.

We can also suffer from their anxiety about their own gender and sexual identity, which we might or might not destabilize. Some men and women need to sleep with cissexual men and women to feel like men and women themselves. Some gay men and lesbians need to sleep with cissexual gay men and lesbians to feel like gay men and lesbians themselves. Transsexuality blurs those boundaries as they see them. The transsexuals they sleep with can feel a great deal of pressure to downplay their histories and identities, or to contextualize them in certain ways, lest their partners catch gender confusion.

This post at Diary of a Goldfish, which was written as a follow-up to Blue’s, touches on some similar issues:

I am aware that often people are excited by the mere existence of a taboo; in a culture where disability paraphernalia is generally symbols of weakness and indignity, perhaps their is some perverse thrill from, for example, having sex in a wheelchair.


Physical restriction also negates performance anxiety, thus reducing inhibition. Some people are loaded with guilt or nerves and like to be lead or looked after. Other people are the other way inclined; whilst I believe that very few people wish to dominate their lovers, some people like to maintain control, to do the giving, as it were.

Now, disability ought not to have anything to do with this. But folks do dress up in all sorts of daft costumes in order to symbolise a certain power dynamic, all based on some exaggerated and highly-sexualised cultural stereotype; the nurse, the fireman, the french-maid, the police officer etc, each symbolising a specific role. The disabled person is just another (if far more obscure) concept – apparently a passive and helpless one. And as Wheelchair Dancer says, there’s nothing wrong with sexual passivity per se; the association is …discomforting

Going back to Blue’s question and the hypothetical baby tranny: to what extent can depictions of dehumanized people as sexual creatures free them from being dehumanized sexual objects? Does breaking out of invisibility–i.e. celibacy–involve settling?

9 thoughts on Potential

  1. I have no answers to these hard questions, but this was a very interesting, thought-provoking, and powerful piece. I have the utmost respect for your willingness to speak openly and frankly. Dialogue on these issues is important and I applaud you for taking part in it.

  2. Thanks. If you do have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, I’m glad it was useful to you.

  3. I feel like I should say something here, because I’m in one of the fetishized, transgressive groups (fat women). The body remains disgusting, etc.

    Fighting the fat fetish thing is something I’ve thought about a lot. I get the willies when someone online contacts me and mentions BBWs or FAs (fat admirers) or whatever fetish terms they want to apply while talking about my body parts. Luckily, I have been with a wonderful guy for 3+ years who prefers larger bodies just like I prefer dark haired, Italian-looking dudes. It’s just his preference and I have never felt objectified for my fat.

    But the settling thing really is something I feel strongly about, because I was one of the few fat teenagers I know that DIDN’T settle. After I got fat, yes I was celibate, and I had very few dates. I didn’t see my body as a reason to lower my standards. I knew that I was still an intelligent, good looking, amazing person and that sometime I would find the right person who recognized that. And eventually I did. Soooo glad I didn’t settle and don’t have a long list of regrettable encounters.

    As far as this:

    to what extent can depictions of dehumanized people as sexual creatures free them from being dehumanized sexual objects?

    I can’t answer that fully. The fat chick porn I’ve seen is sometimes of the “wow that girl looks hot” variety, but most often caters to fetishists (feeding, fat girls eating, displaying the fat like regular straight guy porn displays the genitals). I’ve yet to see many movies, TV shows, public displays that show fat women as anything other than sexless humor objects, but someone like Mo’Nique comes to mind. Her segment where the fat women danced to Beyonce’s song on BETs video awards was pretty amazing (there was no denying they were ROCKIN it, never mind that they were all obese), and she definitely talks about herself sexually during her comedy routines. But then again she was in that Phat Girlz movie, which judging by the trailer showed Hollywood’s exact portrayal of the imaginary fat person (tries to eat her facial mask because it smells like food, the typical fat jokes).

    This kind of stuff gets to me. I can only imagine it’s worse for transpeople. Don’t know how to get past it, and now that I’m losing weight I want to make sure I don’t ever forget that it’s happening.

  4. In my own blog, I tried to make the opposite point (lost in perhaps inflammatory phrasing) about men who prefer women with body shapes that may (or inevitably) differ from the maintream idea of female attractiveness. Some men have a “fat fetish”*, some men — and I think there’s a difference — have tastes in women that differ from the mainstream (some make a point of differing from the mainstream, whether the preference itself is genuine or not; some have low self-esteem, and give up on conventionally attractive women, again, regardless of the degree to which the newfound preference is genuine), and some men figure (probably fairly accurately) large women will be easier to control and less likely to leave them, e.g., for being total assholes.

    When I first heard about the wheelchair-using porn actress, I worried about the same thing: that it would be treated as a gimmick, that given how women tend to come off in porn already, someone perceived as having less worth would likely be treated even worse than that.

    *Some women do, too, but it seems to me such standards are less strongly enforced against straight men and even, as I understand it, among lesbians.

  5. Re-reading through this, I have to echo this passage

    In other words, people are attracted to us because they think we’re not worth very much, or because they think we think we’re not worth very much. We are supposedly so lonely and desperate that we’ll be grateful for any kind of attention, no matter how coarse or selfish. We won’t complain. We won’t be the ones to leave.

    I can’t emphasize enough how much this is also true for fat women. Several times when I’ve rejected guys (usually an offer for sex alone, not for a relationship), I’ve gotten some comment to the tune of, “A fat chick should be grateful that ANYONE wants to talk to them, much less bang them, who are you to reject me?” You know, since I’m subhuman. I should just take what I can get.

  6. I don’t know if mainstreaming disabled people(or any other group of people) into porn brings them more acceptance sexually. I think plain old exposure ought to do the trick. Take Josh Blue from Last Comic Standing, for instance. I never really considered/fantasized about a person with a disabilty…until I saw the show. He’s hot, funny & smart. Just because I never considered it before, doesn’t mean I am now a fetishist or that I was discriminating before…it just means that I was not exposed to people like him before. I always held in my mind that all people should be treated the same way, but never gave much thought to actively considering them sexually. But now….Josh, baby, if you read this…I hope you’d consider me.

  7. I’ve been romantically involved with as many transgendered people as cisgendered people, and this is something I’ve thought a lot about, too. Where do I draw the line between finding someone attractive and fetishizing them? For me, it involves getting to know the person. I wouldn’t want to sleep with someone who only looked the size of my breasts or some other body part, but didn’t care to find out about the rest of me. So likewise, I won’t go out with someone unless I get to know and like who they are as a whole person, so that I don’t go objectifying them or making assumptions based on one part of their identity.

  8. Really great post, piny.

    I don’t really have any answers to these matters. I’m one of the few people I know who finds far more peace and comfort in living solo than being in a relationship. Given the contorted social logistics that transpeople have to go through when dating, I’m relieved that I wound up with this kind of personality.

    If I ever bother dating again, I’ll most likely seek out other transwomen. I’d much prefer being with someone who has walked a similar path through life. In many ways, it seems easier to date someone who has challenged the barriers of gender in ways similar to one’s self.

  9. Amber, that’s what I was thinking of. I think you still see advice to men that says (usually not in so many words) “go after fat women, becaue they’re less likely to turn you down.”

    I’ve mentioned this elsewhere in discussions ofg interracial dating: I’ve never been really into someone and then talked myself out of it on the grounds that she didn’t have the right look.

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