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Feb 15 2012

Chicks-With-Dicks, Trap-Chans, Chasers and Trans-Fans: The Question Of Fetishization

One of the most common questions I get asked is about whether or not men having specific sexual interest in trans women is an inherently othering, dehumanizing or cissexist thing. I provided a fairly brief response in my FAQ post, but it’s something I feel is worth investigating a little bit more deeply.

The quick answer I usually go with is that no, it’s not. Being attracted to someone, even in a manner driven by a fetish or kink, is not in and of itself a big deal or a bad thing. What mostly matters is how you actually treat that person. If beyond your sexual attraction you remember to recognize them as a complex, human being with their own thoughts, experiences, desires and needs, and are respectful of that, then you’re pretty much fine.

Yet the way that fetishization and sexualization of trans women, trans men and trans bodies typically plays out in actual life and representation makes things far more complicated, and at a certain point it is absolutely worth asking what exactly is driving that specific sexual attraction. Representations of trans women, even those meant to be sympathetic and accurate, not just porn, usually have a very sexual focus, with particular attention being paid to breast development, genital surgery and sexuality. Trans men are curiously sexualized within queer circles, with an interesting sub-current of self-identified lesbians describing themselves as intensely attracted to trans men (it shouldn’t take any explanation to indicate why this is problematic). Within those same circles, trans women are curiously de-sexed even while entire niches of the sex industry cater to the manner in which straight, cis men fetishize us. In radical queer circles trans women are often regarded not only as dull, boring, stuffy and unsexy sadsters who draw all the fun out of the scene, but even seen in some spaces as rapists-by-deception, or even perpetrators of conceptual rape by “appropriating” the female body. Then we’ve got the “chicks-with-dicks”/”shemale” genres of porn and the many trap-chans. We have the “chasers” who use highly deceptive means to meet trans women such as claiming to be considering transition themselves so as to enter into trans support groups and other supposedly safe spaces. Some pose as trans women online so as to join exclusive trans support forums (and download people’s photographs). We’ve got countless stories of guys who are willing to fuck trans women but refuse to be seen in public with them. There’s an entire genre of “transformation” fan-fic and web comics that more or less explicitly sexualize various gender-bending scenarios (while dressing up the erotic fantasy elements with “zany” stories)… like The Whateley Universe or El Goonish Shive. And finally, one really can’t help but notice the degree to which fetishization of trans bodies is driven by the sense of the exotic, the other, the forbidden, the strange and the adventurous.

Something is definitely up with all this.

Clearly, people have all kinds of different idiosyncratic attractions. Red hair, dark hair, blond hair, curly hair, straight hair, particularly large or particularly small breasts, lean body-types, curvier or heavier body types, muscle (in many different proportions), hairiness or smoothness, freckles, beards, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes, ivory skin or ebony skin or any of the positions between, big strong hands, slender fingers, nice smile, tight butt, big butt, and pretty much an infinite number of little quirks a body can have. If it’s a phenotype trait a human being can have, someone somewhere is turned on by it. And that’s completely okay. The last thing I want to do is start arbitrarily policing people’s sexuality.

But where things get problematic is when we get overlaps between the phenotypes and social categories. When it goes from “I think long, dark, straight hair and smaller than average breasts are sexy” to “I’m into Asian girls”, it starts getting murky and difficult and linked to categorism. For one thing, not all women of East Asian descent are going to have that kind of hair or breasts. But perhaps more strikingly, are you attracted to the actual characteristics, or are you attracted to the concept? Where does your attraction to specific kinds of bodies end and where does the way you conceptualize the Exotic Other begin? Is this an innocent sexual attraction that happens to be connected to race, or is it Orientalism expressed through sexuality? And where does the individual fit into this? Are you interested in a given woman because of who she is, or are you interested in her just because she happens to fit into a racial category you’ve fetishized and desire?

If you talk to people with a sexual preference for a specific race, you’ll often notice right away that a considerable amount of that preference is linked to the cultural constructs, conceptions and representations surrounding that race, rather than any grounded particulars. You’ll hear talk of how Asian women are more “feminine” (an often useful but extremely vague and relative term that means nothing when removed from our cultural codes of gender), how black women are more “soulful” or “down-to-earth”, how black men are more “dominant”, “strong”, “laid-back”, and so forth.

I wish I knew what cis men who are into trans women say about their attractions when they aren’t censoring themselves, but my presence now negates that, and when I was presenting as a cis male I never thought to ask (as an aside: one of the creepy things about being queer is that most of us all have had the experience of directly hearing the awful things straight/cis people say about us behind our backs, because almost all of us at one point were assumed to be straight/cis ourselves).

Anyway, the thing is that these concepts of Asian women being more feminine or black women more soulful are pretty much arbitrary cultural constructs. They’re not actual facts about women of those races, they’re just aspects of how we tend to see women of those races. It’s an issue of perceptions.

Sometimes the cultural constructs of race directly overlap with gender/sexuality… I wish I could remember the link (if anyone knows it, please say so in the comments) but I read this fantastic article recently about how black women’s bodies would be described relative to white women’s if they were the privileged majority class instead. It was fascinating in that almost every single way in which we might describe the appearance and sexuality of black women could easily be turned on its head. Like, rather than our current manner of describing kinky hair as being sort of wild and messy with white women’s straight hair being considered controlled and feminine, we could instead describe white women’s hair and the way it blows around in the breeze as being uncontrolled and wild, but the stable, poised structure of an afro being the model of demure feminine reservation. White women would buy special products to make their hair more kinked and curly, perms would be commonplace, and keeping your hair straight would be radical statement of ethnic pride. Instead of black women’s facial features being described as primitive or masculine or hard, the fuller lips and more rounded noses would be thought of as the very definition of feminine and soft, while white women’s facial structures would be considered harsh, sharp and angular, like a Halloween witch. This simple inversion was an extraordinarily brilliant illustration of just how much our cultural perceptions affect how we interpret appearance, even in relation to sexuality and gender (which somehow manage to assume a status of “given”, unlike most other interpretations of appearance). The traits of a given ethnic group that you “simply” find more sexually attractive (or unattractive) are filtered through our cultural concepts of race and ethnicity, and filtered through your perceptions regarding that race or ethnicity.

The question of perceptions is extremely important when we consider sexual attraction (or repulsion) towards trans people. Perhaps my most hated of the trans ATFAQ (all too frequently asked questions) is the one about when a trans person should tell someone they’ve made out or had sex with (or are planning to) that they’re trans. This question pretty much always comes with a hypothetical: an innocent oblivious dude meets up with a perfectly passable post-op trans woman. He’s attracted to her, she’s attracted to him, and they consent to sex without him knowing that she was assigned male at birth. She later tells him, and he now feels repulsed, deceived and horrified, and says that what she did was basically rape, since he never would have consented to sex with her if he’d known she was trans.

The justification provided in this hypothetical is usually “well I’m just not attracted to trans women. I’m not into them. I can’t control that, it’s just my sexual preference.”

Bullshit.

You see, the hypothetical situation, and the fear of “deception” is based entirely on the fact that a man may indeed be attracted to a trans woman. If he’s just not into us, and his uncontrollable sexual preferences cause him to find us unappealing, then he never would have been attracted to her or consented to sex in the first place. The issue is instead that he’s not attracted to women that he knows are trans. If he finds her attractive enough to be worthy of him descending down from on high cis mountain to fuck her one moment, and a repulsive, disgusting, lying whore the next, when all that has changed is her informing him of a more or less irrelevant fact of her history (perhaps relevant under certain circumstances like LTRs but not just for a hook-up) the issue is clearly about his perceptions, not her body.

And this is where things get interesting. If the way that an individual’s perceptions of trans status alone can have such a profound impact on whether or not an individual is attracted to a trans woman, such that it can outright nullify sexual attraction that already existed, clearly the issue of people finding trans women either attractive or repulsive goes well beyond “simple” sexual preference.

Like… let’s say there’s a hypothetical guy reading my blog who has a “thing” for trans women and, knowing I’m trans, starts finding me rather sexy and cute and develops a harmless little crush on me. That’s fine. No worries. As long as he doesn’t start sending me creepy e-mails or anything, I’m not bothered. But here’s the question: if I’d been stealth, and despite using the same pictures and everything had chosen not be out and open about having been trans, would he have still been attracted to me?

This is where the question of fetishization of trans people hits up against some serious questions. Like anybody else, us trans people sometimes want to feel attractive, sexy and cute. We’re just as happy as anyone else to have someone find us beautiful or attractive, provided it’s in a respectful and non-creepy way. We also enjoy relationships and sex just like anyone else does. It may come as a bit of a surprise, but as a general thing, trans women pretty much have the exact same emotional needs and desires as any woman. However, when the attraction ends up being predicated on a conceptual thing, and is more about what we are than who we are, more about the preconceptions that other person carries around with them about transsexuality, well… then it’s not really about us at all, is it? It’s about their idea of us. Or going beyond that just more about them, really. It’s their kink that is taking precedence, and we just happen to be playing the role- if not us, any comparable trans women would do. That’s NOT flattering and DOESN’T make us feel attractive and loved. And being into us just because we’re trans when you would have ignored us if we were cis is really not all that different from guys rejecting us simply because we’re trans when they would have liked us if we were cis. We generally don’t want this one aspect of our identities to dictate the entirety of our sex lives and relationships.

On the other hand, the simpler, more direct elements of sexual preference and orientation can’t be ignored here. It’s obvious that some people like vaginas or find them icky and some people like penises or find them icky and some people like both and some people aren’t all that interested in either and none of that is really very much in anyone’s control. That’s okay. It would be completely ridiculous for anyone to suggest that a gynophilic person’s lack of sexual interest in a pre-op trans woman is transphobia, or to suggest the same of an androphilic person’s lack of interest in a pre-op trans man. And extending from that, trans people offer unique combinations of gendered physical traits that aren’t really present in cis people. Sexual attraction to someone with a primarily female body but also a penis is an understandable (albeit kinky) kind of desire that is indeed based on the partner’s body rather than just on perceptions or cultural constructs or ideas or exoticization of the other.

But while I can hardly blame someone for having these desires, it’s important to consider how pursuit of them will impact the other person. Most trans women who have not undergone lower surgery do not have a particularly happy, healthy relationship with their genitals. Someone being attracted and interested in a part of your body that you feel intense dysphoria towards is a kind of weird, uncomfortable situation. It’s important to be sensitive to that, and understanding of the complex feelings a trans partner may have towards their own bodies. Don’t push them into things they’re not comfortable with.

Also, if the relationship isn’t built upon more than just that kink, it will inevitably collapse if SRS is being pursued. There are, however, some trans women who are comfortable with their penis and don’t intend to have lower surgery, and likewise there are trans men who are fully comfortable with their vagina. People who have a sexual interest in these kinds of bodies should ideally pair with people who’ve made this kind of decision (“non-op”). Unfortunately, people with a kink for non-op trans bodies very much outnumber trans people who are non-op, which makes things a bit tricky.

There are other traits about a trans person besides just the genital stuff that can play into attraction. Trans men often have a rather youthful or boyish appearance that may be a bit of a turn-on for people who are into youthful and boyish looking (ADULT!) men. They may also have slightly softer features and skin then cis men, and that can be attractive to a lot of people. Trans women are typically taller than cis women, and can often have slightly stronger features. More striking noses, cheekbones, jawlines or eyebrows. Deeper voices can be considered very seductive and attractive. Trans women’s legs are often quite long and beautiful. All trans people will usually have a certain degree of androgyny and slightly “unconventional” appearance, both of which can be very attractive to people who are into those things. And the moment we ditch the silly assumption that cisgender standards of beauty are the only ones that count, we can recognize an immense variety of unique types of physical beauty and sexiness amongst trans bodies.

But the question is always whether or not the traits would still be considered beautiful or sexy if the observer did not know the person was trans. And of course, there is absolutely no outwardly visible physical trait that is common to ALL trans men or ALL trans women. Like all those things mentioned above? None of them are a given, and I know plenty of trans people who are absolutely, completely indistinguishable from cis members of their identified sex. Honest. Again, are you turned on by the person or are you turned on by the idea?

We don’t really have control over the kinds of things that turn us on. And I’m not going to judge anyone for their attractions, even those attractions that do fetishize others based on cultural concepts and categories. It’s the culture influencing your sexuality, not you deciding to base your sexuality around the concepts built around trans people. Guilt is the absolute last thing I’d want anyone to take away from this post. However, there are a few things that I think are worth thinking about.

If your attractions are mostly based around ideas and concepts and perceptions, it might be worth thinking them through and seeing what they may be indicative of. You don’t need to feel guilty about your sexuality, but your sexuality can provide a gateway into understanding your own unconscious biases and assumptions and baggage and stuff about gender and transgenderism. It can lead you to other things that might be good to unpack. For instance, if part of your interest in trans people is a sense of the exotic or strange, then perhaps you might have some underlying biases that tend to have you regard trans folk (and maybe other groups too) as Other and apart from yourself, which might get in the way of recognizing them as human beings more or less just like yourself. If part of it is a sense of excitement and rebellion and transgression, it might be worth considering how trans people have been more or less forced into our position, that we aren’t breaking the rules of gender for kicks, and we’re really only outlaws because they outlawed us. It might also be worth thinking about the privilege of being able to choose whether or not to transgress gender, whereas for us we’re just stuck on the non-normative side of the line. If part of it is seeing a reflection of your own desires to break free from your assigned gender, wellllll… what I’d say is probably pretty obvious.

Some of the sexual concepts are inherently problematic, such as perhaps seeing trans women as “extreme cross-dressers” and that turning you on because of your interest in CD. Sometimes the relationship can be problematic if you don’t unpack the underlying reasons for the desire, such as if your main interest is scoring a free therapist to help you through your own gender identity issues. Such a relationship would end up being very one-sided and unfulfilling and come to a less than happy ending.

Representations of trans people in sexualized contexts can be useful models for understanding some of the implications of fetishization. The “trap” meme as an example plays upon the myth of trans women as “deceptive” gay men, frames transsexuality in terms of male desire, and makes it ultimately all about the cis man being pursued. In terms of the women typically represented within “trap” images, they are very conventionally feminine and demure. Weak, submissive, and thoroughly sexual objects rather than sexual agents, but also a seductive, tempting, well, TRAP. The manner in which trans women are depicted in most “shemale” pornography, and the language surrounding this genre of pornography, is rather degrading and explicitly positions the performers as not-quite-female. And “transformation fic” I mentioned above eroticizes the idea of inhabiting the body of the sexual object. It’s strongly related to “forced feminization” fantasies which can sometimes be a means of sublimating transsexuality and coping with female gendered fantasies for assigned-male-at-birth people who are still working through shame about having a female gender identity, but amongst cis men can often be a sort of exaggerated form of submission or humiliation fantasy, connected to misogynist ideas of women’s inferiority or passivity. In this case, the idea of being “turned into a woman” becomes a turn-on in that it is conceptually framed as the ultimate humiliation or submission, the ultimate shame, the ultimate way to be made someone’s bitch. Related desire for trans women outside the context of this kind of fantasy or erotica is simply a projection of those desires onto people in real life who superficially reflect elements of the scenario… but of course women are not actually inferior or inherently passive or submissive, and an actual trans women is not in her transition being made to submit in humiliation and shame. She’s not being made a bitch. She is actually asserting herself and taking control of her body, gender, identity and life. Transition is for many trans women the most empowering and liberating thing they’ve ever done. Certainly it was for me.

Thinking through and unpacking these external representations and fantasies can help in providing a disconnected, outward model of the sexualization of trans-ness one can look at without having to go through the incredibly difficult process of deconstructing your own desires and looking at what’s going on there. But it’s in understanding how to apply those insights to one’s own desires that’s helpful. Although even that’s pretty much just a means to an end. Mostly, the value of unpacking any of this, cultural representations of trans people or your own desires, is just in being a means of examining general ideas about gender and privilege and trying to grow towards being a better person. The desires themselves can usually be totally harmless.

CAN be harmless.

The other important take-away point is how you treat the person towards whom you have a kinky or fetishistic attraction. I mean, whether it’s a specialized, specific attraction or not, the same basic rules still apply and take precedence. As I’ve already mentioned, you need to first and foremost recognize and respect the humanity and complexity of the person. You need to never let go of the fact that behind the sexy, there’s a thinking, feeling human being there, who has needs, desires, boundaries and emotions of their own. He or she has an entire personality and history. Beyond just being a beautiful and arrestingly sexy trans woman she may, for instance, adore the poetry of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès, collect dojinshi shouju manga, be an aspiring filmmaker, and make a particularly amazing Thai yellow curry. Beyond just being a handsome, lean and muscular, outgoing and incredibly hot man with a vagina, he may also be a graduate student specializing in semiotic animal communication, have the complete discography of Townes Van Zandt, once survived being bitten by a water moccasin, is a dedicated social justice activist and hardcore pacifist but kind of finds guns sexy anyway, and someday wants to live in London. You know what I mean?

If you remember those things, remember that you’re interacting with a human being with dimensions to who they are that go much deeper than your kink, and can respect that… if you build your relationship on more than just the happenstance of your particular kink matching their particular combination of sex and gender… if you treat them with love, respect, understanding and support, and they reciprocate, you’ll be fine. You can use working at understanding your attractions, kinks and sexuality as a means to better understand yourself and your culture, and that’s awesome and admirable if you’re willing to do the work to unpack all of that, but the most important thing is to understand that as long as you’re not dehumanizing and objectifying your partner, you’re not dehumanizing and objectifying your partner. You just appreciate them.

Happy belated Valentine’s Day.

57 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    “Always remember to treat peoples as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.” Goes for sexual relationships of any kind

    And to my shame I must confess that the ATFAQ has been buzzing around in the back of my head for some time now. Time to cross that one off the list.

    I read somewhere that treating people as members of a category, rather than as individuals, was very dehumanizing, and that seems to be what you’re going for here. Reducing people to one of their attributes… people are more than the sum of their parts, and they are certainly more than just one of their parts. I read through the “Asking trans people questions” while waiting for this post to appear and it seems to be the same there. One lesson was that trans people actually are fully functional human beings with aspects of their personality that don’t relate to trans questions at all! Amazing.

    Regarding physical features, I heard on a podcast that trans women often have firmer breasts because the breasts developed later in life and the connective tissue hasn’t aged as much. I can’t remember the name of the podcast, but it was two trans women discussing things from their own perspective.

    You were accused of ‘argument from verbosity’ and I think that’s a bit unfair. While this certainly was a long post, it didn’t feel long to me. Just my two cents’ worth.

    1. 1.1
      Chrisj

      “Always remember to treat peoples as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.” Goes for sexual relationshipsinteractions of any kind

      FTFY.

      1. Anders

        Yep. I base my political thought on that maxim. And since I’ve never answered the ATFAQ before, here’s my attempt:

        “The question is loaded and therefore impossible to answer. It pre-supposes that transsexualism is something dirty, a secret like having AIDS. In fact, it shouldn’t be more dramatic than dyed hair or having a boob job. Would you demand that a person reveal that before having sex? No? Then why do it in this case?

        The question implies that trans people have a duty to inform other people about things that they, quite frankly, have no business knowing. Having sex with a trans person carries no special risk and so no special duties apply.

        Not only that, but trans person that out themselves run a very real risk of personal danger, ranging from verbal abuse to death. This is sadly the way the world functions. So not only is the question loaded, if we demanded that trans people do the full disclosure dance we would risk the lives of several men and women every year. And all this to satisfy the demands of transphobic men and women who can’t be bothered to examine their own prejudices. Is that really what you want.

        My answer would be something like that. Do I pass the examination?

        1. Megan

          Other than the implication that having HIV is “dirty” and not just something to take precautions around, I’d say that this is a pretty good response.

          1. Anders

            You’re right of course. And I apologize. It’s so difficult… but I’ll learn, post by post.

          2. Anders

            It pre-supposes that transsexualism is something dirty, a secret like having AIDS.

            Yeah, stupid.

            Here’s what I intended to say: “It presupposes that transsexualism is like a dirty secret, or a dangerous disease like AIDS.” I think that people with AIDS should inform their sex partners beforehand since the disease is so dangerous, but I’m willing to change my mind. I’ve heard good arguments from both sides.

    2. 1.2
      Emily

      I can’t remember the name of the podcast, but it was two trans women discussing things from their own perspective.

      I’d have to guess you’re talking about Trans-Ponder. Sound familiar?

      1. Anders

        It was a couple of months ago, so I’m not sure but that could be it. I’m fairly certain Natalie recommended it during her brief stay at the SGU forums. I suppose I could go look it up, but I feel bad enough right now without wading through 20 pages of “YOU ARE A MAN BECAUSE SCIENCE SAYS SO!!!”

  2. 2
    Ace of Sevens

    I just wasted a weekend reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. It looks to me like the essence of the “trap” meme is trans women are a sort of real-life equivalent to trolls. For instance, Trap-Chan (the meme originator) is the board nickname for an androgynous-looking man who came on and started posting pics. As usual, the board demanded nudity and a bunch of people were surprised to see a penis. The whole article is written with a sort-of awestruck, admiring tone, like the author was impressed someone had pulled this off. Other articles about trans women are full of asides saying the reader wants to have sex with their subject, despite claiming not to. FTM is covered much less, but includes taunts that trans men are better men than you’ll ever be. (All of ED assumes a nominally straight, male reader.) In short, the chan culture is transphobic (don’t read the Ann Coulter article if you value your sanity), but the transphobia isn’t quite your garden variety.

    1. 2.1
      BrianX

      Yeah… the term “trap” is kind of a backhanded compliment, and definitely not something you call someone without their explicit say-so. The *chan mentality is definitely a bizarre one with its own strange morality — the more abuse you can handle, the more you’re respected. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s not compatible with the real world, and I suspect for a lot of people it’s a put-on. I’m not sure if that’s defensible or not…

  3. 3
    Ace of Sevens

    Does anyone know of any studies about how exposure to trans pornography affects people’s attitudes? For me, the interview portions were key to understanding trans women as people, not terribly different from other people, rather than the demonized figures who wanted to undermine society solely for the sake of their perverse sexual pleasure (way worse than the gays) I heard about in church occasionally. It was the mid-nineties, so media presence was low.

    1. 3.1
      Anders

      At first I approached trans people like I approach most things: hmm… let’s study these specimens and see how they react. But as I learned to know them better – especially a young trans girl called Lix… it’s difficult to explain but do you know of Necker cubes? The perspective shifted, from study object to friend.

      I just read through what I wrote. I am probably a horrible person.

      Anyway, that experience is also why I would like you to post about your hobbies, musical interests, what movies you go to, etc. All those things make it clear that you are more than Natalie, trans person blogger. Also, I’m nosy.

  4. 4
    beardofpants

    Sometimes it’s just really *hard* to separate the culturally-driven tropes though. Not all of it is malicious. For instance, I would tend to be more aware of African-American men when going through the tenderloin in SF than I would be white men. It’s not that I’m overtly trying to be a racist white chick… it’s just *really* freakin’ hard to turn that off. :/

    1. 4.1
      Anders

      I guess ‘tenderloin’ refers to young unexperienced people? I’m more concerned about the implications of calling future lovers ‘hunks of meat’…

      1. Nepenthe

        The Tenderloin is the name of the neighborhood.

        1. Anders

          Awkward…

          *scurries away into a corner*

      2. beardofpants

        It’s an area of SF that’s not particularly safe for women to wander about in at night:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenderloin,_San_Francisco#Crime

    2. 4.2
      hall-of-rage

      I mean sure, you might well be wary of /everyone/ you see in the Tenderloin and there are plenty of Black people. But it’s really way more useful to look for who looks like they are hanging out minding their own business waiting to meet up with friends, vs. who watches you and shifts as you approach. (I’m a white cis chick who has mostly been harassed by white guys. So probably they read more as threats to me than guys of color, and boy do white guys act entitled. YMMV.)

      1. beardofpants

        Yeah, logically I know that the skin color has nothing to do with it, but it’s hard to fight the knee-jerk reaction. I should also clarify that I’m new to the states, and there’s a lot of culture mores that are entirely new to me, so it’s entirely possible that these more African-American mannerisms are raising my trigger warnings because they’re more ‘unknown’ to me.

  5. 5
    daenyx

    I was thinking as I read this just how useful a lot of your posts have been to me both in understanding/empathizing with transgender issues, and in unpacking my own particular (cis-woman) knapsacks about… well, a lot of things, even in cases where I’d thought the introspective ground was already very well-trodden.

    I keep trying to elaborate on this and then deleting it because the thoughts aren’t completely coherent yet, so I’ll just say ‘thank you,’ instead, for your insights and your willingness to write about them.

  6. 6
    The Lorax

    The question of fetishization? The answer: I am all for it.

    … I will now run away. le Woosh!

  7. 7
    Tualha

    Handy link to aforementioned FAQ post

  8. 8
    Dalillama

    I have never understood the obsession that so many cis people seem to have with other people’s gender. I can intellectually understand that some people are very picky about their partner’s actual genitalia, but I can’t see where that’s an issue in the case of a post-op trans person. That’s speaking entirely for the sex thing, though. Outside of a sexual relationship, the level of transphobia I see mystifies me even more completely. As a cis man, I’ve always considered my gender to be something internal to me, and something that didn’t require explanation or justification (I know, privilege, right?). The thing is, since I feel that way about my gender, I’ve always felt that way about other people’s genders as well: your gender identity is internal to you, and doesn’t require explanation or justification as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get why so many people seem to have trouble with that idea.

    1. 8.1
      Tina

      The definition of a straight person is someone who has an strong aversion to having sex with someone of the same gender, however that person or their genitals look. While your birth gender may not hold any importance to you, you do not have the right to say if this is important to your partner. I would not wish to have sex with another woman, but also I would not wish to have sex with that same woman if she had a doctor put her on male hormones and construct her a penis etc, to me, she is still a woman. I sympathize with the trans persons plight, that they want to be other than the sex they were born, but I have to admit that to me, as to many straight people, that just isn’t possible. I know that this is not what you want to hear, and I’m sorry about that, but I am being honest here, and I hope you can appreciate that. Actually, what I think should not matter, and I hope you live your life however you wish, and more power to you. Wear whatever you like, as I do, do whatever you wish with your own body, as I do, live however you like, as I do, and stuff anyone else’s approval. But… While I do agree that each individuals gender is their own business, when you connect intimately with another, it becomes their business as well, and you should first make sure that they know enough to make an informed decision about if they want to have sex with a trans person or not. That is, if you want to be honest and upfront, and really, if you don’t want to do that, then it’s not going to end well for anyone.

      1. Natalie Reed

        No, see, I don’t think you’re quite being honest with yourself.

        For one thing, that’s not the definition of a straight person. For another, a trans man ISN’T the same gender as you. That’s not “just in their heads”, that’s the reality. There’s nothing ESSENTIAL or INNATE or IMMUTABLE about your hang-ups and problems with sleeping with trans men (notice you haven’t even MET this hypothetical man, and you’re already saying that you can’t POSSIBLY be attracted to him. It’s ridiculous.) This is definitely NOT about the “definition” of straight, or some concrete, universal aspect of heterosexuality that can’t be questioned. Are you, for instance, going to say that every man who has ever slept with a trans woman, no matter WHAT she looks like, is “gay”? What this is about is YOUR perceptions, which are based on some pretty weird preconceptions… a set of perceptions that are, at best, internally inconsistent, and, at worst, designed specifically to maintain your own bigotry.

        Your vague assurances that I shouldn’t give a damn about your bigoted and uninformed opinions don’t change the fact that you’re making your comment anyway, attempting to get me to listen to your bigoted and uninformed opinions. The suggestion of violence, and implied delight and victim-blaming, in your final statement about “ending well” is particularly telling to just how disingenuous your “support” is. At the very least, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re on our side or “sympathize” with us and our “plight” or whatever. Be honest with yourself about what you are: a cissexist.

        Further reading:

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/03/20/the-ethical-imperative-of-disclosure-or-how-to-believe-your-victim-owes-you-an-opportunity-for-abuse/

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/04/04/caught-up-in-cotton/

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/06/01/what-the-fk/

      2. The Nerd

        The definition of a straight person is someone who has an strong aversion to having sex with someone of the same gender, however that person or their genitals look. While your birth gender may hold great importance to you, you do not have the right to say if this is important to your partner. I would not necessarily mind to have sex with someone who was concerned about my personal history, but also I would not wish to have sex with that same woman if she decided she knows more about my identity than myself, she is still a bigot. I sympathize with the confused cis person’s plight, that they want the world to be black-and-white, but I have to admit that to me, as to many people, that just isn’t possible. I know that this is not what you want to hear, and I’m sorry about that, but I am being honest here, and I hope you can appreciate that. Actually, what I think should not be the only thing that matters. Wear whatever you like, as I do, do whatever you wish with your own body, as I do, live however you like, as I do, and stuff anyone else’s approval. But… While I do agree that each individuals sex lives are their own business, when you connect intimately with another, it becomes their business as well, and you should first make sure that they know enough to make an informed decision about if they want to have sex with a bigot or not. That is, if you want to be honest and upfront, and really, if you don’t want to do that, then it’s not going to end well for anyone.

        1. mx. punk

          teh nerd for teh win! <3

  9. 9
    Chirico

    In high school, my friends and I used to tease one friend for being into “ladyboys” as he called them. He’s not a bad guy, but it probably was a case of it being “exotic” and “other” as you put it. What really makes me feel bad is that I would always correct him on pronouns: whenever he would use “she” or “her” I would say “he” or “him.” I get embarrassed just thinking about it, but as stupid and obvious as it should be, it took reading Natalie’s work to understand just how ignorant and wrong I was. Even as someone who considered himself quite accepting and thoughtful(I’ve never really had any prejudice based on race, orientation, gender, whatever) I still missed such a simple thing. So thank you Natalie for helping me take a step towards true acceptance and understanding, not just with this but with queer issues and feminism in general.
    And a happy belated Valentine’s to you too. For me, it was VirginLoserSelfloathing Day, but that’s not much different from any other day. :P

  10. 10
    Michael Brew

    I’ve only met one trans person before, and this was a trans man with stubble and everything, so I’ve never really been in a situation where I would know how I would feel about a trans woman. However, I’ve always wondered that about myself. In fact, I remember a couple occasions upon meeting a woman I liked quite a bit that I’ve wondered (among other “what ifs,” mind you) how I would react if I found out that the woman to whom I was attracted turned out to be a trans rather than cis woman. Obviously I can’t know for sure until it happens, though I did think your original picture was cute before I realized you were a trans woman and had no particular shift in perspective on the matter afterward, so I’d like to think that it wouldn’t effect me.

  11. 11
    Anna

    In reference to the trans fiction sites on the web I just wanted to make an observation from my experience. It has seemed to me the clear majority of the stories and readership seem to be from trans folks themselves except for some of the really well know webcomics. Authors would frequently make reference to their own transitions and so would many commentators.

    Considering that many of these stories are highly sexual, reinforce extreme stereotypes, and do fetishize the body I always found these sites more worthy of study about how transpeople feel about themselves. As a trans woman it often gave me worrying messages about how society has taught us about our own self worth, what we have learned about the place of woman in society, and about how we have been taught to view ourselves as primarly sexual in nature.

    Sadly, when I had no other trans community to turn to this was one of the few places I had to see trans people on the web and learn about things. Since I viewed myself as a feminist and a humanist and not primarily as a sexual being it made me very afraid to deal with other trans people and question myself as differant even within my own community.

    I am sure there were admirers and cis people frequenting these sites too but it really didn’t (from admitedly a biased source since I could only read comments and author messages) seem that there was many at all.

    1. 11.1
      Natalie Reed

      In my experience, I saw it as both. “Trans-romantic” cis people as well as trans people (especially trans people still in the process of questioning and/or coming to terms with things). There were also cis people pretending to be trans. And those things do have fuzzy boundaries. That’s why I mentioned the “forced-feminization” fantasies when discussing those kinds of sites, since that’s the particular fantasy those stories tend to focus on. As I said, forced-fem can on the one hand be a way for a trans woman to cope with the shame that accompanies her female sexuality. Sexual fantasies in which one’s body is female is a perfectly ordinary and healthy, normal thing for a woman to have. But since a trans woman has been taught to be ashamed of those feelings, and not regard herself as “allowed” to have a female sexuality, she needs to create some kind of scenario to resolve that dissonance. Hence the fantasies of being “forced” into being a woman by some kind of evil wizard or mad scientist or something. These fantasies usually directly overlap with bondage fantasies. They generally have more in common with the rape fantasies experienced by cis women than the erotic thrill of the exotic and forbidden and exploring the “opposite sex” experienced by cis-male transvestic fetishists.

      But forced-fem fantasies are also experienced by cis men as, like I said, an exaggerated form of submission / humiliation fantasy, and also as an extreme variation on TV / CD fantasies.

      So more or less the same erotic fantasies are going to work for trans women who still feel a lot of shame about their sexuality as are going to work for cis men who regard forced-fem as an extension of submission, bondage and transvestic fetishes. Cis men who are into this stuff will often fetishize trans women do to how trans women, to them, are the closest thing real life offers to a reflection of that fantasy. You’re trans, right, Anna? Haven’t you ever had cis guys talk to you about how they’d love you to “doll them up” sometime, or confess to fantasies where they’d want a trans women to “force” them to dress up in women’s clothes?

      I don’t know… maybe it doesn’t happen to every trans girl, but I’ve had lots of e-mails from guys confessing all kinds of gender-related fantasies and turn-ons and stuff. It’s…um… interesting.

      One of the most interesting aspects is just how many guys there are out there with fantasies like this who have NO IDEA how many other guys there are with the same kinds of fantasies. Like even on a message board with 75-ish regular members, you’ll have like four dudes who all privates confess to me that they like to cross-dress, but since they all keep it a secret, they have no idea that there’s three other guys who all have the same kink, and so they feel alone. It’s kind of tragic, in a way.

      1. Movius

        I don’t know… maybe it doesn’t happen to every trans girl, but I’ve had lots of e-mails from guys confessing all kinds of gender-related fantasies and turn-ons and stuff. It’s…um… interesting.

        You often offer to answer questions, don’t seem hostile to others and are knowledgable in related areas. It makes sense that you’d get more inquiries than most.

      2. nikkianne

        I transitioned from male to female about 5 years ago. I found the “forced feminisation/transition” stories a huge fantasy before I transitioned. After some long thought, I realized these fantasies were so strong for me because I knew I had to transition but couldn’t make the decision to go forward. I wanted someone to make the decision for me and if I was forced into a transition, I wouldn’t be blamed. I was feeling so much guilt, shame, and selfishness regarding my wife and family and the fear of the unknown I just couldn’t accept things. Only after the pain of staying the same became stonger than the pain changing (transitioning), was I able to accept myself and the path I needed to take. When I began my transition, those stories and fantasies lost all hold on me and I was no longer interested in them.

        Nikki

  12. 12
    Anthony

    But the question is always whether or not the traits would still be considered beautiful or sexy if the observer did not know the person was trans.

    For me, the answer is, apparently, yes!

    Much to my own surprise, you are just as attractive to me as you were before I knew you were trans.

    Please forgive me if that is a bad thing.

  13. 13
    Robert B.

    Good article! But I’m hung up on a minor point. You threw in a comment about El Goonish Shive and the Whately Universe. I probably examine for transphobia less than I ought, but I was surprised that you seemed to imply these works were problematic. I’ve been reading EGS for years, the friend that got me into it is genderqueer, and I didn’t think there was any problem with Shive having fun with the idea of body transformation. As for Whately, I didn’t get too far into it, but I think I remember reading that the authors were transgendered themselves, and I figured they meant the stories to serve the same emotional purpose that I (a gay cis guy) get out of reading and writing slashfic.

    All that wasn’t really by way of making an argument, more like explaining my confusion. If you don’t mind, Natalie, do you have problems with EGS and Whately? If so, why?

    1. 13.1
      Natalie Reed

      Yes, I have problems with them. I really, really, really do. I’m not really feeling up for walking through it all right now, but… you know, treating it in this really flippant way, sexualizing it, contorting the story into ridiculous bends to avoid representing actual trans experiences (like Ellen for some reason being completely unable to transition to male?!), the highly othering tone, the exoticism, the treatment of trans experiences as these fantastic little fun-fun sexy times things with no more effort put in to understanding actual human experiences than a 13 year old boy imagining what a girls’ slumber-party might be like. Yeah, lots of problems.

      1. Robert B.

        Yikes. I begin to understand. I’ve certainly noticed how good Dan Shive is at bizarre and ill-considered plot contortions. And it really should have occurred to me how easy transitioning would be in that universe…

        Any time you do feel like getting into a fuller post/conversation about this, or another media portrayal, that’s something I’d definitely be interested in reading.

        I hope the question wasn’t offensive or anything?

  14. 14
    Anders

    I wonder if there are men who go after trans women because “they’re so desperate they’ll go for anything with pants.” And I wonder how many trans women actually have that low self-esteem. :(

    Story idea – two people living together, one is a trans-woman and the other is a gay cis-man. The cis-man beats his partner and tells her she’s a freak and no one else will ever want her, especially if she tries to transition. Could end with her suicide or her leaving him and transitioning depending on how bleak you want it. Might be an interesting look at power relationships and abuse in a ‘gay’ relationship. I’ll leave the idea for better writers.

    I read on a site about vaginoplasty that a great perk of being together with a post op trans woman was that they need to have sex at least once per week (or they risk the vagina closing up), so you’d always be sure to get some at least once per week. Does that person know how a healthy sex life works? The thought of having sex for medical reasons is one of the most unerotic I can think of.

    1. 14.1
      Lena

      Not going to tackle the issues which you already pointed out, but there are dilators, it’s not like post-op trans women need to have sex on a weekly basis. (And how often you need to dilate goes down over time.)

      And yes, double on the unromantic thing; someone having sex with you because they have to doesn’t seem like something that brings a very positive self-image with it. :/

      1. Anders

        It’s interesting – that comment put me so off the site that I didn’t believe that trans women actually need to dilate. It’s strange how an emotional response can alter one’s opinion of the facts of a site.

        Interesting thing two – when I asked Natalie about it she used the word “heal”. I feel that I can’t do that, because that implies that a trans woman’s vagina is an open wound, something which I would never want to suggest. But it’s ok when she does it because we know she’s a well adjusted trans woman. But like Caesar’s wife, the cis man must be above suspicion in this context.

        1. Natalie Reed

          A part of the body healing doesn’t necessarily imply it’s a wound. A broken arm has to heal. A knee that’s just had surgery has to heal. Healing is just the process of recovering from the surgery, I don’t think it necessarily implies anything cissexist about a neo-vagina being a wound. Some people are happy to do that directly (even for cis women’s vaginas, actually: “gash” and all that). I wouldn’t take it as negative if you were to use the word “heal” in reference to…well…healing from SRS.

          And in a sense one is healing from the gender dysphoria, eh?

          1. Anders

            Thanks.

            It’s just that I’m in a new field with new terms, and the wrong terms might harm people I care about. So I’d rather err on the side of caution until I learn which terms are acceptable and which aren’t.

  15. 15
    Alex

    “She’s not being made a bitch. She is actually asserting herself and taking control of her body, gender, identity and life. Transition is for many trans women the most empowering and liberating thing they’ve ever done.”

    As far as I can tell, this is the only aspect of the culture, meaning, or idea of a trans-woman I fetishize. I find the confidence and understanding of self needed to transition incredibly sexy. Beyond that, I think it is just an innocent kink I have, and doesn’t have to much of an effect on me being a trans* supporter.

    1. 15.1
      Anders

      Confidence in a woman is sexy regardless of whether she is trans or not. Although being able to feel all manly and stuff when a woman just feels tired or sad is also a pleasant feeling.

  16. 16
    Cynthia

    Really, it’s amazing to me how you write something great every day! How do you do that? Is your mind just buzzing all the time or do you take days to refine a piece? It’s incredible.

    On this post, you talk about so many things regarding sexual prejudice/obsession/fetishes that my head spins. It’s awesome! And the whole thing really does come down to examining your own motives in a relationship, the ‘why am I with this person’ thing. The best part of this post is that it applies to all relationships, not just to one group. And you force us to examine our own prejudices, be they obvious or silent, and deal with them.

    That’s a whole lot to accomplish in a single blog posting. Congrats on doing an excellent job.

    1. 16.1
      Natalie Reed

      I just have a really big back-log of ideas.

      1. Anders

        And is a good writer. And has done your homework. And probably a few other things I’ve forgotten.

        You’ve earned any praise and any success you have.

  17. 17
    Gemma Seymour-Amper

    “On the other hand, the simpler, more direct elements of sexual preference and orientation can’t be ignored here. It’s obvious that some people like vaginas or find them icky and some people like penises or find them icky and some people like both and some people aren’t all that interested in either and none of that is really very much in anyone’s control. That’s okay. It would be completely ridiculous for anyone to suggest that a gynophilic person’s lack of sexual interest in a pre-op trans woman is transphobia, or to suggest the same of an androphilic person’s lack of interest in a pre-op trans man.

    I hate to say it, Natalie, but this section is EXTREMELY problematic. Please think about why. Perhaps it might help to contrast it with what you said immediately following:

    “And extending from that, trans people offer unique combinations of gendered physical traits that aren’t really present in cis people. Sexual attraction to someone with a primarily female body but also a penis is an understandable (albeit kinky) kind of desire that is indeed based on the partner’s body rather than just on perceptions or cultural constructs or ideas or exoticization of the other.”

    …which, aside from the equally extremely problematic construction of a pre-op trans woman’s body as “kinky” for the sole reason of being “a primarily female body but also (with) a penis”, is perfectly fine.

    1. 17.1
      Ali D.

      Seconded; also why not lend any credence to the idea that men who express revulsion after discovering a partner to whom they’re attracted is non-op and trans, may in fact be “picky about his partner’s genitals”? (Nobody should be the object of revulsion, because that’s shitty and an immature way to react, but I couldn’t think of a better word.)

      I don’t want to justify “trans-panic” but if you, Natalie, think that being gynephilic is something that isn’t a “received” attraction, is it permissible to change one’s tune about a person based on that preference?

      Or does “attraction” not mean “desire to have sex with”? I (cisgender white woman) have been really attracted to women and trans men, but I’m highly androphilic, so I don’t have much desire to engage with anyone’s vagina. My attraction doesn’t go away, but how I want to express that will change. Oppressive?

      1. The Nerd

        “I don’t want to justify ‘trans-panic’ but”
        Then don’t.
        The compassionate thing to do when encountering an unexpected piece of anatomy while in the process of getting it on is to calmly say “look, I am mostly attracted to you, but I am not interested in interacting with your vagina/penis/whatever.” If that’s a deal-breaker for you two, you can work it out from there. No panic required.

        1. Ali D.

          YES. That is exactly it. Thank you for putting it into words.

  18. 18
    The Nerd

    On a related note, there are people with non-mainstream bodies who love having those types of bodies. And I am glad that there are people out there who love those bodies. I myself am genderqueer and feel most at home in my body when I present it in a way that falls completely outside typical beauty standards. The last thing anyone should have to do is choose between being themselves and being able to find a willing sexual partner.
    “And the moment we ditch the silly assumption that cisgender standards of beauty are the only ones that count, we can recognize an immense variety of unique types of physical beauty and sexiness amongst trans bodies.”
    THIS. Forever.

  19. 19
    Myrrha

    This is awesome.

    Also, I think this article is the one you referenced, regarding black women and white women; it came across my Facebook several months ago and stuck with me.

  20. 20
    SoF

    “then it’s not really about us at all, is it? It’s about their idea of us. Or going beyond that just more about them, really. … and we just happen to be playing the role- if not us, any comparable trans women would do. That’s NOT flattering and DOESN’T make us feel attractive and loved.”

    I’ve been wondering if the same could not be potentialy said about an attraction for cis women (or cis men)? Is it not always the *idea* of “woman” that is a major part of the attraction, too?
    This is really puzzling–

    Great texts btw!!

  21. 21
    Anonymous

    I would like to leave this post anonymous. I guess having to enter my email which includes my name which means you could easily find me on twitter, is counterproductive.

    Thank you for this article. I am a trans woman myself, but I am also, a “trans fetishist” or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I enjoy my own pre-operative status, sexually speaking, though I struggle with it as well at times, and I enjoy as you described, women’s bodies with a penis.

    And this has tormented me to no end throughout my transition, my coming out, and years after my previous identity was an after thought. I thought I was a parasite to trans women, or worse, that my gender identity was really just a sick and twisted manifestation of a perversion.

    I’m tired, so tired… of for years, feeling guilty for my sexuality, feeling that it is wrong, because I was catholic, because I am, or want to be feminist, because I am transgender, because I am a woman.

    Thank you for putting some thought into this. I still feel alienated, guilty and wrong for my sexuality, and afraid to share it with other trans people like yourself whom I admire (I am not speaking sexually in this instance, but I am speaking of admiration in terms of your strength and intelligence and ability to use these assets.) Having discussed this I feel a little bit less alienated and strange.

    I apologize if my comment is a bit of a ramble, I will freely admit to being less intelligent than yourself, and I have difficulties remaining coherent at times.

    1. 21.1
      The Nerd

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. If it makes you feel better, the rest of us can’t see your email. :)

  22. 21.1
    Ace of Sevens

    I think there are lots of reason one may state or display racial preferences in dating that aren’t necessarily racist. In practice, most people who state a strong preference are racist, but weak preferences based on aesthetic generalities or unstated preferences may not be.

    I think your disagreement with Natalie may be mostly semantic, both in terms of how you define racism and your assumptions about what exactly this hypothetical guy who prefers to date Asian women is thinking.

  1. 22
    Significant Othering: Responses and Links | A Radical TransFeminist

    [...] The Question Of Fetishization: One of the most common questions I get asked is about whether or not men having specific sexual interest in trans women is an inherently othering, dehumanizing or cissexist thing. I provided a fairly brief response in my FAQ post, but it’s something I feel is worth investigating a little bit more deeply. Share this post:TwitterFacebookTumblrRedditEmailMoreStumbleUponLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. This entry was posted in articles and tagged attraction, body acceptance, significant othering by Lisa Millbank. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  2. 23
    “I’m into/not into [insert race here]” is racist. | the fatal feminist

    [...] The Question of Fetishization, by Natalie Reed (via Lisa Millbank at A Radical [...]

  3. 24
    Preferences and Racism | A Jewish Voice

    [...] over at “the fatal feminist,” presents us for a quote from “The Question of Fetishization” by Natalie Reed, which reacts on people feeling “attracted” on what I think would be termed [...]

  4. 25
    "I’m into/not into [insert race here]" is racist. | Fast Fails | The Best Fail Channels

    [...] The Question of Fetishization, by Natalie Reed (via Lisa Millbank at A Radical [...]

  5. 26
    reader question: pansexual attraction | rainbowgenderpunk

    [...] going to include some relevant reading: the “ethical” imperative of disclosure and the question of fetishization.  they’re both natalie reed articles that discuss trans* bodies, attraction, and all sorts [...]

  6. 27
    Trans Segment #45: Hypersexualization of trans women « goodbyelazarus

    [...] 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 [...]

  7. 28
  8. 29
    “So, I do have a question, is it strange that I have a fetish that I want to go on a date with a girl and then whenever they’d have want to have sex they either take a strapon and tie me up and fuck me or turn out to be a male to female transs

    [...] Reed has an article specifically about the fetishization of trans women, which can be found here -http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/02/15/chicks-with-dicks-trap-chans-chasers-and-trans-fa…. Matt Kailey has two articles about the fetishization of trans people – one discussing the [...]

  9. 30
    essay about fetishizing trans women | transfeminine.net

    [...] Reed has an article specifically about the fetishization of trans women, which can be found here - http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/02/15/chicks-with-dicks-trap-chans-chasers-and-trans-fa…. Matt Kailey has two articles about the fetishization of trans people – one discussing the [...]

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