Animal dildos: An ethical analysis

Note: This post contains frank discussion of sexual topics. Some content may be of a graphic nature.

Certain sex toy vendors manufacture toys that are based on the penises of animals. While many of these toys are hand-sculpted, some horse-based and dog-based toys are marketed as “life-cast”, meaning they are directly cast from a mold taken of a live animal’s erect penis. Is this process ethical, and is it ethical for consumers to buy from these vendors?

1. The justification, and the objection

One vendor of “lifecast toys” describes the production process as follows:

The casting process takes approximately five minutes, and the animals are always happy to help! No animals are harmed in any way, physically or otherwise.

Their position is that, in the absence of any apparent harm to the animals or visible resistance from these animals, this process should be considered acceptable.

Others disagree, with one blogger writing:

For starters there is the whole thing of *how* they got the animals penis erect, most certainly they probably did not just wait around for it to happen you have to figure there may have been stimulation involving someone sexually touching them which is full stop animal sexual abuse. Secondly they have to put the cast on which may discomfort or confuse the animals.

In response to the supposed compliance or enjoyment by the animals, they add:

An animal may not fight against those things or may even enjoy it but that doesn’t mean they are not being sexually exploited for human gain. In the same way a child cannot consent to sexual acts even if they go along with it an animal cannot.

I’ve spoken with others who likewise contend that, because an animal is not capable of providing informed consent to sex, this sexual stimulation of an animal is therefore sexual abuse. As they see it, just as an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of sex does not mean they are capable of offering meaningful consent, the compliance of these animals with sexual stimulation likewise does not change the fact that they cannot consent to such an act.

The casting process would thus constitute a non-consensual sexual act, making it unethical.

2. Variables in the ethical equation

I do not find it necessary to address the premises, reasoning or conclusion of the argument that this is sexual abuse of an animal. As I see it, that syllogism is a valid (and important) one. So I will not be attempting to dispute any of the following points:

  • Whether these animals suffer harm
  • Whether pleasure translates to consent even when an entity lacks the capacity to provide consent
  • Whether sexual abuse can be ethical

It is also not my intention to derive some concrete, absolute, airtight answer of whether the sex toy production process in question must be considered right or wrong. Instead, I’d prefer to examine situations similar to this process in order to provide a broader picture of how these issues are treated in society. There are a great many more questions that lend an important background to how we understand concepts like “harm”, “consent”, and “sexual abuse”. These words are not merely empty symbols – they have substance, and represent complex ideas. Questions pertaining to this complexity might include:

  • In what situations, other than the production of molds for sex toys, do sexual interactions occur between humans and animals?
  • How commonplace are these situations? Are they largely regarded as acceptable or unacceptable?
  • Why do these sexual interactions occur – what motivates this? Are these motivations seen as justifying such acts?
  • To what extent are people willing to accept the suffering of animals, and violations of animals’ consent, in exchange for their own pleasure and enjoyment?

In this way, I intend to offer a descriptive exploration of existing attitudes toward these questions, rather than a prescriptive and binding moral conclusion of whether it’s okay to stimulate animals sexually in order to sell or use replicas of their genitals as sex toys. I believe this may be more useful than a short, simple and inarguable syllogism. By equipping people with a wider array of information relevant to this question, we can provide them with a somewhat more expansive ethical equation into which they can input their own personal values. They can derive, not a singular right answer for everyone, but an individual answer which is more solidly rooted in a better understanding of the related issues.

3. Disregard for the consent of animals in non-sexual contexts

Livestock farms are businesses: they are motivated to maximize their production while minimizing the expenses they incur. Because this business involves using live animals as a source of meat, milk, eggs, or other products, and providing the resources necessary to ensure humane treatment may come at additional expense, optimizing for profitability can lead to compromising the welfare of these animals. Such compromises occur as a part of routine, widely accepted industrial farming practices. The commonplace treatment of animals by large-scale farming operations includes:

The lack of adequate space for broiler chickens. Broiler chickens – birds raised for their meat – are densely packed into production houses, with around 20,000 animals occupying a space roughly the size of a football field. Each bird therefore has only about as much space as a single sheet of paper. The birds unavoidably walk around in their own accumulated excrement, and the breakdown of this waste produces unsafe air levels of ammonia. The presence of these contaminants leads to irritation, lesions and ulcers on the birds’ legs and feet. Specialists within the industry have written:

[L]imiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment?

The close confinement of egg-laying hens. In the United States, 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages for most of their lives. Five to ten birds are placed in a cage about the size of a large file drawer, without room to extend their wings fully or engage in normal behaviors such as nest-building, perching at night, or foraging for food. Due to the enclosed space, the hens have no room to exercise, resulting in bone weakness.

Battery hens in a cage.

Battery hens in a cage.

The close quarters can also lead to cannibalism, something which farms attempt to mitigate by “de-beaking” the hens. Up to two-thirds of a bird’s beak is removed without anesthesia, often using a hot blade that causes painful damage to this nerve-rich area.

A de-beaked chicken.

A de-beaked chicken.

The long-term caging of pregnant pigs. Breeding sows are commonly isolated during their pregnancy to prevent fighting between sows, which could cause injury or death. 60-70% of breeding sows in the United States are kept in individual gestation crates that are about two feet wide and seven feet long. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig, leaving sows unable to turn around, lie on their sides, or walk more than a step forward or backward. Slats in the floor allow waste to fall through, and living above a pit of urine and excrement results in respiratory disease from exposure to high levels of ammonia.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows are confined to these cages for the duration of their pregnancy – about 4 months. They typically birth at least two litters per year, and are immediately re-impregnated after their piglets are weaned. Most of a sow’s life will be spent nearly immobilized in a crate. Pig gestation crates are now banned in the European Union, and nine US states have enacted similar bans. In defense of this practice, National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner stated:

So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. … The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.

Suppose we grant that a horse or dog cannot consent to being sexually stimulated or having a mold taken of their genitals. In comparison, it also seems unlikely that a pig or chicken could consent to being locked in a small crate for months, having a part of their beak cut off without anesthesia, or suffering foot ulcers from constantly walking around in their own waste.

Yet these practices are nevertheless carried out as cost-saving measures. Treating animals this way is seen as less expensive than providing larger facilities and allowing for the possible loss of some sows, piglets and hens that would come with giving them greater space to move around. Farmers benefit from these practices because they can manufacture a greater quantity of their product at a reduced cost. Consumers benefit from being able to purchase pork, chicken or eggs at a lower price.

Many people give little thought to this inhumane treatment of the animals that produce their food, or if they do, they ultimately find this to be an acceptable tradeoff. And they reaffirm this acceptance in their everyday food choices, far more frequently than anyone purchases specialty animal dildos.

4. Violations of the sexual consent of animals for breeding purposes

Domesticated animals are the subject of selective breeding to optimize for whichever traits may be desired. People decide to retain and emphasize certain traits of these animals, while getting rid of unwanted ones. This is done by choosing animals that express a given pattern of traits, and forcing them to reproduce. The practices surrounding such breeding efforts can involve close contact with the animals’ reproductive organs. Specifically:

Breeding soundness exams, semen collection and artificial insemination of cattle. Cattle may be bred with the aim of producing higher quality beef or greater quantities of milk. As one rancher described a particularly valuable bull named Revelation:

… Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.

A breeding soundness exam is often conducted to ensure that a bull will be a worthwhile purchase and that it will be able to produce offspring:

Bulls that do not settle their share of cows early in the breeding season contribute to reproductive inefficiency. … Bulls are selected for their genetic potential to improve the cow herd. It is economically important that all bulls are fertile.

Such exams include close study of the bull’s genitals and other organs:

The internal organs can be examined by rectal palpation while the bull is restrained. The vesicular glands, ampullae, and prostate should also be examined for evidence of inflammation, adhesions, or fibrosis. Furthermore, the spermatic cord, scrotum, testicles, and epididymides need to be examined for evidence of abscesses, injury, frost bite damage, or tumors. …

The penis and sheath should be examined for any sores, lacerations, abscesses, scar tissue, hair rings, warts, or adhesions.

A central component of the exam is acquiring a semen sample from the bull in order to evaluate its fertility. This requires that the bull be stimulated to arousal and ejaculation. Semen can be collected by way of an artificial vagina, “a hard tubular casing with a rubber inner liner filled with warm water to stimulate the bull’s penis via temperature and pressure”. However, a sample is “most often collected via electroejaculation”. Electroejaculation is conducted as follows:

The electroejaculator consists of a rectal probe that has a series of linear banded electrodes connected to a variable current and voltage source. The bull is restrained in a chute, the rectum is emptied, and the entire lubricated probe is inserted rectally with the electrodes oriented ventrally. A hand-operated rheostat permits intermittent pulses of current to be given as the voltage is gradually increased. The response varies considerably, but it is common to use 2- to 4-sec pulses repeated at 5- to 7-sec intervals. After a variable number of such stimulations, erection and protrusion of the penis may be seen, followed by a flow of seminal fluid, or the bull may ejaculate into the sheath without protruding the penis.

Electroejaculation is known to be uncomfortable or painful for bulls:

…electroejaculation is associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and the strength of the muscular contractions induced by electroejaculation suggests that the bull experiences pain and distress. Compared to controls, bulls subjected to this procedure vocalize more frequently, which is considered an indicator of stress and pain.

However, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association maintains that electroejaculation of bulls is an acceptable practice.

Electroejaculator devices.

Electroejaculator devices for bulls.

The process of using bull semen to inseminate cows is similarly invasive. One rancher was praised for his skill in this area:

“He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.

Breeding soundness exams and semen collection of stallions. As with cattle, horses have been domesticated into various specialized breeds which serve different purposes. Desired traits can include their endurance, strength, speed, skill at working with livestock, or performance at racing and show jumping.

Stallions are prized for their ability to produce a high number of quality offspring, offering a better value to horse breeders. A very fertile and healthy stallion can be a good investment, while a stallion with poor fertility may be of little use. For this reason, they are subject to comprehensive breeding soundness exams similar to those of bulls:

Veterinarians should also evaluate the stallion’s reproductive anatomy during a breeding soundness examination. Threlfall explained that the penis must be able to retract fully, and there should be no abnormal swellings or enlargements of the genitalia. All aspects of the reproductive tract–including the penis, scrotum, and testicles–should be palpated for abnormalities, he added.

Stallions may exhibit resistance to such examinations:

…especially during this portion of the exam, it’s important to stay safe as some stallions will bite, kick, or strike when their reproductive tract is palpated. Twitch or tranquilize the horse if necessary to maintain safety.

Semen collection from stallions can also involve the use of an artificial vagina. Workers apply the artificial vagina (AV) in this manner:

The stallion’s penis should be deflected into the AV, not grasped, because some stallions take offense to being grasped. The AV should be held firmly for the stallion to thrust against and should be at the same angle as the mare’s vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the AV should be lowered to allow the semen to run into the collection bottle.

Applying an artificial vagina can be a complicated task involving multiple workers to ensure (their own) safety:

All the handlers should be on left side and everyone is advised to pull to the left if there is a problem. The entire collection has to be a choreographed effort by everyone involved in order to get a sample and keep everyone safe. Approach the mare at an angle and allow the stallion to mount the mare. Let the stallion thrust and guide or allow the stallion to insert his penis into the AV. Gently touch the ventral penis and feel the urethra for the ejaculatory pulses. Others can watch for the flagging of the tail that indicates ejaculation.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

However, collection can also be accomplished by “manual stimulation”, and the training of stallions to accept this stimulation:

You can attempt manual massage of the erect penis with moist towels while the stallion is standing or while he is mounting. Experimentally it took about 1 1/2 training sessions to train stallions to do this.

Semen collection and artificial insemination of dogs. Over 150 distinct breeds of domesticated dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club. While some of these breeds serve working roles – such as assisting disabled people, herding livestock, retrieving prey for hunters, tracking scents, or subduing criminals – many dogs are no more than companions for most people.

To ensure conformance to a given breed standard, people select which individual dogs are bred together. As with cattle and horses, semen collection is part of a typical breeding soundness exam, and artificial insemination using collected semen can allow for vastly more instances of impregnation than a single male dog would be capable of without assistance. The collection process is similar to that of bulls and stallions:

Canine semen is collected using digital pressure and massage. … Collecting semen from dogs is not difficult, but like many things, is much easier after you’ve done it a time or two. The basic process is conducted in the following series of steps:

  • Grasp the prepuce and pull/push it back to expose the tip of the penis.
  • Slide the collection cone over the protruding penis and slide it over the penis, pushing the prepuce back over of the bulbis glandis …
  • Lock your fingers in a ring around the penis, essentially holding the bulbis glandis inside your fist.
  • Apply pressure with forward and backward movement; in most cases, the male will begin to thrust back and forth.
  • Watch for semen to flow in the collection tube. Most dogs stop thrusting as they begin to ejaculate.

Transcervical insemination is one of the less invasive methods of artificially inseminating dogs:

The transcervical insemination (TCI) is performed with the bitch in a standing position. No sedation nor anesthesia is required. A fiber optic cystourethoscope is used vaginally to visualize the opening to the cervix. A flexible catheter is maneuvered through the cervix into the uterus. …The semen is gently pushed through the catheter from a syringe.

A more invasive method involves surgery:

A surgical insemination is a minor surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to inject the semen directly into the uterus. … A bitch’s greatest chance of conception is by having a surgical semen implant. …

A 2-3 inch incision is made on the abdomen through the skin and underlying muscle. The uterus is isolated and evaluated. The semen, whether fresh collected, fresh chilled or frozen, is inseminated though a small hypodermic needle into the uterus. The veterinary surgeon can see and feel the uterus fill as the semen is deposited.

The procedures involved in the breeding of these animals are, at times, essentially identical to the stimulation of horses and dogs performed in the course of producing a mold of their genitals. In many cases, the breeding-related practices go far beyond that and are substantially more invasive. Yet these practices are well-established and accepted among breeders, simply for the purpose of avoiding any expenses or inefficiencies that would come with having less-than-optimal animals among their breeding population.

The general attitude appears to be one of regarding animals as little more than objects, from which semen can be extracted and into which it can be deposited at will, by whatever means people find to be most effective. So it should come as no surprise that, in the drive to obtain desired traits with great efficiency, the consent of these animals is treated as broadly irrelevant.

5. Human needs: Animal exploitation as a norm

This widespread inhumane treatment and disregard for the consent of animals is done in the service of certain human needs. People may need animal products for food, draft animals for working purposes, or dogs for detecting explosives or other roles. But the extent to which these needs justify certain treatment of animals is, of course, debatable. Ardent advocates of animal rights might contend that nothing justifies forcing animals into any working roles. Vegetarians or vegans may feel it’s not acceptable to use animals as a food source at all. Even people who do consume animal products may choose to avoid food sourced from crated pigs or chickens.

One way or another, that ethical line is drawn in a certain place depending on a person’s values. And when it comes to the needs these animals serve, it can be unclear just how necessary some of these roles are. Sure, people require food, but does that mean people need to eat prime rather than choice cuts of beef? Horses may be the best method of transportation for certain purposes – but does anyone actually need a horse for dressage, a sport described as “horse ballet”? Sled dogs may be needed in some areas, but does a person ever really need a Chihuahua? What needs are some of these animals serving that are so crucial, it justifies disregarding their consent? And what makes the desire to own a replica of a dog’s erection for use as a sex toy any less legitimate than the desire to own a pug as a companion animal?

Many of the practices involved in keeping and breeding these animals would also fail the “child test”, badly. As others have argued, an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of a sexual act does not mean they are therefore capable of meaningful consent to this act. Suppose someone were to argue that a child is completely okay with being kept in a crate too small for them to turn around, or that a child actually enjoys having a device called an “artificial vagina” applied to them, and that therefore the child consents to this treatment. Such claims would be considered monstrous and appalling.

Yet most people who eat pork, drink milk, and own dogs do not seem to apply the “child test” as a standard of ethical acceptability. They are largely content to tolerate at least some of these practices in the course of the breeding and raising of animals. And if they do tolerate this, it seems unavoidably inconsistent and arbitrary to accept practices such as:

  • Providing an individual chicken with no more living space than a sheet of paper
  • Forcing chickens to walk around in piles of excrement and breathe ammonia-rich air
  • Keeping a chicken in a cage so small that it cannot extend its wings
  • Removing a portion of a chicken’s beak using a hot blade, without painkillers
  • Keeping a pregnant pig in a cage so small that it cannot walk or turn around, for several months
  • Restraining a bull to examine its reproductive organs by rectal palpation
  • Inserting a rectal probe into a bull and repeatedly applying a painful electrical current until ejaculation occurs
  • Inserting one’s entire arm into a cow in order to deposit semen onto its cervix
  • Tranquilizing a stallion to prevent it from biting or kicking during a genital examination
  • Guiding a stallion’s penis into an artificial vagina and holding the device in place until the stallion ejaculates
  • Stimulating a stallion by massaging its penis with moist towels
  • Placing a “collection cone” onto a dog’s penis
  • Manually stimulating a dog’s penis to obtain its semen
  • Introducing semen via a catheter inserted through a dog’s cervix and into its uterus, without sedation
  • Partially removing a dog’s uterus from its body via surgery, and injecting semen into it

While rejecting practices such as:

  • Stimulating a horse or dog to arousal in order to take a mold of its genitals

What sort of ethical standard would allow for the former practices while soundly rejecting the latter? In terms of potential harm to animals or violations of their consent, how would one go about isolating the act of creating animal-based sex toy molds as any more harmful or violative than the rest of these commonplace practices? What marks this case as unique?

I believe such a standard is best explained as the product of a sexual taboo. Harm and violation of animals is often uncritically accepted when it is in furtherance of:

  • The fiscal enjoyment of farmers and breeders who reduce expenses and increase output by neglecting to provide humane facilities for their livestock and avoiding the purchase and upkeep of infertile animals
  • The competitive enjoyment of farmers and breeders who are able to produce higher quality animal products
  • The culinary enjoyment of consumers who now have access to “off the charts” marbled beef and “breathtaking” rib-eyes
  • The sporting enjoyment of athletes (and spectators) who use horses for racing, show jumping, or dressage events
  • The personal enjoyment of people who keep dogs for companionship

Yet this harm and violation is seen to reach a wholly unacceptable level when it occurs in the pursuit of:

  • The sexual enjoyment of people who would like to use sex toys cast from a mold of a horse or dog penis

It seems that this sexual motive is seen as being more trivial, more frivolous, and less justifiable than these non-sexual motives. But an identical act, the stimulation of an animal’s genitals to arousal, takes place in both the sexual case and the breeding case. The harm to the animal, and disregard for its consent, is neither exacerbated nor diminished simply by the intentions of the person performing the act. If someone does not consider the argument from harm and lack of consent to be sufficient to condemn these selective breeding practices, then the argument also does not succeed in condemning the sex toy production process.

It may be the case that nobody truly needs such a dog toy. But if so, they do not need a toy dog, either.

Favorite Words

Lux, here!

I figured I could ease into blogging here by starting with random thoughts about language before hitting the big super complex gender stuff that’s also been floating around my brain. It’s an adventure!

<insert segue here>

Lots of people have a favorite color, favorite song, favorite season, favorite holiday, etc. Being a nerd of many trades, I have a soft spot for words, syntax, and language in general. My favorite English words (being my native tongue) are: spontaneity, clever, and exacerbate.

Recently, I noticed I had the word “ameliorate” popping up in my head. The more I mulled it over and thought about the definition–laughing at myself because it’s the opposite of “exacerbate”–I realized that I like this word as much as the others and can consider it one of my favorites.

There’s not really a set standard for why anything becomes my “favorite” something. For words, it’s often a combination of liking the definition, the way the word expresses the definition, and the way the word sounds/feels phonetically. Oh, and there’s almost always a sentimental reason as well.

Spontaneity is my top favorite because it literally means “randomness”. It’s just a fancy-pants noun for “random”, which is an adjective I took to heart during some of my most formative personality-building years. It sounds awesome and it’s cool to say.

Clever is one of my favorites, to be completely honest, partially because the Doctor uses the term a lot. He says things are “brilliant” too, but it just doesn’t ring the same way for me. I’ve also been complimented as being “clever” and felt very flattered, so that probably factors in.

Exacerbate is on the list because it’s incredibly amusing to me. I first heard it on Shaun of the Dead, then almost immediately again while reading the book Eragon by Christopher Paolini. (Fucking excellent book series, if you don’t mind my saying.) I guess it just tickles me that a succinct word exists to describe making things worse.

Ameliorate mostly just sounds really cool and rolls off the tongue well. Plus, it ties in with the amusement from the previous word.

Am I just super weird for having favorite words? What are some of yours, if you have any? I’m normally not great at being active in the comment community, but I will try to do better so LET ‘ER RIP.

Oh Hi, There!

Well, hello there, FTB! This is an introductory post!IMG_20140209_080947

I’m Lux Pickel, and I started my actual activism within the atheist community by blogging on Teen Skepchick–one of the Skepchick sister sites. Later on, they added me to Queereka, the LGBT-oriented Skepchick site. This past October I stepped down from those positions due to my depression, which has been like a black hole eating away at my life. :D

Basically, my life lately has been going to work, coming home to play video games and watch stuff with my lovely husband. I peruse Twitter, which is how I befriended Zinnia and her partner Heather. I’m attempting to get organized and launch into recovery mode to kick depression’s ass! I’ll let you know how that goes. Most often, posts about that stuff will be at my oddly monikered blog: Metaphorical Penis.

Stuff that I’ve written about elsewhere–which will probably show up here as well–include feminism, intersectional social justice, church/state separation, mental illness, media representations of various groups, religious influence on society and government, and patriarchy. Oh, and nerdy stuff. There will probably be random nerdy stuff. Doctor Who, Bo Burnham, Tim Minchin, World of Warcraft, language, ancient polytheistic religions… It’ll get interesting.

More random stuff about me: I’m in a recently-opened poly marriage with a gorgeous, loving guy. We have two cats who are fuzzy and good cuddlers. I’m genderqueer and pansexual and probably a 5 on a 1-10 scale of kinkiness. I like making jewelry from sheet metals like copper, silver, nickel-silver, and niobium if I could get my hands on any.

So yeah, that’s the main stuff. If you’d like to get to know me better, you can find me on all the sites. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube… umm… There are probably others, but you get the idea.

I look forward to getting to know you lovely people! Leave some comments to share the love. <3

“Why was I vilified?” On Piers, Janet, and what it means for the rest of us

Guest post by Heather McNamara

I had to smirk at the TV as Piers moaned about how vilified he was by “abusive” people on Twitter. Lauren and I didn’t say much to each other after Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan’s show last night. We griped a bit on Twitter about Piers’ gratuitous use of the word “boy” and constant interruptions just as Janet was about to lead the discussion away from her surgery. We rolled our eyes and gawked at Piers’ defensive and offensive tweets and we clicked the favorite button on some particularly humorous snipes in his direction, but there wasn’t much going on behind the laptops in our house. We held hands. I got the Kindle version of Janet’s book and we skimmed over the first few pages together and we got ready for bed with the quiet parallel understanding of the overwhelming and uncomfortably close mess forming in the media. We’ve been there before.

This past August, as Chelsea Manning received the verdict at the end of a highly publicized trial and subsequently revealed herself to the world as a woman, my family had some new challenges to face. Lauren had been called as a witness to the trial and, as a transgender woman herself with a tie to the case, found herself invited on several news networks for brief interviews on the subject of transgender issues in prison. For a while, our sons and I were squealing with delight and calling family and friends to brag whenever her face was on television or her voice on the radio. We were excited and proud.

But our adventure (yes, admittedly, primarily Lauren’s adventure) was not without a price. One of her interviews on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper aired on the television in the waiting room at the doctor’s office as I waited with my sons to get an ear infection checked out. At first I was excited that I’d get the opportunity to watch the interview live though I was away from home, but my enthusiasm quickly turned to horror. My sons, who simply knew their stepmother as a “woman born with a boy body” watched as Jake Tapper described her as somebody who “used to be a gay man.” They listened as the other patients in the waiting room snickered and as their stepmother patiently attempted to explain Chelsea’s needs to somebody who insisted on calling her a man. Red-faced and near tears, I confronted the loudest and most obnoxious jerk in the waiting room who was, no surprise here, a masculine looking guy complete with beard, tattoos, and a shit-eating grin. “You think that’s fucking funny?” I asked him, my gaze hard.

“Yeah” he responded and continued laughing. The women at his flanks, apparently unrelated to him, joined in.

I had more choice words for him that I’d have let fly if I hadn’t been worried about being dropped as a patient from the one queer-friendly physician Lauren and I had grown to trust. I wrote about it when I got home and confronted Tapper on Twitter, pointing out that his disrespect of my partner’s gender was unacceptable to me. Tapper and I ended up speaking on the phone and after much defensiveness and belittling of my concerns, he asked me to write a letter to the “higher-ups” at CNN which he would pass on for me. I wrote that letter and it was reprinted and quoted and nothing changed. Lauren and I wrote an article together about our experiences attempting to enlighten Tapper and the CNN staff. We were quoted by trans people desperately hoping some sort of quotable would lead to an end to this hell, but nothing changed.

It was a difficult time for us as a family. More of my coworkers, friends, and even barely acknowledged acquaintances who did not previously know about Lauren’s transgender status were informed via television. When the buzz died off, this would be a vehicle to getting to know who my real friends were, but at the time, it was a dizzying experience of heightened awareness and distrust. I fielded more questions than I’d have liked about her gender, whether she’d had surgery, and what this meant about my sexual orientation.

These questions, as they often do, came from people who had neither the knowledge nor the vocabularies to process the real answers. Awkward, over-simplified half-truths were my replies. “Surgery is a complicated question, but she has… medically transitioned” I would say instead of “she’s been on hormone replacement therapy for a little over a year, has completed a name change and could change her birth certificate in some states but not in others because we cannot currently afford the orchiectomy and…” you get the idea.

The week that Chelsea came out was a sickening one culminating in a lot more anxiety attacks than I usually have, some fights we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and some calls to a therapist who didn’t exactly specialize in anxiety but whom we could at least trust to know what a transgender person was and not suggest treatments based on not being that anymore. Count your blessings if you’ve never had to take that into account when searching for a therapist or physician.

Since then, there isn’t much to say to each other when this sort of thing comes up. We know that when trans people get into the news, slimy little tendrils of ignorance will squirm into our lives and we’ll find ourselves answering more basic questions with oversimplifications. We’ll have to explain what bigender is to our friends and why asking Carmen Carrera about her genitals is inappropriate. We’ll have to explain why Leto’s performance on Dallas Buyers Club did not amuse us. We’ll feel overwhelmed by the thousands leaping to his defense because at times like this it seems like everyone in the whole world can identify with the person erasing our experiences, lives, and years of carefully crafted confidence and nobody can seem to learn from or identify with us. We’ll know, as they sneer at us in reply, their faces blank and uncaring, that they’re thinking the same words Piers said on his Twitter account last night.

We’re not alone. Though not much can approach the impact on our lives of the Chelsea Manning controversy, our internet social circles lit up with activity as Piers Morgan dug his heels in with tweets about how “dimwitted” his accusers were. Trans people all over the world consoled one another by talking about how shitty this is, by bickering with one another about what should have happened, and by developing minimum criteria for an acceptable apology that will never come. We reach out to each other through crowds of ignorance and exhaustive attempts at teaching the uninitiated and we surround ourselves in the cocoon of each other.

When Piers went back on his show tonight he argued with Janet about how he’s fairly sure that since he called her pretty and didn’t refer to her as “he,” he did all that he really needed to do. He didn’t know that his colleague Jake Tapper went through this with us only a few months ago because he didn’t bother to pay attention. He didn’t see anything wrong with confronting Janet over and over again about her surgery in spite of what just happened with Katie Couric. He stubbornly continued to refer to Janet as having once been a man because that is the only way he cares to understand us.

Thousands and thousands of people who tuned in will also feel that in spite of the disproportionately high homelessness, murder, rape, and suicide odds that trans people face, they too shouldn’t have to do more than call Janet “pretty.” The poor arguments and ignorant bloviating they’ve learned from listening to Piers and his even more ignorant panel of assholes will seep into our lives and come out of the mouths of coworkers, the Facebook statuses of friends, the mouths of our sons’ peers, and the conversations at family gatherings.

Concepts like “essentialism,” “dysphoria,” “misgendering,” “identity erasure,” and “tone policing” fly over their blissful cisgender heads as surely as the words that describe them. Our oversimplified half answers: “I was born a boy” were thrown back in our faces as they are whenever we ask for a bit of understanding, and often with, as Ben Ferguson said in his sick response: “science says you were born a boy.” Our lessons, patiently given, were used as weapons against us.

And, you know, Piers Morgan was “vilified.”

Trans panels at FtBCon 2!

This year’s FtBCon, running from January 31 through February 2, will have three trans panels on awesomely diverse topics. These include:

Between A Rock And…: Non-Binary Gender in Atheism (February 1, 11 AM – 12 PM)

When women started talking about women’s issues in the skeptic and atheist movements, it created an incredibly charged atmosphere within those communities. A couple years later, we’re still having this heated discussion. In talking about gender-related issues, how well do people within the community address trans* people, particularly non-binary-identified individuals? Is there an overlap between misogynistic attitudes and transphobic attitudes? Is non-binary erasure a problem for the atheist/skeptic communities? What place do binary and non-binary trans* people have within the community, and what are their contributions?

Trans* Representation in Video Games (February 1, 8 PM – 9 PM)

The few transgender characters in the video gaming world are problematic, if not outright dehumanizing. But are there representatives that aren’t complete stereotypes or foils for transphobic narratives?

Trans Men and Trans Masculinity (February 2, 1 PM – 2 PM)

The transgender male and trans masculine community includes people with a wide range of identities and lived experiences. Panelists will answer some common myths and questions and share their lived experiences. We will also address some of the similarities and differences between our experiences and those of trans women and cisgender people.

These panels feature some of the brightest minds in the trans and secular communities. Be there!

Out now: Hacking Transition, by Kristin

My colleague and good friend Kristin has just released her e-book, Hacking Transition: Tips and Tricks for Making Transition Easier. The book includes advice on all aspects of transitioning for trans women, from a a position of firsthand experience. Kristin says:

Over the last several years I have been through a lot with my transition, and learned a great deal. I’ve done many things well, and many things I wish I could do over. Along the way I’ve recorded all of the knowledge I have accumulated into an E-Book. Now that my transition is complete, I don’t want everything I have learned to go to waste, so I’m selling it in the form of an E-Book.

The book is on sale for just $7.99, with additional bonus packages available as well. Kristin is a great writer and visionary, and I highly recommend it.

Semi-hiatus type thing

I’m working through some stuff right now and I’ve needed to pare down my obligations as much as possible. Things like blogging didn’t make the cut, sadly. It’ll probably be pretty sparse around here until other things are taken care of and I have the energy and motivation to get back into it. If anything really important comes up, you can reach me at zjemptv@gmail.com. I’ll see you around.

How Small Is Your Dick? Some “uncomfortable wiener questions” for Tim Graham

Last week, actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show to discuss their careers and their experiences as trans women. What could’ve been an otherwise respectful interview instead took a turn for the incredibly inappropriate as Couric openly and shamelessly asked Carrera about whether her “private parts” are “different now”. Carrera, who was just not having any of that, responded perfectly: “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s really personal.” Cox later took the opportunity to explain how focusing on “the genitalia question”, as Couric phrased it, ignores the very serious issues of homelessness, discrimination, economic injustice and violence faced by trans women. Both Carrera’s and Cox’s segments are worth watching for their fantastic responses, if you can handle the severe awkwardness of the situation.

Naturally, the conservative NewsBusters.org – a Media Research Center outlet billing itself as “exposing & combating liberal media bias” – doesn’t really see a problem with any of this. It seems there’s only one thing with the power to unite the MRC and Katie Couric, whom the MRC previously bestowed with the singular honor of “Worst Reporter in the History of Man”. This is, of course, a mutual and overwhelming sense of entitlement to trans women’s bodies.

Tim Graham, the MRC’s director of media analysis, upholds the standard of excellence in news coverage for which conservative media are famous: vacuous commentary, lazy misgendering, and literal toilet humor. In his post, titled “Katie Couric Upsets the ‘Trans Women’ By Asking Those Uncomfortable Wiener Questions” (why the scare quotes? Is he calling us cis?), Graham spends a few short paragraphs putting in the least effort possible even for a transphobe. Meandering from calling Carrera and Cox “men” who “dress like women” (clearly Couric was actually inquiring about the surgery they’ve had done on their wardrobes), to suggesting questions about genitals (or “the bulge issue”, as he so cis-ly put it) were “inevitable”, to pondering whether it’s “possible to pretend to be a woman and use a urinal”, he ultimately projects an air of befuddlement that only comes from people who’ve never had to think about this in their lives: how could you possibly see anything wrong with asking trans women which genitals they have on national television?

Indeed, what’s the big deal? It’s just genitals, right? No need to get uncomfortable over a few wiener questions. Yet Graham would do well to ask his colleagues at NewsBusters the same thing. Since 2010, his fellow writers have published numerous articles expressing their outrage at the Transportation Security Administration’s updated screening procedures – namely, the full-body scanners that reveal the shape of passengers’ bodies, and the “extended pat-downs” which can include contact with the breasts, buttocks and genitals. Just look at all these very upset stories:

Oh, and an article from just last month in which Graham himself described the TSA as “well-known for being too aggressive in its body searches”.

So, let’s put it all together: When some bored TSA agent in another room merely looks at the shadow of an angry cis white guy’s “junk”, or checks whether that’s a firecracker in his pants or he’s just happy to see them – for the purpose of potentially preventing hundreds or thousands of deaths – it’s “invasive”. It’s “overboard”. It’s a “civil liberties abuse”. It’s “too aggressive”.

When trans women of color are asked point-blank about their genitals in front of a daytime audience of millions, for no reason other than prurient and entitled curiosity, it’s “inevitable”.

Inevitable. Inevitable that trans women’s bodies will be treated as public property and denied even basic human dignity. Inevitable that they’ll be gleefully dissected in detail for the enjoyment of cis people – or, as Laverne Cox pointed out, simply murdered in the streets if that’s what cis people want.

As long as no one touches Tim Graham’s junk.

But those “uncomfortable wiener questions” are still on the table, right? That’s totally an appropriate topic for everyday conversation. Has anyone gotten around to asking Tim Graham if he has a penis? Or is that “bulge” just a packer? Are those his original genitals or did he have them reconstructed? Does he have to sit down to pee, or can he use urinals like a real woman? Is he a grower or a shower? How big does it get? How does he have sex – like, how does that work? Does he have to take medication or does he have one of those erectile implants?

Most crucially: Can we all make sure that he’s forced to answer these very important questions every single time he decides to share his valuable opinions and experiences as a straight cis man?

Penis Impossible: The most baffling transphobia ever

Purely out of necessity, people can be very creative when trying to invent real-world evidence – rather than merely abstract objections – to justify hating and fearing trans people. Some of this transphobia relies on arguments about scenarios that are theoretically possible, but do not actually occur: things like cis boys passing themselves off as trans girls to peep in locker rooms, something which happens only in the imagination of Bill O’Reilly. Other transphobia relies on citing situations that probably do occur sometimes, and then using them in arguments that are plainly illogical – like a cis man picking up a trans woman he finds attractive while assuming she’s cis, having a mutually enjoyable tryst with her, and later discovering she’s trans and retroactively declaring this was now a singularly horrific event which was wholly her fault.

Occasionally, we get the chance to see transphobes wander just a little too far into the realm of fantasy. I don’t know how I managed to miss this, but last year, transphobic radical feminist “Ann Tagonist” took the typical disclosure-and-deception sex trope and ran with it – directly into oncoming traffic. Tagonist’s breathtaking new argument (I’ve honestly never seen this one before) is structured as follows:

  1. Cis women can be at risk of becoming pregnant from sex.
  2. Cis lesbians might assume that limiting themselves to lesbian sex means they are not at risk of pregnancy.
  3. If a cis woman sleeps with a trans woman, the cis woman could be at risk of becoming pregnant.
  4. If the cis woman in question has not been informed that her partner is a trans woman rather than a cis woman, she might not realize she needs to take steps to mitigate her risk of pregnancy.
  5. Therefore, trans people should be obligated to disclose that they are trans before having sex.

Before getting into this, I’ll give you a moment to locate the exact point where this falls apart. (Hint: somewhere between 3 and 4.)

Tagonist first makes reference to a real-life case that can’t possibly support this line of argument:

The Scottish Transgender Alliance has filed a petition with the Home Office demanding that Scotland’s courts stop jailing people who lie about their trans status to their sexual partners. Over 2,400 people put their names on this thing. The Scottish Transgender Alliance argues that a person’s “gender history” is their own personal medical history and they are not obliged to disclose anything to do with it.

This petition followed the conviction of Chris Wilson, a trans man who did not disclose that he was trans before dating two women. Trans men (men who were assigned female at birth) lack the capacity to produce sperm, no matter which procedures or surgeries they may have had. There is no way in which the risk of pregnancy is relevant to trans men having sex with cis women – not even in theory.

Undeterred by this particular fact, or any facts at all, Tagonist goes on to lay out her concerns:

Lesbians, when they consent to sex with female partners, are doing so on the understanding that they are definitely not going to become pregnant. … If a lesbian ‘consents’ to sex with someone she thinks is reproductively female but that person is actually reproductively male, that lesbian has not given informed consent. She has not been given enough information with which to make her decision. Women need to know the reproductive capacity of a potential sex partner so they can decide not to engage, or take steps to protect themselves. …

“Gender history” is irrelevant here. We need to know the sex of the people we’re having sex with because, hello, pregnancy. Legislation which allows males to lie about their sex in order to obtain consent contravenes women’s bodily autonomy.

Rarely do I encounter transphobia rooted in something that is not just improbable, not just illogical, but in fact literally impossible. If we were to make a decision tree of every different way in which such a hypothetical event could proceed, there would be no possible endpoint where the cis woman partner would both experience an event leading to pregnancy and remain unaware that her partner is actually a trans woman and not a cis woman.

In order for it to be possible for a trans woman to impregnate a cis woman during sex, that trans woman must still be capable of producing sperm. This would no longer be the case following vaginoplasty (commonly known as “The Surgery”), during which the testes are discarded. A trans woman with a vagina has no remaining tissue in her body that can produce sperm – ever.

The only way in which a trans woman could conceal the fact that she’s trans during any kind of genital-genital contact is if she has a vagina, and thus can’t produce sperm. After all, the entire trope of trans women not disclosing prior to sex relies on a scenario where our partners can have sex with us and still not be able to tell we’re trans. Conversely, the only way in which a trans woman could impregnate a cis woman during sex is if she still has a penis (and testes), the presence of which can be assumed to disclose one’s transness inherently. Yet Tagonist seems to be under the impression that these two mutually exclusive possibilities could happen concurrently – that a cis woman could have sex with a trans woman without knowing she’s trans, and become pregnant due to this.

I struggle to comprehend the reasoning behind this. Perhaps Tagonist believes that cis women can become pregnant from exposure to trans women’s vaginas, something which is physically impossible. One might as well fret about the potential risk of virginal conception (and any unintended deities that may result). Or maybe she believes cis women are so totally ignorant that they would not recognize the presence of a woman’s penis as an indication that this woman is indeed trans – which is contradicted by her assumption that cis women will have enough baseline knowledge of trans issues that they will know how to act on this information.

Or perhaps she imagines that a cis woman could somehow remain completely unaware that a real, live human penis is present in close range of her genitals – before, during, and after a sexual act that could lead to pregnancy. Maybe, in Tagonist’s world, trans women are capable of flawlessly concealing their own penises even during penetration itself, like the sexual equivalent of the hallway scene from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Which totally happens all the time, what with our state-of-the-art Invisible Stealth Parts – the latest craze that’s sweeping Thailand! I mean, how else would such a thing be possible? Have I missed something here, like time-traveling trans sperm? I’m genuinely curious as to how this whole line of argument coalesced in her mind. For all I know, this is something she’s dealt with before, in which case she should strongly consider taking up Randi on his $1 million paranormal challenge. Otherwise, her ramblings about “informed consent” in regards to trans people having sex ring rather hollow, given that she doesn’t seem to be informed about much in this area at all.

Queer ghosts of Christmas past

christkindlmarket-chicago-christkindlmarket-chicagoBack in 2004 or so, I was probably 15 or thereabouts, and back then I was still staying over and visiting at my dad’s house every weekend or every other weekend. I had my own room in the basement, a computer, the whole works. So yeah, being 15 and testosterone and so on, I’d sometimes just look at a ton of porn. There was this one night where I was looking at stuff on 4chan and I found whatever section had super-femme guys in it, and there was just this wholly uneventful realization of… this works for me. There wasn’t even a moment of anxiety or worry about what it might mean – only the immediate sense of “oh.” It was probably the first time I realized I was some variety of queer.

The next day, we all got on the train to go to downtown Chicago for the Christkindlmarket festival, and the entire day, I was just completely distracted because my world felt like it had been turned upside down. It was fascinating and I was just in awe of this newfound understanding that I could find literally anyone attractive if I wanted. It totally blew my mind and it felt like an incredible shift in perspective and I just stayed in that state of whoa for like a week. It was so liberating.

So yeah, Christmas has always been really strongly associated with the stirrings of queerness for me.

oplatekOne of the traditions at dad’s house was Wigilia. I think they still do it, I just haven’t been back there for the holidays in years. It’s this big Polish dinner for Christmas Eve (with some Kucios elements since we’re Lithuanian too), with pierogi and white fish and mushroom soup, and also herring and sometimes sunflower seed bread and other fun stuff like that. My grandma and grandpa would come out to visit, we’d all open presents that evening, and it was nice

But before we could get to dinner and presents, we had to do… the oplatki. It’s basically a large rectangle, about the size of a tarot card, of the same vaguely edible material used in communion wafers. It ended up being possibly the most passive aggressive Christmas tradition imaginable. How it works is the oldest person takes it first, and offers a piece to everyone around the table, with their wish for them in the new year. Then the second-oldest person offers a piece to everyone around the table, and so on, until everyone’s had a chance to exchange new year wishes with everyone else.

For as long as I can remember, this had devolved into a palpably uncomfortable “airing of grievances” where people would hassle each other for not quitting smoking, or tell each other to get a job, or tell me to get a haircut and do something with my life, and so on. Things between me and my stepmom and her kids had always been uneasy throughout my teen years and I just tried to shrink into the background and ignore anything mean they said. But there was this one year, it must have been 2009 or so, when I had finally come out as a “gay guy” to everyone. And yeah, it wasn’t really the most comfortable identity for me at the time, and I was still in that liminal state where I had yet to figure out that being massively femme actually meant something much different than gay-dude-ness for me. But, back then, that was where things stood.

And while I gritted my teeth during the oplatki, trying not to take it too seriously as I listened to the barely concealed barbs, my older stepsister held out the wafer and I broke off a piece and she told me, “Meet lots of cute boys.”

And it was one of the first times anyone had ever made an overt gesture toward openly including that part of me in family life, and it was all the more surprising because it came from someone I hadn’t always been on good terms with. And as rough as things might have been before, my dad’s side of the family turned out to be the ones who were so, so much more ready to accept me and include me without question. Through everything, to this day.

I love Wigilia, and it’s really important to me.

Back in 2010, I was still living with my family, and also living under the delusion that I was a guy. Heather and I were in the still-just-super-really-good-friends (-who-are-in-love-but-don’t-know-it-yet) phase – we’d yet to meet up, other than just talking online all day and all night. And we decided we totally had to get each other Christmas presents. I think I got her a new translation of The Second Sex (she LOVES books), and she picked out something from my Amazon wishlist. But we told each other not to open it until Christmas, so when I got a package from her (gift-wrapped and all!), I put it under the tree with the rest of my family’s presents.

And then it was Christmas morning and my mom was handing out everyone’s presents, and of course I had to just tear right into Heather’s first, and it was the most beautiful pair of arm-length black satin gloves. I put them on immediately in front of everyone and they were so perfect. I was just so excited! My mom haltingly asked: “…Who are those from?”

“My friend Heather!”

“Oh.”

And I ran off to take selfies in my pajamas to show to Heather:

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