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.”
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.