Update/note: I did not coin the term “Cotton Ceiling” myself, nor do I at present support this particular term or the admittedly creepy, rape-culture connotations it possesses. I was primarily using this term for the sake of referencing a very particular conversation that was occurring in the trans-feminist community at a very particular point in time. Frankly, I’d prefer if we all moved on from that term, its connotations, its limitations, and its unduly narrow focus on one particular space and context in which trans women’s sexual agency is denied or subverted. Such issues are much broader than what occurs in queer women’s spaces, and we can talk about it in ways that don’t demand self-defeating terminologies like “Cotton Ceiling”.
Yeah… um… I’m a little late to the party on this one.
Over the last couple weeks, while I was preoccupied with, um, things, there was this big swirling chaotic word-blizzard in the transosphere regarding “The Cotton Ceiling”. I did my best to provide some links here and there as it unfolded, but just wasn’t quite able to properly dive into the fray. But at least I can try to make up for it by offering a few thoughts now, for whatever their worth.
(almost, but not quite, exactly nothing, in case you were wondering)
The term “Cotton Ceiling” was originally coined by the intensely awesome Canadian trans-activist and porn star Drew DeVeaux, in which she referred (quite specifically) to the tendency within feminist and queer women’s spaces for trans women to be, while nominally accepted as women and supported in their pursuit for rights and equality, regarded and treated as essentially de-sexed, unfuckable, and sometimes a bit repulsive, with this becoming highly politicized in regards to its implications for things like what a lesbian sexuality really means, how much of sexuality is “orientation” and something we can’t be held accountable for and how much is mediated by our perceptions, how sexuality can reveal that biases and lack of respecting gender identity continue to exist on visceral levels despite being intellectually (or superficially) rejected, etc.
The “cotton” refers to underwear. The idea being here that no matter how much basic, nominal acceptance a trans woman can receive in feminist or queer or women’s spaces, we’re still always ultimately rejected when it comes to breaking the sexual barrier, and being accepted as women to such a full extent that we are accepted sexually as women.
For me to weigh in on the “cotton ceiling” debate is bit difficult and problematic in that it’s not something I often deal with directly. I’m straight, at least in theory, and my dating pool exists in the world of heterosexual cisgender men, where wholly different issues (and risks… often very extreme ones) are in play. Amongst straight cis men, the danger isn’t being superfically accepted but rejected as unfuckable when it comes to sexuality. The danger lies in outright rejection (and possible violence), or in being sexualized and fuckable but only as an exotic, kinky, “dirty”, fetish object.
But the issue as a whole really isn’t much about actually wanting to get laid. It’s about representation, which certainly DOES effect me, especially given my committed involvement in both the feminist and queer rights movements (even if my involvement is not sexualized, I am a sexual being who is involved).
This, the misconception of it being about individuals upset about not getting laid, is in fact one of the key problems that has triggered the controversy surrounding the question. Basically, the initial subject was brought up in relation to how trans women are perceived and represented. For example, trans men are often openly regarded as being sexy and hot within queer communities, being the subject of things like calendars and pin-ups and erotica. Trans women, on the other hand, are almost never permitted acknowledgment or representation in such communities as sexual beings. We carry a sort of image of being stuffy, boring, slightly icky, and ultimately eunuch-like things. We’re allowed in to the parties, but we sit quiet and lonely in the corner. This ends up being a problem not in that we’re desperately eager to be sexually objectified (we get enough of that from the straight cis male world), but that this act of conceptualizing us as de-sexed and unfuckable is directly attached to larger systems of oppression, dehumanization and invalidation we face.
For example, the idea of us as de-sexed relates directly to the whole “cutting off your penis” myth through which transsexuality is often viewed. It imagines a male-to-female transition (but tellingly NOT a female-to-male transition) as being a loss, a reduction, giving something of oneself up and becoming a lesser being, rather than conceiving it (much more accurately), as a growth, a reconfiguration, an expansion of self and possibilities, gaining new confidence and sexuality and empowerment and self-realization. The idea of us as being fundamentally unattractive relates into the way that cisgender standards of beauty are positioned as the only possible standards, that “passability” and “beauty” are, for trans women, directly equated, and we can ONLY be seen as beautiful, attractive or sexy in so far as we do NOT appear to be trans and instead appear to be cis (which is, you know, really fucked up). The refusal of lesbians to consider us viable sexual partners, or their seeing intimacy with us as somehow a threat to their lesbian identification (I had a #FunWithSearchTerms the other day asking “what do you call a lesbian who’s attracted to both women and trans women?”) is to ultimately, when it comes to staking your own identification upon how you conceive of our gender, to walk your talk, assert that beneath whatever lip-service you’ve paid to the legitimacy of our identity you simply don’t really regard us as women. At least not fully so.
The trouble, though, is that in the painfully typical manner that cis people will consistently view trans issues primarily or only in relation to themselves, they see this notion that how trans women are sexualized (or more accurately, desexualized) within their community is somehow all about us trying to force our way into their pants, to trick our way past their “natural” disinclination to sleeping with our “naturally” less attractive selves. The conversation was quickly twisted into being about how “nobody needs to be obliged to sleep with someone we don’t regard as attractive! It doesn’t make me a transphobe just because I’m not interested in sleeping with trans women!”
Wellllll… here’s the thing. First of all, it is definitely, most emphatically, NOT about you. And frankly, the assumption transphobes so frequently make that our top priority is sleeping with transphobes is pretty silly (and pathetic). Listen, transphobes, seriously: we have no interest in fucking you. We don’t find you attractive. This is not about individual situations, nor is it about trying to deny or compromise anyone their right to choose when, where, with whom, and under what circumstances they consent to sex. It’s about how the category is represented, the patterns, the shared attitudes of a community, not what occurs between individuals in individual sexual scenarios. It’s also about the problems with extrapolating individual sexual needs, desires, hang-ups, baggage or whatever into blanket, “empirical facts” of who is or isn’t desirable. It’s about how those conceptions of an entire class of human beings as objectively (rather than just to your own close-minded sensibilities) undesirable lead to dehumanization, and to being treated as less valid, less deserving of respect.
And to be honest, saying as a blanket statement that you have no interest in sleeping with any trans women ever IS a transphobic statement. As I’ve talked about before, there really isn’t any universal or consistent outward trait common to all trans women. Logically, one can’t possibly experience a basic sexual attraction to cis women but not trans women, at least not while claiming that supposed lack of attraction has anything to do with trans women and trans bodies. It’s about how you perceive trans women. What you’re “not attracted to” is women you KNOW are trans, the IDEA of trans women, the CONCEPT. Which is inherently tied into cultural perceptions. You’d have the same reaction to a cis woman claiming to be trans as you would to an actual trans woman. It’s about your perceptions, not our bodies.
And those cultural perceptions, the ones influencing your attractions, are what we’re trying to address. We’re not trying to force you into being attracted to us and sleeping with us. As said, we have no particular interest in sleeping with transphobes. You’re not so amazing and sexy, nor are we so desperate and horny, that that’s the key dynamic here. We’re simply trying to talk about the overall way trans women are represented, thought of, conceptualized, etc. in the hopes that dealing with that will help change some of that influence on people’s perceptions of us and sexual relationships to us (and perhaps help move our rights forward in a general sense by breaking down this barrier). We’re simply trying to open a dialogue about the concepts that are mediating people’s sexuality, not trying to force any change in sexuality directly.
Sexuality does not occur in a vacuum. Imagine a circumstance where an enormous number of people were saying that latina women just plain weren’t attractive or sexy, and that the only way they COULD be would be to look as little like latina women as possible. And let’s say when this issue is broached, the response is “I just don’t find latinas attractive. I’m not racist! It’s just my sexual interests, which I have a right to define. Trying to force me into having sex with latinas by guilt-tripping me is a form of rape”. Wouldn’t it be justified to explore how racism, and cultural attitudes towards hispanic people, are influencing those attitudes and sexuality? Wouldn’t the women so targeted as “innately” less attractive be justified in their anger and hurt?
Or as another analogy, is it inappropriate, and akin to “rape”, or “forcing” people to “want to have sex with you”, for people with disabilities to discuss the way that cultural representations of disability are often distinctly de-sexed, with PwD’s bodies often regarded as “flawed” and fundamentally “unattractive”, to challenge the idea that people “can’t be blamed” for finding PwD sexually unappealing? Is that conversation off the table too?
Because that’s all we’re after. A similar conversation. Addressing the attitudes about us, and their influence on sexuality.
Discussing the ways that sexual orientation can often be fixed and immutable, that you can’t, for instance, “cure” someone of being gay or lesbian, has been an extremely important step in working towards acceptance of sexual variance. But that does not and should not mean that sexuality is suddenly sacrosanct and off-limits for discussion. That does not mean everything about an individual’s sexuality is suddenly unassailable, “just the way it is”, not to be questioned or critiqued or thought about.
Of course, given my whole skepticism thing, I become extremely unnerved and suspicious the instant any subject starts being treated as “above” criticism or “wrong” to discuss, question, think about and talk about. Sexuality especially so.
Some aspects of sexuality probably are innate, “Born This Way”. But a whole lot more of it is socio-culturally mediated. How cultural attitudes play out in sexuality is not something that needs to be protected from discussion, and given the fact that this often has real, actual consequences (such as perpetuating the oppression, alienation and dehumanization of trans women), it is something that needs to discussed.
The fact that simply trying to broach the subject of “the cotton ceiling” is something met with such a considerable degree of hostility and opposition is itself pretty strong proof that it is in fact a real phenomenon that is actually limiting how trans women are conceived and talked about in the queer community. It makes sense, of course… there’s a whole lot of important things tied to these issues. The stability of gender, the stability (or even validity) of sexual orientations in a world where gender is not a stable, binary, fixed thing. The importance of what a lesbian identity is and means, where it begins and ends. How much of sexuality is fixed and how much is mutable. How much of our attractions, and sexual orientations, are connected to actual bodies and actual pleasure and how much is all just in our heads and how we think of those bodies and pleasures. The presence of trans women as sexual beings poses considerable threats to understandings of gender and sexuality, both of which are things that carry deeply personal significance to everyone, perhaps especially to queer women.
But this is a discussion that needs to happen. And needs to NOT be made all about cis people. It needs to be focused on us, on trans women, and our representation. To shut down this dialogue simply because it’s a bit scary is to forfeit the right to consider oneself trans-friendly or accepting. It’s to forfeit the right to claim membership in a unified queer community.
Given all the support and love trans women offer, and all the much more we can yet offer, to the queer community, to feminism, to women, the least you can offer us is allow us the space to talk about how you may be hurting us, to voice our concerns, to raise the topic of how you see us, represent us, talk about us, ally with us, love us, and most tragically, how often you fail to do those things.
Your sexuality is tough, it’s strong, and it’s your own. It can survive a few questions and a little inquiry. I promise.