eroticizing vs exoticizing: sex with trans people

I just finished reading M. Christian’s anthology, Trans Figures: Transgender Erotica. And I’m sad to say I didn’t like it much.

This is definitely an example of how my politics are inextricably linked to my libido. I just can’t get turned on by stuff that’s politically questionable. There’s a vast difference between eroticizing the forbidden and exoticizing people for their gender (or any other feature) in ways that scream “I’m clueless and disrespectful.”

Unlike Best Transgender Erotica, edited by Raven Kaldera and Hanne Blank, Trans Figures seems to have been put together without much thought to actual trans people. Sure, the anthology features a couple of prominent trans writers – Kaldera himself, Patrick Califia, and Raven Gildea (I don’t know what it is with the Raven thing either) – but the vast majority of the writers are non-trans, or at least they don’t say anything in their bios that would lead one to understand they are trans. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; I know plenty of non-trans people who have a strong understanding of trans folks. But when the overwhelming bulk of the writers in an anthology on any topic are people who don’t have significant direct experience of the topic at hand… things just start to feel funny.

In this particular case, the thing that bugs me about a lot of the stories is the way the trans-ness of the protagonist is the punch line to the story. Over and over again, I read stories where someone “normal” is seduced by, or pursues, a person they think is also “normal,” and they get into an erotic situation, and – whoops! Turns out there’s a little surprise in those panties or boxers! And isn’t that hot and kinky and different and exotic! Reading repeated descriptions of tall, striking women with strong shoulders and somewhat short reedy-voiced men, not as descriptors of sexy trans people but rather as foreshadowing for the “Wow! Look at that, a trans person!” moment at the peak of the story… well, it got tiresome pretty quickly.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a male-to-female trans friend of mine in which I groused about people who fetishize trans folks. She answered, “What’s wrong with fetishizing? Trans people are sexy!” I answered that of course trans people are sexy. Or at least, the chances of me personally finding a trans person to be sexy are at least as high as the chances of me finding a non-trans person to be sexy. But that’s not the same thing as fetishizing. If I find a trans person sexy, it’s because they’re a sexy person, not because I can’t wait to see what exotic treasures I’ll find in their pants and get all hot and bothered about how weird and unusual they are. The trans people whom I find sexy are primarily people, not vehicles for exciting hormone-altered body parts. Their gender journeys may (or may not) indicate that they’re comfortable with gender-bend, with various types of boundary-crossing and norm-challenging, in which case we’re probably pretty compatible because I’ve been doing that very thing most of my life and it’s pretty central to how I understand myself as a person and as a sexual being, even though I have not taken that to the point of formal gender transition myself. But from there to seeing trans-ness as an exciting form of freakishness that’s ripe for my ogling or consumption… no thanks. That’s just plain icky.

As a person who’s dated many trans folks over the last eight years, as well as counting many of them among my friends and acquaintances, I’m not blind to the differences of gender-altered bodies as compared to the rest of us mass-produced types. From experience and conversation, I’m privileged to have some fairly intimate knowledge about trans bodies. I know that new estrogen-inspired breasts sometimes react with more sensitivity and sometimes with less than they did pre-hormone, and are sometimes quite tender as they grow, much like my own were at puberty. I know that breast implants may cause nipples to react differently, and that you should generally not do heavy impact play on them. I know that some trans gals are quite comfortable in their bodies – one lovely tall lady I know happily refers to her gams as her “gorgeous long transsexual legs” and considers them a benefit of being trans – while others are ashamed of the parts of themselves that still appear masculine and struggle very much with their body image.

I know that pre- or non-op trans gals often have very different relationship to the organ that some people call a cock than guys do, and may call it a clit, or a girl-dick, or something else entirely; some like to use it for fucking, some like to get blow-jobs, and some (the majority, in my experience, but that’s subjective of course) really have no interest in using it for traditional purposes at all. I know that some still get hard-ons and some don’t, chicks-with-dicks porn notwithstanding. I know that post-op trans gals often have very sensitive clits and need lube in the places where non-trans gals self-lubricate. I know some post-op gals who ejaculate much in the way that some non-trans girls can squirt, and some pre- and non-op ones who don’t, thanks to estrogen. I know some post-op trans women who find penetration difficult, and others who kept dilating and dilating after surgery to the point where they can take a fist like a champ.

I know that some trans guys don’t want to get fucked in the hole that some people refer to as a cunt, and others like it a whole lot; and that some call it a cunt, and some call it a front hole or any number of other creative words, and some don’t call it much at all. I know some trans guys who lubricate way more than they did when female, and others who find that T dries them out and makes their inner skin more vulnerable to tearing. I know that some trans guys feel like their non-op chests are a barrier of flesh between them and the person they’d like to hold close, and would rather not be touched there because all it does is remind them of how their bodies don’t match their insides. I know that others are happy enough to bind, or who don’t even bother with that, and love having their nipples played with. I know that some take pride in a scarred post-op chest and others feel like they still can’t take their shirts off because it will show their difference. I know that some are hesitant to take their shirts off not because of the status of their chests, but because the hormone-induced acne has given them scars of a different kind or because stretch marks from previous pregnancy still mark them as female-bodied.

I know some trans guys who pack a softie and some who loudly, proudly sport a camel-toe. I know some trans guys who love to strap it on to fuck, and others for whom strap-ons feel too much like a marker of lesbian sex so they prefer to fuck in other ways. I know some trans guys who embrace the libido-surge of testosterone like it’s the best drug high they’ve ever had, and others who problematize the idea that T makes you horny because that implicitly devalues the strength of women’s libidos. I know some trans guys who’ll happily shuck off their clothes and jump into bed for hours of energetic romping, and others who will give the sweetest kisses and cuddles but who just aren’t comfortable enough in their bodies to have sex at all.

I know what it’s like to think someone’s beautiful even when they don’t think of themselves that way, and to see their gender as beautiful regardless of what their bodies look like. That beauty, to me, doesn’t fade as a person progresses deeper into transition or becomes more convincingly able to “pass” – passing itself being a problematic idea, as Julia Serano explains in her book Whipping Girl, in that it places the power to determine gender acceptability in the hands of non-trans onlookers rather than assigning those onlookers with the responsibility to question their own gender assumptions and be respectful in the first place. No, I don’t eroticize the in-betweenness per se, I eroticize the person, and people change over time whether they’re trans or not.

At the same time as I write all this, I recognize that we don’t always choose the features that turn us on. I know some people who often end up dating folks from a particular racial background, and it’s not because they exoticize and fetishize those people because of their perceived racially-inherent characteristics, they just often find certain physical features attractive that happen to be common to that group. I also know people who often date fat people, or short people, or people who look like their dads. I don’t begrudge anyone their tastes, and so in a way I can understand how if someone truly does find the specific feature of gender-hybrid bodies to be a turn-on, that’s not necessarily a form of exploitive objectification.

Still, there’s something about the prevalence of “hybrid is oh-so-exciting” stories in Trans Figures that really bugs me. A couple of stories where the non-trans protagonist switches pronouns as soon as the “real” sex of the trans character is “discovered”… a couple of stories where the trans character serves as a canvas upon which the non-trans character can paint all his or her own gender insecurities, or is clearly serving as the author’s own “girl for a day” fantasy material… Stir in a couple of stories where trans-ness is paired with drug-fuelled debauchery or violence or even murder, as though the presumably freakish nature of a trans person could only be understood in a context of generalized destructive frenzy, and you end up with a rather unsavoury meal that just doesn’t have the flavour of respect that I need to fully enjoy erotica about a marginalized group.

Unfortunately, even a couple of the writers from whom I’d like to expect better managed to disappoint.

M. Christian chose to republish Annie Sprinkle’s famous 1989 piece, “My First Female-to-Male Transsexual Lover,” which made me cringe when I first saw it in its docu-porn form and still makes me cringe in written form today. Little gems like Annie writing, “Sometimes he dropped little hints to let me know he was still a woman deep down,” or “Having sex with Les was a constant mind fuck. I could put my finger inside his pussy… his pussy? … and feel her balls.” And Les saying that it makes perfect sense for him to go from lesbian separatist to trans man: “a classic case of the ‘oppressed becoming the oppressor, with forced integration as radical therapy.’” Though I’m sure Annie had the best of intentions, and in the 20 years following may have developed a more nuanced and less awestruck and pronoun-hopping understanding of FTM identity, this piece is problematic in so many layers I barely know where to start. Just for starters I gotta say that most trans men I know don’t revel in the idea of becoming an oppressor, and are more likely to be highly critical of male privilege than joyfully accepting of it, unlike Les who quite simply loves it and seems to have no critique of it at all (at least at the time – again, this was nearly two decades ago). But to see a dated and politically painful piece like Annie’s in the first few pages of a trans erotica book published in 2006 did not bode well for the rest of the collection.

Another piece that showed lots of promise – much more recent, and written by well-known and politically astute FTM writer Raven Kaldera – also disappointed me, all the more so because it surprised me in its lack of strong political critique. Raven’s piece, “Defying Normal,” features some highly lucid observations about trans identity and MTF/FTM couples, of which he has lots of first-hand experience, but he says a few things that just about made me screech. Writing about MTF breasts, he says, “The breasts grow, the nipples become larger and more responsive. Playing with them often gets you a chance to see that open-mouthed, gasping, wide-eyed, entirely feminine response of surrender, complete with starfishing limbs and tossing hair.” And later, about MTF libido, “MTFs all report a definite drop in libido from the high doses of estrogen used to counter their native testosterone, and then usually another drop when the source of that testosterone is surgically removed. Some drop so far that they become nearly sexless except for that awfully feminine reason for having sex: intimacy and bonding with your partner.”

In both of these passages, Raven shocks me with his unquestioning ideas about femininity and female sexuality – he writes as though it were all about surrender and ditziness and wanting to have a hearts-and-flowers connection with a lover in which you don’t really want to get off. Don’t get me wrong, for some women (trans or otherwise) that’s exactly what it is. But there are plenty of us, again trans or otherwise, who have a very different experience of what it’s like to be female and to fuck or desire. First, not all trans women take estrogen or have bottom surgery, and those who do don’t universally experience it the way he describes. But beyond the physical specifics of MTF transition, it floors me that Raven would brazenly describe feminine sexuality in these terms without also leaving room for all the women for whom sex is raunchy, raw, hot and powerful, and for whom the “entirely feminine response of surrender” looks more like the entirely feminine wielding of drive or dominance, and a demanding appetite for pleasure and satisfaction. Raven is well known for his D/s relationship with his boy, Josh, also an FTM guy – so clearly he’s familiar with masculine expressions of surrender as well as masculine expressions of dominance. Why can’t he extend the same range of options to women? Talk about reinforcing the gender binary. Yeesh.

There are a few shining stories that stand out from the rest. Califia doesn’t fail to arouse body and mind with his piece “Holes,” a powerful tale about his pre-trans existence as a dyke in men’s leather bars, with a fantastic scene in which he fists a deaf male bottom and experiences this as a chance to transcend gender well before he ever physically transitions. Raven Gildea contributed the wrenching piece “The Perfect One-Night Stand,” about a dyke Daddy/boy scene that turns into a six-year long-distance relationship and ends as the boy goes through an abusive primary relationship and emerges as a girl instead. For all that the premise isn’t too believable, I also enjoyed Cait’s “Rebel Without a Cock,” a story about two trans people who cruise one another in a bar each without realizing the other is trans; it manages to be refreshingly genuine in its portrayal of FTM/MTF sex with really likeable characters you just want to see ride off into the sunset together.

R. Gay’s piece “Small Considerations” ends on a cheesy note but provides a satisfying conclusion to a very long build-up (of several years) between a character who starts out as a dyke and transitions to male, all while sharing a mutual unrequited lust with her male best friend. Kai Bayley’s “Overboard” is weirdly hot, a tale about a rather competitive threesome between a dyke/trans guy (not sure which), his/her male best friend, and the delicious woman they pick up à deux in a bar one night. Thomas S. Roche’s story “The Waters of Al Adra” is one of the stranger pieces, and not terribly erotic, but is a very compelling story, the kind that feels like it’ll stick in the mind for a long time. And last but not least, Simon Sheppard’s “How Queer?”, while too heady to feel particularly erotic to me, does a great job of showcasing the perspective of a gay man who fucks trans guys and doesn’t see this as making him any less than a Kinsey 6.

So that’s… what, seven stories out of 24 that were good and didn’t piss me off? Slightly less than one-third. I suppose the ratio isn’t too far off from what I might find in any other erotica anthology. It’s just that most of the time my reasons for disliking two-thirds of the erotica I read are located either in the realm of “that’s just not my thing” or in that of “jeebus, you can’t write,” whereas here, trans people often are my thing, and most of these writers can write just fine… they just come at the topic from an angle that leaves me feeling more uncomfortable than aroused.

7 thoughts on “eroticizing vs exoticizing: sex with trans people

  1. Amen! As the partner of a trans woman, I wanted to make extra-sure when we first started dating, that I wasn’t somehow fetishizing my partner’s body while I was in the midst of eroticizing her. I very quickly integrated all of the differences associated with her body, and yes, her body turns me on … but if her body parts were to change (as they might), I would still find her sexy. The fact that I’m dating a trans women doesn’t make me kinky. It what we do together that makes us kinky.

  2. I don’t know if we can _ever_ fully separate our relationship with the person from our stereotypes and fantasies of their group, except maybe through prolonged exposure. Arthur Munby had a lifelong fascination for working-class women, particularly ones who were big and dirty and even masculinized, and eventually married one, and I don’t know if he ever completely got beyond his fetish and see the person he had married.

    I’m a white guy, and sometimes I’ll look a little too long at an Asian woman or a black woman because of the characteristics I imagine go with them, even if experience has taught me otherwise.

    People still fetishize other races, and other body types (fat admirers, amputee fetish, female body builder fans, etc) so it is not at all surprising that cisgender people cast transpeople as eroticized Others because of their non-normative bodies.

    The only cure I can think of for this is prolonged exposure, demystification and de-fetishization.

  3. Well…at least there were Pat and the other six…I’m cringing at the rest.

    I recently told someone that his energy looks and feels better since he transitioned. The change in being is incredible. He was hot before and now…*whistles*

    One of my old online nicks was Ravven. In brief, ravens are believed to help one shapeshift, messengers, protectors, and are symbols of creation, magic, spiritual strength, and connections. I can only guess that Kaldera chose his name in part because of that.

  4. The raven is also known in some regions as a trickster. Raven Kaldera mentions tricksters in his book “Hermaphrodeities”. Despite being a transgender, I’ve never read any book by Kaldera (except the chapter about the tricksters). I’m too wary for various reasons having listened to “my” femme after she’d been reading one of his books.

    Anyway, he’s not the actual topic here. I guess, by what you described, I won’t get “Trans Figures”. It doesn’t sound much to my liking. So thanks for that.

  5. “The trans people whom I find sexy are primarily people, not vehicles for exciting hormone-altered body parts.”

    Yes. That.
    Thank you.

  6. Just wanted to tell you that next time i meet you, i’m sooooo gonna give you a hug, hehe. I like what you have to say about how some view transsexuals. As a transsexual woman, i can say that it’s totally not about how i’m built, what i may or may not have in my panties but rather what my partner and i do in bed ( or elsewhere, lol ) that makes me the kinky femme i am.

    * You and the bois were yummy at the wedding.

  7. Aw, thanks, hon. Always good to hear that kind of feedback from someone who’s part of the community to which I wish to be an ally. And thanks for the kind words – the bois are pretty damn yummy, I will hasten to agree! We’ve got pics from the wedding up on the wall. What a treat to be there for your special day. 🙂

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