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Alice Skinner

Thieves in the night: how men stole my sexuality

‘Their discomfort with their lust for transfemininity is precisely because it makes them unsure of their own gender and their own sexuality’

TextShon FayeIllustrationAlice Skinner

Shon Faye is Dazed’s LGBTQ editor-at-large. She is a writer, presenter and comedian who describes herself as "a modern career transsexual" who mostly writes "for attention".

Living with myself became easier once I admitted that I need validation from men. I suffered, silently, for years with shame about wanting to be not only desirable, but loveable. My therapist told me off for abusing myself with words like “pathetic”, “ weak” and “needy” for the ways in which I struggled with a voice in my head that told me I was only valid as a person if I could achieve the embarrassing ideal of romantic love. I self-sabotaged intimacy, made fun of people who publicly loved their boyfriends, slept with unavailable people already in relationships: all tactics to keep myself outside of any vulnerability to feeling dependent on men in my own struggles with knowing who I really was. A survival tactic, perhaps, but when I realised who I was supposed to be, I did not feel more independent. As I shifted into the female cultural space and started to become a woman, I was plagued by voices in my head that told me I could not be happy without men’s desire ratifying my choices. Turns out you can’t “fuck the patriarchy!” when it’s already penetrated you.

MAIDENS AND MOTHERS

I wanted to simply acquire, without difficulty, the strong and self-sufficient womanhood that I had projected, unfairly, onto other women. Unsurprisingly, this hero-worship of independent womanhood began with my mother (though of course some credit must always go to Destiny’s Child). From when I was seven, she raised three of us alone without any support from men – financially or emotionally. After my parents’ divorce and my father left, she never dated. I never once saw her court male attention. She certainly didn’t flirt or soothe men’s egos. Our taxi driver to the airport told her to smile once; “ah no I’m not getting in with this guy” she said witheringly, in front of him, as if he wasn’t there. Then she turned on her heel back into the house – flight times be damned. What a story! What sass! No fucks given! And when I was a brat, she would remind me of the extraordinary task she was undertaking as a single, working mother of three. The intention was to caution me against being selfish and entitled but it had the by-product of perpetuating a mythos about her and, by extension, womanhood, that endured. I had not realised that she was once a girl and that her later defiance was forged from necessity – not least a marriage into which she had poured twelve years’ of her energy, to be badly let down.

“Deprived of femaleness at birth, I overinvested in fables of womanhood – because I did not yet have a grasp on my own”

Of course, deprived of femaleness at birth, I overinvested in fables of womanhood – because I did not yet have a grasp on my own. I arrived at my present existence as a woman differently to my mum, or my sister or most other women I have ever known. My sexual desire for men pre-existed my consciousness that I myself wasn’t a man – and  this caused a false confidence before my transition at the age of 28. I may now have the hormonal makeup and limited female experience of a teenage girl but I had lived for years as an adult and had plenty of sex with men unchained by the constraints of heterosexual femininity. I knew the queer “sex positive” tenets that pretend to be more radical than they are: you can suck his dick so long as you feel good about it, you don’t need to be ashamed that you don’t know his last name, sex in general is political but consensual acts themselves are not.

When I transitioned, though, I also knew what generations of feminists had whispered about young trans women behind closed doors – that we’re foolish, pouting boys who think taking up womanhood is like donning stockings and suspenders – an artifice that can be used to seduce. A determination to prove them wrong and a sexual assault that happened to me in my final weeks living as a gay man created an intellectual resolve to educate myself on the cultural misogyny that would envelope the rest of my life living as a woman.  Despite her contempt for people like me, I believed Germaine Greer when she said that women do not know how much men hate them. In the early months of my transition, I read the harshest words of Dworkin on sex, I listened to women my own age – who had thirteen years’ more experience (and weariness) being regarded as sexually mature ‘females’ – about learning to value themselves in the face of men’s sexual entitlement. I joined my voices with theirs, as if their experience was mine.

The first problem came with the fact that I still wanted to have sex, of course. And as a nascent trans woman I could not simply ape cisgender women and their sexual histories. The second came with the fact that, on transition, I began to draw more overt sexual attention than I had before. The physical attributes which had failed me sexually as a man – an unremarkably round face, diminutive height, narrow shoulders and so on – became assets as an early stage transitioning woman. “It’s weird, you’re more attractive as a girl then you were as a boy” a male friend said, before drunkenly trying to kiss me. I enjoyed it – the message I latched onto in secret corroded at the icons of strong womanhood I had prayed to and the feminist truths I had too readily absorbed. ‘You’re a better woman the more men want you’, it told me, ‘your transition is more successful if he’d boast about having banged you’. It’s slightly deluded – when’s the last time you heard a man boasting about having sex with any trans woman?

LADIES AND LADYBOYS

I’m sitting in my room whatsapping a guy I recently went on a date with. He was very handsome and polite but talking to him required parking a lot of my qualms about straight men’s poor acquaintance with trans women. Two drinks in he blurted out the question “am I gay, then?” and I had to calmly suggest that his attraction to me didn’t make him anything. As an hour passed he narrated his sexual history with trans women – at university one had ‘trapped’ him when he was drunk (do I tell him that if he had sex with a trans woman he went home with voluntarily there was no ‘trap?’), he met two other tgirls off hookup apps but they were ‘robotic’ whereas I seemed clever (do I tell him it’s not necessary to compliment me by diminishing two trans sisters?).

Three hours later and I am in his bed – at one point he looks at my body and calls it “convincing” – the distasteful compliment men bestow upon those of us deemed sufficiently feminine, not realising we aren’t in disguise.  I use sex to make him shut up. At no point is he intending to be rude – I realise quickly he has felt ashamed of his desire for trans women and never discussed it with anyone – least of all his cisgender ex-girlfriends, who never knew about it. As a result, I am the cause of an eruption  of clumsy outpouring When I do correct him on his problematic turns of phrase and ignorant opinions he retracts them. Often he looks at me during my careful explanations and suggestions about his desires as if I am splitting the atom right in front of him. Sans bra.

“Three hours later and I am in his bed – at one point he looks at my body and calls it ‘convincing’”

Realistically, I know this connection is leading nowhere but his natural vocabulary runs to the affirmingly hyperbolic – I am not merely interesting, I am “fascinating”, he says. I had looked “stunning” in my pictures, my body was not cute but “sexy”. I know that I am using male desire, from someone who doesn’t really know me, to feel good about myself. But in gaining more sexual experience (the changes of hormonal transition are drastic enough that it does feel like your virginity is restored) I also discover that the men who desire me have no precedents for such an attraction. I understand it better than they do and understand their repression better than them. I have slowly realised that this insight gives me power over them – not a huge amount, but significant enough to be gratifying.

I listen to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Stronger Than Me’ on repeat. It’s a song which I find has captivated my imagination since I renewed my sex life after transition. In it, Winehouse laments an effete male partner who whines and wants to talk about his feelings and be comforted instead of, well, fucking her properly: “Don't you know you supposed to be the man/Not pale in comparison to who you think I am”, she sings. In hearing a woman call for a man to treat her less gently, I find a female narrative of needing a man that I can cope with. I think of how men who want to fuck me often struggle nervously to reconcile the taboo femininity their private fantasies of trans women represent with me, the actual, gobby, woman in front of them.

How, when they realise I’m not a tumblr porn gif, they stop making out with me and try to burden me with lengthy soliloquies on their own conflicted identity and confused sexual history. These are men who have never been shown how to desire trans women outside of porn and are desperate for someone to help them. There’s something delicious about the idea of refusing. Counterintuitively, the lyrics I enjoy the most are the ones that are quite casually homophobic and transphobic.

In Winehouse’s taunting jibe “are you gay?” and her wistful declaration that she has “forgotten all of young love's joy/Feel like a lady, and you my ladyboy” I hear a sadistic articulation of my new relationship to men who expect me to uplift and sustain their masculinity. As they crudely fetishise my femaleness they also fear the prospect of their own femininity manifesting. Their discomfort with their lust for transfemininity is precisely because it makes them unsure of their own gender and their own sexuality. Wounded male ego can present a very real danger to trans women – who can be shamed, rejected, assaulted or even killed by men who desire them – but the taunts of ‘Stronger Than Me’ allow a subversion of this new weight I live under. Perhaps I do need men to validate me, sometimes, but they need me to validate them far more.

My whatsapp buzzes – he’s asked for a picture of my tits, which I send him.

GODDESSES AND MORTALS                                                                         

The prophet Tiresias was cursed by the goddess Hera (the perennial crazy bitch of Greek mythology), who turned him into a woman for seven years during which he was first a prostitute then, later, a wife and mother. Once his sentence was spent he was allowed to recover his male privilege and returned back to manhood. But this was not to be the end of Tiresias’ woes. He was drawn into a row between Hera and her philandering husband, Zeus, about which gender felt greater sexual pleasure. Hera insisted it was men, Zeus that it was women. Tiresias was asked to determine because he had lived as both. He declared that men only ever experience one tenth of the sexual pleasure that women do. Hera, in yet another rage with his answer, blinded him.

Why did the vengeful goddess take his sight? Perhaps it was because Hera, so often betrayed and made miserable by her philandering husband, needed to believe that men burned with desire more and enjoyed sex more. Or perhaps it was because she realised – as mortal women do – that her own greater capacity to enjoy sex was constrained and limited by the behaviour of her husband and his male dominion over her? That despite her capacity for sexual fulfilment being greater than his, her role as female restricted the opportunity.

“My body already makes me a walking kink and so that is how I am spoken to – my flesh is praised as if it were meat off the bone”

I can relate. For the most part, trans women would agree with Tiresias. Whether it is the remedy of dysphoria which occurs with transition or the effect of estrogen on the sexual organs, many of us (usually those who are in long term sexual relationships throughout) report that sex can be more pleasurable than it was before though that pleasure can be much harder to achieve. I am forced, by circumstances, to try and find sexual connection through the same bleak channels I did as a queer male-presenting person – apps and dating websites. Gay men have an advantage in meeting up this way. To be a gay man in urban spaces is (mostly) to be a gay man who desires gay men and who is desired by gay men. In status they meet in dimly lit hallways or clubs or public toilets as equals. In the gay world, I was well versed in the codes and signals of sexual courtship – like a foreign diplomat who speaks the native tongue.

Now, returned to my country of origin, I am a stranger and men are in power. They seem blithely unaware of the possibility I could possibly desire them of my own volition and for my own selfish reasons. My body already makes me a walking kink and so that is how I am spoken to – my flesh is praised as if it were meat off the bone and men’s interest seems to be more about what I’m wearing and what it is made of. If they wanted to treat me as a slut that would be one thing – but it seems they only like that if I am reluctant or go unasked. Pictures of hard dicks are jammed into my DMs and inboxes without warning. “SUCK ME’ appears beneath instagram posts – if I don’t answer then “fuck you slut”.

It’s grim but I also see there’s an thrill to learning what my body means to men now – a crash course in how women’s sexuality in this society is almost entirely articulated by men. In the face of this erasure of my own desires I feel better about my new, womanly validation from men’s flattery (and thrusts). Like the angry queen Hera, I am so often denied my due pleasure in life and sex by men. In seeking out their desire for brief spells I am not demanding something unreasonable from them. I’m just asking for something that was stolen from me to be given back.