In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism

Okay, you guys, I swear this is not an XO Jane Unpopular Opinion piece, but I am not a sex-positive feminist.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified - t's really deep.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified – it’s really deep.

Oh, I like sex. I like being sexy. I like it when my fiancé calls me sexy*. But I don’t like being reduced to the role of an object, even if I play object roles. And I don’t like being a tool, especially not of the patriarchy. And I am not a sex-positive feminist.

It wasn’t a typo.

So I gave a local training to a family health center, today, and the idea of sex-positive messaging came up, unfortunately advocated for, blindly, by a university nursing professor. Her advocacy of this issue is wrong for one of the most basic reasons I oppose sex-positive feminism – because her embrace of it is uncritical. No feminist – no woman – no person – should be uncritical. Not about sex, and honestly, not about anything. It isn’t safe. Not in a world of criss-crossing power structures and systems of oppression. To make blanket assumptions that sexuality is safe in the sense of its relationship with power has deadly consequences, particularly for women, every day.

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn't mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn’t mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

I want to outline the reasons why I am a sexually empowering feminist, but I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m not the first one to talk about something like this. In 2012, a feminist from the UK, Lisa Downing (Prof. LD) coined the idea of sex critical feminism. She was writing in response to Fifty Shades of Grey, which many revile as terrible writing, but far more importantly, many feminists and others call out as being not about lust but about sexual victimization (the BDSM community took exception, also). Downing wasn’t the only one. Whether they banded behind the sex critical term** or not, these authors talked about some major themes – how sex positivity feels to them as victims of sexual violence, because it is uncritical, and because it pits women against each other. And yes, XO Jane Unpopular Opinion got on the bandwagon, too***.

  1. Sex is at the very root of sexism. Sex and things related to sex, like pregnancy, abortion, rape, victimization, trafficking, are, of all the spaces in which we fight, the space in which we are most literally fighting over a woman’s body, whether we are feminists who are there to help her stand tall, or tools of the system that are there to violate her. To consider sexuality in an “empowering” way that does not recognize that sex has deep intersections with power structures and systems of coercion that keep the Patriarchy in place is unacceptably ignorant. Now, there’s that much ballyhooed over-simplification of second wave feminism, right? All sex is rape? What was really going on in the Second Wave that is important for us not to forget is that feminists were asking radical questions about how sex could be ethical. They did not blindly assume sex was ethical – rather, one of their most radical questions of all was to ask, “What if it isn’t and cannot ever be?” These questions inform conversations like the question of how living in the gender binary can be ethical, and they remain very relevant today, as exemplified by news like Bill Cosby’s serial raping, women being criminalized for miscarriage, the absurdism of “legitimate rape.” Sex positivity just forgets or washes over all of this. Sure, it recognizes that rape is an act of violence. Sure, it advocates for explicit consent. But again, the idea that men not raping anybody and asking for explicit consent before having sex, just those two things, makes sex ethical, is completely ridiculous.

    I don't mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the

    I don’t mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the “sex positive” movement is often objectifying to women (Source: CKUT)

  2. Sex-positivity all too often sells sexual messaging that is masculocentric. Now this gets into bones of contention among feminists, and I disagree with some women I respect mightily. But for most women, we cannot be truly sexually empowered if we are pretending to be men. And yet, too often, sex-positive messaging is like the “shrink it and pink it” of athletic wear. So sex-positivity forces us to talk a masculine game. If a woman stomps her fist and demands orgasm, that’s increasingly cool, and some very visible women are doing that – Amy Schemer, Nicki Minaj, and others, and this conversation is increasingly going global. That’s cool – I applaud that. But, if a woman – even a woman who has and enjoys many orgasms – says that her enjoyment of sex isn’t centered on orgasm, she is immediately viewed with suspicion, and admonished to demand orgasm from men like these model women. She is never asked: “Okay, then, orgasm isn’t the be all and end all for you. Cool. So how can I make sex more pleasurable for you? What gives you value in sex?” Why isn’t she? Why don’t we believe, in this era of sex positivity, and sex positivity that is supposedly feminist, that a woman could have a viewpoint on her own sexuality? But just like past eras of sexuality where it was a liberating idea that a woman could be on top in heterosex****, all it does is take a man’s conception of what sex should be and put it on women. That isn’t empowering to me.

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women's Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women’s Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

  3. If you’d been traumatized, you might feel differently. Sex positive messaging also has a tendency to celebrate sexuality in a way that is deeply inconsiderate of trauma survivors. Worse yet, sex positivity and the demands to conform to this view that the “movement” places on women place sexually empowered women like me at odds with survivors who do not feel safe with sexuality, when in reality we are sisters and we need to be lifting each other up.
  4. Why doesn’t anyone think about the aces & aros? Sex-positive messaging (and I’ve made this mistake, too, although I do know better, and I need to knock it off) does not recognize that there are some people – including some, but not all asexual and aromantic people, who may not want to have sex, and who may not need to enjoy sex. Sex positivity not only doesn’t recognize that not all people are sexual, it writes over the narratives of the marginalized with the majority’s narrative. That’s so not cool.
  5. The Sexual Revolution All Over Again. And here’s the rub that women know all too well. The sexual revolution was this proclaimed attempt to free our sexualities. But what it did for heterosexual women is primarily create a set of rules to maximize our bodies’ availability***** to men. While the sexual revolution seemed appealing to many women at the time, in the long term, it was deeply problematic for us, and it leaves us a legacy yet today. Look at online dating and “hookup culture” – Tindr was created by two guys (and from the looks of it, not nice guys). The idea that women can either be sidelined by some other woman who is more willing than they are, or they can play the man’s game on the man’s rulebook, is a fool’s choice. Even for women who do legitimately find value or meaning in hookup culture, it’s vital that we understand that we are participating in a game that plays by rules that are deeply patriarchal in their design.

* And Teri is quite the Prince when it comes to tolerating the dissonance between the fact that I love my sexuality yet question its ethicality.

** Notice I used “sexually empowering” instead of sex critical. This is not because I don’t respect Downing’s work – I do, immensely. Rather, I think the name sex critical is problematic. Unlike some of our most radical sisters of the second wave, I see sexuality as something that fulfills a deep, human need for many (but not all) people. Being sex critical to me implies that doubt of the second wave that sexuality can even be ethical. I’m committed to the idea that we can make it more ethical, and I’m committed to the idea that anyone can be sexually empowered, whether they are sexual or not, whether they have sex or not.

*** I kid, I kid, I love XO Jane, I totally click through and read all the articles. And although I disagree sometimes, I love the idea that women can have opinions different than mine.

**** Straight people and their sexual practices are so quaint.

***** I was going to say, our sexual availability, but the reality is that it wasn’t and too often isn’t ours, and it’s not us but our bodies that society wants – this is ultimately the entire concern critically conscious women, even women like me who love sex, have about sex positivity.

Sexual Healing

This is a part two to last year’s Learning to be Loved*. Teri’s a part (intermittently) of a certain Facebook group for transgender people, which will remain unnamed, which I joined briefly last year and went running from, arms flailing and mouth screaming. And it’s a great example of how few safe spaces there are to have a constructive conversation about the sexuality of mono-amorous, relationship-oriented, yet proudly sexual trans people. There recently was a blow-up over there (I’ll check and see if Teri left the group again – yep, he did) related to who, how, and when a person could be attracted to a trans body (like mine). A blowup that did not include a productive conversation on this topic**.

No, sir, I plead not guilty.

No, sir, I plead not guilty

Even in our national spaces, like First Event, one struggles to find room for this conversation. I was able to sneak my way into some excellent seminars, led by trans men and about trans masculine sexuality***, and this was pretty great. I made some new friends, and I brought home something**** autographed for Teri (do go check out Mitch’s site, too, he’s so cool) to spark further discussion back home. A discussion about queering heterosexuality, alongside the conversation about what trans men can contribute to a desperately needed reboot of manhood.

Go buy this book, for serious

Go buy this book, for serious

But, so, with my recent Mira Goes Het article, I focused on the relationship between our heteroqueer relationship and the heteropatriarchy. I want to return back to the ground of that even older post, and this question of the feminine body as an object of desire, and the extension to the situation in which that feminine body is a trans woman’s body, or, well, in this case, my body. Back in one of those panels, someone said something interesting, and noteworthy for its non-provocativeness. He said, basically, “You know, I date everyone except cis guys.” This was non-controversial … it basically extracted chuckles and knowing nods. And “Honey, I feel you, I dated a cis guy, once.” I did feel badly for the one cis gay guy present, but then again, he made a comment something along the lines of, “You know, if my partner has a vagina, I’m going to want to penetrate that” and… well, there are just no words.


Also at First Event. I don’t want to just make fun of him… well, maybe for that last bit. But how do we get to being sexual without the weirdness?

So then, on Facebook, this morning, there was this interaction Teri had with a fella who was attracted to trans women (specifically/exclusively). This person was attacked, fairly mercilessly, as one of those “tranny chasers.” The only space that was opened for anyone to be attracted to a trans woman was the absurdist reduction of “trans women and cis women are exactly the same” (I’ve seen trans women take, also, the polemical position that they wouldn’t consider any lesbian an ally unless they would openly pledge, ridiculously, that they would date any trans woman). Apparently, another trans guy (because Teri’s my Dear Future Husband) chimed in and was open about his own attraction to trans women. That was “okay” because he was one of “us.” In contrast, the original poster (OP for you OG’s) was cisgender, and so he was… disgusting. A pervert. The difference between these statements, how they were perceived, and where they came from, was — is — worrisome to me.

Also on Facebook a friend posted an article about what lesbian-identified trans women (a class from which I’m increasingly the dearly departed) refer to as the “cotton ceiling” (namely, because I’m using my footnotes up too quickly today, and I feel bad when I get to ten asterisks, when cis lesbians accept trans women conceptually but reject them as potential partners for cis lesbians, either in the general sense of the dating scene, or the specific sense of dating them, themselves). I responded on Facebook that the biggest thing I could do to fight the cotton ceiling was to openly and authentically be in love with Teri – to be, in the public eye, the subject and object of love, and the object of physical desire*****.

So here is the presentation of the conundrum. Janet Mock has talked about this, too. We cannot extend a blanket statement that people attracted to trans women’s bodies are disgusting, without in turn, making an unacceptable but implicit statement that my body, too, is disgusting. And I’m here to tell you it isn’t (and if you don’t believe me, ask my boyfriend). My body is lovely, not because I’m “almost” as good as a “real” girl, but because I’m better than any other girl Teri’s ever going to find (because I’m the one, Mister). Friends (who are newer to trans people) sometimes say to me, “You looked hot the other night – is it okay if I say that?” And I tell them, of course it’s okay. I like to look hot – and my friends are benefitted by me with the right to appreciate it. And I’m desirable, not to everyone, but to the one that matters, not because I’m exactly the same as other women (because we’re not Barbie dolls … I don’t look like or have the experiences of an African woman, as much as a waitress recently thought I look like Pam Grier, or a woman from Uzbekistan, or any number of other women), but because of my unique value and desirability as a woman unlike any other. And if you pay any actual attention to actual women, that’s (not to speak for everyone — some women are asexual or aromantic) what we want.

I’m not in the business of telling other people to whom they should be attracted. I’m going to go on several limbs, and I don’t mean to offend out here, but I’m going to say what I see. We live in a world that is dominated by long-term, stable, mono-amorous romantic/sexual relationships. That’s the political battleground, for most of us. And yet we do not leverage actual trans people in romantically/sexually, long-term, stable, mono-amorous, satisfying relationships as a part of the war on the cotton ceiling – most of the people I know, Mock aside, who have much to say about this are way outside of this space. And this is crazypants. I’m not in the business of telling anyone to whom they should be attracted – not even Teri. But Teri is attracted to me. And I am attractive to him. I bestow on him the right to have me be the object of his desire, and I delight in his desire. And I deserve it.

I changed the tagline of my blog this year, to “Welcome to the Revolution.” So I might as well be clear about the revolution to which you’re welcome. There are lots of revolutions, actually, but with respect to being trans, I’m reminded of a comment Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said about being feminist – she had to clarify that she’s a happy feminist, because of the dominant assumption that feminists aren’t happy. My revolution is that I’m a happy trans woman. A happy woman (because trans is a modifier, I am not anything other than a woman). Not just like cis women. Different, but not less. I’m happily in love. I’m happy to be the object of desire. I look good – sometimes I even look really hot (and even less frequently, I actually believe this about myself). And sometimes, I need to be told I shouldn’t wear that, because it doesn’t do anything for me. Or to stop obsessing about the scale.

If we want more trans people in happy, satisfying, romantically/sexually fulfilling relationships, this is the kind of revolution we need, and we need to get more of our stories out there (because I know Teri and I are not the only happy ones). We can’t solve the “cotton ceiling” or its heterosexual equivalent without actually including the stories of trans people in good relationships. And just like I play a unique role in being the trans woman who gains acceptance quickly and easily, and who doesn’t really seem to scare anyone, ours is one of those trans relationship that is the safe gateway to the idea that trans people are relationship material. So I’m going to welcome you to it, and help you understand that it … is wonderful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that we should all be feminists. She’s right. I’m going to add that we should all be happy.

* You know, everything needs a sequel. Even Pride & Prejudice.

** I admittedly read this conversation over Teri’s shoulder.

*** I was welcomed as having the stake as a significant other of a trans man. Actually welcomed. We need to learn how to actually be welcoming (without diluting our standards or intent) in the queer community.

**** I tend to lead with something like, “I’m in love with a trans guy, and it’s so amazing, we’re so happy together, and no relationship I’d been in before this one just made sense, like this one does” and this tends to go over well, and make me friends / establish me as the trans girl who rides in cars with trans boys. There is probably something about this whole still complex question, as we exit the butch/femme paradigm and move into this heteroqueer space, about this dual issue of whether we end up endorsing the patriarchy and how to come to terms with what the “safeness” sexually we have with our trans guys and bois, absent from interacting with cis guys, says about cis guys, says about the damage of masculinity, says about how to help guys achieve a rebirth of slick.

***** Reader, she means lust. She is the subject of physical desire, as well, but she is a femme and rarely admits it in public.

Learning to Be Loved

I’ve said before that I really haven’t been fooling anyone with the sad drag show that has been my male life. At support group the topic of coming out on social media came up – I’ve always been out here, obviously, and on Facebook. That’s because I resisted joining Facebook for the longest time, and my erstwhile male identity never was on FB. Twitter is a different story – I have a fairly mature presence there, with a lot more followers than anywhere else. So, it’s actually important to me, and I have given a little thought to coming out on Twitter. I joked at group that I would say, “I’m transgender. I’m sorry for my sad impersonation of a man. I know it’s embarrassing, it won’t happen again.” That actually pretty much sums it up – if you follow me on Twitter* you’ll probably actually see that tweet in a few months. It’s probably funnier to me than anyone – it probably won’t be how I finally break into Huffington Post’s Funniest Tweets by Women weekly column. Sigh.

I’m kind of a walking stereotype, which I’ve also said before. I like heels (but not embarrassingly high, and those chunky low heel pumps from Coach are being discounted, hmmm…). I like skirts and dresses (but not too short). I like makeup (but not too much eye shadow, it looks garish on me). I’m not even full time and I have two designer purses (Saffiano is way nicer than I expected it to be, incidentally). I drink cosmos and drink every kind of martini but an actual, normal martini. I listen to girly music. And cry along at the sad songs. Kind of a lot. I still dream of being Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice (the original, not the one with zombies, although in a pinch I’m open to negotiation). I’m flirty, often just because it’s fun, and I understand the concept of a flirty hemline.

The one place where I’m not exactly a walking stereotype is the continuing ambiguity of my sexual orientation. I do find it incredibly liberating to say I’m not really sexually/romantically attracted to very feminine women, although I like them a lot as friends, and I enjoy looking at how they dress and do their makeup, and I try to learn some tricks from them, because I’m pretty moderately feminine myself. That pretending went away immediately when I came out the first time. I want to be a beautiful woman (and the emotionally unstable one, but let’s not get into that trope) far more than I want to be with one. And I always nod along silently when women say they’re not that into guys based on their looks. Preach it, sisters. I was never really attracted to what I was “supposed” to be attracted to. I am attracted to masculinity, though. At least in relatively small to moderate doses, I find it achingly beautiful. I don’t want to be it. I never have, and this is a big part of why my attempt at masculinity is so sad (on a particularly butch day in my en homme form** I’m probably roughly Ellen DeGeneres). But the gap teeth and the goofy smiles and the bravado, I find it all amazingly cute. So I say masculinity, whatever. I’m attracted to my girlfriend’s masculinity. Or butchness. Or agency. Or whatever. It’s so much hotter to me than girly girlness.

I adore how she can wear the same couple of shirts she cycles through day after day without any self-consciousness, while I try to remember the last outfits the people I’ll see today saw me in, to avoid the mortification that they’ll see me in the same outfit again (I’ve been a little bit less like this in my en homme form, recently, because it’s just getting harder and harder to put on a male mask, even a kind of a sad one, day after day, but before transition for some time, I was pretty much like this already). I love that she doesn’t consider matters such as whether her underwear matches her clothes. That her clothes are pretty much not getting ironed unless I do it. That she went to a “bro party” because her friend considers her one of the guys (and I get to tease her and pretend to suspect that there were strippers involved). That she lets me say I’m attracted to her masculinity (I usually say butchness, but I have said it that way) and isn’t threatened by it.

She’s got some issues that we’re working through, too, to be sure, and I’m still kind of holding on to see how those get worked out. But. I’m kind of in love with her. Okay, when I say kind of, I mean my heart’s skipped a lot of beats recently. I want to build a nest for her and not let her do any of the decorating (she’s been trying to convince me recently that her choices are not terrible, and I’m observing the evidence, but so far, #No). Okay, I’ve already begun reminding her that diamonds are the Taurus birthstone and educating her about the importance of truly conflict-free, ethical trade diamonds. Soon I’m sure I’ll start dropping hints*** about my ring size (7.5) and setting preferences (something simple and elegant, probably white gold, just one stone, nothing ostentatious). Okay, I’m a little embarrassed that I actually typed all that “out loud.” And haven’t deleted it (and in fact saved the strikeout text for a much less embarrassing admission in the next paragraph and neither this nor the really embarrassing thing I say in the footnotes).


Yeah. So, erm something like this with a didn’t-leave-a-shorty-armless diamond, please? What… not subtle enough to put a picture of an engagement ring in the middle of a blog post? Can I at least work out some click-through arrangement? Or should I just be really embarrassed at blatantly inserting a picture of an engagement ring in this post?

And…moving on.

In terms of defining my sexuality, I’m really not bisexual-going-on-lesbian in the pansexual kind of sense (being bisexual means a whole lot of things, and covers a really wide range of experiences and orientations, incidentally). I really like a slice of mildly to moderately masculine/butch people. The rest, I feel, is actually *gasp* sort of like how those creepy sexologists describe feminine sexuality – I’m kind of attracted to everything pretty. I don’t foresee myself being with a hairy, dirty-white-cap wearing football superfan, and I don’t really want anyone who thinks his biceps are prettier than I am. But… a sensitive guy with strong arms and a gentle smile? A dog and a pickup truck Prius Subaru-with-a-manual-transmission-so-I-can-borrow-it-in-snowstorms-and-continue-to-drive-pretty-but-impractical-convertibles? Swoon. I know. Stereotype. Total Reece Witherspoon movie moment. And I’m sure if I were not in love, and if he came along, Reece will steal him from me anyway, probably by talking him into teaching her how to drive a manual transmission. Hands meet on the shifter. Happy ending by the two hour mark, and time left over to buy new pink Prada pumps that I would never be able to pull off. Sigh.


Oh my god, oh my god you guys…

I write all of this in support of a really cool story that came up on my timeline recently about a cis/het woman who fell for a trans man. I loved that article.


Seriously, this was such a beautiful piece, it really made me cry

My situation is quite a bit different, but my experience of sexuality is very similar – there’s some level at which masculinity is kind of a separate entity from maleness (particularly karyotype maleness, since I do consider the gentleman in the story to be male). It would be ideal to call it something other than masculinity to avoid policing anyone else’s gender expression. But whatever, you know intuitively, most of you, what I’m talking about. Whether the objects of our affection are cis men, trans men, or butch women, she and I are both attracted to masculinity or whatever else you want to call it. I haven’t met her, but I suspect like me, it might just her heart swoon. It might make her want to preen and do her hair just right. Maybe it makes her want to twirl around so her boyfriend can appreciate her dress. I kind of get that, because I’m enjoying the same with my girlfriend. It is, in essence, the “deep in the binary” feminine experience of romance and desire, and it’s really just like the straight experience of feminine desire, just queerer. It’s what I’m going through to learn how to finally feel attraction without compromise. And it’s an important milestone on the way to being loved and loving, in a romantic sense, again, without the hangups and compromises and unspoken components all this had when I was pretending to be a man.

And let’s not get into a hierarchy discussion of how it’s less queer than more gender or tradition non-conforming relationships, this is a love story, not the Olympics. Everybody should win their own prize.

* For safety reasons, I’m not linking my Twitter account here, until I come out on Twitter. I’m not trying to hide anything, but this blogging publicly with my full intended name en femme when I’m not full time yet is kind of uncharted territory, and I’m making this up as I go.

** I plan to be full time (Mira forevermore) around August. Can’t come a day too soon.

*** Here’s another thing… So in Michigan I can legally marry her, right now and probably for the next year or so, and it would probably “stick” later, even if I were caught wearing a cute dress, and I am for sure not going to be caught dead at my own wedding in a tuxedo. I really want to legally be a bride, though, and I may sound awfully impulsive, but there’s no way I’m getting married within a year … a small, intimate Indian wedding is 300 people and only one elephant. So I’d need to gay marry her, even if that were to happen. Erm. Support marriage equality.