I have been staying out of this debate for a while mostly because I just wasn’t really interested in entertaining even more nonsensical bullshit surrounding me and my trans sisters. It seems like everyone feels like they should get to have an opinion on who we date, who would like to do date us, and why they date us. Very rarely does cisnormative discourse engage the transgender perspective in good faith on the matter, so I thought it was nothing more than a waste of my time. Now that I am single again, I definitely feel more like expressing my opinion on the topic because dating is hard enough for anyone, but it’s a nightmare if everyone perceives you with both fascination and horror at the same time. In their horror, our would-be partners often site “genital preferences” as a really lame excuse for excluding us from consideration and why said exclusion is not transphobic.
You may notice that I have angry and sarcastic tone. That is because I am angry, and I am angry because this debate is still happening. But most of all, I am angry because it’s going to keep happening because we don’t matter to cisnormative society. Since I know I am going to be misconstrued by every defensive transphobe who comes across this site, I should explicitly state what I am not saying. I’ll even number and italicize to make it easier for everyone:
- I am not saying everyone should be attracted to transgender women.
- Instead, I am saying people shouldn’t reject us for bullshit reasons.
- I am not saying that people can just choose their sexual orientation.
- Instead, I am saying is that “genital preferences” are not a sufficient condition for being a sexual orientation.
- I am not saying that people never have good reasons to have an averse reaction to a certain kind of genital (for example, sexual assault survivor’s being triggered by the sight of a penis have very good reasons for feeling the way they do).
- Instead, I am saying that equivocating trauma with disgust is really transphobic since most who cite genital preferences do not experience that kind of trauma and this minimizes actual sexual trauma.
I will support my thesis using the following argument:
- Most who appeal to “genital preferences” in order to exclude transgender women from consideration often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman.
- The appeal to genital preferences objectifies transgender women as it reduces them to their body parts and strips them of their humanity.
- Conclusion: If someone makes an appeal to “genital preferences”, they are most likely doing so from a position of ignorance that disrespects the humanity of transgender people.
Before I defend the argument, I need to be clear by what I mean when I use the term “genital preferences”. I use this term in the way that it is typically used in popular discourse. Here are a few examples:
“Saying that genital preferences are transphobic is homophobic.”
“Genital preferences are a kind of sexual preference that doesn’t need to be justified.”
“The suggestion that genital preferences are transphobic is coercive.”
“You arguing that we should question, or even reconsider, our genital preferences sounds an awful lot like conversion therapy.”
There is a common thread that ties all of these uses together: sexual orientation. In other words, genital preferences are practically synonymous with sexual orientation and one’s sex, one’s gender, is reducible to their genitals. Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the underlying assumptions—whether conscious or unconscious—are that transgender women aren’t really women, gender is reducible to sex, and one’s sexual attraction to another is primarily constituted by a preference for one’s genitalia. The rest of my argument will be centered around deconstructing the use of this term.
Many who exclude transgender women from consideration by appeal to genital preference often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman. Though some may be acting on reliable sources of information (such as the transgender woman herself), the way the rule is applied is almost always in broad brushstrokes, i.e., since transgender women are born with penises, all of them are treated as if they have penises regardless of whether or not they actually do.
This perception of transgender women and the attitudes that tend to accompany it reduce them to their body parts. As a result, our humanity is stripped away and the only thing that cisnormativity can see is a body that provokes both fascination and horror. What’s worse, if a conventionally attractive transgender woman were to not disclose her status, this would likely not happen to her (at least not in the same way).
This leads to the next point: people form attractions to others primarily on the basis of things other than genitalia. When a woman is seen, she is desired for her beauty, and hopefully other things such as her wit, her talents, her values, etc. Genitalia are among the last things to be considered, yet we want to give them so much weight when considering the desirability of transgender women. In other words, cisnormativity applies a double standard.
However, the get-out-of jail free card that reduces sexuality to mere genital preferences still comes up when these points are made. As mentioned earlier, genitals don’t typically play a role in the initial stages of attraction. When sitting at a bar, I can find another woman attractive without having any idea whether or not she has a penis or a vagina. The thought never crosses my mind, and it doesn’t cross most people’s minds until it is particularly relevant.
The only time it does, unfortunately, is when I know or suspect she is transgender. For me, genitals are not an issue, but due to social conditioning, my mind can’t help but bring that to my attention before her genital configuration is even relevant. Even though I have a transgender body, I still implicitly objectify other transgender women. If I struggle with this, imagine how it is for cisgender people.
The examples of the objectification of transgender individuals are innumerable. In their paper “Beyond Inclusion: Thinking Toward a Transfeminist Methodology”, Austin H. Johnson evaluates the treatment of transgender in sociology. As part of their research, they did a content analysis of the literature published in the journal Gender & Society, and in the book series Advances in Gender Research.
They found the following when they focused on objectification:
“The objectification of transgender people within the articles and chapters analyzed here was widespread…the articles and chapters analyzed here frequently objectified transgender people in a variety of ways…One form of transgender objectification in social research is the reduction of transgender people to their hormone or genital status (emphasis added)…”
Thus, it is clear that even fore experts who are supposed to be impartial can’t help but be partial in their views of transgender people. What’s worse, Johnson found practically opposite results when the research considered cisgender subjects.
What about reducing sexual orientation to “genital preferences” specifically? This idea relies on a few key assumptions, which are
- One’s genitalia defines one’s sex
- Sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex (or sexes)
- Sex and gender are distinct categories
- One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable
Let’s begin with the first assumption: one’s genitalia defines one’s sex. This, of course, relies on a controversial conception of sex. In her article “Sex Redefined”, Claire Ainsworth summarizes the historical development of, and current issues within, the study of sexual biology. One important point is that biologists tend to not define sex on any single parameter. Sex has become a bit of a cluster concept where genitals, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomal makeup, hormone concentrations, gender identity, etc. and no one parameter rules the roost. Since these parameters exist in nature along a spectrum, it is incredibly difficult to justify a view where one’s genitals is what defines one’s sex. Therefore, it is both possible and natural for a female to have a penis or for a male to have a vagina.
Since the first assumption is easily challenged, it’s easy to see how the second assumption is also easily challenged. Notice that we don’t have to deny that sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex. Rather, since sex is not defineable by one’s genitalia, the content of the second assumption can radically differ (again, a female can have a penis and a male can have a vagina).
The third assumption is a little more challenging to topple, but it is doable. Take the following argument:
- If it is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only, sex is reducible to gender.
- It is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only.
- Conclusion: Therefore, sex is reducible to gender.
Premise 1 basically asserts that if there isn’t anything more to sex than gender, then there is nothing that sex has that isn’t already possessed by gender and is thus reducible to it. In order for it to be reasonable to consider them distinct categories, we would have to show that sex has an essential property that isn’t already had by gender. Ainsworth’s article can be said to be arguing that this essential property has eluded biologists, otherwise research wouldn’t be on its current trajectory toward viewing sex as multifaceted and continuous rather than singular and binary.
In her work “Gender Trouble”, Judith Butler makes the argument that sex, gender, and desire are the result of cultural constructions of identity. Rather than thinking of sex as prior to gender, she argues that gender is prior to sex. In order for heteronormativity to legitimize itself, and delegitimize non-normative identities, it grounds itself in the “natural”, and as a result, it is given what Butler calls an appearance of substance:
“Gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender—where gender is a psychic and/or cultural designation of the self—and desire—where desire is heterosexual and therefore differentiates itself through an oppositional relation to that other gender it desires. The internal coherence or unity of either gender, man or woman, thereby requires both a stable and oppositional heterosexuality. That institutional heterosexuality both requires and produces the univocity of each of the gendered terms that constitute the limit of gendered possibilities within an oppositional, binary gender system. This conception of gender presupposes not only a causal relation among sex, gender, and desire, but suggests as well that desire reflects or expresses gender and that gender reflects or expresses desire. The metaphysical unity of the three is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender—that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality. Whether as a naturalistic paradigm which establishes a causal continuity among sex, gender, and desire, or as an authentic-expressive paradigm in which some true self is said to be revealed simultaneously or successively in sex, gender, and desire, here ‘the old dream of symmetry,’ as Irigaray has called it, is presupposed, reified, and rationalized.”
In an attempt to establish heteronormativity as “natural”, we created natural categories such as male and female and the scientific community has run with it. Of course, biologists have arrived at a lot of fruitful results with such a model. That much is not disputed. However, what is still controversial is whether or not it is the most useful model. For example, conceiving of sex in terms of gender doesn’t cause us to lose out on much of anything, especially if gendered terms perfectly capture what research has already arrived at or will continue to arrive at. In fact, moving in that direction has yielded better research since the stumbling blocks of a binary view have already begun to be removed.
What of the last assumption: One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable? Casting doubt on the other assumptions does not necessarily imply that one’s orientation can be chosen. I consider myself a gender anti-essentialist (or anti-naturalist). However, I also recognize that I don’t have any choice regarding how I feel about myself in my body, nor the kind of gendered persons I am attracted to. Even though cultural norms have shaped who I am, the fact that they have shaped me, and will continue to shape me, is entirely outside of my control. Also, most of the mental activity of my mind that generates my thoughts, feelings and perceptions is largely outside of my conscious control as well.
So what are we left with here? On the one hand, we don’t have much control over our desires and on the other, sex is a bullshit idea. Recall earlier that for biologists, sex is a cluster concept. I want to interrogate this notion even further by examining what exactly that means.
Let’s begin by revisiting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on Language Games. According to Wittgenstein, a word cannot be defined by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions as there are always borderline cases, or exceptions to the rule. Rather, what we can do is examine a paradigm case and judge other cases on the basis of their resemblance to the paradigm case. What defines a word is it’s “family resemblance” to other words in a cluster of concepts and meanings, and what ultimately determines a words meaning is how it is used in context.
In Cognitive Neuroscience,the mental lexicon is also illustrative of this point:
“…[The mental lexicon] is a store of information about words that includes semantic information (the words’ meanings), syntactic information (how words are combined to form sentences) and the details of those word forms (their spelling and sound patterns).”
The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. Our focus will be on the fourth: the semantic relationships between words. “…[W]ords related in meaning must somehow be organized together in the brain, such that activation of the representation of one word also activates words that are related in meaning.”
Take the word “dog”. Our concept of “dog” can be considered a cluster of other concepts like “fur”, “legs”, “barking”, “wet nose”, “sweet”, “cute”, etc. organized into a coherent mental unit called a cognitive schema. When the word “dog” is used, not only does it activate the schema dog in the nervous system, but it also activates other schemas that share concepts in common. For example, “dog” can also activate “cat” because they both have fur, four legs, etc.
The mental architecture that results is a complex web of words, concepts and meanings that reference one another. Therefore, the meaning of a word is determined in reference to other words, concepts in meaning contained in the web.
To see this in action consider the case of artificial intelligence and machine language learning:
“In the past few years, the ability of programs such as Google Translate to interpret language has improved dramatically. These gains have been thanks to new machine learning techniques and the availability of vast amounts of online text data, on which the algorithms can be trained.
“However, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.
“Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: ‘A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.’
“The [program’s] approach [to learning language], which is already used in web search and machine translation, works by building up a mathematical representation of language, in which the meaning of a word is distilled into a series of numbers (known as a word vector) based on which other words most frequently appear alongside it. Perhaps surprisingly, this purely statistical approach appears to capture the rich cultural and social context of what a word means in the way that a dictionary definition would be incapable of.”
Stated differently, implicit bias, the unconscious prejudices and thought processes that underly decision making, can emerge from patterns of language use based on how certain uses of language relate to each other in context.
Researchers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the structure of our cluster concepts are organized around our experiences of living in a body and that higher levels of abstraction contain within them more basic and concrete (typically physical and cultural) concepts. These results are consistent with Piagetian and neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development. In particular, Robbie Case has argued that our knowledge of the world is constructed from our interactions with it and the basic architecture that characterizes their form are what he called central conceptual structures:
“These structures are defined as networks of semantic nodes and relations that represent children’s core knowledge in a domain and that can be applied to the full range of tasks that the domain entails. Major transformations are hypothesized to take place in these structures as children enter each new stage of their development. Once formed, the new structures are hypothesized to exert a powerful influence on all subsequent knowledge acquisition. The process by which they exert this effect is believed to be a dynamic one, in which general conceptual insights and more specific task understandings become reciprocally coupled, each exerting a bootstrapping effect on the other.”
In the earliest stages of development, the central conceptual structures are sensorimotor-based and as the child ages, these conceptual structures enable the development of more abstract concepts as children encounter new situations that call for such abstract thinking and problem solving.
There are two important takeaways for our consideration of sex as a cluster concept:
- Our concept of sex is constituted by a whole host of more basic related concepts, many of which are non-scientific, that are physical and cultural at their most basic.
- The organization of our conceptual structures and language use leads to implicit understandings of lived experiences that are mixed in with our experiences of desire conceived as sexual orientation.
Therefore, even though sexual orientation is generally non-voluntary and immutable, it does not mean specific components within these cluster concepts associated with sexual orientation cannot be critically examined and subject to change, “genital preferences” being one of them, as one’s sex is reducible to gender, but not reducible to one’s anatomy.
If genital preferences can’t explain why transgender women are perceived as “undesirable” by so many, what could be the actual basis for people’s aversions to their bodies? An examination of “trans panic” is particularly useful here. Trans panic occurs when a (almost always male) person murders a transgender woman out of a kind of panic, rage, or other experience that provokes extremely violent behavior. When asked about this phenomenon, gender/queer theorist Judith Butler explained that murder is a kind of assertion of one’s power and dominance. In a way, the killer is reassuring himself of his own power. Since transgender women are perceived as having rejected masculinity, the men who murder them often act from a place of feeling that their power that comes from their sense of their masculinity is being threatened as the existence of a transgender woman suggests to them that masculinity may not be inherent to their existence as men.
The murders these men commit are often extremely brutal and the insight that Butler provides is especially illuminating:
“Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough. At a certain point, she is already dead, but he is not finished killing her. Why? It is because he wants to obliterate any trace of his own relation to that living person, obliterating a part of himself and living person at the same time. But also establishing his absolute power, and his own masculinity as the site of that power. Perhaps he is rebuilding his gender as he continues to try to take apart and efface that trans woman who never deserved to die. He is seeking as well to establish a world in which no one like her exists.”
If men murder transgender women from a place of feeling threatened, where exactly does this feeling come from? Butler hints that the man’s perceived relation to the transgender woman plays an explanatory role, so I will explore that further starting with an analysis of abjection.
Abjection can be defined as “the state of being cast off”. According to psychoanalysis and critical theory, it is how people primarily define themselves by creating boundaries between themselves and “the other”. It is the act of defining one’s self by what one is not.
One of the most influential writers on this phenomonenon is Julia Kristeva. In her work Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as a kind of horror one feels when confronted with the reality of living in a body, or a breakdown in the distinction between subject and object, of self and other.
In other words, the abject is that which is “not me”. When we mature, we reject things we once experienced as parts of ourselves cast them off from our sense of self. For Kristeva, abjection is the disturbance of identity, systems, and order. What does this mean for these men who kill transgender women?
Toxic masculinity is an unhealthy performance of masculinity that is a result of the abjection of primarily one thing: the feminine. Of course, any kind of masculinity is going to contrast itself against femininity, but toxic masculinity takes it quite a bit further. Homosexuality is perceived as a kind of manifestation of femininity within men. As our general cultural understandings of gender still have it, heterosexuality is strongly associated with masculinity and femininity (especially masculinity). In other words, “real men” are attracted to women, not other men. Men are also supposed to be masculine and a toxic conception of masculinity leaves no room for any hinted associations with the feminine.
Attraction to transgender women can be seen as a threat to either one or both aspects of the masculine cluster concept. Since transgender women were born with penises, and many people still perceive them as male, these men experience a kind of horror when they feel an attraction to transgender women. They fear that such an attraction suggests that they are homosexual, or that they might have other associations with femininity that they are too uncomfortable to confront. Even if they might not perceive themselves as possibly being homosexual, they typically worry that others, especially their friends and family, might. This provokes an experience of horror that some of these men act on in extremely brutal ways.
Of course, most people who reject transgender women don’t do so maliciously. They may experience some degree of horror, but they often keep it to themselves. However, some feel compelled to make a more public point to others about how they do not perceive transgender women as desirable as a kind of self assurance of their own self concept. When they do this, they reinforce traditional associations within the cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire that at best promote systemic oppression and at worst provoke some people to react violently to transgender women.
In summary, an appeal to “genital preferences” is not an adequate defense for someone’s communicating to others how undesirable transgender women are since sex is wholly explained in gendered terms and genitals are but one aspect in the overall cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire. To be clear, no one is ever obligated to date a transgender woman, but we can still call them out when they decide to tell us and the rest of the world how unfuckable we are. To assert otherwise is to objectify transgender women which promotes transphobia. And that, my friends, is why “genital preferences” as popularly conceived are transphobic.