David Ross Fryer was my teacher at university. His classes transformed my way of conceiving the world – they opened up theoretical and practical possibilities that seemed inconceivable within the social scientific framework that saturated the academic environment. And in doing so, they made me believe that new worlds, new ways of living, and new forms of gender and sexual existence could be created. They motivated me to sink my teeth into queer theory, feminism, and Continental Philosophy – but most importantly – they encouraged me to remain critical, to ask questions, and mistrust boundaries. David inspired me to think about how I live my life, how I relate to others, and what I do to combat oppression. My writing on Below the Belt is one of the fruits of that inspiration.
What a pleasure it is then to read and review David’s latest book, Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender and The Ethics of Identity. Like his classes, it has that rare quality of providing a highly accessible introduction to the main issues in queer theory, while at the same time making a very innovative contribution to it. Put simply, Thinking Queerly deftly strikes a balance that most academics (Judith Butler exempted) spend their careers fumbling towards: it can be easily understood by the layperson, but it also provides rich food for thought for the specialist. In describing and explaining queer theory so well, David re-constitutes it, shows how it can be transformed, and even transcended.
So what does it mean to think queerly? The first chapter, “On the Possibilities of Post-Humanism,” grapples with this question. According to David, queer theory is stuck in a rut. It has criticized dominant norms of gender and sexuality but has failed to truly surpass them. The problem with queer theory is its almost exclusive anti-normativity: in dealing with socially-promoted values about gender, sexuality, and the body, it has ended up simply lifting the opposite on a pedestal. Polyamory counters monogamy, sado-masochism sneers at vanilla sex, threesomes mock the couple, the transgendered body challenges the cis one, genderqueer and genderfuck attack gender normativity, and so on. In other words, various queer life-forms have thrown down the gauntlet and started to fight the governing straight life-form.
To be sure, the development of this oppositional stance is a necessary step in the struggle for liberation – something to be welcomed. But David argues that queer studies should not stop there, that the full promise of queerness cannot be realized within this kind of framework. Turning to phenomenology, which he describes as a philosophical tradition requiring the suspension of “all presuppositions and agendas in [a] search for truth,” David extends the critical gaze that queer theorists have directed at heteronormativity towards queerness itself (4). And his findings are noteworthy: queer and heteronormative modes of existence are not necessarily in substantive opposition to each other; there is nothing about heterosexuality, monogamy, cissexuality, and monosexuality in themselves that is anti-queer. Rather, the problem lies in the social status of these forms of existence, in the modes of normative discourse that give them such a dominant role.
In this sense, the normative is “a methodological enemy,” a way of thinking that circumscribes the possibilities of human existence to a narrow set of socially-enforced identities (5). For instance, as David puts it, “normative thinking is the kind of non-thinking we engage in when we refer to an unnamed doctor as ‘he’…when we ask our children if they want to have children when they get married…when we take for granted the way the world seems to be” (5). Queer thinking, on the other hand, requires us to “think, really to think, about gender, sex, sexuality, and indeed all forms of identity and expression as being open to various instantiations, as having multiple – even infinite – modalities” (6). In the framework David proposes, a society should not be evaluated on whether most of its members are genderqueer multi-sexual polyamorists, but on the extent to which it is open to a diverse array of “possible modalities of being human,” which may very well be limitless (9).
In encouraging us to think queerly, therefore, David seeks to undo a knotty philosophical debate, and ultimately move the discussion past it. As described above, he aims to replace the entrenched divide between queer and normative thought with what he calls “post-normative thinking” – an approach that does not get wedged in the binary between dominant and suppressed identities, but instead inquires into the various possibilities of gendered and sexual existence and the ways in which societies enable or foreclose particular options. Implicit in this theoretical move is, I think, an unease with oppositional discourses and a recognition that queer thought has not really surpassed the heteronormative paradigm. In defining queerness as the opposite of the heteronormative, the latter ends up being tied to the former, and even becomes weirdly dependent on it. Truly getting over modern heteronormativity requires defining queerness as something other than the purely non-heteronormative, thinking queerly in more transcendental ways, and pushing queer theory in challenging new directions.
Having laid out this vision at the outset, David then boldly implements it in the rest of the book. The second chapter, “African-American Queer Studies,” offers one of the best summaries of the various definitions of the word queer that I have ever read. But more importantly, it provides a critical introduction to a long-neglected body of literature, a much-needed genealogy of African-American queer thought which puts to shame anyone who believes that queerness and African-American identity are antithetical. David gives us informative readings of classic writers such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and bell hooks – and he also whets our appetite for exploring the work of modern African-American queer theorists, Philip Brian Harper and Robert Reid-Pharr. While all of these authors are concerned with analyzing and struggling against the combined weight of gender, racial and sexual oppression, David does a fine job of highlighting the often subtle differences between their approaches.
Chapter three, “Towards a Phenomenology of Gender Identity,” takes on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, two of queer theory’s most canonical thinkers. David argues boldly that “these theorists fail to offer a sufficient answer for how to overcome the oppressive [gendered and sexual] regimes they are exposing” (53). Having convincingly uncovered the historical contingency and tyrannical character of the current gender system, they are nevertheless painfully vague on how exactly it can be transformed. Foucault talks about moving people to engage in “the undefined work of freedom,” but hardly says anything further, while Butler urges people to destabilize the system by “perform[ing] subversive acts of gender parody” (53). These are hardly impassioned rallying calls, and according to David, “they have not even engendered a radical following on a small scale” (42).
To make matters worse, Butler fails to move beyond the scientific positivism that seems to be part-and-parcel of oppressive gender regimes. To support her argument that sex is a cultural category impregnated with assumptions about gender – and not the soulful and bodily essence producing gendered behavior – Butler relies mostly on textual analysis of the work of French feminist thinkers, such as Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig. But she realizes that this is not enough, that her “audience, academic and lay, wants evidence—cold, hard facts” (52). For her work to be applicable in reality, it cannot limit itself to the world of obscure academic texts. And to deal with this problem, Butler relies on scientific evidence – exactly the kind of move she herself has criticized. Near the end of Gender Trouble, she develops further groundwork for her claims by drawing on the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist. And in doing this, Butler again places science on a pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not the sexed and gendered binary is real. David thus identifies a hypocrisy at the core of Butler’s theory: she negates the validity of positivist science while lying in its bosom.
So where do we go from here? Can we overcome the dead-end in which Butler and Foucault seem to leave us? How should the current gender and sexual regime be challenged and how can we get over the continued obsession with positivist science that Butler subtly reinforces? As in the first chapter, David suggests that we should turn towards the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. He describes this approach as “a form of thick description of our experiences of the world [which] aims at uncovering the essences of our experiences as well as the structure of…consciousness itself” (53). Starting from the individual human subject and her life, and comparing/contrasting it with the life-experiences of as many others as possible, we can build up a knowledge of what is transcendentally true about sexuality and gender. Crucially, David emphasizes that this is not a search for the essence of – for example – what it means to be a woman or a homosexual. Rather, it is a revolutionary search for all those existential possibilities that gendered and sexed categories hold within them, one that is likely to uncover a multiplicity of possible identities, from genderqueers and ladyboys to men and women.
This challenge to established thinking in queer theory is laudable, a welcome revitalization of a drowsy academic debate. Nevertheless, it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. David argues that knowledge of gender and sexuality should be grounded in the sum of our individual experiences of these phenomena – but in putting forward this view, does he assume that all our experiences are of equal weight? In a world where heteronormative, misogynist, racist, ableist, classist, and cisnormative perspectives and practices are dominant, is there not a palpable risk that our experiences will be polluted by them? Or at least that it may be structurally difficult for marginalized experiences to be taken into account? Moreover – as fellow-blogger Julian Real has warned – what are the consequences of positing change in solely ideational or experiential terms? Will oppressive structures really be overthrown through a deeper analysis of our own and others’ experiences? And should we be ditching an oppositional queer framework, when heteronormativity is still in such a dominant position?
In the end, David’s book has left me with more questions than answers. But I am not disappointed: I am simply hungry for more. It is my hope that David and others will continue to take queer theory to new levels and to apply it in a variety of interesting domains, thus ensuring that it stays relevant in a rapidly changing world. The closing chapters of Thinking Queerly provide a glimpse at some possibilities for further exploration. And in dealing with subjects that are broader than gender and sexuality, David shows us that it is possible think queerly in many other areas of theoretical and practical life.
The fourth chapter, “What Levinas and Psychoanalysis Can Teach Other,” attempts to reconcile phenomenology and psychoanalysis, two philosophical traditions which have historically been at odds, by showing how they can actually complement each other. And in the final chapter, “Reading Responsibility in The Hours,” David gives us a beautiful interpretation of a classic film, while applying the seemingly incompatible ethical philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas to it. In this, he deftly combines Sartrean and Levinasian views of the essence of the ethical, showing through The Hours that it is found both in respect for one’s own inherent freedom, as well as in the responsibility we have for the fate of others.
Overall, in Thinking Queerly, David develops a treasure trove of useful resources. He turns a critical gaze on queer thought and exposes the dangers of a purely oppositional mindset. He also challenges canonical thinkers in queer theory, and moves beyond the poststructuralist critique by positing individual and collective experience as foundational for true knowledge of gender and sexuality. And in addition to these insightful contributions, he introduces us to long-neglected topics in academic and popular discourse, such as African-American queer studies, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis. But perhaps most importantly, David gives us a memorable lesson in heuristics: do not allow seemingly irreconcilable binaries to dominate your thinking – challenge them, try to bring them together, and you might find new worlds unfurling before your very eyes.
***For More Information***
David Ross Fryer is a Professor of Women’s Studies at Drexel University. In addition to Thinking Queerly, he has published a number of books and articles, including The Intervention of the Other: Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan. I highly recommend this book – although its title sounds very arcane, it provides an accessible introduction to these two thinkers, as well as a useful overview of recent developments in philosophy through the lens of the humanism/anti-humanism debate. Regarding the substantive issues that Thinking Queerly brings up, I have a hunch that Judith Butler’s somewhat veiled endorsement of positivist science has been reproduced elsewhere in queer theory – and certainly in my own writing. This could be an interesting area for further exploration. It might also be useful to read Thinking Queerly alongside Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. While these two books are radically different, they share a desire to move past certain roadblocks within queer theory and to put our individual and collective experiences of gender and sexuality front-and-center. You can read excerpts from Whipping Girl here and you might also want to check out the discussion that this book spawned on Below the Belt.
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David Ross Fryer was my teacher at university. His classes transformed my way of conceiving the world – they opened up theoretical and practical possibilities that seemed inconceivable within the social scientific framework that saturated the academic environment. And in doing so, they made me believe that new worlds, new ways of living, and new forms of gender and sexual existence could be created. They motivated me to sink my teeth into queer theory, feminism, and Continental Philosophy – but most importantly – they encouraged me to remain critical, to ask questions, and mistrust boundaries. David inspired me to think about how I live my life, how I relate to others, and what I do to combat oppression. My writing on Below the Belt is one of the fruits of that inspiration.
[Trigger warning: This post deals with virulent misogyny and violence against women.]
I had a whole post planned earlier this month about my challenges trying to reconcile genderqueer-ness with being female-bodied and a feminist. And then a gunman opened fire on US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, killing six people and critically wounding her. And I locked myself in my room, scared and horrified, and wept for hours. I cried because it was a tragedy, but also because it was entirely predictable; for many of us watching the US political scene, it confirmed that fact that the question had never been whether something like this would happen, but only when.
After the shootings, there was a lot of discussion of the shooter's mental health. But in the end, it doesn't matter whether the shooter was neurotypical or not; as an internet friend of mine pointed out, even people with paranoid schizophrenia do not make things up out of thin air, but are influenced by the culture around them. And in this case, the culture is not pretty. It is no coincidence that the Democratic Congressperson who was shot in a literal extension of the US right-wing's violent rhetoric is a woman.
But why just talk about Representative Giffords? Let's talk about Hilary Clinton, or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, or even Sarah Palin. Let's talk about the women in our entertainment who are killed off after their plot point is done, or the polytechnic students who were murdered here in Montreal 21 years ago, or, like, every feminist blogger in the history of everything, or the fact that most of the trans people who are murdered each year are women. To be a woman in this culture is to be on permanent display, and to be found wanting. And while men who hold divergent views or don't live up to expectations meet disapproval and disagreement, women who dare to transgress their patriarchy-assigned roles (which are, paradoxically, impossible to satisfy) must be put in their place. Witness the Playboy article that suggested “hate-fucking” was appropriate punishment for female politicians with whom their readers disagreed. Witness every single street harassment case where a woman's refusal of some guy's sexual advances is met with violent threats and, occasionally, action.
If you are a man, and you believe I'm blowing things out of proportion, ask your female friends what they think they should do to be safe if walking to their car in a dark garage. Compare it to what you'd do. Whether it's warranted or not, we are taught to be afraid. Constant fear is it's own kind of violence.
There are times when I think things are ok. After all, women in Western countries can drive, and work in almost any field (albeit at lower rates of pay than men), and choose who and whether to marry (most of the time), and vote, and access birth control (some of the time), and I have a number of male friends and colleagues who don't forget too often that I am actually a person too. And then my friend holds the door for me and I realize he doesn't think I'm as capable as he is, or I become suddenly aware of how short my skirt is and how high my heels are as I walk home, or a female politician I'd never even heard of is shot in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses. And then that little spark of fear that never quite goes away flares up again, and I am afraid.
And so, the next time someone tells me that feminism has accomplished its goals –– or that what women really need to be successful is to make more money — I'll laugh, and laugh, and laugh. And then I'll cry, because while the punishment for being female can still be death, the work of feminism is not fucking over.
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I was three paragraphs into my article about my holidays, mainly how being "out" and/or being "stealth" affected my treatment at the hands of other party guests, when the sharp stabby abdominal pain, now 26 hours strong, finally forced me to the floor, vomiting undigested pepto-bismol and calling everyone, anyone who had access to the sort of painkillers I purposely keep away from myself lest my mental anguish ever reach such nowhere-to-run, nowhere-to-hide state of agony.
Within a few hours I found myself hooked up to an IV and subjected to tests and machinations of the medicinal. It was determined I had acute cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder. I was scheduled for surgery the next morning, just three days into the new year. I tried not to think of it so much as losing an organ (albeit a totally useless one), and instead of learning a valuable lesson in how to maintain your dignity when insisting your trans identity be respected in a medical environment.
When I checked in I was asked what medications I was taking. I truthfully recited my hormones and their doses out of some strange sense of caution that has been cross-bred with pride for generations in hopes of appeasing me, the Monarch of Awkwardly Honest Land. I tried abdicating the throne just hours later, to no avail.
"Are you currently on any medications?"
"You don't seem so sure."
"Well, I'm on estrogen and spironolactone, for hormone replacement therapy, but I wasn't sure how relevant it was to my treatment."
Apparently it was mondo relevant, which is the equivalent of two and a half super relevants. My hormone therapy had likely agitated a pre-existing condition to the point where it required surgical intervention. I know this because three doctors, a nurse, and a surgeon told me. The only explanation I can come up with for why this fact needed to be repeated to me by various individuals over a course of two days is to shame me for trying to keep my transition a secret from the medical staff (albeit a poorly kept secret, as it was listed on my intake form), or to reprimand me for playing with nature, as many medical professionals have accused people in my position of doing. Either way you look at it, it's a hard sell. Look at it from my perspective. I'm developing the feminine features that aid in presenting my gender identity and I hastened the inevitable removal of an organ that might have ruptured and killed me. Give me some sunglasses and a clip of an 80's hit. I need to celebrate in freeze frame.
I can be nonchalant about it now because I survived the operation and have eaten my first big ass bowl of ice cream sans kaopectate, but at the time I was scared and in the most pain I'd ever felt in my life and what I really needed from my medical caregivers was reassurance and information and maybe a bedpan so I wouldn't need a dose of morphine to make it to and from the damn toilet. I didn't need to be blamed, however subtly, for what you perceive to be a misjudgment in body chemistry. I have a doctor, a therapist, and two clinics to make sure I don't walk on a landmine in my journey to grow into body and mind I'm comfortable with (and tame a unicorn, if applicable). Just shut up and take this ticking time bomb out of me before I die and your billing department has no one to bill for all this morphine I've consumed.
Is what I wish I said.
Instead I remained silent. Because I was in pain. Because I was terrified I wouldn't live through the operation, or denied it at the last moment because I couldn't pay, because I was trans, because my maniacal and delirious laughter at my first dose of morphine might suggest that I was just faking it all along. I let the doctors and surgeon say this shit to my face without so much as an eye roll of assertiveness. I didn't want to become one of those trans women left to die in the hospital that I had read about as I was first coming out and deciding if being happy with myself was worth my life (which it totally is, yanno, before we get too dark and depressing). And I didn't. They did the operation and I survived and here I am dancing to "I'm Not Your Toy" by La Roux in a friend's chair, which many will agree is the opposite of "dead in a hospital". My plan to be spineless in the face of criticism with the hopes of receiving the treatment that will save my life succeeded.
While I really need to focus on kicking the shit out of myself while I'm down, I will take a moment to say I wasn't in much of a position to advocate for myself, after you factor in the drugs being pumped into my bloodstream, the hunger and thirst from not being able to stomach anything without pain for over a day, and the pain and terror I was in. I can't stand up for myself and be curled in the fetal position on my girlfriend's lap, crying because deep down I'm worried I'll never see her again. But god damn it if I won't self-flagellate myself in hopes I can in the future.
When asked "if I had any questions" about the surgery, I asked how big a gall bladder was. I wasn't going to be any good for myself.
That's probably why I brought backup.
Throughout my hospital stay, my partner, my bff and their boyfriend all stayed with me in shifts so I wouldn't be alone. They impressed upon the nurses what name and pronoun I should go by, and corrected them when I was mis-identified. Eventually, all the nurses came to name and gender me properly, even the ones my visitors had no contact with. And unlike the anesthesiologist, who asked me when I was having "my transgender surgery" minutes before she put me under, no nurse asked me the details of my transition or operation status (though that might be because I was wearing a fucking hospital gown and that question could be answered with just a pinch of the fabric). While likely that this is due in part to nature of nurse profession and philsophy, which is to treat people rather than the illness or something like that I'm not a nurse so I wouldn't really know, I couldn't bring myself to overlook the importance of having people who validate my gender identity close to me during the process.
An uplifting and potentially informative ending to this ordeal? No angsty socratic questioning and letting the commenters sort it out? Yes, it's a new TCMV, for a new BTB, for a new year.
If you end up going to the hospital, bring your friends. Or bring your enemies, even, if they'll stand behind you and insist on you being treated with respect by medical caregivers. You, like me, might find yourself too racked with fear to stand up for yourself when going mono e mono with the doctors, but if you've got a posse you might be able to get them to give you that respect in a public setting.
Or maybe this won't apply to you. Maybe when you get checked into the ER or have your appendix removed, you'll stand where I laid down and contend for your rights. Or maybe the work of this current generation of activists can make it so you won't have to.
Or you do what I did, and cleverly time your exploding internal organ to coincide in the same week as your court date to change your name, and have your friends drag your vicodin'd, sutured and glued ass to lean shakily before the judge who approves your name change so when you go to your follow up appointment later in the month, you can make the hospital put your correct name and gender on file.*
*If you have forms from your physician who attests that you've completely transitioned to your current gender even though I haven't had bottom surgery SHHHHHHHHH don't tell anyone!
So add this to your collection of horror stories slash uplifting real life lessons involving trans persyns for when you find yourself in a similar situation and want to know what to expect.
And for those of you looking forward to my holiday essay and disappointed that it's not being posted, spoiler alert: I was treated better by people who read me as cis lesbian than those who read me as trans, even if those people had known me for years. BIG SURPRISE YEAH THAT REQUIRES A WHOLE TWO PAGE OP/ED.
BTB needs a lot of work for the new year. We need more contributors, more multimedia, more everything. There's a lot of shit going on. The blog, much like myself, needs some time to reach battle operational.
Then it's back to the fray.
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With the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, there's been a lot of talk of the “success” of the American gay/GLBT movement, and questions about where to go next. Alex Blaze, at The Bilerico Project, recently pointed out that straight* support for queer rights only goes as far as erasing the most obvious markers of discrimination (marriage equality, exclusion from the military, perhaps adoption rights or immigration rights). The deeper quality of life issues, he argued, will only be fought for by queer folks themselves. Gender policing, workplace discrimination, lack of media representation, generally speaking, the oppressive heteronormativity of our society – these are things that cis straight people are neither well-equipped to notice, nor particularly interested in dismantling. But it's amazing how internalized these assumptions can be, to the point that even many LGBT activists cannot conceive of advancing queer liberation very much farther than straight allies.
This point was brought home to me several months ago by a service at Washington, D.C.'s All Souls' Unitarian Universalist Church last year. All Souls' is a welcoming church: at the time, they had two gay/lesbian pastors, were deeply involved in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in D.C,, hosted a gay men's group and other queer-oriented discussions, and otherwise supported the large minority of queer parishioners. But none of that prepared me for my shock when the pastor used the story of two male partners as the core of a sermon on love and relationships – and the only example of romantic love. The mainstream LGBT rights movement focuses on allowing queer people to participate in heteronormative culture. Sometimes we advocate for better representation in the media – better meaning more proportional to the size of the LGBT population, more positive in the straight majority's eyes, more in line with mainstream LGBT movement goals. Rarely, if ever, do we think that queer people could, or should, be role models for the rest of society.
Even LGBT rights activists often buy into the myth that what's good for the majority must be good for everyone. Add to that the need to be politically palatable, and we find a lot of heteronormativity in mainstream LGBT activism. But I know that I, too, moderate my presentation, and maybe even my goals and aspirations, so as not to make straight people too uncomfortable. I think most of us do so, consciously or not. I don't just mean staying closeted out of a real fear of violence – which is understandable – but rather censoring yourself about the rather wild queer party last night so as not to support the idea that queer people are degenerate, and nodding along with talk of “when you're married with kids...” because it's too much effort to disrupt everything by saying that you don't believe in marriage and plan to live in a queer poly household where any children will be by adoption only. The other day, I hesitated before recommending a book to a friend because, well, it has mostly queer characters, and maybe my friend didn't want to read about them. I think we expect queer people to identify with straight protagonists (because they're the default, don'tchaknow, and so they stand for everybody), but believe it would be too much to ask straight people to identify with queers. When we do this, we're still positioning ourselves as less than our straight counterparts.
This is why I burst into tears at that Valentine's day service, hearing someone say to a straight audience: let these men be an example to you, and know that their relationship is worthy not because it is an imitation of yours, but because they are humans, doing what humans do – forming relationships and loving and fucking – and doing their best to do it with honesty and integrity and respect. I think we need to remember, in our queer communities, that our worth cannot be earned by trying to play someone else's game. We are already worthy by the simple fact of our being human. Our feelings, our ambitions, our ways of acting and interacting – these are all legitimate, and worthy of respect. Can we imagine a world in which our diversity of experiences and desires are valued and supported, instead of trying to stretch the normative model a tiny bit wider so a few more people can squeeze in? I want to hear your thoughts and dreams – how would the world look if you could fully be who you want to be? And what steps can we take toward that goal?
Hat/tip to my friends at Against Equality, who helped me first think about where the mainstream “Equality” paradigm went wrong. And they're planning a speaking tour for the spring, so perhaps you can hear them yourselves!
* I'm using the word “straight” here to mean non-queer. There are many heterosexual people who consider themselves part of the queer spectrum (being trans-, kinky, poly, gender non-conforming, etc.); they are not who I mean here.
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This post comes out of a lively debate about the differences between radical activism and academia that I have been having with fellow-blogger Julian Real. The discussion started after I posted some comments on Andrea Dworkin's book, Pornography, which you can read here. To see Julian's response to my original post, please click here. And also click here, to read my answer to Julian, as well as his reply. The post below starts by attempting to answer the following question that Julian posed: What do you wish to do about rape, genocide, and poverty on Below the Belt?
Below the Belt can do a limited number of things about rape, genocide and poverty. Only about 30% of the world's population currently has access to the Internet and an even smaller percentage of Internet users speak English. Therefore, on a global scale, Below the Belt cannot directly affect the lives of the poorest people and the most oppressed - those who have to struggle on a daily basis for survival, for food, water, shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. Its immediate impact is limited to those who have access to the Internet and to those who are fluent in English. This is, on a world scale, a relatively wealthy minority. And I think all bloggers should be conscious of this - whatever they publish online is only directly accessible to a small number of people, usually those who are rich enough to have the Internet, a global "elite" of sorts. This is not to say that groups and individuals within this "elite" are not subject to systematic rape, poverty, or the risk of being killed, but that they are (relatively speaking) in a privileged position vis-a-vis the majority of humans around the world.
Does this mean that Below the Belt and other blogs can do absolutely nothing about the worst forms of oppression? I do not think so. We can influence the way that those who are relatively privileged think and act towards the most oppressed and towards issues of oppression. I cannot speak for everyone on Below the Belt (we have a variety of writers - all with different goals), but in my writing, I want to do two things: (1) to examine and critique ideas that form the foundation for oppressive practices, with the aim of getting people to think about how they think about the world; and (2) to provide an introduction to some issues in gender studies, feminism, queer theory, history, and philosophy - a sort of 'Gender Studies 101'.
You might say that this an anti-radical, anti-activist, anti-anti-oppression agenda, but I don't agree. Let's take the issue of genocide. What needs to happen in order for a genocide to occur? There needs to be an elite willing to slaughter an entire group of people, a specialized 'armed group' to carry out the majority of the killings (I'm thinking of the Einsatzgruppen during the holocaust or the Interahamwe in Rwanda), a majority of the non-target population brainwashed into staying silent or participating in the slaughter (with dissenters murdered or tortured), a sufficient military buildup, development of ways of identifying the people to be killed (I.D. cards, badges, and other symbols), an animalization/de-humanization of the target group (in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as Inyenzi or cockroaches), assurance that no other state or international organization will intervene to stop the bloodshed etc...
In addition to all of this, and perhaps prior to it, something has to happen at the ideational level. Both the elites organizing the slaughter and the masses co-opted into it need to be able to believe that a certain ethnic/religious/national/gender category is capable of doing things as a group - that the individuals within it are all virtually the same, with the same biological characteristics (usually biologically inferior, but sometimes also with some laudable aspects, e.g. - Hitler occasionally showed admiration for ‘the cunning' of the Jews), and that they have all signed a social contract with each other to support certain nefarious activities against "the state" or against some other entity: "the Jews" or "the Tutsis" or "the Women" or "the Indians" all have the same aims and the same goals, they are all "in league" with each other. Genocide and ethnic cleansing depend to an extent on our capacity to think about large groups in a particular way, to reduce individuals to their collective identities, to believe that ethnic/gender/national etc.. groups can actually behave in unison, all with the same purposes and with the same goals.
What I aim to do on Below the Belt is to criticize conceptions such as these and thereby challenge the ways of thinking that form the foundation for oppressive practices. I want to get people to think about how they think about the world, how they think about others, how they think about other(ed) categories of gender, nationality, race, sex, and ethnicity. This isn't as important as providing material resources (food, shelter, or arms) to people who are at risk of genocide, undermining the flow of such material to the genocidaires, exposing the existence of genocide, mobilizing international public opinion against the actions of the oppressors, or getting international organizations to develop mechanisms for stopping mass slaughter. But it is still a worthwhile endeavor. Genocide will be harder to undertake, harder to justify, and it will be harder to co-opt people into genocide, if ideas about the ontological validity of fundamental national/gender/ethnic/religious characteristics are discredited.
Andrea Dworkin herself recognized that the ways we conceive of the world (the ideas we have about other subjects and objects) are crucial enablers of genocide. In the essay you recommended for me, "Biological Superiority: the World's Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea," Dworkin rejects matriarchal arguments about the biological superiority of women to men because she recognizes that such a theorization of an entire gendered category could lay the groundwork for genocide against it - this has already happened to women all over the world, would it really be a good thing if something similar could happen to men? I completely agree with Dworkin in this case, but I would extend her argument: it is not just ideas about the biological superiority or inferiority of particular national/ethnic/gendered groups, but sweeping generalizations about the supposed immutable “character” (whether cultural, biological, or political) of these categories that can form the basis for genocide or ethnic cleansing. In practice, the cultural and political generalizations are never really that distinct from the biological generalizations – but ultimately, they can have similar effects.
I realize that there are some serious problems with this argument, because people do do things in groups. I am just now doing some research about Iceland and I’m looking into how, in the 19th Century, wealthy landowning farmers developed a social system which guaranteed them a steady supply of cheap labor. In order to get permission to marry and own land, ordinary people had to earn a certain amount of money, and basically, the only way they could earn it in such an isolated and rural country was to become paid servants to landowning farmers. The farmers collectively kept wages low, which meant that poor Icelanders would have to work for them from at least their mid-teens until their thirties, thus providing a steady supply of cheap labor and keeping their profits high. Clearly, “the landowning farmers” created a social system that functioned to support their material interests. People can and do act collectively – but can they really do so in extremely large groups, such as nations and genders? And what are the consequences of imbuing such big collectives with sweeping generalizations? Does it set the stage for ethnic cleansing or genocide? At what point do broad statements about "group characteristics" become dangerous? I don’t really know how to solve this problem (aside from marshalling the rather primitive distinction between "small" and "big" groups or drawing on the difference between "organized interests" and "identity categories"), and I would appreciate any insights you or other readers may have, as well as any guidance about writers who have tried to wrestle with this issue.
Nevertheless, I do want to note that I have not acquired these ideas about genocide, generalizations, and collective identity through academia, but mainly through the personal experience of living in a context in which genocide and ethnic cleansing were quite close to home. I am, unfortunately, very familiar with the kinds of mindsets and theorizing that it takes to justify mass slaughter of a different nationality. Contrary to your assumptions, I am not from the United States, although I did go to university there. I bring this up because you seem to think that I am invested in the U.S. liberal academic project with my heart and soul, and that all my ideas emanate from it. I realize that my recent writing does give a very academic impression, given how full it is of citations, academic protocol, technical language, and academic authors. But it was never my intention to be a parrot of U.S. academia, and I am sorry to have made myself seem like that.
About the U.S. academic project, I do agree with you that it is, in general, about maintaining the status quo. In many cases, it also directly links into supporting U.S. global hegemony, the spread of capitalism, developing technology for the U.S. military, and a whole host of other atrocities. Nevertheless, I would argue that while academic institutions are thoroughly involved in upholding things as they are, individuals within academia are able to use the resources of their position for liberatory and subversive ends. Being an academic means being bestowed with astounding privilege – with the time to gather information, to read, to think, to write, and to speak on a variety of subjects. It is rarely the intention of the institutions, or the people and organizations that fund them, to allow this level of freedom. And while they often succeed in curtailing it, some individual academics have been able to use the time and money that they have been given as a platform from which to inform people and move them to action.
For example, Judith Butler has spoken and written eloquently about recent conflicts in the Middle East and she has also recently refused a prize at the Berlin Gay Pride Parade, after speaking with Muslim queer activists and hearing their stories of oppression within the German mainstream LGBTQ movement – thus bringing attention to the problem of Islamophobia in queer communities. Many of the people you cite on your blog are academics – bell hooks, Catherine MacKinnon, Patricia Hill Collins – which gives me some hope that there will continue to be space in academia for radical, liberatory voices. Although, as you point out, the situation is getting more difficult, with cuts to public education funding limiting academic posts, with increasing corporate sponsorship of academia, and with the internet providing more opportunities for surveillance and censorship of people’s voices - it seems that the potential for inspirational and transformative education within academia is unfortunately diminishing by the day.
And it has also diminished in the broader society, with the mainstream media cutting off radical activists’ access to the public – in this case, I also very much agree with you. But I don’t think at all that radical activists are bad at expressing themselves, or that the increasing poverty of political discourse is in any way their fault – did I say anything to suggest otherwise? And if I point out that radical critiques of society should indicate pathways for getting out of hell, how is this "seeing what activists do and don’t do as the problem"? Or blaming the victim? I am really not saying that the reason oppression still exists is because of things activists have or have not done. There are many reasons for this – very few of which have to do with the people working practically for change. The reason I like to encourage radicals to develop theories that leave open possibilities for change and to develop solutions for the problems they describe is because not doing so could lead to a resigned pessimism of the following type: "the powers that be are the powers that be, they are evil and all-powerful… but there is little that you and I can do about it, things will most likely stay the same." Noam Chomsky’s writing about U.S. hegemony does this, to an extent. I would argue that Dworkin’s Pornography also risks inspiring such an attitude. But what I am definitely not saying is that it is the fault of people like Noam Chomsky and Andrea Dworkin that things are the way the are.
As you probably gathered from my discussion above, I don’t subscribe to a sharp distinction between "thinking" and "acting." Thinking, reading, and speaking are, in a literal sense, actions. And in order to inspire people to act, you first have to get them to think. The Andrea Dworkin books that I have read are all about showing people a different way of perceiving the world and thinking about it than what is presented to them in the mainstream. It is about exposing the systematized violence and harm that societal discourses generally keep out of view. This inspires people to act – but before they act, they have to think. Otherwise, they would be automatons, robots, flinching instinctively at every juncture. Perhaps this should be the natural response to violence and oppression, perhaps it should not be necessary to think about it, perhaps it should just instinctively feel wrong and inspire a reflex action (akin to burning oneself on a stove). But unfortunately, this does not happen often enough, and in order to realize the reality of racism, patriarchy, genocide, and rape, people have to "un-think" years of socialization. Getting people to think more, to think about how they think, and to think differently is part-and-parcel of inspiring them to act – the two projects cannot be separated.
A similar logic can also be used to deal with this very important question, that you posed:
"I'll bet you that there are far more books on 'how to critique the idea of gender' in Academia right now than there are on "how to end male supremacy". Why? I'd be interested to know why you think that is the case, and what the function of such anti-activist 'gender discourse' is, politically/socially?"
I do agree that, right now, books and articles on "critiquing the idea of gender" are much more prominent in academia than work on ‘how to end male supremacy’. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, I think that a number of feminist theorists have adopted the view that male supremacy and female subordination may be embedded in the way we conceive of gender itself. The way that the binary gender system sets up males and females as inevitable "polar opposites" and embeds oppressive distinctions between the sexes such as strong/weak, big/small, powerful/powerless, basically assures a priori that females will be oppressed. Since females are portrayed – by definition – as the opposite of males, the discourse will ensure that they remain "the second sex." I have dealt with this issue in some of my previous posts (see "Gender As Discourse," and "Strong Man, Weak Woman"). I don’t think that activists and academics who have moved towards critiquing the idea of gender do not care about ending the subordination of women – they are looking for the root causes of it. Undermining modern discourses about gender, and encouraging the creation of a gendered world that transcends the current binary is, in my view, not a separate project from combating male domination.
Secondly, the popularity of "critiquing the idea of gender" also has to do with increased concern for ending violence against people who do not identify within the binary gender system and those who do not meet expectations of masculinity and femininity. Transgender people and others who fall outside the current gender structure cannot even claim an existence for themselves under the current rules, and feminine men and masculine women live in constant terror of the threat of violence. However, it is important to note that the violence is aimed disproportionately at feminine men, transfeminine people and at femininity in general, which suggests that homophobia and sissyphobia are basically misogyny, enacted on male-bodied people. This is not to say that masculine women and transmasculine people do not face their own struggle against violence, but that the attacks on femininity are often much more intense, savage, and systematic. Some feminists, by focusing on the category of "woman" as the sole subject of feminism, ended up not paying enough attention to those who do not identify as either men or women or who are identified by others as somehow not in line with these categories.
Nevertheless – I do see how post-structuralist critiques of the idea of gender can be almost completely irrelevant in the context of, for example, a rape crisis center, female genital mutilation, or the fostering of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. For the raped and battered woman, gender is unfortunately all too real and dithering on about its social construction may not be helpful (although, admittedly, understanding gender as a product of oppressive social forces, rather than natural instincts, may help to deal with the trauma). Ultimately, while the “here-and-now” work of ending gendered violence – and violence in general – may draw on some academic ideas, it is not at all dependent on them. And the dominance of the "critiquing the idea of gender" view in academia has served to divert attention away from practical efforts to combat the continuing structural violence against women and feminine persons, from the struggles for liberation waged by feminists around the world, and from the connections between movements for environmental sustainability, racial justice, and women’s survival. Academia has betrayed activism – there is no doubt about this. Academics are, as such, unwittingly complicit with those who wish to continue the violence, the oppression, the hatred, and the murder.
But this does not mean that we should completely discard intellectual responses to oppression! As I outlined in my discussion of genocide above, there is a place for both the practical work of ensuring that mass slaughter does not happen (providing resources to populations likely to be affected, giving out humanitarian aid, developing international institutional mechanisms to prevent genocide) and the intellectual work of critiquing the ideas and world-views that make large-scale killing conceivable and possible in the first place. Ideally, the two should not be separated and they should work in tandem, although I do see how, in a condition of primary emergency, the “here-and-now” work of ensuring the killing is prevented and helping the (potential) victims is more important. I believe that, in academia and in the broader society, there should be a place for practical activist work on ending oppression and for the more theoretical endeavor of thinking about the ideas and conditions that make structural violence possible. It is unacceptable that the former is currently marginalized and this situation needs to be changed.
On the subject of post-structuralism, I don’t think that ideas about the normative foundations for (and functions of) empirical claims are entirely useless for activists. The way that I was laying out my position on this issue was far too depoliticized, and I see how you could have perceived my point of view as fundamentally impractical and nihilistic. When I said that different empirical claims about how the world "is" are tied to normative ideas about how the world "should be," I should have added that empirical world-views are index-linked to specific power-political interests, often buttressing oppressive social structures. Thus, supposedly "empirical" claims about women’s physical and intellectual capacities have served to ensure that women remain physically weaker than men and that they are excluded from academic, scientific and political positions. Activists could therefore use post-structuralist ideas about the connection between ideas about how the world "is" and nefarious political goals in order to undermine the worldviews that form some of the foundations of structural inequality. I certainly don’t think that oppression originates in the improper "exchange" of ideas, nor do I believe that ideas are "freely exchanged." Rather, I would argue that one of the primary ways that structural inequalities of power are maintained is through the propagation of ideas about reality that have the function of upholding them, that make them seem invisible, and that make them appear natural.
In my work, I aim to evaluate claims about "reality" not only on the extent to which are truthful but also on the basis of whose interests and which normative goals they will uphold. I therefore support any depictions of reality which uphold the interests of women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and non-whites. This does not mean that I view things like whether patriarchy exists or whether American Indians are under assault as "debatable" – and this is a charge that is often thrown at people engaging in post-structuralist analysis: "you doubt whether the sky is really blue and you might even believe that pigs can fly." This is not at all the case, and I think it is a profound misreading of post-structural theory (caused in some cases by the obscurity of the kind of writing this theory inspires). But while there is no need to debate the existence of patriarchy or the oppression of non-whites, there are questions about these phenomena that are definitely worth much consideration, the answers to which will directly impact how they are dealt with: what causes patriarchy? Through which mechanisms does it work? Does it exist in all societies, and if not, under what conditions has it not existed? Why is it currently in place? What are the causes of racism? Why does it exist and how does it work? Getting to the vital issue – "what is to be done?" – first requires thinking about and responding to some of the questions such as the ones I enumerated above.
I am also by no means requesting that Andrea Dworkin and others put forward their positions solely in “this-is-how-I-see-it” terms. I do not see worldviews and theories as being a "personal" thing, with each individual having their own unique way of seeing things. This would be to deny the social nature of knowledge and to make all claims about the world contingent purely on individual experience. Rather, what I noticed in Dworkin’s approach is a long-standing tradition in Western (especially liberal and capitalist) thought of conceptualizing individuals as rational actors, seeking to minimize costs and maximize benefits. I also noticed that, in line with social contract theory, Dworkin imbued very large collectives with the capacity to form informal pacts, think rationally, and operate for their own survival. I am sorry if I gave this impression – but I was not critiquing the views laid out in Pornography because they were Dworkin’s personal views, or because they were the views of a white woman, but rather because those views were based on certain ontological assumptions about human nature and society which have a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy and with which I have disagreements – this is as much a critique of Dworkin as it is a critique of, for example, Adam Smith or Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Rawls. I was also not criticizing Dworkin’s views so that I, as a "white man" (for the record, I don’t identify as a "man"), can claim objectivity and ownership of the way the world really "is." My post was written in the style of a philosophy-student-cum-wannabe-academic: you might think that this is an oppressive identity to take on, or that this is the identity that "white men" who want to author reality adopt. There is truth to this, but as I described above, there is also a positive side to academic intellectual thought and this is what I want to be a part of on Below the Belt.
(...to the full post)
Reports of my banishment to the Phantom Zone have been greatly exaggerated. Rather, I was drafted for a tour of duty in the North Pole, taking pictures of crying children with Santa for peanuts.
Last month, I held a benefit for myself, called "Apocalypstick Now", to help cover living and medical expenses so I could continue my activism work in the Bay Area and not relocate to my mother's house in Phoenix, AZ. A few days before the event, I received a message from Mira Bellwether, asking if I'd like a free copy of FTW #0 in lieu of a monetary donation.
After reading it, I am sure you will agree that this was very much like Stephen Hawking offering you an advanced copy of A Brief History Of Time because he couldn't make it to your symposium. Or maybe you won't. Maybe you didn't read A Brief History Of Time, and you aren't going to for a while, because you need to read this first.
This is the most important ongoing work on trans female sexuality ever. No takebacksies.
Mira not only agreed to come on BTB and pop off some good shit about sex and gender, but she has enabled my dream of being a zine writer by letting me contribute to a future issue FTW. Oh, here's the website. You might need that. -- TCMV
1) What prompted you to create FTW? Was it born of a desire to create a resource or were there more personal motives at play?
Several different factors motivated me to start "Fucking Trans Women." Most basically, I wanted to start talking to other trans women about our sex lives, and I wanted to write it all down so that we could share that knowledge and conversation. I would include that among "personal motives" but it's also a desire to create a resource. Certainly some of my desire to create the zine came from wanting to inform and introduce potential and current lovers to topics that directly affect my own sex life.
I wanted my lovers to have resources that they didn't already have, and I also wanted a resource of my own and ideas from other trans women. I have a strong desire to create a community resource developed by trans women coming from very different places, but really that came after the initial motivations. Certain teaching moments and difficult interruptions in sex prompted the more pointed or urgent pieces: it seems that I am forever introducing lovers to thinking about soft penises and about sperm; that I'm always having a 101 type conversation about pregnancy or about erections when I really just want to get on with it. Some of this is due to who I tend to fuck: mostly cis women and some trans men, and more rarely some gay cis men. But across the board sexual partners seem to be very ill-prepared for having sex with trans women. Soft penises are a particular sticking point because our culture defines the sexuality and prowess of a penis by its hardness. Size, yes, but something large and soft is not nearly so desired as a penis at any size that is consistently erect on command.
I find that my sexual partners come from a range of experiences but their knowledge is generally quite limited when it comes to trans women. It's very rare that I date or have sex with folks who have experience with other trans women, especially more than one or two trans women. Much of the information and experience that is necessary to having good sex with me is simply not widely disseminated information. At least so far, trans women have not been particularly good at communicating and disseminating information about our sex lives. Whether with other trans women or with everyone else, we don't usually talk about sex in informative and instructive ways, When I was researching the zine I felt that I must be missing something, that there must be a treasure trove of information out there that I was missing. And perhaps there still is, but in truth I don't think it exists. That's why this zine needs to exist.
More than one of my lovers has lamented that they wished they had a reference manual for my body, at least as a departure point, and that has played a large part in its development. Most of the people I have sex with have never had to seriously consider the possibility of a woman impregnating them, for example, or the idea that a soft, biological penis is a receptive pleasure center. Some of my past lovers had never had anal sex, gone down on a penis, or touched semen.
A certain amount of basic education is necessary. And because topics like these are so erratically discussed, if at all, a basic guide and an ongoing conversation is exactly what we need, Trans women, of course, have a wide variety of bodies and genitalia. But whatever our bodies are like, it's helpful for our lovers to have some bearing and understanding of what's going on in our pants. That isn't the same as knowing how boys' penises work, nor is it the same as knowing how cis women's bodies work, although being informed on both is certainly helpful. Part of my goal is therefore to create a resource specifically for trans women, drawn from our own knowledge and experience.
There were, of course, other motivations for creating "Fucking Trans Women" that are frankly a little depressing. It's a common complaint among the trans women I know that lovers either have to be educated or have prior experience, or else sex is probably going to suck. You hear horror stories, and you experience horror stories. It's no fun being told by a lover that they want you to fuck them because they fantasize about "being dominated by a man." It's no fun revealing your sexy parts to someone who responds "wow, it's been a while since I've seen one of those." The wildly inaccurate assumptions that I've encountered regarding my sexual activities and practices and desires certainly prompted me to begin writing down all the things I never wanted to be asked again, comments that I never needed to hear again, and questions that needed to be put to bed with a definitive answer. To a certain extent banishing bad sexual practices that are caused by ignorance is a motivating factor. Or as one friend put it, getting really sick of bad blowjobs.
There are all sorts of cold-shower-comments and questions that we can and should address in public, documented discussions rather than trusting to impromptu pillow talk. Why is the "101" conversation so annoying? Because so much is riding on it, because it usually happens at the worst time possible, and because it can feel repetitious. Why should we have to explain everything on the fly? Why not have something to point to and say "here, check this out." Or better yet, something that our lovers will have already read, so that they come to a conversation prepared to discuss personal desires and preferences rather than very basic questions and assumptions. Those are the kinds of questions I want to talk about with my lovers, because really I'm much more interested in having sex than in giving monologues.
I should reiterate the role that my lovers had in instigating this project. Many, many hours of conversation with past and present lovers have contributed to this zine. Beginning with statements that begin "I wish I would have known..." all the way through my writing process and publication, these are the folks who gave me the most support and the best ideas. I wish I could give equal credit to other trans women, but with a few delightful exceptions most other trans women I know have been quiet on the topic, no matter how much I poke and prod. That's a sign to me that the zine needs to exist, and needs to continue on, because clearly sex is a topic that we're not entirely comfortable talking about.
2) Though an e-zine, FTW #0 has an unmistakable "cut and paste" aesthetic telltale of the older generation of paper and ink zines. Can you explain how and why you gave it this look?
There are at least two answers to that question. One is basically "money." Let's start with money.
There is a very simple explanation for why the Zero issue has the look of something cut and pasted together, and that's because it was. I did the entire initial layout with paper and scissors and glue sticks, and then scanned it all into my computer. From there I edited it several more times using the very basic tools I had at my disposal. I don't have a ton of experience using either photoshop or layout tools, and I was making do with very little.
I do prefer the aesthetic of older zines made in this fashion, but at the time I was making it my own aesthetic preferences weren't the motivating factor. The deciding factor was money. I was working with a barely-functional computer with a cracked LCD screen and a budget of about $80, all donated by friends. I was (and still am) unemployed, and was at the point of quite literally begging for glue sticks and paper from friends and family so that I could assemble a zine. The decision to distribute the zine digitally was also a cost-saving measure. The cost of running the website and various fees for payments is much less than printing several hundred copies and trying to distribute them through the mail or in person. At present I don't operate the zine for profit, all of the sales and donations go right back into the zine itself, including gathering the capital for (hopefully) a print run of the next issue. But sales and donations also pay for the tools to make the zine. Initially that was glue sticks and paper and print cartridges, but since the Zero issue went on sale I've been able to make some repairs to my laptop and acquire some software. But you know, I do think that the aesthetic will probably remain much the same for issue #1, for an entirely different reason, even though I'm not exactly raking in the dough.
The other major reason for the zine's aesthetic is that it brings to mind an earlier time in queer and women's movements when paper zines were the best tools readily and cheaply available for distributing information. During an excursion to the archives I discovered zines by trans women from the late 60s and early 70s, which is really quite remarkable considering just how short a time transsexual women have existed in the public imagination. What's equally remarkable is that the things we talk about to each other have not substantially changed. I'm not just talking about the problems we face not shifting, I'm saying that our discourse has really not advanced very far in the past 50 years. The majority of written or otherwise documented discourse among trans women is really very limited and focuses by and large on identity and theory and rights, not shared goals or building community or being into who we are in substantial, sustained, and shared ways. As we all know, there's also a TON of internet debate that boils down to "why I don't like other trans women" and "someone said something offensive." I don't want to get into a lengthy critique, so for the sake of brevity I'll make a comparison instead.
Consider what trans men have done with media in the past fifteen years, or even the past five, and then compare some of those achievements with what trans women have done. We have done less. No doubt some of our achievements, especially individual achievements, have been spectacular, but on the whole I see us lagging behind tremendously. Another comparison I would make is between the organizational and artistic efforts of trans women in the last 50 years and the work done by cis feminists and/or queers. Now, to be fair, there aren't as many of us as there are cis women or queers by a long shot, and we're often quite widely dispersed, but nonetheless, what have we got to show for ourselves? That question will make some people bristle and no doubt several examples of the awesome things we're doing will immediately come to mind. But really, let's take stock. Why is it not possible for us to have something like "Original Plumbing"? And I think the answer to that question is probably cynicism and negativity and lots and lots of shame.
Even the most radical, the most gorgeous, the most productive, and the most self-assured of my trans women friends still have doubts that it's possible for us to create our own art and media and shape our own images. My go-to example of this comes from a friend, an artist and a performer, who mentioned during a conversation that she "couldn't take pictures of naked trans women and hang them in the Lexington Club. There's already a name for that: it's shemale porn." I was truly taken aback by this statement. If anyone could make that project happen, she would definitely be on my short list of artists who could do it amazingly well. But also I was surprised by the sheer negativity of her appraisal. Not only did she say that she "couldn't" do it, she was implying that it couldn't be done, and even if it were, the art that would be produced would be pornographic by nature.
What that moment said to me was that we are behind. We have a lot of catching up to do in terms of self-esteem, building community, and taking control of our images. Part of that work is to create space for trans women to be sexual without being reduced to our sexuality. And there's really only one way to do that, which is to start making our own self-representations that include our sexuality. That's part of the impetus for the zine, and part of the reason for its aesthetic. I think perhaps we need to be reminded that we're working with the same problems that cis women were dealing with in the late 70s and early 80s and are still tangling with today. The "virgin or whore" duality applies just as much to us as it does to cis women, and lashing out at any representation that either sexualizes us or desexualizes us is NOT going to help. So I think, let's remind ourselves aesthetically as well as discursively that much of what we're working on aren't new problems. They've been dealt with before, and we're lucky that we have examples to draw from. Writing off feminism and queer politics because they haven't embraced us in the past isn't doing us any favors, especially because we can learn so much from what has come before. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, most of the time we just need to modify it to better suit our own needs.
So why choose an aesthetic that brings to mind an older generation of activism? Because we could use the reminder that entire generations of activism have gone before and have made a lot of progress on goals that we're still too timid to even consider realistic, like being sexual without being reduced to our sexuality. We need the reminder.
3) FTW #0 is to my memory the first discourse on sexual activity that actually talks about engaging with a soft, unerect penis. Why do you think others have shied away from this subject, leading to an "erect penis only" philosophy in most sexual discourse?
The short, harsh answer to this question is that in the public imagination a limp penis is considered worthless, or an unfunny joke. As I mention in the zine, the operating word here is phallocentrism, a term that (much like the cut and paste format of the zine) is perhaps a little unfashionable, and brings to mind angry second-wave feminists. Well, good. Again, we could use the reminder that others have been here before, even if they weren't interested in exactly the same issues.
Why don't sex writers talk about soft penises? Because they lack the imagination and/or the drive to think about them sexually. It's unimaginable that a penis could be both sexual and soft. The quintessential sign of a sexual penis is an erection, and without it there'd nothing to talk about, at least as far as they are concerned. Why don't sex writers talk about soft penises? Because our culture is still phallocentric. It is obsessed with penile hardness and penetration.
That's my answer to the question you asked. The question that you didn't ask that I'm going to answer anyway is why I *did* write about soft penises when no one else does.
This was one of the first topics that I simply knew had to be in the first issue to make me happy, because it's a subject that's been on my mind since I was a child. In the zine I tell a story about my first experience measuring my own penis at a very young age out of fears of inadequacy, and measuring it soft instead of hard because that's the way I generally experienced my penis, as all penis-having individuals do. Penises are soft 98% of the time, and I am a sexual being 100% of the time, even if I don't feel like having sex at a given moment. Overwhelmingly, my penis is soft most of the time.
I would say that most writers on sex think of the penis as a sort of container for erections, and that erections are the real sex organ. They would say that to have sex you have to "achieve" an erection and then bring it to the point of orgasm, which is more or less the same thing as ejaculation. And at that point, one sex act is presumed to be complete.
This is not how I think about penises. I think of them first and foremost as organs of pleasure, designed to receive as well as give pleasure, but for the moment let's concentrate on receiving. It can be counter intuitive to think of the penis as a receptive organ, particularly because we usually think of it erect. But once you think of a soft penis, it's easy to see how it can be a receptive organ. With one or two differences, biological penises are almost identical structurally to biological clitorises: spongy tissue interspersed with an extremely high density of nerve fibers and nerve endings. They develop from exactly the same tissues in a fetus and contain approximately the same number of nerve endings, despite what the Vagina Monologues may have led you to believe. (Those in the penis are not as concentrated in the glans but are dispersed more widely through the shaft.) The tissues that make up the penis are by default extremely elastic, soft, and sensitive. Nerves don't stop working when a penis is not erect. And once you banish the assumption that penises only work when they are erect, it's remarkably easy to imagine a variety of ways of stimulating their sexy parts and giving them pleasure: orally, manually, with any number of vibrators or sensations. It's more difficult for most penises to reach orgasm soft, but in my opinion that's a question of habit.
I think this is a particularly important topic for trans women because we don't always feel fantastic about our genitalia. I think some of the reason for that discomfort is that we, along with our sexual partners, make determinations and assumptions about how we ought to have sex based on our biology. We think about genitals prescriptively, about what they should do, rather than descriptively, in terms of what they actually do.
Simply put, part of the project of FTW is to write about the bodies and sex lives of trans women descriptively.
4) Do you, as a writer on sex and a sexual educator, agree with the idea that there is an inherent "sexphobia" in the trans community that prevents us from having meaningful, informative discussions on intimacy, and do you see FTW as a means to challenge fear or ignorance around sex in the community?
I wouldn't call the sexphobia I see an "inherent" part of either being a trans woman or having community with other trans people. Again, look at what the trans guys are up to. They're able to objectify themselves and each other in ways that feel good, or positive, or inspiring, and at the same time are having conversations about non-consensual objectification and fetishization. These are very similar to some of the conversations I see happening between trans women, but what we *don't* have yet is an organized effort to take back our own sexualities and sexual representations. That is to say, we need to be able, and to feel able, to make our own art, write about our own sex lives, and in general start representing ourselves.
I think that there's a strong taboo against talking sex, and that comes from several places. Most of them are historical precedents: reasons for not talking about our sex lives that, in the past, made a great deal more sense than they might today, or that make much more sense in a clinical/medical context than they do socially. There have been times, and there are still times and places, when talking about your sex life honestly could disqualify you from a surgery or from receiving proper medical treatment. That's real, but luckily I think that mode of medical and psychological care is on the way out. This makes things easier because we can look at that and say "oh, right, that's part of our history but it doesn't need to be part of who we are forever."
I think that the "sexphobia" you're naming could be compared to periods of sexual prohibition within any community, sexual prohibitions that eventually pass away if they're not functional or helpful. Lesbian feminism in the 1970s, for example, strongly discouraged penetrative sex, and although some of those writers have an ongoing impact on how we think about and talk about sex, and while we can still see vestiges of that thinking in some lesbian communities, on the whole we mostly recognize it for a bunch of nonsense that is not to be taken seriously. Likewise, I think that fifty years from now trans women will look back at sexphobia and be quite confused.
So yes, I know the phenomenon that you're talking about, and it's a problem, and we need to do away with it. It's not doing us any good refusing to talk about our sex lives, especially with each other. I think it's important to write these conversations down, make them productive and accessible, and to start building models for healthily sexual lives as trans women. Again, I think this comes back to reinventing the wheel, a really wasteful use of our time when we could instead be building knowledge bases together and cataloging various aspects of our sex lives for each other and, ultimately, for future generations.
I see far too many disparaging comments about the sex lives of trans women coming from other trans women. Absurdly, I hear just as much derision toward sexualization as I hear about desexualization. I think the way to deal with this is basically to ignore those conversations and give people something to think about. "Fucking Trans Women" is definitely about challenging fear and ignorance of our sexualities. This is trickier to talk about but I want to include self-hatred in that list of opponents as well, and shame. We excel at treating each other poorly and avoiding each other, and that has to stop. Political and social movements gain traction in direct proportion to how many people work together. When that number is generally less than five, an obvious problem presents itself. Sex is one of those subjects that seems to divide trans women and discourage working with one another. As I see it that makes it all the more urgent to discuss and build community around.
This zine is designed to be a collaborative catalog of our sexualities and sexual knowledge, and one goal of making such a catalog is to dispel the idea that there's just one right way to be sexual as a trans woman. Our sexual practices are as various as we are, and absolutely none of them makes any of us less a trans woman. We have a lot to gain from talking to each other frankly and without shame about our sex lives, and the only way to do it is to start doing it.
5) Have you given current or potential partners copies of this zine to read before having sex with you? It seems the obvious thing to do...
Ha! Doesn't it?
And on the other hand, it's something that I want my friends to have and read just as much as people I'm interested in or am involved with. There's this "eureka" effect that many people seem to get from reading the Zero issue, and that's just as important to me as informing the people who I, personally, want to sleep with.
But yes, of course I have. That's part of what it's for, and I encourage anyone who buys a copy to do the same!
6) So let's talk about "shemale porn". Some trans women (who are attracted to other trans women, myself included), find it hard to enjoy porn involving other trans women because the focus is entirely on our genitalia and who needs to process body dysphoria when you're trying to get off? Do you think our cultural disdain for our own sexuality contributes to this sentiment, or is it entirely a symptom of cis hetero men trying to objectify us for the money? Should we get over ourselves? Is there any smut you would recommend as an alternative?
When I think of shemale porn, I think of "girl on girl" porn because to my mind they have a great deal in common. They're produced for the benefit of a specific audience that really has nothing to do with the people who are making the porn except to fetishize and objectify them. In that sense shemale porn also has a lot in common with the overwhelming majority of mainstream porn.
I like having sex with other trans women as well, and I like porn, and I hear what you're saying about shemale porn being excessively focused on genitalia. But honestly that focus isn't what turns me off about shemale porn. We're all at different places with our bodies, whatever our bodies may be like, but even though I don't find a focus on genitalia distracting or bothersome I still don't have much interest in shemale porn.
I think what turns me off is that porn involving trans women exoticizes our bodies and makes our entire body the erotic object in question. There's a presumption of juxtaposition, as if the parts themselves shouldn't go together, or that when they do they are sexual by nature. All that's really required to make shemale porn is our bodies in a state of semi-undress.
Not only is that boring, there's also no place for me in that equation. I don't enjoy watching another trans woman pull down her pants and stand still so some straight cis dude can jerk off while staring at her, nor do I get off on being leered at myself by some anonymous straight dude. That's what I find myself looking for in porn: a place in which I fit either as a voyeur or a participant. Knowing who shemale porn is largely consumed by, and being totally disinterested in straight cis dudes, I get turned off.
I guess that what I'm saying is that crotches don't turn me off, the format of shemale porn turns me off for most of the same reasons that other mainstream porn turns me off: it wasn't designed with me in mind.
There are a few trans women out there trying to make porn with trans women in it that isn't shemale porn, and that's really awesome and commendable. I think the best alternative to mainstream shemale porn is to make our own porn and erotica, and to ask around about what our friends enjoy and what people are making, ideally in real conversation.
That's not a one-stop answer for where to find something better, and really that's the point. It's healthy to enjoy our own bodies and to watch each other having sex. Normalizing conversation about sex is an absolutely essential part of making that happen. Figuring out what we really want to see and participate in is way more productive, I feel, than waiting for someone else to make it happen.
My answer to this question is rather anticlimactic, so I'll add that I'd love to see someone do an article for FTW on this subject.
7) In Issue #0 you discuss pregnancy and why a trans woman who is sexually active with cis women needs to have a contingency plan if she "knocks up" her partner. I can't thank you enough for bringing this topic to the floor. The "estrogen makes you sterile" myth has proven untrue time and time again and yet you can, without any effort, find trans people on message boards saying they don't need condoms or can't have babies. What's with that shit? Is there any correlation between a reluctance to talk about sex and unrealistic ideas on how our bodies work?
There is absolutely a correlation between misunderstanding our bodies and reluctance to talk about them! I know that for myself, the things I know the least about are also the ones I feel the least comfortable talking about. Teaching myself more about how my body works always helps me gain greater confidence in myself and a greater ability to communicate what I need and want, including what I don't need or want.
You do still find people with wild misconceptions about their own bodies and that's one of the many good reasons for a zine like this to exist. There's a fine line between self-definition and, on the other hand, wishful thinking. I think that the variable effects of hormones and genetics and other factors, combined with a lack of reliable information, leaves a lot of trans women wishing and hoping for the impossible or the improbable, particularly about our own bodies. The more informed we are about our own biology the less apt we are to mistake magical thinking for reality.
Pregnancy is an especially obvious example of where gaps in our knowledge meet magical thinking. Who can realistically afford to get a sperm count, and even for those who can, wouldn't you rather be doing almost anything else in the world with your time and money? Pretending that because you are a woman you no longer have sperm is an unrealistic and dangerous alternative as long as you still have testicles, and for a lot of us that's the hard reality of it. Whatever you're doing with your hormones, it's simply not possible to be sure unless you check, so I think the most sensible option is to take precautions and make a plan for what happens if you get someone pregnant.
It makes sense to me that we should develop an understanding of ourselves as women who are differently equipped (in a variety of ways) from cis women. I don't see any advantage in denying that what I have in my pants is a penis, for example. But as I say in the zine, my penis is a woman's penis. The very combination of those words can feel absurd at first, but to me that's what feels most accurate and most realistic. I like it when my lovers call my penis my clit and that doesn't feel strange to me or inaccurate, because it's both things, not one or the other.
I feel better adjusted to myself for thinking descriptively, expanding the category "women" to include women like me. I can change things about my body if I want to or need to, and I might feel better about myself for doing so, but I'll be a woman either way.
The alternative is magical thinking, which is a kind of associational logic. I think of this as a sort of prescriptive thinking: these two things go together, so when one thing changes the other must change as well. That kind of logic says that because I'm a woman, all sorts of things must be true about my body, my mind, my behavior, and so on.
But that's just nonsense. Some things might change, or might have been so to begin with. But it's no more true that being a woman makes your body one way than it's true that being a boy or a man makes your body another. We know that's the case. I think the potential consequences of that stripe of magical thinking can ultimately be very damaging, particularly when certain elements of the body or the mind or behavior fail to magically change. We can fall prey to thinking of ourselves as not "really" women if one aspect of who we are isn't stereotypically feminine, and again, that's just not the case! Nor is it the case that estrogen causes you to desire men, shoot blanks, or behave in stereotypically feminine ways. Women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some of us can get other women pregnant.
So what's up with that shit? The short answer (after my long answer) is that misinformation and wishful thinking are to blame.
8) You're accepting submissions from other writers for future issues of FTW (I know this because I'm working on my contribution as we speak). Let's reassure everyone at home reading this who might want to contribute but is afraid their voice or experience isn't "welcome". Who are you interested in hearing from? What perspectives are you looking for? Yes, you in the back, I'm getting to that. Can cis people or trans men who have experience in having sex with trans women contribute?
FTW is seeking contributions from trans women and anyone who has sex with trans women, no matter how much or how little sex you've had, no matter with how many partners, and whether you're a cis person or a trans person. The objective of this project is good information and accumulation of knowledge, and all sorts of people have contributions to make regardless of identity, or because of identity. In point of fact, some contributions will necessarily come from people who aren't trans women. Ideally sometime soon, say a year from now, I'd like to be able to say that we have articles and art by, among others, queer cis women, queer trans women, butches, femmes, trans men, cis men, genderqueer folks, straight trans women, folks in BDSM community, people who make porn involving trans women, people with disabilities, people of color, couples, singles, people in polyamorous relationships, intersex folks, and folks in trans-trans relationships. Some of these will describe the same contributions, but all of these will be about different aspects and experiences of having sex with trans women.
In short, everyone is welcome and encouraged to contribute.
9) Have you received any static from other trans women about this project? Have you been accused of "shit-stirring" or "objectifying" our bodies or some other naysayer nonsense like that?
There are always naysayers, some more or less vocal than others, but in the way of most naysayers they have largely kept their complaints limited to the area immediately surrounding their own private soap box.
When I was making the first issue of the zine I imagined I might see a lot more resistance than I actually encountered. It's easy to second-guess your work when you have little or no feedback on it and nothing like it has really been done before. Luckily that's no longer the case, and after almost two months of the first issue being available, I have to say that the vast majority of feedback, we're talking 99%, has been really supportive. On the whole I find that lots of people really want this zine to happen and think it's due (or overdue.)
10) Would you be interested in future issues of FTW featuring erotica? Do you think smut can be a tool to educate?
Absolutely! I've already accepted one piece that I would call semi-autobiographical erotica. I've said that this zine is about a lot of things during the course of this interview, but it would be totally remiss not to mention that this zine is sexy. There are dirty pictures and art inside for a reason. Truthfully I'm not interested in producing something that isn't thoroughly hot, sexy, and fun, because those are qualities that I think are truly essential to all good sex.
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