November 9, 2016

Why we need a new narrative for transgender sexuality and crossdreaming

I have been reading Felix Conrad's new ebook on crossdreaming and sexology. Well written, interesting and provocative, as always. This post will not be so much a review of the book as a commentary on what it covers. We agree that we need a new narrative that makes sense of the sexuality of crossdreamers and other trans people.

Felix' main point in Quantum Desire: A Sexological Analysis of Crossdreaming is that we need a new sexology for crossdreaming and transgender thinking.

We need a new model, a new narrative, a new way of thinking about sexual desire and gender variance, because right now we are far too busy reacting to the belief systems of old:

You know, the ones that sort gender variant people into categories like "effeminate gay men" and "autogynephiliacs", "real trans women" and "fetishists", people "trapped in the wrong bodies" and "sexual perverts".

We are lacking a new synthesis

The fact that we are arguing against the old is inevitable. This is how human thought evolves. To use the vocabulary of Hegel: We start out with one way of looking at the world (thesis), which is then challenged by another (antithesis) until the world moves on to a third position (synthesis).

What we are lacking is the synthesis. Felix does not provide us with that new model in the book, or at least not fully, but he gives as a pretty good idea about where we have to go.

If I understand him correctly we have to get to the point where we discuss the sexuality and sexual desires of queer and gender variant people freely and openly. We have to get to a point where we are able to make those fantasies an integrated part of transgender identities of all kinds (and I use the word transgender here as an umbrella term for all types of gender variance here).

Right now sexual fantasies of the crossdreamer kind are considered invalidating not only for transsexual women and men -- who have transitioned or who want to do so -- but also for non-transitioning transgender people (including those genderqueer, crossdressing, drag  and more).

An extremely short history of transphobic science

I believe that if we are to liberate ourselves from the prejudices of old science, we need to know how we got into this mess in the first place.

When preparing this blog post I ended up writing so much about the history of transphobic science that I had to turn in into a separate blog post.

In that post I identified three historical trends from the late 19th century onward that has made crossdreaming toxic in the eyes of many:
  • The idea that women (or at least "decent" women") are less libidinous or sexual than men. This means that male to female transgender people who admit to having sexual desires about becoming their target gender are immediately classified as men.
  • The medicalization of transgender feelings. While transgender transgressions might have been considered a sin or a violations of laws, gender variance was not considered a mental disease until the late 19th century. Transgender and queer people have, since then, been easily dismissed as mentally ill.
  • This caused a decoupling of sexuality from gender identity, especially in the case of femininity and female identities, which makes it impossible to understand the role of sexual desire in transgender lives.
"What do you mean: I need to have sex on
my wedding night? Yuck! All I wanted
was a white wedding!"
Photo: Dreampictures
Within this framework the only kind of sexual fantasies a trans woman can admit to is vanilla woman  romantically in love with a man scenarios. Nothing out of the ordinary, please...(in spite of the fact that most cis people have kinky erotic fantasies.)

Indeed, I hear, over and over again, from some therapists and some transgender people, that gender identity has nothing to do with sexuality.

I realize that some of them refer to the fact that there is no one to one relationship between a trans person's target gender and their sexual orientation. This is, of course, true. But I often find that this idea is extended to sexuality and sexual fantasies in general.

Sex without sex

I must admit I find the concept of a gender identity decoupled from the deep biological drives of sexuality bizarre.

By all means, I do see the advantage of having a separate word for the cultural side of  male and female -- i.e. the ideas and concepts we use to understand the difference between men and women.

To use the word gender (which was originally a term taken from grammar) for this purpose is useful, because it reminds us that what we consider typical male and female behavior and personality traits cannot be reduced to biology (i.e. biological sex) and instincts alone.

Still, we have to keep in mind that the concept of cultural gender is exactly that: a concept we use to interpret the world. Gender is not something tangible "out there". The existence of the concept does not mean that biology has no effect on gendered behavior, feelings or traits.

Nor does it mean that biological sex, and the dynamics of sexuality, have no effect on how we understand ourselves as gendered beings: as men, women or something else.

The biologists are right in pointing out the similarities between human sex and sexuality and the ones of animals. We are animals as well. We have inherited similar instincts, and I find it completely unreasonable to believe that these instincts have no effect on the way we dream, the way we act.

Our concept of the horny teenager may be a social construct, but the hormones that drive that teenager to do what he or she does are not.

More than procreation

Some biologists derail the discussion, however, when they try to reduce this instinctual side of sex and sexuality to procreation. There is much more to sex than this.

Video on the sex life of our closest relative, the bonobos. Nor suitable for a work environment!

The frolicking bonobos are frolicking because their frolicking serves as a social glue and a conflict solver. Or, as the bonobos  probably would say (if they could be bothered to learn English), because it feels so good. They have sex with everyone, regardless of age or gender, so this is clearly not about procreation alone.

On top of that we, the bonobos, the baboons and most other primates are social beings, and our survival depends on the support of our local community, our tribe and our family.

The reason young boys and girls seek out
gender typical toys is not because they are
wired for war or child care; it is because
they are wired to seek out a place as
men or women, regardless of what the
local culture defines as proper gender behavior.
No wonder young girls and boys spend so much time trying out gender roles and gender expressions. They are, among other things,  trying to find out what behavior will give them social acceptance and ensure their belonging.

And they may not know it yet, but they are also preparing for an adult life as a sexual being, where their ability to find both a sexual partner, love and a family depends on them being accepted as a good partner.

I suspect our sexual fantasies are created at the crossroads between our inner instinctual drives and the need to adapt to our surroundings.

In any case: This is about so much more than procreation, but sex as in sexuality is definitely an important part of gender.

Sex is the problem of transgender

I would argue that the main problem for nearly trans people is that their lives have become negatively defined by their sexuality.

Their sexual desire condemns them, which is why they often end up in three equally unsatisfying positions:
  • Denying their sexual desires, becoming "real transsexuals" whose male past becomes some kind of unreal mirage.
  • Denying their sexual desires and suppressing their gender variance, playing the roles of "real non-transgender men" or "real cis women" in the hope of gaining the love and respect of so-called normal people.
  • Wholeheartedly embracing the sexual side of their gender variance, reducing it to a fetish or a kink, while playing the part of the cultural rebel.
Their sexual desire is never considered a natural part of them being some shade of  transgender.

Gender identity reduced to a perversion

Ironically, this has left the door open to exactly the kind of researchers that want to reduce transgender identities to some kind of derailed sexuality, being that a kind of homosexuality or a fetishistic perversion.

In this book, as in others, Felix aggressively and convincingly deconstructs concepts like autogynephilia, transvestic fetishism, masochistic emasculation, which all try to reduce crossdreaming to a sexual aberration.
Crossdressing can be seen as the psyche's way
of expressing a gender identity and/or
traits like masculinity/femininity.
Photo: Discovod

For instance:
"Transvestic fetishism is the reduction of everything we feel and a fetish for playing'dress up'. Not only is it insulting but it shows a remarkable lack of acumen. You don't have to be a master psychologist to figure that clothing is just a prop to channel a deeper lust for womanhood."
And those who have read some of the other of Felix' books will know that he does not accept that the erection an MTF experiences while imagining themselves as a woman is proof of a male sexuality:
"The lifeblood of MtF crossgender sexuality is being, in some form or another, female...therefore we must necessarily become female in our fantasies."
Transgender does not necessarily mean transitioning

That does not mean that Felix believes that all MTF crossdreamers are transsexual or that they should  transition. In this book he argues, more strongly than ever, that he does not believe transitioning should be considered the obvious solution to gender dysphoria:
"To be honest, I do think we've gone a little over the top with the whole trans thing, and I'm deeply skeptical about transition as the best cure for gender dysphoria...but any harm that results from our condition comes because the medical and psychiatric community haven't found the best way to cure gender dysphoria."
I am not so sure about this. I think transitioning can often be a good and legitimate response to severe gender dysphoria, and that this will also be the case in the future.

But I do think that a more tolerant and understanding society (the medical establishment included) will make it unnecessary for some other trans people to transition. And a new and more tolerant sexology will remove science from the arsenal of aggressive transphobes, leaving trans people more room to find out and decide for themselves.

In other words: We have to let go of the concept of the asexual "true" transsexual as well. It has become a straight-jacket that stops us all from coming to terms with the complexity of transgender sexualities and identities.

I still think the metaphor "a woman trapped in a man's body" makes sense as a metaphor, though. It describes the intense dysphoria of some transgender people well.

Where some doctors and trans activists go wrong is when they interpret the metaphor literally: as if there was some kind of complete miniature stereotype woman sitting somewhere in their brain, dreaming of dresses, knitting and home baked cookies.

Both Felix and I speculate that we have some kind of inborn female orientation that compels us to orient ourselves in the world as women. But this brain based driver is not a complete program for female interests, abilities and behaviors. I do not think cis women are born with that kind of "software" either. I see far too much variation for that to be the case.

My hunch is that what we have in common is this need to orient ourselves in the world as women, and to express ourselves as women, and that sexuality is an integrated part of this orientation. It seems to me Felix is saying something similar.

There is light at the end of the tunnel

I am glad to say important players in the transgender community have moved on. In one way you might say that the openness and tolerance found in the other strand of sexology, the one I would like to call the humanist one, is getting the upper hand (the tradition of researchers like Magnus Hirschfeld, Harry Benjamin and Alfred Kinsey).

In spite of what Felix seems to imply in the book, most trans activists -- including Julia Serano -- do not believe in a "feminine essence". They openly discuss much more complex and diverse models of sex, gender and identity, where a transgender gender identity may -- for instance -- grow out a complex interplay between biological, cultural and personal factors.

Health care professionals are also coming around to a more nuanced view of sex and gender, arguing that since we now accept that women have sexual desires and fantasies (and may even act on them,) it is also OK for male to female transgender people to do the same.

In Norway, the legal side of gender identity is taken out of the hands of the more conservative medical gatekeepers (by a Conservative government!). All you need to change your legal gender now is to fill in an online form. Hormones or  surgery are not required. Sexual fantasies are no longer stopping you. More and more countries are adopting this position.

Since we have also come to the point where many admit that there is no absolute and clear divide between male and female personality traits, interests, abilities and desires, there is also room for transgender people who do not live up to the clich├ęs of the "true transsexual" or "real men"/"real women". The millennials embrace terms like nonbinary and genderqueer.

I know that the American psychiatric manual still has a chapter of paraphilias that includes "autogynephilia", but the main chapter on gender dysphoria reflects a much more radical and tolerant approach to gender variance.

It is not perfect, far from it, but that chapter does not think crossdreaming invalidates a trans gender identity, and it opens the door to a wide variety of gender identities and gender expressions. Moreover, it no longer considers gender dysphoria a mental illness. The work done in preparation for the new UN ICD manual points in the same direction.

In many ways both activists and scientists in this area are moving towards the position Felix calls "transgender realism" in the book, where we no longer think of MTF transgender people's identity and sexuality as being  carbon copies of the ones of an idealized cis woman.

Their life experience must be understood in context, and that context is that these persons normally have lived their lives being raised as, and presenting as, their assigned gender.

We still need a new sexology for transgender sexuality

So everything is all right, then? We do not need a new sexology? Felix is wrong about this?

No, he is not. In spite of all the progress, we are still fighting old battles. Felix puts it this way:
"Think about it: sexology in its current form is dominated by a binary system -- and I do not mean with respect to gender -- I mean with respect to sexual behavior. There is orientation on the one hand and fetishes (including paraphilias) on the others. This binary is so deeply ingrained that we all follow it, instinctively believing that there is a baseline sexuality...hetero, homo and bi... and then the weird extras that get imprinted and picked up along the way -- fetishes. And to be honest, I think it's a pretty good system... 
...until you start to think about cross gender sexuality... 
... and then it becomes a conceptual prison."
The very existence of transgender people and their sexuality falsifies this model, as I see it. And I believe that is why the system fights so hard to normalize us, to put into boxes that does not mess up the model.

As Felix points out this desire is not an orientation (which seeks people); it is not a fetish (which seeks objects); it is not a paraphilia (which seeks situations). We seek, instead, a state of being, whether this is full identification with our target sex or a need to express sides of being our target sex, This sense of self cannot be reduced to sexuality, but nor can you decouple sexuality from this state of being.

And that is the main problem. Modern, progressive, sexologists may accept and understand that sexual fantasies are natural parts of transgender psychology, but they show -- in general -- little interest in this side of being trans.

The ones that do show an interest are mostly those that still use terms like "autogynephilia" and who believe that any debate on this topic will have to start with the  typology of Ray Blanchard. Even if they despise Blanchard's theory of transgender, they nevertheless help keep that belief system alive, simply by responding to it.

As Felix points out, this is why we need a new approach to the complex phenomenon of sexuality and transgender identities -- why we need a new transgender sexology.

There are other reasons, as well.

Both research and health services have had a strong focus on those transgender people who transition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But we also need more research on non-transitioning trans people. They also need help, whether they are gender dysphoric or not.

Autogynephilia gurus like Blanchard and Bailey have obsessively focused on developing classification schemes of perversions. They have done next to nothing in order to develop methods and treatments that can actually help crossdreamers survive and thrive.

And finally: We need sexologists who can look more closely into what Felix calls the quantum mechanics of transgender, i.e. the fact that our gender variance often seems to change according to the way you approach it.

If we look at it as something sexual, it may appear as a fetish. If you dream about crossing genders, on the other hand, gender variance will often appear as a gender identity phenomenon.

I guess this has partly to do with the fact that gender variance varies between people and over time, but also because language and culture will always influence the way you see things. Gender variance can be, in the words of Felix, both "a gender event" and "a sexual event" at the same time.

We need to know more about what causes crossdreamers and transgender people to interpret their experience in this or that way.

If there are any potential sexology Ph.D. students out there who read this. Start researching! We can help you.

See also:
On Quantum Desire and why we need a new sexology of gender variance, where Felix talks about his new book.

The cause of crossdreaming - an alternative model
Magnus Hirschfeld's Crossdreamers
The Two Traditions of Thinking about Transgender
What Dr. Zhana Vrangalova Taught Me About Transphobia in Science
The Autogynephilia Theory is in Violation of Basic Research and Health Care Ethics

Ogas and Gaddam: A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships (a study of sexual fantasies which clearly proves that not only transgender people can have kinky dreams.)

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!