Many of the cultural problems facing queer and trans peope have roots in one particular way of looking at sex, sexuality and gender, a view that has been abandoned by most serious researchers and trans activists, but which nevertheless shapes the way we think about queer and gender variant people.
Here is a short and simplified summary of my interpretation of this history. For references and alternative interpretations, see the list of books included below!
We need to understand history
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.
We need to understand that there is nothing given or self-evident about the way psychiatry and psychology has presented crossdreamers and other queer and transgender people. I believe historical studies can make us wiser in this respect.
It seems to me that the most important historical change causing the stigmatization of trans people is rooted in new ideas about womanhood that arose in the late 19th century.
At the time, the men of power basically decided that real women, decent women, civilized women, were weak and intellectually inferior, with little or no libido.
Strong sexual desire was a masculine thing, something that drove real men to conquering passive women and prove themselves in the field of battle.
The women therefore had to be kept in their homes with their children, protected by good men from lecherous men.
For a humorous look at the Victorian ideas about female sexuality I recommend the British comedy Hysteria from 2011.
As the movie shows us, a lot of doctors did not believe that there was such a thing as a female orgasm. They did meet a lot of women complaining about fatigue and frustration, however, a condition they believed was caused by an unstable uterus. They therefore came up with a massage therapy to help the uterus get into its proper position and relieve the suffering of these women.
As the movie so brilliantly demonstrates, having a handsome young doctor massage your vagina, may heal a woman’s frustration. Or at least for a while, until the problems reappear and you have to go back to the same doctor for a new round of massage. A lot of doctors became very rich because of this.
Indeed, they got so tired of being masseurs that one of them invented the electric vibrator.
By all means, there were doctors and scientists who understood that the sense of relief was sexual in nature, but it was not until the vibrators appeared in the pornographic movies of the 1920s that this practice disappeared. Moreover, I am talking about the dominant ideas of the Powers that Be here. There was a lot of diversity in 19th century ideas about female sex and sexuality, as there is now.
The birth of the non-sexual woman
In the Renaissance the idea that decent women were practically non-sexual would have been considered crazy. At that time the dominant idea was that women were the really libidinous ones, while the men were the calm and rational leaders who kept civilization together.
But then again, at that time nearly all women worked in the field or in the markets. You could see them in their “natural environment”, which made it impossible to uphold any idea of the completely chaste and asexual woman — at least outside the mostly mythic realm of Catholic saints.
But by the early 20th century the “proper” women of the bourgeoisie were to be like the Virgin Mary: Chaste, demure, compassionate, but with no real sexuality of their own and the only sexual activity was said to be undertaken in order to satisfy their husband. “Close your eyes and think of England!”
I guess it had something to do with the fact that these “decent” women (unlike “crude” farmers, working class women and prostitutes) had to stay at home, making it easier to protect them from other men. If they were made to believe they had no libido, they were less likely to fool around with the gardener.
In this way sexual dreams and fantasies became a male thing. Any male to female transgender person who admitted to dreaming about having sex as their target gender would therefore indirectly admit that they were, in fact, men.
Sin becomes biology
There was another 19th century cultural invention, besides the “unsexualization” of women, that also contributed to the stigmatization of transgender sexuality: Modern medicine now took an interest in the proper sexual behavior of men and women.
Before this time, few would argue that proper sexuality was defined by nature. They were farmers. They could see that their bulls were licking each others… whatever.
Proper sex was not defined by nature. Instead decent sexual behavior was a legal matter, defined by scripture and the law. The law was established by God and King in order to keep society in order.
The new masters of science, however, translated their religious prejudices into biology. While the Old Testament God had said sex was there for procreation and for filling the world and governing it (which is partly why same-sex sex and masturbation was considered a sinful waste of divine potential), the late 19th/early 20th century doctors defended the exact same conclusion on the basis of evolutionary arguments.
If the white male was to rule and control savages all over the world, there was a need for a culling of the White race. There was no need for people who wasted their energies on meaningless sex and masturbation. You cannot build empires on the basis of sensual pleasure. Or so they thought.
So, a misreading of Darwin led to the idea that sex beyond the male/female missionary position was bad, because it undermined proper society. Heck, it might even cause the sexually prolific “savages” to take over the world, as they were producing more children.
According to this world view both same-sex desire and transgender dreams were forbidden, because they undermined procreation, the patriarchy and the war effort.
It is no coincidence that Ray Blanchard, the creator of the toxic autogynephilia theory, uses procreation as a basis for his understanding of non-pathological sex.
Gender variance becomes a mental illness
The “biologization” of sexuality caused transgender fantasies to become a mental disease, as opposed to a sin. Some of the doctors meant well and wanted to help, but the disease paradigm meant that there were only two types of cure for male to female transgender people:
(1) To stop fantasizing and become a proper man or (2) move over to the other side completely and take over the role of the perfect housewife stereotype, hiding the fact that you did have a past presenting as a man.
To the extent the system did try to help trans people, it was by moving them from one closet to a new one, where no one could see that they had ever been living as the other gender.
Indeed, in many cases the doctors recommended that trans women moved to another city, abandoning their friends in order to blend into society as non-transgender women. The helpers helped erase the existence of transgender people by helping them.
Sex without sex
What all this meant was that sexuality got separated from gender identity.
Male to female trans people were caught between Scylla and Charybdis. You could either sign up for the feminine essence theory — which postulated that since all (decent) women are the same, a proper trans woman had to be a stereotypical (decent) woman “trapped in a man’s body” — OR you had to accept the fact that you were some kind of male pervert, a gay man or a fetishist.
The female to male transgender people faced a similar dilemma. Identifying with or as men they were expected to be sexually aggressive, but since friends, family, colleagues and therapists continued to see them as women, admitting to such fantasies were problematic also for them.
I know of FTM trans men who were denied hormones at the University Clinic in Oslo because they admitted that they had erotic fantasies about having a male body. I am not sure about this, but it seems that the narrative of the creepy male to female transvestite had contaminated the doctor’s understanding of female to male trans people as well.
I am afraid the more recent “post-structuralist” approach of modern feminism, including some gender studies, may have reinforced the divide between sexual desire and gender identity.
By separating sex (as in biology) on the one hand, completely from sex (as in sexuality) and gender (as in gender identity) on the other, some of these thinkers may have reinforced the idea that gender identity has nothing to do with sexuality. They consider it a “social construct” anchored in culture and language, completely decoupled from biology.
Some so-called “gender critical radical feminists” even make use of the fetish theory to repeat the old dogma that only men can be sexual perverts, and that any male assigned person who dreams about being a woman is a sexual pervert, a fetishist or an “autogynephiliac”. The old sexist belief system of the 19th century reappears where you would least expect it: Among women who seem to believe they are fighting the patriarchy.
I should add, though, that the majority of radical feminists are pro-trans, and that many of the transphobic “feminists” are neither radical nor feminists. This narrative can make it harder, however, for some trans people to recognize their own feelings and experiences.
We should keep in mind that we are all children of patriarchal society, and that this colors the fantasies of both male to female and female to male crossdreamers and trans people. Their dreams are therefor easily interpreted as misogynistic perversions, rather than what they really are: Their psyche’s desperate attempt at making sense of a sense of self that does not fit the gender expectations of society.
What Dr. Zhana Vrangalova Taught Me About Transphobia in Science
How psychiatry and psychology have been used to suppress gender variance
‘Hysteria’ and the Long, Strange History of the Vibrator
Science and Transphobia: Ray Blanchard is Now Assisting White Supremacists. Why?
Books on the history of sex, gender and transgender
- Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts, by Lisa Downing, Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan.
- The Invention of Heterosexual Culture, by Louis-Georges Tin
- Straight, the Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, by Hanne Blank
- Making Sex, Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, by Thomas Laqueur
- Transgender History, by Susan Stryker
- The Disturbing History of Hysteria, by Andrew Scull
- The Dictionary of Homophobia, A Global History of Gay and Lesbian Experience, edited by Louis-Georges Tin
- How Sex Changed, A History of Transsexuality in the United States, by Joanne Meyerowitz
- The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, by Rachel P. Maines