Reading ‘Whipping Girl’ part II

Here’s my second post on reading Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl

Boygasms and Girlgasms: A Frank Discussion about Hormones and Gender Differences

For Serano, gender is neither all nature nor all nurture. Society clearly influences how femaleness/femininity and maleness/masculinity are defined. On the other hand, bodily factors also have a hand in the matter. Serano shares her experience of taking female hormones, which she says are shared by other trans women, and mirrored by those of trans men. She says that she was able to feel her emotions more strongly and clearly (noting, of course, that this in no way rendered her incapable of thought or decision making even in moments of extreme feeling). Her sense of touch increased in intensity and her sense of smell increased in sensitivity. Her sex drive reduced, but her sexual responses improved qualitatively. Wow! This chapter is really interesting. I had no idea oestrogen did so many cool, subtle things!

Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement

In a way this chapter has the deepest resonance for me, because I too have had a blind spot for what Serano calls subconscious sex, which is more usually confusingly called ‘gender identity’ or ‘internal gender’. Serano shares her own experience of recognising her trans-ness. Many trans people recognise their misgendering very early in life, and immediately insist that they belong to the sex other than the one assigned to them. Serano came to this realisation more gradually. At five or sex years old, she remembers knowing that she was physically male and that other people thought of her as a boy, but she had contradictory dreams and felt that something was wrong when going into the boys’ toilets and when her class was split by gender. She points out that for children, gender identity is signed by preferences for activities, toys and interests. Her passion for dinosaurs and desire to be a major league baseball player were at odds with her feeling of girlness. She shares that it was only at eleven, dressing herself in a white lacy curtain, that on seeing her reflection she realised that it felt right, and made perfect sense, to see herself as a girl.

“All of the words available in the English language completely fail to accurately capture or convey my personal understanding of these events. For example, if I were to say that I ‘saw’ myself as female, or ‘knew’ myself to be a girl, I would be denying the fact that I was consciously aware of my physical maleness at all times. And saying that I ‘wished’ or ‘wanted’ to be a girl erases how much being female made sense to me, how it felt right on the deepest, most profound level of my being. I could say that I ‘felt’ like a girl, but that would give the false impression that I knew how other girls (and other boys) felt. And if I were to say that I was ‘supposed to ebe’ a girl or that I ‘should have been born’ female, it would imply that I had some sort of cosmic insight into the grand scheme of the universe, which I most certainly did not.

“Perhaps the best way to describe how my subconscious sex feels to me is to say that it seems as if, on some level, my brain expects my body to be female.”

For me, the penny drops right there. When I first discovered radical/gender critical feminism, I described myself ‘gender agnostic’, since ‘I don’t feel my gender’. While I certainly feel very uncomfortable if I imagine transitioning to a male sex, I have been able to rationalise this as discomfort with the unfamiliar. But Serano has enabled me to recognise that this aspect of my body sense is much more significant and integral: I don’t ‘feel my gender’ because I experience what she calls gender concordance: my body is the sex my brain expects it to be. Cissexuals don’t notice this because, well, isn’t the essence of comfort the absence of discomfort? Trans experience shows definitively that what Serano helpfully terms subconscious sex is a brain-based reality.

For Serano, the experience of her female subconscious sex was not accompanied by the desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity. It was not the result of social gender constructs, as it defied everything she had been taught about gender and the encouragement she received to think of herself as a boy and act masculine. She was considered a normal-acting boy, and her family was not particularly restrictive, so neither was the experience a reaction to strong gender policing. She argues that subconscious sex is independent of sexuality and gender expression. At first, she thought she must be gay (influenced by stereotypes) but she was further confused by finding herself attracted to women, not men. In the majority of instances, thinking of herself as female was unrelated to sexuality..

After experimenting with cross-dressing, she lost interest in it, realising that her ‘desire to be female had nothing to do with clothing or femininity per se’. She later identified as bigendered, becoming an androgynous queer boy.

“I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.

“For me, the hardest part about being trans has not been the discrimination or ridicule that I have faced for defying societal gender norms, but rather the internal pain I experienced when by subconscious and conscious sexes were at odds with each other… sometimes it felt like stress or anxiousness, which led to marathon battles with insomnia. Other times, it surfaced as jealousy or anger at other people who seemed to take their gender for granted. But most of all, it felt like sadness to me – a sort of gender sadness – a chronic and persistent grief over the fact that I felt so wrong in my body.”

Serano points out that she gave up male and heterosexual privilege (she is married to a woman) to transition, but it was all worth it for the ‘most important gender privilege of all: feeling at home in my own sexed body’.

Serano identifies gender entitlement, which can affect anyone, as the arrogant conviction that one’s own beliefs, perceptions and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality are more valid than those of other people. This can lead to “gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.” This leads us to insist that certain genders or sexual inclinations are natural, and to demand than others curb or conform their own inclinations to meet our expectations. We must recognise that other people’s genders and sexualities have no bearing on our own!

Intrinsic Inclinations: Explaining Gender and Sexual Diversity

Here Serano identified gender expression as another intrinsic inclination separate from sexual orientation and subconscious sex, with which it is regularly confused. In gender studies, gender expression has been described as entirely socially constructed. (We can easily see how gender expressions vary across cultures and over time, and are permeated and impacted by societal structures such as racism. Serano doesn’t give attention to race anywhere except in the acknowledgements where she points to her white privilege. Presumably she wanted to avoid speaking for others.) I tend to agree that gender expressions are not at all body-based, but while rejecting gender essentialism, Serano argues that some aspects of gender expression precede socialization and ‘represent deep, subconscious inclinations in a manner similar to those of sexual orientation and subconscious sex’

She finally proposes an ‘intrinsic inclinations model’ which treats subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation as separate gender inclinations, determined independently by multiple factors in complex interaction, and intrinsic to our persons, occurring on a deep subconscious level, despite social influences and conscious attempts to repress them. Rather than discrete outcomes ‘feminine’ ‘masculine’ etc, they each produce a continuous range, a spectrum. These inclinations correlate with physical sex, so that female-assigned people are more likely on average to be female-identified, feminine and attracted to men, however, any other combination can and does occur.

I myself think that social influences have a strong involvement in this model – they affect us strongly in ways we don’t always perceive. I do agree though, that it provides a helpful and inclusive way to think about gender inclinations.

Serano elaborates on the concept of oppositional sexism, from which cissexism and heterosexism arise. The idea that there are mutually exclusive opposite sexes means that all our genders and sexualities are intertwined. The intrinsic inclinations model undermines this, making each person’s gender and sexual orientation free-floating. This has the power to cure gender-anxiety! We should reject, she says, any gender theory that makes the assumption that there is any one right or natural way to be gendered or sexual. Both anti-trans and some queer groups fall into this trap, which leaves no possibility to explain why some people explain typical gender/sexual traits and others exceptional ones is

“by surmising that one of those two groups is being intentionally led astray somehow. Indeed, this is exactly what the religious right argues… I find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of people are hiding their true genders and sexualities or have resigned themselves to accepting wholly artificial ones, I would argue that our culture’s oppositional gender system can only be held so firmly in place because it resonates with the majority’s gender inclinations.”

Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism

Tracing an extremely chequered history here, Serano describes how “some sexologists… seemed to have been driven by a desire to make the world safe for those who differ from sexual and gender norms, others have sought to erase or eradicate those exceptional genders and sexualities instead”. Sexologists who studied transgender people have been ‘gatekeepers’ for treatment. I didn’t realise the term ‘gatekeeper’ had such a specific history. It seems ridiculous that this structure still exists to a large extent, demanding that trans people jump through ridiculous and obviously sexist hoops to get help to transition. Undoubtedly the media hyperfeminisation of trans women must be influenced by the fact that, in order to get access to treatment, trans women generally need to come to clinical interviews in dress, make up and heels, or they will not be taken seriously! Standards like ability to ‘pass’ as judged by gatekeepers, and ability to attract men as judged by gatekeepers have been applied, obviously encouraging the media tendency to hypersexualise and objectify. Requiring trans people to live in their identified gender before even prescribing hormones seems like simple cruelty.

It’s clear that the sexologists were more interested in male-to-female transsexuals and that they have viewed ‘male femininity’ as more psychopathological than ‘female masculinity’; this is traditional sexism. Serano coins (I think) the term ‘effemimania’ for the obsession with expressions of femininity exhibited by sexologists and the media. One symptom of it is the confusion of gender and sexual orientation; according to some sexological theories there are ‘primary’ MTF transsexuals who are ‘homosexual’ and ‘secondary’ ones who are ‘autogynephilic’ ie turned on by the idea of themselves as a woman. The absurdity of this speaks for itself…

Serano gives some attention to anthropologists who have suggested that no intrinsic gender inclinations exist. The argument made by Serena Nanda and others that transsexuals are a creation of modern medical techniques is debunked. This is analogous to the claim that homosexuality is a trend. From what Serano says, it really seems that these anthropologists are projecting their theories onto their subjects (the Indian hijra for Nanda, and Native American people for Will Roscoe). Serano sees their attempts to ‘third gender’ gender-variant individuals as acts of marginalisation, leaving the rigid gender hierarchy intact.

The ‘transsexual-as-assimilationist’ argument also gets no quarter here. In addition to debunking the mis-perception that transsexuals embrace sexist gender roles:

“If more academics would actually get to know transsexuals as people rather than as mere research subjects they would find that the assumption that we transition in order to ‘fit in’ to the gender binary has virtually no relevance in most transsexuals’ lives.”

Serano argues that the idea that some genders are more radical or subversive than others is a new kind of binary hierarchy, and requires the ‘dumbing down’ of gender to erase subconscious sex. This is evident in radical feminist angles on gender. Speaking about the anti-trans sentiments expressed by writers such as Germaine Greer and Judith Shapiro, she says:

“virtually all transsexuals describe experiencing a profound, inexplicable, intrinsic self-knowing regarding their own gender… one can only conclude that the above critics have come to their own conclusions without bothering to read or listen to what transsexuals have said about their own lives and experiences, or they have chosen to ignore [them], presumably out of an unwillingness to consider the possibility that trans people have an understanding about gender that cissexual academics do not”

It seems to me that the academic perspective in question ‘intertwines’ all genders? Serano’s model undoes the intertwinedness, but radical feminists seem to feel that trans perspectives and experience impact all genders… this is only possible if gender is accepted as monolithic, entirely constructed and ultimately artificial. Serano’s argument that gender is emergent as well as constructed, and is experientially real, leaves plenty of space for feminism to critique the meanings placed on our bodies through ideas of sex and gender: she goes on to make such critiques herself. The radical feminist perspective attempts to make such a space, but in the end restricts it, by not recognising any meanings for gender beyond the good male/bad female binary of traditional sexism. It was my commitment not to erase anyone, disbelieve any victim or to deny anyone’s experience that led me away from radical feminism (which was simply my landing-place when I decided to search for living feminist movement). I am still wandering guided by that spirit…

Dismantling Cissexual Privilege

Serano elaborates on the concept of gender entitlement, pointing out how cissexist attitudes play out in various contexts, discussion misgendering and assumptions about gender we make constantly. Gatekeeper practices have contrived to keep transsexuals closeted – they were encouraged to change jobs and sever ties after transition and so on, as part of a general approach designed to avoid causing discomfort to cis people! It seems to me that trans people have always been expected to shoulder the entire burden of gender anxiety for everyone. Serano says that statistics suggest that there are far more transsexual people in society than most cissexuals would guess, due to this practice of maintaining secrecy.

Transsexuals are often characterised as imitating or ‘impersonating’. This undermines their felt gender inclinations, and sets up a weird double standard, since everyone learns gendered behaviour from others. Transsexuals who are ‘out’ are often scrutinized for signs of their assigned gender – Serano calls this ungendering, and points out that it serves no purpose but to privilege cissexual identities.

She is scathing on what I see as the fallback to ‘biology’ among cissexist people:

“Whenever I hear someone refer to cissexuals as being ‘biological’ women and men I usually interject that, despite the fact that I am a transsexual, I am not inorganic or nonbiological in any way.”

‘Biological’ means fully functioning reproductive system? What about those past the menopause or who have medical conditions affecting their fertility or reproductive organs?

‘Biological’ means genital configuration? But how often do you even see people’s genitals?

We see people and classify them as male or female based on secondary sex characteristics, which are caused primarily by hormones, so shouldn’t someone ‘who has had estrogen in her system for five years… be considered a ‘biological’ woman?’

She takes issue with the use of the word ‘passing’ for being appropriately gendered, suggesting this term instead, in opposition to misgendering to mean the converse. The idea of passing re-centres the assigned sex. Serano also points out that cissexuals are free to take gender for granted, while trans people are often highly sensitive to any experience of gendering.

Serano makes an important point about performance models of gender. Being read as male or female depends on physical appearance (secondary sex characteristics) rather than behaviour. Once a person is read as female or male, different meanings will be projected onto the same behaviours. Serano shares her own experience of this: after her transition she chose to act, speak and dress in the way she always had and that felt most comfortable to her, yet people behaved completely differently towards her.

“I would argue that social gender is not produced and propagated because of the way individuals perform or do our genders; it lies in the perceptions and interpretations of others. I can modify my own gender all I want, but it won’t change the fact that other people will continue to compulsively assign a gender to me and to view me through the distorted lenses of cissexual and heterosexual assumption”

In the chapter ‘Experiential Gender’ Serano talks about developing a female body-sense after transition

“So long as we refused to accept that ‘woman’ is a holistic concept, one that includes all people who experience themselves as women, our concept of womanhood will remain a mere reflection of our own personal experiences and biases rather than something based in the truly diverse world that surrounds us.”

She goes on to discuss trans-woman-exclusion policies, which, she argues, are male-centric, sexist in the traditional sense, boiling down to extreme phallocentrism and the belief in mysterious ‘male energy’ – a power that men have that women don’t. She describes a conversation with someone who advocates exclusion on the basis of male socialisation. Serano put to her the case of an MTF transsexual who identified and was treated as a girl from early childhood (relatively common these days). The exclusionist remained uncomfortable about this person attending. Serano then put the case of a person ‘born female’ yet raised male against her will and who after a lifetime of pretending to be male in order to survive finally reclaimed her female identity on reaching adulthood. The exclusionist admitted that she would want to admit this person ‘thus demonstrating that her argument about male socialisation was really an argument about biology after all’.

Serano is also scathing about apologists for these events, and those who see exclusion policies as a ‘debate’. She points to the LGB movement, where “social progress was only made through the frontline work of outspoken activists shouting ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’”

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