Why Are Trans Women Penalized For Body Fantasies Everyone Has?

By Noah Berlatsky

“Autogynephilia” is an ugly word that is supposed to describe an ugly mental state. The term was developed by sexologist Ray Blanchard to classify what he saw as a specific type of “transgender” woman — those who were sexually aroused by the idea of having a female body. For Blanchard, the identity of these “transgender” women was built on a fetish. Anti-trans feminist Janice Raymond argued that “transgendered” women were innately rapists who stole female bodies. Blanchard was less confrontational, but also suggested that many trans women were perverts motivated by deviant sexuality.

Treating trans women as sexual deviants has done them real, concrete harm. As activist Julia Serano writes, “Reducing a person to their sexual bodies or behaviors sexualizes them. And in our culture, sexualizing someone (i.e., reducing them to their sexuality, rather than seeing them as a whole person) is one of the most effective ways of invalidating a person.” Feministing editor Jos Truitt writes that that the diagnosis of autogynephilia presumes that “the concept of autogynephilia has had a cruel impact on trans women who aren’t straight, telling us our genders are actually just sexual perversions.” Truitt points out that autogynephilia has been used in the past to deny trans women access to medical services and that this can still be a problem, especially in rural areas.

Autogynephilia continues to be touted by some high-profile writers and gender theorists, most notably Alice Dreger. Nonetheless, as a scientific theory, autogynephilia has been largely debunked. In particular, a 2009 study found that more than 90% of cis women experience “erotic arousal to the thought or image of oneself as a woman.” In other words, autogynephilia — or, in less pathologizing terminology, female embodiment fantasies — does not represent deviance at all. It’s normal.

To anyone who pays even minimal attention, this should not come as a surprise. Women regularly and enthusiastically consume highly sexualized images of other women, whether in the form of celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, or in the pages of fashion magazines.

Sharon Marcus, author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, explained in an interview that when women look at women in this way, the pretense is that it “is about identification, not desire.” But the truth is, identification and desire are “always blended together, and it’s really, really hard to say where one stops and the other starts.” When Beyoncé makes a video about having steamy sex with her husband, the focus is relentlessly on her body and her pleasure, not his. Beyoncé’s mostly female audience (and perhaps her gay male audience too) is supposed to focus on the experience of being in, and desiring, her body — to the extent those two things can even be separated.

Romance novels are also, quite consciously, small engines for connecting female readers with the pleasures of female embodiment fantasies. Here’s the protagonist Kate, from Jennifer Crusie’s 1993 novel Manhunting, encouraging readers to revel in embodiment along with her:

“‘I love it.’ Kate turned around. ‘I know it’s unliberated of me, but I love being a hot blonde in a low-cut top. I especially love it because I’m 35. I figured sexual magnetism had passed me by, and now here it comes when I least expected it.’”

The sexual charge here, for the mostly female readership, is in “being a blonde in a low-cut top.” Being in a female body is sexy, exciting, flirty, fun. So says Jennifer Crusie, and so says the $1 billion a year romance novel genre in general.

Romance novels don’t just think being in a female body is sexy, though; they think being in a male body is sexy, too. Most contemporary romance novels are careful to provide both male and female perspectives, not least in sex scenes. For that matter, there are numerous male/male romances, intended for female audiences, in which women are meant to identify with male characters having sex with other male characters. In fan fiction, forced feminization fantasies aren’t uncommon, as in this story by Vom Marlowe (who is a cis woman) about a male assassin being turned into a pregnant woman.

Men, too, have embodiment fantasies; what is James Bond but a sexual fantasy for men about being a sexy, powerful man? When Clark Kent changes into Superman, that’s a fantasy for guys about having a superbody — a fantasy that the original Siegel and Shuster comics certainly recognized as sexual.

And, like women, men often have cross-gender embodiment fantasies too. Susie Bright in her book Sexual Reality argues that men who watch lesbian porn “want to be the lesbians” — or, in other words, lesbian porn for heterosexual men is an embodiment fantasy. Jack Molay, who runs the Crossdreamers blog, told me that “Crossdreaming is actually quite a common fantasy,” pointing to studies by Vernon Coleman which suggested that about 10% of males crossdress. Molay added, “All the jokes about men using female avatars online tell me that this is a phenomenon touched upon by many, consciously or subconsciously.”

Trans people’s embodiment fantasies are likely to be somewhat different from cis people’s for any number of reasons, of course. Biologist and trans activist Julia Serano told me:

“There are multiple factors that are likely to intensify FEFs, (female embodiment fantasies) especially in pre- and non-transition trans people. One comes from a sense of not being in the ‘right body,’ and using fantasy as a way of temporarily correcting that problem. One comes from being attracted to femaleness and femininity in others, which can lead these aspects to also be sexually salient with regards to one’s own imagined body. But most importantly, we live in a culture where women’s bodies and feminine gender expression are routinely sexually objectified in ways that maleness/masculinity are not. This can lead many people who are socialized male to view femaleness/femininity as exotic, mysterious, and even taboo. These cultural beliefs (plus the shame and stigma associated with male expressions of femininity) surely inform and intensify FEFs in these cases.”

While some trans people may have more intense embodiment fantasies, though, the fact remains that there’s nothing deviant, or even unusual, about the fantasies themselves. In romance novels, in fashion magazines, in spy stories, in porn, men and women and others imagine themselves in different bodies, whether of the same gender or of a different gender. In most cases, these fantasies are not seen as wrong because they are part of cis sexuality, and cis people aren’t seen as abnormal. Trans people’s fantasies are labeled as deviant because trans people themselves are seen as deviant — and then, in a perfect (read: twisted) circle, the “deviant” fantasies become a way to say that trans people, and in this case especially trans women, are broken.

But the truth is there’s nothing broken, or deviant, or confused about having a body and having dreams. On the contrary, for people of every gender, bodies and dreams are what make us human.

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Lead image: flickr.com/Ludo

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