I’m going to tell you two things right now, one or the other of which is guaranteed to make you hate me. Ready?
OK, so number one, I’m a radical feminist. That is to say, I believe that the oppression of women is systemic; I take the view that gender is one of the systems through which oppression is perpetuated, that it is socially constructed and not innate, and that it morphs in its expression among cultures and between eras to best continue to perpetuate it. I believe than in order to eradicate oppression we need to look at women as a class and not at individuals. I don’t believe that improved or expanded “choice” is a form of liberation, and I don’t much care to analyse people’s identities. In fact I think that the liberal focus on the individual has done social justice systems, feminism first and foremost, real damage.
Number two, because I am a radical feminist that believes that women are assigned to a subordinate, sexually exploited class via socially constructed categories, I also think that trans women are ‘real’, if one can use such a term, women. I align with the stream in radical feminist thought that sees the transgression (“queering”) of gender as a welcome intervention in the process of its construction along biological lines. I also know what all radical feminists know, that “socially constructed” does not mean “unreal”. The sex class is a thing that exists in the world, and people can be assigned to it on the basis of biology or on other grounds. Furthermore, I know that trans women are subject to male sexual violence and deserve the support of rape crisis centres, women’s shelters and other feminist-founded organisations.
I don’t think trans women pose a sexual threat to their sisters. Apart from being quite a ludicrously convoluted way of doing something that men can do with impunity right in the open (harass and molest women and girls), I’ve just never seen any credible evidence to support the assertion that men posing as trans women for sexual predation is something that happens. As far as I can see, the majority of trans women just want a haven away from male violence, like we all do.
Having said that, I don’t buy into the dominant liberal narrative of identity, brain gender, female penises, “changing sex” (as opposed to gender) and so on. It’s all incoherent, self indulgent nonsense. People develop an identification with a gender for all kinds of complex psychological reasons, some of which (perhaps the minority) are sexual or partly sexual in nature. I do know that autogynophilia exists, and that sometimes women can be really threatened by it. I know because it happened to me.
When I was at university, I had this friend, let’s call him J. J was one of those really nice guys that girls liked to be friends with but never actually dated. He was quite shy, spoke very softly with a slight lisp, and didn’t really fit in with his macho classmates (we were on a quite a male dominated course). Some people thought he was gay, simply because he was introverted and got along well with the more flamboyant, assertive women on the course, such as myself.
We met in my first year and gradually became closer, until one day, the big confession came: J liked to dress in women’s clothes and had an alternate woman’s persona with a different name. He was deeply ashamed and closeted, it was the biggest secret ever. He had piles and piles of women’s clothing in locked cupboards and chests back home, and nobody, nobody knew.
Now you need to understand that this was over two decades ago; neither of us had the language of trans identities; the distinctions between transsexual, transgender and transvestite might not even have been coined yet, but we certainly didn’t speak in those terms. Our conversations tended to be practical: kinds of clothes, modes of behaving, make up tips.
We started shopping together. We would go into a shop and J would pick out clothes for me to try on. In retrospect this was quite comical because he was a big strong lad and I’m fairly gracile; all the shop assistants must have thought I was some kind of idiot, trying on piles of clothes 3 sizes too big (and totally not in my style). But anyway, we did it, and he was really sweet about it, buying me the occasional small item like a shawl or a ring as a thank you.
Sometimes when we could get away to a third friends’ apartment (also a woman) he would put on his outfits and interact with us in his woman persona. A lot of the things that I hear about people who transition were true about her: he was a lot more outgoing and assertive as a woman, spoke more and with greater assurance, had more expressive body language. I thought I was helping him work towards an eventual “coming out”, though I must admit my idea of what he would come out as was probably fairly hazy. In any case, I didn’t push. I have a lot of gay friends and I know better than to do that.
After year or so, he moved and was no longer living in a dorm but in a nice flat with a couple of friends. He was much freer there, had a bigger room with a closet he could padlock, and the shopping activities were stepped up. One time when he knew both of his flatmates were going to be away, he invited me over with the express intention of me “doing” his make up for him. I thought it was a great idea; in my opinion, he was a terrible makeup artists with no taste, so I was itching to show him how to do it ‘properly’.
Anyway, so I sat on a dressing table and he sat in a chair in front of me and I did his makeup. Full face – thick cake to cover up the bristles, shading, cheek contouring, eye and lip makeup. It must have taken me quite some time – maybe 25 minutes? – and we were quiet, not speaking much, me concentrating on the job. I didn’t really know what he was thinking about, but when I finished and gave him the mirror to admire the final result, he told me.
He asked me if I would have sex with him. He explained that now that I had applied makeup to him, he was really turned on, and needed to have relief.
I was appalled, frozen. I can’t remember what I said, only that I said no, and he excused himself to go and ‘relieve the pressure’ in the bathroom. I sat completely frozen on the spot until he came back, and that is as far as I remember. I must have made my excuses and gone home, but I can’t recall any of it. The blank space in my mind is similar to the memories of what happened during and immediately after my rape.
For decades, I couldn’t put my finger on why I essentially reacted to his request as to a sexual assault, but now I know: while I, on my part, was doing a fun thing with a mate, he was engaged in activity that was, for him, sexual. He had been having foreplay with me without my knowledge or consent. And I felt numb, disgusted, betrayed, ashamed, guilty and confused. As you would, after essentially a softly-softly sexual assault.
After this our friendship petered out. All he ever wanted to talk about when we met were his new outfits & most recent dress up sections; but I was bored by them now. We drifted apart, and he eventually married a woman who knew and was accepting of his sexual preferences.
So yeah, I knew an autogynephile and survived. He never assaulted me or pestered me for sex in that way young men do with their female friends sometimes. But I think the imbalance of knowledge between us lead him to commit a violation against me, and of the trust I placed in him as a friend.
I think we need to negotiate these difficult boundary cases, the interactions where things are not as simple as “I’m just happy to be a girl”. These things exist and they need to be incorporated into feminist analysis, not blown out of all proportion by one set of feminists and swept under the rug as impossible by another set. Apart from anything else, radical feminists need to support the struggle of trans women to simply survive as women, so they can flourish and become the valuable feminist sisters I know they can be.
And yes, it means that there will be hurtful and uncomfortable situations on the way there, but we need to deal with them as grownups and learn from them, not sling mud at each other, shrieking in outrage at the smallest infraction of the most au courant “code”. That’s why I’ve written this post: to show that we can think critically but humanely about the fractious interface between trans rights advocates and radical feminists, if we just put down the slogans and think.