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The Unsolicited Dick Pic and Why it Sucks for Everyone

April 6th, 2014 by

Once upon a time I was engaged in a correspondence on a certain dating site with a man who I’ll call…well, let’s call him Richard, shall we?

He sent me a one-line message. I don’t remember what it was, but in it, he essentially asked me to dominate him. I was bored and I was lonely, and he was submissive, so I replied. (I don’t meet submissive men on vanilla dating sites very often, so sometimes I’m willing to give a bit of leeway.) His profile was nothing but wank fodder, and his picture was a close-up of his nipple. My reply was prickly. In it, I told him that if he was interested, he would actually have to get to know me as a person, not as a fantasy. He responded with an enormous amount of enthusiasm and with a well thought-out, grammatically correct reply, bare of wank fodder. I was pleasantly surprised. He told me about himself and inquired about my life, my interests. I asked for a real picture. He offered clothed pictures or naked. I told him that, having only just made his acquaintance (and only online at that) I would prefer clothed. He sent me a number of pictures of himself, clothed, but then once again offered naked pictures. I declined again, but offered to meet him for coffee.

And so we met, and we drank coffee, and we talked about a number of things, for awhile. We talked about our jobs, our hobbies. We talked about kink. It was a fairly mundane first meeting. Richard was polite. He was not at all pushy about wanting to play or date. I told him it was nice to meet him, and it was. Later, I received another message from Richard:

Would you like some naked pictures of me now?

No thank you, I said.

We messaged back and forth a bit, and talked about tentative plans to meet up again, but never planned anything concrete. And then, once again, he asked it.

Are you sure I can’t send you any naked pictures of me?

There were a number of things which struck me about this. One was that he either didn’t listen well or had very poor short-term memory since I had explicitly told him I didn’t want naked pictures of him. Another was that he was awfully intent on sending them to me.

Why are you so set on sending me naked pictures of yourself? I asked.

Because I want you to like me, he said.

I know, I know. I keep coming back to Dug. It's just so apt sometimes.

I know, I know. I keep coming back to Dug. It just seems so apt sometimes.

Richard was not my first experience with unsolicited dick pics. As a female-identified user of social media, I have been bombarded with them, from men I don’t know on dating sites, to friends who get drunk, to guys who are trying to flirt with me.

What I think most men who send unwanted, unasked for dick pics don’t understand, is that to the receiver, it feels like assault. And it IS assault. If the act of sending unsolicited dick pics was translated to “meatspace”, it would look like this: the man in question and I would be having a pleasant conversation, and then suddenly, he whips out his dick, with no warning.

The cowardly anonymous quality of technology allows us to hide behind it, and consequently, do things we wouldn’t normally do otherwise, without fear of “IRL” consequences. It allows for the senders of these pictures to essentially, non-confrontationally flash others. And this is part of rape culture. As women, we are told that our desires don’t matter, that any desires we do have must revolve around men and their desires. Our whole lives, women are inundated with fear, and expectation of sexual assault. To us, the receiver of the non-consensual dick pic, it is just a confirmation that what we want should be subjugated to the wants of others.

And that sucks.

The sad thing about all of this is that I genuinely love a good dick pic. I like dicks. I like the way they feel inside me, I like the way they feel in my hands, I like the way they look. They’re pretty. They are nice to look at! But I have rarely had the occasion to be happy about a dick pic, because it has almost always been thrust upon me non-consensually.

But now, back to Richard. There was another thing he told me that struck me. His profile told me he was bisexual, but he told me otherwise. “This is kind of awful,” he said. “But I’m not attracted to men. I don’t really like it when they touch me…it’s just nice to be wanted.”

Fetlife, the great normalizer, the place where everyone’s kink is respected and everyone is equally represented </sarcasm> has no room for dick pics. All over Fetlife, people say “Don’t put a dick pic as your profile picture.” Some go even further and say not to have any dick pics in your profile at all. “Nobody wants to see that,” people say. Men say it. Women say it. Genderqueer folks say it. Nobody wants to see a penis. Nobody wants men. (I am going to leave off the fact that men are not the only ones who have cocks and that gender is more complicated than penis-havers and penis-not-havers. That is another post.) Men are not allowed to be objects of desire. And you know what?  That sucks too.

I just wanted you to like me, he said.

I just wanted. you. to like me.

I never saw Richard again. Besides the fact that I wasn’t sure that we had any chemistry, it was clear that it wouldn’t work out between us–he clearly couldn’t listen to my wants and needs. I told him that sending me things I specifically told him I didn’t want wouldn’t be a good way to get him to like me, and yet he persisted. I haven’t heard from him in well over a year now. But my thoughts keep coming back to him. His eagerness to send me dick pics was just a symptom of an overall need he had that wasn’t fulfilled: he just wanted to be wanted.

Richard’s desire to be wanted overpowered his ability to respect me when I said “No.” This is not something that should ever happen. But it doesn’t invalidate the fact that the desire to be desired is a real, legitimate desire, and something that, as a whole, men aren’t allowed to experience in our society. The prevalence of unsolicited dick pics are not only assaultive to people, but they make dick pics something that people don’t solicit. This just contributes to the overall problem of how, societally, we brand men as unwantable. We frame men as the pursuers and women as the pursued, and we don’t allow it any other way. We don’t allow men to be wanted. We don’t allow women to want. This post is not about which one of those is worse–it’s not a contest. This post is about the fact that they both suck. These things are not unrelated. We need to get to a place where everyone is allowed to be wanted, and everyone is allowed to want, and just as importantly, everyone is allowed to not want.

Until then, it’s just going to suck for everyone.

Dysphoria

May 11th, 2012 by

I want to have a penis. There, I said it.

This is not a new coming-out. I’m not a trans man. I don’t want to take testosterone, I don’t want to transition, I don’t want to cut off my breasts or sew up my vulva. There is no news here about my self or my gender identity; I’m just telling you something you might not have known about how it manifests.

It goes through cycles, you see. I’ll spend a while enjoying acting femme and content to look and be treated like a woman; then a month or two will pass and I’ll find myself wanting to bind every day, feeling uncomfortable being called “ma’am,” and considering packing (although not doing it, because I don’t have a soft packer and who wants to deal with a boner all day in class).

The first few times I oscillated to one extreme or the other, it scared me. Unable to see past the way I felt at that moment, I was afraid that I’d been wrong all along: at one extreme, that I was just a girl who overthinks things, and at the other, that I was just a boy but couldn’t admit it. After two or three cycles I noticed the pattern and relaxed a little, trusting that the phases of strong feeling would pass and continuing to comfortably define myself by the variation itself.

And they do pass, back into my ground state of relative genderlessness and then eventually to the other extreme or even the same one again. But knowing that this will happen doesn’t make the experience of the peaks any less real. On the feminine side, it’s usually not a big deal; I’m socialized as a girl, I know how to do that and it matches the way that people expect to interact with me. The masculine side … is not so easy.

This hit home for me recently when I read Seth Fischer’s Notes From a Unicorn, an excellent and compelling essay about being bisexual in a world that doesn’t believe he exists. In it, he describes going through periods of trying to “just be straight” or “just be gay,” and towards the end details a particular bit of sex during one of the latter phases:

I moaned and screamed and made all the right noises … but I just couldn’t come. [I] was right on the edge. Right there. So I did what no one admits to their lovers they do but that everyone does: I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to other people. I [forced] myself to think about men, only men, men men men men men men, and then it slipped in there …. I thought, for a second, about Willow [and] I fucking erupted. I came so hard I was worried about getting enough air.

That moment, that slip, felt so familiar that my heart sank. How many times have I been trying to come, and trying to come, and flicking through my mental gallery of fantasies for the right thing to set me off, and then I hit the one where instead of rubbing my clit, like I’m actually doing, I’m running my fingers through someone’s hair as they suck my dick and it’s over in a second. I don’t feel guilty about this, or ashamed–I don’t think it’s wrong for me to want it. Instead, I feel helpless and sad. What I crave isn’t just something I don’t have; it’s something I can’t.

The worst it’s ever been was towards the end of a Skype call with Leon and Ali, after I think she’d already gotten off and he and I were still turned on and masturbating–watching each other and turning each other on, getting off on that–one of those delicious circles, except this time it wasn’t quite working for me. The sight of him stroking his hard cock made my clit swell and my pussy wet, but I was nowhere close to orgasm and not getting there. Eventually it hit me: the ache I was feeling wasn’t because I wanted to be playing with his cock (although I did). It was because I wanted to be playing with mine.

I wanted to be masturbating the way he was masturbating, sliding my hand along the length of a shaft instead of just pushing against my clit with my fingertips. The knowledge that it was impossible was suddenly so painful and so unsexy that I immediately gave it a hard shove out of my head, and found something generic and hot to think about to drag out the reluctant orgasm. He finished too, we said our good nights and signed off, and then I curled up on my bed and let the thoughts come back and felt like crying.

I talked to Ali about it over the next couple of days. While we don’t identify our genders the same way, we live near enough to each other in genderspace that my problem made a lot of sense to her, and she sympathized. Talking to Leon is harder. It’s not that I think he’d be repelled or disgusted; if I expected that from him, we wouldn’t be involved in the first place. He’s been receptive and patient, when I’ve brought it up as much as I dared. But while he accepts and respects my genderqueer identity, he is with the exception of his attraction to me a straight man, and let’s face it: while his conscious mind recognizes the difference between me and a woman, his unconscious libido probably doesn’t. But only because I have all the parts it expects.

I don’t fault him for that, because it’s not a choice. There’s a deep instinct which says “this one has breasts and a vulva and smells right, let’s have sex with her” and I hardly object to my body setting that off for him. On the contrary. What I’m afraid of is that if I had the body I want–or even if he completely understood how much I want it, how much the body doesn’t feel right–that I wouldn’t trigger that instinct any more. That for all his caring and respect on a conscious level, he could not still be instinctively sexually attracted to me. I am afraid that some day I will have to make a choice between having the body I want and the person I want to share it with, and there is no possible outcome of that situation which wouldn’t break my heart.

I am, of course, unlikely to ever have to make it; having a body that does feel right for me will probably not ever be an option. Even if you simplify the problem to “I want to have SRS” (which isn’t entirely correct), it’s still out of reach on a few levels. Money is the obvious one. I couldn’t afford it out of pocket, which might some day change but not so certainly or so soon that I’ll hold my breath for it. I don’t have health insurance. If I did have health insurance–and that I probably will, eventually–it might or might not cover transition-related expenses at all. If it did, if I got really lucky and got coverage which takes gender transition seriously, it still probably wouldn’t take me seriously, because like I said, I’m not a man and I don’t want the body of one.

Transsexual people have fought so hard for so long to carve out a path for themselves, through the jungle of medical culture and industry, to get what they need. I’m so glad, genuinely glad, that more and more people are now able to follow it. But their path is not my path. The ways for nonbinary people to get care are still few, and irregular, and hard to see. It’s difficult just to get on hormones outside of a binary transition. I can’t even imagine what it would take to convince the gatekeepers of care that it’s right for me to have a penis, without lying and claiming I’m a man (which is out of the question).

Even if I got past all of that–if, say, I was gifted the money for surgery and also found a skilled doctor willing to do it–what could I get? To the best of my knowledge, the creation of a penis which looks, acts, and feels like the ones some people are born with is beyond the limits of current medical technology. The closest we get is with one of two surgeries.

Phalloplasty is the construction of a penis from scratch, using skin from elsewhere on the body. A penis built by phalloplasty can look very much like a cis man’s penis, but can’t become erect without prosthesis and will be much less sensitive if it retains sensation at all. Complications, most often related to extending the urethra, are common.

Alternatively, in metoidioplasty, the clitoris (already enlarged by hormone therapy) is released from the pubic bone, allowing it to lengthen further, and has a shaft constructed from labial tissue. A penis built by metoidioplasty almost always retains sensation, and can of course become somewhat erect (since the clitoris already could), but at an average length of around two inches is not usually long or hard enough to allow for penetrative sex.

Those would be my choices, if I somehow found the money and the access to get surgery: I could have a penis that looks good (but I can’t have intercourse with) or a penis that feels good (but I can’t have intercourse with). The latter is more appealing, but neither is what I want–after going through the expense, the bureaucratic hassle, and the physical trial of the most appropriate surgery currently available, my body still wouldn’t be capable of what I want from it.

So I feel helpless. Not frustrated, not overwhelmed by a difficult obstacle or a long wait or an obscure path, but actually, literally helpless, because as far as I can see (and I’ve done a lot of looking) it is actually, literally impossible for me to get what I need. The helplessness exacerbates the hurt, like helplessness always does; when I let myself dwell I get sad and I stay there.

I try not to dwell. Logically, the unlikelihood of the resolution should ameliorate the fear (why be afraid of a situation that can’t happen?) but it doesn’t. I’m just afraid instead of how strongly I feel about it sometimes. Afraid of being rejected, of being misunderstood, of being ignored. Afraid, more than anything, of being right–about the depth of my need and the impossibility of my solution–and of having no choice but to live with it.

Loudly and Happily Deviant (a post for National Coming Out Day)

October 11th, 2011 by

I’m kinky and agender, but you knew that.

I’m also queer and polyamorous. Specifically, I have a boyfriend and a girlfriend, who are also those things to each other. This situation is new (well, my addition to it is), and I’ve been meaning to write more about it ever since Rowdy posted a call for consent culture narratives on the Pervocracy. Coming from longtime friends to lovers to crushes to triad has been exciting and occasionally scary (especially those last two!), but every step of the way I have felt overwhelmingly respected and cared for. I trust them not because I think nothing will go wrong, but because I have seen how they handle it when things go wrong and it made me feel safe.

Fuck the rom-com bullshit, that’s the kind of love story that needs telling. Boy meets girl; boy and girl meet genderqueer; boy and girl and genderqueer communicate openly about desire and emotion, have a bunch of incredible sex, and then realize that they’re actually super into each other. They discuss time, touch, and talk–what they need, what they can offer–and use what they’ve learned to start building a relationship. And then, well, have a bunch more incredible sex. Bam. There’s my pitch. Think the studios will bite?

Me neither, and that’s why I need to post it. With all of our care and straightforwardness and outright joy, we are still the deviants. There are still people who think our relationship must be boring because we talk honestly about it, and others who think it’s sick just because there are three people in it (and that’s before I even get to the part about hitting each other with sticks). And as long as those people control the narrative, there will be others who would be so happy in a relationship like mine, but will be afraid to seek one out … if they even know they have that choice.

I will resist the urge to exhort everyone who has something to come out about to do so. I recognize the incredible privilege of knowing that I will still have a roof over my head, food to eat, as much of an income as I have anyway, and the continued respect of people that matter to me if the whole world knows that I’m poly, queer, genderqueer, and kinky. Not everyone has that privilege (so when I write more about my girlfriend and boyfriend, I’ll be using pseudonyms). But if you share that privilege with me, consider posting your own story in whatever corner of the internet you inhabit. Let’s be loudly and happily deviant–for all the ones who can’t.

One of the Nineteen

August 2nd, 2011 by

I spent one morning in high school leading my best friend around on a leash. Nothing fancy–just a length of cheap satin ribbon, hand-sewn around his neck with a long tail left over. I walked him down the school hallways and into my classes, where he would hop onto the seat next to me (on all fours, space permitting) and sit quietly until it was time to move on. Other students stared, either sidelong or with unabashed disgust. We soaked it up delightedly. At lunchtime, I handed the leash off to his girlfriend, and she kept him for the rest of the day. It was everyday casual fun to us–a running joke in which he was our plaything.

Why did it take a decade after that before I considered I might be something called “dominant”?

In 2007, still more than a year before I met the person who taught me the term “D/s,” Bitchy Jones was asking:

If there are twenty submissive men for every dominant woman – where are the other 19 women?

19 out of every twenty dominant women aren’t happy or comfortable with femdom as an identity or a place to live. That’s a lot.

That’s 95%.

95% of dominant women aren’t comfortable in femdom.

I was one of Bitchy’s nineteen women. I had no image of dominance other than the PVC-encased dominatrix, which–while fun to look at–sure isn’t anything like me. Femdoms were supposed to be tall, skinny, and busty, projecting feminine desire while sneering down at their groveling submissives. From the first time I saw such an image, I could feel the ache of a craving for something in it, but it paled beside the strength of my knowledge that I could never be that woman. I’m not skinny. I’m not busty. I’m not feminine. I’m not even especially tall. I’m a fat agender person who keeps medium-sized boobs under loose, comfortable shirts, and if I’m honest I’m a total softie with the people I care about. “Kink,” in my understanding at the time, was something for pretty, sexy, confident people: nothing like me. “BDSM” was an abstract fantasy, something harsh and angry rather than something that real people around me were doing with their loved ones every day. In that twisted model of the world, not matching the classic femdom image didn’t just make me not a dominant. With no understanding of the breadth or depth of possibility, much less awareness of the conflation of terminology, I actually believed I was not kinky.

I got an instant message recently from a friend I haven’t seen for a few years. She asked how I was, and I told her (among other things) that I’d been exploring the BDSM scene. She asked me some probing questions, confessing that the idea of dominance intrigued her, so I shared some of what I’ve been learning. She had no idea that BDSM doesn’t have to be about pain, or that you can still be dominant when you’re the one receiving pleasure. She felt guilty for being turned on by the idea of calling a man degrading names … and was amazed when I told her that some men are turned on by that too. This is someone with whom I’ve spent many a late night talking about sex and relationships, but BDSM had never come up before. I didn’t know she was interested in dominance or humiliation. From the sound of it, she hadn’t either. My friend, all this time, had been one of Bitchy’s nineteen missing dominants too.

The Edukink teachers tell a story about a man who came to an introductory BDSM event, for his first time, at quite an advanced age.

“What kept you away so long?” they asked him.

“Well,” he said, “I always knew I was kinky, but I was married for a long time and I figured my wife wouldn’t be into it. Not long ago, though, my wife passed away …

… and then I read her diary.”

There was a pause, in the class where I heard this, and then a collective gasp.

Hearing that story secondhand breaks my heart. My own lived experience, though–my own, even so little, wasted time–makes me furious. I’m furious because of how long I believed I wasn’t even worthy of love or desire, much less cool enough for “kink.” I’m furious because, while I’m writing this, kids are killing themselves to escape oppression instead of celebrating love for whomever they love. I’m furious because shame and shameless fiction are being used every day to justify abuse, while sexuality without shame is censored. I’m furious because we have pulled a mask over our own collective face, a painted illusion of what is “perfect” and “normal,” and we are suffocating ourselves with it.

I’m furious because not conforming to a stereotype robbed me of my identity.

I am furious and achingly helpless, knowing that somewhere out there, right now, there is another shy fat perverted gender-atypical teenager being told over and over that they cannot be beautiful, sexual, or kinky, and I don’t know how to find them and convince them it’s not true. All I can do is write and hope they hear me.

Are you there? Listen:

There is no invisible line dividing you from the people who are allowed to have healthy, fulfilling, kinky sex lives. You don’t have to look like people in magazines. You don’t have to fit a prescribed role, gender or otherwise. You don’t have to be willing to fuck anyone, or limit yourself to fucking one person, or do either of those things but replacing “fuck” with “love.” You don’t have to be healthy or neurotypical. You don’t have to be between eighteen and thirty-five, or have any of the accepted mainstream fetishes, or make enough money to fill your closet and toybag with leather. Just the way you are right now, you already deserve to have healthy, respectful relationships, whether or not those relationships include BDSM or sex or love or none of those things. You deserve to explore what you want, to have clear and honest information available to you, and to express yourself safely. You deserve these things, not because I have invited you into my elitist kinky club, but because healthy, informed sexuality is for everyone.

And that fury I mentioned? That’s why I’m here. It’s why I’m writing down the story of my own exploration, even the parts where I’m vulnerable and afraid, and why I’m doing it somewhere publicly accessible. I may not be loud enough alone to be heard over the cacophony of messages informing us what we must be, but frankly, I do not know what else to do. Maybe, if I’m strong enough, I can at least make a counterpoint ring out a little more clearly.

Post-Transplant

July 30th, 2011 by

You know how when you’ve recently been in pain, the sudden absence of it feels better than if it had never been there? That’s how it felt to post Transplant. Letting go of my uncertainty brought a wave of relief I would never have gotten without questioning my gender in the first place. For the first time, my gender label was not just adequate-for-a-short-answer but actually right. It felt good–surprisingly good. After posting it, as promised, I updated my Diaspora and FetLife accounts with the new information, and then sat there looking at the “25GQ Dom” at the top of my profile and just grinned.

The biggest changes I’ve noticed in the weeks since then weren’t changes. They were ways things had always been which suddenly made a lot more sense. For example, people often refer to me with male pronouns or honorifics, especially online, and it’s never bothered me. On the contrary, I’ve usually been secretly pleased. What does bother me is when someone else corrects them–derailing the whole conversation just for the sake of planting a figurative “THIS ONE IS FEMALE” sticker on my face. The statement is that not only am I female, it’s that my femaleness is more important than what we’re talking about. I dislike everything about that, and it’s much clearer now why it gets so far under my skin.

On a related note, several people have politely asked me which pronouns I now prefer. The truth is that I’m not sure either, yet. If English had a widely accepted gender-neutral animate pronoun, I’d be all over that, but it doesn’t, so my options are gendered, plural, neologistic, or inanimate. Honestly, other than the last one, I don’t really care. I myself get to dodge the problem by using the first person, so pick whatever feels sensible to you and feel free to change it later. If I find I’m uncomfortable with your choice, I’ll let you know, but I won’t blame you for not being able to read my mind.

More problematic for me is the question of non-pro nouns. (Amateur nouns?) If I give up “female,” what does that mean for “girl”? “Woman”? What about “femdom”? Tentatively I’m avoiding them, to see if I feel the loss, and that last is particularly troubling. More than being an efficient descriptor of (in my case) anatomy and preferences, “femdom” as a label comes with some politics. It’s a one-word reminder that not all doms are male, and using it gives me the power to say “Look, I’m a femdom and I’m not a stereotype” to people who don’t yet realize that’s possible. That’s a power I’m reluctant to give up, even while I’m not certain it was rightfully mine in the first place. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just as valuable to do the same for “dom”–to be an example of something entirely unlike the stereotype, including but not only by not being male.

Setting aside vocabulary inquiries, I was surprised at how many of the responses to Transplant were along the lines of “This really got me thinking about myself,” or “I’ve been having similar thoughts.” It’s not just the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon; these were people I already knew, but neither of us had been aware the other was questioning their gender. When I settled on the term “agender” for myself, I felt like I was striking out alone in nearly empty territory (Google pulls up a few results from AVEN, but most of the rest are about a cross-platform scheduling tool). It turns out that I might have more neighbors here than I realized.

The conversation I was most nervous about having came a few days after publishing Transplant, when I got a chance to catch up with my mom (who lives in another time zone). I didn’t expect her to be upset, but I really had no idea what she would think. We didn’t have a lot of time to chat, but she told me she was proud of me both for being so thoughtful and for expressing it so well. Then she added (link mine),

“Not to switch focus, but you make me realize how un-introspective I am, mostly because I’m intellectually lazy and partly because I (and my generation perhaps) have never been comfortable stating — much less sharing — intimate issues. Understatement in my case. To me, you’re very brave, which must mean the same thing as very confident. A good thing.”

“Maybe,” I said. “You don’t see the part where I’m avoiding and ignoring it for ages before finally facing it down.”

“Nobody sees that part,” she pointed out. “That’s the beauty of having a skull.”

My mom is a smart lady.

Admittedly, I’ve had some uncomfortable realizations along with the relief. I’ve noticed for a long time that I can be a bit misogynistic, and that observation used to produce some cognitive dissonance. How could I not like women, if I am one and I don’t dislike myself? (Or, at the times in my life when I did dislike myself, that wasn’t why.) Now it makes–well, no, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s easier to understand, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I don’t want to give myself an excuse for judging people prematurely. What’s going on, I think, is that there’s much about traditional femininity which I dislike (reasonable), and I’ve absorbed its tropes sufficiently to apply them as a template to women I don’t yet know well (not reasonable). I’m trying to catch myself on this consciously, now, so I can knock it the hell off.

Given how long I’ve been reading myself wrong, I was pleased to hear from maymay that Transplant “[is] also REALLY illuminating because it so perfectly matches how I read you, gender-wise. And it’s odd because that’s very rare. It’s NOT androgynous. It’s truly ‘not-a-gender.’ […] I’ve actually mentally been trying to remember to use ‘she’ and ‘female’ with you for a while, and I thought that was odd for a while, but now I get why I was stumbling over it in my head for so long.”

This raises an interesting question. The way he’s contrasting them, to seem androgynous is to have both masculine and feminine aspects, whereas to seem agender is to have neither. So where does that put me in the eyes of people who are attracted to a gender? Have I just removed from my dating pool anyone who identifies as a straight man or gay woman (that is, someone attracted to women), bisexual (attracted to men and women1), or just attracted to gender itself? If I have, that’s an awfully small sliver of potential suitors I’ve got left. This is a point of genuine insecurity which I haven’t really resolved yet. Just like I need to be sexy including my fat, not in spite of it–as Chaos has written too about her disability–I need to be attractive including my (lack of) gender, not in spite of that either.

On the other hand, why would anyone’s attraction to me have changed? All I’m adopting is a new word; inside, I’ve felt the same or similar gender-wise as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, a group of peer educators once came around to one of my classes to give a presentation about sexuality and gender identity. They needed a volunteer for a demonstration, and one of the presenters (a friend of mine) called me out, knowing I’d be an interesting participant. He drew four lines on the board, each marked M at one end and F at the other. I was to pick a point on each line; one was for my physical sex, one for my gender identity, one for my gender presentation, and one for my sexuality. I put my first point solidly on the F end of the scale, and the rest muddled about in the middle wherever they belonged. If I did the same exercise today, ten years later, it would look almost exactly the same2.

I’ve never felt or been treated like someone who fits neatly in the “female” pigeonhole. What’s new is just the realization that it might mean something. I was lucky to be born in a little magic bubble of time and space3 where I grew up surrounded by the idea that boys and girls can be whatever they want, so I didn’t think much of it when I didn’t take to ballet and ponies very much. I remember that the notion of a “tomboy” appealed to me, but I wasn’t actually any good at sports or tree-climbing either, so I reluctantly had to discard it. When I was a little older, I considered whether I might be trans, but I didn’t feel like a boy, so at the time (still stuck on the binary) I assumed that was the end of it. The majority of my friends, after puberty or so, were always male. I wasn’t exactly “one of the guys,” but I wasn’t one of the girls they got crushes on and dated, either. Hurt by that, I figured I was just a faulty girl. It never occurred to me that I was a perfectly good something else.

Getting ready for bed the night Transplant was published, I stopped to take a look in the mirror and had a startling realization. Gendered standards don’t apply to me any more. I’m no longer supposed to look like women, because I’m not one. All I have to look like is me. The shape I already am. The only shape, minor variations aside, that I can be. I set my own standards now, and that power is incredibly liberating. For what might be the first time, when I looked in the mirror that night, I didn’t compare what I saw to anything else I’d ever seen. I just looked and accepted. That’s who I am. That’s all I need to be. All the confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety may’ve been worth it just for that.

  1. Some people use “bisexual” the way I use “pansexual.” I don’t know how common this is, and given that the word “pansexual” exists, I find it confusing. So when it’s not otherwise specified, I interpret “bisexual” to mean “both,” not “any.” (Besides, the “it applies to the whole spectrum between two points” argument doesn’t include me anyway.) []
  2. With the possible exception of the first solid F for physical sex. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, which among other things means I have higher level of androgens (male hormones) than is typical for someone with two X chromosomes. So I actually am, arguably, a little more physically male than the average cis woman. []
  3. Berkeley, California, 1985 []

Invisible Beautiful

July 6th, 2011 by

I’m a bit of a clotheshorse for someone on a thrift store budget. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself fretting about what to wear to a party—did I want to go more femme, or masculine? To follow the theme, or not? I got a sexy idea, put it together, tried it on … and frowned. It was exactly the outfit I’d intended, but the image in my head was nothing like the one in the mirror. My body type’s been roughly the same since puberty; why can’t I picture my own clothes on myself?

I am surrounded by examples of how skinny people can choose to look. They’re in magazines and advertisements, shop windows and clothing catalogues. Many of the brands they suggest I wear don’t offer anything in my size; when they do, many stores don’t sell them. And where they are sold, you certainly won’t see a mannequin shaped like me in the window. Plus-size models? Please. According to the LA Times, the average American woman is a size fourteen. From a Huffington Post interview:

At 5’9″ and a size 6, Katie Halchishick was deemed “plus sized” by the modeling industry and asked to “just shave two inches” off her bony hips.

For reference, this is me1. The skirt I’m wearing in that picture is a size twenty-two.

(Size numbering itself is a whole other can of worms, of course. It’s surreal to me that “plus sizes” begin at half my numerical size. Someone half my actual size would be tiny! A friend of mine who is that tiny has the complementary complaint: being labeled a “size 0” as if she were all but incorporeal.)

I’m not just angry about the dearth of sex-positive imagery because it makes clothes shopping a pain. We use our partners as status symbols in this society; if I am never depicted as desirable, I have no social value. That means not only that I’m ignored as a potential partner, but that the very idea that I might have one is a little gross. And of course, anyone who happens to genuinely like fat people is therefore a deviant. The Village Voice described Kevin N.’s experience growing up (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, his “pretty” girlfriend was an all-state softball player—size 16, five feet nine inches tall, maybe 200 pounds—but could bench more than her scrawny boyfriend. A rumor spread that he was gay, which he didn’t bother to refute. Liking a fat girl was so much more of a preposterous scenario that he worried the truth would “make it snowball even more.”

Living with self-respect while surrounded by this bullshit requires constant attention and willpower. I’m lucky—I have good friends and lovers in my life who make it unambiguously clear how sexy they find my shape. And as much as the BDSM scene marginalizes those who don’t fit its favorite dynamics, it’s pretty size-positive; in a clothing-optional dungeon, there is neither the means nor the incentive to maintain the fiction that stick-thin, unblemished bodies are the norm. I feel confident in the dungeon, and that’s great. I need to, if I want to strut my deviant body proudly in a public space. But I still want something hot to wear while I do it, and then I’m struck once again by the frustrating lack of examples.

I know nobody looks like a mannequin. That’s what the dressing rooms are for. The difference is that I have to actively ignore what I’m seeing in order to imagine myself usefully close to accurately. That’s difficult, and tiring, and having to do it depresses me. If those mental gymnastics sound familiar, it might be because you’ve been listening to maymay.

As a sexually submissive guy myself, I look at a lot of BDSM porn, a lot of women bottoms, and I’ll change the genders around in my head. When I see a woman tied up, I think, “It’s okay, I’ll just imagine them as a guy, someone like me.” […]

And the more I looked at porn the more I realized I really wasn’t interested in seeing images of sexuality that aroused me, I was much more interested in seeing images of sexuality that reflected mine, so I could connect with them and see myself represented in that image and have a validation that I actually exist, that other people are like me there.

He reached it through sexuality, I through fashion, but the longing is the same: we both want to see people who are similar to ourselves portrayed as normal and desirable, and the images just aren’t there.

Neither of us is even holding the shortest end of the stick when it comes to having one’s attractiveness marginalized. Being female-assigned, I benefit from the trope of the curvy girl, and from the BBW and fat admirer communities. BHM appreciators exist, but in the mainstream, the assumption that fat men’s bodies are disgusting is so reliable that it can be used to sell advertising (if they’re acknowledged as objects of desire at all). Maymay’s gender/role identification is underrepresented at best and reviled at worst, but when you do find them in erotic images, most of the models are slender and pretty like him. People who are fat, male, and submissive are both kinds of invisible, no matter how sexy they really are.

I could go on, but a bunch of smart people have already done it for me. Professor Chaos wrote a post in this blog about the invisibility of disabled sexuality. For the 2006 film “A Girl Like Me,” filmmaker Kiri Davis interviewed young black women about their perceived standard of beauty, returning over and over to light skin and straight, fine hair. As the New York Times observed, even those who would reject that standard in favor of a “natural” look might not know how to maintain it—and then may have to endure unwanted rubbernecking and touching. Long, straight, shimmering locks are a mainstay of the beauty-magazine pages. When did you last see a shampoo ad feature someone with naturally kinky black hair?

Our shared concept of what a person looks like comes from the images we see around us—images which have already passed through the very narrow filters of the fashion and entertainment industries. This isn’t just dishonest, it’s dangerous. The link between unrealistic body image and adolescent eating disorders is so strong that the American Medical Association recently adopted policy to discourage digital alteration of advertising models. Such alteration is currently common practice, and its unambiguous message is that even the thinnest few percent of us aren’t thin enough.

When I mentally assembled my outfit for that party, I pictured it unthinkingly on my limited idea of that “normal” human—one who is white, able-bodied, female-assigned, and skinny. The difference between my real body and that image means that when I’m doing my damnedest to disprove the “fat people can’t be sexy” meme, to actively create a better example, I can still try on an outfit, look in the mirror, and for a moment before I catch myself, feel disappointed by what I see.

The day after I tried that outfit on, several hours before the party, I was telling a friend over coffee about my experience with mismatched self-image. We talked about fat-positivity, about frustrating invisibility, and about culture and desire and shame. Finally, she asked,

“… so what was the outfit, anyway?”

I told her: black jeans, a wifebeater, and black suspenders. She stared at me. “What?” I asked.

“Fizz, you have exactly the body type I would imagine that outfit on.”

“Wait, really?”

“Except for having boobs, I guess.”

We compared notes. The image in my head was tall and lanky. She was picturing a “big, working-class punk guy”—my type indeed, but for the boobs and the attitude. That take on it hadn’t occurred to me, but I trust my friend’s judgment; I wore it, chest bound, and packing a strapon. I went to the party, had a good time, and by the time the clothes came off again, it didn’t matter what they’d been; there was nothing to be ashamed of underneath them.

When the next party rolls around, I’ll be fretting once again about what to wear. I want the confidence boost, but I also need to be an example. I am fat. I am sexy. And I won’t let the world keep pretending I don’t exist.

  1. Photo by Myles Boisen. []

A Socratic Gadfly on Public Deviance

June 24th, 2011 by

A friend of mine popped up on IM recently with a news story. It described a man who was allowed to travel on a commercial airline wearing little more than women’s lingerie, despite the complaints of his fellow passengers. It’s notable in the context of another recent incident in which the same airline kicked someone off a flight for not complying with a request to pull up his sagging pants, but I was more interested in my friend’s response to the first passenger’s choice of dress. If my friend were generally oblivious to social deviance issues, I might have dismissed it, but “Robin” is genderqueer and kinky; I was pretty sure that we agreed on the fundamental principles here (and if we didn’t, I wanted to know about it). So I started needling. This is a technique I don’t often use, and I was pleased with the result, so I asked for permission to post the conversation. (It’s edited to remove noise and digressions, and change the names, but little else.) For more examples, see maymay on doing this at play parties, or Rick Garlikov on teaching third graders.

<robin> http://news.yahoo.com…us_saggy_pants_arrest_panties
<robin> US Airways had a black man arrested for wearing his pants too low (you know, it’s a very common style these days), but then a few days later allowed a white man wearing little more than panties to fly
<robin> fucking racist double standards
<robin> I feel kinda sorry for the people who had to sit next to the old man in drag on the plane…. I mean drag is one thing, but he was dressed like a really skanky ho
<robin> I think most people would feel uncomfortable sitting next to a biological female on a plane, if she was dressed like that
<robin> Although not as many people would probably speak up about it
<fizz> and would it be wrong for her to dress that way?
<robin> I think that you need to take other people in to consideration when you’re going to be packed like sardines on a plane with them for a flight
<fizz> sure. but what makes it not okay to dress a certain way?
<robin> Just our uptight society
<robin> Oh, and it gets cold on airplanes.  What the hell was he thinking?
<fizz> haha
<fizz> they have blankets
<fizz> and, okay, but society aside, you said *you* felt sorry for those people
<robin> I feel sorry for them, because they must have been uncomfortable
<fizz> ah.
<robin> He kind of comes across as a pervert.  I mean, people dress usually that way so that people will stare at them, ya know?
<fizz> what’s wrong with wanting to be stared at?
<fizz> (would you think a woman dressing the same way was a pervert?)
<robin> The thought would totally cross my mind
<fizz> okay. but why?
<fizz> what’s perverted about it?
<robin> You got me.  The people who keep staring are probably the bigger perverts
* fizz grins
<fizz> ’cause it’s weird or unnatural to stare at something unusual?
<robin> Well it depends on which part of him they were staring at ;)
<fizz> how are you using the word pervert? just for reference.
<robin> I think a pervert is somebody who’s sexual behavior makes other people uncomfortable, AND who gets off on that discomfort
<robin> I suppose it’s hard to tell if he was getting off on dressing that way, or if he was trying to make some kind of a point
<fizz> or, of course, just likes dressing that way. could be neither. :)
<robin> yeah
<robin> He definitely made people uncomfortable though, and should have seen that coming
<robin> I dunno what to think about it now
<robin> I mean he has a right to dress how he wants, and people should just get over it….
<robin> But at the same time, is forcing it upon people really the right way to handle it?
<fizz> well, as opposed to what?
<fizz> if I’m happier dressing in a nonconforming way, can I express that without “forcing” it on people?
<robin> Well you can go out to a club where it’s accepted, or walk around certain neighborhoods
<robin> But there are all kinds of people with a variety of belief systems in airports
<robin> I wouldn’t dress like that in an airport out of fear for my own safety.  He’s lucky that nobody tried to beat him up.
<fizz> heh, well, yeah. that’s a separate thing.
<fizz> what happens if you only exhibit nonmainstream behavior in places where it’s accepted, though?
<fizz> what effect does that have on the mainstream?
<robin> I suppose nothing would ever change
* fizz nods
<robin> Maybe I’m just not brave enough -_-
<fizz> nobody is *all* the time
<robin> I hope I’m braver some day

Transplant

June 10th, 2011 by

I crossdress. Sort of. Certainly I go out sometimes in a compression tank top, with an ace bandage binding my chest, under a men’s shirt and jeans and without earrings or makeup. I’m not trying to pass as a cis man or anything, but given that I’ve been mistaken for one while wearing women’s clothes and a bra, I expect that I sometimes do. I refer to this as “drag,” because it’s presenting as something contrary to my gender assignment, but it honestly doesn’t feel any more like an act than going out in a sexy skirt and top does. I don’t choose one of those options because I’m feeling “more girly” or “more boyish” that day. These are just some of the outfits I have in my wardrobe, and sometimes I’m in the mood for one, and sometimes another.

In sexual dreams and fantasies, It’s about 50/50 whether I have a penis. When I do, the other person in my imagination often doesn’t; when I don’t, the other person usually does. More often than either, I’m observing from outside and honestly couldn’t tell you which participant’s place I’d like to be in. I view porn that way too. (Am I agazing? Maybe gazecurious.) There are sex acts I find equally hot from either participant’s perspective, although some are frustratingly inaccessible to me; I’ve never longed for a bio cock more than while watching someone give exquisite head to my strapon.

So What?

None of that is inherently about gender, of course. It’s about presentation, body type, and sexual preferences. There’s nothing wrong with identifying female and presenting male, nor with identifying female and having a penis, but I don’t know that either of those is what I’m doing. Do I have a reason beyond chromosomes to think of myself as female? I’m not a trans man–I’m pretty sure of that–but there are other labels I could use: gender fluid, intergender, third gender, and more. The reality, though, is that none of these descriptions feels quite right to me. Including female.

It’s not that I reject the notion of labels outright. I’m a language nerd; I fully appreciate the utility of having words for things. But there are places I reach for in my own brain when I want to know my name, my preferences, my personality, or other parts of myself, and when I reach into the place where it feels like gender should be, I come up empty. I’m not even sure what having something there would mean. There are people out there who know their own gender so certainly that they make huge, difficult life changes to be perceived as what they are. I sincerely respect that, and intellectually I can understand it, but I don’t really comprehend the strength of that pull towards a point on the gender spectrum. What part of me would be different, if I knew I was male?

For a long time I dodged the question. “I’m female,” I would explain if someone asked, “but I’m not particularly attached to it.” Then, talking with a small group of friends a few weeks ago, I explained in more detail and wondered if I should call myself something else. Someone asked why I even cared what word I used, if I didn’t feel strongly about my gender. I gave the answer I thought of first: I want to communicate well, which means adopting the label that expresses my intent most clearly. But before I was done saying it, I knew it was a true reason but not the real one. I turned my mind from exploring vocabulary to answering my friend’s question. Why did I care so much about the label? Why did the topic agitate me so much?

And the realization came like a wrecking ball. Having a gender isn’t about aligning yourself with a definition; it’s caring about your label. All this time I’d been saying I wasn’t attached to my gender, I was attached so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I cared so much that whenever it came up, I had to point out I didn’t care. I couldn’t let go of the question because I knew, deep down, that the label I’d been using was wrong for me. The hole I found when I reached for that part of my identity wasn’t an absence. The hole was the answer. In retrospect, the obviousness and ridiculousness of this made me laugh. And then I started to cry.

In the few months that I’ve been actively exploring kink, I’ve spent a lot of time in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing things. There’s a skill to being new–to accepting a period of inability and frustration, and persisting–which I’ve worked consciously to develop. I’m not afraid of talking to a stranger about my sexual desires. I’m not afraid of watching someone stick needles through my arm. But this? The gender thing? This terrifies me. I can stay calm while examining my core beliefs, needs, and expectations, because even the most important of those are just branches on the tree of me. I had thought gender was just another branch; it turned out that I was shaking the tree by its roots. Finding the right word wasn’t about explaining some things that I do. It was about knowing what I am. I had no precedent for changing my self-perception on that fundamental a level. I was really, honestly frightened.

In Good Company

But I wasn’t alone. One friend of mine told me recently about his similar feelings: Our culture models gender as a line, he explained, with male at one end and female as the other. When he wants to move away from male, people perceive him as moving towards female, but that’s not what he means to do at all. What he wants is to move orthogonally to the line itself. Another friend, Ian, wrote in a Fetlife post about his identity:

I am male. Sort of. Kinda. Mostly? While I am certainly male-bodied and identify most clearly as being male […] the act of dressing up isn’t arousing, but rather comforting. Sometimes I just feel more girly than others, and I have at this point built a number of feminine aspects into how I present myself […] I am not transsexual then, simply genderqueer, though not so strongly that I feel comfortable making it my main gender identity … yet.

Then there’s Storm, the baby who’s being raised without gender. Storm’s parents were inspired by Lois Gould’s lovely fable The Story of X. Kathy Witterick pleads on her child’s behalf:

Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s(he) wants to be?!

A Swedish toddler whom the press call “Pop” hasn’t been assigned a gender either. Pop’s parents’ reasoning:

We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset. It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.

Hanne Blank’s fantastic keynote at BECAUSE 2002 exhorts us to not settle for static labels. The talk is about bisexuality, but her language here is broad:

What I am here to do is to ask you to consider this: that having an identity which is constantly the subject of negotiation is a good thing, that not resting, not having a fixed dwelling place, keeps our queerness — and all queerness — vital and alive. I am here to ask you to consider that the cultural consolidation of identity limits one’s ability to become liberated from a culture whose practice is to only recognize consolidated, group identities. Consider for a moment that there are ways to establish identity and community without sacrificing mobility, flexibility, change, and challenge.

Transplant

All this time, I’ve been afraid of jerking people around–asking of them the difficult task of changing their definition of me, and then having to do it all over again later because it didn’t turn out to be the right label after all. But maybe it’s not about being “right.” Maybe it’s about describing the place where I am now, about being a visible example of the complexity of gender experience. I resisted the idea of finding or making a different word for myself because I didn’t want to be seen as sophomoric, rejecting all previous thought on the subject so I could declare myself a unique snowflake. But I do get to choose what I am, and I am unique. So is everybody else! What if we started acknowledging that?

Blank suggests the word “sovereign” to describe a dynamic and self-directed identity. While that may be the true nature of the thing, it doesn’t satisfy my desire for clarity. The etymological best fit for me is, I think, “agender.” While it falls under the umbrella of genderqueer, it doesn’t mean between genders, nor alternating; it’s not a third gender or a mix. It just means “not”–a hole–a gap in self-concept at the place where I found one in mine. It’s not a fixed point for me to align to, it’s a description of what I already am. And that, for once, feels right.

I can tell it’s a good label because it changes almost nothing. I’ll keep wearing men’s and women’s clothes, often together, and daydreaming about bits I do and don’t have. On forms with only two choices, I’ll shrug and check “female,” or abstain. Where gender is a text field, I will reward that with a more thoughtful answer. And on my own blog, where I can answer in paragraphs if I want to, I have no need to compromise. My introduction currently describes me as “female. Mostly,” and it’s wrong. I’m not mostly female; I’m a feminine sort of agender. When I publish this post, I’ll update that text to say so.

I’m nervous about changing my label, and nervous about sharing so much. But if I feel exposed–uprooted–that’s just the move out of my planter box. Outside, I’ll have richer soil … and a lot more room to grow.

 

There’s now a followup to this, Post-Transplant, describing my first six weeks with a new gender label.