Against Discourse: The Chaser Myth & the Un/Making of a Modern Woman by Jamie Hood
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
BY JAMIE HOOD
A common criticism of confessional art is that to use one’s self as the propulsive narrative or perspectival fulcrum signifies a sort of artistic idleness; that the artist, rather than demonstrating the rigor of their creative labor, has simply generated a transposition, a dictation, of their experience—and in so doing, has removed the autobiographical/confessional form from the domain of Great Art and/or sociopolitically-oriented and historically-contextualized knowledge structures.
Such a critique suggests that the scope of the self is, finally, neither so expansive nor so worthy of examination. It goes without saying, I think, that this charge is disproportionately leveraged against women artists who take as the subject of our work and art our personal histories and material conditions, and is leveraged most especially against those among us who are subjected to intersecting disenfranchisements and/or those who speak out about trauma and precarity.
To say that the personal is political in 2020 feels trite, and yet.
So let’s say I write within the terms of my life. I’ve spoken elsewhere of this as a meaning-making practice which facilitates my survival. Especially in the getting through of trauma, of articulating my most unspeakable experiences by my own volition and in my own voice—rather than being made articulable by others as a victim for whom story/telling is inaccessible—it is my sense that weaving the tapestries of our own lives remains an invaluable practice, although of course, we must also reflect back on and interrogate it, in the way that any personal liberationist practice must necessarily be self-reflexive.
I think of Joan Didion’s oft-cited—and often mischaracterized, although that is for another essay—declaration, from “The White Album,” that We tell ourselves stories in order to live. To narrativize one’s own life is a fundamental condition of being human.
More, for many of us, this can be a quite radical enactment: an interventionist gesture in a world which seeks to control the right of marginalized people and narratives to exist at all; or, in the regrettable case that we do, who among us gets to tell these stories and how. So I write myself into history, into legibility. I insist on the fact of my existence, and in the most banal sense, I write my life because I am the one living it. I am always hesitant, however, to speak in representative modes—as in, for a community in which I am seen to be included—or to speak for anyone, truly, but my self.
I think, as someone who would more or less self-classify as a confessionalist, that a central tenet of my artistic ethics is: if I choose to expose my life and its circumstances in order, in some small way, to live, it is my duty not to violate the privacy of particular others in identifiable ways, and my additional duty not to amplify my voice as substitutive for anyone’s.
I know I am going on here; I am obsessive about disclaimers. And I promise this will circle back. All of this to say that to be approached about an essay, where I am intended (I think) to elaborate upon a generalized anxiety—here, concerning The [Tranny] Chaser as an academically observable phenomenon which has, in the case of the open letter to TSQ in question, set in motion a politically exploitative bad faith process—and to be expected to speak as a sort of surrogate for the trans woman imbricated by this general anxiety—well, yes, I admit this possibility unsettles me.
In short, I insist we remember that narrating our lives and our delights and our pains and our oppressions is affirming, indispensable, and politically radical—and I insist also that what follows is anecdotal, localizable, and rooted in the sensibilities of one person, in my sensibilities, entirely inextricable from where I come from, who I am, my traumas, my joys, my worldview.
I am not speaking for trans women. This is a personal meditation on fucking, desire, and exploitation. If it usefully expands the dialogic palette, I will feel I have done some minor good.
And the fact is also this: I am bratty and discourse-avoidant. Relative to intellectualizing how I fuck I must say that (1) I tire at the notion of living life like an abstraction; and (2) with minimal exception, I am unintrigued by the obsessive outrage-cycles of academics, hyper-insulated intracommunity interlocutors, and those accounts on twitter—you know the ones—who take pleasure in regularly spearheading the site’s furies-du-jour in the interest of stoking petty conflict for its own sake.
Now. I am not immune to drama. What else to do these quarantined days but track such tedia, be oversaturated in scroll-immersion, and pay mind to whatever occupies the volatile center of the dominant twitter consciousness for nine or 12 or 17 hours. I am a simple girl, and I am overwhelmed, as I imagine so many of us are. I wake up, I masturbate, eat breakfast, and read for a few hours over coffee. As the late spring unfurls into its more generous warmth I begin to bike again, take the dogs on long walks. Evenings, I try new recipes and learn to propagate my plants. I have a roof over my head, for now, and I get high often, and I know these are blessings, however small.
Everything seems so large and so terrible. I don’t need to tell you this. There is in this decontextualized temporality somehow too much and too little time in any given day; twitter is omnipresent, endless, and its pretense of meaningful sociality seems so seductive in this moment where I encounter only my roommates, my dogs, and my vibrators.
As this essay approaches publication, I am on a social media break. It has all become too much. It pains me to feel simultaneously hyper-available and so profoundly alienated. It hurts to imitate connection when I cannot be with or near anyone. To the conversation at hand: perhaps it is simply that, as a rule, I would rather be fucking in my limited time on this earth than be discoursing about fucking. But, in one of the greatest challenges of my quarantine, I am not fucking. Eighty days or more now that I have been isolated and unfucked, so let’s talk about sex, baby. How many pleasures remain to us?
Another admission: when Grace approaches me about writing for this response cluster, I do not begin by writing about transness, sexuality, or the figure of the chaser; no, the essay I wake in the middle of the night to jot notes for is on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and Jane Campion’s bewildering and sensual 1996 adaptation, with Nicole Kidman as the starry-eyed young American Isabel Archer, and John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond, the duplicitous aesthete who conquests to wed her to him like an exhaustible art-object.
Perhaps it is because I am always thinking about what it is we do as women when men endeavor to collect us, pin us, fragile butterflies, beneath the terrible certainty of their display cases. Campion’s vision of Portrait—as across her entire cinematic body of work—is especially obsessed by the disassemblings of personhood we institute in establishing our ways of looking, our aesthetics. Campion’s Portrait asks: to what point is it possible for a female gaze, a woman’s desire, to intervene in this procedure of debasement?
In an early scene, Mr. Touchett (Isabel’s uncle) remarks upon her bartering value that “I told you you’d be a success over here [Europe]: Americans are highly appreciated. You are very valuable, you know.” Isabel immediately repudiates his paternalism, this objectification, his failure to recognize the autonomous reachings of her yearning. Indeed, a great part of Miss Archer’s interest in her own cosmopolitan education, her self-making, originates in her refusal to be subordinated to the de facto objectifications of the wealth class’s fin-de-siècle marriage market.
And yet, in a scene immediately following, we watch as she and her modern friend Henrietta Stackpole dither about an exhibit of funerary statues, learning the world, as it were, through aestheticized and fossilized lives they now minimize to the curious object-status of the “morbid.”
Women, Campion intimates throughout her work—and especially in her sense of how the education of the modern (wealthy white) woman generates a consumption of the world by the commodification of experience—are as capable of and predisposed to the manipulations of others for our personal edification as anyone. While the heteropatriarchal underpinnings of this world limit the expressibility of our desires, it is neither that we do not have them, nor that we do not wield them dangerously.
I first read Portrait at 16. I understood little; I wrote an ineffectual report on it. Mercifully, my poor English teacher suffered through my obtuseness and recognized some spark in my interest there. I’ve re-read the novel a half dozen times or more since, and have often thought about the affective resonances between me and Miss Archer—our fathoming of our selves as the most significant of projects; our integrity a treasure not to be sacrificed. Too, I see in her my capacity for seduction at the hands of the Gilbert Osmonds of the world; the concession, indeed, being made after promises of sensual passions, a life of art and the mind, the temptation of the stability of a “good” marriage.
It is ridiculous! I know this. And idealisms are so easily twisted. And to be a woman is so often a perilous thing.
On twitter this week I post two photos of Nicole Kidman: on the left, a studio still of her from the film adaptation, pensive, pale, and costumed; on the right, a paparazzi photo of her shouting in unadulterated pleasure immediately following the finalization of her divorce from Tom Cruise. I write, indicating a reading of both the images and the caption from left to right: “when i must think about The Discourse // when i say fuck it i shall get high instead.” The post does ok numbers. I say: well, it is a pandemic.
Is it any wonder, when I see the old hat chaser conversation turning its tired engines over again on twitter, that I am, above all else, exhausted? To someone lamenting its repetition, I reply that—shockingly—when I allow a man to fuck me, I prefer to think that what he’s doing is fucking me. Not some abstraction of “me” now deployable at the behest of the hot take; not some disidentified orifice formerly known as “me” to be repurposed in peer reviewed trans ideological platforms.
I note (anecdotally, again) with discomfort, moreover, that the most vociferous responses to this “transamorous” man’s open letter—in which, most controversially, he lists his favorite trans porn stars—presume that intersubjective encounters between cis men and trans women are, first, invariably sexual, and second, are inescapably objectifying. This perpetuates a notion that all cis men who fuck trans women are chasers, fetishists, that this is a kind of metaphysical assignation, or should be—as though, when we speak of the awful specter of the chaser-as-such, we are speaking of an essentializable identity (indeed, the only sexual identity) for such men. As for straight trans women’s place in this rhetoric, we are contextualized by the identities of these men only to the extent that we are fuckable; only as far as our sexual currency can take us.
Too, the performative twitter shock directed this way gestures in a more insidious direction, in which proximity to pornography and sex work is itself a fundamental aspect of the stain we are meant to feel disgusted by; and that, as Advocates and Scholars, we must place trans porn actresses over there, being that they now function as a variant of our selves which invokes bad identification. That to be associable with transactional or public-facing sex could cause “our” general desubjectivization, our divestment from socially legitimated personhood. Good god, does the old porn war rhetoric ever die?
I seethe. I get high. I rest.
From Campion’s Portrait, some miscellany:
Isabel telling her cousin, Ralph Touchett—who is in love w her—that her view of marriage is of a “giving up” of chances…
Isabel then lamenting to him that she knows, at her root, “I can’t escape my fate”…
At breakfast in France:
Isabel jauntily descending the stairs and stepping into the dining room, loudly blowing her nose, red-faced, into a kerchief she secrets away in the sleeve-cuffs of her dress…
Henrietta Stackpole stuffing the table bread into her rucksack when they realize they must depart early bc of the elder Mr. Touchett’s death…
How I love the ravenousness and the physical excess of Campion’s women! Always so full of sensual desire, always so inside of their hunger and their bodies…
Ralph Touchett, the ponderous un-man of Portrait, at the table, too, w an insect trapped beneath his drinking glass…
Isabel to her handsome suitor Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortenson), who shows up unannounced after she has rejected his proposal: “Think of me or not; only leave me alone”—I think how I should only wish to be so decisive; I should only wish to be so able to insist upon my inviolability…
& of Goodwood: is he not, in some hilarious sense, a literal chaser? He has chased Miss Archer over the Atlantic; and has no sense of her desire; and still, how fucking hot it is when he runs his large hands across her jawline after she has insisted that he leave…
& then, in her room after, how Isabel falls into masturbatory fantasies of being taken by three men at once; rubbing her forehead against the bed-dressing; lying down to touch her own body everywhere as if overcome…
I have gotten high; too high. I pass out during my rewatch a third time this week.
It is possible to take pleasure in one’s own objectification; or also to navigate what might be objectifying circumstances in ways which foreground one’s own bodily autonomy and pleasure. This is not some pat comment on kink. I do not, to be perfectly honest, consider my sex to be especially kinky. The consolidation of discursive power behind “the” Evil Chaser, severed from tangible reality, awards the exploitation of trans women more power than it may in fact materially have from the jump. Power does not operate unilaterally; generating “the chaser” as a category and investing it with villainous totality shores up the material possibilities of exploitation by centering men-who-take-advantage in socially re-designated, and increasingly weaponizable, identities.
That is: to crystallize “the” chaser as an observable category of identification reifies it as a possible avenue for certain kinds of sexually opportunistic and relationally careless cis men to accrue further power in what is now figured as a fixed component of erotic encounters between them and us.
More, by so doing, trans rhetorical strategies such as these alienate us by fashioning a kind of trans exceptionalism, as though we are the only women subject to pornification, the last fetish, the sole women made discardable in the hands of men. The insinuation that trans women’s objectification is itself a matchless classification in some beyond space of misogyny is, in the first instance, part and parcel with an insistence that “the” trans woman we are speaking of is coded white and otherwise does not experience objectification under the weight of interlocking systems of oppression; and, in the second instance, thus makes more challenging the practice of solidarity across a wide expanse of women’s experiences with sexual subjection, which can and must be transformed for the better.
Do not mistake me. I loathe feeling fetishized by men and have suffered the denial of my personhood and been discarded by men countless times. Indeed, I have written elsewhere about my anxieties relative to the possible—no; likely—alienations of trans women from certain structures of heterosexual life. Still I cannot abide a sensibility which orchestrates a spineless idpol evisceration of the men who fuck us—who are, it must be said, not invariably “chasers,” who do not only and ever exploit us. In point of fact, this designatory imperative feels less like an accurate assessment of painful experiences I have had in specific circumstances which were not unavoidable, and most like an expectation that I surrender my sexual agency in debt to the Discourse, which desires my tragic trans victimization for the easy symbology of it all.
Of course, there is a plurality of possible discourses. It is my sense, however, that there is a party line here—especially contextualized by twitter’s algorithmic investments in shock cycles, used to foreground the loudest, often in contradistinction to the most insightful, interlocutors. It is about engagement, and in social media this entails a reliance on and generation of binary thinking—in this iteration, of good and bad trans erotic orientations; and of cis straight men who fuck trans women in order primarily to exploit us and then, opposite, cis straight men who do not fuck us at all. So when I speak to The Discourse, I am speaking to the coalescences of possibly dissenting voices into a kind of fictively uniform platform which gains the greatest mainstream traction in digital spaces.
I return to Portrait. I think how easy it is to boil the novel down to its ideas, as critics sometimes do; to deny Isabel the complicated and astonishing flaw of her own boundless curiosity; to try to shoehorn her divided desires; to write off her subsequent traumas as necessary ideological tragedy; to compress all the strange specificity of her glittering personhood.
Then I think: I too flatten things. In writing this I have formed a rhetorical mirror, explicit or no, between Isabel, taken in and degraded by Osmond, and the Nicole Kidman who plays her, and then also the Nicole Kidman whose subjection to Tom Cruise and his scientologist bizzarities has been so speculated upon by the media and the public in the years since their divorce.
Still, I look again at that photo of Kidman in ecstasy: her joy, incandescent. It becomes hard for me, in meditating on this resonance, not to imagine an Isabel who escapes. I am incurably fascinated by iconographies of women, untethered—I notice as I read this back to myself in revision the echoes between my affect in relation to this photo and my recent writings on the delights of Betty Draper. I unfailingly long to be overcome in pleasure; I cling aspirationally to images of women when we appear to be free.
I roll the term transamorous over my tongue. It tastes so boring! What it is, is window dressing; it’s chaser in a cheap suit; it’s a concession we have made to better lick the boot of respectability. The fact is that chaser, to me, has never been terminologically substitutive for a niche identity. It functions as shorthand for the girls when we are warning one another off from certain obvious exploitative behaviors—demeaning obsessiveness about our anatomical configurations; invasive interest in our “transition timelines,” deadname-fishing, the certainty that we will be tossed like garbage the second we put out, having been unlocked as a fetishizable sexual achievement.
But these are behaviors and actions—do they constitute, in their incremental accumulations, a sort of a person? I am not convinced.
Chaser, in my sense, belongs under the purview of intimate chitchat. Codifying gossip into discourse displaces its community efficacy, distancing it from materiality (especially vis-a-vis safety measures) in the process of institutionalizing it. Transamorous as the more respectable sexual category which unsheathes itself from the academicization of the chaser calcifies something in the culture, implies essence, configures a deterministic erotic positioning.
That is, it invests this identity with talismanic power. I hate it. It makes me, in relation to it, feel reduced.
I do not hate this anonymous man, as it seems many wish to do. But there is an insinuation in the trend towards cis straight men creating or else being assigned this alterior sexuality—that of the transamorous man! the gentleman’s chaser! the executive account for men of particular tastes!—that to be attracted to trans women is somehow outside the realm of the usual; that we are, as they say in the Emerald City, horses of a different color. That these men cannot simply be men who fuck women, but must instead be figured as men who fuck women, and then who also fuck us, us who are not, consequent to this discursive redistribution of desire and sexual handling, really to be understood as women at all.
I could not help but notice that many of the most intense twitter respondents to the open letter weren’t even trans women who fuck cis men! The fact is that you don’t know until you know. I am not an impolitic alien specimen for examination by trans lesbians. And then, particularly disappointing, were trans mascs who took up this letter and its publication—which, assuming it was a violence, was one explicitly inflected by misogyny—to expound upon issues of their erasure in how we talk about this particular “chaser” of trans women—erasure and representation being necessary conversations, yes—but in so doing sought, instead, to minimize material violations of trans women by cis men and to suggest that the foregrounding of these violences has been overexposed in emancipatory work. As though we must all simply concede defeat and divvy up our sufferances and our empowerments in tinier and tinier portions.
I am not your bad daughter; nor am I your disobedient sister. I stand with you, but you do not speak for me; you do not reckon with my subjection.
From a kind of self-portrait, some miscellany:
The man in my bed who tells me that he sometimes fucks people he suspects are on the verge of transition, that this turns him on, the possibility that he is witnessing—and fucking—someone in the peculiar process of their molting. I tell him I find this unnerving, but there is some idiocy inhabiting me, because I trust him, because he is very attractive, and because we have mutual friends. I tell myself we are too imbricated in one another’s social circles for him to do so much harm…
While we sleep, the dogs chew an article of his clothing into unrecognizability. He forgets it on top of my hamper and ghosts me a month later. I think it strange—I had already molted, was that the fact of his disappointment in me? I admit I had been wrong. To my reflection I say: there is no man who will not hurt you. In this belief I have never been proven wrong. I “forget” to throw out his torn clothing for some time, thinking, stupidly, that he’ll return for it; thinking, perhaps I should mend it, as though I can dote on the man who is already gone…
Some months later, the man I eventually rebound with, who tells me that he “can’t be with” me, as in, can’t imagine himself as in a couple with me, although we have been checking all the boxes that couples check for at least three weeks. He insists over text while I am on a bartending shift that he thinks of me as only a whore for his sexual satisfaction. I think: then let me use you, too. Let me objectify you as you are doing me. God, I have grasped at straws. I couldn’t have done it, I know, I couldn’t have treated him like that. I still thought I might try…
Still later, the man who asks me what it is like to be a “twitter personality.” I say I couldn’t tell him. Besides the occasionally endless rape threats and the fictive insistence that I am somehow making massive sums of money off the fact that a lot of people enjoy women who talk about cum, I do not know what such a thing feels like. I jokingly ask if he’s trying to fuck me for clout, and later find out that that is precisely what he was doing. He doesn’t get any. I don’t, if we are all being honest with ourselves, really have any to give…
There is no necessary coherency here. I am invoking some of my recent bad exes, who happened to me, but could in fact probably have happened to any number of different sorts of women, with slight variations. These are just men, behaving badly. Anyone can turn miscellany into a narrative. These men brought me great pain. And I know why I am often asked to speak about dating and fucking men—because I have written and talked quite openly about the ways in which loving men has been traumatic.
But I do not regret that I have sought to remain open, despite everything.
But yes, I know how this essay is supposed to go. I am meant to lambast the man who specifies a pornographic interest in trans women—as if I do not already know, from a great deal of personal sexual experience, that often the only exposure straight cis men have to trans women is through porn. How often have I been lying post-fuck with a man only to have to suffer another tiresome monologue about how he’s never been with a girl like me?
Yes, men I fuck often have little idea and sometimes little interest in the workings of my sexual body; yes, there have been more occasions than I would like to admit where I have been with a man who had no investment in my pleasure—because I was, to these particular sorts of thoughtless men, no more than a manifestation of a fantasy woman they had seen on their screens, rather than an embodied one with needs, orientations, and orgasms of my very own.
Porn disproportionately advantages a cis and straight male perspective; it often panders to his desirousness. There is no getting around the material differences between the lives of trans and cis women, but it would be worth considering that the discursive construction of the chaser is itself largely a way of codifying much more generalizable experiences with male ignorance of women’s sexual pleasure. The chaser, as such, has been meticulously produced to be an enduring boogeyman for “our” community.
Let’s face facts: if you are a woman who fucks men, the likelihood that these men might make unexamined and frustrating affiliations between the porn they enjoy and our bodies hovers forever. I am pro-porn, and an ex-escort who remains pro-sex work, and I think we may say out loud that men treat all sorts of women as animated fantasies for personal use. In my experiences escorting, I found it quite easy to perform fantasy, to evacuate my/self and become a canvas and a mirror for the desires men projected upon me—this was entirely thanks to the fact that there was compensation for my labor. If anything bothers me about men I fuck for free who treat me in this selfsame way, it’s their shock that I would make such a comparison between their sexually selfish opportunism and the ways in which paid-for sex orients around clients’ desires. But men treat sex as transactional in a million invisible ways every day; what they despise is the possibility that the erotic-economic authority in such dynamics could possibly be seized by us.
Language matters. More than this, language constitutes, rather than merely describes, the limits of our personhood. We are made in language—are, in some sense, Isabel Archers ourselves. Deterministic theorizing for the purposes of unsophisticated politicking wields the power to make our material sexual lives worse in seeking to speak for us and our experience. Cue my discomfort.
Sex is political. Heteropatriarchy leverages sex—particularly in the domains of harassment, assault, domestic violence, and rape—against women to further our subordination. This sexual subordination branches infinitely—through the nuclear family, in the workplace and in the political sphere, to the purposes of empire and nation building, and so on. There is no denying this. That said, there is not a one-to-one equivalency between radical political dismantlings of the heteropatriarchal state and the possibilities of sexual life.
I am thinking of those old projectors in middle school, the ones where teachers would lay transparencies over transparencies to demonstrate their ideological or imagistic overlaps. Although we are inextricable from political life, we are not identical to our politics, and our sexualities cannot be so strictly policed or quantified, as if they are no more than data points to be put to narrative and theoretical use.
I know many trans women who enjoy fucking cis men who fetishize them. This can be an entirely affirming experience, perhaps especially for those acquainting themselves with new experiential potentialities in their sense of their embodiment. There is a participatory possibility to fucking such men, that, in designating them as inexorably abusive fetishists, denies women who seek these encounters bodily autonomy and sexual agency.
The brushstroke is in effect simply too broad. The failure of chaser discourse it at least twofold: one, it negates the particular longings and material conditions of individuals entering into a complex field of desire; and two, it logically centers the subject-position—the origin of desire—in the (cis) ones who fuck (trans) us, as if sex can ever be only a transactional elaboration of social capital.
In the diminution of sex events to the categorical, such a discourse streamlines hypotheses on how we fuck as they become increasingly divorced from the tangible fact of the encounter. In this sense, I am not fucking anyone; I am a figuration of the ur-trans being fucked by a system in which I am always powerless.
More, such discourse both identifies and, in reifying the identification, consolidates power entirely with the cis men in question; the locus of desire can only and ever elude me. The men who fuck me control the terms of my being fucked. Chasers are, finally, the subjects of discourse, and so wield its power. I—“the” trans woman—am not I, but i/object; once more, I find that I am never the desirer; I am ever and exclusively the thing which is desired.
I know what it is to be all-body; blank canvas; the unspeakable fantasy. The crystallization of this into a discursive inquiry tells me that this is my only possible life: that what I long for, who I fuck, and how I fuck them is a demonstration of the ways in which I am a sieve for cultural anxieties concerning sexual embodiment. This bores me and makes me small. It hates me. And I hate it.
To be clear: I do not discount the affective and material consequences of transmisogyny, nor its connectivities along racial, class-stratified, religious, and other lines (vis-à-vis fatphobia, colorism, anti-sex work discrimination, and so forth). The notion, however, that The Chaser-as-such is the foundational accounting for relations between cis men and trans women so wildly extrapolates objectification that it assumes the visage of inexorability. It maps desire onto us; it prescriptivizes our ways of being with others. The discourse makes us. For trans women, it makes us in a particular image—that of the blowup doll, because this discourse premises itself on the inevitability of our objectifying exploitations by men.
As such, I am told that I exist in some irrevocable way for the chaser. I am chased, and never participatory; I am fantasized about, and never fantasizing. I must, in any case, be protected from my desirability, because I have no anchor in its operations. Further, it insults me by indicating that men who fuck me only fuck me as fetish-object; as though I am severed from the fundamental value of my particular personhood. Certainly there have been men who saw me as a notch on their bedposts; certainly I have been manipulated in ways that felt demeaning. I have likewise experienced immense pleasure and joy in intimacy. I have lived, as it were, a kind of life.
The supposition, however, that degradation is the always of my sex with cis men denies my personhood in the precise juncture where it seeks to indict these men for that very thing—that it is what these men are doing to me, over there, in the bad way, allegedly counter to what the discourse does for me, by explaining to me my own helplessness, saving me, I suppose, from my self, which is not, as it turns out, my self at all. This discourse longs to disarticulate me from my sexual life so as to prove itself right; to proclaim itself helpful.
Chaser discourse, as such, perpetuates my dehumanization. I am absented, against my desire, from the world of consent. If men ascribe pornographic characteristics to me, this must then be the bare fact of the trans woman’s experience—rather than, as is frequently the case, the sexual experience it seems everyone faces now and then in contemporary fucking, inextricable from pornography in complicated and often inarticulable ways.
When last year I was seeing a man who needed me to have my hair in pigtails for him to cum, and who liked, then, to cum on my face, was I being degraded on the basis of my transness or fetishized as a Lolita? What designation are sexual power differentials awarded in complex scenarios which depend on any number of erotic inflections and individual histories? I asked him if he fucked his ex-wife like that. Even if he did, it could never be identical to how he and I fucked, nor would the disparity be quantifiable only along the lines of her cisness versus my transness. Maybe he just liked to cum that way. Maybe it didn’t bother me. Maybe I enjoyed it.
Sexually objectifying experiences traverse a spectrum of grief and pleasure. The insinuation that to enjoy porn or to act out pornographic scenarios in sex is innately abusive engenders a bizarre moralism in how we understand the troublesomeness of desire and the hyper-specificity of erotic gratification. Moreover, by suggesting that power differentials in sex between cis men and trans women are inherently bad, this discourse displaces the material consequences of actual violation, and the ways in which many of us work through trauma in our sexual negotiations with others. For example, if I tell you I enjoy being spanked, and that this particular relinquishing of control has at times helped me to process the traumas of my rapes, am I to be rescued from myself, made to understand that I have been a politically improper tranny, and so retrained to elide sexual practices which have potentially humiliating optics?
My editor suggested that what I am speaking of here belongs to the world of kink, and that such a world largely exists in generative ways in trans communities. My argument, however, is less about kink and more about what, specifically as trans women navigating transmisogyny, we are allowed to do when we fuck cis men. I agree that trans people I know who do not primarily fuck cis men tend to associate power play with its positive expressions. It is a question, instead, of what we do with and in front of the cis—particularly when, as in the case of cis straight men, we are discussing sexual partners imagined to be, as it were, the inheritors of the earth.
Again, the context is not universalizable. The things I do in bed could perhaps be imagined as empowering if it weren’t for the sad, sad fact that I’m doing them with men, to whom I am now imagined as pandering. In this sense, my “transgression” is not my submissiveness, but that I am proferring my helplessness before a male god at the altar of my disenfranchisement. At what point do I get to draw the boundaries of my own sexual world? When can I proclaim that the discourse itself seizes my agency in its self-righteousness, its respectability politics, its invocation of new binarisms, where trans women are necessarily victims, and the men we fuck necessarily and inescapably our oppressors?
Part of the pleasure I long for is the dignity in which I am thought to be capable of speaking for myself, of fucking for myself, and of grappling with the consequences of that fucking in my own way. I do not think it is so much to ask.
If I were writing my conventional Henry James essay I might say:
In Portrait, Miss Archer, our intrepid young American, repudiates her old guard suitors in a rejection of conquest-oriented national and imperial projects; she seeks instead a sort of democratic cosmopolitanism in her European travels, only, in the end, to find herself ornamentalized by the vacuous aestheticism of her scheming dilettante husband Gilbert Osmond. Perhaps I would note that: James’ novel positions his new woman between two impossible modes of being in her ultimately fruitless attempts at self-making. Isabel Archer is not one of Wharton’s fallen girls; indeed, her dedication to previously unimagined modes of self-determination radically intervenes in sexist definitions of womanhood. Although her downfall is tragic, the novel’s conviction is never that she should have been denied the possibility of formulating her own destiny.
But I am not writing my James essay, nor even my Jane Campion one—not in any orthodox sense. Still, it feels kin; it feels when I consider the narrative, I think, that there is never any winning. Yes. It feels that loving men is always a precarious endeavor, and that any negative optic that comes of it only ever reflects poorly on us women who insist on doing so anyhow. This is a man’s man’s man’s world. We’d be foolish to forget it.
I think how I do not know any women who haven’t been well and properly fucked over by men. The tragedy of Isabel Archer is perhaps one largely of consciousness; her awareness, at last, that there has been a rock, and opposite it a hard place; and then her between them, and no way out.
I do not mean by this that womanhood is at its heart more essentially a negative relational state of being, wherein we become Woman in our ill treatment by bad men. I could never forget, for example, the transmisogynist woman on twitter who told me that, well, alas, it was my rapes which made me a real woman. As though womanhood is merely the refuse that accretes around male violence and exploitation. We none of us are only the feminine coalescences around our traumas, heartbreaks, and disappointing fucks.
Still we must fashion our own destinies. Is sexual life livable if we are so prescribed that we never have boring or bad sex, that we never fuck men who turn out to have been shitty from the start? No such path exists. We are fundamentally vulnerable to the other, for we are social, and we are human. It is, at any rate in my sense of things, at the heart of the pleasures of sex that we give ourselves, our permeable and frail and lovable selves, over to the other. We cannot control our handling, but we may ask that they not hurt us too greatly. What else is there?