Significant Othering: Attraction Down the Privilege Gradient

by | January 5, 2012
filed under Feminism, LGBT

Welcome to guest contributor Lisa Millbank. “Lisa was born in November at ground zero beneath the Millbank Tower (UK) and so took its name. If cissexism and misogyny could dream, she would like to be their nightmare, and she believes their biggest nightmare is cis and trans women working hand in hand to destroy both systems of domination.” This piece was originally posted at her blog, A Radical TransFeminist. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Reponses and Comments, to be posted at Gender Focus this weekend.


All people who identify as unattracted to a marginalised group, such as transsexual people, fat people, disabled people or minority-ethnic* people, have a continuing duty to challenge this part of their sexual identity.

Received Sexuality

I would like to use the term ‘received sexuality’ to refer to our sexualities as received from the culture in which we’re raised. This is the ‘assumed’ sexuality we’re assigned at birth, based exclusively on the gender we’re assigned at birth. It is heterosexual, often racially constrained, monogamous, only marginally includes BDSM sexualities (if at all) and, of course, it is not asexual.

It is not a coincidence that received sexualities are considered the normative sexualities in their culture. Clearly, these sexualities are assigned at birth because they appear to be the most common and hence the most likely.

I would like to argue that this dynamic also flows the other way, and that the assignation of normative sexuality at birth is also a way in which the normative position of these sexualities is reproduced and enforced. The phrase ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ has been in use for some time but I’d like to extend this ‘compulsory sexuality’ to cover a wider (or I could say narrower) number of axes of attraction.

Liberated Sexuality

Our sexuality can be trained; has been trained, from birth, towards normative attractions. A white man in England is taught from birth that the object of his sexuality is a thin, white, non-disabled cissexual woman. Putting aside evolutionary psychological nonsense about hip and breast sizes, it’s clear that the image of the ‘ideal’ woman is culturally created and sustained, and has differed throughout history and across different cultures.

Heterosexual identification can also be challenged. A cissexual (non-transsexual) woman is taught from birth that the object of her sexuality is a man (actually, it can be argued that women are made to be the objects of their own sexualities, and to experience sex via being acted on by a man, but that’s tangential to the point of this article). All children are assumed to be heterosexual until proven otherwise (or until they display non-normative gender behaviour, in which case they’re assumed to be gay!). “Coming out” is an almost universal experience of people with non-normative sexualities, because it represents a rejection of social conditioning. Many bisexual people spend some or all of their lives believing themselves to be monosexual because of this conditioning, and many homosexual people spend a great part of their lives in unhappy relationships with people of a different gender before they, with great effort, recognise and act on their sexuality.

I would like to use the term ‘liberated sexuality’ to refer to a sexuality which has been challenged in this way and which has overcome all cultural enforcement to find its true nature. I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a fully liberated sexuality under heteropatriarchy and other systems of domination, and that these challenges apply over a lifetime, but that we can certainly get closer to liberated sexuality via constant consideration of these demands. And of course, it may be that a person with received heterosexuality challenges their sexuality and finds that their liberated sexuality is also heterosexual.

My Demands

As a lesbian, I demand that women who identify as straight consider whether they’re attracted to me.

As a transsexual woman, I demand that people who ‘aren’t attracted to trans people’ challenge that self-identification. I don’t just apply this demand to cissexual people. This also applies to me; because transphobia can also be internalised, I demand that I challenge my conception of cissexual woman as the ‘gold standard’ of womanhood, and allow my attractions to extend to my transsexual sisters.

As a white woman, I demand that I challenge my own racisms which might lead me to only pursue attraction towards other white women.

As a currently non-disabled person, it’s my duty to challenge disablism which means I subconsciously consider disabled people to be invalid subjects of attraction (and often asexual).

As a size 16-18 woman, I must challenge my received fatphobia and not to say, ‘I have a type’, when that type just happens to be the type found on the cover of so-called beauty magazines.

As somebody who is broadly monosexual, I demand that all monosexuals challenge themselves to include bisexual, pansexual and queer people in their sphere of attraction.

As a middle-class anarchist, my politics demand that I – and all middle-class people – challenge our classism and remember that class is a divide created by capital and hierarchical power structures, and that love and attraction must defy these structures.

And finally, although this doesn’t apply to me, I demand that men consider women of their own age and, indeed, women older than them, to be valid subjects of their attraction. ‘Youngsexual’ is not a sexuality, guys. And while it’s certainly possible to make a relationship work when one person has both age and male privilege over the other, if you need to hold both those forms of power to make your relationship work for you, maybe it’s time to look at what you’re afraid of when dating women your own age.

Exceptions To My Demands

It’s worth noting that these demands are in challenge to received sexualities assigned at birth, i.e. culturally normative sexualities, and don’t apply ‘symmetrically’ to non-normative sexualities. I demand that you and I challenge ourselves to extend our sexuality to dating down privilege gradients, not up.

For example, I reject the demand often placed on lesbians to consider whether or not we are really attracted to men. Many of my lesbian sisters were assigned female at birth and have already been impressed throughout their childhoods with the necessity to fuck men; their lesbian identity has been found despite that coercion. It is liberated and not received. And as a radical feminist and a transsexual woman, I reject the demand that I must negotiate the unequal privilege dynamics of a relationship with a man. I won’t be told that I must sleep with my oppressor.

Objections And Responses

“I mean like what am I supposed to do, force myself to be attracted to fat people?”

Well, yes.

“But aren’t you saying that I have to have sex with someone I’m not attracted to? I don’t want to have sex with someone out of charity.”

No. Nobody (for the sake of argument) wants a pity fuck. I’m saying that it’s your responsibility to challenge that lack of attraction. Perhaps you’ll challenge it, and find out that you really are attracted to the awesome, fat woman who goes along to your social club. Now all you have to hope is that she’s also attracted to you.

“Isn’t it patronising to respond to these demands?”

Only if you do it in a patronising way. It’s not patronising to search for prejudice and conditioning in yourself and look to deconstruct it.

“But I don’t fancy this group because they’re objectively not hot/sexual. Anyone can see that.”

This one’s often applied to disabled people, fat women and some trans women, as well as other groups. I’m not sure how to answer it except to say you’re wrong. People in all these groups can be, and are, sexual, and maybe if you were friends with a few more of us you’d see that.

“But I don’t fancy them because they’re oversexed/hypersexual and they scare me.”

This one can be applied to minority-ethnic people, fat women and some trans women. It’s based on stereotypical attitudes, often reflected in and reproduced by pornography and to some degree other media. It’s often based on fear.

It’s interesting (and by ‘interesting’, I mean I hate the world) that fat women and trans women are included in both ‘asexual’ and ‘hypersexual’ stereotypes. I think this speaks to the ways in which female sexuality is only socially condoned when it can be narrowly defined and controlled. The sexuality of trans women and fat women is socially unaccepted because our bodies don’t conform to patriarchal norms, and so it must be understood as in some way ‘other’.

“I’m not racist! All my partners have been white, but that’s only because almost everyone in my social circle is white. It’s just statistics.”

Perhaps it is. Perhaps it’s not. Unless you challenge yourself, you’ll never know. That said, “all my friends are white” isn’t necessarily a good sign.

“I’m a transsexual woman and I already have to deal with men who fetishise my transsexuality. The last thing I need is you persuading more men to start coming into trans communities and chasing us.”

I hear ya. Oh, chasers. What are you like? (Some trans folk call these men tranny-chasers, and they’re a scourge of online trans forums). Well, for a start, plenty of chasers are probably either gay or bisexual, but because of internalised homophobia are treating transsexual women as a way to get cock (because in their minds, all trans women have cocks) without having to break their self-image as heterosexual. If they took up my challenge, maybe they’d stop being chasers altogether and would go off to have happy gay relationships with men. Or maybe they’d discover that they’re bisexual or pansexual, and that their sexuality includes transsexual women, not as a fetishistic object, but as whole human beings.

This applies to other groups too. Don’t replace your non-attraction with a fetishisation of the exotic, because you’re making the same mistake – you’re not actualising an attraction to a real human being.

“What about attraction to children?”

You know who I hate more than a devil’s advocate? A paedophilic devil’s advocate.

“What about gay men?”

Glad you brought it up. It might seem like I’m suggesting that gay men have a duty to consider whether they’re really attracted to women, since women are less privileged than men under patriarchy. Male-on-male attraction is less privileged than male-on-female attraction in a heteronormative society, but more privileged than bisexual identity. So I only partially include gay men in my challenge. I challenge them to expand their attraction to include women, not to abandon their attraction to men. But I don’t challenge them very loudly, since they’ve probably at least considered attraction to women on their path to their current identity.

In Conclusion

We all stand to benefit from repairing the damage that capitalism, patriarchy and body hatred have inflicted on our sexuality. Those of us in privileged positions can discover new attraction to many amazing, magnificent human beings. Those of us who are marginalised according to body type are tired of being shunned, and may even be able to discover more sexual solidarity between ourselves. And lastly, every expansion in freedom also allows the freedom not to be attracted, or not to exercise attraction, because truly free choice that also feels free is often only possible in a non-punishing, non-coercive, choice-rich environment.

So what are your demands?

* A note on the term minority-ethnic. This term seemed to be the one settled at in a recent race awareness training session for bi community activists in the UK.

(Photo by Daniel Wabyick via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • dear god

    This comment has been removed because it violates the Gender Focus comment policy. If you wish to re-comment please feel free to check out the comment policy and clarify your criticism intelligently.

  • Min

    Dreadful, aggressive, smug, and insulting to every group the writer mentions. The half hearted way in which any logical problems are hand-waved at the end is ridiculous. This actually made me cringe, since it is this kind of writing which gives supporters of sexuality acceptance a bad name. GF can do much better than this.

  • Kaitlin

    I have to admit, I have some serious issues with this post. As a lesbian, I had to come to terms with my own sexual orientation in a world that, well, hates us. Yet we are not nearly so oppressed for our attraction to women as our lack of attraction to men. If you sleep with women you get bullied; if you don’t sleep with men you get raped. It was far easier for me to admit that I was into women than to admit that I wasn’t into men, and I suffered far more for that latter admission. I’m not sure that things have gotten any better; in a world where Katy Perry sings about kissing girls (which is okay, because she has a boyfriend) and Madonna and Brittney Spears can make out onstage (which is okay, because everyone knows they sleep with men) women who aren’t into men are labelled sexually repressed, and take abuse not only from straight people but also from other queers. Lesbians are often coerced into sleeping with men, as homosexuality has been discursively constructed as being much worse than simply not being heterosexual (for women; I know this isn’t true for men).

    I appreciate your requests that we challenge sexism, cissexism, transphobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia, and any number of other prejudices. In fact, as a lesbian who is engaged to a trans woman, I’ve even had other lesbians question my sexual orientation. They do so less often than straight people, but it’s still an issue and it still hurts. You’re right that attraction down the privilege gradient is marginalised.

    However, as someone who has taken far more abuse in my life for whom I wasn’t attracted to than for whom I was, I am very cautious of discursively constructing any sexual orientation as “better”, whether or not they are normative sexual orientations. While I agree with your demands around challenging sexism, cissexism, transphobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia, and all other prejudices, I fear that asking people to challenge their sexual orientations – and particularly to challenge who they are not attracted to – is exactly what has caused lesbians to be so marginalised both within society at large and within the queer community. I know I’m talking about attraction up the privilege gradient, while this post discusses the opposite, but if I have an in-built sexual orientation then I’m probably not the only one.

  • @Kaitlin: Thank you for this thoughtful engagement. I think you’ve named many of the issues which worried me when writing this piece.

    > I fear that asking people to challenge their
    > sexual orientations – and particularly to
    > challenge who they are not attracted to – is
    > exactly what has caused lesbians to be so
    > marginalised both within society at large and
    > within the queer community

    Do you think so? I think that the problem is rape culture and male entitlement asserted over women of all orientations. To the extent that “born this way” is a tactic used by lesbian communities to defend ourselves from compulsory heterosexuality, then reactionaries counterattack us over the territory of that tactic, yes. But if we used other tactics, they’d attack us there instead. There is no justification for not fucking men which will be accepted under rape culture.

    “Born this way” is a tactic with trade-offs; some of which are the exclusion of bisexual people from our communities, but also this tactic can be hijacked by people looking to justify their prejudices. “I’m not fatsexual, I was born this way.”

    Do we ultimately have innate attractions? Probably, yes. Do they operate over lines of race and fat as well as over gender? Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t. All of our non-received orientations have had to be fought for, and to the extent that community, encouragement and literature is available to us, we’ve found that fight gradually easier over time.

    I’m asking that we be suspicious when the orientations we seem to be “born” with just happen to line up with the exclusion of groups we are trained from birth to hate, and that we challenge them. Everybody has something to gain from that.

  • Kaitlin

    I respect your request that we be suspicious when the orientations we are born with line up with the exclusion of marginalised groups. I think that such a suspicion is perfectly valid, and I do think that it needs to be articulated. For doing so, I thank you.

    Despite the fact that such a suspicion should rightfully exist, I reject the idea that the “born this way” narrative is no more than a defensive tactic; it is certainly not a representative narrative for all people, but it is still representative of the experiences of many. You make the assumption that being a lesbian is a choice, and while I would never argue the fact that some women with sexual orientations that are not strictly heterosexual choose not to have sexual relations with men, that does not mean that no women who identify as lesbians are “born this way”. You, for example, mentioned in your post that you won’t be told you must sleep with your oppressor; from that sentence I cannot tell if you identify as a lesbian by birth or by choice. To be perfectly honest, it would not matter to me either way; I respect sexual self-identity, and do not think the route by which one comes to it is should have any bearing on how we respect that identity. I respect you as a lesbian because you say you’re a lesbian. And if you identified as something else, I would respect that identity equally.

    I will admit, the “born this way” narrative is true for me. I would not argue that all sexuality is innate; I’m certain I have received far too much socialisation for anything about me to be innate. Although I know I could never be a man, and that whatever about my gender that may be innate is very clearly not male, I do not know whether I would still identify as a woman had I not been socialised to such a state, or whether I would be more comfortable with a neutral gender. This is, in fact, a question I ask myself every day. However, while I still question this aspect of my gender, I know that my sexuality is innate. I know this precisely because I didn’t choose it, and as much as it shames me to admit it, would not have chosen it.

    I enjoy sleeping with women. I enjoy dating women, and having relationships with women. However, like many lesbians, I have been socialised to feel shame for my lack of attraction to men. And despite my continuing efforts to overcome my socialisation, this, like so many other things, still haunts me. I have also been socialised to feel shame for sleeping with women, but in a society where girl-on-girl sex isn’t seen as “real” sex, and a society where girl-on-girl porn is the most popular type of porn available, the shame I’ve been socialised to feel for this is far less than the shame for failing to be attracted to men. It is thus also far easier to overcome. For those of us who have really struggled to come to terms with the way in which we were born, claiming that we are never “born this way” or that such a narrative is only a tactic, I feel, delegitimates both our right to articulate our own understandings of our self-identities and the legitimacy of this struggle we have dealt with. This in no way implies that such a narrative is true for everyone, but that it is for some of us.

    I agree that sexism and male privilege are the culprits in this. You are correct that male entitlement is asserted over women of all orientations. This is why we receive the socialisation I’ve described. That said, I, personally, do not feel the need to articulate an excuse for not fucking men. I do not need a defence. I do, however, want to articulate the specific oppression faced by women who do not fuck men. This specific oppression, for me, has resulted in years of both threatened rape and real sexual assault. And is this specific oppression the result of sexism? Of male privilege? Of the male entitlement asserted over women of all orientations? Well, of course.

    Again, thank you for asking that we be suspicious of any orientations that appear to be innate when they align with the people we have been trained from birth not to find sexually attractive. However, as many of us have faced oppression and abuse for daring to express our innate sexualities, I do believe the fact that such things do exist (even if not for everyone) must be respected.

  • @Kaitlin: I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have characterised “born this way” as only a tactic. I think it’s often a tactic, but you’re right, for some people it represents lived experience. I hope that’s reflected in the piece, which articulates that we’re layered in socialisation but we may well have “born this way” sexualities right down there (and they may be strong enough to bubble up so forcefully through that socialisation that no self-challenging is required!).

    Maybe what I’m trying to speak out against here, in reference to “born this way” in LGBT culture, is the dominance of the “born this way” narrative in mainstream (non-queer) LGBT (GGGL?) spaces and the lack of room it leaves for any discussions of socialisation like the in-depth one we’re having here.

    I can’t repeat enough that I’d never, ever ask a woman to challenge her non-attraction to men, for so many of the reasons you’ve listed. But the number of people who think they were born one way and then change their mind, and the number of people who use “born this way” to defend racism and other prejudicial attitudes suggests that some people do need challenging on this territory.

    It’s very difficult to articulate quite where the criticism / challenging is appropriate, and where it’s not. If any of the challenges I’ve laid out still feel after this conversation that they’re inappropriate and potentially hostile to you, I’m sorry.

    ~ Lisa