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)

, , , , , ,