'How Do You Have S*x?'
Updated: Feb 10
It's Trans Awareness Week! And on Monday I spoke on a panel answering questions about gender diversity and inclusivity in a sexuality specific context. We also raised almost $300 for the organisation Black Rainbow. Some folks in a sex-positive Facebook group I'm a part of, were struggling to wrap their head around gender diversity, inclusion and language. And I get it. There are a LOT of words! Words that are still being created, modified, reclaimed, challenged and rejected. Language is always in a process of evolution and certainly undergoing much development in terms of gender diversity. in 2019 'They' became Merriam-Webster's 'Word of the Year', with searches for the word on their website going up 313% since 2018. The dictionary famously added a new definition of the word to reflect it's usage as a personal pronoun for non-binary people. Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large, explained that 'they' has been used as a singular pronoun for over 600 years. Though most people are familiar with using it when referring to someone whose gender is unknown to them, 'they' is increasingly being used by people in place of 'she' or 'he'. But there are far more words that trans and gender diverse people might use to describe and affirm their genders. In fact there are whole websites that act as glossaries, which are a great resource to explore as an ally looking for more information. And they are just a click away. Which is why Alexis, the other panelist and I, sunk our teeth into some meatier questions rather than acting as a glossary or dictionary resource. Instead we tackled anonymously asked questions, with the aim of helping folks understand how to better navigate all this 'stuff' in a sexuality context.
The panel was held via Zoom, with Gabrielle Mentz as our facilitator, streaming from Wurundjeri country. Gabrielle introduced herself as someone who was struggling with inclusive language, in a recent sex-positive Facebook group. She realised that lots of people were having the same difficulty and decided to act, in order to find out more. Alexis is two-gendered, genderqueer, transgender, a woman, a man, pansexual and queer. Ey majored in Women's Studies at university and uses 'ey, em, eir' pronouns. I myself use 'it' and 'they' pronouns and identify as non-binary, and just generally as someone who challenges the rigid structures and systems in place, in modern western society. I attempt as much as possible to investigate and unpack the way my mind has been programmed by the world around me.
So what were the questions? Will you answer them here? Yes. Especially because these types of questions are sensitive in nature and not necessarily appropriate to ask every random trans person you meet on the street, online or at a social event. So hopefully you will have read it here instead of being the intrusive cis person who puts unexpected emotional labour on a likely already exhausted trans person trying to sip their mimosa or mind their own business. Please note the post comes with a content warning for brief mentions of transphobic violence. The other thing I want to highlight before I begin my answers is that no one group of people is all the same. We are not a monolith. I have done my best to answer from my own experience and my general knowledge from being a part of the trans and gender diverse community. These answers will never reflect everyone's truth.
With all that out of the way, let's begin with pronouns! Those useful little words introduced earlier in this post. One person wanted help understanding why it is helpful for cis people (non-trans folk) to share their pronouns. They were concerned about it doing more harm than good and perhaps appearing as someone highlighting their privilege. Alexis answered this beautifully by explaining: ' its about trying to level the playing field somewhat. rather than people who aren't cis having to call out their difference, we should actually not be assuming pronouns for anyone we meet. A lot of people have the assumption that by looking at someone you can tell gender and pronouns and that's simply not correct.' To me, it feels like allyship. If we normalise sharing our pronouns, it no longer becomes something 'only trans people do' and rather than outing us as trans, it's just people getting to know each other regardless of their gender histories. The next question was around the best way to apologise when one makes a mistake with language. This is a great question because, lets face it, mistakes happen. And they aren't unique to cis folks, as most people's mind are trained to use words a certain way or to link certain characteristics with particular pronouns and labels. It takes practice over time to retrain this, but its very much worth the effort. Personally, I find it awkward interrupting someone's sentence to correct them when they have used an incorrect pronoun for example. So I like it when someone's response is concise - a simple correction to the accurate pronoun followed by a thank you is alright by me. One thing I do not enjoy is when the person being corrected falls into a shame spiral, the conversation is completely derailed and I am left feeling like I need to emotionally caretake their response to my correction. It's unnecessary emotional labour, does nothing to affirm anyone's gender and no one is having a fun time. Try: 'sorry, he.' or 'they, thanks!' and continue describing the wonderful time you had with said person. On the panel I explain that: 'people are often afraid of angry responses. I've never actually seen someone (accidentally) use an incorrect pronoun and have that person respond in a super angry way.' And Alexis echoes this by saying: 'The main concern for me is how much people show openness to the change.'
One major struggle Ive witnessed is people wanting to tailor requests in sex positive spaces. Someone asked: 'What is the best language to use?' The example being that perhaps you're in a photo sharing group and it's encouraged to request to see images of specific things that turn you on. Does one use 'femme', 'female' 'woman'?? etc. My short answer to this is please, just say what you mean and mean what you say! My longer answer is, that this is only really possible with a bit of learning and personal development around what words mean and which ones apply to your particular interests. I personally believe it to be a wonderful endeavour for one to explore and then articulate, what turns them on and brings them joy. It might be useful to note that labels like 'man' or 'woman' or 'non-binary' et al. include people with all kinds of bodies and genital configurations and secondary sex characteristics. Take a moment and let that sink in, if it's hard to imagine. So, if you would like to see photos of delightful mustaches for example, asking to see photos of men's facial hair would be fine if you specifically want to see *men's* facial hair in particular, but you may be missing out on some other folk's very dapper whiskers. If you want to see photos of women eating salad, your words are inviting images of women eating salad. Not necessarily only of people who were assigned female at birth eating salad. Therefore you might get both whiskers AND salad (which personally sounds quite charming to me), or pictures of women assigned male at birth, or pictures of intersex women, or women who also identify as men or non-binary, or women who may have any possible mix of secondary sex characteristics imaginable, who have or have not sought to medically transition.
Sometimes people in sex positive spaces will opt to use the term 'femme/femme folk/femme identifying'. If you actually mean 'woman' by which you actually mean 'assigned female at birth', please stop. The same goes for 'masc/masc folk' etc. Alexis spoke about how 'feminine' and 'masculine' can be problematic words by talking about the way in which people expect these terms to have objective, agreed upon meanings. And how this is incorrect. Ey go on to say: 'I'd prefer if people didn't say "I'd love to hear more about caring feminine energy." focus on the specific things you're after.' Personally I use the words femme or masc to mean 'what society generally deems feminine or masculine ways of adorning or expressing oneself'. This to me is not linked with gender or sex. I know masculine, androgynous and feminine cis men and I know masculine, androgynous and feminine cis women. I know masc trans women. I know femme trans men, I know non-binary people who are not androgynous. I use these words to describe expression, not traits. And I completely agree with Alexis around how arbitrarily labelling 'care and nurture' as feminine and 'strength and courage' as masculine for example, is problematic for everyone. Sometimes I see people who are monosexual (ie. attracted to one gender in particular) struggle with this especially. 'I'm a straight man who doesn't like penis, so if women can have penises, do I suddenly have to like penis?' or 'I'm a gay guy... and I'm only 'dick' gay'. *invitation to take a deep breath here*
No one, regardless of gender, is required at any point to engage with anyone or anything they don't want to. Consent is real. Consent is necessary. And personally, if you have a problem with my genitals and will only engage with them out of a warped sense of duty, please for the love of the godds, no. That being said, I invite you to spend some time investigating what it is you like, and why.
If you're a straight cis guy for example, you might think about the following: Do you find cis-passing penises unattractive because they are just inherently not sexy to you? Or is it that you are just so used to seeing them attached to yourself and other men, that it's hard to imagine a woman who also has a penis similar to yours (or used to)? Maybe it's the effect of a lifetime of inter-generational messaging of shame and homophobia, with terms like 'cocksucker' and 'f@ggot' being used as insults, in a world where a penis equals 'male'? This is a world where trans women do not have representation that is fair and real, and are instead presented as deranged, violent predatory men in dresses and ill-applied make up. A world where some of your brothers who DO make it past the notion that a penis = male will also murder this same girlfriend out of shame later. We have ALL been imprinted by the environment and cultures we've grown up in. And we have all internalised messages that are skewed, downright incorrect and unfair. And as adults I believe we owe it to ourselves and others to unpack and rewrite some of those imprints. No one needs to be attracted to things they don't find attractive. Though I strongly encourage people, regardless of gender, to spend some time reflecting on what exactly turns you on and why. It's okay to change your sexual orientation at any point in life and its also okay for it to stay the same but to include a broader list of physical characteristics. Just remember that there is so very little positive representation of trans people out there, that just because you met or saw photos of one trans person who you were not attracted to, doesn't necessarily mean all trans people are unattractive to you. In fact, chances are you've been attracted to a trans person without even realising it. And also, being into a trans woman if you are a cis het man, does not make you any less straight, in the same way as being suddenly into a tall woman when you've mostly dated short women does not make you less straight!
One thing that can be helpful in retraining the brain to loosen the idea that body parts = gender is to broaden your media diet. So when you scroll through Instagram, you see different people and different bodies, that hollywood perhaps hasn't shown you yet.
How might one ask for erotic engagement in a respectful way? such as in a sex positive group space or in a one on one interaction?
Here I come back to being specific in saying what you want. Is it the gender of someone that matters here or their body parts? Maybe their personality or interests? Whichever it is, say that. In a one on one interaction, it's much the same as with anyone. Indicate interest and ask if they'd like to engage. Be okay to hear 'no'. Alexis also adds to be aware that not everyone uses the same words for parts of their body. It can be good to ask someone what language they prefer.
If you organise a sexuality workshop, how can you phrase it to target a specific audience in a way that is respectful? Alexis speaks here about exclusion and how events labelled as 'women only' have so often left out trans women. Ey say that if an event is labelled as a women's event it's really important to state that it is in fact inclusive of trans and gender diverse women as well. Or to simply state that it isn't an event for cis men (if this is the purpose of the 'women only' space). I add that it's really important to label events accurately because of how hurtful it is to attend events that are 'trans inclusive' on the flyer but where facilitators clearly have no training or understanding in how to hold such a space. It feels like being lured in under false pretenses to tick a diversity box - and its shit. Also, having a clear description about activities helps. Especially if they are based on genitals. This way people can read it and see how well it matches their own genitals or how they conceptualise their genitals and make an informed decision, instead of being surprised on the day. The same goes for binary gender. For example, if you are going to split the room into male and female, as a non-binary person it would be great to know that beforehand, rather than showing up and standing alone in the center of the room like a lost traveller.
How do you have sex? This is a question that often comes up when people have strong preconceived notions of what 'sex' is, that often come from cis-het-normative frameworks. Queer representation is still sparse in media and so a lot of folks think of sex as being penetration, usually with a penis entering a vagina. Sex education in Australia hasn't done much to change this very narrow vision of sex. Trans and gender diverse people have sex in all kinds of ways, just like cis people have sex in all kinds of ways. It can be helpful to make an extra effort to check in about language for body parts. Eg. 'What language do you like to use for different parts of your body?' This is a great question for anyone to consider regardless of whether they are cis or not, but for trans people, using the right language can make a big difference in dysphoria levels during sex. And dysphoria does not feel sexy. So it's worthwhile, especially if you're into dirty talk! If you've made it this far, well done! One thing that stands out to me in all of this, is how navigating gender in a sexuality context really requires personal development and unpacking. Understanding your own body, preferences and sense of your own gender, is a fantastic starting point for developing empathy and having clarity when engaging with anyone in a sexual context. And often, the tools that might help a cis person connect with trans people are tools that really, are useful with all people. If this article has been at all useful to you, please consider donating to Black Rainbow or sharing this link with others. I am also available for educational workshops and one on one sessions with people who want support in navigating their own gender or sexuality.