When We Ask Straight Men About Their Desire For Trans Bodies

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Updated March 29, 2016 1:44pm PDT
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This is not a review of Channel 4’s Sex Diaries: Trans Lovers.

You can criticize the 45-minute documentary with a wave of the hand, a dismissive phrase. Say Well, it’s not very good and watch it dissipate like smoke. Or you can get deep. You can look at the juxtaposition of the phrase “Sex Diaries” and the phrase “Trans Lovers,” how one phrase suggests that the other is best kept a secret, a locked book in a locked drawer of a locked room of a locked house, a house you love despite itself, maybe, or a house you’d burn down if you could.

A review of Trans Lovers would have to ponder the rather bizarre editorial decision of including an entire sequence where the perpetually shell-shocked documentarian Charlie Russell receives a makeover and is told by one of his subjects, Mark, that, were he to go out in public, he’d receive a lot of attention. The camera shows Charlie in the makeup chair, doing his best to look girlish beyond the girlhood leant to him by the impressive work of Mark’s partner, but he never takes a step outside. Of course he doesn’t. 

Trans Lovers (and other media stories of its ilk) is not about trans women. It’s only interested in the experience of being trans in terms of how long a woman has “been” trans, and the organ between her legs.

We live in a post Caitlyn Jenner world, and now that there’s one of us who is rich and white, one of us who is able to curate her experience of the world through the lens of being an old-school femme bombshell, there are straight men who are comfortable enough with the idea of having sex with trans women that they’re willing to say so publicly in documentaries like Trans Lovers and in venues like Vice. 

That’s all well and good—there are plenty of monogamous heterosexual and bisexual trans women out there who are looking for a partner, and the idea that there are men in the world who won’t spend the course of a relationship processing their shame over sleeping with a woman who has a penis must be thrilling.

But our cameras and our thinkpieces are never on the side of trans women. Picture the camera (or, if you will, the documentarian) as a person. The question posed by the camera through the gaze of its lens is often a better gauge for where a person stands on a given topic. It’s hardly surprising, but despite whatever progress trans women have made in terms of representation in the past year, mainstream media outlets are only interested in us so far as we’re a sexual outlet for straight men.

The camera frames a trans woman’s crotch, the narrator explains that there are men who are actually proud to hit that, and the implication is that there’s nothing normal about finding trans women fuckable. We’re a riddle. A cocktail that’s made with equal parts misogyny and gay panic. The camera puts culture several steps removed from us, and that’s the way things will remain for the foreseeable future.

This, I think, is the function of asking straight men why they’d be in a relationship with a trans woman. And while it’s easy to look at the ridiculous foibles of the men who are willing to speak of their taste in women (taste being an objectionable term)—the nerd in the Assassin’s Creed hoodie who draws nude fan art of Caitlyn Jenner, or the Italian man who compares trans women to Ferraris—and laugh because men are ridiculous. 

But when these men talk, and they’re talking in increasing numbers, what comes through most clearly is not their attraction, but that there is a lot of shame, the overwhelming sense that we need to make it safe for men to date trans women.

Of course men think that—when is an issue not about them?—but that this comes up at all strikes me as a good reason to stop asking men questions about their attraction to transgender women and to focus, instead, on the still-too-present possibility that a night out for a trans woman can end with her beaten, raped, or dead. 

For many of us, the best-case scenario is that we end up with a man who wants a trans woman because that’s what he beats off to on the Internet, because he pictures us as adhering to a strict, rigid femininity, because he expects us to be thankful for the attention.

Asking men why they date trans women erases all of that and puts the focus where it has always been, on the facts of our anatomy. Charlie Russell treats his subjects trolling for dates on websites advertising the hottest trannies online as though they’re completely innocent of any wrongdoing—in fact, he seems to admire them.

Diana Tourjee’s piece on Broadly, at least, digs deeper, looking for her subjects on Craigslist, where there is no shortage of men who aren’t shy about the fact that what they’re looking for is a Stepford Chick-with-a-Dick. 

After reading Tourjee’s piece, I went onto my local Craigslist M4T board (the W4T board being a vast, empty wasteland). Skipping past obvious winners like “Muscle alpha dom man seeks very passable sexually open TS,” there are men on Craigslist who are earnestly looking for long-term relationships with trans women. 

“You don’t have to be a model or even completely passable,” one says, “just that you enjoy being feminine and aren’t just some dude in a wig.”

“Didn’t think it would be this hard in Atlanta to find a real, versatile T.S Girlfriend here in Atlanta but here I am” another dude confesses. “I don’t want a prostitute although I can understand your hustle … I wish I found someone with a real job, a real house, and don’t have to have sex with everybody… just me.”

“Hello,” begins a rather cheerful paramore, “I am a straight white male who is very attracted to femininity. I have not been with a TG/TS girl before but from what I have seen a lot of TG/TS girls are more feminine than the females I have been with.”

“Looking for an ltr with womeone who is very feminine (acting and looking) and petite (size small).”

“Please be passable and real.”

“No professional girls, ie. Hookers.”

“I am a very attractive SBM who wants to try having a special relationship with a hung passable TS. Race is a non issue but you must be hung, clean, heavy cummer, love to kiss, and disease free.”

There are dozens of men with ads like this. Even more, I imagine, once you move out of the South. And while I’ll confess that, yes, I find all of this very interesting, my interest is less out of curiosity—a straight man dates a trans woman because a straight man is a straight man, the end—than it is out of fear, a need to know my enemy. 

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got nothing against attraction or fetishization. These things lead people to loving, healthy relationships more often than is polite to admit.

But when it comes to straight men in this circumstance, what we’re leaving out is that the desire isn’t for love, but control. That’s dangerous. That’s why we need to stop asking men what they see in trans women.

Instead, ask a trans woman what she sees in straight men.

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Colette Arrand is a trans essayist, poet, and critic living in Athens, Georgia. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Establishment, Autostraddle, and a number of literary magazines.