Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Sexy and Trans

Posted By on August 21, 2010

Dear Ari:

I identify as a transwoman, I find that there is still a strong element of sexual tension when I am able to go out fully presenting. Not quite the erotic high some cross dressers get, but it is still there. Could this mean I am not truly a transwoman, but rather a cross dresser, or is this common? I know this is a real provocative question.
—Sexy in a Dress

Dear Sexy:

I find your last sentence quite revealing, so to speak. What is it that is so provocative about your questions? Why is it so over the edge for us to ask about the sexuality about transgender or other gender non-conforming people?

Virginia Prince was adamant that cross dressers never had sexual feelings or masturbated when they cross dressed but just liked expressing their feminine side. Harry Benjamin looked at gender non-conforming people and developed a spectrum of gender transgressing behaviors; he said that transsexuals were noted for their lack of sexual desire and sense of being in the “wrong body.”

Ray Blanchard and Michael Bailey have circulated the theory that some transsexuals are autogynephilic, sexually aroused by their desire to be a woman. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases identifies “transvestic fetishism” as a mental illness for men who are sexually aroused by cross dressing. Interestingly enough, only heterosexual men can be labeled with as mentally ill for cross dressing; presumably, gay men, and both heterosexual and lesbian women, who are aroused by cross dressing are mentally healthy.

How do we sort through these theories when we trying to examine our own cross dressing behaviors and sexual feelings? What is the connection between eroticism and transsexualism? Do our sexual desires really reveal something about our gender identities and whether or not we should transition?

Perhaps part of the dilemma here is that we are trying to connect many distinct, yet overlapping, issues. Most of us know that sexual orientation and gender identity are two separate (but equal) parts of one’s sexual identity. In the same way, transsexualism (the need to change one’s natal sex through medical treatments to conform to one’s gender identity, what some call gender confirmation) is not the same as eroticism (what sexually rocks your boat). Of course, these parts of self are also deeply connected on many levels — it’s hard to have sexual pleasure in a body you hate.

Permission to receive medical treatments for transsexualism once depended on the person’s cross dressing being non-erotic, despite the fact that there has been scant research into transsexual sexuality. To be fair, the lack of attention to the erotic lives of gender-variant people is hardly surprising given the virtual silence regarding all serious inquiry in the sphere of human sexuality. From the societal fears of teaching sex education in the public schools, to the inadequate funding of sexual research in higher education, discussion of human sexual response has been guided by a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” philosophy. We have based major decisions about approval for life-saving transsexual medical treatments on conjecture about human sexual response.

In my opinion, we have placed far too much attention on the meaning of sexual arousal in the lives of those struggling with issues related to gender identity. The reality is that people who are transgender (and I am using that term in its broadest meaning) have many different relationships to their sexuality: some have low sex drive, some have high sex drive; some are heterosexual, some homosexual, some bisexual and some have different sexual orientations depending on the gender they are expressing. Indeed, some are extremely aroused by presenting cross dressed (from the perspective of their natal sex), and others have little arousal and just a sense of it feeling “right.” In other words, trans people are just like other people – cisgender people – in that they experience their sexuality in complex and unique ways, as well as plain ole regular ways.

The questions about whether you should or should not transition are multi-faceted, and require examining many parts of your identity including your relationships, your career, your dreams for your future, and even your finances. It is important to examine sexuality, but not simply in terms of your arousal, but rather in terms of the loss of body parts, how it will impact your sexual partner, differences in male and female sexual desires and functioning, the impact of surgery, etc. The question of whether or not putting on pantyhose creates sexual tension is a very very minor issue when examining whether or not one is transsexual and should go forward with a transition.

In a most basic sense, sexual feelings are always experienced within the physical body. I would hope that people who have cross-sex desires would experience sexual feelings when they are expressing themselves in the way they are most comfortable, i.e. when they are cross-dressed. When someone feels that they are a woman and are dressed as a woman, it is logical that they would enjoy being treated sexually as a woman, and experience being seen as a woman as an erotic experience. It would also make sense, if she was aroused and had a penis that she would experience an erection; that’s just what bodies DO.

Personally, I would worry more about someone who is traveling the journey from male to female and says they have no sexual feelings at all expressing their womanhood. Not that sex is everything, but surely it’s a nice part of life and one of the perks of being a woman is having sex and being aroused as a woman. Trans people have experience enough pain and confusion in their bodies; I say if you have sexual feelings, enjoy them.