The recent furore over radfem2012, at which Sheila Jeffreys was scheduled to speak, has had me returning to her writing and, specifically, to her 2005 book, 'Beauty and Misogyny'. As I've posted elsewhere (than on this blog) Jeffreys does talk a lot of sense: about agency, the nature/absence of choice, compulsory heterosexuality, and so forth; and her idea of the beauty industry as promoting “harmful cultural practices” to women is a powerful one.
Some of the issues Jeffreys raises are indeed worthy of consideration. However, the lens through which she perceives everything – that the basis of society is the oppression of women – leads to some very dubious conclusions, as she takes her theoretical framework into contexts where it doesn't apply. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her conception of trans issues, outlined in 'Transfemininity: “Dressed men” reveal the naked reality of male power'. In this chapter (and seemingly in all her writing on this subject) Jeffreys reduces every facet of trans to the notion that it's all about men getting off on femininity and the supposed subordinate nature thereof. She therefore regards trans women as transvestite men and equates transvestite men with male submissives and castigates us all on that account.
Other than stating that trans women are not transvestites and that everything Jeffreys says about trans women is therefore utterly flawed, I don't intend to examine this further here. Instead, I'm concerned with her views on transvestism – her main interest by proxy – to explain why her views on this are also erroneous. The essence of Jeffreys’ thesis is set out in her first paragraph in which she makes several unsupported assumptions:
— “Beauty practices and femininity go hand in hand but they are not essentially the properties of women.” This much I can agree with – while noting that beauty practices and masculinity are increasingly going hand in hand too, and they are not essentially the properties of men either.
— “[W]omen do not choose femininity but have it thrust upon them.” Once again I agree: women (and girls) do have femininity thrust upon them by society (or patriarchy, if you prefer) and this is oppressive. Compulsory gender is often oppressive, whatever someone's sex. Compulsory gender roles are oppressive. But I think it is the social enforcement of gender – in particular the arbitrary and discrete attribution of aspects of human gender to binary sex – that is oppressive, not gender itself. In other words, women can express femininity without being oppressed. And men can do so too without being oppressive.
— “Femininity is sexually exciting to the men who seek it because it represents subordinate status and thus satisfies masochistic sexual interests.” This, on the other hand, struck me as being so completely off the wall that, at first, I was at a loss as to how to react. Nevertheless, breaking it down into its constituent parts, there are some partial truths to be found. “Femininity is sexually exciting to the men who seek it”. Yes, it can be. “Femininity (...) represents subordinate status”. Yes, it can do. “Femininity (...) satisfies masochistic sexual interests.” Yes, it can do. These statements, I concede, are sometimes true individually. But combining them – to insert between them (as Jeffreys does) the words “because” and “thus”, as though they followed logically on from each other – creates a fallacious whole. To see why that is involves considering why the separate statements are sometimes true – and the reasons are not in general as Jeffreys supposes.
“Femininity is sexually exciting to the men who seek it” – is sometimes true, but nowhere near always true. Femininity may simply be personal gender expression and not sexually exciting at all. But if and when it is true has nothing to do with the subjection of women or the regarding of women as a subordinate class. For example, femme (the main topic of this blog) is an erotic as well as a gendered identity and hence has the intrinsic potential to be sexually exciting (depending on circumstances). There is also the fact that, for men, the expression of femininity is, with few exceptions, culturally taboo, and taboo can often be sexually exciting. And then there is the consequence of taboo, that of repression, the relief from which (by the desired gender expression in this case) can be exciting too.
“Femininity (...) represents subordinate status” – is partly true. That is, in a male-dominated society where masculinity and femininity are differences culturally inscribed on men and women, femininity does, in those terms, represent subordinate status. It is clearly in this sense that Jeffreys regards femininity as subordinate and hence rejects it. But that doesn't mean femininity is inherently subordinate, only that (patriarchal) society regards it as so. People (of any sex) can express femininity, can appropriate cultural symbols of femininity, without being or feeling at all subordinate, especially if their gender identity incorporates it.
“Femininity (...) satisfies masochistic sexual interests” – is true in certain contexts. In BDSM, for example, a submissive will often adopt a powerless persona, such as infant, schoolboy (for male submissives), prisoner, servant or slave. Throw in gender play as well and you get (from the male perspective) schoolgirl, maid, and so on. This gender play may be based on the denial of identity (emasculation, say), thus heightening the submissive's feeling of powerlessness. Or it may be incorporated for its own sake, which is where “masochistic sexual interests” intersect with transvestism – in particular in the persona of sissy maid, which incorporates an exaggerated ‘femininity’ in a submissive role.
But even then the truth is not as Jeffreys perceives it. Firstly, in BDSM, femininity is not at all inevitably submissive; it can also be dominant; or unrelated to any power position (i.e. separate, rather than being based on something else). And secondly, even if it is submissive, the gender play may yet have its own motives. For instance, for a sissy these motives may spring from the need to express a culturally proscribed femininity, the negative products of which (may) include guilt and (fear of) rejection. Within a command and obedience scenario, these products are negated. There is less guilt because personal agency has been removed (due to obedience), while (the possibility of) rejection is pre-empted (because of command).
And the above explanations only apply to instances where Jeffreys’ “masochistic sexual interests” is taken literally. In most cases, I would suggest, submission is not really a factor. Instead, the “forced” feminization fantasies (which she finds on numerous websites) are equivalent to ravishment or ‘rape’ fantasies, a quick google-search for which brought up the following description on queer erotica author Aurelia T. Evans’ blog: “The rape fantasy isn’t about rape at all. It's about being overwhelmed, about being swept up in something you can’t control, being forced to feel pleasure ... but within the fictional (and thus, fantasy) world, it’s under your control. It’s still your choice.” Quite so. And forced feminization fantasies often incorporate a ravishment element too. In this erotic fiction, the submissive element provides the background, the catalyst, to the fantasy, which is imaginary in every sense. The impetus is being ‘made’ to experience the forbidden feelings you crave within a safe environment: that of your imagination.
Not that any of this will cut much ice with Jeffreys, who takes an equally dim view of SM and butch/femme, and who does not believe in gender except as an oppressive patriarchal construct, and hence (presumably) does not recognize that any need for gender expression exists. Well, on these matters I think she's wrong.
Which doesn't mean Jeffreys is always wrong. There are no doubt instances where, and individuals for whom, what she says holds true. (And, like a good tabloid journalist, she has certainly made it her business to try and find them.) Furthermore, her criticism (later in the chapter) of the relationships between heterosexual transvestite men and their wives has validity – in particular of situations where men perform masculinity at work and femininity at home, expecting their wives simply to acquiesce. Feminist criticism is quite applicable here, as it would be in any situation where male privilege and a false sense of entitlement are so apparent. And as Jeffreys rightly notes, transvestites’ wives are often worse off than usual in this respect. Not necessarily because, as Jeffreys thinks, these wives are inherently conservative and invested in patriarchal gender roles (though some may be), but because their own gender and sexual identities (may) respond to their male partners performing (some sort of) masculinity, so the appearance of male femininity may be decidedly unwelcome.
On this subject: although there are many reasons why transvestite men conceal their need to express femininity, in the context of relationships such reasons, however understandable, amount to dishonesty, in my opinion. If they have performed masculinity during courtship and (perhaps) over many years of marriage (often overcompensating with overt masculinity), then transvestite men have no justification for expecting that their (suddenly) declared femininity will be acceptable to their female partners. (Though that doesn't mean it won't or can't be, as Virginia Erhardt's book 'Head Over Heels' verifies.) But this has nothing to do with Jeffreys’ fundamental thesis. It just shows that the rigid enforcement of social gender rules has repercussions – and that some husbands can be jerks whatever their desired gender expression.
After that digression, in her final section Jeffreys asks the (for her, rhetorical) question: “Transfemininity – Transgressing Gender or Maintaining It?”, reiterating once again that “Femininity is exciting because it is the behaviour of subordination” and, further, that “it is because it is the behaviour of subordination that it cannot be preserved.” From my own perspective, femininity is not intrinsically the behaviour of subordination, so any move to eliminate it is unwarranted (never mind being hopelessly impractical). Instead, what is required is the negation of gender stereotyping, so that people are able to develop their gender freely and are free to express it as they need or wish. As for Jeffreys’ question itself, I think the answer is pretty much “neither” in all cases:
— For trans women (with whom Jeffreys is primarily concerned at this point) the question has no relevance, since trans women are not inevitably feminine; their gender is as variable as that of any other woman. (Jeffreys merely confuses sex and gender here.)
— For male submissives transgression does occur in a sexual sense, in that maleness is disassociated from stereotypical expectations of sexual dominance. Sissies might appear to render this ambiguous by coupling femininity with sexual submission, but it is still in essence male submission. In either case gender transgression is not really the point.
— For male transvestites cultural gender rules are certainly transgressed, but that doesn't imply any real gender transgression either. As Jeffreys’ selective evidence indicates, some transvestites (like anyone else) can have quite ‘traditional’ views on gender. (A penchant for cross-dressing is no assurance of progressive values.) Moreover, transvestites’ default stealth (i.e. closetedness) rules out meaningful transgression for most of us, whatever our politics. The best that might be said is that transvestites are potentially transgressive. If we were all out and open about our (varied) gender expression, so that the assumed correlation between femininity and femaleness was shown to be false, we might well be gender transgressive. But, with a few notable exceptions, we mostly aren't.
In conclusion, I think that Jeffreys’ basic contention (restated here) that transfemininity consists of “men adopting the behaviours of a subordinate group in order to enjoy the sexual satisfaction of masochism” is essentially false. All the testimony she presents in support of her thesis can be explained in other, more appropriate ways. It seems then that, as Roz Kaveney aptly put it, Jeffreys “has a historian's ability to accumulate evidence, but shows remarkably little ability to interpret it.” In other words, despite all her expostulations on trans issues over the years, Jeffreys has contributed very little of actual significance. In this respect the third chapter of 'Beauty and Misogyny' is no different from anything else she has written – and I suspect that, failing an unlikely and unprecedented change of heart, her forthcoming co-authored polemic, 'Gender Hurts', is set to be more of the same.