Friday, 22 June 2012

Sissies, Trannies, and Jeffreys.

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.


  1. Sometimes I just want to throw a bucket of water over these negative theorists.

    (J, you are invited to peruse my new blog,
    Deborah Descends - see Mirror Sister. x x)

    1. Hi Deborah

      Ah, but throwing a bucket of water would constitute "serious assault" and you'd find yourself pilloried on radfem websites as a "typically violent male transactivist", like the Queer Avengers who glitter-bombed Germaine Greer ;)

      And thanks, I'll go and check your new blog :)

  2. Wow, that's one in-depth post and so much food for thought. Where to start?

    I am male and I am.... hell, now I've got to pick a label. Shall we go with cross-dresser for simplicity's sake? :-) Can I speak for male culture? Yes, for some of it and some of the time, yes. Can I speak for trans culture? For some of it, that that has been my (limited) experience, yes.

    Would I dare to presume I know the female mind and/or female culture or the politics around gender? No. I may have sympathy towards the lack of equality in certain segments of society, but I do not think I could speak on a woman's behalf, nor dare to state their feelings. How can a non-trans person know our issues? At least, how can they know our issues without extensive discussion with those people you wish to talk for...

    On another note, the idea of the tyranny of gender and femininity; that's a topic that will run and run. From a Jones house hold view, I've two issues with information Jeffreys presents.

    Firstly - and as far as I know consciously - we (Mrs Jones and I) have not set out to enforce roles on our two children. The eldest (male) plays and acts as many young boys do. If he wanted to play with a doll, I'd not admonish or discourage him from it. Indeed, when a lot younger, he did try on pretty shoes when his Mum did, but that's as far as that went. Likewise, with his younger sister, we haven't stated that "girls do housework" - it's very much a team effort in our house (mainly as we both work and it's the twenty first century). Yet, our little girl is happy to help tidy up and loves to sweep. She also loves pretty shoes and princess outfits. Again, those activities are her choices, I did not drag her down the sparkly pink aisle in Toys R Us; she hauled me in that direction. So, so far, both children seem to be operating on in-built gender roles.

    With regards to the point about transvestites and their interaction with their female partner. My wife dislikes 'macho men' and her attraction to me was my lack of machismo. I struggling to say feminine nature, because I don't feel I have it. Yet, I've had it pointed out to me that certain things I do are more typical of a woman than a man. Note I say certain and not all, because I'm not (again with the labels) transsexual.

  3. Hi Lynn

    Yes indeed; how can Jeffreys know anything. She doesn't. She has her own agenda, and her "expertise" as a feminist academic allows her to exploit it. The trans community has had endless experience of outside "experts" doing just that (see Patrick Califia's book 'Sex Changes: Transgender Politics' for details).

    On your issues, though... I have some issues with your issues, so prepare yourself for some gender politics ;)

    Firstly, that you haven't set out to enforce gender roles on your children (well done for that!) is only of marginal relevance (sorry :oops: ). Cultural gender reinforcement is everywhere and pretty much starts from day one, so it's hard to say what anyone's in-built gender might be, unless:

    1) They were raised in a gender neutral environment — which is tremendously difficult to achieve. For instance, Sandra and Daryl Bem went to enormous lengths (documented in 'An Unconventional Family') to try and neutralize the gender environment, to allow their children's gender to develop freely. (Note that doesn't mean they tried to make their children's gender "neutral", which would be something quite different.) Judging from the interviews at the end of the book, their children turned out to be the most well-rounded, intelligent and sane adults imaginable — almost irritatingly so!

    2) Someone has a particular impetus to question or explore their gender (i.e. doesn't just take it for granted) — such as, well, us! (Or, for example, feminists.)

    Secondly, the "certain things" being "typical of a woman" (with the corollary "not all" equals "not transsexual") — that's actually like a red rag to me, it's almost guaranteed to set me off. Because I don't believe anything much is inherently female or male, that there isn't anything much that's inherently typical of women or men. Indeed, my whole blog is based on this idea: that all aspects of gender belong to the human population — in other words, any particular gender attribute might (or might not) exist in anyone, irrespective of their sex — and that it's society which creates this (artificial) gender division. (For a thorough debunking of scientific gender myths I'd recommend reading Cordelia Fine's 'Delusions of Gender'.)

    Hence I define my sex as male and my gender as femme — a human gender, and nothing intrinsically to do with being female. And my corollary would be that transsexuality is about sex not gender; i.e. trans women are women because they're women, not because they're feminine — trans women aren't necessarily feminine at all, even if some we know certainly are (or at least feel the need to express femininity).

    But anyway, enough of that. I just hope my tendency to rant on this subject won't put you off talking to me about it :)


  4. I have some issues with your issues...

    "Then allow me to retort..." :-D At least, in a good natured way.

    I'm with you on gender re-enforcement, in that Little Miss goes to Nursery, plays with her peers and spends time at both Grandparents. How each of those parties affects her world view, well, I wouldn't like to guess. Which came first: the want for pretty pink things, or knowing that playing with pretty pink things equals praise? Ahh, we're back to nature and nurture. :-)

    I don't think we're doing the Gender Neutral thing; I think we are trying to encourage them to play/act in a way that they are happy - at least, provided they don't behave anti-socially etc. To that end, I think in my own head, that I'm trying to encourage feelings of equality and that if either child puts their mind to it, they can have a damned good crack at achieving what they want. If that means Wee Man performing dance, so be it. Likewise, if Little Miss wants to play football, why not?

    I think my point was that folk seem to have a certain level of... ack, for all my pro-celebrity gobshittery, I'm unable to get the right phrase here. Hmm....

    [ time passes ]

  5. I think what I failed to say is that I think we all have a pre-defined notion of 'stuff we like' - sorry about the heavy science there :-) That 'stuff we like' may come without any social attachments to us, yet as we interact with society, we learn that some activities / beliefs / attitudes are assigned by society to sit in the female, male or both camps. A sort of rather large Venn Diagram. I have no science to back this up and by no means am I waving a red flag to wind you up. I guess my comments are far more opinion than truth or science. I haven't read books on the subject - well, other than the populist stuff such as Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus or Why Men Don't Ask For Directions and Women can't read maps. Judge those publications as you will. Both raise some interesting views / points, but I'm pretty sure there's evidence about to dispute their claims.... and that comes back to your earlier comment about experts. :-)

    Anyhoo, having re-read your second to last paragraphy - the one about "all aspects of gender belong to the human population". Yes, absolutely and I do agree that society labels those behaviours accordingly. Interestingly - and going back to 'Why Men Don't Ask for Directions...' the authors break down careers by sex in an attempt to challenge why true equal oppurtunity will not occur. Perhaps that's ironic in that I believe anyone should be able to attempt to get a particular job, but there you go! But maybe I'm missing the point. Is it more than there is bias in certain careers because certain traits seem to exist more readily in one sex than the other?

    I don't think that I explained myself properly in my closing paragraph and having thought about it, I'm still not sure I can get it out of my head and on to paper (so to speak). Physically, I know I'm male (Hell, even when I'm dressed up, it's obvious LOL). Gender-wise? I'm not so sure and I find it very confusing. If I look at Mrs Jones's abilities, some of them include a fantastic grasp of maths, spacial awareness and map reading. To me, they are traditionally associated with men (this may be incorrect on my part, so mea culpa!) but I do not consider her to be male in any way. Hmm... confused again.

    Likewise - and compared to my male colleagues - I quite enjoy fixing clothes, making fancy dress outfits, shopping, make-up.... Yet, while I think that some people consider those things to be female, I can't bring myself to think like that. I think that's a hang up of mine in that in certain trans cirlces there's this sort of arms race, no, that's not right... a p*ssing contest - if I can be crude - where male trans people play the "I'm more feminine than you game." So perhaps because I don't like that game, I don't describe myself as feminine. Hmm.... go figure.

    Perhaps a better venue - than the blog - would be a chat one day. ;-)

  6. I really enjoyed your point-by-point response to Jeffreys. She clearly takes a way too generalized view that denies a lot of complex gender experiences, and her theories don't sit well with me because of that. Have you ever read any of Judith Butler's book -Gender Trouble-? She has much more open, way more complicated theories on gender and gender performance.

    Happy to have discovered your blog!

  7. Hi AF and thanks :)

    Judith Butler – no, I've never read Gender Trouble, nor anything else she's written. I know of her, of course, and a lot about what she's written, but the thought of actually sitting down and reading her books fills me with a terrible tiredness. The impression I've always had is that she's incredibly academic and abstruse. Is that an accurate assessment or should I really be making the effort? Ah well, I guess I'll get round to her eventually anyway. Undoing Gender is supposed to be a bit easier, isn't it?

  8. Okay, Lynn, I've sort of sorted my thoughts out, so here we go :) (In two posts, because it seems comments are limited to 4096 characters.)

    Ahh, we're back to nature and nurture. :-) — I think it depends what is meant by those terms. What they're often taken to mean is (swapping the two round) 'taught' vs. 'inbred' which is very simplistic. I think a better conception is 'learned' and 'capacity'.

    On "learned" — We live in a society that regards sex (whether you're a boy or a girl) as the most important fact of someone's life. It's what everyone wants to know first about babies. And from the moment of birth on (and before, even) we divide everyone according to their sex and have all sorts of social devices for emphasizing that difference — e.g. we dress boys and girls differently, we give them different things to do, we respond to them differently, etc — and in so doing we create (or perpetuate) a reality in which sex difference is important. (It's clear that these are devices and not natural because they change according to local culture and history, a simple example being pink and blue: in Victorian times boys were dressed in pink – the manly colour! – and girls in blue; and now it's the other way round.) Within that reality we form our own gender identities: I am a boy therefore I do boy things, I like to do boy things. I'm not a girl. Girls do girl things. I don't do those. I don't want to do those, etc. We mostly construct this gender reality for ourselves from the prevailing gender culture. (This is pretty much what you said with your Venn Diagrams thing, isn't it – except that I think two closely overlapping probability curves is a better model; i.e. less either/or.)

    Actual gender 'teaching' (i.e. enforcement) is relatively minimal and generally only surfaces when we're going the 'wrong' way – and even then enforcement is mostly done by children themselves. As trannies we know more about that 'wrongness' than a lot of people. I certainly knew (without being told) that what I was doing, what I wanted to do, was 'wrong'. I did it anyway, but as secretly as I possibly could. And the consequences of that are still with me! I'd say "wtf?!", except that repression is part of gender learning as well, in that we learn what not to do as much as what actually to do, and this has consequences for our adult psyches.

    Anyway, as to your daughter wanting "pretty shoes and princess outfits", it's logical that she should, because these are part of the gender reality that she's learned for herself. It's hard to say whether that's "in-built" or not. I'd prefer to say that the liking for such things (or what such things signify) is inherent in the human population (rather than just the female one) – i.e. some of us will like this stuff whether we're girls or boys – but that our local gender reality (inside and outside our minds) only permits girls to like it.

    On "inbred" — I think there are two main elements here: biological sex and genetics. Taking the latter first, obviously genetics are a significant factor in our capabilities (which is what I meant by "capacity" above), our natural ability to do various things. We inherit capabilities from our parents, so gender inclination might be part of that too, or at least the ability to 'do' gender. (I don't know whether that's ever been tested, but it seems plausible at least.) Biological sex, on the other hand, is of far less significance. It'd be surprising if sex had no influence, but tests that claim to show difference — very many do not, and there are all sorts of problems with the ones that do too — only show small difference (statistically significant but numerically small). The basic truth is that women and men are far more inherently alike than we are different.

  9. And this difference is often misunderstood in any case. Take, for example, "Mrs Jones' (...) fantastic grasp of maths, spatial awareness and map reading" which, as you say, "are traditionally associated with men". Looking at the science of whether that is true: yes, some tests have shown that men are 'better' at these things than women. But, firstly, this inherent difference in ability is pretty small; secondly, it doesn't mean that any man is better than any woman, which is what it's often assumed to mean (in particular "men are better than women" means "I", individual man, "am better than you", individual woman). All it means is that in a sample of, say, 100 people, in the area of your wife's abilities and at her level of competence, you might find that 53 are men and 47 are women – which would be an interesting finding indeed, but pretty meaningless in reality; e.g. you wouldn't go out and hire a random man on that basis.

    As for the populist books on gender, such as Men Are From Mars etc. I've read some of these and quite enjoyed them despite myself (i.e. even though I detest gender stereotyping), because there's quite a lot of "it's funny because it's true" stuff in them. But this is really only because the books recognize that women and men (sometimes) have different ways of interacting in the here and now. They're about how things are, not why they are – and it's when they misinterpret (I'm using a kind word here) scientific 'findings' about sex and gender to try and justify it all that I throw the books in the bin.

    While on that subject, I'd again recommend reading Cordelia Fine's 'Delusions of Gender', which crushes all our vague ideas about sex difference and the science that supposedly supports them. But I'd note that her agenda is not (as Alex Drummond misconstrued) to claim that we (women and men) and therefore 'all the same'. Instead, what she shows is that difference is a human quality, not one predicated by binary sex. For instance...

    "Likewise - and compared to my male colleagues - I quite enjoy fixing clothes, making fancy dress outfits, shopping, make-up.... Yet, while I think that some people consider those things to be female, I can't bring myself to think like that." — Quite right :)


    PS I don't know why, but it felt appropriate to use my femme name at the bottom of this comment :)

    PPS Re "in certain trans circles there's this sort of (...) p*ssing contest (...) where male trans people play the "I'm more feminine than you game." So perhaps because I don't like that game, I don't describe myself as feminine." Do they?! No, that sort of game wouldn't go down well with me either. Maybe that's part of the reason I didn't feel I fitted in at Invasion, because I wasn't playing.

  10. Not much to say except "Great post!"