Trans and sex

I recently took part in an Instagram Q&A for Sh! women’s sex store all about trans and sex. I thought I’d share my responses here. You can watch the live stream here.

You have written three books relating to non-binary and trans issues – Gender: A Graphic Guide, Life Isn’t Binary and How to Understand Your Gender. Could you give us an idea on how you got into writing about sex, relationships and gender?

Sex, relationships and gender have always felt important to me personally and politically. I grew up really buying the cultural norm that a romantic relationship was where I would find love, happiness, and belonging, and the related ideas that – as a woman – that would be with a man, and would involve having only certain kinds of sex.

Over the course of my life I’ve come to see all these interrelated cultural norms as damaging for those who are excluded from them, and also for those who are included in them. 

The norm the romantic love is all important keeps many people in damaging relationships, makes others feel like a failure for not managing such relationships, and takes our attention from other forms of love that it is vital to cultivate (self-love, friendship love, solidarity with our fellow humans, and love of the planet, to name a few). 

The norm that we should have particularly forms of (hetero) sex in our relationships exclude most people including ace people, LGBT+ people, kinky people, and non-monogamous people. It often leads to people severing their sexual desires and fantasies from the sex they have with other people. And it means that people feel a failure when they can’t sustain erotic attraction through a long-term relationship – even though this is extremely common.

When it comes to gender, the man/woman binary hurts all of those whose experiences don’t completely fit the binary, over a third of people according to one study. Also, the cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity – and their mutual attraction – are bad for most men and women too. For example, norms of men being providers, not seeking help, and not showing emotions relate to men’s mental health problems, as do norms of women prioritising other people, and focusing on appearance and desirability.

What does it mean for a person to be trans?

Being trans means that you no longer experience yourself as the gender that people assumed you were when you were born: when the doctor said ‘it’s a boy/girl’, for example. Anybody who has such an experience is ‘trans enough’!

Being trans doesn’t have to be associated with going through particular ‘transitions’ like changing name and pronouns, having surgical interventions, or taking hormones. However, many trans people do find some or all of those things to be affirming of their gender and/or alleviating of ‘dysphoria’, or painful feelings about their body/identity. It’s important to remember though, that many cis people go through transitions with names, hormones, surgeries, etc. over their lifetimes too.

How about gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and non-binary people?

Mostly these words are used pretty interchangeably for all folks whose experience falls outside of the current cultural gender binary, in other words anybody who doesn’t experience themselves as male or female. 

It’s important to remember, however, that many cultures around the world don’t have binary models of gender, and that the binary model of ‘two opposite genders’ is pretty new in western cultures also. In places and times where there have been diverse gender options, or where gender hasn’t been such an important category of human experience, very different possibilities have been available.

How do people realise they’re trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or non-binary?

Experiences vary. Many people have a sense of their assumed gender not fitting from a very young age, but for others it’s a deepening understanding over time, or even quite a sudden realisation in later life. As well as not being binary, gender is fluid: which means that most peoples’ experiences and expressions of gender change over time. Think about how you might express your gender as a kid, teen, adult, and older person, and how others might respond to you, for example.

For many people, having some kind of cultural language and media representation is vital in recognising their transness, as the recent documentary Disclosure highlighted. The increasing visibility of non-binary people has helped many people to recognise that spaces between or beyond man and woman are a better fit for them. 

Generally people’s mental health improves a lot if they are able to find a gender expression and identity which feels congruent to them, especially if that is mirrored and supported by those around them.

If I want to know someone’s gender identity, but I don’t want to be offensive. Is there a polite way to ask?

The important question is really why you want to know. If it’s just your curiosity then best not to ask! If there’s some reason why it is definitely relevant then it’s worth asking yourself whether you ask this of all people, or just this person. Remember that you can’t tell by looking at somebody what gender they identify with or what pronouns they use.

It’s great practise if everyone can start giving their pronouns when they introduce themselves, or on email signatures etc. This makes it easier for all of us to do that. Saying ‘I’m Nancy and I use she/her pronouns, how would you like me to refer to you?’ is a good opener with anybody where you might need to refer to them beyond a short encounter.

Someone I’m talking to just misgendered another person while referring to them. How do I correct them, and how should they respond?

Best practise here is to be matter of fact and kind.  We all mess up on this occasionally. ‘Oh actually Ki uses they pronouns,’ would be a great way to put it, and then a response like, ‘I’m sorry, so Ki was telling me that they have a great recipe for brownies…’ Just apologise and move on.

Many people experience shame and fear about ‘getting it wrong’ in areas of oppression they aren’t personally familiar with. If that’s the case for you then I’d suggest putting some time into this area. Engaging with media and social media by trans people can help the terminology to come more naturally, as well as helping you get a sense of key issues, and the diversity of trans experience.

Sitting kindly with your uncomfortable feelings rather than avoiding them or reacting defensively is a great approach. Practise using unfamiliar pronouns, for example by talking aloud about people who use them, or using gender neutral pronouns to refer to animals. Check out trans organisations like Trans Media Watch, All About Trans, or Gendered Intelligence to find out what kinds of support you might usefully give in this area.

Why does society give people who don’t follow gender norms such a hard time?

There are probably many reasons for this, but one of the big ones – in my view – is that people know, deep down, the injustice and violence which flow from a structurally transphobic and patriarchal society. Facing up to that truth – and all the damage that has been done – is so painful that it is easy for many to engage in a form of cultural gaslighting in this area. This involves minimisation, denial, victim blame, and defensiveness. 

In the area of gender, we see this in the ways in which the behaviours of women survivors of sexual assault and harrassment are scrutinised, as if somehow they might be responsible for what happened to them. Also the impact of such experiences on them is downplayed, while the impact of being named as a perpetrator is seen as potentially ‘ruining someone’s life/career’. We also see this cultural gaslighting in the way trans people are represented as perpetrators of violence when they are actually way overrepresented as victims of violence (particularly trans women of colour).

In this time of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the trans moral panic it’s vital to draw the links between these movements, for example, how the criminal justice system is violent towards survivors, trans people, and black people. It’s important to engage in collective struggle, and to reveal the cultural gaslighting which follows whenever we draw attention to structural oppression of any kinds.

Do you have any advice for communication around sex with a trans partner?

Yes! The advice for good sex with a trans partner is actually identical to the advice for good sex with anybody. The problem here is that most sex advice is so poor that it suggests things that only work well for a very narrow group of cisgender people who have certain kinds of bodies and enjoy very specific kinds of sex.

As Justin Hancock and I say in our book and podcast, good sex involves assuming nothing about the person – and body – in front of us. We need to be present to that particular person and body, learning what they need in order to be comfortable and consenting, what lights them up, what kind of touch they do and don’t enjoy, what kinds of experiences they do and don’t want during sex, what these experiences mean to them.

In a way sex with a trans person – like sex with a disabled person – could be seen as an opportunity to get way better at sex with all people, because we should never assume how somebody’s genitals work – for example – or that their body will be comfortable in a certain position, or enjoy certain kinds of stimulation. All sex should be an ongoing conversation between people – verbally and/or non-verbally.

In addition to our work, Juno Roche’s book Queer Sex is great on highlighting the diversity of forms of sex trans people – just like cis people – can have (and not have).

How can sex educators be more inclusive with their language with regards to trans people?

Again making no assumptions and talking about what’s relevant. It’s generally good practice to avoid making sweeping statements about ‘women’ and ‘men’ anyway. If you’re advising people on how to engage with parts of the body then talking about ‘people with penises’ or ‘people with vulvas’, for example, is better language than gendering those bodies. 

However, I would go a stage further to question whether much of the advice about how to stimulate penises or vulvas is that helpful. It centres the genitals in ways that don’t work for many people (whose main eroticism is located in other parts of their minds and brains, and/or who aren’t into genital stimulation); it suggests an anatomical binary rather than the spectrum that there actually is around genital structures; and it suggests that similar things work for all penises, or all vulvas, when actually there’s massive diversity in how people with these anatomies like to be touched.

How does taking hormones affect sexuality?

There definitely can be impacts, but ‘biopsychosocial’ is a useful word here. It’s hard, for example, to determine how much of an increase in sex drive after taking testosterone is due to the direct impact of the hormone, or expectations about what that impact will be, or feeling liberated to finally be on a transmasculine journey, or feeling more comfortable in your body, or being read more accurately in the wider world and not experiencing so much everyday misgendering.

Many people take hormones – or have experiences that alter their hormones – at some point in their lives, including adolescence, birth control, menopause, HRT, some cancer treatments, engaging in some sports, etc. As sexuality – like gender – is fluid – some people experience big shifts in their sex drive, the kinds of people they find attractive, or their desires and fantasies. Others experience few changes. And all of that is okay.

With the government proposing even harsher, transphobic policies around bathrooms etc. and the coverage that JK Rowling’s transphobic comments are receiving in the media, how can we best support the trans community right now? 

I’ve been writing about the current trans moral panic since 2017 and it truly has been horrendous for trans people. It is infuriating and exhausting to get to a point, now, where it seems that the whole consultation – and the frenzy it whipped up – was pointless, because the GRA will not be changed, and in fact other trans rights may also be rolled back.

JK Rowling’s comments hit some of the most vulnerable members of our community with the highest levels of mental health struggles – young people. It is particularly painful given how many young trans and queer people grew up seeing some kind of mirror of their experiences in the Harry Potter books and films: the idea of those who are different being special rather than unacceptable, and the strong stance in the series that those who are ‘half-blood’ should not be discriminated against, speaking to the experience of those who have moved away from cultural ideals of purity – like conforming to a fixed gender binary.

What people can do is to keep putting pressure on the government directly, and their MP, to follow the recommendations of the GRA consultation, and to stand against any rolling back of trans rights. They can also put pressure on the British media which has an appalling track record of demonising trans people. They can understand that trans people are being used as a handy scapegoat to take attention away from governmental mishandling of the C-19 pandemic, and to create divisions within feminism, LGBT+ movements, and the left, which take us away from the kind of collective solidarity which is so needed around interlocking axes of structural oppression.

Could you recommend some good resources for trans people, or people thinking about their gender identity?

Yes! For young people we have Gendered Intelligence and Mermaids

Hopefully my book with Alex Iantaffi How To Understand Your Gender is a good starter for anybody and everybody. And Gender: A Graphic Guide is a comic book introduction to how gender works.

There are so many amazing trans authors in the UK currently writing on these issues. Some I particularly love right now include:

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).