The Cock Question: On Dating While Non-binary

Society

27.08.2019

The Cock Question: On Dating While Non-binary

As a non-binary person interacting on dating apps like Bumble, OKCupid and Tinder, Ellie Lee-Duncan got asked the same thing a lot: “Do you have a cock?”

 

“Not just: how were we fucked by gender, but also: was it possible to fuck without fucking with gender?” – Robyn Wiegman1

At the end of last year, my five-year marriage broke up. Between eating copious amounts of soy yoghurt and crying on the kitchen floor, I wanted a palate cleanser. The acidic impulse of desire ate through my flesh. So, armed with my cute boyish charm I had a casual sexy phase.

I’m non-binary, more towards transmasculine, and I present as fairly androynous. Although I don’t think trans individuals need to disclose what, if any, medical treatments they may elect to lessen their dysphoria, for the pertinence of this article, I myself am on low dose T (testosterone therapy) and have been for a few years. Among other things, this has changed my body and face shape. I don’t agree with the politics of ‘passing’, since the concept can efface trans identities and reinforce being cisgender as the desired normal.2 But for me, I feel a sense of euphoria and validation when I am read as a cisgender guy. My highest level of comfort, though, comes from being unreadable, in a space of dynamic indeterminacy where I flicker between male and female, both, either, or neither. But, depending on what clothes I wear, what pitch I choose to speak at, and what mannerisms I perform, I am generally read as either a cisgender woman, or a teenage boy. Most often, I am read as the former (“Excuse me, miss”). I know that since I’m not often read as trans, this grants me a level of protection and privilege, as does my toothpasty white complexion.

In 1987, stunningly early for trans academia, Sandy Stone wrote her manifesto The Empire Strikes Back. Here, she encourages transgender individuals to visibly present themselves as obviously non-cisgender. Stone realised how difficult this would be for some, but encouraged it strongly: “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously ‘read’, to read oneself aloud…”3 She argues that this will raise the visibility, and hopefully acceptance of gender diversity. It also becomes a political retaliation against socially acceptable and culturally intelligible restrictions of gender expression.

I don’t always want to be a puzzle to solve

I firmly agree with Stone, but I also believe you need to balance your own autonomy of expression with your feelings of safety in different settings, and how much emotional labour you are willing to expend on a daily basis. I don’t always want to be a puzzle to solve. When I’m not studying, my day job is as a museum-visitor host, and I am well aware that I make minor alterations to my behaviour when I read someone as a threat. If I raise the pitch of my voice or act more feminine to a potential asshole, I put myself in a space where I am less likely to incite a confrontation.

Much like binary bathrooms, dating apps are divided in frustratingly cisnormative ways. While there are trans-specific dating apps available, usage in Aotearoa is limited. Although more gender-diverse changes have been made for Tinder users overseas, in New Zealand Tinder still splits people into gender binaries of man and woman. OKCupid and Bumble both allow you to select your gender from a wide range of options, yet you will still be grouped into either male or female searches. And unlike the safe haven of the gender-neutral bathroom, there isn’t an option to opt out of this division. Unlike Tinder, where most people don’t read the profiles, Bumble at least allows someone to read about you between seeing your photos. Regardless, these apps are designed for the dater as consumer. As easy as online shopping, our decisions regularly boil down to our visceral first reactions to someone’s appearance. My own photos were androgynous. I received an avalanche of messages, most of which asked the same thing: “Do you have a penis?” or “Do you have a cock?”

There was one unfortunate incident where I met with a young man, an attractive topless waiter, who had not asked this question. I undressed my awkward, glow-in-the-dark body to Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar. Looking up I saw him open-mouthed. “Oh fuck,” he said. “I thought you had a dick.” If I wasn’t both flattered and stung by his reaction, it would have been comical how quickly he left the house.

Unless we get to a point where I’m about to invite you back to my whare, it really isn’t your business what my downstairs department looks like

After that night, and due to the frequency of people enquiring after my genitals, my flatmate very firmly advised the inclusion in my profile of the sentence, “No, I don’t have a penis.” I felt uncomfortable with this declaration, and about the causative effect of it cutting short someone’s inability to determine my gender. That liminal space, that very indeterminacy, is something I celebrate about myself. Although I added it briefly, I have since removed this statement. But, at the time, I wasn’t the only trans person declaring my genitals or transition choices with all the subtlety of a brick. Others profiles I saw included, “I’ve only just started on hormones so I don’t pass at all”; “I’m currently pre-op”; “I’m pre-T”.

I wondered if, like me, these people felt the need to do this because of the constant press of intimate questions by total strangers. How do we remain respectful when assessing someone to be a potential romantic or sexual partner? How can our actions remain constitutive? I don’t enquire about the length of your labia, or whether you shave your balls or not. Unless we get to a point where I’m about to invite you back to my whare, it really isn’t your business what my downstairs department looks like. I think that despite the increasing visibility of trans concerns, we still haven’t overcome gender essentialism. By this, I mean the idea that someone’s physical genitals are the determinant of their gender.

Gender isn’t who you are, it’s what you do

Current trans theory follows the base that philosopher Judith Butler laid down, in her assertion that gender isn’t inherent. Instead, Butler argues, it is a series of actions and behaviours that have been programmed into us as socially acceptable, which we then replicate in how we live our lives, through a “practice of signification”.4 This could be evident in the way we walk, our speech intonation, what we wear and even the careers we pursue. This gender idea is based on ‘performativity’; that is, repeated learned behaviours that we have soaked up like a sponge. Following this idea, biological sex is extricable from gender. Gender isn’t who you are, it’s what you do. Despite this theory slowly trickling down into mainstream ideology, assumptions are made time and again regarding people’s genitals and identity based on their gender presentation. For me in the dating world, this comes in sneaky underhanded comments: “Oh, but if you haven’t had surgery, you’re not really trans”; “I guess it doesn’t matter as long as you have a vag.”

As gender-diverse people, we constantly get asked about our genitals. When it’s uninvited, or when it’s asked as a conversation opener, these kinds of personal questions are a form of body policing. But I get it, people are curious. It’s just so easy for this genuine curiosity to slide away from being gentle and respectful into being a rigid reinforcing of cisgender as the ideal. It comes from the individual’s desire to classify and understand anything that falls outside the realms of supposed normality. It involves what Jack Halberstam considers the “violence of inspection” and an expectation for our bodies to be constantly available for surveillance.5

Talia Mae Bettcher notes that if we don’t offer up our status as trans, we risk being seen as ‘deceivers’, ‘tricking’ or ‘trapping’ someone.6 Or even being the ‘trick’ and the ‘trap’. Many trans individuals have been abused or murdered as a result of someone ‘discovering’ their status as trans. Bettcher highlights that this idea of trans individuals being ‘deceivers’ has been used multiple times in court to place the blame on the victim of such violence, in what became known as the “trans panic defense ”.7

In the UK, it is a criminal offense as sex-by-deception for a trans individual not to disclose their gender identity prior to engaging in intimacy with someone, even if the sexual act is entirely consensual, and even if the trans person has hormonally and surgically transitioned.8 Although there is no such law in Aotearoa, the responsibility is on me to declare the status of my genitals. The young man’s response to discovering my lack of appendage seems comical, but could have been really dangerous. I had no idea that I had passed as a cis male to him. And I was really fortunate that he didn’t react with violence. As transmasculine, I definitely hold privilege; as Julia Serano points out, “the majority of violence committed against trans people is directed at trans women”.9 As Pākeha, I was also safer in this situation than if I was a person of colour; internationally, the current majority of fatal violence against trans people is not only against women, but against women of colour.10

Gayle Salamon theorises that this reliance on the surface exterior of the body of a trans person reasserts gender essentialism. It desires to render their gender legible within mainstream expectations of normativity.11 Instead she suggests the idea of the “bodily ego”, or the “felt sense” of the body. This emotional or mental idea of the body is the one that many trans individuals carry with them constantly, which results in gender dysphoria. This is seen most in the popular narrative of being ‘born in the wrong body’. It’s a heightened perception of the wrongness of one’s current physiology. As Edelman and Zimman put it:

[w]hen it comes to trans men’s pre- or non-operative genitals, hegemonic readings may render them features of a “female” body; yet through the discursive co-constructed meaning-making... trans men’s and transmasculine embodiment is both malleable and implicitly dynamic.12

It’s helpful to approach a trans person’s body bearing in mind that they might have an entirely different perception of it. Not attempting to define their body within singular categories will allow fluidity and space for their own personal truth.

If you are fortunate enough to get into that position with a trans person, ask them what they name their own body parts

I think it’s important here to note the difficulties embedded in language itself to describe our bodies. Words we’re used to hearing – breasts, vagina, penis – can be a form of linguistic violence for trans individuals. I cannot speak for intersex individuals, transfeminine people, or the experiences of culturally specific liminal genders such as fa’afafine or takatāpui. My experience is only one experience among many. But for myself and many other trans people, using common terms denies our mental and emotional topography of our own bodies. As an example, I refer to my upper torso as my chest. Hearing anyone call it my breasts is abhorrent to me, a reminder of the current limitations of my body and its painful incongruence with my gender. In the same way, calling a trans woman’s genitals a penis could be really distressing for her, while many trans men feel a sense of validation in referring to that part of their anatomy as a penis. If you are fortunate enough to get into that position with a trans person, ask them what they name their own body parts. This practice is key to supporting their own self-determination and bodily autonomy. Edelman and Zimman term this the “linguistic negotiation of identity”, where the process of naming validates the individual’s sense of self.13

And what about objects that we consider part of ourselves? Technology and high-quality synthetic materials have changed the variety of possibilities for altering our bodies, and for queering sex. One girl’s opening message to me was, “I see you don’t have a penis. That’s a good start.” Intended to be a playful opener referencing her lesbianism and hinting at her openness to an intimate encounter, it left me unsure how to reply. Despite the statement on my bio I do, in fact, have a penis: a perfect strapless strap-on. And although I do use it with men, I absolutely wouldn’t go to a woman’s house without it. Some trans women wear prosthetic breasts, and some trans men wear packers. There are so many choices of clothing designed to bind, tuck, cinch and pad. We keep them close to our skin. They soak up our sweat. Some of us wouldn’t consider leaving the house without them, and or even removing them during an intimate time. How much can these be considered as part of ourselves?

Being asked by potential matches whether I had a cock not only sidelined my own perception of my body, but it also made assumptions about my sexual preferences. It became apparent through my conversations with them that these people assumed that, if I have a vagina, intimacy to me will mean penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse. This is centred on the American ‘base’ system of sex, where other forms of intimacy are not considered ‘sex’ in their own right.14 This phallocentric system assumes heterosexuality and only accounts for the time up until the male partner reaches orgasm. It relegates all the other ways that people can be intimate to just ‘foreplay’ and doesn’t even consider female orgasm. It erases queer sex. No one in 2019 should carry this code of beliefs into the bedroom, and especially with gender-diverse individuals.

On one date over steaming vegan spring rolls, a trans woman and I discussed a different question: “What does hot and safe sex look like to you?”

Some transmasculine people I know are disgusted at the idea of vaginal sex, since it can seem to reinforce their body as inherently female. The same can be equally true for some transfeminine people, who find penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse upsetting because they feel it reinforces the presence of their ‘male’ anatomy. One trans woman that I dated said that the last time she had penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse, she broke down and cried at how abhorrent her body felt to her. However, many trans people also enjoy penile-vaginal intercourse; it’s just important not to make assumptions. Different people have different preferences, and what one person might love could intimidate or even terrify another. Any practice of sex, then, can either be a potential site of celebrating our queerness, or of distress at our bodies.

This picture is even more complicated for some people who have experienced sexual trauma. The resulting PTSD from such trauma means that some people have specific needs in the bedroom, like the regular communication of verbal consent. In this sense, a trans person’s relationship with sex might be more complicated, and potentially more stressful to maneouvre.

On one date over steaming vegan spring rolls, a trans woman and I discussed a different question: “What does hot and safe sex look like to you?” This was the most respectful and open-ended question I had come across yet. I have since continued using this proposition in my adventures, and I’ve noticed a few things. I’ve found that this phrase has not only supported and affirmed people’s experiences of their bodies as erotic, but has also allowed room for open discussion of different kinks. In prioritising safety as well as indulgence, it has warmed the conversation as a safe space.

“What does hot and safe sex look like to you?” At less than 50 characters to type, this sentence has the potential to transform your own sexy rendezvous. Especially for gender-diverse individuals, this question is a win since it allows us to discuss our bodies and genitals on our own terms. It doesn’t project heteronormative expectations in the bedroom. The asker makes themselves available for the disclosure of their potential partner’s wants, and shows sensitivity to their needs. This enquiry allows for the multiplicities of ways that we as queer people negotiate our bodies, and carries no assumptions about what an encounter could look like. Instead, it creates space where comfort, consent, and freedom of expression are privileged alongside pleasure.

So I pose the question to you and your lover (or lovers): “What does hot and safe sex look like to you?” Trust me, it’s a question worth asking.


1Robyn Wiegman, “The Desire for Gender,” in A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, ed. George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 18.

2‘Passing’ is being read by strangers as cisgender, or non-trans, in one’s self-determined gender identity.

3Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, ed. Kristina Straub and Julia Epstein (New York: Routledge, 1991), np.

4Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 144.

5Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 93.

6Talia Mae Bettcher, “Evil Deceivers and Make-believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion,” Hypatia, 22, no. 3 (2007): 48.

7Ibid.

8Zoe O’Connell, “Court of Appeal Confirms: Stealth Trans People Having Sex are Criminals,” June 27, 2013, www.complicity.co.uk/blog/2013/06/court-of-appeal-confirms-stealth-trans-people-having-sex-are-criminals/

9Julia Serano, “Trans Woman Manifesto” in Reading Feminist Theory edited by Susan Archer Mann and Ashly Suzanne Patterson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 350.

10Human Rights Campain, “Violence against the Transgender Community in 2019,” accessed 28 September 2019.  www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

11Gayle Salamon, Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 33.

12Elijah Adiv Edelman, and Lal Zimman, “Boycunts and Bonus Holes: Trans Men’s Bodies, Neoliberalism, and the Sexual Productivity of Genitals,” Journal of Homosexuality 61, no. 1, (2013): np.

13Ibid, np.

14Andrei S. Markovits, and Steven L. Hellerman, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 66.

 

Editorial note: This essay was amended on 27 August 2019 to emphasise that the author’s experience is one experience among many, and to provide clarification regarding the difference between the author’s experience and of those of transfeminine individuals and intersex individuals.

Feature image: dom brassey / Flickr

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