FtMs comparing themselves to lesbians

This post is a part of a series of posts based on the book Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Holly/Aaron Devor. My introductory post on the series can be found here.

There is a fascinating chapter in which Devor documents their journeys through lesbianism. Some of the FtMs she interviewed put two and two together and decided that since they were female and attracted to females, they might be lesbians. They joined lesbian communities, they compared themselves to lesbians and found that they were significantly different, and decided that this identity wasn’t right for them. They continued to feel like they should be male and did not see themselves as women loving women. One could argue that any female attracted to females is a lesbian regardless of how she sees herself, or one could argue that the intense desire to be a man proves they aren’t lesbians. It all comes down to rather subjective feelings and interpretations.

This chapter contained a lot less internalized homophobia than the chapters on their adolescence, but there was still occasionally some. In this chapter, the primary issue now was that as they attempted lesbian relationships they strongly felt they should have male bodies and didn’t wish to use their female parts during sex. This reminds me of the lesbians who used to be called “stone butch.”

“As Harry continued to try out lesbianism in other relationships, she found that she could not find any sexual enjoyment with women who in any way wanted to relate to the specifically female aspects of her body. Therefore, as had many other participants, Harry generally kept her clothes on throughout her lovemaking sessions (p333).” Harry is quoted as saying “I didn’t orgasm. I didn’t feel comfortable. I was basically a dead fish…It seems to me she was very excited about my femaleness, and that was the one thing I didn’t want her to be excited about (p333).”

I have to agree that this is not typical of lesbians, and there is definitely something else going on here. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump right into belief in the “man trapped in a woman’s body” trope either—that theory still doesn’t make much sense. It seems more plausible that there are psychological problems that cause people to dissociate from their bodies than that people who are female can somehow be inherently male.

Some participants wanted to have sex in a way they considered masculine and this is offered as evidence of them being different from lesbians and more similar to men.
Participant Lee said:

“If you’re a true lesbian, you’re a woman who enjoys being a woman who enjoys being with women. So, I don’t fit that. Because I very rarely acknowledge being a woman. It even bothers me to have to say that. I have to feel that I am the aggressor. I don’t want to be loved as a woman wants to be loved (p330).”

There are two assumptions here that I find suspicious. One is the assumption that lesbians universally enjoy being women. I actually doubt that’s true. Judging by the way women are mistreated in this society, I’d be surprised if any entire group of women could be said to universally enjoy womanhood. Surely there are women of all types, including lesbians, who don’t particularly enjoy being women because of all the difficulties that come with it? I understand there is a difference between “not enjoying living in a patriarchy” and having gender dysphoria, but I also think there is an overlap between these two things, they are not entirely separable. Some women have unraveled their gender dysphoria and found that it was definitely related to “not enjoying living in a patriarchy.” Plus, even those women in this study who obviously do have gender dysphoria have been continuously talking about social reasons why they feel uncomfortable being women (being expected to perform femininity, etc.)

The other assumption in this quote is that there is a specific, universal way that women want to be loved. Lee didn’t specify the way she believes women want to be loved, but she did say she likes to be the aggressor. If being the aggressor is the opposite of the way that women want to be loved, then it looks like Lee believes women want to be submissive, or passive, or receptive. Women don’t all have a passive sexuality, some of us want to be an active/insertive partner, and that doesn’t make us men, it’s a legitimate way to be a woman.

The following is a long quote full of interesting stuff. This is participant Aaron describing a lesbian relationship in which she decided she couldn’t be a lesbian.

“Basically she wanted a woman. At the nitty-gritty deep level I wasn’t a woman…Okay, concrete example. She didn’t mind if I went to a party in a male shirt, a male pair of pants, and so on. But she wanted me to wear a chain around my neck that she had bought for me and I said, “No…I’m sorry. I’m not compromising…I can’t do it.” And our lovemaking. She would resent it when I got too masculine…When I became too aggressive and too demanding, too macho, whatever, it ruined it for her. As long as we were equals, or I was being the passive one and let her be a little bit aggressive, it was alright. But…hey, I want to be on top part of the time…figuratively and literally. And it would…slow her response down and turn her off right when mine was speeding up. We didn’t match. Out of bed, the same kinds of things. I could get sarcastic and smart enough with the guys just like I do at work or something like that and she would resent it. “Why are you behaving this way? You don’t have to act this way with company, you don’t have to show off.” I wasn’t showing off, I was being me. It’s the way I learned to be with a gang of guys, we have a good time. But it offended her…It bothered her enough that she knew…there was something basically wrong there. And what was basically wrong was my maleness (p328).”

Oh boy, where to start? Okay, first thing. Her partner wanted her to wear a necklace that didn’t suit her masculine presentation. It seems like she didn’t really get that Aaron couldn’t wear it because it didn’t suit her. I wouldn’t buy feminine stuff for my partner and expect her to wear it, because she’s a butch, and that’s something I understand. However, having a masculine personality doesn’t make Aaron literally male, either.

Then there’s the stuff about being aggressive in bed. I wasn’t there and I don’t know what she was doing. Of course, if she was being aggressive to the point of abusive, then that wouldn’t be okay whether she was a lesbian or a man—that’s not even a “gender” issue, that’s not okay behavior coming from anyone. But she also uses the word “aggressive” about her partner, and I wonder if she just meant something like enthusiastic or the initiator or the active/insertive partner.

This is where I will have to discuss the word “top.” The words top and bottom are often understood by feminists in a BDSM context where the top is a sadist/abuser and the bottom is a masochist/victim. The words top and bottom can also be used in a homosexual context where one person prefers to be an active/insertive partner and the other prefers to be a receptive partner but there is no power imbalance being acted out or pain/injury being inflicted. Sometimes two homosexuals might enjoy each other’s company but not be sexually compatible because they are both “top” or both “bottom,” and this is not necessarily referring to BDSM. Please note that when I call Aaron a “top” here I am not saying she is a sadist.

When I read this paragraph it looks to me like Aaron is a top and that’s not what her girlfriend wanted. Aaron says they didn’t match. This is normal, sometimes two people don’t match! It’s just a matter of moving on and finding someone else. But the way this situation is presented in the book is like this: “Aaron further found that she did not respond to her lesbian lover in the ways which both of them believed were characteristic of lesbians (p328).” This makes me highly suspicious that Aaron had a relationship with a lesbian in which they were not compatible and that she interpreted this incompatibility as meaning she wasn’t a lesbian. What if her lover had been a bottom and enjoyed Aaron’s lovemaking style? Then would she still have concluded her sexuality made her male?

The final thing is her behavior and speech being “like the guys.” Again, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what was said. If she was being gross and misogynist, then that wouldn’t be okay coming from anybody, male or female. But she just said she was being “smart and sarcastic” which to me sounds pretty normal for anyone, and doesn’t seem like an issue. It sounds like Aaron’s girlfriend didn’t get her personality and didn’t particularly like her personality. To repeat a commonly used phrase around here, any personality a woman has is a woman’s personality. A woman has zero “maleness,” because male is a biological term referring to the member of the species that produces sperm. A woman can certainly have “masculinity,” which is a collections of traits, mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviors that society attributes to males, but which some females actually have. I think Aaron’s girlfriend just wanted to be with a more feminine woman. We all have our preferences. There is nothing here that provides convincing evidence that Aaron has an innate maleness—only an innate masculinity, which is fine for a woman to have. If we didn’t have the social constructs of masculinity or femininity then there would be no judgments about Aaron’s behavior resembling a man’s.

The author follows this quote with the words “Aaron construed these events as evidence that she did not belong among lesbians (p328).” But how would have things been different if Aaron had found a partner she was compatible with? Then would she have continued to live as a lesbian?

One participant, Stan, assumed that being a lesbian was a “liberal” thing and a political thing that she didn’t want any part of.

“I knew about lesbians but it just didn’t occur to me that’s what it was…What I knew about lesbians was that two women can be together and it’s okay if you are a lesbian…It was something they did on the coast in the big cities, more liberal people did. I just didn’t consider myself that liberal, that open-minded…To get into being a lesbian, like, you have to march for things, and you gotta go to caucuses, you gotta hate men, you gotta dress butch, and you gotta get into all that stuff, and I didn’t want to do that (p335).”

Just because Stan said here that “it’s okay if you are a lesbian,” doesn’t mean that’s what she believed. Just one paragraph before that she is quoted as saying that lesbians are sinful and sick. The thing about internalized homophobia is sometimes it’s not immediately apparent, sometimes a woman says “it’s okay to be lesbian” on the one hand but then underlying attitudes come out if you dig deeper. Stan obviously didn’t want to be one of those sinful liberals, she wanted to be a “normal” person. (There is an entire paragraph following this where she gushes about how becoming a man makes her “normal.”)

The stuff about having to march for things is funny but sad. No, you don’t have to participate in marches or have any particular set of politics to be a lesbian. You just have to be female and attracted to females, that’s it!

There may be a connection to be made between the belief that lesbians are liberals who participate in marches and that if you are a “top” then your sexuality is not compatible with lesbianism. Some of these participants were around during the “lesbian feminist” movement which promoted a politically correct sexuality where top/bottom sexualities were oppressive and lesbianism was promoted as a political strategy to end patriarchy. Some people have suggested that masculine lesbians got effectively kicked out of lesbianism by the politically correct feminist brigade. When I look at how these women were comparing themselves against the ideas and assumptions they had about who lesbians were, I wonder if it could have been the case that the “woman-identified woman” view of lesbianism did convince them they were something other than lesbians. However, even though I have my suspicions about this, I also think that if a woman didn’t have any gender dysphoria, no amount of “lesbian feminist” politically correct group norms could have convinced her that she was male. These women were truly convinced that they should have male bodies and the desire to be male ran deep.

But if these women truly were “men trapped in women’s bodies,” as the story goes, then I don’t believe they would have been so strongly homophobic, as we saw in my last post. If it were simply a matter of them not being lesbians because they are men, then there would be no reason for them to be so upset when people read them as lesbians, and any upset feelings they had would just be about not being recognized as men. However, for at least some of them, their discomfort was specifically homophobic in nature. Several women stated very obviously that homosexuality is wrong and that lesbians are scary, sinful and sick, and that they didn’t want to appear to be one of those sinners. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. I cannot brush it off as a coincidence that most of the women in a study on FtMs are same-sex attracted and most of them displayed serious internalized homophobia.

The chapters on their post-transition years bring up more interesting questions. After taking hormones and getting surgery, they became more comfortable with their bodies, and more of them were able to be receptive during sex. A couple of them even became comfortable with vaginal penetration as long as their partners “viewed them as male.” What does it mean when a woman can only feel comfortable having sex with another woman and using her female parts during sex when she has an artificially muscular and hairy body and is being referred to by male pronouns? What does this accomplish, when she still doesn’t have a penis and is therefore not actually having heterosexual intercourse? I still think that this whole transition thing is about looking male so that she can express her masculine personality without looking weird or gay and have the people around her take her masculinity seriously. I still think the underlying problem is sexism— the belief that women have to all be feminine, and that women with masculine personalities and presentations are not doing woman right. In their post-transition years, some of them expressed that if women could be recognized as men without transitioning then transition wouldn’t be necessary. I am going to get back to this in a later post because it’s fascinating. Women cannot be recognized as men because people understand the difference between male and female, so that’s not going to happen. But what if she means that she wants to be recognized for her masculinity and taken seriously as a masculine person without anyone expecting her to be feminine? Because I am all for that! That doesn’t need to involve pretending that she is literally biologically male. That needs to involve people letting go of their sexist assumptions about women.

I’m going to leave you with a fascinating quote from an FtM in her post-transition years.

“I best find sexual satisfaction through tribadism, preferably when I am penetrating a woman with a dildo while the base of the dildo presses against my naturally large clitoris…I prefer tribadism with me on top or, if on the bottom, totally in control of the movements, approach, or mood…I wear a dildo to bed at night, especially if I live with a lover. I do not have sex with people who do not accept my maleness. I discuss my transsexuality before I become involved with anyone. I like to use a dildo. It is part of me so I refer to it as my dick or my cock. I do not call it a dildo except in the nonsexual dating stage of a relationship or to explain my sexual preferences…I like blowjobs with or without the dildo, but mostly with the dildo because the dildo is larger than my clitoris and makes me feel more masculine and in control (p494).”

I’ve read this over a million times in utter fascination. At the beginning of the paragraph I think, sure, she’s just a lesbian top, no problem. Then when she starts talking about how her dildo is literally a part of her and she wears it to bed I think “What…..?” This is her pretending. The dildo, is, in fact, an inanimate object and not a part of her. It’s not a penis. When her partner sucks on it, she’s sucking on an inanimate object, not her flesh. She may get physical pleasure out of it because of the movement of the dildo against her clitoris, but I think mainly she’s enjoying the feeling of power. I wonder if having a “dick” or a “cock” is necessary for her because a “dick” is part of the semiotics of power. (I have noted that FtMs say “dick” or “cock” way more often than “penis” and I think this word choice is deliberate. These words have different connotations.) It seems as though feeling powerful is more important to her than having her actual flesh stimulated. This is indeed “male identification” in the sense that she is identifying with male power and wanting it for herself.

When gender critical feminists say that to abolish gender and patriarchy is to eliminate the existence of transsexualism, that means that if there were no power imbalance between the sexes, there would be no power or powerlessness to eroticize. Having a “dick” would mean nothing to this woman because it wouldn’t represent power, and if dominance and submission weren’t eroticized at every turn, this might not be a feature of the way people have sex. She would just be a lesbian top and it wouldn’t be about power, it would just be about enjoying making love to her partner. The sucking on a dildo thing would lose its appeal. Feminists don’t say that transsexualism would cease to exist because we want to go around killing transsexuals, we just identify that the social factors that lead people to want to be the other sex wouldn’t exist anymore. Women like this would certainly still have their personalities, but all this focus on having a dick and being powerful wouldn’t be a thing if men didn’t have power over women.

(By the way, I would NEVER suck on a dildo. Barf!)

(The next post in this series is Born what way?)

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15 thoughts on “FtMs comparing themselves to lesbians

  1. While Harry’s situation might not have been typical of lesbians, I’m inclined to think it IS typical of women. Many women feel so uncomfortable with their body that they can’t relax enough to enjoy sex. Our culture dictates that women must be cognizant of their bodies at all times, even during sex. Sexual encounters are often fraught to begin with, adding anxiety about one’s body into the mix only compounds the situation and ensures there will be no pleasure experienced.

    Aaron seems to typify the patriarchal point-of-view, giving power and choice to men and making women submissive. Also, while it’s typical for people to don different masks in different situations, it’s always off-putting when people seem to completely change their personality in certain groups.

    The idea of “tops” and “bottoms” gives me pause as it seems to represent a false dichotomy. Humans are not inherently dominant or submissive so why make the distinction? Sure, you could say it describes a “role” that one takes on and then abandons but isn’t that what we’re fighting against—the idea of binary roles in which one person is more powerful than another or that one person is the “doer” while the other is a “taker?” If the roles switch multiple times during the act, then why use them at all? Food for thought.

    Interesting post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely don’t think people should take on a rigid role as either/or and refuse to do anything they don’t think of as within their role. That’s really limiting and scripted. Some people naturally gravitate toward one role or the other, which I think is fine as long as they’re being themselves and letting things flow naturally rather than trying to perform a rigid role.

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    • “Many women feel so uncomfortable with their body that they can’t relax enough to enjoy sex.”
      I’m not sure this is the same experience. I know it looks so on the surface, but of the detailed descriptions I’ve read, the self-conscious discomfort that so many women experience is not quite the same thing. To be honest it’s a bit more like dissociative experiences, but again, those seem to be rather different too.

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  2. Its a very strange view of male sexuality, that is centred on power and very short on sensuality. Its a view that seems to have skipped the 70s and 80s, but unfortunately is in line with porn and sex positive liberal feminism,

    Her take on blow jobs as being about (dick) power seems weird to me. One oof the main points of oral is that the giver has control of the recipient, has the power to take to the edge, hold and tease and release. Isn’t that the whole point?

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    • You’re talking about a healthy relationship rather than a sexualized power imbalance. What’s interesting is that she makes assumptions about what male sexuality is but gets it wrong. In truth, no female can know what male sexuality is because we cannot know male experience. All we know is what we get presented to us in the culture, which is a pornified view. (This is of course getting worse as time goes on.) If she wants power in the bedroom then that is her sexuality, not male sexuality. I can’t help but think that if you don’t want to use your female parts during sex but do want power over your partner that is coming from trauma and not wanting to be vulnerable, which is not a gender identity.

      Liked by 3 people

      • That difference between a healthy relationship and a sexual power imbalance is crucial.

        A healthy relationship grows and deepens. A power relationship either breaks up when the ‘bottom’ wises up, spirals further into abuse or stabilises into a toxic co-dependency of mutual contempt and repugnance.

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    • Jeez GCD, I had to walk away from the internet for a couple of days after reading this comment. (mah dick)

      I get you’re trying to come from a good place, but really, (and this is after walking away so is much kinder than my original gut comment) on what planet is it appropriate to talk about your dick oral sex experience on a website that promotes itself as a gender critical lesbian website (sorry purple sage, your house, your rules, and while I have only seen positive stuff from GCD before, I was surprised by this comment of his)

      So her comment on dick power seems weird to you. When was the last time you were punched in the head for scraping your teeth against her clitoris? I’m assuming you never spent any time volunteering in a women’s refuge cos not doing a blow job correctly is one of the 7 deadly sins according to abusers. Cooking, cleaning, shit anything else counts but blow jobs ARE up there. I will assume you didn’t realise this.

      But there was TMI on how you think a BJ should be done (yuck, like I care how you get off, really). I don’t know (or care) what the point is at your end. Could you maybe think about your target audience next time?

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      • I’m glad you brought this up, Tired, because I really should have said something before and I didn’t. GDC, you did put too much detail in the comment. You should have just said something general along the lines of “men don’t all think sex is about power and control” rather than giving details about what should happen. I agree with Tired that level of detail is inappropriate here. Please learn from this and don’t write those sorts of details anymore.

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      • Apologies, your right.

        The bit in your 3rd para ( When was ,,,,,, realise this. ) hit home on me. I knew stuff like that happens, but its not in my instinctive model of stuff that happens to people I meet. Its real nightmare stuff.

        That nightmare shit, that seems sick and wierd to me personally is not only way too frequently happening to other people but also pushed as liberating under the guise of sex positivity.

        Sometimes the utter shitness of the shit women get from men is just outside of my imagination. Someone else has pretty much said what I was trying to say below.

        Its should just be a sensitive, silly looking piece of flesh. I forget sometimes that its used as a weapon.

        Thanks for putting up with me.

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  3. Gosh, where do I begin? This logn review has been really interesting, because while there’s lots I can compare to, there’s also a lot of contrasts that confuse me.

    “Dead fish” is a good term, I completely relate to that part. It’s also why I’ve used “stone butch” in the past. I loved being with my partner, but once there was attention paid to my female body parts, I completely shut down. It is interesting, and notable, and probably important, that this symptom is correlated to masculine females, whether they consider themselves butch or trans. (I’d argue its historically documented.)

    However, a huge contrast: I never thought that sex required a penis. The descriptions in the last post of this, of being unable to fathom two women together, I can’t relate to at all. The homophobia is one area where I differ and where I’m genuinely confused. It seemed obvious that I liked women’s bodies and that was that. Did I imagine a penis sometimes? Sure. But the insistence that sex=penetration was never an issue and one I frequently argued with.

    I also shared a bit of Stan’s problem, but I think that’s a matter of “luck” in terms of where you’re born and what crowd is there. My small lesbian group was mostly a certain “type” of lesbian – white, upper-middle class, academic, Democrat, Ellen-types. Very 90s. I was blue collar butch and stuck out like a sore thumb. A lot of my “not fitting in” was not simply my perception, but directly informed by the group. I was told that I was “doing it on purpose” and was “backwards” and basically a bad lesbian. It seems reasonable to me that this would reinforce “not lesbian” to a person who is struggling with gender.

    I also share the experience of being more confortable in my body and with sex post-testosterone. Actually in short order I became paradoxically MORE comfortable with being female.

    The dildo is interesting. There is a quiet history of butch women wearing packers and calling it “my dick”, it isn’t new. I’m not sure how they would be able to do it without massive rights violations, but I feel like there should be a study on “phantom dick”, and compare MRIs and EKGs and such. Because I would describe the act of wearing one as one of “instantaneous relief”, not something that takes a lot of conscious thought. I’m not sure “power” in the sense of “men are powerful” is quite exact, but I will concede the possibly of something like “control over the self”. Like the way someone with an eating disorder keeps it a secret – it gives oneself a sense of mastery over one’s life. So it’s not per se the male=power thing.

    As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not convinced transsexualism would cease to exist without patriarchy. But my theory is a bit different from anyone else’s (and a whole ‘nother post topic).

    People in BDSM, which is a strongly linked to queer theory, tend to believe that everyone is either a top or a bottom, by the way.

    (A weird note on blowjobs: I thought the point of oral sex was because you enjoyed making your partner’s body feel good, and you enjoyed experiencing their genitals??? I never thought “power” was supposed to be involved, and that it’s dysfunctional if it is. If you like penises, then you’d presumably enjoy doing things with penises… the idea that a penis is “defiling” you or “degrading” you is patriarchal scholck meant to perpetuate the idea that men are superior and not a literal truth.)

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi mirrorofgorgon, thanks for the comments. I don’t know much about you yet, but I’m interested in your perspective. Particularly, it’s interesting that you felt more comfortable with being female after testosterone. I’ve heard that from exactly one other person and your other details sound a lot like hers. To me, it would make sense for a woman with dysphoria who has a feminist view of gender to deal with dysphoria by taking testosterone while also understanding herself as female. If you’ve been finding my reviews interesting you’d definitely enjoy the book. It is a bit dated now, but the people interviewed were some of the first women to transition. It’s huge and comprehensive and I definitely haven’t been covering everything. If FtMs are seeking power as in “control over the self” then I wonder if that is a response to a lack of control felt as a female? And I wonder if it is possible to feel this type of control while a woman, and if not, why? Re: top/bottom I definitely don’t think everyone is either a top or a bottom, but I’m also not a BDSMer. The ones who live in their roles 24/7 seem really silly to me. People should just be themselves.

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      • Heh, I sound like her because I probably am her. 😉 We’ve talked by email. I’ve just got a WP account now so it’s under a different name. I probably should have mentioned that, apologies!

        I agree with your description here, and it’s definitely set me apart from other transpeople: I don’t see myself “as a man”, I see myself as a woman with dysphoria, a female with a male mental image of herself. Like you said, I guess that makes sense given my background. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I’m “not allowed” to be a woman-with-dysphoria-on-T…typically this would bar you from accessing transition….plus, other people won’t “play along”, if that makes sense. You have to insist you’re “sure”.

        As for “control”, ehhhh….my experience with eating disorders makes me hesitant to pin a patriarchal cause on it. There is overwhelming evidence that Anorexia is a chronic neurobiological condition, not a result of social conditioning. Obviously, sexism feeds into it in a huge way – for example, the original desire to start a diet in the first place. But without the pre-existing presence of this condition, it’s just a crappy diet – it’s the negative energy balance that causes a biochemical loop in people with the eating disorder. So, in terms of “phantom dick”, while there are probably people who use it like you say, I would be more likely to personally describe it as a maladaptive strategy of avoidance? Maybe? Rather than something so direct as “penises mean power”. After all, I think it’s hugely important that a lot of these FTMs have zero experience with the male body…so it’s not literally “the penis” but rather “not a vagina”? (I’m just thinking aloud here.)

        I believe I read another book or paper by this author, although now I’m brain cramping on what it was……..

        Liked by 3 people

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