Despite going by “they/them” and “non-binary” for years, I resisted thinking of myself as trans until recently. Initially, my transition was more of an escape than a radical new beginning. I was trying to uproot the self-loathing planted in my gut by an older sister who left me well-aware of the violence of patriarchy. She taught me to recognize their presumptuous and condescending attitudes, the casual, instinctive way in which they undermine women’s agency. As a high school boy, I fancied myself an exception, able to somehow evaluate masculinity from the outside while—I admit with a cringe—perhaps reshaping it from within. Imagine my shame when I had to reckon with my hubris. I saw the ease with which I dismissed others, my incapacity to act tenderly, and my complicity in those abusive behaviors my sister warned me about.
I started hating myself in earnest when I started having sex. Though my sister planted the seed ages ago, that was when my self-loathing germinated. Catharine MacKinnon has written extensively on the unpleasantries wrapped up in initiating sex under unequal conditions, most notably in her deconstruction of consent in “Rape Redefined” (2016). MacKinnon earns her reputation as a provocateur by laying bare the tools at men’s disposal for coercing women into sex. These range from explicit violence to the subtler force men apply when they purchase sex with dollars or the promise of domestic peace. MacKinnon thus captures what makes sex—especially straight sex—horrifying. When “forced conditions are so standard a feature of relations between women and men under conditions of sex inequality,” those forced conditions at once look like sex while rendering consent illegitimate. MacKinnon lingers on the stomach-turning efficacy of the illusion. When forced to “tolerate sex they cannot as a practical matter avoid,” women can “do their best to make it sexy so it will end quickly.” Even enthusiastic, affirmative consent peels like a cheap pulp cover, a weak justification for men’s sexual gratification.
MacKinnon’s assertion that freedom is impossible under unequal conditions has drawn abundant criticism. In “Lust Horizons” (1981), Ellen Willis cautions against sexual conservatism that promises women moral superiority if they practice chastity that suppresses their sexual agency. Amia Srinivasan buttresses this argument four decades later with appeals to intersectionality. She even invokes trans women, citing affirmations of one’s sexual desirability as a potent source of gender euphoria. A novel critique appears in Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995), which argues that by reinscribing women within constant resistance against possible injury by men, we risk naturalizing their powerlessness before patriarchy. None of these objections, however, adequately contend with MacKinnon’s still-resonant characterization of the perpetrator and his methods. Brown rebuffs resistance to received injury as the sole paradigm around which oppressed women can mobilize. But what about men, raised to comfortably wield the tools to inflict injury? Srinivasan similarly invokes trans women without consideration for the transbian who first learned to love women as a man.
Contrary to rhetorical convention, I was not born in the wrong body. I will have always been a boy who liked girls and had sex. I will have always at one point possessed tools for coercing sex—even through the most banal expectations of male dominance and female acquiescence. Try as I might to bury this boy, his memories cling like ectoplasm, congealing at the synapses into a ghost I cannot exorcise. Try as I might to wipe my hands of boyhood, I get stains in other places. A paranoid hunt for patterns in my sexual memory tarnishes what once seemed new and exciting. Moments of physical intimacy that at first affirmed my forays into gender fuckery eventually develop rotten hues; what felt like apprehending womanhood wilts away into men’s tired, anemic tendency to subjugate and instrumentalize others in service of their own self-actualization.
Surely Valerie Solanas of SCUM Manifesto (1967) fame would have seen my preoccupation with memory as a symptom of lingering maleness, insofar as “a man is just a bunch of conditioned reflexes.” Andrea Long Chu’s “On Liking Women” provides a well-circulated reading of the Manifesto for trans women that foregrounds Solanas’ call for male-to-female separatism. As “a biological accident” and “an incomplete female,” Solanas’ man secretly desires as his only recourse to become a woman in a process Chu later considers transgenderism by political mandate. Solanas calling me “a biological accident” captures something that “born in the wrong body” never could. My biology stunted my growth, freezing me midway along the path to womanhood and rendering me dependent—like all boring men—on sexual coercion. I linger less than Chu does on Solanas’ aesthetic contradistinctions between female “grooviness” and the male “bore.” I instead cannot unfasten myself from the Manifesto’s political imperative, rooted in and extending beyond the aesthetic. Transition, in Solanas’ world as in mine, is about politics and power.
SCUM revels in contradiction, and Solanas was intent on destabilizing our interpretations of it. Writing this sensitive piece demanded I grapple with contradictions in my own sexual personhood. I find myself mired in memories subject to conflicting interpretations. My attempts to translate that to the page will likely produce their own conflicting interpretations among readers. On one hand, TERFs will call me a predatory man attempting to masquerade behind a pretense of womanhood; my own transgender sisters, on the other hand, might pity me for the extent of the TERF brain-rot afflicting my psyche. Yet the process of negation implies its own progress. Regardless of who’s right, I may end up castrating myself anyway.