July 29, 2008

Transgressing sex and gender

Posted in body politics, gender, heteronormative, identity, phallocentrism, queer, sexual politics at 2:00 pm by LB

This is an provocative post at Jezebel about Buck Angel, a popular adult film actor who is a transman who hasn’t had, and doesn’t want, genital surgery. Author Megan argues that he is a feminist hero, and I find her discussion compelling.

But this comment was the best:

I want to understand. Really, I do. Brain is just not computing “man who doesn’t want a penis”.

The idea of a person who feels they’re a man but does not feel that a male identity depends on having a penis is extremely transgressive and threatening. Our society conceives of sexuality and attraction/desire in terms of genitals. Thus desiring men=desiring penises. In terms the cultural construction of male sexual activity, penises are absolutely crucial. Many feel that technically, no “sex” takes place without penile penetration

I’ve never really outlined this on my blog, but my personal ideas about sexuality and desire are along the lines of sexuality as fluid (not a permanent identity), that there are “a thousand tiny sexes” (not just binary male/female and gay/straight/bi), that sex acts are not definitive of sexuality, and that homophobia is a big part of heteronormative masculinity…and more.

Sure, I think sexual parts are important. To a degree. But I have also had discussion with people who say they are more attracted to x people (personalities) but to y bodies. Yet in mainstream notions about sexuality (same-sex or hetero), these ought to align. But why should they? And why can’t personality or physical attraction play different roles or emphases in our intimate relationships? I would argue that they already do…but not across gender lines.

For all we talk about transgression, seeing the response to Buck Angel made me realize that perhaps only transgression within certain boundaries can really be tolerated, by hetero and LGBT communities alike. If that’s the case, how transgressive are those actions really?

So I’m really intrigued about the impossibility of comprehending why a (“real”) man wouldn’t want a penis…in our culture, what does that make him? And what does this anxiety say about our own phobias about sexuality?

3 Comments »

  1. arctic_jay said,

    “The idea of a person who feels they’re a man but does not feel that a male identity depends on having a penis is extremely transgressive and threatening.”

    I think with Buck Angel, it’s not so much that he simply doesn’t want a penis that’s so odd; it’s that he doesn’t want a penis even though his conception of manhood is extremely conventional and stereotypical. So having a penis is not important to one’s male identity, but not having breasts, being muscular, and having blood levels of testosterone similar to those of biological males are? It makes one wonder how he actually defines maleness. I’ve noticed in interviews that he’s been extremely vague concerning a definition, something I’ve noticed about transpeople in general.

    “I’ve never really outlined this on my blog, but my personal ideas about sexuality and desire are along the lines of sexuality as fluid (not a permanent identity), that there are ‘a thousand tiny sexes’…”

    How would you define gender, male and female?

  2. lindabeth said,

    It makes one wonder how he actually defines maleness.

    Or femaleness. And that’s why I find him quite interesting. I haven’t read anything on him but this article, so I was responding specifically to the discussion on the Jezebel article.

    And to be technical, he does have breasts (just not enlarged, normative female-typed ones). And I don’t disagree that many aspects of his appearance are “traditionally masculine.” But we live in a culture that sees gender, sex, and sexuality in terms of all or nothing…sometimes I think it’s like going to the DMV, where you need a certain number of points of identity in order to “prove” who you are. But these “points” of gender only get you so far….without the “right” sex organ (as if there’s only one sex organ!), those points are just gender display, or gender bending, or if you’re not so generous, it’s just deviant behavior or just being a dyke/queen, not a “real” male or female identity.

    In our culture, though, your sex (and the appropriate gender expression of said sex) is necessarily tied to genitalia. For example, many state courts have determined marriages of transgendered males to biological women (and vice-versa) to be heterosexual and legal….so long as they have had the proper genital surgery. Until that point, they are a same-sex couple in the eyes of the law. Buck Angel is provocative to me because he confounds that logic. Why should penises be the one thing that determines whether you identify as male or not? They shouldn’t, but the truth is they do, and my guess is that psychoanalytic theory can explain a bit of why, but that’s for another post.

    As far as defining gender….that too is really a post of it’s own, with some proper back-theory. But let me just say that “gender” has more to do with assigning meaning to both bodies, interpreted as particularly sexed, and the practices and behaviors of those bodies than with the idea that a cohesive normative identity and meaning arises from particularly sexed bodies.

    It is also a way of making one part of the biological body to be the (arbitrary) central organizing point of identity, around which we differently socialize and conceive of human beings, when our identities could have been organized otherwise (i.e. height or some other physical feature that separates individuals). Even further, it has come to pass that distinctly our genitals and what we do with them is of fundamental social importance regarding sex, gender, and sexuality. For example, can we consider a female-male couple’s sexual relationship to be “properly heterosexual” if they never engage in PIV intercourse? If she penetrates him? If never penetrates her? If no penetration happens at all? In our culture, is such a couple even having sex?

    Or ponder this, in our culture of what “sexual good” is a man without a penis, homo or heterosexually, but especially for the latter?

    Like I said, better for another post….I’ll begin to work on it.

  3. arctic_jay said,

    “And to be technical, he does have breasts (just not enlarged, normative female-typed ones).”

    I’m not sure I agree, but what’s technical is not important. What is is perception, his perception of what constitutes a female chest versus a male chest and society’s perception of which feature he is in possession. Having had a double mastectomy, it is clear that, regarding his chest, he perceives what he had as being a female characteristic and what he has now as being a male characteristic.

    “But these “points” of gender only get you so far….without the “right” sex organ (as if there’s only one sex organ!), those points are just gender display…”

    Well, seeing as the state he lives in views him as a legal male, I’m not sure such a generalization is helpful in discussing how our culture views gender.

    “In our culture, though, your sex (and the appropriate gender expression of said sex) is necessarily tied to genitalia.”

    I don’t agree. A woman who has had a hysterectomy or a man who has lost his genitalia in an accident are still generally considered men and women. They may feel less feminine or masculine respectively, but do not generally see themselves or are seen as genderless. Also, I know people who would not consider Buck Angel a man even if he did have a phalloplasty, since he was not born male and had not lived his formative years as someone who was treated as a male by society. Our culture has a much more complex and variegated conception of gender than what you have described. In fact, I don’t think people generally determine sex by observing necessary or sufficient attributes, but make a judgement by weighing the strength of their feminine characteristics versus their masculine ones.

    “Buck Angel is provocative to me because he confounds that logic.”

    I don’t see him as confounding anything, since he has not provided a reason(s) why his conception of gender/sex is more justified than the one his is in opposition to.

    “Why should penises be the one thing that determines whether you identify as male or not? They shouldn’t, but the truth is they do, and my guess is that psychoanalytic theory can explain a bit of why, but that’s for another post.”

    Why not? If penises were in fact the one thing that determines maleness, than the definition of male would be “that which has a penis.” Definitions are tautological and agreed upon. To value one definition over another is merely preference.

    If our culture, as you claim, agrees that “male” merely means “has a penis” than why would anyone without a penis covet such an identification? It would only make sense if we lived in a culture in which the term “male” means numerous things, but in which there are disagreements as to which of those things are most important. Buck Angel valuing a muscular body and a macho stance over a penis is no more or less “arbitrary” than someone valuing having a penis over other characteristics determining maleness.

    “Or ponder this, in our culture of what “sexual good” is a man without a penis, homo or heterosexually, but especially for the latter?”

    It makes no sense to ask what sexual good in our culture is a man without a penis when you’ve just stated that our culture does not consider someone without a penis to be a man. That’s like posing a question concerning square circles.

    “Like I said, better for another post….I’ll begin to work on it.”

    I look forward to discussing it if you’re interested. Semantics and semiotics are favorite subjects of mine.


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