This is the first post in a series for writers, especially writers of erotica and romance. This series is focused on writing sex scenes with trans and/or non-binary characters in a way that includes less unintentional cissexism.
This post focuses on cissexism between characters during sex scenes: what it can look like, with concrete examples. Part 2 focuses on bigger picture questions and narrative choices, decisions you make on the story level that lead to cissexism in your sex scenes. Part 3-6 also focus on story level cissexism. Part 7 is about those occasions when you might choose to include cissexism between characters.
As a heads up, this post includes discussion of sex, bodies, and cissexism. It gives many concrete examples of cissexism between characters in sex scenes, but does not discuss them in deep detail.
In my experience, cissexism is intensely pervasive and deeply normalized, in our lives and in our fiction. It burrows deep, and avoids the light. Which makes it rather difficult to notice, a good portion of the time. This post is intended to bring it into the light a bit, to assist you in noticing where cissexism is occurring so that you are better able to write sex scenes that contain less of it.
Let me begin by saying that discerning oppression (like cissexism) and the way they are working in the world (and in your own work) is an ongoing practice, not a one-shot deal. I’ve written other posts that may assist you, though they are not focused on cissexism, but speak more broadly about oppression: one on my own personal practice of discerning abusive power (including oppression); and one on common oppressive ways of thinking.
Let’s start by talking a bit more about cissexism and how it works, before I go into examples of how it appears in sex scenes.
Understanding Cissexism and It’s Properties
Julia Serano has written at length about cissexism, particularly in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. That book is a really good place to start. Here is her definition of cissexism from her handy glossary on her website:
“The belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, cissexual genders. Cissexism is most typically enacted through one or more of the following processes:
- trans-fascimilation (viewing or portraying transsexuals as merely imitating, emulating or impersonating cissexual female or male genders),
- trans-exclusion (refusing to acknowledge and respect a transsexual’s identified gender, or denying them, access to spaces, organizations, or events designated for that gender),
- trans-objectification (when people reduce trans people to their body parts, the medical procedures they’ve undertaken, or get hung up on, disturbed by, or obsessed over supposed discrepancies that exist between a transsexual’s physical sex and identified gender),
- trans-mystification (when people use the relative infrequency or taboo nature of transsexuality to mystify, artificialize or to “other” transsexuals), and
- trans-interrogation (when people bring a transsexual’s identified gender into question by asking them to answer personal questions about their life story, their motives for transitioning, medical procedures they have undertaken, or when they obsess over what causes transsexuality – such questions reduce transsexuals to the status of objects of inquiry).”
This definition (and Serano’s work) focuses on the ways that transsexual people (particularly transsexual women) are targeted by cissexism. However, it is my belief that the processes that she describes are at the core of cissexism, and that understanding them will assist you in recognizing cissexism that targets non-binary and genderqueer characters as well.
In the next section I will give concrete examples of interpersonal cissexism that might commonly occur during a sex scene, and connect them to some of the processes that Serano lays out.
Examples of Interpersonal Cissexism
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Instead, I am going to name some common examples, for illustration purposes. I’m going to concentrate on a few of the processes Serano names, that are particularly common ways cissexism occurs between characters during sex scenes: trans-fascimilation, trans-objectification and trans-mystification. I’ll give a few examples for each.
Common examples of trans-fascimilation in sex scenes:
- A cis character brags about being able to tell that a trick they’re picking up for casual sex or BDSM play is trans and/or non-binary. They sometimes brag to the reader, but I’ve read stories where they say this directly to the trans and/or non-binary character, or to other partners in the sex scene, sometimes as a direct response to the trans character taking off their clothes. This is very directly about treating the trans and/or non-binary character’s gender as a false imitation that can easily been seen through.
- A common variation of the first example is when a character is revealed to be trans and/or non-binary late in a date or after sexual activity has occurred (which I’ll discuss in the next post as it is a deeply cissexist plot device), and a cis character talks about already knowing the character was trans and/or non-binary, because they “could tell.”
- A character uses gender-marked endearments or BDSM-related honorifics that are counter to the gender of their trans and/or non-binary lover, particularly ones that match the gender that the trans and/or non-binary character was assigned at birth.
- A character talks about the trans and/or non-binary character’s gender as if it were part of gender play (without explicit negotiation of this), a role they are playing for the BDSM scene, or in other ways treats it as a fake, temporary, eroticized identity. (Note: it is possible to write about trans and/or non-binary characters doing consensual, negotiated gender play in a way that does not treat their gender as fake or temporary. An example story of mine is “The Tender Sweet Young Thing”, free to read on the web.)
- A character refers to the “realness” of cis people’s genders or tells the trans and/or non-binary character that they are not a real ___, or that they can’t help seeing them as the gender they were assigned at birth (this is especially common as a response to nakedness).
Common examples of trans-objectification in sex scenes:
- A character focuses on a trans and/or non-binary characters genitals, particularly to the exclusion of the rest of their body, how they are feeling, or the kind of sex that was negotiated. This is about reducing the trans and/or non-binary character to their genitals.
- A character talks at length about how difficult it is to grapple with supposed discrepancies between the trans and/or non-binary character’s body and their gender. How they are trying really hard, but anyone would struggle with this.
- A character acts and speaks in a way that assumes that no one could be expected to respect the trans and/or non-binary character’s pronouns, name, or gendered honorifics when the trans and/or non-binary character is naked, or once they have seen their genitals, because their genitals are a sign of who they “truly” are.
- A character expresses the belief that certain body parts are “made” to do certain things, and an expectation that the trans and/or non-binary person will consent to those acts.
- A character uses names for body parts that are intended to match the gender the trans and/or non-binary character was assigned at birth, instead of using the names the trans and/or non-binary character wants used. Most trans and/or non-binary people have names for the parts of their body that they want used. This varies from person to person. Using a name that is different from this is deeply disrespectful, particularly if it is a name that treats their crotch as the ultimate and only real sign of their gender.
Common examples of trans-mystification in sex scenes:
- A character hypersexualizes a trans and/or non-binary character, assumes that they are highly sexually active, or that they are always interested in sex. Or, a character describes feeling mesmerized, compelled, or taken over by their desire for the trans and/or non-binary character.
- A character expresses fascination, obsession, or wonder about the trans and/or non-binary character’s body and the way it works, particularly citing hormones, surgeries or perceived incongruencies as a source of that fixation.
- A character expresses delight or fascination that a non-binary, gender fluid or gender switching character might be more than one gender and wants to dictate (or order, if within a D/s dynamic) which gender they are going to be for this date, sexual activity, or BDSM scene.
- A character expresses amazement or disbelief that they are having sex with a trans and/or non-binary person. Or, a character says that they cannot imagine what sex could possibly be like with a trans and/or non-binary person. Or, a character expresses that they could not possibly be expected to follow the gender shifts of a non-binary, gender fluid, or gender switching character and stay turned on at the same time.
- A character seems to have a very specific script in mind for what it looks like to have sex with a trans and/or non-binary person, one that often makes a lot of assumptions about the trans and/or non-binary person’s relationship to their body and the ways that they want to have sex. Alternately, the character expresses surprise or dismay about how the trans and/or non-binary character wants to have sex, particularly around the way genitals are involved (or not involved).
The second post in this series will focus on forms of cissexism that occur at the story level, in narrative and plot choices.