Writing Sex Scenes With Less Cissexism, Pt 2: Story Level Trans-Exclusion

This is the second 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.

Part 1 focused on cissexism between characters during sex scenes. Parts 2-6 focus on bigger picture questions and narrative choices, decisions you make on the story level that lead to cissexism in your sex scenes. 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 concrete examples of cissexism at the story level.

I want to start by saying that I encourage you to read the first post in this series before reading this one; it shares a few resources and also gives a bunch of concrete examples of cissexism between characters.

This post isn’t about the choices your characters make, what they do or say, or how they treat each other. It is about the choices you make as a writer—your narrative choices, how you choose to tell a story that includes trans and/or non-binary characters. In particular, how big picture narrative choices impact the sex scenes in your story.

I’m going to be using Julia Serano’s definition of cissexism from her handy glossary on her website. In it, she breaks down five different processes through which cissexism is typically enacted. (I discuss this in the first post at some length.) Although Serano focuses on the ways that transsexual people (particularly trans women) are targeted by cissexism, I find the processes useful in recognizing cissexism in stories with non-binary and genderqueer characters as well.

Each of the next five posts will hone in on one cissexist process, giving examples of how it can be present in narrative choices, and discussing how this can impact sex scenes in particular. These are not intended to be exhaustive lists. Instead, I am going to name a few common examples, for illustration purposes. My aim is to help you have a deeper understanding of how this might apply to your work.

Common Examples of Story-Level Trans-Exclusion

I am starting with trans-exclusion because it frequently plays out in some of the initial decisions we make as writers.

Trans-exclusion breaks into two core things, that are often intertwined:

  1. Refusal to respect or acknowledge the gender of trans and/or non-binary people
  2. Not letting trans and/or non-binary people into the room (particularly gendered spaces)

What do each of these look like at the story level? I have three examples for each, along with discussion of how each can impact sex scenes.

Story level examples of refusal to respect or acknowledge the gender of trans and/or non-binary characters:

Introducing the trans and/or non-binary character in a disrespectful way.

We meet the character in a pre-transition flashback, or when they are misgendered by other characters, or when they are being bullied or experiencing violence around being trans. The trans and/or non-binary character is introduced to the reader using incorrect pronouns or gender markers, or by their deadname (name assigned at birth). We meet the trans and/or non-binary character inside the point of view of a character who thinks about them in a disrespectful way, or in a way that refuses to acknowledge their character’s gender.

How this impacts sex scenes:

Because the trans character is introduced in a disrespectful way, they are framed that way for the reader. The reader is encouraged to bring such a framework into how they read the sex scene, how they experience the trans character, how they think about the trans character’s body, how they think about them having sex. This is the kind of story-level decision that permeates the entirety of the story, including the sex scenes.

The main POV character is disrespectful towards the trans and/or non-binary character for a large portion of the story.

The story is told from the point of view of a character who continually misgenders the trans and/or non-binary character throughout a large portion of the story. The only POV character begins the book thinking about the trans and/or non-binary character in disrespectful ways and continues to think this way through a large portion of the story. This narrative choice is most common in trans acceptance narratives, where the central cis character learns to accept (and perhaps even falls for or dates) a trans and/or non-binary character.

(Note: there are ways to write stories about cis POV characters grappling with their own internalized trans oppression that don’t reproduce this level of cissexism at the story level. I wrote an essay about a story that I thought did a good job of this, that was written by a trans author.)

How this impacts sex scenes:

The disrespect that the cis character holds throughout the story is often reproduced in the sex scene itself, in the way the POV character sees, desires, and feels about their desire for the trans and/or non-binary character. Regardless, the reader still intimately knows and has been encouraged to identify with the POV character’s struggle with the basic humanity of the trans and/or non-binary character and brings that into the sex scene. Also, it is common in these stories for the characterization of the trans and/or non-binary character to feel hollow, like they are barely a person in their own right and mostly a vehicle for the growth of the cis character.

Major plot points are based on the idea that partnering with a trans and/or non-binary person whose gender aligns with a cis character’s sexual orientation means that sexual orientation is called into question.

A cis gay man falls for a trans man and all his gay friends conclude he must not really be gay. A cis heterosexual woman partners with a trans man and decides that means she is bisexual. A cis lesbian is reluctant to date a trans woman because she doesn’t see that fitting in with her lesbianism. A cis heterosexual man has sex with a trans woman and freaks out because that must mean he’s gay. A common variation of this is when the story makes it clear that the only way anyone could date a trans and/or non-binary person is if they are bisexual or pansexual.

How this impacts sex scenes:

This dynamic often directly plays out in sex scenes, immediately after them, or at the point when sex is raised as a possibility. Regardless of when this arises in the story, it frames things in a way that encourages readers to refuse to respect or acknowledge the gender of the trans and/or non-binary character. It also makes sex particularly fraught and loaded.

Story level examples of not letting trans and/or non-binary characters into the room:

Creating elaborate plot elements that prevent trans and/or non-binary characters from having sex with their love interests until very late in a romance or erotica story.

This basically means you aren’t letting trans and/or non-binary characters into the bedroom (or wherever else your characters might have sex, of course). Exceptions would be romance where one would not generally expect sex at all, or would expect sex to come late in the story (e.g. sweet romance, historical romance, YA romance, asexual romance).

How this impacts sex scenes:

This is the kind of story-level decision that particularly impacts the sex scenes. It’s so off for the genre that it can raise questions when the first sex scene finally arrives, as to why it took so long. It can nudge readers toward the common cissexist idea that sex with trans and/or non-binary people is rather impossible and/or deeply uncomfortable to imagine. That kind of thinking influences how readers engage with the sex scenes, creates distance between the reader and the trans and/or non-binary character.

This kind of story is often combined with sex scenes that go one of two ways. They are either quite cursory or vague, or every possible question about the mechanics of sex with this particular trans and/or non-binary person is answered in specific detail. It also can lead to sex scenes that lack heat.

Not giving trans and/or non-binary characters in romance-centered stories a happy ending.

A happy ending (either happily ever after or happy for now) is a clear expectation in romance. This is not letting trans and/or non-binary characters into the room (the room in this case being romance).

How this impacts sex scenes:

This is the kind of story-level decision that impacts the entire story, including the sex scenes. It may do so retro-actively, if the break up near the end of the story is a surprise. Often, though, it is not a surprise, and a sense of melancholy impossibility permeates the sex right along with the romance.

Central story elements that imagine gendered spaces and communities as if they do not include any trans and/or non-binary people.

I most commonly see this in stories where authors are imagining the trans and/or non-binary character as the first and only trans and/or non-binary person to ever be in the space or community. The first trans woman ever to show up at that women’s health center, join a women’s softball team, or be part of that dyke spoken word troupe. The first non-binary person ever to go to that gay leather group, join a dyke book club, or live in that historic feminist household.  The only trans guy who has ever walked into that gay bar, joined a men’s choir, or showed up at that gay gym. These stories often place trans and/or non-binary characters alone and isolated in a cis universe, with no other trans and/or non-binary people around for support.

How this impacts sex scenes:

This is the kind of big picture decision that often frames the entire story. These isolated characters are often depicted as hungry for acceptance, nervously hoping that they might be seen as desirable by cis people. They are rarely fully fleshed out characters with their own desires and needs, and that has a deep impact on the sex scenes in these stories. Often they are not just the first trans and/or non-binary person to enter that space, but the first trans and/or non-binary person a cis character has ever met, much less had sex with, and that also has a big impact on the sex scene.

The third post in this series will focus on examples of trans-fascimilation.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Sex Scenes With Less Cissexism, Pt 2: Story Level Trans-Exclusion

  1. Pingback: Writing Sex Scenes With Less Cissexism, Pt 1: Betweeen Characters | Kink Praxis

  2. Pingback: Reviews of trans and/or non-binary lit by trans and/or non-binary reviewers | Kink Praxis

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