“I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love… Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness, followed. Luckily, I – I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women – uh, women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I – I do deny them my essence.”
Brig. Gen. Jack D Ripper, Dr Strangelove (1964)
A catalogue of recent – and profoundly unsatisfying – sexual encounters has moved me to question the assumptions heterosexual men and women make (profound, taken-for-granted, unspoken and unconsciously thought assumptions) when they approach the marital act. I have suspected something was awry in the expectations of coitus held by the two (cis-) genders for a long time, but it is only very lately that I have begun to comprehend how seldom these expectations are interrogated by the participants in regular, vanilla, straight-forward, ‘straight’ sexual activity. But perhaps I should start with the experiences that have led me to the depressing conclusion that sex (whisper it, now) might not be very good…
I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate in once having found a sexual partner whose needs and desires – up to and including the period of my transition from one socially constructed gender identity to another – complemented my own. When this relationship (in the form it had hitherto taken, at least) ended, I was left trying to build a sexual identity for myself almost from scratch – and that on top of the filial and professional identities I also found myself needing to reconstruct at that time. In practical terms, this meant learning how to date again. I had given birth to the new me: it was now time to go through adolescence.
The first unwary traveller to wander into the mire of my sexual proclivities was Mirela. Mirela was ten years my junior, and was evidently (as became dishearteningly apparent when we made it to the bedroom) expecting a sexual adventure with a man in a dress, rather than something more akin to a lesbian experience. As Mirela discovered to her horror, during our imbroglio, she was expected to lavish as much attention on my body as she seemed to assume I would want to lavish on hers. Her repertoire of kinky gimmicks was limited to – and by – her prior experience with men, however, and I soon saw how accustomed she had become to the ready sexual arousal of a man; to the almost instantaneous springing to attention of a (young) man when the air becomes pregnant with the heady promise of intercourse. When this failed to happen to me, poor Mirela was more than a little lost.
Mirela’s problem was that she simply wasn’t capable of attending to someone else’s anatomy in the way she had been educated to expect them to attend to hers. Moreover, she couldn’t comprehend the notion that a sexual partner might have more than one erogenous zone. She anticipated having her body manipulated with all the dexterity and attention to detail of a glass-harmonica player, whilst her erotic prowess was limited to a motion reminiscent of attempting to unblock a sink.
Mirela was also guilty of assuming the presence (or absence) of an erection to be the defining barometer of someone else’s excitement. When a thunderous hard-on failed to materialise on our abortive night together, Mirela considered herself to have flunked. It didn’t occur to her that other indictors of sexual excitement might exist: if her clumsy ministrations weren’t able to conjure a stiffy like a cobra from a snake-charmer’s basket, she had no further tricks up her sleeve.
Such was Mirela’s disappointment over our thwarted act of congress that she cried. During. Her previous heterosexual encounters had taught her to expect an event involving a dildo with a human being attached to it, with the needs of that human being either irrelevant or unimaginable if they involved anything beyond having their genitals manhandled, then orally ingested, then manoeuvred into someone else’s genitals. (And Mirela’s belief that I might enjoy making eye-contact with her during the second of those occupations continues to be a source of utter bafflement to me.)
After Mirela came Monika, who was keen to establish her bohemian, broad-minded credentials early on, and so regaled me with tales of threesomes and quasi-lesbian experiences, designed, I have no doubt, to reassure me that she wouldn’t be fazed by any left-of-centre peccadillos I might throw her way. This, I’ve since discovered, is a common strategy women use to assert their willingness to attempt sexual congress outside their comfort zone, and to prove that the risk of social stigma doesn’t eclipse adding a night with me to their roster of sexual conquests; of making me the punchline to a hen-night anecdote (“Let me tell you about this one time I had sex with a tranny…”).
These stories of youthful almost-encounters (usually drawn from a well of innocent teenaged fumblings and experiments, rather than from discerning adult assignations) aren’t for my benefit. I’ve realised that the women who reach for half-remembered reminiscences of the time they snogged their female room-mate aren’t trying to convince me: they’re plucking up the courage to attempt something new; marshalling their resolve to plunge into an erotic adventure in unchartered territory. I have no choice other than to make peace with the fact that women can be apprehensive about jumping into bed with me. Whether I can condone this reticence seems a moot point (in that the knowledge makes no functional difference to the outcome), but it appears to have three strands…
First, there is anxiety about the act itself. What exactly does a transgender co-shaggist do or want in bed? What will they look like without any clothes on? What disorientating combination of primary erogenous zones will be revealed once both parties have got their respective kits off? And – most viscerally – will I like what I see when it happens? Mirela (I realise in hindsight) was jealous of how much smoother my legs were than hers. The first time we met after doing the act of filthy beastliness (which was also the last time we met, uncoincidentally), she was uncomfortable with the false fingernails I’d had applied in the interim. These things made her feel defeminised, I think; elbowed unwillingly out of the role she had previously enjoyed in the bedroom dyad as ‘the smooth, moisturised one with a manicure’. It was at the point of disrobing, I see now, that Mirela’s second thoughts were visible in her eyes – even when those eyes were peering up at me over the expanse of my abdomen.
Second, there is the realisation – especially in the cold, post-coital light of day – that a continued relationship with me invites marginalisation, social censure, and the disapproval (and alarm) of family and friends. Holding hands in the street, lying on the grass in each other’s arms, enjoying the occasional al fresco kiss – and other assorted public displays of affection – take courage if you’re used to regular heterosexual relationships (and, if we’re honest, you aren’t of a particular social class, age bracket or body type). When most people confront the reality of snogging a tranny in public, they balk at the societal disfavour and unwanted attention it is likely to attract. When we stir in the additional adverse reaction of friends, family and colleagues… Well: having an atypical partner starts to look a great deal more hassle than it’s worth. Not everyone is ready and willing to blaze a trail for sexual non-conformity, no matter how much in love they think they are.
Third, entertaining sexual and/or romantic feelings for a transgender person forces an individual to confront unsettling possibilities about themselves. Having spent over twenty years in a committedly heterosexual relationship – or marriage, even – the realisation that you are attracted to a gender-nonconformist can come as something of a shock. What do such feelings say about you? Do they make you a lesbian, bisexual; what? You can’t be completely straight, surely, because he – sorry, she – has got boobs, so what does that make you? Once the lid is lifted on that kind of existential interrogation, there’s no knowing where it might lead. Safer, less terrifying, to simply walk away, rather than get involved with that..!
Having demonstrated my capacity for empathy with my hypothetical bed-mates, I think I’ve now earned the right to reflect on what this all means for me.
My research sample may be small, but, as Monika and Mirela’s conduct in – and presuppositions of – the bedroom cannot but have been coloured by their respective sexual histories, I think it reasonable to assert that their engagement with the marital act has a degree of generalisability to the actively heterosexual population as a whole. Both Mirela and Monika, most conspicuously, were not accustomed to exploring the bodies of their lovers. Barring a token bit of nipple-tweaking, both of them had their hands on my wedding tackle before you could say ‘How’s yer father’. Other than that, they were very much of the lie-back-and-think-of-Romania school of lovemaking. To their minds, evidently, it was the man’s job to attend to the woman’s body; to probe, explore, lick, and fondle every inch of them, from anus to armpits. I realised (somewhat belatedly, I must admit) that they considered it my duty to minister to them in this way; moreover, that they thought giving them sexual pleasure should be enough to give me pleasure – that, in other words, I would get-off by helping them get-off.
Mirela’s mid-coital tears didn’t predispose me to question these assumptions with her, but, when Monika’s turn rolled around, I was ready to challenge the status quo. So I did. I began by asking if she found me sexually alluring:
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Definitely.”
“As in, you look at my body and think ‘phwoar!’?” (I’m paraphrasing slightly.)
“Then why don’t you want to touch it?” I asked. “Why don’t you want to lick it all over and stick your fingers up my bum?”
“Stick your fingers up my bum. Or a sex-toy. You can use a butt-plug, if you like.”
“I don’t know…”
“But you said you find my body attractive – sexy, even. If you find me sexually attractive, why don’t you want to touch me all over? Why is the only thing you’re doing is turning my balls around in your hand like a pair of walnuts? I find you sexually attractive. I’m touching your body all over: buttocks, toes, elbows, neck, earlobes, pubic bone… everywhere. Why aren’t you trying to do that for me? What aren’t you investigating every inch of me, worshipping my body, like I’m doing for you? Don’t you want to?”
The conversation deteriorated somewhat after that, but I discovered that I was the one with unconventional expectations; that I was the one wanting something women don’t generally expect to give; and that I was the one busting taboos and demanding equality between the sheets. All I wanted from these women was to feel attractive during sex; to believe that someone felt as possessively tactile about me as I was expected to respond to their nakedness. And that, I learned to my dismay, is not something men can take for granted.
Post-Monika, I sought the wisdom of my closest heterosexual male friends. Both of them assured me that ‘going to work on’ a woman’s body was par for the course, and that they had never expected any of their (female) sexual partners to reciprocate. “I don’t want a woman touching my body,” one of them told me: “why would they want to – men’s bodies are disgusting?” The other, when I adumbrated the surprise and disappointment that attended my experiences, gave me a look bordering on pity. “That’s just the way it is,” he told me when I asked why men bother with sex at all when there seems so little physical reward in it for them. “You’re over-thinking it, mate.”
I can’t blame the feminising hormones I take for my utter disillusionment with sex. My dissatisfaction with horizontal gymnastics has troubled me for decades: if men can glean such little personal, physical fulfilment from having ‘relations’ with a lady, then why, in god’s name, do they bother at all? Men invest an astonishing amount of time, energy, and (more often than not) money in convincing women to sleep with them. Men must complete gruelling series of Herculean labours before they get anywhere near the mattress: there’s paying for dinner; feigning interest in interminable non-anecdotes about her gap year in Australia; sitting through astonishingly poor films about divorcées drinking coffee in Manhattan, career women coming to terms with the smell of pig shit (but nonetheless lusting after the uncouth but ultra-sexy farm-hand) when they’re forced to relocate to Ohio for some reason, and hormonal teens who must choose to be bedded by a vampire with his shirt off and a werewolf with his shirt off; making interested faces during never-ending shopping expeditions; and pretending to like her insufferable friends and bizarrely still-on-the-scene ex. And then there’s the wholly unequitable assumption that the man should be the one to make the first move, and find the inner-strength to handle rejection upon rejection before a woman deigns to go to bed with him – as if she’s doing him a favour permitting him to worship every crevice and cranny of her body in exchange for a few fumbled seconds of wholly anticlimactic inny-outy.
Somebody explain, in the name of all that is holy, why men bother! Where lies the satisfaction for the male in all this rigmarole? “I gave her three orgasms last night!” Oh, really: and what did you get out of it? “She loves it when I hold this vibrating wand against her clitoris!” Good for her: and how did that feel for you? “She let me do her up the arse in Torremolinos!” Great: and how did she react when you asked her to do you up the arse?
Most astonishing of all is that I appear to be the only person questioning how lame heterosexual intercourse is from the male perspective; I am the only child in the crowd pointing at this phenomenon – the iniquity of which everyone else apparently takes for granted – and hollering, “Emperor: you’re not wearing any clothes!”
When the British raconteur and jazz musician George Melly was asked in 1989 how he felt about the deleterious effect of old age on his libido, the then octogenarian said, “Upset? Certainly not. It’s like being unchained from a lunatic.” The loss of his urges came as an enormous relief to Melly (like Sophocles, Plato, Da Vinci, Kenneth Williams and Kingsley Amis before him) – akin to liberation from prison after enduring decades as the unwilling slave to his sex-drive. Men spend a lifetime tethered to a maniac; vassals of their impulse to pursue women for sex. Remarkably few males have grasped what a spectacularly unrewarding chase it is, and that the kill occurs not with a bang, but a whimper.
Women are at least 50% to blame for this sorry situation. It seldom crosses the mind of a heterosexual woman that her man desires more in the bedroom; that he has more than one erogenous zone; that the arrival of an erection should not be taken as the sole indicator of his enjoyment; that he might want the beauty of his body celebrating with kisses and caresses from top to toe; that he may want to be an object of desire; that he, not to put too fine a point on it, deserves better.
Men, meanwhile, should cease tolerating this woefully unbalanced state of affairs immediately. After spending seven years living as a woman, the blind prophet Tiresias reported unequivocally to Zeus and Hera that women experience ten times the sexual pleasure of men. It does not need to be this way, and, if it is, it is because women grossly underestimate the sophistication and nuance of male needs; and because men, in their turn, don’t demand the respect implied in being made to feel beautiful by their women.
The epiphany for me has not been that heterosexual sex from the male perspective is depressingly unsatisfying (I’ve known that for years). Rather, it is how deep and unquestioned this assumption has remained, and how few men and women think it’s a problem that a wank is better than sex. It’s my right to feel pretty during sex, isn’t it? It’s only fair, isn’t it, that I should receive the same degree and quality (and earnest sincerity) of physical attention as women evidently believe they are owed by men? Kiss my body all over; look for my pleasure points, and the places that make me go weak at the knees; explore my orifices inside and out. Make me feel as beautiful as you.
One more thing. There has been one significant social boon from all this sexual disappointment: I’m much less interested in talking to women than I used to be. Men devote so much time and effort to scaffolding women’s self-centred monologues because – on some inevitable level – they entertain constant hopes of sleeping with them. Because I now know how bitterly unrewarding that sexual congress will be, I don’t interact with women with curiosity nagging at my reproductive cortexes over what sex with them might be like. (This is not misogynistic caprice, I feel compelled to add. The urge to size up potential child-bearing partners is a biological imperative, and any man who claims he is capable of conversing with women without – even subconsciously – entertaining erotic ideas about them, is lying in order to assert his pseudo-feminist credentials – which, paradoxically, is a claim made by some males in order to enhance their chances of bedding women in search of ‘the more sensitive type’.) Now I am no longer trying to have sex with every woman I meet, I can see their witless drivel for what it is: sexual signalling of their own, designed purely and exclusively to attract a mate. Once that sad fact is exposed – and once sex is definitely off the table – most people, it transpires, are unremittingly self-centred and boring.