It’s strange how certain themes can link trains of thought. This month, it’s the subject of genitals that has provided the unifying motif of my daily experiences, and it all started with a chance encounter on Romanian public transport…
A tall, thick-set man with a broad bull-neck and glassy, angry eyes, sidled up to me on the platform of the Piaţa Victoriei station on Bucharest’s Metro system a few days ago and invited me to go to bed with him. I have already made his approach appear more sophisticated than it was. He asked me in which direction the next train would be heading, and discerned from my creaky attempt to reply in Romanian that I was not a native resident. In a way that initially seemed friendly, therefore, he started to interrogate me in brusque, unpractised English: where was I from, what was my name, and so on. He then extended one of his meaty, ham-like hands to shake my hand, and, when I accepted, he did not release his grip as promptly as a Brit has come to expect. Instead, he pulled me towards his broad, wet mouth, and growled the following irresistible enticement: “You want sex with me?”
When he finally did release my hand, I was able to take a discreetly cautious step backwards. “No thank you,” I said – not out of coyness, I should add, but because I really didn’t fancy him.
At that point – in my memory, at least – he held both his hands out in front of him, palms facing inwards like an angler boasting about the size of the one that got away. “I have a big dick,” he told me; “a very big dick.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t fancy men. I like girls,” I said. He frowned at me, so I felt obligated to elaborate: “I fancy girls. I’m a…” – I fumbled for the appropriate word, and settled on one that, even at the time, didn’t feel adequate, or (indeed) entirely accurate – “I’m a lesbian.”
He narrowed his eyes at me and shrugged, as if to say, It’s your loss, and then our train arrived, and we were both absorbed by the anonymity of the crowd.
This incident, I suspect, should leave me horrified and appalled. At the very least, I’m sure some observers would tell me it should give me pause for thought to contemplate the indignity experienced by hundreds of cisgender women who are subject to such casual sexual harassment on a regular basis. And maybe I should feel outraged and affronted, but the honest truth is that I was thrilled to bits by this gentleman’s clumsy advances. This horny stranger on the platform of an underground station in a foreign city is an unlikely candidate for fuelling my sexual ego, but fuel it he did. I so seldom experience the validation of being the focus of someone’s amorous or erotic interest that, far from being scandalised by what happened, I actually felt happy that someone thought me worthy of a fleetingly-entertained sexual fantasy.
But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? According to the sexologist Ray Blanchard’s 1989 theory of autogynephilia, my attraction to women has somehow misfired and become directed towards myself, rather than towards others. Consequently (and if Blanchard is right, of course), I experience arousal when I am perceived to be – or, more pertinently, am admired as – a woman. Thus, I exhibit a form of pseudo-bisexuality, in that I get a kick out men fancying me without necessarily wanting to sleep with them. The specific thrill inheres to the feeling of being an object of sexual or romantic interest in the same way that a woman can be an object of sexual or romantic interest. Men are turned on by what they see, and by the idea that they are responsible for the arousal they witness in women. Women are aroused by the idea of someone else being responsible for their arousal. In other words: how a man makes a woman feel is far more important to a woman’s titillation than how that man looks. For men, the opposite is true. So: did I enjoy the invitation of an unkempt and slightly threatening stranger on the Bucharest underground to admire his prodigious penis? Does the Pope shit in the woods? That man made me feel attractive; to him, for a few ill-advised seconds, I was an object of sexual interest. Despite his sinister undertone, that bloke gave me a gift that day: he made me feel good about myself as a woman.
If I had taken him up on his offer, of course, he would surely have murdered me. It is chillingly easy to imagine his lustful sneer giving way to a snarl of fury as he thrust me down on a soiled motel mattress and peeled away my clothing – to reveal a set of biological equipment he was neither expecting nor desirous of seeing. He would have translated his embarrassed outrage into a severe beating, I have no doubt, and left me with scars enough to remind me never to speak of this to anyone. And that is the terrible epiphany of this minor episode: the knowledge that its outcome (and my physical safety) depended so wholly on the contents of my pants.
There is a peculiar tendency amongst otherwise fair-minded individuals to assume that transgender people should be more transparent than other folk about what they’re packing in the trouser department. Cisgender types often let their curiosity get the better of them in this regard. It has happened to me with above-average frequency. A conversation can be progressing quite naturally when it happens. Usually, my interlocutor will hesitate briefly as their brain tries to convince them my junk is none of their business, but even the power of basic courtesy isn’t always enough to keep their prurient, childish question to themselves, and it’s out before they’ve had time to think it through.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” they begin, with nothing other than a sheepish, slightly apologetic wince to excuse their interest. People simply have to know whether or not a tranny has had their tallywhacker turned inside out.
It’s a profoundly offensive inquiry when stripped of its naïveté, and one that demands no more sophisticated a response than, “What the fuck has it got to do with you?!” The helplessness with which people ask whether I’ve (whisper it) gone all the way, however, suggests that it is a nugget of information they must have in order to continue interacting with me on an equal footing; that they can’t think or act normally until they know.
If casual acquaintances can’t relax in my company until they have the information they need to fit me into whichever conceptual category makes them feel at ease, then perhaps I have a social duty to help potential sexual partners in a similar way. Should I be prepared to be much more up-front than I currently am with people I want to go bed with about what they’re going to find if – and when – we get our respective kits off? Is it simply fairer for me to assume responsibility for making sure no-one has any unwelcome surprises during the imminent bout of horizontal gymnastics? Do I have a duty to somehow protect my inamoratae, whether male or female, from a sexual experience they might regret, by making sure, right from the off, that we’ve got something straight between us (ba-dum tshh!)?
I haven’t had to take this much responsibility for the management of other people’s feelings since I transitioned. Back then, I broke the news to (and managed the expectations of) huge numbers of enormously diverse people, from the thousand-odd students and staff at the school where I taught, to my friends, acquaintances, PhD supervisor, mother, and – most terrifying of all – my unexpectedly conservative brother. I thought I was done breaking the news to people, but it seems that, in the bedroom department, I may have to start all over again. Is their any other group, apart from the horny and transgender, from which such an absolute degree of vulnerability and openness would ever reasonably be expected?
There is a conspicuous difference in the ways that men’s and women’s crotches are treated in western popular media. In the case of the lady, a scantily covered vulva is openly and unsqueamishly sexualised: fashion magazines actively encourage the display of what James Joyce called “those succulent bivalves”, while music videos flaunt them and sports events positively ram them down our throats. I already feel intimately acquainted with the camel-toes (or is it camels-toe?) of Lady Gaga, Jessie J, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Beyoncé, all of Little Mix, and every Olympic gymnast who has ever walked a beam or twirled a ribbon (to name but a few).
The trouser-fronts of men, meanwhile, are not presented with quite so much alacrity for our delectation and enjoyment. Tight swimming trunks are determinedly desexualised by being laughingly referred to as budgie smugglers, whilst the fashion of sagging pants that was popular in the late nineties and early noughties was roundly criticised for promoting a form of legitimised sexual aggression.
The vogue for sagging trousers probably originated in the American prison system, where prisoners are not permitted the use of belts. Belts (like shoelaces) could be used as a weapon, or as a means of attempting suicide, so inmates have them confiscated before they are escorted to their cell. When their popularity in the arena of hip-hop music took low-riding pants into the domain of urban fashion, the result was a huge number of adolescents and young men wearing denim or canvas trousers so low on their hips, that their underwear was clearly visible, their arse was pretty much completely on show, and the buttocks of the low-riders themselves hung down loose and empty, like the glutes of aging elephants.
Sagging trousers may also be prison code for sexual availability, or that the wearer has already become the sexual property of another inmate. When the fashion exploded in US and UK cities, at the very backside of the twentieth century, those with a penchant for low-riding trousers were accused of indecency, and the wearing of them in some American states was, ironically, made a criminal offence. Indeed, it was not uncommon in the mid-noughties to see a gentleman with trousers slung so low on his hips that a shock of public hair was visible over the waistband of his Calvin Kleins. The threat of actually seeing someone’s penis became very real, with some low-riders held up by little more than the law of good-taste.
My argument is not that the vogue for saggy pants was an affront to human decency, but that it illustrates the dichotomy between the way popular culture views the loins of men and the crotches of women. Groinal displays by men are either hilarious or sickening; they’re either the ‘lunchbox’ of a well-endowed decathlete – to be giggled at through their flimsy lycra modesty – or they’re a statement of sexual aggression so egregious, that some would see them banned in public. The inguina of women, meanwhile, are proudly exhibited on bill-boards, paraded unashamedly on stage, and lingered over by the camera operators of superhero movies. The disparity is so stark, that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that, for the purposes of entertainment and advertising, women’s crotches aren’t regarded as genitalia at all. When a woman’s loins are emblazoned on hoardings three-metres square, perhaps they are displayed there simply to demonstrate that women don’t have penises, and it is the mere fact of women’s lack of a trouser-snake that our attention is being drawn to. When a woman announces her front-parts in a pair of leggings, skin-tight trousers or a leotard, perhaps it isn’t a crotch that is being shown at all. If the presentation of lady-loins is neither hilarious nor obscene, but the display of a gentleman’s groin is, then maybe it isn’t a crotch that we’re seeing. The only way to explain this cultural discrepancy is to assume that the thing we are looking at when we look through fabric at the V between a woman’s thighs isn’t a thing at all. Maybe it’s a vacuum; something that isn’t there. Perhaps what we’re seeing is an absence of crotch.