pro-recognition of all forms of relationships
pro-access to legal benefits
pro-protection and support of more at-risk trans* and queer people
(from an anonymous question)
okay okay so there are a lot of things I am going to try to respond to. hopefully they will all make sense? also, I’m not really an authority on any of this, but apparently the fact that I’m a transfeminine radical feminist makes me the target of this question? haha anyway. so.
what is a fetish?
Rather than immediately answering “is it strange”, I want to start by deconstructing the concept of a “fetish”. Most of this is going to be done on a more abstract level, just to identify the discourses we are dealing with. Towards the end, I’ll attempt to relate this back to your specific question. So, anyway. I’m assuming you use the word fetish to mean what mainstream society constructs as a sexual fetish - a specific object or situation which causes sexual arousal. For the most part, this object/situation is somehow assumed to be “weird” or “different” - in other words, most people wouldn’t consider a vagina to be a fetish in the context of a heterosexual man being attracted to a cis woman. (However, I would encourage people to complicate this understanding - radtransfem has some done some excellent writing about Cultural Heterosexuality as the fetishization of femininity). In mainstream heteronormative patriarchal hegemony, a fetish is something “weird” or “different” or “unique” which turns someone on (such as clowns, or being tied up with rope, or popping balloons by stomping on them in heels). There are varying definitions of how crucial a fetish is to a person’s sexuality - some people declare that for something to be a fetish, sexual arousal/satisfaction/climax/whatever is only possible when that fetish is present. In other words, some people frame a fetish as something that is *necessary* for sexual pleasure. Others, however, place a fetish more on the level of a “turn-on” - something that increases sexual pleasure, but isn’t inherently *necessary*.
critiquing the societal definition of a fetish
There are two things I want to start problematizing about the above-stated cultural definition(s) of a fetish. First of all, how different is “different”? In other words, where is the line between what is considered “normal” sexual arousal, and what would be considered a fetish / weird / kinky / etc.? Is there a difference between a fetish and a kink? Take bondage, for example. Some people would consider bondage to be a fetish, or a kink. Other people (especially those in a more “sex-positive” / sexualized setting) might consider it to be pretty normal, relatively speaking. I’d like to take a moment to quote the wikipedia article for sexual kink, which states:
Kinky practices go beyond what are considered conventional sexual practices as a means of heightening the intimacy between sexual partners. Some draw a distinction between kink and fetishism, defining the former as enhancing partner intimacy, and the latter as replacing it. While others define “kink” as lesser (possibly socially acceptable) form of fetishism. Because of its relation to “normal” sexual boundaries, which themselves vary by time and place, the definition of what is and is not kink varies widely as well.
The point is, the definition of what is “unconventional” depends on what society has constructed as “conventional” - making any discussion of fetishes and kinks subjective and context-dependent. I do find it interesting the way the article suggests that a fetish could be a “replacement” for partner intimacy - this is a topic I’ll return to in a bit when discussing radical feminist / psychoanalytic definitions of a fetish.
But anyway, sticking with the mainstream definition, I want to bring up another point of critique - what is the difference between a fetish and a turn-on? People are often able to identify a list of things that they find particularly attractive (a certain hair color, wearing glasses, tattoos, a certain accent, etc.) - but when does something actually get defined as a fetish? Many people would say that a fetish is meant to refer to a specific object (such as a specific article of clothing), but how different is this from being turned on by someone wearing glasses / suits / tutus / etc? One could argue that something becomes a fetish when it is used in a specific sexual context - for instance: most people have feet, so it could be assumed that a foot fetish doesn’t refer to being turned on by someone who has feet, but rather by focusing sexual activity on the feet.
radical feminist definitions of fetish
Now that we’ve examined a “mainstream” definition of a fetish, I want us to take a look at what radical feminist theory has to say about fetishes. I’ll start by quoting radtransfem’s summary of Mary Daly’s writing (with the note that Mary Daly has said many terribly racist and transphobic things - this is in no way meant to be an endorsement of all of her work, just an examination of one particular idea of hers):
For Daly, a fetish is a sexual connection to a thing which is unable to relate back. So, it can be towards an inanimate entity/concept such as a boot or a smell. Or it can be towards a body part, context-free without a human being present. Or, and this is where I found Daly’s analysis most striking, it can be a sexual relation with a person who does not have the power to relate back as an equal. And the power of the “sexiness” of that fetish can be based on that lack of power to reciprocate. This is a kind of sexual attraction based on the way that processes of objectification can reduce a person (a woman)’s agency so that we can be related to in a way more closely resembling an object/a non-living thing, a process which requires the (largely figurative, sometimes literal) death of ourSelves.
When discussing fetishization, especially of a specific type / group of people, it is important to keep these facts in mind. Especially with regards to your question - your fetishization of trans women seems to be completely “towards a body part, context-free without a human being present”.
complicating sexual orientation - sex and gender
Now that we’ve unpacked some of the meanings of the word “fetish”, I want to take a minute to do the same with sexual orientation. As feminism / queer theory / transfeminism has already worked to explain, gender and sex are complicated social constructions. At birth, infants are assigned to be either “male” or “female” (even though many do not fit neatly into these categories), and throughout their lives people are read as being either “physically male” or “physically female” through a complex combination of primary sexual characteristics (genitalia / reproductive systems, which do NOT exist in a binary), secondary sexual characteristics (breasts / body hair / fat distribution / etc, which each exist in a spectrum), chromosomes (XX vs. XY, even though others are possible), and hormone levels (estrogen and testosterone, of which all people have varying amounts). In other words, sex doesn’t neatly match up into the oppositional binary categories of “male” and “female” that a cissexist/heterosexist society insists upon. Gender is even more complicated! Based on the sex they are assigned at birth, a person is assumed to identify with what society has defined as either “male” or “female”, when in reality these are just arbitrary groupings of abstract traits (dominant, violent, passive, emotional, logical, creative, nurturing, protective, etc.). In addition, different people “perform” or “present” their gender different ways - not all people who identify as female wear pink frilly dresses every day!
So, once we’ve acknowledged that sex and gender are both 1) very complicated, and 2) social constructions, what does it actually mean to define a sexual orientation? When someone says they are attracted to men, what do they mean? Do they mean penises? Do they mean masculine body characteristics (i.e. flat chest, body hair, muscles, testosterone-influenced skeletal structure, facial hair, etc.)? Do they mean masculine presentation (suits, t-shirts, jeans, boots, other “manly” clothes, etc.)? Do they mean behavioral traits that society has identified as masculine (aggressive, dominant, logical, stoic)?
I encourage everyone to take a minute to examine their own desires, and figure out what it means to define sexual orientation in a fluid, non-binary system. Instead of simply explaining your orientation in terms of “men” and “women”, try to figure out what ACTUALLY determines your attrition.
With regards to your specific question - both of the situations you suggest (a trans woman with a penis, or a (cis?) woman with a strap-on - involve being penetrated with some sort of phallic object. Would you define yourself as being attracted to anyone with a penis, regardless of their gender? Are you also attracted to (cis?) men? Are you attracted to women, without a penis/strap-on? I think these are all important aspects of your orientation to interrogate.
is it strange? more importantly, is it problematic?
Okay, I’ll finally try to answer your question. Is it strange? I guess this depends on what you mean. Is it uncommon? A little bit, but not that much - there are many people who define themselves as being attracted to trans women (even though the way they do so is often problematic - more on this later). There are also many people who enjoy being penetrated by a strap-on. I find it interesting to note that your strap-on situation includes being tied up - is this an unrelated kink/turn-on/fetish, or would you still enjoy having sex with a woman with a strap-on/phallus, even if you weren’t tied up? Anyway, I guess the point is this: I don’t really feel comfortable labeling a specific kink/turn-on/fetish as “strange”, since that implies an inherent “normalness” of some kinds of sex, and “weirdness” of others… and also, it feels kinda awkward to say that anyone who would be attracted to my body type would be experiencing a “weird” sort of attraction.
Whether or not the fetish is “strange”, I do think we should try to examine whether it is problematic. While some people may balk at the idea of critiquing a particular desire/fetish/turn-on, I think it is important. After all, all sexuality exists in a patriarchal society defined by power gradients. I particularly enjoy this quote from radtransfem, in her article discussing the attempt to define a feminist sort of desire:
“Sexual subjectivity is about realising that we get to have our own desires, and that the existence of others’ desires doesn’t automatically make ours disappear. [ … ] Sexual subjectivity is different from entitlement, which says that we get to have those desires met. And it’s different from individualist liberalism, which says that because they are our desires, they’re automatically right. We don’t get to have automatically right desires – we just get to have desires. After all this whole Progress depends on the idea that we can identify our own desires and those of others as problematic and imagine something different.”
So, about your desire for trans women / women with strap-ons. I feel like context is important. After all, a straight(?) cis man being attracted to a trans woman has a *very* different power dynamic than another queer/trans* person being attracted to a trans woman. In addition, how does this attraction fit in to your orientation? Like I asked earlier, is this consistent with other body types you feel attracted to? I think that trans people are often used as “in-between” points, for cis people exploring/repressing their sexuality. A “straight” man may use trans women as a “excusable” experience with “homosexuality” - she has a penis, but it doesn’t *actually* count as gay, since she’s a woman. I feel like this is very dangerous territory, which is why I encourage people to explore their orientations, and be as honest as possible.
In addition, I feel like there is a blurry line between “preference” and “fetish”, particularly when it comes to a specific body type / type of person. When you fetishize a person, are you objectifying them into a mere object for sexual pleasure? When you fetishize a trans woman, do you value anything about her other than her penis? Or have you reduced her to a glorified sex toy? It’s important to remember that all people are different, and that not all trans women may conform to your generalized expectations. We all have different bodies, different opinions about our bodies, different wants, different needs, different things we enjoy, different things we want to avoid. Some of the authors I link to at the end provide a more thorough discussion of what it means to be someone’s fetish… this is something I strongly encourage you to keep in mind.
what others have said
As I said at the beginning, I’m not “the authority” on anything. I just happen to be a queer transfeminist who reads a lot about gender, sex, and sexuality. As such, I’d like to provide some links to things other people have written about the topic. Natalie Reed has an article specifically about the fetishization of trans women, which can be found here - http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/02/15/chicks-with-dicks-trap-chans-chasers-and-trans-fans-the-question-of-fetishization/. Matt Kailey has two articles about the fetishization of trans people - one discussing the fine line between preference and fetish - http://tranifesto.com/2009/05/22/preference-or-fetish-the-very-fine-line/ - and one exploring the problematic nature of fetishization of trans women - http://tranifesto.com/2009/10/29/another-transsexual-fetish-call/. Drew Cordes has an article about what it feels like to be someone’s fetish - http://www.bilerico.com/2010/10/im_somebodys_fetish.php. I hope these articles help answer your question!
an interesting note - psychoanalytic definition of fetish
If we examine the psychoanalytic definition of a fetish, given by scholars such as Freud and Lacan, we find a very specific (and oddly, humorously, relevant) definition. According to Freud, all (cis) boys developed a fear of castration after they first saw their (cis) mother’s genitals, and realized that she didn’t have a phallus. He theorized that all male children were under the impression that their mothers originally had penises, but had been castrated by their fathers. Therefore, a fetish was a sexualized object meant to draw attention away from the female genitals and the castration anxiety they were assumed to imbue. In your case, the fetish would quite literally represent the mother’s penis! For some reason, I find this really funny. Anyway. yeah.
Soooo this has been a really long post. Hopefully some people read it, and found it interesting / informative / thought-provoking? Anyway, I welcome any and all discussion/critiques/disagreement/comments! Please let me now what you think!
Jessica Luther (@scATX)
This quote is from her essay On Quvenzhané Wallis. In this essay, she lists many of the major essays primarily from Black women (and other people of colour) in defense of Quvenzhané (I read them all—excellent), and the muted or difference in support from White feminists versus feminists of colour. The piece itself is great—she calls her fellow White feminists to task. What’s interesting is how another person that I tweet often, @tressiemcphd, who is Black (and wrote one of the essays that @scATX mentioned in her post) received attacks for saying the same things that @scATX said, who is White. So amidst the problematic stances of White feminists on the issue of Quvenzhané, they’re still approaching messengers through the veil of White privilege? Further, I think the attacks on @tressiemcphd also differed since she took an empirical approach to examining the response to Quvenzhané from White feminists, and we all know that any methodology that involves any skill set that White men respect is held at a higher regard and thus opens the door for attacks on people of colour for stepping out of “our place” for using such a methodology, as I tweeted about yesterday.
White feminism needs to do better. No, really.
Handing an American woman an M16 with the guideline, “Yo, shoot that suspicious-looking brown man” isn’t feminism. It isn’t empowerment. If your “feminism” is about co-opting the same patriarchy’s imperial wars, jingoism and ultra-nationalism, I don’t need it. Step aside.
I dislike that this article was written by a dude, but it is an interesting read.
(tw:rape) The thing about white feminists and their “man vs. woman” binary that disturbs me so much is that it doesn’t take into account how factors like colonialism, (which derives from white supremacy) have shaped the current gender relations in the third world. Men who perpetuate colorism by stating blatantly discriminatory practices in their dating preferences? That’s residual effects of colonialism. That’s whiteness infiltrated from degrading the dark and promoting the light. The simultaneous hypersexualization and desexualization of women of color? That’s residual effects of colonialism. That’s Sarah Baartman and being displayed as a mere prop for white men to get off to. The gender wage gap? That’s western neocolonialism and corporatism, in addition to misogyny and sexism that says women of color aren’t made to be paid for labor, which ultimately goes into white bank accounts and benefits white societies, both men and women.
That’s why I sort of just laugh hysterically when I see white feminists purport women like Chandra Mohanty and Alice Walker as “betrayals” to their cause. No, you betrayed us long ago when you allowed your white men to rape us, subjugate us, enslave us, taunt us and brutalize our communities and eradicate our traditions and cultures. We’re just daring to say “hey, those things that you blatantly ignored? They’ve molded us as women and our experiences differently and we won’t allow for those differences to be ignored in favor of upholding the “women experience”, which doesn’t exist, by the way”.
Men of color do harm women of color, but the ultimate point is, so does everyone else. The man vs. women dichotomy doesn’t do anything but try to shift blame from one guilty party to another.
My friend Khajidah (via eastafrodite)
If you don’t like what women like Chandra Mohanty, Alice Walker, Lila Abu Lughod, Saadia Toor, Saba Mahmood, Deepa Kumar, Pratibha Parmar, Valerie Amos, Laleh Khalili, bell hooks, Homa Hoodfar, Berit von der Lippe say then your “feminism” is seriously questionable.