Sexual autonomy and the cotton ceiling — trans sexuality

Copyright 2020 — Cotton Bro

Part of being human is to have autonomy over who you are attracted to, being it as a sexual being or in understanding yourself as asexual. All people have the right to bodily autonomy, and the right to define both their sexual attraction and, more controversially, their genital attraction. This is controversial because it collides with trans rights and the notion of the cotton ceiling; namely, is it ever okay to reject a trans person as a sexual person because of the genitals. I am personally wrapped up in this as a trans woman, having experienced it both pre and post gender reassignment, so this article is prefaced both on my own experiences and a wider acknowledgement that this is a complex and difficult societal issue. As a trans woman this article is focused on trans female perspectives, and I acknowledge that trans men potentially have similar experiences but I believe their voices need to be heard through their own voices.

It took me until my mid-20s to accept that I was bisexual, in as much that I had always been attracted to women and that my latent attraction to men was okay. Later this evolved into not wanting to put a label on my sexuality, as my attraction fluxes depending on various factors. One thing this meant was that I understood in and of myself that I was not adverse to any external gender expression or genitals, and once I understood this my personal sexuality was more a case of going with the flow and see what stuck.

However, I haltingly found this was not the case for most people. Indeed, over the course of my adult life being trans in whatever genital configuration has been a barrier to prospective cis male or cis female partners. It stung, and to a degree still does sting, but does this mean I agree with the idea of the cotton ceiling? For me, is it a notion that I can actively subscribe to?

Copyright 2020 — Ketut Subiyanto

You may very well ask what is the cotton ceiling; it is the notion that because a trans person defines themselves as a given gender then people have to accept them as that gender regardless of their genitals, and that if you are a lesbian you must accept trans women as women. This is the reductive form of the concept, and if you want to know more, I urge you to Google it, though bear in mind that few trans women subscribe to it, and tends to be found on the fringes of both trans rights and feminism. On the one hand, for trans women who have not had gender confirmation surgery for what ever reason, or indeed never want to have surgery, their internal gender is female regardless of external genitals. On the other, lesbians who may be attracted to the person may be not attracted to a woman with a penis. If this hypothetical lesbian turns down this non-op trans woman as a sexual partner, then this is essentially hitting the cotton ceiling for the trans woman.

There is an ongoing, and very heated, debate about whether this is transphobic, as how can a lesbian reject another woman who she finds attractive just because that woman has a penis? Surly that is textbook transphobia. Yet, I personally find this mis-guided, as it cuts to the heart of sexual autonomy and genital preference. When it has happened to me I have doubted myself, been heart broken, and on the occasion when a guy did it when I was post-op I questioned a whole slew of things about myself. I gradually realised that I have no control over another person’s sexual preferences, and especially their genital preference. For all my inner conviction and outward presentation, I had to accept that another person’s sexual autonomy is out of my grasp.

Yes, there are plenty of occasions where transphobia, misogyny, and societal expectation do play a part in relationship dynamics, and I have experienced that as well. Yet, I find the idea of a cotton ceiling hard to square. Why should any person, cis or trans, be put in a position to abrogate their innate understanding of their core sexual identity? Sexuality and attraction are not a competitive sport, nor are they fair and equitable. You cannot force yourself to like something you do not find attractive. If you do not find a certain genital configuration attractive then that should be the end of it, as your sexual autonomy is sacrosanct. Anything else leads to dangerous ground.

Of course, the counter argument is that lesbian identities are wrapped up in certain cultural idioms, and that we as a society demonise women with penises as aberrations to be exorcised by gun and knife. Non-op trans women face levels of violence far beyond the norm, especially trans women of colour. The dangers are real and ever present. By demonising these women society essentially says that any sexuality involving them is verboten, as at odds with the very notion of idealised sex as can be. That porn featuring women with penises is high on virtually every country’s search queries speaks volumes about the desires and lusts for forbidden fruit. These women, who are pathologized, exoticized, and turned into fetishes are left at the margins as sex workers, dirty little secrets, and rejected as marriage material. Their identities and sexual autonomy are the butt of jokes, satirised, and made to feel cheap.

Copyright 2020 — Broadly

Thus, this conversation turns on not just how women who love women perceive women with penises, but how society treats these women. Personally, I accept another person’s sexuality and genital preference at face value, because while it is devastating to be told that someone does not want to date a trans person, I cannot see any other way because I accept those individuals as sexually autonomous beings. However, that does not mean I do not believe that within society that is the end of the conversation. Sex education, normalisation within the media and entertainment, a break down of misogyny over men dating women with penises, and understanding that genital preference is just as an essential part of human sexuality as external and personality attraction. The real harm within society is not just the demonisation of women with penises, the fetishization of their bodies, or the rejection of them as partners; it is also the wider failure to see sexuality and attraction as a spectrum, that what leads to transphobia is a fear of rejection and fear of that sexuality/attraction. It is society seeing trans bodies as abhuman and perverse. This in turns means that when women with penises are rejected by lesbians the whole bundle of transphobia and societal coded messaging gets wrapped up in the pain of rejection.

Sex, intimacy, and connection are beautiful things, often castigated and pushed into the shadows. We humans have myriad ways of expressing pleasure with each other, finding ways to connect in genital and body combinations that are sublime. This should always involve consent, understanding, and mutual acceptance, acknowledging sexual autonomy in ways that cuts through society’s fears and prejudices. Rejection is part of the process to finding those connections, and fear of rejection does hold many people back. Thus, while concepts such as the cotton ceiling exist, there needs to be a broader conversation about rejection, sexual autonomy, and the role that women with penises play within the sexual spectrum. It is a hard conversation to have, and it is ever evolving for each person involved. Only one on one can answers ever be found and given, and whatever the outcome personal sexual autonomy must be accepted. Trans women are women, that is a given, but every person has the right to their own genital sexual preference.

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Rejserin

Rejserin

Writer, researcher, and generally curious