The Cotton Ceiling Is Real and It’s Time for All Queer and Trans People to Fight Back

The blogosphere is fired up over the cotton ceiling today, a term porn actress Drew DeVaux and other queer trans women are using to challenge cis lesbians’ tendency to support trans causes generally but draw the line at sleeping with trans women or including trans lesbians in their sexual communities.  Some cis lesbians have responded in outrage to the term (trigger warning on link for heavy transphobia), claiming that it implies sex with cis women without their consent, perpetuates rape culture, and reveals trans women’s patriarchal motives to break into their bedrooms as they presumably have broken into their bathrooms.

This spectre of rape that cis lesbian “radfems” habitually raise, centered around the supposed inherent threat of the phallus, minimizes the appalling rates of physical and sexual violence committed against trans women, particularly trans women of color and sex workers.  It also twists the picture of systemic violence to make it look like trans women are a huge, systemic threat to cis lesbians when in fact trans women as a group face incredible systemic barriers in almost every aspect of life.

Certainly there are individual cases of interpersonal violence that one could bring up involving a perpetrator of any description.  But, although I may not be 100% comfortable with the mental image of panty-ripping, I find it ludicrous to suggest that trans women, in pointing out their exclusion from lesbian sexual communities and the relationship between common lack of cis lesbian desire for trans women and the structural problem of cissexism/transmisogyny, are threatening rape of cis lesbians or perpetuating rape culture.

At one point in my life, I identified as female and as a lesbian.  I was early to feminism and I had been through some difficult heterosexual experiences.  I’m ashamed to admit that I sympathized in some ways with the radfem position.  I want to be clear in my argument here–I’m not ashamed of the fact that at that time, I wasn’t interested in PIV sex or in touching a penis. That’s a legitimate sexual preference.  My shame comes from the way I looked at trans women at that time without examining my prejudices or educating myself, and the fact that I assumed a preference for cis women was a natural preference that I didn’t need to mention aside from identifying as “lesbian.”

I pinned a misogyny that at the time I attributed to almost all men onto trans women, as well.  I assumed that sex with a trans woman would be penetrative and violent, that I wouldn’t have the camaraderie with a trans woman that I felt at the time with many cis women, that female history was somehow very important.  I didn’t think about what a trans female experience might be like, or what a trans woman’s relationship to her body might be.  I was pretty naive about sex.  I put a lot of stake in body parts because I was fumbling with my own gender, body, and sexuality.  I said that I was against transphobia but knew no openly trans people.

To all the trans women I know, love, and respect now, and to any to whom I made casual transmisogynistic comments or whom I discounted then, I’m sorry.  I’m deeply sorry that I didn’t try harder, ask more questions, or deeply interrogate my own fears.

Please let me know if there’s anything you want me to do to support you now, or to be more explicitly inclusive of trans women in queer spaces.  Sometimes I forget just how often transmisogynistic cis women, genderqueers, and trans men exclude trans women from sexual communities.  Recently, I was very excited about a date with a trans woman who’d been chatting with me online, and a female trans friend asked me to tell her about “him.” She’d assumed I was dating a trans man, and I couldn’t figure out why she was so surprised that I date trans women when I knew I’d told her that several of my recent dates had been trans people.  When I started seeing the patterns, and noticing how trans women are strangely ignored in queer female sexual spaces (where I’m the one surprised at how welcome I am since I’m not female-identified) I realized that we have a hell of a lot of work to do.  If there are particular ways I can focus on this work, or on contributing to yours, I’d love to hear them.

To the radfems who focus so hard on the penis and on villifying trans lesbians, queer woman, and bisexual women, may you eventually come to feel the shame I do about that part of my life. Shame isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary when you fuck up.

The narcissism in the radfem community is somewhat hilarious.  Why would a trans woman WANT to sleep with you?  How boring it must be to have sex with someone who reduces your body, your sexual creativity, and your capacity to a penis.  How hurtful to engage sexually with someone who denies your humanity.  No, thanks.

I’ve made my own decision never to have sex with someone who views sex with me as a favor or a concession, with someone who thinks they can describe my body without asking, with someone who assumes the paths to my pleasure.  I’m constantly rolling my eyes at straight cis men who message me on OKCupid (where I list as bisexual woman because there is no “genderqueer who prefers queer/trans men, women, both, or neither” option).  These messages typically reassure me that there is no problem with my trans identity, that my body is sexy anyway, that they’re fine with it.  Gee!  So flattered!

I’ve had good sex lately with cis women, trans women, trans men, and genderqueer/genderfluid people.  The most obvious common denominator has been the respect, desire, and curiosity with which we’ve approached each others’ bodies and sexualities.  I’m not talking about fetishistic curiosity here, but about curiosity around what makes pleasure happen in another individual. I love conducting sexual chemistry experiments, going in blind and experiencing the nerves and adrenaline as we tell each other how to name our bodies, what makes us hot, what makes us vulnerable, and how to care for one another.

It’s not always perfect, of course. CN Lester writes about the way non-binary identities can mess with binary folks’ understandings of their own sexuality. Though I haven’t often heard “no,” I have sometimes doubted the extent to which a sex partner understands my gender and relationship with my body.  There is sometimes a sense of “what you’re doing with gender is really cool, let’s talk social justice, but I love that your parts are still traditional, that you haven’t had surgery.”  I have not always been fully respected when I explained that touching a particular area gives me dysphoria, since I don’t physically mimimize it or seek medical intervention.  Occasionally my preferences, which fall outside many common sex narratives, have been criticized as boring.  It is important to me that a partner understands I can’t have gay, lesbian, or straight sex, and it’s not always evident whether this is the case.  That said, my refusal to sleep with someone who thinks they’re doing me a favor or refers to me as either binary gender with their friends has improved my sex life.

Radfems, you’re not just missing out on great sex.  You’re confused about what it means to be a lesbian, or a woman.  I don’t care what your physical preferences are or what gender identity you prefer. I do care that you confuse those two things, and thereby insult trans women.  I care that you don’t bother to interrogate the origins of your phallus-based distaste for trans women, and think about whether it’s actually a dislike of the organ that’s happening here or whether transphobia and a refusal to view trans women as women is involved.  I care that you assume describing yourself as a lesbian tells others that you prefer what you call a pussy, as if everyone has the same definition of lesbian, woman, or pussy.

THAT is privilege.  Assuming that you speak the same language, rather than consensually sharing vocabulary.  Using lesbian as a proxy term that tells a whole group of women that they are not real, and not seeing anything wrong with that.  I find your appropriation of the language of oppression disgusting.

Sit down, shut up, and read a book (or a blog). We will be over here, having fabulous queer sex without you.

To learn more about sexual preferences and building an understanding of your own complex sexual orientation beyond the one-word proxy terms like “lesbian,” join me for Workshopping Your Sexual Orientation, Sunday at 9 am at Momentum.  If you’re not in the DC area, you can workshop your orientation independently when you grab the Momemtum anthology ebook.  I don’t ask you to drop your orientation labels, but I do suggest that you expand your understanding of orientation for a fuller and more satisfying sex life.

Avory Faucette is a genderqueer radical feminist activist and writer.  Zie writes at the blog Radically Queer and works at the National Center for Transgender Equality.  Hir work focuses on intersections of gender, sexuality, and other identities.  Zie is particularly interested in non-binary gender and sexuality.  Zie is also an award-winning international human rights legal activist with a law degree from the University of Iowa.  Hir views stated here do not reflect those of any organization or entity.