The New World
Finding Your Own Personal Way Amid the Greatest Porn-Delivery System Ever Invented
A couple of years ago, one erotica-writing friend told me that I was the only transgendered woman she had ever known who did not have a soft spot for forced feminization erotica--stories or pictorials in which a masculine character is somehow feminized, usually against his will. This popular genre carries with it an enormous amount of cultural baggage: It tends to get its erotic power from a boring, old gender politic that places women beneath men. Typically, the cartoonishly feminized character must struggle to accept or reject his condition, and all through the narrative the original masculine identity of the character remains uncompromised until the very end, when the character winds up pregnant and/or blissfully married to some dashing male suitor.
This story clearly holds some erotic fascination for many people, because it is almost all you find in an online search for "transgender erotica." But rather than challenge established gender norms, this story overlooks almost all of the sociopolitical achievements women have achieved in the last 40 or so years. It also does very little, politically or erotically, for those of us who never needed femininity--however you might define the term--forced upon them. Clearly, I'm not the target audience for this type of smut.
Just, exactly, what kind of smut I want has dogged me since my lamentably austere college days, when I was introduced to a school of feminism that seemed definitively anti-sexual. I had little luck reconciling myself with that way of thinking. None of it made sense. None of it led to happiness, even when it spoke about liberation and freedom and joy. In those days, trannies and bisexuals weren't even considered a part of the greater queer community, and queer was still little more than a slur. But lately, though I am far from a sci-fi geek, I've been fantasizing about hopping in a time machine and heading back 15 years to console my young, closeted queer self and give her a little pep talk about the days to come.
It's hard to remember now how it was to live without the internet and its vast resources--before Riot Grrrls, before Hothead Paisan. Back then I was convinced that everyone else in the world had a better handle on sexual matters than I did, that every other straight, gay, and lesbian person I knew was fulfilling an array of sexual fantasies with a variety of tantalizing partners while I stayed home reading Valerie Solanas in my vulnerable, awkward body that made no sense to me. It was not until I was able to get access to the internet and read what was going on in people's heads that I realized how common my experience actually was. My fear of vulnerability was demonstrated as much by other white transsexual lesbians as it was by gay Muslims and straight Latinas. I was not so all alone after all, but that fact in itself didn't make the smut get any hotter. In fact, it's only been in the very recent past that smart, political, well-written smut actually began to appear on the internet with any sort of regularity.
The reasons are legion, but economics is among the most obvious factors. As much as we might now support this notion of "net neutrality," the internet--like all publishing media before it--was established to feed the desires of those who could afford it. As more of us misfits crept toward the light, we found that we could manipulate this medium to discuss our most secret desires in anonymous safety. The fears of reprisal from friends and family dissipated slightly, and neo-diasporatic communities began to form around these questions of identity and desire. Secrets of all sorts spewed forth; but confession is really only hot until the weeping starts. In relatively short order, a plethora of information replaced the dearth, and it became difficult to find the signal amid the noise.
Now I know now that one of my particular kinks is to be aware of the politics at play when I'm getting off. Nothing thrills me quite like a good upset of the repressive mores with which I was raised, and while this is not that difficult a task, it's a difficult thing to do well. For those disposed to the queer written word, the familiar names never fail to provide quality smut. Tristan Taormino, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Heather Corinna, L. Elise Bland, Lisa Montanarelli, Susie Bright, and Baltimore's own Hanne Blank all immediately leap to mind as prolific and exciting authors, both in print and on the web.
With these tried-and-true authors, I rarely have to fret about misspellings, poor grammar, and other sorts of petty concerns that tend to dry me up like a cheap towel. Nor do I have to worry as much about the things that really kill my libido, like a glib injection of misogyny or racism into an already mediocre piece of writing. It's amazing how often these boring old systems still raise their heads, and even more amazing how quickly that kind of writing makes me want to be a hermit.
Of course, this is something of a clichéd lament. Most artists have some sort of bone to pick with the work of their predecessors. A good piece of erotica can make the world fall away for a little while, take me on a fantasy flight to a place where the body politics are not so insidious. So I've had to dig a little bit deeper for the images and ideas that are hot enough to melt down everything I thought I knew. Such is the double-edged sword of possessing a queer, feminist sexual sensibility, and there is little point in complaining about it--especially when there is so much work left to be done.
Even if the majority of erotica available does little to challenge the status quo, the status quo in the United States is still coming to terms with its own normative sexuality. Quality aside, it certainly seems that the internet's democratized access to both sexual and nonsexual content is forcing us all to acknowledge our own human nature--which is odd, considering that computers have only been around for a few decades, but we've had human nature for thousands of years.
Angela Carter's revolutionary feminist analysis of pornography, The Sadeian Woman, opens with a fiery polemic describing the role pornography can and should play in helping the feminist cause. She assigns pornography the role of artistic endeavor that will reveal heretofore hidden body politics; she calls pornography "art with work to do"--as opposed, we can only guess, to art that simply lies there.
At least part of the work that pornography has left to do is to plumb unexplored desire. The explosion of internet pornography has already achieved some phenomenal goals toward this end. Perhaps most significantly, the internet has helped to organize communities based on common desires. This mode of organizing has united groups that were previously hidden from each other precisely because their desires are embarrassing or shameful--or, at worst, illegal.
This change is especially significant because it strikes another blow against the Victorian system of secrecy and shame that has shrouded Western sexuality for more than a century. Being able to speak with honesty and pride about your sexual experience, especially the formative experiences, has been a touchstone of both the women's liberation and gay pride movements, and their aftereffects can be clearly seen in the subsequent organizing efforts of sex workers, transgendered populations, and other previously stigmatized populations.
What stands out most about such internet movements is not only that these stigmatized populations are organizing among themselves, but also that they are connecting across previously hidden borders. A simple example is the popular sex blog Fleshbot.com, where visitors are initially met with a daily mixed bag of straight and gay content, and it is up to the user to apply filters to the content to best feed his or her desires.
The Cinekink Film Festival, held annually each fall in New York, is less concerned with the types of sexuality depicted in its films than it is about dealing with sexuality in frank and inventive ways. And the recently launched Museum of Sex maintains a physical facility in addition to a cutting-edge web site ( www.museumofsex.org), which hosts a diverse series of internet-based exhibits, ranging from the history of sexuality in China to sexual apparatus patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office.
Such details are not necessarily news to web-savvy erotic connoisseurs; what is not necessarily as evident is the way that this technology is being used to form our notions of ourselves. What we know about our desires and how to achieve them is largely informed by technology. We know what a sexy pose is--for ourselves and for others--thanks to the history of printing and photography. A certain amount of irony is at play here, that we might only come to understand our own physical desires through technological interventions. Then again, once you've seen a sexual act performed, it serves as a nearly indelible lesson. Most sex acts seem pretty obvious to me now that I've seen them.
And this brings us to the big question: Now that we have a somewhat democratized way of portraying and publishing a range of sexualities, do I ultimately want to see my own sexuality actually portrayed, either on the page or on the screen? And if so, how? After all, years of complaining about the paucity of quality queer and transgender porno only serves to hone the bitter screed, which can be trotted out at any convenient moment to bring the party down.
And there are many obstacles in the way of the project. Queers, women, and trannies don't tend to have as much disposable income to fund or even purchase good smut. And no matter how hard feminism's third wave has tried to incorporate a pro-sex politic, attitude does not make bad writing any better. At the end of the day, whether I'm going to have something as fantastic as a time machine or a hot piece of genderqueer smut, it's going to take a good deal of work.
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