News & Politics

What’s Behind Transsexual Attraction?

A trans woman wants to know what kind of men watch "T-girl" porn. Are they the same ones who bash her in real life?

This story originally appeared at Salon

I’m gender queer and was told by a friend that the porn shop she worked in carried a wide selection of magazines and films catering to an interest in trans women. That sort of implies it’s popular enough to support that much material on it — which is really interesting when you think of the way many straight males react to any other “male” behaving in a “female” way. I really wouldn’t be surprised to find out the guys who try to bash me are secretly turned on by my existence — although, I’d prefer they just send flowers or something. Is this becoming a more common attraction?

Seriously,! It isn’t that hard. Sure, flowers cost more and won’t last as long as self-hatred, but that’s a good thing.

Back to your question, though: I assume you’re talking about transsexual women who haven’t fully transitioned, since that’s the most popular type of gender queer porn. For uninitiated readers, that means people born with male bodies but who identify as female and have not had full sexual reassignment surgery, although breast implants are common. In the ever tasteful and humanizing world of porn, they are referred to as “she-males,” “chicks with dicks” or “lady boys.” In similar fashion, men who are attracted to trans women are colloquially called “tranny chasers” or “transfans” — sometimes affectionately, sometimes not. The technical, although still controversial, term for such attractions is gynandromorphophilia (the correct pronunciation of which is equivalent to stuffing your mouth with food and saying damn near anything).

With that vocabulary lesson out of the way, we can move on to just how many men have these attractions, a question easily answered: We just don’t know. What we do know is that “T-girl” porn is the fourth most popular type of adult website, according to “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” a book I cite at least once a month. “The main audience for T-girl porn,” explain authors Sai Gaddam and Ogi Ogas, “is heterosexual men.” They speculate that the appeal of this genre comes from the “novel juxtaposition” of feminine cues, like breasts, with the penis, which “has a special power to activate the male sexual brain” – yes, even the heterosexual male brain (that helps explain all those large male members in straight porn).

Daniel Harris, a gay journalist whose memoir “Diary of a Drag Queen” chronicles his experiences dressing in drag in an attempt to attract heterosexual men, argues that of all the types of men who are attracted to trans women, the “Horny Straight Male” is the easiest to understand. He’s “an opportunist who is willing to overlook the imperfections of the disguise for the sake of a good blow job, which he has heard through the sexual grapevine, correctly as everyone knows” – or, ahem, as gay men like himself unsurprisingly believe — “is more expertly administered by men than by women.” However, based on his experience, “there isn’t a single type but many types” who are attracted to trans women and drag queens. For example, there is “the man who is actually a homosexual and whose interest in transvestites is exclusively genital.” Then are the “genuine fetishists, the ones who actively seek out transvestites and may even prefer them to women.”

Looking for a more scientific analysis? Ray Blanchard, who did a series of studies on transsexualism in the ’80s, told me by email, “There are certainly no decent epidemiological data on the prevalence of this interest. There is hardly any research of any kind.” One recent exception to this rule was a paper out of Northwestern University in which researchers recruited 205 men with a sexual interest in trans women for an online survey and found that 51 percent identified as straight, 41 percent called themselves bisexual and a piddling six men ID’d as gay. Kevin Hsu, one of the study’s researchers, says this “contrasts with one popular misconception that men who have an interest in trans women must be gay men, or closeted gays.”

Out of their sample, 55 percent said their ideal sexual partner would be a woman and 36 percent preferred a transwoman. “The interest in trans women appears to be a distinct sexual interest separate from heterosexual men’s attraction to women for the majority of men, but there is a substantial minority who may experience it as their sexual orientation,” Hsu says. “That is, their sexual attraction to trans women is the central part of their sexuality and not a secondary interest.” These are the “genuine fetishists” that Harris writes about. Interestingly, the researchers also found that “men who are sexually attracted to trans women also reported, on average, higher sexual arousal from imagining themselves as women than heterosexual males without this interest,” says Hsu — and yet most had never cross-dressed.

There are plenty of theories about where a dominant interest in trans women comes from, but none have been proven. Hsu runs through some of these — “earlier and more frequent masturbation reinforcing whatever random flotsam gets into fantasy early in life,” “accidental byproduct of a cognitively complex species that can visualize and fantasize about social relationships,” and so on — but ultimately argues, “All these theories are explanations of why kinks develop, not why particular kinks develop. That is probably just random. Psychodynamic explanations abound but without any evidence.”

It’s also true that attempts to “diagnose” attraction to transsexuals can be unfortunately stigmatizing and pathologizing. Trans activists like Julia Serano have written extensively about the problems with viewing such attractions as a fetish: “This is extremely invalidating, as it insinuates that we cannot be loved or appreciated as whole people, but rather only as ‘fetish objects.’” Similarly, Sass of the blog Transpinay Rising, writes, “The question shouldn’t be why these men are attracted to us, but why is society forcing us to justify this attraction in the first place. I feel the question arises because people have already pre-judged that being sexually or romantically attracted to people like me is perverted and immoral.” Also, keep in mind that what limited studies have been done on this topic have often focused on men who are in one way or another actively seeking out M2F transsexuals — via online personals, for example. This doesn’t account for men who might find individual trans women attractive for reasons other than their specific gender identity.

Your question isn’t so much “Am I normal?” but rather “Are those guys who are attracted to me normal?” Well, they’re certainly common, judging from the wild popularity of T-girl sites, which cannot merely be explained by people’s passing curiosity. This wouldn’t be the first time that the world of online porn proved that “normal” is rarely what we think it is.

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