A lot of marginalized groups are desexualized. Desexualization is when someone expressing their sexuality is thought of as disgusting, laughable, or just unthinkable. It’s “this man is attracted to a FAT WOMAN” being a punchline in a sitcom; it’s someone assuming that an autistic person doesn’t have crushes or date or have sex; it’s someone saying to a person in a wheelchair that they’re very lucky that they don’t have to deal with dating; it’s thinking of being attracted to trans women as a fetish and being attracted to cis women as, well, normal.
Because this comes up every time desexualization is being discussed: I am not saying anyone is required to have sex with anyone else. If you legitimately aren’t attracted to fat women, then don’t fuck fat women. But lots of people aren’t attracted to redheads, and no one uses “a redhead expressed sexual attraction to me!” as a hilarious comedy setup, so I am pretty sure we can stop the latter without ending the former.
Monica Maldonado wrote an excellent series about the desexualization of trans women, How I Came To Hate My Body, which has unfortunately been mostly removed from the Internet. (I am not aware of her preferences about whether people access her work via Wayback Machine; if someone reading this knows that she prefers her essays not be cited, please inform me and I will edit.) In this essay, she vividly describes the eunuch/rapist dichotomy that trans women are trapped in:
One of the complex pressures that society uses to keep trans women’s sex and sexuality in check reaches back to almost as long as we’ve been in history and is drenched in sexist essentialism: namely, the idea that a woman is a lesser man, or even that a vulva or vagina is just the absence of a penis (hence the common “cut it off” tropes re: trans women). According to the social order, in order to exercise bodily autonomy trans women don’t become women, we become desexed eunuchs. Western societies that we often think of as accepting towards trans women actually pressure trans women into this desexed placement; and even though trans women are still quite often sexually active in these contexts, it’s usually shrouded in shame, hidden within the sex trade,trafficking, and pushed into the shadows. Instead, the public face of trans women around the world is often one where we are pressured to insist sex and our sexuality play no part in our lives.
Much like the eunuchs of days past our placement in society is one that is tacitly accepted on the condition that we remain without desire and subservient to the desires and needs of those who are permitted such things(our common involvement in sex work across the world reiterates that the focus is on the sexuality of others rather than our own). And due to the state of the world, this typically necessitates being submissive to the desires of men, because men are typically the ones permitted desire. We remain non-threatening assuming our sex is reserved for the moment that someone is interested in a “walk on the wild side.” If those who are disgusted — or who have their own sexuality or their gender/sex placement shaken to the core — by the reality of our existence are able to assure themselves that we, and our sexuality, are relegated to the fringes then they can live more securely in the safety of their binary cisnormative bubble…
The difference [between how men treat cis women and trans women] occurs at the moment that our trans status is revealed and our placement moves from sexually available woman to deceptive gender variant pervert. And since this is perceived under a cissexist society as a deceptive attack on the man’s sex and sexuality, and further a violation of the coercively assigned social contract regarding eunuch status, the contract becomes violently enforced, and that violent enforcement is even considered acceptable: a la trans panic.
Our implicit expression of desire through appearing sexually attractive to men is considered a violation, which is only exacerbated if we explicitly express desire.
Maldonado characterizes the eunuch/rapist dichotomy as a product of misogyny– the virgin/whore complex on steroids. However, I disagree: I think that the eunuch/rapist dichotomy is a form of desexualization commonly directed at men and people who are sexually interested in women, and it is directed at trans women because the kind of assholes who see trans women as either eunuchs or rapists see them as men.
To take a few examples: Many straight people are okay with gay and bi men who are a nonsexual “gay best friend”, but find them creepy and predatory as soon as they express their sexuality– particularly if they (gasp) have a crush on a straight man. On a more cultural level, straight fondness for Neil Patrick Harris coexists quite well with straight anxiety about gay and bi men and AIDS, cruising, or child molestation.
Developmentally disabled people of all genders are often treated as eunuchs, to the point that there is only one auxiliary and augmentative communication sexuality vocabulary set that is not designed solely for reporting abuse. However, when developmentally disabled men express their sexuality, a lot of people view them as inherently rapey (sometimes covering it with a thin veil of “he can’t help it, he can’t understand, he’s developmentally disabled”).
The Scott Aaronson case is another example– perhaps more vivid than most, because Scott Aaronson was so afraid of being a metaphorical rapist that he wanted to be a literal eunuch.
I’m not sure I can talk about lesbians and bi women better than The Unit of Caring did in her essay Pure Queers. The posts she quotes describe lesbians and bi women as eunuchs who would definitely not do something as horrifying and disgusting as “want to look at women in the changing room” or “be interested in casual sex”. The Unit of Caring herself describes how she viewed her sexuality as harmful to women, invasive, objectifying, and gross; many lesbians and bi women of my acquaintance have described similar feelings.
I think there are two things in play here. First, a lot of people view male sexuality (particularly marginalized male sexuality) as dangerous and barely controlled. (And they think trans women are men, natch.) I would like to be very clear here that while feminism is not exactly helping, this is not feminism’s fault. Feminism has a long way to go before it’s as hysterical about male sexuality as abstinence-only sex education convinced that men will be unable to control themselves as soon as they see a bra strap. Many nonfeminists warn women about the dangers of walking alone at night; many nonfeminists make jokes about fathers cleaning their guns in front of their daughter’s boyfriend, jokes that only make sense if you assume that male sexuality is a dangerous force that can only be controlled with threats of violence. There is a long patriarchal history of “women, you have to put yourselves under our control so we will protect you from those horrible violent other men”, and while feminists can rightfully be blamed for giving in to patriarchal ideas (come on, feminists! you had ONE JOB!), I don’t think we can blame this one on the feminist movement.
Second, people tend to view privileged women as victims. Black feminists have theorized about white women’s tears: the power that white women have to avoid accusations of racism by presenting themselves as victimized by cruel women of color. (Not to mention the long history of violence to protect the precious flower of white womanhood.) I think a similar dynamic is in play with women and marginalized men who are attracted to privileged women. Since privileged women are viewed as inherently victims, if someone makes them mildly uncomfortable, it’s clearly not because the woman in question has some oppressive beliefs she needs to work on. Clearly, it is because the marginalized person is a predator.
(I’d like to highlight that privileged women don’t always have this power– in particular, they’re quite often socialized to not protest when they’re uncomfortable that a man with more social power is hitting on them.)
I suspect that a lot of my readers might have internalized something like the eunuch/rapist dichotomy. In that case, I want to say that the eunuch/rapist dichotomy is a lie. It is not predatory to be sexually or romantically attracted to people, to flirt and ask people out, or to express your sexuality by yourself or with consenting other people. Your sexuality is not inherently harmful. If someone makes you feel that way, you are fine, they’re being a dick.