About That Out-of-Context Quote(s) from Whipping Girl That Anti-Trans Activists Relentlessly Share
Content note for mentions of sexual assault, plus transphobia abound. Also, if you see anyone peddling these out-of-context quotes on social media or elsewhere, please don’t hesitate to share this response with them.
There are few things more cowardly than quoting someone out of context. It implies that you took the time to pore over that person’s work and, rather than seriously engage with their ideas, you chose to smear them instead. Doesn’t the fact that you had to manufacture a scandal prove that you weren’t able to dig up any legitimate dirt on them? Just as bad are the internet trolls who are so fueled by hate and propaganda that they will impulsively share out-of-context-quotes without ever bothering to fact-check them.
So yes, I’m talking about that meme that “gender critical”/TERFs relentlessly share about me. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
If you didn’t know anything else, you might presume that Whipping Girl must be some kind of erotic tale or licentious tell-all memoir. In actuality, it is a serious feminist book. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 2,517 times, including by many prominent feminist authors and researchers. Readers of the feminist magazine Ms. ranked it #16 on their list of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time.
I am not trying to brag here, just pointing out that if Whipping Girl really was some kind of twisted “male fantasy” of what women are or should be (as the out-of-context quote clearly suggests), then it would not have received praise and appreciation from so many cisgender feminists. To put it another way, this out-of-context quote is designed to not only denigrate me, but to insult all feminists who have appreciated the book.
So what is the missing context then?
Well, the quote is from Chapter 15: “Submissive Streak,” in which I discuss the phenomenon of submissive or “forced” sexual fantasies, which are actually quite prevalent among cis women (Bivona and Critelli, 2009; Bogaert, Visser, and Pozzebon, 2015; Critelli and Bivona, 2008; Dubberley, 2013; Joyal, Cossette, and Lapierre, 2015; Lehmiller, 2018; Leitenberg and Henning, 1995; Shulman and Home, 2006; Strassberg and Locker, 1998). For instance, Joyal, Cossette, and Lapierre (2015) reported that 64.6 percent of women in their sample responded affirmatively to the statement “I have fantasized about being dominated sexually.” Lehmiller (2018, p. 27) reported that nearly two-thirds of women in his study fantasized about being forced to have sex. Countless examples of such fantasies are also chronicled in Emily Dubberley’s book Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Women’s Sexual Fantasies (pp. 81–124).
Some of these studies discuss how these fantasies seem to be influenced, at least in part, by societal messages about male superiority and female subservience that are pervasive in our culture. Discovering this body of research literature in the early 2000s really helped me to make sense of some of my own experiences. And that’s what this chapter is about. Here’s how it begins:
When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted, but not by any particular person. It was my culture that had his way with me. And when he was through, he carved his name in my side so that I’d always have something to remember him by. It’s the scar that marks the spot where my self-esteem was ripped right out of me. And now all that’s left is a submissive streak that’s as wide and as deep as the Grand Canyon.
And maybe I was born transgender — my brain preprogrammed to see myself as female despite the male body I was given at birth — but like every child, I turned to the rest of the world to figure out who I was and what I was worth. And like a good little boy, I picked up on all of the not-so-subliminal messages that surrounded me. TV shows where Father knows best and a woman’s place is in the home; fairy tales where helpless girls await their handsome princes; cartoon supermen who always save the damsel in distress; plus schoolyard taunts like “sissy” and “fairy” and “pussy” all taught me to see “feminine” as a synonym for “weakness.” And nobody needed to tell me that I should hate myself for wanting to be what was so obviously the lesser sex.
I then go on to describe how these societal messages shaped some of the sexual fantasies that I had after hitting puberty. This was a couple years after I had my trans epiphany and realized (after many clues over the years) that I was a girl (or should be a girl — language always fails here). The out-of-context quote gives the impression that I’m some kind of “lecherous man,” but the chapter it is taken from makes clear that I was a teen who was quite scared and confused when all of this was first happening. It’s harrowing for any teenager to make sense of their burgeoning sexuality in a world full of so many demeaning sentiments and social hierarchies. This was especially true for me, having to navigate all these pervasive sexist messages while also having to deal with the utter lack of information and intense social stigma that accompanied being trans as a child during the 1980s.
Of course, the chapter doesn’t merely chronicle these sexual fantasies. It’s also about me eventually unlearning these sexist sentiments and social hierarchies. This is how the piece ends; the excerpt picks up immediately after an attempted sexual assault I experienced:
When I finally thwarted his advances, he guilt-tripped me with fucked-up lines about how I had led him on and how it was all my fault for being such a tease. When I got home, I sat in the shower for almost an hour, but I still felt dirty and diseased. And I didn’t dare tell a soul because, on a subconscious level, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had deserved what happened to me.
At some point, all of us who identify as female have to come face-to-face with our own internalized misogyny. And when people ask me what has been the hardest part of being a transsexual, expecting me to say that it was coming out to my family or the growing pains of going through a second puberty, I tell them that the hardest part, by far, has been unlearning lessons that were etched into my psyche before I ever set foot in kindergarten. The hardest part has been learning how to take myself seriously when the entire world is constantly telling me that femininity is always inferior to masculinity.
These days, I am an outspoken feminist and transgender activist. And most days, I dress like a tomboy in striped shirts, jeans, and Chuck Taylors. To most people, I probably seem pretty self-confident, but that’s only because they can’t see my submissive streak. It’s like a scar I keep hidden up my sleeve, a scar that still sometimes opens up and bleeds. Like a shark bite, it literally tore me apart when it was first happening to me. But these days, my submissive streak is just another reminder of how I survived.
In other words, “Submissive Streak” is a chapter about overcoming internalized misogyny, a topic that feminists have long explored. Given this, it should be clear to anyone whose brain isn’t thoroughly rotted by transphobia why I would find this GC/TERF meme — which shares the most lurid passages while intentionally withholding the context and the take-home point of the chapter — to be unscrupulous and defamatory.
So why would someone do such a deceitful thing?
Well, in recent years, GC/TERFs have become fixated on an archaic psychology theory from the 1980s: “autogynephilia” (or “AGP,” as they are fond of calling it). It began as junk science, but now that the theory has been disproved, pseudoscience is a more accurate descriptor for it — that link compiles numerous critiques and peer-reviewed articles I’ve written about it over the years. Among its countless flaws, the psychologist who invented the theory never used any cisgender controls in his studies. That is to say, he surveyed trans female/feminine people about their sexual fantasies and immediately presumed they constituted a trans-specific “paraphilia.” However, subsequent researchers have found that cisgender women also experience similar or analogous fantasies (I discuss these studies in grave detail in section #4 of this essay).
In other words, as I strived to convey in my “Submissive Streak” chapter, cis and trans women’s sexual fantasies overlap to some degree in this regard. So when GC/TERFs attempt to shame and pathologize me for having had such fantasies in the past, they are similarly degrading many cis women too. It’s called slut-shaming and it’s not a very feminist thing to do.
Finally, there is another passage from Whipping Girl that GC/TERFs sometimes cite in order to depict me as an “AGP.” It’s from Chapter 5, in which I describe my trans epiphany:
It wasn’t until the age of eleven that I consciously recognized these subconscious feelings as an urge or desire to be female. The first incident that led to this discovery happened late one night, after engaging in a losing battle with insomnia. I found myself inexplicably compelled to remove a set of white, lacy curtains from the window and wrap them around my body like a dress. I walked toward the mirror. Since I was a prepubescent boy with one of those longish boy haircuts that were popular in the late ’70s, the curtains alone were sufficient to complete my transformation: I looked like a girl. I stared at my reflection for over an hour, stunned. It felt like an epiphany because, for some unexplainable reason, seeing myself as a girl made absolutely perfect sense to me.
I explicitly state in that chapter that this incident “occurred prior to me experiencing sexual attraction” and there was nothing sexual or arousing about it at all — it was merely a moment of self-recognition. But in her 2014 book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, GC/TERF academic Sheila Jeffreys cited this passage out of context (emphasizing that the curtains happened to be “lacy”) to depict me as an “AGP.” And of course, other anti-trans activists online have since parroted this mischaracterization of my trans epiphany.
The fact that Sheila Jeffreys had to resort to quote-mining and ad hominem in her critique of Whipping Girl demonstrates how morally bankrupt she is. But frankly, it’s even worse than that. In addition to smearing trans women as “AGPs,” GC/TERFs also love to spread baseless accusations that we are supposed sexual predators who “sexualize children.” Yet it’s Jeffreys and her GC/TERF followers who are literally sexualizing my childhood — projecting sexual motives onto an eleven year old! — when they spread such out of context quotes.
As a general rule, GC/TERFs don’t care about children, as evident in their countless attacks on trans youth. Nor do they care about women, as evident in their vociferous campaigns against cis women who express trans-inclusive views. Nor do they give a shit about sexualization, as evident in the eagerness with which they reduce their perceived enemies (whether trans or cis) to the status of “sexual beings.” Their primary goal is to remove trans people from the public sphere by any means possible. Even if those means involve duplicity, disinformation, and discarding the basic tenets of feminism.