The BBC website article “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women” has caused a backlash, with 20,000 people signing an open letter against it.
The article used a survey of just 80 people, conducted by the anti-trans pressure group Get The L Out, to claim that trans lesbians are routinely pressuring cis lesbians into sex. The article intersperses LGB Alliance anti trans propaganda with testimony by cis lesbians describing rape and coercive sexual relations with trans women, along with women claiming they have been pressured by a societal messaging against transmisogyny into sex which they do not want. We should not belittle or deny the experiences of women who detailed abuse in the article. We must also be clear the article is an attempt to stoke a moral panic about the sexual danger posed by trans women. It seeks to conflate acceptance that woman can have penises with interrogation of aspects of our sexual preferences, with pressure to have sex with particular individuals.
Nobody has a responsibility to have sex with anyone they don’t want to. Nobody should have to defend their reasons for refusing sexual activity; even if their reasons are bigoted they are not up for challenge. Consent is sacrosanct, it trumps all other matters in sex.
That does not mean we should ignore the ideological shaping of desire. Sexual desire — its objects, acts and expressions — are shaped both consciously and unconsciously by society, and that includes aspects that are oppressive and unpleasant. Individual revulsion expressed towards disabled and trans bodies or prevailing preference against black women and Asian men are not simply matters of individual taste that spring forth naturally. Saying who we have sex with is our own choice is not the same thing as refusing to question why we choose what we choose. Being considered outside the norms of beauty and desirability is an element of exclusion; disabled people’s organisations have been arguing for years for sex education that is inclusive by normalising sex with disabled people.
Interrogating and questioning our preferences should not be an exercise in self-disciplining of desire and sexuality. Our sexual preferences can and do change, sometimes due to conscious effort and reflection, but that should not be the expectation or even the aim of looking at how reactionary politics can shape our sexuality. To see the inclusion of trans women in lesbian culture and spaces as an individual exhortation for each lesbian to have sex with trans women to show their allyship reflects the individualistic, performative politics which dominates feminism (both transphobic and trans inclusive). We want to understand the structures that oppress us and how they infiltrate areas of our life, even those which feel very personal. We want to understand them so we can bring them down. We know the structures that oppress us are perpetuated by capitalism. Where the trend in feminism is to zoom in to the individual, we should be looking to zoom out from individual experience to the structures which shape our lives, to show the collective interest we have in destroying capitalism and the myriad of oppressive structures it rests on.