Trans Men and Sexual Violence
This piece was originally written for the zine “Violence and Trans Masculinities”, edited by Tim McConnell
Someone once told me that FtMs aren't affected by sexual violence. The argument goes: anyone who sexually assaults/harasses/objectifies an FtM is reacting to the person's female-assigned body. FtMs do not relate to their bodies as female, therefore are unaffected by attacks directed at female bodies, even if the body in question happens to be the one they inhabit.
It's a brilliant bit of mental gymnastics, in which a fairly reasonable premise is twisted into a conclusion that is not only unreasonable, but dangerous. The belief that FtMs and other female-assigned trans, Two-Spirit, and gender variant folks don't experience sexual violence has spread throughout anti-oppression spaces and affects attitudes, policies and allocation of resources even (perhaps especially) when it is not spoken out loud. I'd like to take a moment, if I may, to look at where this belief came from, to break down the premise behind it and see if it might not lead to a different set of conclusions.
Premise: Trans Men are Men
No trouble so far. A perfectly reasonable premise, but one which can be interpreted in many different ways. In itself, “Trans Men are Men” is a tautology, a statement which defines a thing as being itself (like 'boys will be boys', 'a job is a job', 'the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club,' etc.) It contains no new information and assumes that you already know the definition of 'Men'.
In modern Western society, most people define 'Men' as cisgender men. That is, consciously or not, people believe that cisgender men are Real Men, that the cisgender (not to mention white, straight, able-bodied, blah blah blah) experience of masculinity is the only experience of masculinity. With this in mind, the statement “Trans men are men,” becomes, “Trans men are/should be exactly the same as cis men.” According to this premise, all Men:
have penises (or really want one)
have been Men their whole life
have no experience of being a Woman/ female
do not and cannot relate to the experiences of Women
identify entirely with one sex (Male) and one sex alone
would prefer to be cisgender
To suggest that a trans man might feel otherwise is to suggest that he isn't a real man and would be transphobic. Since Real Men don't experience sexual violence, trans men don't experience sexual violence. Any violence committed against their female-assigned body is irrelevant.
There's another way to interpret the statement 'Trans Men are Men', but it requires a radical leap from the way we've been taught to see gender. We could choose to interpret it as, “Trans experiences of masculinity/manhood are equally as valid as those of any other men.” According to this premise, Men:
can be male- or female-assigned, among other possibilities
can have any body type or genital configuration
can relate to their bodies and genitals in whatever way makes sense to them
don't need to be 100% Man 100% of the time
can take pride in their femininity
may identify as 'Man' only secondarily, and have other gender identities that are more important to them
may have been raised and socialized as a Woman
may live as Women or be treated like Women by the people around them
can talk openly about their experiences of pregnancy, menstruation, sexual violence and objectification, dealing with a medical system that has, for centuries, viewed Male-assigned bodies as standard, and other things generally associated with femininity
can sometimes be Women
This is an interpretation that expands the definition of “Man” to include trans/Two-Spirit/gender-variant Men, rather than limiting the definition of “Trans Man” to make it fit into a cisgender concept of masculinity. It also allows for the possibility of gender identities outside the Male/Female binary, enabling people to exist as Men, Women, both, or neither. It's the difference between saying, “Trans Men are (the same as cis) Men,” and, “Trans Men are (equals of cis) Men.”
I like this interpretation better, but that's just me.
The expectation for trans people to conform to cisgender standards of masculinity and femininity (standards which are often unhealthy even for cisgender people) has many times resulted in the specific needs and challenges of trans people being ignored, and in the silencing of trans narratives. Unfortunately, one of the ways in which trans narratives differ from those of cis people is in the likelihood of experiencing violence, including sexual violence, objectification, and partner abuse. It is of vital importance that survivors of violence have the space to relate to their experiences, and to their own bodies, and to work through their own emotions. For trans people, who are far too used to being told how we should and should not relate to our bodies and our experiences, this space is even more crucial.