Debunking “Biological Sex”

So this is probably an unpopular opinion but I think the term “biological sex” is meaningless, as is the distinction between sex and gender. While I continue to hear trans people use it and share it in various forms such as the problematic genderbread person, it is primarily used by cisgender people as a way of convincing themselves that the binary does exist in some form even if they support diverse gender identities. But as a biologist (by training) and a real life trans person™, I am here to tell you that it is just as much of a shared illusion as binary gender.

Hopefully by now you are aware of the existence of intersex people. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Without going into excruciating detail because you should hear it from intersex people themselves , both chromosomal sex and reproductive organ configuration exist in more than two options. There are 6 different ways that chromosomes can combine (X, XX, XXY, XY, XYY, and XXXY) that create various different kinds of humans and most people never have their chromosomes tested so using this as the basis for your gender is ridiculous. And various other changes in development mean that regardless of genetics, genital variation is nearly infinite.

But even putting intersex people aside for a moment, let’s talk about how useless the term biological sex is when you are dealing with reality. Many trans people such as myself have known from an early age that our brains are different. Long before I ever knew the term transgender or nonbinary, I thought that I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have a boys brain. And more and more evidence suggests that the brain can develop in utero in ways that more closely match the gender identity that child eventually expresses than the gender they are assumed to be based on external signs (although even that research is hopelessly binary). Though huge disclaimer here because there is no one way to be trans. Not everyone knew they were different from birth and not all trans people experience things like dysphoria.

Ok, so say you put aside natural variation in genitals AND you ignore differences in brains. Well I hate to break it to you folks, but the differences continue to be useless. Trans people do not all experience socialization the same way or come out at the same age so there is no point at which you can make a valid argument that we are somehow “essentially male” or some such bullshit. And there are MANY different kinds of gender confirmation surgeries that make trans bodies infinitely variable and often indistinguishable from their gender.

So what’s the point of this? It means that you should stop using terms like “female bodied” or lumping people together based on binary genital arrangements. And you should stop saying things like “all women are” and reducing your research to binary sex results. Yes, statistically there are vast swatches of people who never have cause to question their gender or assumed sex. And you could do your research based on those people and ignore the tails of those statistical curves. But you are missing out on some of the most amazing parts of human experience when you do so. I am here to tell you that the conversations that happen among trans and nonbinary people behind closed doors that cis people rarely get to experience would blow your mind! And because of constructs like “biological sex”, many of these people intentionally avoid revealing that complexity to cis people and often rule out dating or interacting with you altogether.

So if you want to benefit from what we could bring to the conversation, think deeply about how you can be more inclusive and the assumptions you make on a daily basis. We are here and we are so much more queer than you could possibly imagine.

Getting creative with sex

Content warning: Description of sex and genitalia

This is a first for me. I don’t usually write so publicly about the actual details of how I have sex. But I had a moment I am really proud of this weekend that I thought other people mind find helpful.

So here goes.

Are you ready?

Lately I have been having difficulty having sex that involves my penis. Partly it is dysphoria but mostly with the estrogen and the low libido it is causing I am just having a difficult time getting and staying hard. I’ve used generic viagra for awhile now for ED because I had so many issues around sex anxiety that I was working through because of how my ex messed me up. But before I started E I was using less and less. Now I need to take any time I want to use that part of my body.

But this weekend I had a date with my spouse and I was feeling more sexy than usually and decided to take the viagra. Predictably as we were getting ready to have PIV intercourse my dysphoria kicked in which usually would have put a quick end to it. As I touched myself to put lube on, it literally felt like my penis wasn’t my own and wasn’t part of my body. But this time I found a way to work with that feeling.

Without even thinking too hard about it my brain decided to make that a part of the sex. I conceptualized my penis as the best strap-on dildo ever. It was both attached to me and not part of me at the same time in a really hot way instead of a disturbing one. I could feel what was happening but it felt like I was feeling that through something else instead of directly. The part that I’m most proud of is that I was able to make that switch so smoothly that it didn’t interrupt the flow and we had great sex and I told my partner about how I had done it afterwards.

I’m not sure if I can always do that but hopefully the memory and success of that moment is transferable. How do you find ways to use your body through dysphoria?

Libido changes – HRT week 6

Content Warning: Discussion of sex ahead

I’m now past the 6 week mark of starting estrogen and the changes are coming quite quickly now. My breasts are continuing to grow noticeably every week and my nipples are at least 50% larger and much more prominent. Whereas before my nipples used to lay flat about half the time, now they are pretty much always erect which means I have to cover them when I go out. Yesterday I almost had a very embarrassing moment where I arrived a professional conference I was helping host only to realize I had forgotten my nipple covers. Luckily I always keep band aids in my bag so I had to go and strap them down.

Some of the other changes have been less pleasant. Last week I was extremely moody, irritable, and depressed. There were times I wanted to strangle people who annoyed me and moments where I wished I could not exist (not the same as suicidal but close). Luckily I have an amazing chosen family who talked me down during my emotional breakdown where I felt like life wasn’t worth living if I couldn’t make a difference in the fight against greed and evil. Right now I’m taking a break from the news and some of my social justice communities until I can better handle the demoralizing parts.

This week has been more stable in terms of mood but I am really becoming aware of just how much my libido has changed. I was never a “think about sex all the time” kind of person. But I did have an active sex drive and sex life. Now I’ve realized that I haven’t masturbated in weeks and don’t even really miss it. And I haven’t been able to have sex without viagra in a very long time either.

What I’m not sure of is if this is truly a drop in libido or just me not being used to how that looks different. I am still very interested in other people’s bodies but I have almost no interest or even enjoyment in using my own. And whereas before I use to have more bisexual interests, I am definitely becoming more and more focused on just queer women and nonbinary femmes. Some of this started before estrogen but has continued to be more pronounced.

So the short version is that I’m not sure what sex looks like right now or how to relate to it. I am extremely lucky to have people in my life who don’t have expectations of exactly what that looks like either and the benefit of being polyamorous is that nobody is relying solely on me to have their sexual needs met. Having that pressure taken off is a huge relief while I am in this phase where I am essentially becoming a demisexual or gray ace.

Right now it is mostly confusing for me as I try to navigate this new feeling (or rather lack of feeling) and it is a lot less frustrating than I expected. But I know I will be sad if my libido doesn’t come back so I’m hoping this isn’t permanent or that my relationship to sex improves as I adjust.

A cautionary tale

I’ve spent most of my life making decisions because I wanted to please others, make life easier for other people, or be likable. It’s been a consistent theme for me that has shaped so much of who I am, including why I am an administrative assistant today. My job is all about making someone else’s job easier. In the nonprofit world, that can be a good thing because I’m working for worthy causes and helping others use their talents. But in most areas of my life, it isn’t serving me well and ultimately it really isn’t helping other people in the way that I think it is.

I spent my childhood trying to live up to the standards of a fundamentalist form of Christianity.  It had very gendered expectations about my role as someone who was supposed to grow up to be the patriarch, decision maker, sole bread winner, and father. I tried so hard to live up to those images and in my various attempts I fell prey to some aspects of toxic masculinity. By the time I was 18, I was a poster child of obedience and conformity. I went off to college able to debate with the best of them on the apologetics of Calvinism and prepared with a stack of books about creation “science” to argue with my “liberal” Christian professors.

But I came to the realization at 18 that even within my closed circle of Evangelical friends, I was a real asshole and unpleasant to be around. In attempting to please my church and my parents, I had turned into a judgmental person stuck in black-and-white thinking. Because I wanted everyone else to like me, I resolved to change… or at least to be less vocal about my judgments and take more time to listen.

Luckily for me, my choice of an Evangelical liberal arts university gave me the opportunity to grow and change in a non-threatening environment. Within 2 years I had transformed into a liberal pacifist and thrown my conservative history behind me. But I hadn’t stopped trying to please other people. When my best friend expressed romantic interest in me, I ignored the warning flags about her personality and dove head first into an all-consuming relationship which found me married before my junior year at only 21.

I spent the next 7 years doing everything within my power to please her, bending over backwards and almost completely losing myself in the process. She was controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, and emotionally abusive. She used my self-abasing tendencies to her benefit and had me convinced that her opinions were right on everything. My feelings were unimportant. Under the guise of wanting me to “fulfill my true potential,” she molded me into the type of person that gave her the status of a successful married professional that she wanted to be in her life.

We had the beginnings of a sexual relationship when we first started dating but that all but ended once we got officially engaged. We didn’t have intercourse until 5 years into the marriage and she used that as a dangling carrot, always something in the future to be working towards if I did the things she wanted. The only reason we ever even tried it (very unsatisfactorily) was because she knew she was losing me. As a sexual person I was deeply unfulfilled in our relationship but whenever I would voice that it would become all about her.

Slowly she trained me to basically be her servant, fetching anything she wanted and meeting her every need. She demanded massages which began as an exchange but eventually became something I would just do for her. Even when I was working 10 hour days she would still expect me to come home and do all the cooking and household chores. I passed this off as a positive thing because we didn’t have gendered roles in our relationship, but really it was just abusive.

When I would try to talk about my needs and desires they were pushed aside in favor of her needs. If I used emotional content in a conversation my feelings were dismissed because she only believed in logic (until her repressed feelings would inconveniently bubble to the surface in which case I had to sooth her). I was always set up to fail when we argued because she had training as a debater. In public I was the dutiful husband and we were the “power couple” at our church, but in actuality, I had no power.

Despite all that, I didn’t talk about my problems to anyone else because I didn’t want to burden anyone. In my attempts to make others’ lives easier, I allowed mine to become a living hell of consuming depression. I would pathologically avoid being alone with my feelings because they would lead to very dark places. There were times I think that the only thing that kept me alive was that I didn’t want to die a “virgin.”

I tried so hard to volunteer and do good things during that time but I was unable to really be effective because I hadn’t taken care of myself first. And because daily life took so much work, I put my own self-discovery on the back burner. All my gender feels turned into a festering anxiety in the background.

After 5 years of a very unhappy marriage and couples therapy, it was so clear that things weren’t working that we were having serious conversations about divorce. But I was still so stuck in the model of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, including not disappointing my parents who didn’t approve of divorce, that I agreed to stay. I did finally prioritize one thing though. It was important to me that I have a sexually fulfilling life which was never going to happen with my wife. She wanted any outside relationships to be a sex only arrangement but that’s not what fulfills me. So we compromised and I was “allowed” to pursue polyamorous relationships under some very strict rules and in secrecy.

Through reading resources on polyamory that focused on the importance of knowing your boundaries and finally seeing models for healthy relationships, I slowly began to come into my own and prioritize myself little by little. This resulted in a backlash at home as my wife could see her perfect arrangement slipping away.  But I was able to see the world outside the bubble I’d been isolated in for the first time and find people more like myself who were comfortable in their gender and sexuality.

When I finally came out as genderqueer and pansexual, she wanted me to keep it secret from all but a few confidants because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about my gender or her feelings about my sexuality. That was what finally started to break down my mental block around divorce and got me thinking about what it might look like to truly love my life and myself. Still, I was so afraid of being unloveable that I stayed in a marriage where love was conditional on my continued silence and suppression of my identity.

Polyamory isn’t easy, especially when you are starting out and have a lot of restrictions placed on you. My wife would yell at me if I was 3 minutes late coming home from a date and she wanted me to tell her everything that was wrong with the people I was dating and why she was better than them. But after a lot of dating attempts that never made it past the third date, I began dating a wonderful woman who encouraged me to voice my needs and set boundaries. It started out as a casual relationship with no expectations but within a couple months it was clear that I was in love.

That brought things to a breaking point in my marriage. I was starting to be happy and learning to say no to unreasonable requests and my wife couldn’t stand that. After 4 months in that relationship she changed tactics and was suddenly interested in sex. But it came with strings attached. She wanted me to choose between her (and a straight monogamous life) and polyamory.

Luckily by that point I had done enough self-work that I was able to connect with my feelings and consider what I actually wanted. My therapist asked me to focus on the sensations in my body as I imagined my future in both scenarios and immerse myself fully in the feelings of both options. It took an agonizing few weeks as I wrestled with that decision, getting pressure from my wife the whole time. I will forever be grateful to my girlfriend who stuck with me in a fairly new relationship through that uncertainty and allowed me to make that choice for myself.

In the end it was clear what I needed to do. As uncertain as my future was if I left, I knew that I would be forever unhappy if I continued to give so much of myself up to be in that marriage. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best decision I ever made. I moved in with my girlfriend, temporarily at first, but I took steps to make sure that I didn’t fall into old patterns of pleasing others at my own expense. 18 months later it still takes a lot of work to undo those old patterns, but with the memory of those experiences still fresh in my head, I keep at it.

My life now is radically different, not just because of my lifestyle, but because of how I am treated by my partners and how I treat myself. No longer do I accept relationships where there is an unsustainable imbalance of emotional energy or physical labor. All three of my long term romantic relationships require investment, commitment, and a good deal of energy. But because I know what my limits are, where my boundaries are, and how to say no, I have the ability to do far more for others than I ever was before. That means seeking out relationships with people who also value consent and prioritize their own self awareness. It also helps that none of us rely solely on one person to meet all of our needs. We each have other relationships, both romantic and platonic, that support our emotional and physical needs. We have all structured our lives together in supportive community where vulnerability is valued and intimacy is not feared.

Now my life is my own. No one owns me no matter what happens, no one can tell me what I feel or who I am. And that is why it is so important to me that my gender isn’t about who I’m in relationship with (and how they define their sexuality). I won’t let it be simplified or hidden to make things easier for other people to understand or be more comfortable with. My gender is complicated and it can feel like it makes things “difficult” for others (and for me) but not living as my fullest self causes far more harm to myself and ultimately to my ability to actually help others. The airline announcements are true – you do need to put on your own oxygen before helping the person next to you.