Activists Step On It On the "Cotton Ceiling"
What happens when a misogynistic argument is allowed to fester
The BBC last week ran a story on the “cotton ceiling”, which is the issue of whether there’s something wrong with cisgendered lesbians who don’t want to sleep with trans women. The BBC found a number of lesbians who were being pressured to sleep with trans women when they weren’t attracted to them. I suspect the first reaction of just about 98% of the public that saw this story was “what are you talking about? Of course a lesbian doesn’t have to sleep with someone who was assigned male at birth!” Actually, I cleaned that up a bit— the actual response was probably more colloquial and perhaps even vulgar than that.
But, of course, the BBC is hearing from the 2%. Just as a small number of Netflix employees who dislike the platform’s deal with Dave Chappelle got massive media coverage, campaigns have been organized to protest the BBC’s story. It’s bad for trans people, the campaigns say, because it makes it sound like all trans women are sexual predators. Of course, it is terrible to paint all trans women that way, and isn’t true. The BBC story doesn’t do that, but I understand the concern— it’s the concern any group would have to a trend story that paints members of their community in a negative light.
Here’s the thing, though. I would have a lot more sympathy for the argument that the media shouldn’t do stories about trans women pressuring lesbians for sex if… very prominent trans activists haven’t been putting out the idea that there’s something wrong with lesbians who don’t want to have sex with them. The pioneering trans athlete-activist and champion cyclist Veronica Ivy (also known as Rachel McKinnon), for instance, tweeted out to her over 11,000 followers that “genital preferences are transphobic”. What’s a “genital preference”? It’s when a lesbian wants to have sex with a person with a vagina rather than a penis. It’s what we used to call “lesbianism” or, in the broader sense, “sexual orientation”.
The BBC article quoted a spokesperson for Stonewall, the pro-trans rights organization in Britain, issuing a rote condemnation of people pressuring others to have sex with them, but then stated “But if you find that when dating, you are writing off entire groups of people, like people of colour, fat people, disabled people or trans people, then it's worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions.” The comparison to racial preferences in dating seems to be especially common among activists defending this argument. The argument is based on the notion that a flat refusal to have sex with trans women is “reductive”.
I have to say, when I first started seeing these arguments a few years ago, I felt I’d heard them before. Straight, cis guys make these arguments all the time- how the preferences for hot, chiseled jocks are reductive, how women will be happier if they get to know guys who are less attractive but might be “nicer”, etc. The feminist Amanda Marcotte called this the “Nice Guy” argument. “You should sleep with me because I’m nice not like those guys you are attracted to who are dangerous for you.” This sort of thing also shows up in incel rhetoric. It also shows up in the rhetoric of the Christian conservatives advocating for “gay conversion therapy”: you’d be happier if you taught yourself to like someone of the opposite sex!
And they are bad arguments! Let’s start at the beginning. Sex is an intimate, sometimes dangerous act. We live in a rape culture, and rape is a gigantic social problem that is common enough that women enter the dating, relationship, and sexual world with that constant potential fear in the background. Feminists— and I would say most of America agrees with this part of feminism (even if there are disagreements around the edges over what constitutes “consent”)— have responded by centering sexual consent in the discourse. “Women should not be forced to do things sexually that they don’t want to do” is a statement that probably at least 80% of America, maybe a lot more, agrees with. On this issue, Christian conservatives who want their daughters to resist pressure from boys and keep their virginity agree with radical campus feminists who think that men shouldn’t be able to coerce women into getting what they want. And almost everyone between the extremes agrees as well.
And sexual orientation, as well as what you are attracted to, are things a person generally can’t control. You are pretty much born into your sexual orientation, even if there are some fuzzy areas on the continuum and people who are able to move back and forth on it. And once you start dating and entering into relationships, your personal aesthetics and what you consider attractive come into play. You can’t control what turns you on and what doesn’t.
So it’s really important that we respect people’s choices about who they do and do not want to sleep with. Forcing people to sleep with folks they aren’t attracted to is part of rape culture. And feminists have, I think correctly, reacted with horror when groups of people, whether it is Amanda Marcotte’s Nice Guys or the incel movement, have tried to persuade women that they are doing it all wrong and that they should be sleeping with different people. Moreover, I think most of the country has been persuaded by feminism that this is, in fact, something that people should respect.
The trans discourse around the cotton ceiling seeks to roll back this rather important feminist accomplishment. They are asking people instead to interrogate their sexual attractions, just like the incels, the Nice Guys, and the conversion therapists want you to do. They are hoping that if people look deep in their hearts, they will realize that it was an irrational prejudice all along, and then maybe they will start sleeping with people they haven’t been attracted to.
And this is insane! Look: there probably are some genuinely nice people who can’t find a mate because of their appearance. This happens! And there are ways to deal with that (mostly through a more liberal and humane approach towards sex work). But note: the Nice Guys and the incels are not genuinely nice people: they are misogynists! And most nice people are able to find dates and, once they go on dates, tend to get a decent percentage of second dates, because they are nice! So we are not talking about a large number of people left behind.
But telling women that they have to examine their prejudices with an aim that they start sleeping with people they aren’t attracted to and won’t enjoy sleeping with is misogyny. It’s telling women that they have to subordinate their own desires to the supposed needs of other people and of society. It’s classic sexism, and of a piece with the centuries of patriarchal regulation of women’s sexual agency and freedom.
But, what about race? What about it? A lot of people like to sleep with others within their own race. Would you tell a Black woman who only dates Black guys that she is missing out and needs to broaden her horizons and date white guys? Would you tell a woman whose ancestry is in a very patriarchal, macho society, that she shouldn’t only date outside her group where she has repeatedly found that the guys who have her same ancestry have been patriarchal and domineering? What about a rape victim who fears having sex with someone from the same group as the guy who raped her? Would you tell her to take one for the team?
Obviously, there are more fraught cases, such as, say, white girls who fetishize Black men. But even there— and this is where I think the trans activists really misfired— there’s a big difference between academically examining the fetish and trying to enforce a rule on the level of personal behavior or persuading people to have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with. In other words, long academic papers can be (and I’m sure have been) written on the origins of the fetishizing of Black male sexuality. But that’s different from saying to an individual woman who finds sex with Black men more enjoyable “you should start having sex with people who don’t turn you on because your behavior reenacts a troublesome historical archetype”.
And there’s one more misogynistic aspect of this: it’s really targeted at women. You won’t find any trend stories about trans men coercing gay men to sleep with them and arguing that gay men who want to sleep with other cis gay men are transphobic. You won’t find any trend stories about androphilic trans women (i.e, trans women who are attracted to men) coercing straight men to sleep with them and arguing that those who don’t are transphobic. The people who are deploying these arguments are deploying them regarding pre-op trans women who want to sleep with lesbians. Nobody expects men to sleep with people they don’t want to. Indeed, in some instances, that’s very hard to do (because men have to get erections to perform). Women are expected to perform this public service. Cis women. Cis lesbians- a historically oppressed group. A group that heterosexual men have been trying to convince, cajole, or coerce into sleeping with them for generations. In many ways this is the oldest story.1
The point is, within a certain corner of the discourse, it became a thing for some gynephilic trans women to start calling themselves lesbians2, use the “trans women are women” principle (which I totally agree with- they are women!) to argue that they were just like other lesbians, to seek entry into lesbian spaces such as dating apps, and to argue that the cis lesbians who weren’t into them had a “genital preference”. How many gynephilic trans women did this? It doesn’t have to be that many, because the next thing that happened is that the discourse community of trans activists, rather than recognizing this as the misogyny that it was, defended them, saying basically what the Stonewall representative said: “sure, not wanting to sleep with a trans woman is like not wanting to sleep with a Black person, and people should examine their prejudices and change their minds about who they sleep with”. So we end up with a world where enough young cis lesbians are running into trans women with this attitude that it becomes a trend story in the BBC that makes the trans community look bad.
This IS unfair to trans people. The vast majority of trans people are not involved in any of this. It’s terrible when an oppressed majority group faces a blanket accusation that they are a bunch of sexual predators. But it was also inevitable that some journalistic outlet was going to pick up on this, because trans activists were making the arguments that provided the justifications for this behavior and the misogyny behind it.
The lesson here is to remember to clean up your own house and distance yourself from bad arguments. When you hear people on your side or who you sympathize with making misogynistic arguments, you have to get in front of it and denounce them. And you need to do it in clear, certain terms, not with the Stonewall spokesperson’s caveat that in fact the arguments are right even though coercion is bad.
A few years ago, a Republican congressman, the late Todd Akin, repeated a canard about rape that he had probably heard numerous times in his milieu within the religious right. It sunk his political career, because he didn’t recognize that in the outside world, that sort of open misogyny wouldn’t fly. Stuff like the “cotton ceiling” could sink the trans activist movement. There’s too much at stake to blow it defending the seduction tactics of a few very bad people.
One thing to understand about the “cotton ceiling” argument is in addition to targeting women, it represents classic male behavior and male sexual entitlement. In this way, it ties in with the findings of sex researchers on what causes people to transition to become trans women. Androphilic trans women (i.e., those who are sexually attracted to guys) develop gender dysphoria early in their childhoods, whereas gynephilic trans women develop it around adolescence. Among other things, this means that gynephilic trans women spend a longer time being socialized as and living as boys, and receiving the same messages on male sexual entitlement that the rest of the male population does.
Since there’s no theory or reason why acquired feelings of sexual entitlement would suddenly disappear upon transition, it should not surprise anyone that there are some gynephilic trans women who are using the same pressure tactics that some cis men use to get cis women to have sex with them.
People should get wide latitude in what they call themselves. But it seems to me that there’s a big difference between acknowledging trans people’s gender identity and not misgendering them, on the one hand, and saying that gynephilic trans women are “lesbians”. “Lesbian” is both a specific sexual orientation (a human female who is attracted to other human females) and a historically oppressed social group. Trans women, of course, are also a historically oppressed social group, but they are a different one. And their sexual orientation is completely different than a cis lesbian’s: for one thing, about 5% of cis women are lesbians, whereas half or more of American trans women are gynephilic. This makes no sense if lesbians’ gynephilia and trans women’s gynephilia were the same orientation. And the adoption of the label “lesbian” to describe gynephilic trans women may have had some causal role in the line of thinking that led to the “cotton ceiling” argument.