Critiquing the term “cissexual” in Serano’s The Whipping Girl

Posted: August 20, 2009 in Troll Wars

I critique the foundations of the term “cissexual” in the book The Whipping Girl. I critique Julia Serano’s binary interpretation of Brain Sex, and discuss how her terms “unconscious sex” and “cissexual” attempt to create a reified transsexual/cissexual ontology.

keywords: juliaserano, thewhippinggirl, subconscioussex, brainsex, malefemininity, femalemasculinity, cissexual, transsexual, transgender, thirdgender, fourthgender, mtf, ftm

  1. Rachel_in_WY says:

    Hmmm… a bunch of issues here.

    I think there’s a lot of delicate language issues surrounding this topic that need to be handled with care in order to be inclusive and compassionate. First, on the topic of trans women having “been boys” before they transitioned… I think it makes a huge difference to say they lived as boys/men as compared to they were boys/men. The obvious point to which you refer is that they were (through no choice of their own) living in the world as boys/men. But the equally obvious point to them is that they were never really boys/men. And to suggest that they were, deep down, essentially, boys or men is to depict their transition as a choice they had that could have been different – as if they could have merely chosen to be male and take on a masculine role, but chose not to. And the point is that it’s much more profound than that, and saying they “were” boys or men trivializes and misrepresents their lived experience.

    Also, although this is certainly contentious, I’ve never expereienced the whole “cissexual” thing to be matter of hierarchy or authenticity. I do think it’s helpful to have the words to parse out some important distinctions and be able to articulate and conceptualize your experience, though. For instance, I’m cissexual but not cisgendered. I’ve never had an issue with my (very female) body. But I never for one day felt like a woman, wanted to be a woman, behaved in a feminine way, embraced the feminine scripts, etc. But I don’t want to be a man either, so I’m comfortably genderqueer. But that’s my gender identity as opposed to my relationship with my body, and my sexual identity. And being able to separate these two is very helpful. Many people who reject the gender to which they’re assigned don’t feel the same way about the sex to which they were assigned, and vice versa. And being cissexual is no different from being white or able-bodied. It’s a fact about you that you can’t control that carries privilege in our culture.

    As a side note, when they can do these experiments that show girls choosing “girl” toys and boys preferring “boy” toys in a cultural vacuum, then I’ll find this research compelling. And the fact that what counts as a “girl” toy and a “boy” toy changes radically from one cutlural context to another is a huge issue in this kind of research.

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  3. Rebecca says:

    I’d have to agree with Rachel. I realize that, by using cis and trans, it’s possible to lose sight of cissexual/transsexual and cisgender/transgender as distinct concepts but (ideally) they should be viewed as distinct. Thus, as Rachel mentions, it’s possible to be cissexual but not cisgendered.

    As for Serano’s chapter “Intrinsic Inclinations,” I guess I read it differently than you did. I agree, she’s saying that everyone has some gender inclinations which are “intrinsic to our person.” But I don’t remember her defining “gender” as a strict binary. That is, I read that chapter to mean that there is some intrinsic “subconscious sex” component to every person which falls somewhere along the spectrum of male to female.

    As such, it completely makes sense for some people to have a subconscious sex which falls somewhere in genderqueer or gender neutral territory, but it doesn’t make sense (within the framework Serano sets up) for someone to simply not have any subconscious concept of their own sex, as I think you’re arguing.

    (All that said, I also disliked her lumping of “gender expression” into the rest of her first tenant on page 99. While I do think there’s some component of expression which can be biologically based, I agree with Rachel’s desire to see a study on gendered behavior conducted within a cultural vacuum.)

  4. Jasper Gregory says:

    I have produced a followup piece on Using Cissexual Ethically

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