When we talk about sexual harassment, let’s not forget trans women
Trigger Warning: This essay discusses memories of sexual assault.
What do you think about when you see the #MeToo hashtag? For most women, it’s their own experiences with sexual harassment that come to mind. After all, most women have experienced it in some form. But the truth is, we all face invasive comments and actions in different ways. This is what it’s like for me as a trans woman.
I remember the first time I was groped. It was October 2016 in New York City. I was riding in a packed L train to a gay bar in Brooklyn when an older man in a baseball cap came up behind me and began feeling me up. First he grabbed my hips, then he worked his way down, groping my ass, saying “excuse me” each time as if he accidentally bumped his hands into my rear. He tried to feel me a third time and I moved away from him, stunned. By the next stop, he was gone, but the ride was ruined for me. I felt like my body was violated in a way I had never experienced before.
It’s not just the assault itself that made me feel so upset. After my assaulter groped me a second time, I wasn’t sure where his hands would land next on his third try. I immediately feared he would reach around my front, feeling between my thighs. If he did that, he would realize I was a non-op trans woman. And if he felt comfortable enough violating my body to feel me up, would he turn violent when he realized I wasn’t cisgender? Would other people in the train help me, or would they turn on me with disgust and let my assaulter do as he pleased?
These thoughts raced through my head as the train sliced through downtown Manhattan and dug into Williamsburg. And yet, despite all that anxiety and agony, another thought popped into my head.
This was the first time I had ever experienced sexual assault, in part because my sexual assaulter thought I was a cisgender woman.
It was, in some ways, the darkest proof that men found me desirable: I was considered attractive enough to be felt up by a stranger on the subway.
I’m not the first marginalized woman to talk about the relationship between sexual harassment and desire. Over at The Establishment, Kayla Whaley wrote about desirability politics for women with disabilities, and how alienation from society’s beauty standards made Whaley actually long to experience sexual harassment.
As she put it, sexual harassment is layered. Some women are more likely to be approached, flirted with, and harassed based on their physical appearance than others. And in a patriarchal society, marginalized women who are often desexualized for their bodies — such as disabled women and trans women — may look to men for a sign that our bodies are worthy or attractive.
While Whaley isn’t talking about trans bodies, her point resonates with me as a trans woman. In many ways, sexual harassment is experienced differently depending on a woman’s identity.
A transgender woman who is clocked or outed as trans may be seen as less desirable than a cisgender woman, and this can lead to sexual harassment rooted specifically in disgust or mockery based on her gender identity.
In other situations, especially in social settings where we pass, we’re sexually objectified as rare, beautiful unicorns. We’re told we’re hot, sexy, penetrative goddesses, or otherwise deserve to be fucked (or do the fucking). See the problem? We’re either deceitful whores, or we’re harassed for being beautiful women.
Trans women are constantly forced to navigate those two positions, often jumping from hypersexualization to desexualization in a moment. Journalist Shon Faye says this sexual harassment isn’t “better or worse” than what cis women experience, but rather, that “maybe [it’s] more extreme in its polarity.”
It’s a huge binary for trans women to navigate. And for most of us, because society tells us that we’re unattractive, it’s easy to cling onto those aggressive, hypersexual comments when we hear them. Finally, someone thinks we’re pretty, or beautiful, or sexy. Even if they’re doing it in a completely disgusting and dehumanizing way, at least someone can fill the void in our hearts that harps on our self-esteem. Someone can show us that we’re pretty.
So when a cisgender man parks his car next to me and asks me if I’m down to fuck, or a pervert grabs my ass and squeezes it on the subway, there’s so many complicated emotions that run through my head. On one hand, I feel scared, violated, and objectified. I feel like a piece of meat. I feel like I need to run away and hide myself, because a predatory man wants to use my body for his own pleasure without my consent.
But in some ways, once that immediate panic passes and my harasser is out of my sight, I feel pretty. I feel like someone touched me because they wanted me. Like someone is forcibly and viciously showing me that my body is desirable.
Obviously, this isn’t true.
Sexual harassment brainwashes vulnerable women like myself, and it makes us rely on our harassers for our self-esteem.
On a fundamental level, harassment is about power, just like sexual assault. And it’s not like transgender women receive put downs while cisgender women experience “affirming” catcalls. Many cis women have been sexually harassed by men in ways that purposefully target their self-esteem, and catcalls are not consensual to begin with.
But there’s a reason why sexual harassment becomes such an enormous binary in my head. Again, when society tells trans women that we’re disgusting, but a man on the street tells me I’m beautiful enough to fuck, he’s creating a power dynamic that latches on to my low self-esteem.
Cis women will never truly understand what it’s like to be alienated by society in such an extreme way. They don’t have to fight their whole lives just to have their gender identity accepted. They don’t have to deal with transphobic messages on the daily, poisoning their self-image. But for us, once we internalize that we aren’t desirable or worthy, those beliefs burrow into our souls, sending us into a spiral of depression, anxiety, and self-hatred that can end in our deaths by our own hands.
This is subsequently why many transgender women experience emotional abuse in romantic relationships. Because we’re marginalized by society, we’re easy prey.
Abusive men (and women) pick at our self-esteems and make us rely on them for everything in our lives, until we finally figure things out and try to escape.
So as the conversation on sexual harassment continues in the West, we need to remember that not all survivors have the same body types. Not all survivors have the same experiences. And not all sexual assault and harassment survivors have been abused the same way.
For transgender women, we deal with a cocktail of emotions that sit with us every day, including the ones that dictate how we feel about our bodies. At the very least, we need a society that’s ready to accept us, listen to us, and support us in the face of sexual harassment. Maybe it’s time to let us lead the fight when starting a national dialogue on sexual harassment, or else our voices will be drowned out yet again.