A late night on December 16th, 2020, my friend, Jade Careaga, was found unconscious in the middle of the road in Seattle. Jade is witty, charismatic, and wise beyond her years when it comes to personal safety, consent, and agency—attributes she has developed and refined as a trans woman of color involved in sex work. That night, she was planning to meet with a client to go on a date. The man knew she was trans, which was why he pursued her. After the man ran into her porch when parking, the date was called off. Instead of paying her for the damage, he attacked her. Like far too many news stories we read about trans women, Careaga’s evening included harassment, violence, and narrowly escaping a near-death experience. I’m incredibly grateful she lived and today advocates for other survivors of sexual violence.
This is an example of what I like to call the “desire to cruelty” pipeline. In a society where only about four in 10 Americans personally know someone who is transgender, most people are left with only depictions of us, with millions of those being pornographic. This is paired with a political system where our healthcare and our right to exist often gets weaponized for votes. As a result, trans people are too often limited to being seen as sex objects—rather than people worthy of dating, falling in love, marrying, or creating families.
It has been well documented that trans people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a violent crime. It’s even more important to point out that transphobia is frequently committed by an existing or prospective intimate partner. According to a 2020 report by the Human Rights Campaign, some of the most violent and lethal attacks on transgender people are perpetuated by men attracted to trans people. Trans individuals are 1.7 times more likely than cisgender people to experience any form of intimate partner violence. Since 2013, 29% of fatal violence against trans people was committed by an intimate partner.
While sobering, these statistics are not surprising. When people discuss transmisia—an updated term to describe prejudice against trans people—being ingrained in society, they typically focus on legislation, or our legal, healthcare, and court systems. But long before trans people were being used as a political talking point, images created by the media, films, and in particular, the adult entertainment industry were influencing what it means to intimately relate to women who are transgender.
At the end of 2022, Porn Hub, the second-highest trafficked sexual content website in the world, reported a 75% increase in searches for trans porn. Google Analytics also demonstrated that American users in the states with the most oppressive legal threats toward trans people exist were largely responsible for the rise in trans-related porn search terms like “tranny” and “shemale.” Mind you, these terms are derogatory and are considered by and large as slurs or pejoratives.
While watching porn can be an earnest exploration where individuals discover something important about their sexuality, it is often a way of expressing one’s desires toward transgender people in private. Sadly, for many consumers, secrecy combined with what is a broadly transphobic culture instills shame. Oftentimes, cisgender males are afraid that their interest in trans women calls their manhood and sexuality into question. In other words, they fear that being attracted to us “makes them gay” and to be gay, in their worldview, is to not be a “real” man.
Cruelty comes not only from shame but also from desire lost. In my personal life, ex-partners have sold and leaked my private photos without my consent to other men shortly after I broke up with them or when they feared the relationship ending. Cisgender and transgender alike, men I trusted and who I thought loved and respected me, chose to violate my privacy and my body for profit. Society teaches men that being with trans women is an attack on their masculinity. They feel loved, desired, nurtured, and cared for by us while simultaneously feeling emasculated, disempowered, and shameful by dating us. They “loved” us until they could no longer have us and then they abused us. While only 4% of the general population have been victims to revenge porn, 15% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals have been threatened by someone who was going to share intimate photos of them. The numbers are likely higher for transgender people.
Desire that is unrequited, covered in shame, or requited then lost can often lead to cruelty. For trans women like me, it is grounded in trans misogyny: the false pretenses that not only is masculinity superior to femininity, but that “male” and “female” are also mutually exclusive and fixed binary categories. While it’s no secret that the U.S.has a historic problem with oversexualizing the feminine body—whether that is pertaining to restrictive school dress codes, to controversies surrounding breastfeeding, to the public shaming of celebrities and athletes who embrace moments of joy and pride by baring their chests, to the demonization of feminist activists who have removed their tops and bras in protest—sexism has always been most amplified among those with intersecting marginalized identities.
As a result, the over-sexualization of trans women is that much harder to grapple with and undo—from sensationalized stories about our medical transitions to calling us “groomers” and “pedophiles” for advocating for laws that will keep trans kids alive, to policing our bodies. And while targeted right-wing and religious media campaigns are openly hostile and depict trans people as predators, even historically trustworthy outlets still obsess over our bodies and transitions and suggest that radical trans-eliminationists’ views are balanced, mainstream, and important to consider.
These actions stem from implicit teaching that someone who is perceived as different from the majority is “bad” or a “threat” and therefore, when sexualized, is considered a “fetish” or something to be kept secret. People are taught to see us as a philosophical construct—or worse, a political football. Politicians especially dehumanize us so they can more easily rationalize taking away our rights by signaling to their constituents that they are protecting them from a common enemy and therefore deserving of their vote. The national discourse on trans people suggests we are “mentally ill,” “monsters,” or people to pity. Simultaneously, we are seen as beautiful, “exotic,” and sexually desirable “deviants.” When combined, we are seen as “dangerous” to all—god, family, and country.
For years the desire-to-cruelty pipeline has been consistently evidenced to me especially on social media, as I’ve regularly had photos and videos weaponized by public figures and outlets. Paradoxically, people have shamed me for having a large chest and curves and celebrating my bodily experience of womanhood, while simultaneously alleged I’m a “man lying about being a woman.”
We must put an end to the over-sexualization trans women, and the ways to do so are plenty. First, while trans representation has come a long way, the world deserves more stories about trans people from trans people. This includes stories of trans people living normal lives, in loving relationships, doing both incredible and mundane activities—not the butt of a joke, background characters, villains, or just in coming-of-age and coming-out stories.
And until we live in a world where trans people no longer face higher rights of economic oppression in the forms of unemployment, underemployment, and being unhoused, trans people will continue to have to enter sex work as a means of survival. At least 20% of transgender Americans—including myself—have done sex work, and 72% of transgender sex workers have faced physical assaults and sexual violence. Reporting this violence often leads to the arrest of the sex worker and not of the perpetrator of the violence. Decriminalization is the first step to ensuring human rights are protected for sex workers, and ensuring a movement toward ethical trans pornography—made consensually, treats trans performers with respect, and pays trans performers and filmmakers fairly for their work—is key.
Not to mention, everyone, including young people, deserves access to age-appropriate, medically accurate, and comprehensive sexual health and safety education without being shamed or judged. This includes safe sex options and pregnancy prevention. Sex education has been proven to positively impact young people’s lives and decrease the rates of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors, sexually transmitted infections, and teen pregnancy.
Society must learn to relate to and treat trans women in healthy ways. Trans women deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, kindness, patience, and understanding. We all have a responsibility as individuals to unpack and unlearn what society has taught us about relationships, gender, and sexuality, because all of us—including myself—have internalized fear, mistrust, and the dehumanization of trans people. We are all on the journey to understand and ultimately unlearn this social conditioning. Because only together could we begin dismantling the desire-to-cruelty pipeline.