Representations of trans* people

Many of the debates about representations of women and men in media applies to trans* people just as it does to cisgender people (those who remain in the gender they were assigned at birth), given that the majority of trans* people are men or women and, as such, are subject to the same cultural pressures as anyone else. However, there are specific issues regarding how trans* people have been represented in media, and in pornography in particular, which are worth attending to separately. Generally speaking such representations are problematic in the way that they present trans* people, particularly women, in a sexual context, and often cast doubt over the gender of trans* people through ridicule or misrepresentation.

Trans* people are broadly those people who are not content to remain the gender they were assigned at birth, whether occasionally or permanently. Some trans* people opt to have physiological interventions to align their bodies more closely with their identity, and/or choose to live permanently in a gender role other than that assigned at birth. This group of people are sometimes referred to, when pertinent, as transsexual and generally do not have a sexual motivation for their transition. Another group of people, sometimes (and again when pertinent) referred to as people who engage with transvestitism or sexualized cross dressing, may have sexual motivations for wearing clothing or presenting in a way not normally associated with their birth assigned sex[211]. There are many other people who do not fulfil the societal role associated with their birth assigned sex, or who identify in some way outside of this, including genderqueer, neutrois, or non-binary people[212]. However, to date most representation of trans* people in mainstream media and in pornography have focused on the previous two groups.

There is a dearth of research literature specifically relating to the sexualization of trans* people, however it is clear that there is sexualization of trans* people by wider cultures and by people who don’t identify as trans* themselves, including cisgender people. This may include a focus on genitalia and trans* sex workers, as well as the sexual objectification of transitioning gender[213] . The sexualization of trans* people for their trans* status is evident within telephone sex line advertisements[214] as well as in online pornography. Some writers suggest that this sexualization is more biased towards trans* women than trans* men[215], which is perhaps reflective of the sexualization of women within wider society.

It is important for people working on trans* matters, whether they themselves are trans* or not, to recognize the diversity of trans* people and trans* practices and identities. While some people, trans* and cisgender, may sexualize being trans*, for many it is unrelated to sexuality, or is only tangentially related, in that sexuality is tangentially related to many aspects of identity and culture.

Outside of pornography, in particular, trans* people are disproportionately represented in mainstream media in a sexual context. This may involve the confusion of transgender identification with sexual fetishism, sexual orientation or predatory sexual behaviour. Many trans* people perceive such representations as increasing their vulnerability to sexual harassment and social stigma. Others find it harder to come to terms with being trans* due to a lack of visible, positive role models.

As a rule, trans* men are at risk of being depicted as sexual predators, especially in relation to young women, whilst trans* women and male crossdressers are represented as sexually deceptive or as sexually comic figures[216]. There is an assumption that trans* men are attracted to women and trans* women are attracted to men (when, of course, they have a range of sexualities like cisgender people). Trans* people across the spectrum are frequently linked with paedophilia or represented in a context that implies they represent a moral risk to children[217].

Media images of trans* women and male crossdressers frequently depict them in sexually suggestive poses[218] or clothing[219]. Language relating to these images falls into three categories. It may present them as glamorous and be broadly accepting (but often still othering in treating trans* peopleas exotically different to cisgender people’); it may present trans* people as tragically misguided (often involving ridicule); or it may present them as deceptive. Celebrities and ordinary women who are discussing their transition experiences with media outlets tend to fall into the former group. People who do not ‘pass’ well as female fall into the second group [220]; and people who pass very well, especially if they are also conventionally beautiful, fall into the third. Humour or outrage is often present in related language which excuses the presumed male reader for making the error of feeling sexually attracted to a ‘deceptive’ person.

Trans* people are routinely represented as having an obligation to declare their gender history before becoming involved in relationships or casual sexual encounters[221], especially if those encounters are with groups stereotyped as sexually vulnerable, such as women and young people, with the implication that they must be sexual predators if they fail to do so.

Trans* woman and male crossdressers are frequently associated with the sex industry. References to transness are also used to ‘spice up’ media items about sex workers[222] and to eroticize celebrities[223].

The representation of trans* women and male cross dressers as desirous of male sexual attention contributes to a wider depiction of trans* people generally as primarily motivated by a desire for attention, which in turn contributes to the idea that they are mentally ill. The association of trans* people and sex also serves to trivialize transness and contributes to the notion that it is a lifestyle choice.

As with all depictions of gender, the important thing is to represent the full range of trans* experience, rather than focusing on specific versions of trans*, and to avoid representations which ridicule, stigmatize, or present experiences in limiting ways.

Are media becoming pornified?

211. Barrett, J. (Ed.) (2007). Transsexual and other Disorders of Gender Identity. Oxford: Radcliffe.
212. Richards, C. Barker, M. (2013). Sexuality and Gender for Mental Health Professionals: A Practical Guide. London: Sage.
213. Serano, J. (2008). A Matter of Perspective: A Transsexual Woman-centric Critique of Dreger’s ‘Scholarly History’ of the Bailey Controversy. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 37, 491-494.
214. Richards, C. (forthcoming). On the line: Representations of trans* people within phone sex line advertisements.
215.Serano, J. (2007). Whipping Girl. Emeryville: Seal Press.

Are media becoming pornified?