Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

Image of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Seal Press
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Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a collection of essays by Julia Serano originally released in 2007. The book comes with a Preface largely written in 2015, and an Afterword for this third edition is dated 2023. Though the age-range of this material enables Serano to reflect on the evolution and regression in thinking about, and treatment of trans people, it inevitably results in some repetition and reversals which might disturb the very fastidious reader!

As Serano points out in her Preface, she brings to this task a number of important assets. Notably, her transition to being a trans woman gives her a clear advantage over all the cis people who do not hesitate to pontificate about transition. Serano devotes some detailed and insightful chapters to the handling and mishandling of transgender by the media, by the medical establishment (no sign of Freud?), by sociologists and academics, and feminists and gender activists of all persuasions.

An additional asset is her own position as a practicing biologist that has enabled her to question in detail both sides of the “Nature or Nurture” debate, moving beyond the often “unilateral focus” of many “expert” discussions (centred for example on only women, or only homosexuals), which tend to erase “marginalized” constituencies.

Serano contests the view that gender is merely “a social artefact or wholly a product of socialization” believing that “biological traits are both unfathomably complex and are influenced by our environment and experiences.” She could profitably have dedicated more space to her interrogation of the Nature/Nurture debate though as she notes this is a discussion that has received more attention since the first edition of Whipping Girl in 2007.

The current transgender movement arose out of more recent and intentionally pluralistic movements that contested binaries and rigid identities. As Serano shows (in the Afterword) this movement has still a way to go and may indeed in some aspects and in some locations have regressed.

She also acknowledges that in her own analysis she has focussed largely on the special situation of Male-To-Female (MTF) individuals and has not given much space to Female-To-Male (FTM) transition, nor to individuals identified as bi or intersex. She is also aware that she has insufficiently considered other “intersectional” factors such as race, class, ableism etc. which have a large role to play in constructing thinking on gender roles and behavior across the board. The shortcomings she perceives are perhaps an inevitable consequence of her highly personal focus, which is less concerned with broader causality and more about the individual transition experience.

An innovative element of her discussion, reflected in the subtitle of the book, is the examination of the negative discrimination visited on trans women, in comparison with the treatment of and attitude toward trans men. She has labeled this sentiment “transmisogyny” which she sees as the result of “oppositional sexism” (the delegitimization of gender non-conformity), and “traditional sexism” that delegitimizes femaleness and femininity.

An important focus of her essays is to combat the idea that femaleness and femininity are weak and passive qualities as is usually assumed, including by those feminists who see that there are no “essential” differences between the sexes, and that women have rather been socialized out of the sterling qualities so much praised in men! She points out that most societies punish femininity in boys, more than masculinity in girls. To people of this mindset the MTF transition is more disturbing and subversive than FTM transition; who after all would choose to become part of the inferior group? Serano shows that this has led to trans women’s being routinely accused of “deception” and of “hyper-sexualization” with a view to attracting male desire.

As befits her very original viewpoint Serano introduces several new items of terminology (much of it binary), and it would have been useful to have a Glossary of Terms in addition to the excellent chapter notes. Serano introduces the word effemimania to describe the obsession of experts and gatekeepers with male femininity, which has led to the creation of “additional labels and subcategories for MTF spectrum trans people” which are rarely applied to FTM spectrum individuals.

As part of the same review of negative attitudes toward transwomen she discusses the term autogynephilia, coined in the 1980s, to describe men who are attracted to women, and transition because they are turned on by the thought of having a woman’s body. Despite there being little hard evidence for this condition it can be found in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

In summary, Serano feels that transwomen incur more disapproval and resistance than transmen because femininity (not defined until page 320) is not valued by men unwilling to embrace their feminine side, nor by feminists who deride “femininity” as a weak and passive quality to be given up or overcome. She convincingly argues that this is a major barrier to overall gender equality believing from her own transition experience of receiving hormone treatment that many so-called feminine traits can be biological or social in origin and can be expressed by male or female identified persons.

Serano skewers neatly (and several times) the controversial Michigan Womyns Music Festival for their “womyn-born-womyn-only policy which bars transwomen but includes transmen on the grounds that the latter were born and raised as girls and women. The very common criticism of trans women as threatening cis women’s safety in women-only spaces like bathrooms, which as she points out has rarely been documented, is mentioned in passing in this context.

The most interesting and enlightening passages relate directly to her own experience in transitioning from being “a straight man to a lesbian woman.” (In the Preface she states that she is now bisexual). In discussing what motivated her transition she cites the feeling of “subconscious sex,” of being female, which emerged very gradually. She distinguishes this feeling from the more usual trope of being “a woman living in a man’s body” though it may not be so very clear to some readers (and reviewers) that the distinction is so distinct. Her aim through transition was to align her physical with her subconscious sex. “I realized that for me transness had little to do with sexual desire or social gender; it was primarily about the physical experience of being in my own body.”  

Historically, and in many contemporary societies, trans and other non-binary sexualities create no major stir and are part of the normal gender picture. Serano sees research into such societies as bolstering the argument for gender being primarily about socialization, an argument she rejects. She could have argued that in some more open cultures where gender is not seen as a major course of division and hierarchy, feelings of “subconscious sex” can be expressed openly and without fanfare, though such expression is usually affected by class and other considerations also.

Whipping Girl is extremely well written, full of original insights, and argued with wit and passion. Nevertheless, one could question the strategy of reissuing with very minor tweaking, a publication from 2007, which obliges the author to indicate rather frequently that terminology or ideas therein have already been superseded in her own more recent writings, as well as those of others.

It is very much to be hoped that reception of this new edition will amply demonstrate that it retains all of its original luster and appeal.