This study examined the narratives of a sample of heterosexual men who had an occasional sexual encounter with a transgender woman to better understand how erotic desire was constructed. Open-ended qualitative interviews were conducted with 16 heterosexual men who reported at least one sexual encounter with a transgender woman in the previous 12 months.
Using the principles of Grounded Theory, three themes emerged: These themes reflected how the participants defined and negotiated their sexual encounters, both psychologically through their understanding of sex with a transgender woman with a penis, and physically through the navigation of specific sex acts.
These narratives provided another framework for the continuing discourse on the complexity of erotic desire. Men who have sex with trans women have received limited attention in sexuality research Bockting, Miner, and Rosser While some early studies viewed these men simply as anonymous partners engaged in impersonal sexual transactions Pettiway other studies pathologised their behaviour. Both studies identified the desired sexual partner as cross-dresser, transvestite, transsexual, or she-male.
Both lacked a specific understanding of a transgender identity and both viewed the object of sexual desire as paraphilia. More recently, three studies have sought to understand the ways in which men describe their desire for, attraction to, and sexual experiences with trans women. Weinberg and Williams interviewed men sexually interested in trans women at a bar about their desire for and experiences with trans women. The men found the atmosphere in the bar — in which they received flattery, flirtatious comments, and physical contact — to be highly erotic.
In another study, researchers explored perceptions of identity and meanings of sexual behaviour among men who have sex with trans women Operario et al. Three general patterns of erotic attraction were observed: Three distinct themes of desire emerged: Yet, while most agree that sexual desire plays a central role in sexual practices, few agree or attempt to define just what sexual and erotic desire is and how it influences sexual preferences and behaviours.
Debate about the nature of human sexual desire has been ongoing Tolman and Diamond Some have suggested that sexual pleasure McGeeney be given increased focus in determining drive and desire. They have tended to focus on the prevalence and frequency of sexual thoughts and behaviours, instead of exploring meaning and subjective quality of sexual desire, and its variations across sociocultural and interpersonal contexts.
Social constructionist approaches suggest that differences in sexual and erotic desire are the products of cultural socialisation that dictate constructions of sexually appropriate feelings, preferences and behaviours Foucault ; Tolman and Diamond Moreover, because desire is linked to previous instances of satisfaction, a constructionist approach suggests that desire is not a relationship to a real object but instead is a relationship to fantasy Weeks These directives are tied to gender, age, social class and ethnicity, and underlie sexual communication, partner selection, gendered power negotiations, decision making, and risk taking Duby, Hartmann, Mongomery ; Dworkin, Beckford, and Ehrhardt ; Whittier and Melendez Sexual scripts provide a framework for analysing sexual behaviour and interactions; in mainstream culture, practices are performed within a limited repertoire of scripts.
This leaves aspects of sexuality that are considered sexually abnormal and unnatural Iantaffi and Bockting ; Rubin To date, much remains to be explored about the male sexual spectrum of desire, erotic attraction to, and fantasies involving trans women. No prior study has specifically addressed sexual and erotic desire among heterosexual men who only occasionally engage in a sexual encounter with a trans woman, and excluded those men who engage in frequent or ongoing sexual encounters or develop a romantic or emotional relationship with a trans woman.
Through in-depth qualitative interviews, this study sought to understand the meaning and construction of erotic desire among a sample of heterosexual men who occasionally have sex with trans women. Fifteen of the participants reported an occasional sexual encounter exclusively with another man and these participants were excluded from this analysis, leaving a sub-group of 16 participants who engaged in an occasional sexual encounter with a trans woman.
This sub-group was the focus of this analysis. The inclusion criteria for study participation were: All participants identified as a cisgender man. Thirty-five percent reported living in a transitional housing situation e. Ninety-four percent reported a high school degree or higher education. Procedure Recruitment flyers, which were placed in adult bookstores, sex shops, video stores, parks, restaurants, bars, hotels, and laundromats, provided information about the study to potential participants.
Men were also recruited through social service agency referrals. Recruitment materials and agency staff members referred interested individuals to a toll-free phone number. Potential participants were screened via phone by the field researcher. The initial screener phone call consisted of a brief conversation that informed the potential participant about the research project and procedures and answered all questions.
If the potential participant was interested, eligibility was then determined. Finally, if the caller was both interested in participating and eligible to participate, an appointment was scheduled to review the Consent to Participate Form and to conduct the interview.
Participants provided written consent and then completed a brief demographic questionnaire before participating in the in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interview. The Friends Research Institute, Inc. Institutional Review Board approved all study materials and activities. Additional and detailed study procedures, an analysis of heterosexual identity construction and the meaning participants ascribed to their sexual partnerships and an analysis of the HIV sexual risk behaviours during the sexual encounters, have been reported elsewhere Reback and Larkins ; Reback and Larkins The interviews ranged from one to three hours and were conducted by a trained field researcher.
The field researcher presented questions and follow-up probes in a non-invasive and non-judgmental manner. The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim by a professional transcriber who was bound to confidentiality.
Study participants each chose a pseudonym for purposes of anonymity. Sampling was terminated when new study participants provided redundant data and themes became repetitious Strauss and Corbin Principles of Grounded Theory guided data analysis Glaser and Strauss To ensure coder reliability, a first-level coding scheme was developed by the principal investigator and a qualitative data analyst independently after each had listened to the audio recordings, reviewed the transcripts, and written interview notes.
Interview data were classified by topic and code. After comparing codes and reviewing inconsistencies, a final thematic coding scheme was developed by which all transcripts were coded. Quotations that best represented each theme were selected from the database for inclusion in this article.
Findings Participants described their sexual experiences with a trans woman and what these experiences meant to them. Three themes emerged that reflected how the participants defined and negotiated their occasional sexual encounters with a trans woman, both psychologically through their understanding of sex with a trans woman with a penis, and physically through the navigation of specific sex acts: Finally, participants highlighted their internal struggles with their construction of the illusion and actual knowledge that they were not having sex with a cisgender woman.
Erotic Desire through the Construction of Femininity The participants expressed a desire to have sex with a trans woman if she possessed physical characteristics that were stereotypically feminine. The results of such feminising procedures physically attracted the participants to their sexual partners, as Joe 35 years old, African American described: It has to be a beautiful, beautiful transgender for me to go there.
No signs of manliness whatsoever, none. Everything else has to be extremely feminine. Similarly, Howard 42 years old, African American explained that his desire was specifically directed toward a trans woman who was a man who looked like a beautiful woman. His sexual excitement was focused on the construction of femininity that materialised from a male body.
It turns me on that a man can look so beautiful like a woman, with the breasts, with the hips, with the big butt, nice legs, dressing nice. I just get excited.
Howard continued to delineate how his desire revolved around the beauty of a masculine body reaching heightened femininity. For him, this was the ultimate fantasy.
Without achieving feminine beauty, the fantasy was not achieved and there was no sexual desire. The beauty of it—how they make their self up to be a woman, and I like that. Because they do a good job. However, from the perspectives of the participants, this transformation was not a gender transition. Many participants explained the importance of viewing and describing their trans woman sexual partner as the illusion of a cisgender woman.
And his face, it looks like a woman now. The more I imagine him being a woman, the more he even looked like a woman, and this was a real female now. For many participants, erotic desire was experienced as a result of the awareness that femininity had been constructed, which enabled them to fully realise their fantasy.
Like Jay, Terry 32 years old, African American also navigated the sexual encounter with a trans woman to avoid interaction with her penis. Jay, Terry, and others, reported not being specifically attracted to a trans woman or to a woman with a penis, rather these participants explained that they were attracted to the illusion of sex with a cisgender woman while actually having sex with a trans woman.
In order to realise that fantasy, interactions with her penis were eliminated. When she ejaculated, he was reminded of her penis and his illusion was forced to end. It was intense for me. We had started doing it doggie style, and apparently she had began to masturbate as I was screwing her. And right after I came, I guess she came too. And that was weird for me. It was kind of weird for me because it took away from the whole illusion thing that I was looking at, which was important to me.
Below, Jim detailed a specific sexual encounter that illustrated how he negotiated, either verbally or nonverbally, sex with his partner so that he could maintain his illusion of having sex with a cisgender woman.
He had on nothing but his little bikini underwear. And he had little nipples like, like little titties was growing and it was like, I mean, the look, he was a female.
So, with the towel he was able to conceal himself and lay back, fix the pillows. Although for many participants it was extremely important to maintain the illusion of a sexual encounter with a cisgender woman, other participants, like Anthony 34 years old, African American , enjoyed having sex with a woman who could ejaculate and her ejaculation served to heighten the sexual experience.
Here he detailed his experience of learning this terminology, which was introduced to him by his trans woman sexual partner: I started touching him on the ass. Many participants, like Vince 42 years old, Caucasian , reconciled the dissonance of being a heterosexual man having sex with a sexual partner who had a penis by imagining the trans woman as a cisgender woman: And then he was guiding me into him and his breasts were somewhat enlarged.
It was like I was actually, felt like I was having sex with a woman. Vince described sex with a trans woman as feeling like sex with a cisgender woman, which was a pleasurable outcome for him. So I can feel good about myself, I want to look at him like a female.
I see the looks that I actually get from a real female and it almost scared me. Although the heterosexual male participants frequently used male pronouns and referenced their trans woman sexual partner as a man, there was no indication of a threat to their heterosexual identity.