Sub-optimal sexuality (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

March 13, 2024   5 mins

In February 2021, the writer Luc Sante was killing the lockdown dead-time by running pictures of himself through FaceApp, seeing what he might look like as a woman. The effect was powerful. Life-altering, in fact. In the app’s feminised image, Sante felt he was seeing his — her — true self, a female self. Lucy. Two weeks later, Sante came out as trans in an email circulated to 30 or so friends.

“When I saw her,” wrote Sante, referring to Lucy, “I felt something liquefy in the core of my body. I trembled from my shoulders to my crotch. I guessed that I had at last met my reckoning.” This was not a sudden whim for Sante, then aged 66, but a longstanding fixation made finally undeniable. As evidence, Sante included in the letter a list of recurrent “masturbation scenarios”, all of which involve coerced feminisation: “cast as a girl in the school play, then persuaded to go out on the town in costume; hired as an assistant by a wealthy society woman who amuses herself by dressing me up as a girl; new roommate assigned to me in college has been dressing as a girl for years and has a full wardrobe.”

Sante’s friends were uniformly warm and positive in response. One female colleague wrote back to say it was “exciting to have another great female writer”. Only one person replied critically — a trans woman, who told Sante: “My only note so far is that I wouldn’t mention your crotch in connection with a realisation about your gender identity, because any mention of genitalia or crotches instantly brings up all sorts of bizarre paranoid delusions that trans women are just transitioning as part of some kind of sexual fetish.”

Sante bridled a little at the judgement, given that this was a private letter to a small group, but changed the word “crotch” for “belly”. And then — this is the fascinating part — reverted to “crotch” for the least private possible audience, republishing the original letter in a new memoir, I Heard Her Call My Name. In fact, Sante seems entirely blithe about the crotch mentions, announcing near the end of the book that: “my dysphoria was never centred on or even especially concerned with genitalia. (Although it is extremely exciting to have tits.)” Bottom surgery is presumably not on the to-do list.

It hardly seems to require any “bizarre paranoid delusion” to see evidence of a fetish at work. But for Sante’s trans woman correspondent, the anxiety was presumably about saying the quiet part out loud. Since the start of this century, trans activism has pushed a “born this way” narrative of gender identity — and at the same time, aggressively rejected any implication that a man might have a sexual motivation for identifying as a woman.

This is despite the fact that we are supposedly in a more permissive era than ever before. “Kinkshaming” is the great taboo: it’s a worse faux pas to wrinkle your nose at someone else’s peccadillos than it is to flaunt your own. And yet this is also an era with a great intolerance of male displays of sexuality in culture. While the underworld of pornography propagates unchecked horrors, the oversexed male mainstream writer is a subject of open derision. There are few more crushing satires than the “men writing women” meme: “She breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards…”

“The big filthy beasts of the 20th century look tawdry and dated”

A lot of men’s writing about women has been ludicrously sexist, and in recognition of that fact, a great many male authors today — who come, on the whole, from the nice liberal side of the tracks, and would be alarmed at being cast as “anti woman”, especially in a heavily feminised publishing industry — have tended to stow their libidos. By contrast, the big filthy beasts of the 20th century look tawdry and dated: Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis, standing awkwardly in the corner with their dicks in their hands. In the mid-to-late 20th century, their openness about desire was revelatory — part of the great post-war liberation. In the 21st century (and especially after #MeToo) they’re treated with more suspicion: less literary explorers of the libidinous underworld, more cringy self-pleasurers. The only heirs left to that literary tradition seem to be trans women writers, such as Sante or Torrey Peters, whose novel Detransition, Baby is a riot of sissy porn and flopping testicles. Perhaps the stigma about “breasting boobily” goes away when the male authors in question have grown their own.

Male desire can be a forbidding subject for women. Whether as a consequence of nature or nurture, men’s sexuality tends to be a more consuming presence in their lives than it is for women. In a bell curve distribution, there will be significant overlap — but men in general have higher sexer drives than women. Men also tend to have weirder sex drives than women: paraphilias, the fancy sexologist work for “kink”, are considerably more common in men than in women.

This is uncomfortable knowledge, and for women it can be nicer to ignore it.  For men, meanwhile, sustaining a “decent” life while suspecting yourself of being thoroughly indecent within can become intolerable. Sante writes often about the strain of repression. And the trans writer Debbie Hayton described managing autogynephilia as “like someone trying to hold down a beach ball underwater, only for it to force its way to the surface”. Alasdair Gray — author of Poor Things, and one of the greatest of all literary perverts — wrote that “unless we bring one of our wicked little dreams just a wee bit to life we live like zombies”.

Women, often, would simply rather not know about this aspect of men. It is disturbing, alien, disruptive. That perhaps explains why Sante’s woman colleague was able to skip past the “crotch” sentence and arrive at the comfortable conclusion that Sante was now “female”. It explains why many female readers of Detransition, Baby seemed to overlook the dirty bits and neuter it into being a novel about “womanhood”.

“Male desire can be a forbidding subject for women.”

But it explains too why there was a response of unmitigated disgust from some women who recognised Detransition, Baby for the work of honest filth it is. When Peters was long-listed for the Women’s Prize in 2021, the objection from some gender critical campaigners was not only that it should have been ineligible by dint of Peters’ sex (a fair point), but also that its content made it illegitimate.

“Had a female author submitted a culturally regressive, sadomasochistic, misogynistic ‘surrendered wife’ narrative to the Women’s Prize, it would rightly have been ignored by the judges,” said one angry open letter to the Women’s Prize. Actually, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, with multiple scenes of sadomasochistic sex between its two protagonists, was long-listed in 2019, so this criticism doesn’t ring true. What was objectionable about Peters’ book was maybe that, unlike the melancholic Rooney novel, it appeared to be written by someone who was having a thoroughly good time getting mucky.

Yet men’s sexuality seems, on the whole, to be something women ought to be interested in. After all, almost all of us live with or alongside men. Some of us sleep with them too. The truth should be more valuable than the nice-guy mythology: knowing what a man wants entails no obligation to consent to it. To respond with disgusted calls for men to censor themselves — or worse, with the ladylike self-censorship of Butler — is to wilfully choose ignorance.

There’s a complication, though. Desires are not just inherent: they’re also imitative. Part of Sante’s journey to transition is the slow-burn of a lifetime of fantasy; part of it is the easy access to an online community that reinforces the wish. For most of Sante’s existence, “becoming a woman” was an impossible urge. Only when technology makes it tangible did it become a consuming obsession. There should be space in the world for the honest — and hopefully intelligent — disclosure of the male libido, as for the female. But it may be men who pay the highest price for that knowledge.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.