Scrupulosity, Objectification, and Trans Obsession, Part 1: In Defense of Chasers

[a followup to the girlfags post]

I.

Before I came out to myself as trans, I was absolutely obsessed with trans people. I spent all of my free time reading Julia Serano and tsroadmap and Not Another Aedan and Quora’s Transgender topic and Jack Molay’s Crossdreamers site. I followed trans accounts on Instagram. I read Ozy’s blog and their Tumblr tag speshul snowflake trans and virtually anything else I could find of theirs.

My entire goddamn life was centered around transness.

But most of all I was obsessed with the stories and bodies of trans women. I was desperate for transfemininity and transfemaleness. I would scour pictures of trans women and analyze them for male and female traits. I would read tips for dilating after surgery and articles by Andrea James about facial feminization surgery [1].

And worst of all I would stare at trans girls at my school, and then I would quickly look away, hoping I hadn’t made any of them feel objectified or ashamed.

This entire obsession, however, was not pleasant. I would often feel an aching in my chest, a certain empathy and relation and identification-with. I once read a post about binding safely for trans men, and then went to bed feeling quite strange because it felt uncomfortably close to home. It felt like my heart was breaking and becoming exalted at the same time.

Of course, I rationally attributed this to intruding on a trans space as an Evil Cis Oppressor. Obviously.

And all through this I told myself that I was just being a good cis ally for my trans male friend.

And all through this I felt slightly dirty and guilty.

You see, I had a major crush on him that was very directly related to his transness. I obsessed about his transition. I obsessed about his masculinity. I obsessed over his experience and felt extreme joy when he told me about his successes and disappointments in coming out. I desperately wondered how it must have been for him, to live as the wrong gender and to be treated as the wrong gender.

But all through that year, I never asked him about it. I had read all of the requisite guides for cis allies, and all of them were in agreement: don’t ask intrusive questions. Don’t ask a trans person a question you wouldn’t ask a cis person. Don’t bring “it” up. Don’t pressure trans people into telling you things; wait for them to initiate.

And so I concluded that any questions about transness, any curiosity, any scrutiny, were pressure and transphobia and unfair. And so when I finally asked him a question – how he knew that he was male – it was only after months and months of internal obsession, and I felt guilty and as though I ought to apologize to him immediately afterwards. I worried that I had pressured him or that he now felt that he was illegitimate.

It was only after I was almost entirely sure that I was some kind of weirdly-gendered that we were able to have a conversation about transness and gender and experimentation.

And in addition to the typical guides for cis allies, there was the omniscient “chaser” classification. It was a rather ambiguous term, but the meaning that I absorbed was “anyone who is ever attracted to trans people, especially but not limited to trans women, who is interested in their transness, which is BAD BAD BAD”.

Reading these articles, I became increasingly worried. Was I objectifying trans people? Was I hurting the people I admired and respected by thinking they were more beautiful than cis people? Was I pedestalizing them by even caring about trans issues?

And so it was only after I had already realized that I was trans that I told my friend that I had a crush on him. Because otherwise I would be a disgusting cis person forcing myself on a trans person. And I would be seeing him as beautiful, possibly due to or related to his transness (which, remember, I was hyperfocused on). And that would be BAD and EVIL and WRONG because it was not Official Social Justice Approved (TM)

and then he would HATE ME and it would all be MY FAULT and EVERYONE I KNEW WOULD HATE ME and our entire friendship would be DESTROYED and maybe he would just be TOO UPSET TO EVEN TALK TO ME and I WOULDN’T KNOW I HAD FUCKED UP

and so of course I had to preempt that by apologizing constantly for minor discretions.

Obviously there’s something extremely fucked up about this mindset.

Social justice didn’t do shit for me when I was upset and scared and anxious about hurting someone. Social justice was the person screaming at me that it was all my fault and that, as a privileged person, it wasn’t my place to expect my friend to educate me or talk to me or give me any of his time or to be clear about the state of our relationship; it was the person shouting at me “you PRIVILEGED PIECe oF ShIT, STOP FORCING YOURSELF ON TRANS PEOPLE AND ASKING FOR EMOTIONAL LABOR”.

(My friend himself is very charitable and cares a lot about me. He would not have minded me telling him that I had a crush on him.)

And this whole thing where trans-focused sj screws over trans people- it isn’t just me. If it were, I would just pass it off as a weird quirk of myself.

But it isn’t. Sine Salvatorem on Tumblr relates a similar story here:


When I first learned that transpeople existed, I was fascinated. It’s clear in retrospect that the fascination was caused by me realising on some level that I was trans, but every time the thought popped into my head, I’d kill it. I am from an extremely homophobic society. I’ve been bullied all my life for being feminine. I was called “faggot” more often than my birth name for years. I was not particularly open minded to the idea that my bullies were at all correct.

So 11 year old me I visited a bunch of websites about transpeople and thought “that’s so cool, they’re just like me – except I’m a straight male, so not reeeally – but otherwise completely the same!” Yes, I was deep in double-think.

Eventually I decided that, if we’re so similar, I should talk to one. Heck, we could be friends! I was already mostly friends with girls, and transwomen are women, so I should have no problem. And, since transwomen are women, I could date one too, if they were interested. After all, it only makes sense to date people with whom you have common interests.

The first transgender-issues website I visited that had a forum had a list of rules to go with it. I diligently read all of the rules. Only one stood out and confused me. “No chasers allowed.”

I messaged the forum administrators and asked what a “chaser” was. I was told that a chaser was a straight man who wanted to date transwomen. I said that this didn’t make sense as a category of people to be opposed to, because a lot of transwomen date straight men. It was then explained to me that, no, the actual important thing is that they obsess over transpeople. That they read all about them and think a lot about transness and also would like to date them. When you put the two things together, what you were left with was the objectively worst human being who could exist.

And then 11 year old me wanted to die.

As it happens, she didn’t kill herself, she finally (consciously) realised she was trans at 14 (with help from 4chan, of all places), and she stopped worrying that thinking about transpeople was Inherently Awful.

But there is a part of me that will always loath the very concept of “chasers” and, by extension, the idea that you can be a bad person as a result of being attracted to $CATEGORY.


Her statement at the end rings quite true for me. People who prefer trans people to cis people, people who are fascinated by transness, people who obsess over the lives of trans people, are very likely trans or gender nonconforming themselves.

But let’s pretend that every single person who was attracted to trans people and transness and gender variance was cis (and, probably, male).

Even then, they would deserve to be defended and protected and included. Cis men who love trans people are marginalized by the gender role that tells them that they must be attracted only to a specific type of cis woman. They are marginalized by the transmisogyny that tells them that trans women are not real women, and that therefore they cannot be attracted to them.

Moreover, men are marginalized by means of association and role-based misandry. Under patriarchy, the “effeminacy” of trans women pollutes anyone who tolerates or accepts or is attracted to them, especially cis men.

People who love trans people and who are obsessed with us deserve not only to be tolerated, but to be actively welcomed with open arms. Too much admiration and love for trans people, based around our being trans, has rarely hurt us. And this is not least because some of these people might be trans themselves.

Individual readers are encouraged to enforce any boundary they so desire, including a dislike for people who obsess about trans people. But on a community level, something needs to change.

II.

In her (otherwise excellent) essay defending partners, Serano writes that she believes that someone “who is only attracted to trans people, but not at all to cis people” is extraordinarily rare and likely does not exist. In explaining her reasoning as to why she believes that trans-attracted cis people are not fetishists or weird, she takes pains to say that “the vast majority of” men attracted to trans women “also are attracted to women more generally”.

But Serano doesn’t take her acceptance and inclusion far enough.

Reading this, I was not comforted. I worried that the acceptability of my attraction to trans people and the quality of being trans hinged on it being equal to my attraction to cis people. I worried that, again, I was being fetishizing by preferring trans people to cis people.

And I am sure, almost entirely sure, that this was not Serano’s intention.

But it was what I understood from the post.

This type of misunderstanding seems fairly common, actually, especially regarding attraction to women and objectification. The Scott Aaronson affair, for example, is a prime example of a quite conscientious, well-meaning young man reading feminist messages about attraction to women (objectification is wrong! it makes me feel uncomfortable to imagine that boys are attracted to me! I wish men weren’t so entitled!) and internalizing them to the point that he wanted to be chemically castrated. The Unit of Caring also similarly details her guilt and anxiety about being attracted to girls here and here.

Ozy Frantz describes this type of thinking as scrupulosity: an anxiety disorder that creates excessive guilt and excessive worrying about fairly minor moral transgressions. And this explanation rings true for me as well.

Scott Aaronson, the Unit of Caring, Sine Salvatorem, and I read legitimate, bitter accounts of how women were hurt by male power and male sexuality. I read well-intentioned guides for cis people, written by trans people frustrated by the presumption that their genitals and surgery decisions were considered public property.

Aaronson and the Unit of Caring concluded that attraction to women was wrong. And Sine Salvatorem and I, despite not being men, concluded that attraction to trans women and transness was wrong; and I applied this, however fallaciously, to trans men as well [2].

It seems to me that there is are several common threads here. The objections to both the sexual desire and the question-asking are both about treating women and/or trans people as means to goals, either for discovering new information or for achieving sexual satiation. This is a practice commonly known as objectification.

But this concern for respecting others, when phrased aggressively, can and does lead to a lack of accessibility for neurodivergences.

And, as Serano states, the issues with treating women as objects or trans people as objects or trans women as objects, and not people, are indeed real and true issues. But, as with Scott Alexander’s hangups with objectification, most of the damage seems to be tangential to the attraction itself.

Because of the disdain for admirers and those who preferred trans people to cis people in general, I used to worry that I was objectifying my friend. It was unbearably painful for me to think about – that I was hurting him, that I might hurt him, my first love – and almost as consuming as the obsession with transness itself.

And so one of my friends told me this: that we don’t love objects. We don’t cherish them and hope for them and want them to flourish.

We dispose of them as soon as we are done with them, and we don’t look back.

III.

If some people treat trans people as less than human or as simple receptacles for sex, then that’s obviously shitty. It’s obviously wrong. But the wrong part is not that they admire us or because they’re romantically or sexually attracted to us. It’s that they’re assholes about it.

Similarly, if some people treat women as less than human or as simple receptacles for sex, then that’s obviously shitty. But the problem is not the attraction to women. It is that they’re assholes about it.

So to anyone who is reading this who is involved in social justice:

First, viz. statements directed at, for example, men who catcall or who objectify, or cis people who ask trans people about their genitalia:

Anger and rage have their places and serve an essential purpose in sj. But when attempting to talk to others, accusations and blame are not always optimal, and the percentage of outraged and highly targeted articles in social justice activism should be lower when the goal is the conversion of outsiders, e.g. in “101 spaces” for “education” [3].

Instead, what would be helpful for some segments of the population would be actionable guides, possibly with scripts, for how to either avoid hurting people or for mitigating the potential harms. These guides would be optimal if they avoided placing blame or using sweeping moral generalizations about behavior.

Claiming that “this isn’t about casting blame; if you once did [thing that one has just described as incredibly horrible and harmful and sexist and transphobic] then just don’t do it again! :)” does not actually prevent people from being guilty, upset, or worried, and in fact makes them feel even worse for feeling guilty, upset, and worried.

These explanations of harm also do not add to the guides’ persuasiveness for the scrupulous- scrupulous people already care intensely about your welbeing to the point that a few short sentences will suffice.

Instead, there should be a higher percentage of articles where the writers anticipate scrupulosity, and then specifically and methodically address particular anxieties that might be caused by their rhetoric.

There should also be a higher percentage of Trans101 articles written for closeted trans people, taking the perspective of “transness is a thing, you might be trans too!” See for example this article here.

I would also appreciate if preferences were not expressed, explicitly, not as absolutes (“don’t ever ask trans people about their genders! ever! all trans people agree with me and there are no nuances here whatsoever”). Expressing them as nuanced issues with multiple graduations of scale, like most social issues, would be more productive and accessible to me and some other people with scrupulosity like me [4].

This would also enable the movement to outreach to men, who are often turned off by feminist analyses of the evilness of “male” sexuality [5]. It would be more inclusive of contrary viewpoints from within marginalized groups. And finally, it would aid (some) neurodivergent people and (some) socially awkward people through providing social skills advice.

Of course, this isn’t the best course of action for everyone. There is always a place for rage, anger, and denunciations of privilege. I am aware that some pro-sj people might have scrupulosity as well, or limited time, or a desire to create stronger rhetoric. I do not think that their activism should be paralyzed, either.

But I also think that there should be a space for more nuanced discussion; attempts at more nuanced discussion should not be met with accusations of privilege, insufficient radicalism, or insufficient commitment to sj ideals.

The places for rage and the places for nuanced discussion should not always or even usually be the same place, necessarily, but the majority of activism for converting privileged people should be open for nuanced discussion, disagreement, and debate.

Second, viz. a dislike of chasers specifically:

I think that I actually disagree with some people here, in that I think that obsession with and interest in transness is, in some cases not only acceptable but desirable.

People who have different preferences than I, or who feel objectified when seen as specifically “trans people” ought to have a place as well to express their concerns, to other trans people, in spaces limited to trans people only (ETA: or to non-chaser allies). I support their competing access needs and will defend their safe spaces ardently.

But the majority of trans spaces ought to support, defend, and welcome non-trans and questioning people. The first Google result for a trans forum and the search term “transgender” should be accessible to the scrupulous. It should also be both readable, understandable, and nuanced. My experience and Sine Salvatorem’s experience of trans activism will thus be less common.

Moreover, if non-trans people and admirers/chasers are part of the community, then it will be easier to ask for behavioral changes. Treating trans people like people, instead of as disposable objects, naturally emanates from being part of a trans community. Some of these demands [6] also ought to be accessible for the scrupulous and highly nuanced; others ought to be more aggressively phrased and guilt-inducing. (See SSC’s article about different ideological needs here.)

All of them, however, should include clear, actionable, and concrete advice. If social justice is to ever achieve anything, then its demands must be clear, actionable, and concrete. If demands are opaque, people do not understand what they mean even if they agree. If demands are not actionable, then even if people understand what they mean they will be able to do nothing. And if demands are not concrete, then even if people are able to do something it will have little impact on the real conditions of the oppressed.

And finally, social justice activists should keep in mind that advice and denunciations and rage have spillover effects. Even if the specified target is “straight white cis men”, you will end up talking about other people, including queers and nonwhites and trans people and non-men.

Straight white cis men do not deserve to be hurt and made anxious either, but I doubt that that would be a compelling argument within social justice activism.

IV.

To the Scotts Aaronson of the world, the Sine Salvatorems and the Units of Caring- I love you, and I stand in solidarity with you. You, more than anyone, are the people I will fight for, the people I will stand with, and the people I will write long rambling blog posts for.


Footnotes

[1] – To be clear, I’m assigned-female at birth. I am not entirely sure why I cared so much about dilating after surgery, since I already have a vagina and definitely would like it to be cut out.

It was probably because it meant that I could read about trans things without having to feel weird and oddly insecure about myself, as reading transmasculine things would have.

[2] – Yes, I failed at intersectionality here; I am aware that the posited oppressiveness of chasers is experienced not as simply trans oppression or as simply female oppression, but as transfemale oppression.

But most of the arguments against chasers apply to admiring trans men too: it’s a fetish, it’s treating transness as an interesting feature rather than seeing the whole person, it’s hurting the targets, it’s treating trans people differently than cis people of their identified genders and thus implying they are not real, it’s applying undue scrutiny and importance on their transness.

Practically the only arguments it doesn’t share are so tangential that I managed to miss them without more reflection. There is the one about how trans women are seen as sex objects and prostitutes due to being women. The other argument is about how trans women are subject to constant sexualization around men and in friendships with men (e.g., the whole redpiller/friendzone/Nice Guy type topic), and so chasers are hurtful in that way.

But I applied what I saw as the feminist position on the friendzone/Nice Guy subject to my crush as well, because I reasoned that if some women felt hurt and pressured when their friends turned out to have crushes on them, then some men (especially my extremely sensitive, eager-to-please crush) must also feel hurt and pressured when their friends turned out to have crushes on them.

(I would appreciate if no one tried to claim that I only applied these things to my crush because I subconsciously saw him as a woman. I tend to reason in general meta-principles and general rules, as in Prisoner’s Dilemma or Lockean social contract situations, and I rarely am able to apply the idea of privilege on a gut emotional level.)

And transness is placed front and center here. The arguments that I have seen aren’t talking about how trans women are hurt by men becoming obsessed with one particular part of them; it’s talking about how transness is the thing that men become obsessed with. This clearly indicates that transness is a bad thing for men to have an obsession with (and by extension everyone else, since I imagine a trans woman who disliked male obsession with her transness ould be no more pleased by nonbinary or female obsession in the same situation).

And people afflicted by scrupulosity are not particularly good at discerning the applicability of difficult concepts like intersectionality when it comes to things we could guilt ourselves over.

[3] – “101 space” and “education” are terms I dislike for aesthetic reasons. I also dislike them because they imply that the discussion should not take place on equal ground. They imply that there are no legitimate arguments to be made or doubt that can be had against social justice ideas, which is in essence a request for ideological submission on pain of moral failing.

[4] – See The Unit of Caring and Ozy’s post linked to before for the origin of these ideas.

[5] – The idea of an archetypal “male” sexuality is rooted in oppositional sexism, the pedestalization of women, and the denigration of men as undesirable, polluted, and disposable. Feminists and activists should reconsider their usage of this term. The Unit of Caring and Julia Serano have both influenced my view on this considerably.

[6] – I have read multiple articles about how the word “demand”, rather than “request”, is empowering. I don’t doubt that it feels empowering, but I doubt that it is really the most effective way of proselytizing. These statements have also made me feel anxious – am I not taking a hard enough line? Am I not empowering myself enough? Should I be harsher?

So I’m not a fan. But I recognize that these might be real needs. I wish, however, that they weren’t framed as absolutes.


Part 2, a guide regarding trans and/or female objectification, will be up soon.

See also the related discussion of men’s issues here.

One thought on “Scrupulosity, Objectification, and Trans Obsession, Part 1: In Defense of Chasers

  1. thanks for this, especially the last bit.

    although i don’t quite have the ‘obsessed with specific trans people by being sexually attracted to them for their transness’ thing, i do relate to a lot of the other stuff you’ve said, and i do consider myself to some extend ‘a scott aaronson’ lol.

    a bit of the obsessed about trans topics which makes me thing i might be in some sense trans but i still don’t quite think so because i like, don’t actually feel dysphoric? but every time ozy or someone else mentions something like ‘and don’t give people who do x a hard time, they’re obviously trans eggs’ i’m like..but i do that though.

    I’m more a scott aaronson in the way directly similar to scott as it pertains to cis women and objectification and the messages from femnism etc. rather than trans stuff where i was lucky enough to find ozy fairly early in being interested and they’re pretty good about not being horrible about that stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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