Julia Serano is an esteemed writer and musician as well as an activist and biologist. But I often think of her as a warrior, because if you spend any time on social media, you know that Serano has been an intellectual powerhouse in combating the misogynist, transmisogynist, and homophobic bigotries that have flooded our timelines, our news cycles, our statehouses, and even our own homes. Her points and counterpoints are not instantaneous or reactionary but meticulous and methodical. From her books to her blog posts, she point-by-point not only deconstructs the logic of a bigoted article — like that notorious Atlantic cover story on detransitioning — but pulls the covers of the faulty methods and factual errors rampant throughout them by mining data and fact-checking sources.
In her third book, Sexed Up, Serano focuses her brilliant mind on sexualization, “when a person is nonconsensually reduced to their real or imagined sexual attributes,” and how this process results from what she identifies as five mindsets that binarize how we perceive and interpret people. In naming these mindsets, Serano endeavors to bring awareness to how forcefully binaries shape society from her standpoint as a bisexual trans woman. More critically, in exposing these biased thought patterns and perceptions, Serano aims to destigmatize sex, putting forth a vision for how we can live ethically sexual lives without reducing people to stereotypes or singular aspects of their identities.
Sexualization is the centerpiece of your new book, with a clear emphasis on the verb part of speech, the action — to sexualize — to examine how each of us perceives and interprets sex, gender, and sexuality. How and when did you arrive at the subject of your new book?
When I transitioned from male to female back in 2001, the most jarring aspect for me was all the different sexual motives and meanings that people suddenly started projecting onto me. Much of this was due to me being read as a cisgender woman, and I found feminist writings quite helpful in making sense of those experiences.
However, when people knew that I was a trans woman, they would sexualize me in all sorts of other ways, presuming I must be hypersexual or predatory or perverted or undesirable or their “fetish object.” I wrote about some of these latter experiences back in Whipping Girl, which has a chapter called “Trans-Sexualization.” But in the years since, I’ve noticed many parallels between those experiences and how other marginalized groups are sexualized. I wanted to understand why we view certain groups in these ways and why reducing a person to the status of a “sexual being” (in one way or another) tends to have a delegitimizing or degrading effect on them. So it’s something that I was gradually working on for about a decade before I finally pitched the idea to my publisher in 2019.
Gender essentialists like to vaguely evoke “biology” as a talking point to buttress their position that there are only two genders. What makes your writing and, more broadly, your general authorial point of view so brilliant is that you’re an actual trained biologist with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia University. I would love to hear how this training has informed your writing, not necessarily in topic but more in terms of logic and style. To me, it comes across in something I find idiosyncratic to your writing — a super meticulous and methodical laying out and defining of all concepts, as if you’re making all the variables known to readers before you begin your examination, so to speak.
More generally, my background as a scientist has encouraged me to ask questions about how the world works and to expect the answers to be more complicated (and sometimes surprising) than I originally expected, often leading to even more questions. The people who use “biological sex” as though it were some simplistic “gotcha” to wield against trans people clearly have no appreciation for this complexity.
With regards to my writing, before I began penning personal essays and books, I learned how to write scientific articles. I suppose it’s different for every field, but in biology, other biologists will understand the general principles at work, but not necessarily the specific system you are studying or the problems you are trying to address. I remember my thesis adviser explicitly telling me how you can’t just tell readers what experiments you performed and the conclusions you reached. Rather, you need to start at the very beginning and carefully walk readers through your entire thinking process. I’ve found that to be a useful writing approach even when I’m not writing about science.
There is such a clear throughline and development of your ideas from your earlier writings, from Whipping Girl to Excluded, but also evident in your prolific online writings at outlets like The New York Times and Medium, and your own heavily researched blog posts, to Sexed Up. How would you describe the development and deepening of these ideas that led you to sexualization and the notion of “mindsets” as a framing device to describe the various types of sexualization?
Early on, my main focus was explaining and debunking the many stereotypes associated with trans people. And I continue to do so to this day, especially given the intense anti-trans backlash we are now living through. But I’ve become increasingly interested in how prejudice works in a more general sense and why we tend to perceive and interpret various subgroups of people in drastically different ways. From research I’ve done, it seems clear that there are a number of unconscious patterns of thinking that contribute to this. In psychology, these patterns of thinking may go by different names (schemas, cognitive biases, heuristics). While writing Sexed Up, I decided to generically refer to them as “mindsets,” which conveys the same idea in a more familiar way.
Can you explain how the five mindsets relate to each other? Do they operate simultaneously, or is there a causal connection?
The Two Filing Cabinets mindset describes how we unconsciously categorize women and men as though they were entirely separate entities, and the Opposites mindset describes our tendency to view these two groups as “opposites” rather than as merely different or overlapping. And yes, the latter mindset is most definitely dependent on the former. When people talk about the gender binary, they are usually referring to some combination of both these mindsets.
The Unmarked/Marked mindset describes how people who fall outside of the taken-for-granted default group tend to face undue scrutiny and are often accused of “asking for” any unwanted attention they receive.
The Predator/Prey mindset describes our tendency to view men as “wanting sex” and women as “having” or “being” the sex that men desire (rather than having sexual desires and agency of our own). It relies on all three of the previous mindsets. Marginalized groups (including LGBTQIA+ people) are often imagined to be exaggerated versions of these Predator/Prey archetypes, with the most common stereotypes being “sexually predatory” men and “sexually available” women.
Marginalized groups are also often deemed “undesirable” in the eyes of society. The Fetish mindset describes how, when this happens, people presume that sexual attraction toward said individuals must constitute a “fetish” — a pathological expression of sexuality. This can result in a variety of negative consequences for all parties involved.
Your concept of “enforced ignorance” is one of the most powerful and most devastatingly relevant contributions of this book. Can you explain to readers what you mean by “enforced ignorance” and how it results in further stigmatizing marginalized groups?
One way in which social hierarchies are maintained is by obscuring marginalized groups’ perspectives, thereby making them seem mysterious, taboo, and unrelatable. That’s enforced ignorance, and it often takes the form of punishing or stigmatizing members of the dominant/majority group who take too much of an interest in their marginalized counterparts. In my case, being raised as a “boy” in a straight-male-centered world, I felt intense pressure to avoid anything associated with girls and LGBTQIA+ people while growing up. If I failed to do so, people would call me a “sissy” or “fag” or some other slur.
I wrote Sexed Up before this year’s onslaught of “don’t say gay” and anti-“critical race theory” bills, but they are certainly steeped in enforced ignorance. It’s far easier to harbor stereotypes about marginalized groups and to treat them maliciously if you’ve never learned about their perspectives or been encouraged to relate to them as people.
You mention in a few places that, in writing the book, you were surprised at how important the role of stigma played in sexualization. How does stigma inform sexualization?
In our sex-negative culture, sex is closely associated with stigma. This helps to explain why sexualizing another person (in one way or another) often has the effect of degrading or delegitimizing them in the eyes of others.
Because the Predator/Prey mindset leads us to view women as “having” or “being” sex, we are especially susceptible to being shamed or smeared via sex-related stigma. This is why women feel so much social pressure to hide or play down our sexualities. In contrast, men typically don’t experience that pressure, as they supposedly “pursue” and “take” sex from others rather than possessing it themselves. This, of course, changes for men who are imagined to be “marked by sex” in other ways — such as belonging to a marginalized group associated with other sexualized stereotypes.
You offer readers three guidelines for being ethically sexual: reject nonconsensuality; stop moralizing and dividing sex into good and bad categories; and self-examine desire. How does being ethically sexual sever sex from stigma? What is the biggest obstacle to overcoming stigma?
If we want to bring an end to sexualization, then we must sever sex from stigma. There are two components to this. First, I may personally feel shame related to me being “marked by sex” in certain ways, in my case, because I am transgender, bisexual, and female. But the stigma associated with these traits are merely social meanings that some people subscribe to but others may not. Like many LGBTQIA+ people, I’ve gradually learned to transcend queerphobic and misogynistic stigma, such that I no longer feel ashamed by these aspects of my person when others bring them up.
But the thing is, even if I am no longer personally ashamed of such things, other people may nevertheless attempt to sexualize me for being bisexual, trans, and/or female. And onlookers may buy into those assessments, viewing me as dangerous or disgraced as a result. In other words, it’s not enough for us to simply overcome our own personal sexual stigma. Rather, we must band together and collectively refrain from sexually stigmatizing other people. And if we shift societal norms such that the act of sexualizing another person was viewed more negatively than being the target of sexualization, then these sorts of stereotypes and smears would likely disappear.
How can we collectively break free of the five mindsets that limit our perceptions and understanding of the beauty and complexity of people?
The first step is for us to recognize them and refrain from employing them when considering other people. As with unlearning any mindset or habit, it can be a gradual process, but it is ultimately achievable. To collectively transcend these mindsets, we need to raise awareness about them by discussing them and the harm they do, thereby encouraging others to relinquish them as well.
There are a number of stereotypes that were pervasive when I was a child but which most people now recognize as being inaccurate and harmful; in other words, we most certainly can learn to see people differently. Similarly, many people nowadays know about “confirmation bias” or the “gambler’s fallacy,” and this knowledge may lead them to think critically about their own actions in pertinent situations. Part of the reason why I gave specific names to all these mindsets was to facilitate people learning about and sharing these ideas with others.
From sexism to exclusion to sexualization — what topic is on the horizon for you? Where do you see your writing turning to in 2022 and beyond?
I always have a few potential ideas for future books in the back of my mind. But in the case of both Excluded and Sexed Up, the book that I ended up writing felt like the most necessary book for that particular moment in time. While I haven’t settled on anything yet, the bulk of my attention lately has been on the increasingly virulent right-wing moral panics targeting LGBTQIA+ people and other marginalized groups. So while I’m not sure where exactly that will take me, that feels like the general direction I’m heading in.
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Advocacy and Politics issue, which is out on newsstands July 18, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.