Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Explaining Stable Partnerships among FTMs and MTFs: A Significant Difference?

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Explaining Stable Partnerships among FTMs and MTFs: A Significant Difference?

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, the increasing social visibility of and scholarly interest in female to male transsexuals (FTMs) has prompted some comparisons with male to female transsexuals (MTFs). Drawing on my own and others' research on transsexualism, this paper focuses on one comparison that has been largely overlooked. It addresses the question of why FTMs appear to be more successful than MTFs in establishing stable relationships. In doing so, it examines certain structural properties surrounding individuals' understanding of what it is to be a `man' and a `woman' in a social context. This examination includes aspects of gender, such as the everyday task of `doing gender' (Garfinkel and Stoller, 1967; Kessler and McKenna, 1985), and some consideration of sex and sexual orientation. (1) The partial explanation offered in this paper focuses on a comparison of transsexuals' understandings of being a `man' and a `woman'. These understandings are grounded in gender socialization and, consequently, have wider implications.

Scholarly interest in female to male transsexuals

The appearance of Lothstein's book Female-to-male Transsexualism (1983) was, in his own words, `the first attempt to organize the body of literature on female transsexualism and to devote an entire book to the condition of female transsexualism' (1983: 4). The subsequent increase in scholarly interest is indicated by the appearance of articles and books focusing solely on FTMs (e.g. Devor, 1993b, 1997) and those works systematically making comparisons with MTFs (e.g. Kockott and Fahrner, 1988; Tully, 1992). Over the same period, the increasing social visibility of FTMs is directly related to the increasing appearance of a number of their autobiographies (see Tully, 1992: 270; Lewins, 1995: 13-18).

It is not surprising that before the appearance of Lothstein's book there should be little scholarly attention paid to FTMs and that Harry Benjamin could say that `sometime in the future she [sic] [the female transsexual] may merit a book devoted to her alone' (quoted in Lothstein, 1983: 4, emphasis added). The exclusion of FTMs in earlier research on transsexualism is probably related to the assumption that they were such a small proportion of all transsexuals and therefore not worthy of attention.

The explanations offered for the smaller proportion of FTMs were largely medically oriented. In the early 1970s, Green (1974: 101) offered four reasons:

* there is a likelihood of errors in the psychosexual development of males as a consequence of the masculinizing role of gonadal hormone;

* at the social level, there is more latitude allowed to females in the pursuit of cross-gender roles;

* the first person everyone identifies with is their mother and any subsequent shift of identity is required only of males; and

* the reassignment surgery for FTMs is more difficult than that for MTFs.

The second reason is noteworthy because it goes beyond the medical model and acknowledges a social factor involving the difference between males and females.

There is possibly another reason for the little scholarly attention paid to FTMs before the early 1980s. To the extent that Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire (1979) represented a particular stance towards transsexualism, there was little, if any, room for FTMs because transsexualism was primarily a product of patriarchy. FTMs, therefore, were not the focus of intellectual concern. As Raymond notes, `the First Cause' of transsexualism `is a patriarchal society, which generates norms of masculinity and femininity' (1979: 70). In such a society, `patriarchy is molding and mutilating male flesh, but for the purpose of constructing women'. Transsexualism `may be one way by which men attempt to possess females' creative energies, by possessing artifactual female organs' (1979: xvi, emphasis in the original). The few visible FTMs were for Raymond the `token that saves the face for the male "transsexual empire"' (1979: 27, emphasis in original). …

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