- Transgender Orgasms
Annamarie Jagose’s Orgasmology has demonstrated the usefulness of orgasm as a way of reconsidering the history of sex: “Since orgasm is neither an identity nor even an act,” she writes, it “holds open for critical engagement an interpretative space between sexual identity and sexual act, the coordinates that have significantly structured the regulation of modern sexuality and, consequently, much of sexuality studies to date” (2013, 38–39). I would like to focus here on the subject matter in chapter 3 of the book, orgasmic reconditioning, which is core to her project, for she argues—brilliantly and counter-intuitively—that behavior therapy’s attempts to modify homosexuality in the 1960s actually had queer implications, unmooring sex from sexuality in “its insistence . . . on the possibility of sexuality without a subject” (134). Jagose eschews an easy critique of behaviorist normative practices for a reading of their possible queer implications. My aim in this essay is to extend her argument in this chapter by complicating matters with attention to gender. As Jagose notes, but does not discuss, aversion therapy was also trialed on transvestism and transsexuality; I will explore these early behaviorist attempts to manipulate both sexual desire and gender. Hopefully what follows has implications not just for the orgasmology project but also for the (rather conceptually unstable) early history of what eventually became known as transgender.
Jagose’s third chapter, “Behaviorism’s Queer Trace: Sexuality and Orgasmic Reconditioning,” begins with case studies of the heteronormative horrors of 1960s Anglo-American aversion therapy when homosexuality was combatted by nausea-inducing injections and electric shock treatment.1 In one case, overseen by J. G. Thorpe at Banstead Hospital in Surrey, England and involving a certain amount of experimentation, the shocks were administered while the patient masturbated to images of naked men, or, alternatively, the man was permitted to masturbate into tissues to his own fantasies but, at the moment of signaled ejaculation, a picture of a partially-clothed woman was illuminated until the patient indicated that he had “finished” (109). Clearly behaviorism saw erotic behavior as learned practice (sex) rather than identity (sexuality). Hence Jagose’s [End Page 152] interest. The orgasm in aversion therapy is useful to think with; and she suggests that the literature of this therapy contains not only the uncoupling of sex and sexuality, but also a series of productive questions about the role of fantasy and orgasm in sex. Does orgasm reflect or create sexuality? What is the role of fantasy in sexual habituation?
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Building on Jagose’s discussion of aversion therapy, I would like to offer some additional case studies that appeared at a crucial time in the history of transgender, the beginning of what proved to be a transsexual moment, when a category that had once not existed became a widely recognized term after it had been named and described in Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966), and Richard Green and John Money’s edited collection Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment (1969). In the United States, for example, the national picture changed from one of no significant institutional support for transsexual therapy and surgery in 1965 to a situation in 1975 where about twenty major medical centers were offering treatment and some thousand transsexuals had been provided with surgery (Meyerowitz 2002, 217–22). Sexual configurations shifted almost immediately (hence the notion of a “moment”). The transgender community emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, more diverse than the older transsexual community (which it incorporated). Transgender included people who wanted to create and/or retain characteristics of both genders and who saw themselves as neither or both male and female (Beemyn and Rankin 2011). We are now at a time when the title of the inaugural 2014 issue of the journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, itself indicative of the shift, was “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies.”
Our concern here is with that earlier period, when what was then called transsexuality became, to quote Janice Irvine, “an accepted syndrome, buttressed by a vast medical armamentarium...