March 2016. Jelly I are sharing a studio condo in Maybunga, in Pasig City, Metro Manila. Previously we were in a larger condo and things were much easier. Now the place is like a pressure-cooker.
As ever the television goes on after our morning sex session. This is when I usually try to work and it appears that Jelly has hearing difficulties.
The diet is monotonous. At noon, it’s Showtime, a variety revue hosted by Vice Ganda, a well-known gay performer. Needless to say, Jelly is mesmerised, smiling. There is nothing coming out of the television – even though the volume is full blast. It’s like an anaesthetic.
Curiously, I am reminded of Grampian Television’s ‘One o’Clock Gang’, hosted by Larry Marshall, that was the daily accompaniment to lunch when I was a child. It shows the depth of the penetration; that was 50 years ago and I can still see the faces of Marshall and Andy Stewart in flickering 405-line black and white.
Nothing has changed; The One o’Clock Gang has emigrated and transmogrified into ‘Eat Bulaga’ and ‘Showtime’. But Showtime has a trans anchor. It’s a killer selling point.
The real televisual clue to the lives of ladyboys, however, is in the ‘tele-series’.
Tele-series and women
These are soap operas. They’re made all over Asia and translated into the local language. According to Jelly, the Filipino ones are the most realistic and the Korean the most glamorous.
Tele-series need context to understand: these are not made for a family audience. Oh, I don’t mean they’re risqué; the one-foot-on-the-floor rule is alive and well in Asia. But they aren’t made for a broad audience. Instead, their audience is narrow and targeted.
It’s women. Especially young, unmarried women.
The tele-series encapsulate and promote every stereotype about women and their sexuality that could possibly be imagined. The heroines – and they are always built around a woman or women – are impossibly feminine. They are beautiful, of course. But also passionate, mothering and powerful. Most of all, their quest in life is not career or education but love. Not just any love, either. The Perfect Love with the Perfect Man.
The Perfect Woman needs a Perfect Man
The first thing to understand about the Perfect Man is that he is handsome. He may be older but if he is, it is with sophistication. Younger men might sweat, but older men may not. Nevertheless, he is incomplete. No matter how suave he may appear, he is still a beast, or broken-hearted, betrayed, or in some other way damaged. The only person who can make him realise his Perfection is his partner, the heroine, the Perfect Woman. Tele-series tell the story of how these two characters are thrown together and, after enduring life’s buffeting, finally join in the ultimate embrace, in a passionate, exclusive love that lasts forever.
Essentially, all tele-series are ‘Wuthering Heights’ with a few location details changed. They encapsulate and promulgate exactly the same repressed and powerful sexuality; the coming-together of the mothering instinct and the desire for raw sex. There is nothing more feminine on the planet.
I have always been surprised, when interviewing natal women, how similar their sexual fantasies are. There is a recurring theme: a wild man, a beast, ravishes them. They are not only unable to prevent this but so consumed by lust that they deeply enjoy it. In more than one person’s narrative, the fantasy lover was actually a gorilla, which probably explains King Kong. In others, a brute, albeit a human one.
Why the bad boys?
Why is this? Why do women focus on these rather than the men who would actually make good fathers of their children, as their sexual fantasy? Why do women, typically before they settle, have so many crushes on ‘bad boys’? What is the secret behind Beauty and the Beast?
The answer is in the feminine power to tame. By taming the beast and making him hers, the woman shows her power over him. And power is everything to a woman. He might be a monster who scares the living daylights out of everyone else, but when I whistle, he comes. He is mine. I tamed him. He is under my power. You find your own.
This is a truly ancient fantasy. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, written nearly 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, the hero and hunter, is horrified to find that a wild man named Enkidu, who lives with the animals, has been spoiling all his traps. He speaks to the High Priestess and she sends one of the junior priestesses, young and beautiful, out onto the steppe to find Enkidu and seduce him. On discovering the wild man asleep, she lies down naked beside him and, when he wakes, he can’t help himself but make love to her. Thus he is tamed; the girl, Shamhat, leads him back to the city to become a civilised man. And Gilgamesh can hunt again.
Transforming the brute
In effecting this transformation, in turning the brutish man into the perfect lover and husband, the woman becomes Goddess. She is Isis risen, Ashet, Astarte, Asherah and Inanna. She is the holy essence of Woman, from which all power derives. She is majestic in her glory and the wildest man, nay whole armies of the wildest men, must prostrate themselves at her feet so that she can walk on their backs and save dirtying her sandals. This is the power conferred upon her by her sex. That is why the fantastic portal to the city of Babylon, through which marched its armies, is called the Gate of Ishtar, the Goddess who ruled there. It is one of the greatest symbols of female power that exists.
Beauty and the Beast: a tele-series staple
Except – this Beauty and the Beast scenario is a fantasy. Like all sexual fantasies, it has wings. It’s not real. Men are neither beasts nor saints; they are just men, full of flaws. And women are not dramatic heroines or shining angels, temple priestesses or Inanna herself; they are just women, also flawed.
Yet this is the very fantasy that the tele-series — just as Emily Bronte did – plunder for their source material. So they are deeply popular with women, because they showcase these archetypes.
Ladyboys, whose existence as women is always conditional, swallow whole all of the preconceptions and stereotypes they promote.
Ladyboys – like all other transwomen, everywhere, no matter what they tell you – are not women.
We have discussed beki culture and how it provides a protective framework for young GNC boys to develop in. The same is seen in kathoey, Waria, thirunangai and similar cultures across southeast Asia.
Tele-series take this further. It is certainly true that they do reinforce stereotypical attitudes about ‘being a woman’, but women have the ultimate reality check. They were born with vaginas. They bleed. They get pregnant. They pass through the ring of fire that is parturition and become mothers. They actually are women. So they can take a pragmatic look at the tele-series and its cut-out heroines and heroes, enjoy it and smile.
A ladyboy has no such abilities. Insofar as she is a woman at all it is through learning to be so. It derives from her sexuality but is maintained by her faith in herself. Her most important measure of how well she has succeeded, at least outside the West, with its new-found, absurd notions, is this: how attractive she is to men. How successfully she can play Catherine and woo her Heathcliff.
Ladyboys, travestis, transwomen all over the world, take their lessons in this from their support networks, from their peers and, crucially, from the tele-series they spend hours every day absorbing.
It’s not just television. The print media is only too happy to cater to and reinforce the gender stereotypes that ladyboys adopt. In every Asian country, there is a huge market in what might be called ‘romance novelettes.’ These range from books, similar to the kind that Mills and Boone made famous in the UK, to magazines, where the stories may be all text, all comic-strip or a mixture of both.
Whatever their format, however, they emphasise exactly the same idealised archetypes of hero and heroine. He is strong, sexually powerful and even dangerous, but most especially he is damaged. Perhaps he has been betrayed in love or wrongly dishonoured. Perhaps his close friends turned on him and now, alone, he must fight to clear his name and win back what is his. She too is strong, but sexually pure. She is loyal and true, a kind of modern Jeanne d’Arc. But most importantly, only she can truly identify the weakness within him and make him whole.[i]
Ladyboys consume these publications with gusto.
The same applies in other media. More sophisticated TS adore Kate Bush and Enya, enthralled by their flowing and liquid romanticism, their aura of Celtic twilight. For others, the heroines are Beyoncé, Shakira and Adele. Their beloved icons are dancers and beauty queens and these are all seen in a light of impossible romanticism. Note: ladyboys never, ever idealise male artists. Straight men are sexual and romantic targets, not role models; and gay men are girls too but, in the eyes of a transsexual who has become a woman so beautiful that she herself is an icon, failed ones. Yes, being beki or kathoey brings disadvantages: but at least, they seem to be saying, we are living the life you only dream of.[ii]
Just as in Bronte’s novel, sexual desire is sublimated into romantic longing. Lust becomes love, in other words. Yet it remains as passionate as the instant of climax in coitus. All transwomen, everywhere, are sexually driven, though, particularly in the West, they may go to great lengths to deny this. Ladyboys are certainly no different. Their sex drive is the underlying stimulus for their transition and it shapes their lives.
As she grows up amongst other TS, non-TS bekis and girls, ladyboys learn a set of life goals; one of these is finding the ‘life partner’. There is no Asian transwoman who has not, at some time in her life, yearned for this with all her being.
Why do beautiful – by anyone’s measure – ladyboys of twenty or even less, throw themselves with such passion at Western men in their 50s and 60s?
It’s because these are hubby material. Forget the paunch, the baldness, the lines and wrinkles. Forget, even, that he has probably broken not a few ladyboy hearts already or, perhaps worse, that he is a known ‘monger’ – a seeker of paid sexual services, a sex adventurer and tourist. These are terrible flaws but remember, his true Princess can, with one kiss, turn this unprepossessing frog into a real Prince.
Of course, it’s crazy. With the best will in the world, a girl of twenty hooking up with a man of fifty is going to be alone in middle age and that is assuming that all goes well and he dies in harness: which is not, we have to say, the profile of the typical Western lover of ladyboys. Far more likely is that the novelty will wear off or he will become fed up being niggled for money.
There might be half a million or more TS women in the Phils and if one percent of those have real boyfriends, in stable relationships, I’ll eat my hat. So the competition is intense and our ageing Lothario knows his number will come up sooner rather than later. Essentially he is like a boy who’s just been paid his pocket-money being left to his devices in a sweetie shop.
It just doesn’t matter how beautiful, sweet, or loving his distant girlfriend might be, there are hundreds, thousands more where she came from and they all want the same thing – that ‘life partner’. And they will do anything it takes to acquire one.
It is a totally unfair pitch. For every man willing to commit to a ladyboy, there are thousands of ladyboys; maybe tens of thousands. The result is that ladyboys take insecurity to levels rarely seen elsewhere and this feeds directly into jealousy. They throw themselves at men old enough to be their grandfathers and then agonise over every other girl who ever smiles at him. This can have explosive results, potentially injurious to both parties, especially in a culture where jealousy is seen as a sign of true love.[iii]
The men attracted to ladyboys
The situation is complicated by the sexual desires of the men attracted to transwomen. Research[iv] shows that about half of such men are autogynephilic, that is to say, they are attracted to the idea of being women themselves. This might express itself in a desire to cross-dress, but far more commonly in a desire to be penetrated. They seek ‘sex as a woman’ — to be fucked.
All men who desire this are either homosexual – in which case they will rarely be with a ladyboy — or autogynephilic. However, ladyboys may never have heard that term. For a ladyboy, all gender non-conforming boys are ‘gay’ and two gays together makes a lesbian relationship.[v] This is of no interest to the vast majority of ladyboys, because their sexualised romantic partner is a straight manly man. And one thing straight manly men do not do, in the Asian conception, is let themselves be penetrated.
The moment of truth
So while it is true that some ladyboys do desire to penetrate, those are not seeking serious relationships with men. Well, they might, when they are young and naive, but they soon learn that men like this cannot live up to the romantic, heroic ideal that they require in a ‘life partner’, because they are women in bed. At what South American travestis call ‘the moment of truth’ they fail.
It is pointless for the man to protest that he is ‘not gay’ because ‘gay’ has a different meaning in Asia. Whereas in the West, the Freudian sense — that it means ‘attracted to masculinity’, for a man — has become universal and exclusive, throughout the rest of the world it means ‘gender non-conforming’ in terms of appearance, desire and sexuality; and, crucially, that to desire to be penetrated makes a man gay.
There is no debate about this. The quaint Western self-deception, which suggests that the trendy conceits of a few American academics mean more than thousands of years of recorded human history, cuts no ice here. Straight men do not get fucked. Period. The definition of gay is to wish to be penetrated.
So ‘gay’ in the Philippines, is a much broader term than the Western one. Autogynephilic men, by desiring to be penetrated, put themselves into it, whether they like it or not. They become, immediately, ‘bakla’ – just like every other gay and ladyboy there.
Sex work: money and affirmation — but not love
The consequence of this, and of having her dreams soured once too often, is frequently that the girl turns to sex work. Now, while not all sex workers penetrate, there is a huge premium payable for being willing to do so. Because so many trans-attracted men are autogynephilic or, sometimes, homophobic homosexuals who seek to be penetrated and are, usually, in deep stealth about this at home, they come to Asia where they will spend as much as it might take to have a pretty girl service them.
The girl gets affirmation that she is attractive in a competitive market-place. She gets money. But she will never have love, because the ladyboy requires to be loved by a ‘manly man’ in order to surrender herself to him. Within the ideal model of ‘life partnership’ that she has been conditioned to believe must be her goal, a man and a woman must be hopelessly, totally in love with each other for the ‘true love’ to be achieved. And in this framework, a man who desires to be penetrated is another gay and so incapable of giving the girl what she needs in her lover.
It doesn’t take too many cycles of desperately hoping that ‘this is the one’ only to be let down at the ‘moment of truth’ to make a girl wise up and recognise reality. As one said to me, ‘I’m fed up with these men coming on all macho but as soon as they’re naked on the bed, they’re backing on to me like a woman.’ Sex work toughens the girl up; she might never have the man she so desires, but she will not starve in the meantime.
Reality and Fantasy
Now ladyboys are not idiots. They do understand the difference between reality and fantasy – frequently far better than their autogynephilic Western counterparts, who are deluded. Ladyboys know they are not ‘real women’. But that does not mean they will not suck up and digest all of the stereotypes and preconceptions that the tele-series and other media drip into them. After all, they will never bleed. They can’t conceive a new life inside them. They can never pass through the ordeal of parturition. They can never, ever, take their place in the ranks of mothers. Their status as women remains forever indeterminate and subject to, indeed requiring, continual reaffirmation.
So they don’t just swallow the tele-series view of how and what a woman should be, they improve on it. They gold-plate it. And in doing so they put themselves on a pedestal – just as a man might.
This, I have become only too well aware, causes problems for the men involved with ladyboys. We have a lot to live up to, and any deviation from the plot is likely to derail the entire shebang.
No man really knows what his partner expects of him, because she expects him just to know it intuitively, as another woman might. Men are not like that. Men tell each other what they expect in relationships. It is the foundation of law, for goodness’ sake.
One can imagine Hammurabi becoming so fed up, with the relentless bickering of the women surrounding him, that he finally cracked and set up his famous stone in the marketplace, with its 270–odd laws engraved upon it. Then he might have turned to the women and said ‘There! That is how things are. Just do whatever it says on that stone. Can I please have some peace now?’ – and so bequeathed to the world its systems of civilised justice.
However, with a little time and practise, most of us learn to accurately predict the reactions of our partners, even if they remain forever inexplicable.
I remember, with one of my first girlfriends, my inexperience made me somewhat gentle in sex. For some reason, one night, I was much more authoritative with her. It wasn’t rough sex, but I did do her good and proper. At the end of it she was in tears.
‘Why are you crying?’
‘I feel like I’ve been delved, like I’ve been ravished.’
I thought, okay, I’ll go back to the old way. The next night, after a few moments’ entry, she stopped me. ‘What are you doing?’ she demanded.
‘Not like that, you idiot! Like last night!’
You see what I mean. But we learn to read the runes and auguries and can make a passingly good fist of pretending that we understand what is going on between our beloved’s ears.
Venus and Mars
At the same time, however, women do not understand men, however much they might wish to. We are always a little mysterious, a little unpredictable. Sometimes, we can use this to effect, by surprising her. A bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates. Always most effective when not expected.
Learn this: you will never, ever, have that luxury with a transwoman. And it gets worse.
Every day she will surprise you – and that is, indeed, a part of her unique charm. But you will never, ever surprise her. I said, in ‘The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train’ that all transwomen have a box in their heads marked ‘guy’ and they can open it any time they like to see what a man would do in any position one finds herself in. Every time, she’s going to be there ahead of you. That is why ladyboys, transsexuals all over the world, seem like mind-reading cats. They’re not reading your mind, they’re reading their own – but that part of it that is guy.
So here you have the ultimate conundrum. Whether she is HSTS or AGP – and the former are far more naturally feminine – her understanding of men is deeper and more intuitive than women’s.[vi] You have no chance. You will never convincingly lie to a ladyboy. She will get you every time, with an accuracy that is positively scary.
Infusion by tele-series
The fact that a ladyboy’s womanhood is derived from a hopelessly idealised and stereotypical understanding, infused into her mind through tele-series, of what it is to be a woman, comes with a consequence: her view of men is derived from exactly the same source.
So you, my trans-attracted Lothario, are not only unable to get away with any nonsense, you are expected to live up to the ideals of masculinity expressed in the tele-series, which, believe me, are not less fantastic than those of femininity.
This means that being in love with a ladyboy is a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions and only serious adventurers should consider it.
Now I am not talking about just having sex with ladyboys. That is fairly straightforward, though it may be more intense and passionate than you’re used to. Not to mention noisy.
No, I mean when you both genuinely love each other, and this can and does happen. But there are downsides.
You will live through the intense dramas that you see enacted every night on the television. Your lover has no other insight into love. It is all totally passionate, nails grasping at the edge of the precipice, stuff. Drama is so far over the top that it is outside the moon’s orbit. It is intense and every day.
The effect of this is that the relationship ages quickly. You’ll have five times as much unbelievable sex as you would with a natal girl, five times as many rows, and they will be five times as intense. After a couple of years – if you last that long – you’re exhausted.
It’s a rare relationship between a straight man and a ladyboy that lasts, and for those couples who make it, I have nothing but respect.
[i] Curiously, perhaps, none of these publications, at least in the Philippines, concerns the love-lives of ladyboys or bekis. Instead they are targeted at natal women. One might think that a significant market were being overlooked here.
[ii] Contrast this with the oft-made claim, by Western gay ‘men’ that transwomen are ‘failed gays’. An Asian TS would positively laugh at the idea. For her there is no advantage to appearing to be a man; it would be a quintessential denial of her true nature. Gay ‘men’, to her, must not have the courage, or the looks, or the opportunity to be the girls on the outside that they indubitably must be on the inside. After all, what kind of woman presents herself as a man? (Answer: a lesbian; but there are no lesbian ladyboys.)
[iii] The author keenly remembers being attacked with an eight-inch kitchen knife because his then partner saw an image of another ladyboy on his computer. It was an illustration for an article and she is actually insane. But still.
[vi] HSTS transwomen often say they don’t understand men, but they are somewhat intermediate; they understand men better than women do, which is not at all. AGPs understand men perfectly, which can be a curse or a blessing, depending on the context. On the other hand, they don’t understand women at all, which leads to significant problems, especially visible in the West.
This is a chapter from my forthcoming book, Travels with a Ladyboy. You can read other sections here and here. Travels with a Ladyboy will be ready in the New Year. Meantime, why not enjoy some more tales of trans love, travestis and ladyboys by reading The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train?
Also published on Medium.