There is perhaps no word with which I have a more complicated relationship than “sissy”. It’s followed me around my whole life. It’s a little bit like the other words that people have used to describe me: being attracted to men was enough to make me “faggot” even though I’m bisexual, and when I transitioned it, unsurprisingly, made me a “tranny” in the eyes of many. So it is with being feminine and having grown up as a boy: that was enough to attract the label “sissy”, and so a sissy I was called and I grew to loathe the term with a white hot passion.
But in other ways “sissy” is not like the other words. Nobody called me “faggot” until I had a sexual orientation to speak of, which for me came rather late. Nobody called me “tranny” or “t-girl” until I transitioned, which was later still. My emotional reactions to those words were formed later in life, in my teens, twenties, and thirties. They are the emotions of an adult. I can understand those emotions, analyse them. But “sissy” is different: that one has been there since early childhood, and my emotions about it are more intense and less tractable.
Part of what makes the word “sissy” so difficult for me is that it has different meanings. I was first a sissy because I was a feminine boy. I associate that word with the violence that inevitably followed, with being something worse than a girl (where of course it is understood in a patriarchal world that girls are less worthy than boys). A sissy is something worse than either, a disgusting caricature of femininity, something to be beaten and abused because of our collective shame that such creatures have the gall even to exist. The peculiar venom with which feminine boys are targeted has echoes of transmisogyny, but as a I child I did not have the conceptual tools to understand it. All I knew is that I was disgusting, and I have been running from that label my whole life.
In adulthood “sissy” acquires a different meaning. Yes, it can still be used the same way as as it is with children: it could be used as a pejorative term for an effeminate man or a trans woman. But often it is used as a sexual term. As with the non-sexual construal, sexual sissies can be feminine men or they can be trans women, but either way a sissy is someone male-assigned, male-attracted, feminine, and submissive. Men call me “sissy” in bed the same way they call me “slut” or “whore”. It’s a term used to humiliate, and – without wanting to dive too deeply into the particulars of my experience – it accompanies other forms of sexual objectification and degradation. Sometimes that degradation is consensual and agreed to beforehand, but often it is not. The use of force and non-consensual violation are common in pornographic sissy tropes, and that is – unfortunately – reflected in how we are treated in real life.
It is with good reason, then, that I associate myself with the word “sissy” and with the violence, disgust, dehumanisation, sexualisation, degradation, and objectification directed at those to whom the label is applied. The word makes me angry, but in truth that anger masks fear and shame.
There is a simple feminism 101 analysis of words like sissy and — like most 101-level analyses — it is wrong. The analysis starts by correctly noting that the word is fundamentally misogynistic: a feminine boy is called a sissy because he is seen to be similar to a girl, and in a patriarchal world girls are devalued. As far as it goes there is nothing inaccurate here, but in most (perhaps all?) cases where I have seen this observation made, it is immediately used as a rhetorical pivot to place cisgender girls at the centre of the analysis, and often to explicitly reject any claim that the focus of the analysis should in fact be the “sissy boys” who it labels. The real victims of the sissy schema, apparently, are cisgender women and girls? All that violence I’ve experienced wasn’t even about me, apparently. As a consequence of being a sissy I’ve been beaten, abused, raped, violated, and degraded. I have been terrified my whole life over this, and I am supposed to simply ignore this and focus on the cisgender women who are the real victims? I’m so unimportant that my own abuse is in fact “about” someone else. I shouldn’t have to point out how utterly appalling this is, but apparently I do, because this cis-focused perspective is quite common.
Where the 101-level analysis goes awry, I think, is in failing to recognise that “sissy” is not only misogyny, it is transmisogyny also. There is a very ugly form of violence that is reserved for those of us who are transfeminine: because we are women (or similar to women) we can be targeted for sexual violence and degradation, but because we are male-assigned we can also be portrayed as the perpetrators of the violence that targets us, and deemed ineligible for any protections and sympathy that might be accorded to a (white, middle-class) cisgender woman.
What I mean is this: Imagine a scenario in which man forces a woman to her knees, spits in her mouth, calls her a whore and a slut, hits her, chokes her, and treats her as a sexual object, nothing more than receptacle for cum. He comes in her mouth and expects her to swallow. He videos the whole thing. Without the explicit negotiations and discussions that are mandatory in a kink context, this feels pretty rapey. It reads like the description of a sexual assault. We don’t presume that women enjoy being treated this way, so we interpret it as non-consensual by default.
Now imagine the same scenario, but with a sissy in the submissive role. It doesn’t quite feel equivalent, does it? Different defaults apply. When the scenario involves a cis woman, it is presumed to be sexual assault and not consensual kink. When it involves a sissy, it is presumed to be consensual kink and not sexual assault. The sissy is assumed to have consented to sexual degradation, that she enjoys it even. It’s assumed that the sissy wants it because when the “sissy” schema is invoked in a sexual context, it doesn’t map “transfeminine people” onto women generally. Rather, it maps us onto the subcategory of women picked out by “slut”, “whore”, etc. Sissies are grouped with the women who are — by the lights of a patriarchal ideology — deemed to be unsympathetic when they are targeted by sexual violence. There is a lot of implicit whorephobia and slutshaming that lurks not too far beneath the surface when the sexual version of the sissy script is applied. On top of that there is a layer of pathologising: it is presumed that the sissy is as she is because of her sexual fetishes. Rather than being seen as the target of a man’s desire to violate, she is seen as the instigator. The sissy is assumed to be a pervert, a “shemale”, and in this sense her sexuality is treated more like male deviancy than anything we’d typically associate with women.
As far as I can tell, a sissy can be viewed as both a man and a woman, and she may be be subjected to whichever gendered script prescribes the most negative interpretation of her. She embodies the very worst of both worlds. This, ultimately, is unsurprising: in my experience, that’s how transmisogyny works.
I sometimes wonder if the word “sissy” can ever be reclaimed.
When I was young the word “queer” was a homophobic slur. It isn’t really used that way anymore: because the word was co-opted by the population it formerly targeted, it’s largely been reclaimed by queers. For most of us, it’s not perceived as a negative anymore. But not every word is like that. I can’t speak for anyone else who has been targeted by “faggot” or “tranny”, but those don’t feel reclaimed at all. They both feel like slurs. “Sissy” has the same feel to me: it’s still a slur.
Is there any sense in which I can view my lifelong association with this word as a positive? The word is strongly tied to the femininity of male-assigned people, and it is overwhelmingly negative in its connotations. Yet my femininity is not a flaw. I am soft, I am gentle, and I am sensitive. I am caring, I am kind, and I am modest. Or at least these are the values I aspire to. These are feminine-coded virtues, not character flaws. But because I was expected to be masculine, these attributes were not perceived as virtues: I was punished for displaying these characteristics, and — in an extremely non-metaphorical way — quite violently, too. The fact that I value my femininity and have preserved that about myself in the face of considerable opposition now seems like strength, like resilience. This is worthy of pride. It is a reason to have self-respect. To have been a sissy my entire life is not a mark of shame. It is a mark of survival and self-preservation in a hostile world.
Even so, I loathe the word. It has not been reclaimed, and maybe never will be.
- Posted on:
- December 31, 2021
- 8 minute read, 1567 words
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