Pain as Self-Care: Why Transgender is Not a Fetish

“I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.” — Frank the Monster, “Hellraiser”

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick

A recent conversation spurred me to consider my childhood and how it informed my current transgender experience. Like many transgender women, I was diagnosed with a “fetish” — a fascination with women’s lingerie and clothing linked to sexual arousal. However, like any aspect of our identities, the fascination — and arousal — must originate somewhere, even if we choose to repress it.

Transgender girls are brainwashed to believe that what we feel is evil: against the will of gods and certain to send us to Hell. Why — knowing what I did about my actions — did I choose to engage in them? Why did dressing in women’s clothing cause arousal?

The quote above is from the movie “Hellraiser,” which features a group of people named Cenobites — Priests and Priestesses of Leviathan — who seek pure carnal experience and commingle pleasure and pain, until the two become indistinguishable.

My transgender experience is similar, albeit somewhat less intense. I needed the shame and the pain because it was a form of self-care. In order to feel whole, I needed to fracture myself. I was capable of transcending my error of pain as pleasure only by accepting I am transgender.

Sexual arousal from cross-dressing

My experience with cross-dressing began early in life. I recall dressing up in long paisley dresses with my sister. We called ourselves “Miss Issipi” and “Louise Iana.” We were six or eight years old, and I felt completely natural during our play. I’m curious now where the paisley dresses came from — I don’t remember any of my three sisters wearing them. Perhaps they only sat in the closet, waiting for me to come out wearing one.

By the time I was 11 or 12, my sister and I were not dressing up together, but I had not stopped dressing up. It had taken on a private sense, one that made me feel strange, needing to touch myself. Like many transgender girls, I dressed up because it aroused me. And because I was discovering my sexuality, I felt aroused and wanted to dress up.

The feeling of arousal persisted into my twenties. When I finally lost my virginity to the woman who would — obviously — marry me and be with me forever, I dressed in her clothing when she was at work.

She had a gorgeous burgundy dress from The Broadway. I remember it cost $200, which was two weeks’ salary for me. She told me she got 30% off as an employee, however, so technically she saved a hundred bucks. It must have made sense at the time.

When my fiancé discovered I had stretched out her dress, she demanded that I find a psychologist. Wearing her dress was not normal and she would not stand for it. Being a student, I went to the university health center and met Phil the Psychologist. It was Phil who told me I was all right — but I did have a fetish, and we needed to figure out how to manage it.

I didn’t like the idea of a fetish. The word itself sounds dirty and ugly. What I did was clean and beautiful.

My fiancé disagreed, took her dress, and moved out. She broke up with me, and I was devastated. Not enough to agree not to wear her dress, but still sad.

Pain and pleasure, indivisible

Reviewing the arousal from dressing up in the context of my current sexuality and gender transition, I see an obvious connection. To be blunt, I am aroused by feelings of shame and humiliation. Dressing up — when I knew I flouted the will of deities and courted eternity in Hell — brought with it powerful feelings of shame. I equated society’s rejection of who I am with love for my body. I transmuted pain into pleasure.

I wonder what part of my identity came first — did I enjoy shame first? Or did I enjoy being feminine first? That they became linked makes sense to me, but I am curious whether I truly enjoy pain or whether my transgender was strong enough to allow me to disregard it. I began writing these articles in part to explain that — by accepting my transgender and beginning hormone therapy — I have experienced emotional and physical pain like I had never before. Perhaps I could not recognize what I felt was pain.

But the origin of arousal from the shame of dressing up is clear — because it ended during graduate school.

I still have a clear memory of one morning in Georgia; maybe I had a dream the night before that I forgot — I don’t know. But I awoke with a clear realization of two aspects of my identity. First, I was attracted both to men and women. Second, I was — in some arcane fashion— composed of both male and female, masculine and feminine.

The third realization, which took place moments later, is that both the previous realizations were not only acceptable, they were good.

The shame I experienced for being attracted to men during high school and college melted. The shame I experienced for dressing up and losing the alleged Love of my Life slipped away. I was normal. Bisexual, transgender, and normal.

Shame as a modality of self-care

I speak for no other transgender people when I acknowledge that shame and humiliation is associated with sexual arousal for me. Several other transgender people have nodded uncomfortably when I said it, but I cannot speak for their experiences. In my life, pain has been a form of self-care. I admit, it never lasted — I could dress up at night, go out, then come home and turn back to myself — but I wanted to dress up the next night.

Self-care is an ongoing concern. We always need to care for ourselves, and I did by accepting the shame society placed on me. I am not surprised in the least to find the deepest celebration of my identity — my preferences in the sexual act — continue to revolve around humiliation and loss of control. I’ve been trained my entire life to associate the two. When I loved myself, society hated me. When I allowed society to lead me, I hated myself.

Six months into hormone therapy, my understanding of my body and its pleasures have evolved. The sensations when I am touched have evolved. The deep-down satisfaction in orgasm has evolved. All it took — all my soul required — was to reject the role society gave me.

Acceptance as a modality of self-care

Regular readers will recognize I pound the drum of identity and our critical need to explore it as the method to evolve humanity. No person should be forced to choose pain over pleasure. No person should be forced to subvert their knowledge and accept pain as pleasure. Yet this is what society asks of us.

My story deals with transgender. But the need to accept shame as self-care applies to many other human issues. Body dysmorphia — anorexia in particular — forces a choice either to eat in shame or die conforming to society’s fashion ideals. Being gay or lesbian forces a choice either to live a life of love in shame or die in society’s good graces, having never loved at all.

These are false choices — society is us. You are society and I am — we decide what is shameful. Maybe 2023 is a little late to save my childhood. It is not too late to make life better for the next generation of the LGBTQ community.

Screw you, society. I intend to wear a skirt.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

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