Assembling intimacy as method to research trans sex

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This project investigates how trans people engage with and produce trans sex(ualities), with the aims of exploring (1) the tools and practices trans people use to mediate sexual experiences and embody sexual selves, and (2) the conditions that shape sexual experiences, giving rise to trans plurality. Data were generated using intimate and creative methods with six trans people based in the UK. Taking an assemblage view of trans sex(ualities), the data were analysed in two ways. Firstly, Thematic New Materialist Analysis (TNMA) was used to draw out the human and non-human components of trans sex assemblages – these are the tools and practices we use to mediate sexual experiences or embody sexual selves (aim 1). Secondly, visual and textual Assemblage Analysis (AA) was used to show how these components shape sexual experiences by opening-up and closing-down capacities for pleasure, connection, consent, and bodily autonomy – these are the conditions that produce trans plurality (aim 2). A meta-aim of the project sought to investigate how a trans, disabled scholar engages with and produces trans sex research. To this end, embodied and creative writing and drawing produced by me throughout the project – a method termed autophenomenography – makes visible the production of the research and researcher as a ‘research-assemblage’. I call this approach to research ‘intimacy as method’.

The emergence of ‘trans’ as psychopathology frames sex as inherently problematic, restricting our heterogeneity. The dominant discourse of being ‘trapped in the wrong body’ - enshrined by diagnostic criteria and regulatory medico-legal practices - positions trans people as intelligible via one singular narrative. Based on structuring concepts rooted in heterosexism, cisnormativity, and binary thinking, any expression of gender and sexuality outside of these rigid norms is rendered ‘improper’. This trans singularity forecloses diverse trans sexual materialities. Trans sexualities remain an under researched area. Most extant literature theorises ‘trans’ as either solely socially constructed, or essentialised, which belies the material-discursive entanglement trans people report. The majority of scholarship is in the field of medicine, shoring up essentialised trans singularity. Social research has tended to focus on relationships and orientations rather than sexual practices, often deploying methods that focus on the discursive, replicate singular narratives of sexual suffering, and have a selection bias that amplifies both clinical intervention and issues unique to early-stage transition.

Using TNMA I addressed the first research aim by drawing out the tools and practices used to mediate sexual experiences and embody sexual selves. These are grouped thematically, such as: alternative sex practices, energy sex, hormones and surgeries, detachable tools, and discursive practices. Viewing tools and practices as components of broader trans sex assemblages provided a basis for understanding trans plurality and informed my analytic approach to the second aim: I used AA to explore the conditions of trans sex assemblages, exposing the expanding and contracting forces that (re/de)stablise events, demonstrating what opens-up and closes-down capacities for pleasure, connection, consent, and bodily autonomy. These forces included knowledge about – and access to – the tools and practices; trans role models; resistance to cisnormative discursive scripts; informed and available healthcare providers and partners. Addressing the aim of exposing the research-assemblage, autophenomenographic methods were used to show the meta-process of research itself. This thesis details the components that (re/de)stabilise the research and the researcher, such as: institutional policies and practices; knowledge hierarchies; discourses of acceptability and stigma; technologies of research; virulent transphobia; global pandemic; climate crisis; disability and ableism; and white supremacy.

The research concludes that trans people employ a range of technologies of fucking, with often-affirming results, making use of the tools and practices in plural ways to embody sexual selves and mediate sexual experiences. These findings should be available via clinical and sex education settings, with diagnostic criteria and treatment protocols radically reconfigured to make space for trans pluralities. The neoliberal approach to improving sex lives assumes singular and ubiquitous utility of bodily practices. A more liberatory approach considers the conditions that expand pleasure, connection, consent, and bodily autonomy. In the future I intend to build on this research by making plural and relational approaches to trans sex available within trans communities.

Date of AwardApr 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorLaetitia Zeeman (Supervisor), James Ravenhill (Supervisor) & Hannah Frith (Supervisor)

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