She began to touch it gently, like something really beautiful. “You know, you could make a woman feel real good with this thing. Maybe better than she ever felt in her life.” She stopped stroking the dildo. “Or you could really hurt her, and remind her of all the ways she’s ever been hurt in her life. You got to think about that every time you strap this on. Then you’ll be a good lover.”
—From “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg

Leslie Feinberg, transgender warrior and author of the novel I’m quoting, died last week. Ze died from Lyme disease, worsened by barriers to accessing medical care that shorten the lives of far too many people who are trans or gender non-conforming.

Feinberg’s last words were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” Ze also identified as secular Jewish. Indeed, the main character of “Stone Butch Blues” is Jess Goldberg, who grew up Jewish, white and working class in Buffalo in the ‘50s, attending a high school where the Jewish students were middle-class and the working-class students were black. The novel is about all of these systems of differentiation, separation and oppression.

Jess, as the title suggests, is also butch. What does it mean to be butch? I can’t tell you. Read the book. Ask butch-identified friends what the word means to them. Read other books.

As a teenager, Jess finds a bar in Seneca Falls where she befriends Jacqueline and Jacqueline’s lover, Butch Al. They are both older (maybe in their 20s?) and they take in Jess. At one point that summer, Butch Al explains sex. Then Butch Al leaves the room, and Jacqueline comes over. “It’s not just about mechanics,” she says.

And then she proceeds to give the best advice I’ve ever heard.

It’s not about how to have sex. Or about how to get someone to have sex with you. Or about how to give someone an orgasm.

It’s about how to be in sex. How to be with a sexual partner. How to feel the impact you’re having on another human being. The power. The potential. The possibilities of the moment.

The possibilities of pleasure and pain.

The power of the sexual moment, a single sexual encounter, to trigger or transform our memories of all the other moments and all other encounters we’ve had up to that point in our lives.

In a very meaningful way, this advice is about how to be a good butch lover to a femme partner. Read the novel for more about what that might mean. Or read the work of Minnie Bruce Pratt, Feinberg’s partner. Or ask for other recommendations.

In another way, though, this advice that Jacqueline gives is inherent to sex itself. It’s about all of us. It’s about how to love a trauma survivor. It’s about how to touch someone with tenderness where they’ve been touched before with cruelty. It’s about holding each other’s vulnerability.

As a femme-identified person reading the novel, as a trauma survivor, as a human, I reflect on Jacqueline’s advice and think about what it means for people who want to have sex with me. Then I turn her words inside out and realize it’s also about holding my own vulnerability each time I enter a sexual encounter. What would Jacqueline have said to a teenage femme?

Perhaps something like…
You can feel real good with this thing. Maybe better than you ever felt in your life. Or you could really hurt, and remember all the ways you’ve ever been hurt in your life.

That’s sex. That’s what it’s like to have sex. That’s part of deciding whether to have sex, deciding if you’re ready to have sex, deciding if this person is a good partner for sex, deciding if you want to have sex with this person today, here, now.

What if we taught that in sex ed? What if that was one of the main messages of the curriculum? Both sides of the message. The part where I get in touch with my own vulnerability, and the part where I hold the vulnerability of my partner.

This message is the root of all the other things I try to teach—giving and getting consent, communicating with honesty and authenticity, even using barrier methods to prevent STI transmission. All of that is in the service of aiming for better than she ever felt in her life instead of all the ways she’s ever been hurt in her life.

Wait, I don’t want to be using gendered language at this point. Just as there is something particular here to queerness and to butch/femme queerness, there is also something meaningful in pointing to the systems of sexism that shape the lives of women. And I want to write in a way that is trans-inclusive, especially given the high rates at which people who are trans or gender nonconforming are sexually assaulted. And, as well, even the most heterosexual and gender-conforming man can be hurt in and through sex.

In the service of imagination, I’m going to rewrite the sex-ed lesson with gender-inclusive phrasing, and position us all as simultaneously vulnerable ourselves and responsible for each other’s vulnerability. (Oh, and also it’s not just about dildos and strap-ons. You can have sex in lots of different ways.) So here’s the new sex talk outline:

  • You could make people feel real good, maybe better than they ever felt in their lives.
  • Or you could really hurt them, and remind them of all the ways they’ve ever been hurt in their lives.
  • You could also feel real good yourself, maybe better than you have ever felt in your life.
  • Or you could get really hurt, and remember all the ways you’ve ever been hurt in your life.

That’s sex. That’s the power. Every time.