Juno Roche’s Queer Sex: A Trans and Nonbinary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships may have “guide” in the subtitle, but in the introduction Roche writes, “This isn’t a guide book but it is a book in which I hope to honestly lay myself bare and share stories and experiences from others and to celebrate the potential of our wonderful bodies and lives.” And lay herself bare she does, not just in the intro, where she writes openly of her “vaginal landing” as a trans woman after surgery, but also of her fantasy that her “neo-vagina” would allow her to magically enter a world of glorious and uncomplicated heterosexual sex, a fantasy dashed once she experiences, instead, “a deconstruction of all of me.”
It’s this deconstruction that Queer Sex celebrates. Roche writes, “I’m left in bits and pieces which I can now put back together in any chosen structure I like.” In order to figure out what structure might work best, she interviews other trans and nonbinary people in England (where she lives) about sex, desire, intimacy, and relationships. Here I talk with Juno Roche about challenging expectations around sex and gender, resisting binary norms and subcultural hierarchies, strategizing for self-invention and autonomy, and the radical potential of trans bodies and lives.
I love how your book is called Queer Sex, and yet in the intro you reveal that you haven’t had sex in years—for me, this immediately flips the expectations of sex positivity, where we’re all supposed to be having such amazing sex all the time. Tell me what drew you to frame the book through your own longing.
I framed the book this way because it felt like the only way I could do it. I couldn’t write a book about sex, trans bodies and genitals, or the changes we make without being honest about my own inability to get it right or at least explore it openly and with self-respect. I wanted and want intimacy, sex, and pleasure and I felt that I needed to go on a journey to find out perhaps what baggage I was carrying that might be getting in my way, to find out how I viewed my own body and sexuality. So, it felt like the only way to do this was to own my feelings openly. I love conversations and community, [so] it felt right that I might find some answers or space with others.
I try to have a policy throughout all of my writing, which is that I take the chances first. I become vulnerable first. I become open first. I think it especially matters if you want other people to accompany you on that journey. Who really wants a book on sex from someone who is absolutely getting it right? The places where we learn and move on and perhaps disrupt are often gaps, fractures, hairline cracks. It’s important that I step off first of all, and in this book I do it by the end of paragraph one. I own being middle-aged and wanting sex—not needing but wanting—and I excitedly move off to take advice from others. That’s challenging to me, but also it disrupts my silence around sex and as someone who describes myself as queer it feels important to be able to shift my parameters.
Often, we’re led to believe that sex is the pinnacle of embodiment. Yet several of the people you interview describe having much more sex before transition but feeling much more embodied after transition. What do you make of this?
It’s a strange thing really the way we as people have a hierarchy of touch and intimacy that ends in two bodies coming together and having a good fit—an easy fit. After I transitioned, I struggled to find an easy fit with the cis men and their dicks that I had before—it wasn’t essentially physical, more emotional and spiritual even. I wanted to find my fit or fits. After I had my cock and balls upcycled into a neo-vagina I felt that I had a queer core. Ironically, I’d assumed that a vagina would be simplistically binary and answer all those questions, but she didn’t; she came complete with really interesting dilemmas and openings and potential. It just took me by surprise; I think it does with many of us. Many of the people I interviewed talked about surgery becoming an embodying, almost philosophical process rather than one that ended with simple straightforward sex. Trans is a wonderful identity, but I think we are told by society that it isn’t one we should linger in for too long, whereas my neo-vagina felt like the confirmation that I had been born transgender. For me that felt exciting.
Autonomy is one of the book’s persistent themes. As Margo, one of your interviewees, frames it, “I just want to be independent from a system. My transition is about my assertion of independence.” And, as you write, “I have such hope for our collective futures that people are not shamed for not having surgery and not shamed for having surgery. It should be much more open.” Talk about the openness that you are invoking.
I spent years thinking about being wrong—wrong body, wrong identity, wrong everything—and therefore never present in my own frame. Drugs, more drugs, sex, bad sex, and finally HIV—a lot of that I put down to not being present in myself, and therefore compliant to society and binary structures. When I transitioned, I kind of felt that again—people asking me what femininizing I would have done, what surgeries, people advising me to have voice coaching, the list went on and on. Again, it made me feel absent from my own body, constantly being pushed into systems I didn’t believe in. I wanted autonomy and independence from the trans framework as it stood, especially after the supposed tipping point, which for me was more about an acceptance into a sexist framework.
I wanted conversations that were open and devoid of shame, and it became important in the interviews to set boundaries for excluding trans tropes and trans societal expectations. So many people are excluded from the current sense of trans success. You have to want normativity, perhaps visual heteronormativity, and to uphold structures around positionality in society. Fuck that. I’d helped to set up one of the first LGBT housing co-ops in London in the early ’90s, I knew I liked co-operativity and working as part of an outsider movement. Being an unhappy part of a submissive internal system was not something I felt transitioning needed to demand of me.
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There are many moments in the book when I found myself crying, and one of them is in the interview with Kuchenga, a writer and activist who talks about racism and transphobia in gay male sexual culture. She says, “I knew that if I was going to carry on pretending to be a gay man, then I wouldn’t make it to 40.” She’s pointing to the hierarchies in gay male sexual culture that often mimic all the worst aspects of dominant straight culture. Why do you think so many supposed subcultures are so oppressive to anyone who doesn’t fit into a narrow range of prescribed behaviors?
Firstly, I have to say that interviewing Kuchenga was a turning point for me. We connected on many levels and I felt able to really talk about my sex work experience with someone who got it [and] understood. It was very emotional for me.
I think any existing culture or subculture that has its roots and feet firmly planted in generic capitalism (i.e. it doesn’t seek to create a robust micro version of its own) will inevitably have limited space to freely exist, and therefore other minorities threaten the actual space. Being pushed out of society is tough, so gay men sought to emulate and replicate because it felt and feels comfortable and easier. You cannot blame anyone for wanting ease in this short life of ours. But it does create tensions. I think we’re getting better though as we begin to honor intersectionality—not understand or sympathize, that does fuck-all for people’s happiness or safety. But the more we honor and hear intersectionality we realize that fighting over an ever-fluctuating pond is serving a system we don’t own and a system that helps no one. We are all linked and the quicker we realize that, the quicker we might create a far better space.
You talk about your own fears, as an HIV-positive trans woman, about being rejected due to your HIV-positive status, and yet this wasn’t something that came up in the interviews. Do you have a sense of why this was the case?
I’m HIV-positive, have been for more of my life than not, and have learnt, often through harsh lessons, that those that aren’t don’t get it at all—on many levels, thank god they don’t. The stigma that’s parceled up in HIV is so insidious that only by being HIV-positive do you understand its depth and weight. It didn’t come up in the interviews because it was my stuff and the book was about me, yes, but much more about the sex and intimacy that we as a community are seeking to build. I’ve started a new book and hope to explore stigma much more within that.
Some of the questions you ask are surprisingly detailed about other people’s bodies, especially with other trans women. There were definitely moments when I felt kind of taken aback, but at the same time it’s at these moments when you have some of the most intimate realizations. And some great practical advice, like when Michelle, co-founder of cliniQ, a trans health clinic in London, suggests using a vibrator instead of a dilator, freeing you to explore your own desire, rather than simply expanding your pussy for some imagined phallus. I’m wondering if you could talk about your choice to ask questions about other trans people’s bodies in ways that might be perceived as invasive.
We have almost silently been forbidden from talking about our genitals, be they cocks or cunts, by everyone—trans included. A few years ago, when I wrote many articles about my vagina being a feminist work of art and a femme sculptural piece, trans people attacked me as they said I was making us sound different from other women. I found it so odd and said back to them that all women are different, but our post-surgical genitals are not the same as theirs, and I think it’s important that we meet and explore our trans bodies on their own terms and realities. I honestly feel that we as trans and nonbinary communities have an absolute right to explore our bodies deeply, openly, and with complete integrity, not as some weird facsimile of biological parts. My vagina is an upcycled cock and balls; it’s a fascinating cave, [and] I wanted to talk openly and to do that I had to ask questions that pushed at the boundaries.
Everyone in the book is so eloquent and the perspectives are so varied. How did you find your interviewees, and were there a lot of interviews or segments of interviews that you decided not to include?
Nope, the interviews happened in a line, one after the other—I had a process of writing them up the next day verbatim with very few changes, often my waffling on I edited [out], but none of their words. I knew there were a couple of people I wanted to interview because I fancied them, I found them attractive, and I worked out that possibly it was because they were having sex with people. So I didn’t interview them to hit on them, but I did know that the attraction mattered; it gave the interviews an edge for me. I included everything and there were no rejections. The book, from start to finish, felt breezy and fun. I really enjoyed the process.
We as trans and nonbinary communities have an absolute right to explore our bodies deeply, openly, and with complete integrity, not as some weird facsimile of biological parts.
This book came out incredibly quickly: You conducted the interviews during a six-month period in 2017 and the book is already out. How did it happen so swiftly?
I write an awful lot of articles in the United Kingdom and some stateside and talk a lot about sex, my genitals, sex work, etc., so I knew the book I wanted to write and almost straight away knew the structure. It was an easy pitch and outline and because I wanted to learn from the interviews, really learn, not pretend to learn, I knew that the timeline had to be tight so that the interviews could almost run into each other and weave.
In your conclusion, you write, “This book is, I now realize, a cry for help.” But what’s so palpable in the interviews is that you are finding this help—and creating it with your own vulnerability. I love what Michael, one of your final interviewees, says at the end, “For me the issue isn’t my body but the world.” I think this book intervenes in the world, to make space for all our bodies. Tell me about this intervention.
The book feels new. The book definitely feels like a collective of people who have “change potential” within their stories in so many ways. I wanted it to be a book that raised new questions, dilemmas, and answers, not a book that all would or should find easy. If it intervenes even a sliver and disrupts even slightly the normativity we as trans and nonbinary folk are supposed to seek, then queerness reigns over a small space and that’s all we need to start to breathe easily.