Trans and Cisgender Women: The Science of Love

| Feb 26, 2018
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As transgender people become more accepted and become close friends with cisgender people, we need to realize we carry with us a hangover of false cultural learnings that can lead to misunderstanding and heartbreak. Lately, I have been talking to a number of transwomen who have been frustrated with their relationships with cisgender women. After forming friendships with cisgender women, they have misinterpreted the behavior of these women as a green light for sex and love. This ultimately results in confusion and may result in unwanted advances. There actually is some science of love that may help explain what is going on.

Humans appear to have three independent mechanisms that influence the brain and behavior which concern what we generally call love. They are:

  • affiliation and long-term bonding
  • partner choice (individual preference and sexual orientation)
  • sexual arousal

Scientists believe they are separate because we can identify different neurochemicals which are involved in each of them. Affiliation is associated with release of the hormone oxytocin and vasopressin factor. Partner choice is associated with dopamine and reward mechanisms. Sexual arousal is associated with release of testosterone, estrogen and learned sexual arousal mechanisms.

We have to be careful because all of these chemicals have other jobs to do, for example oxytocin is release by the brain in the “let down” reflex which releases milk from the breasts to feed babies. Vasopressin mediates fluid balance which influences blood pressure. Dopamine is pretty well known as the neurotransmitter for cell-to-cell communication that mediates the reward and addiction mechanisms. It is infamous because drugs like LSD, the amphetamines and cocaine cause dopamine activity to go haywire. And, of course testosterone and estrogens influence primary and secondary sex organs (e.g. breasts) growth and maintenance. Testosterone is also a chemical mediator of aggression which reinforces sexual advances.

So how do we know the association of these three love mechanisms and the chemicals? When I taught at Georgia Tech, I used to use the example of the “prairie vole” and the “montane vole”. (Caution: The following contains more information about voles than you will probably ever want to know. I have omitted the X-rated information.) Voles are small rodents, that you and I as untrained rodent biologists would identify as mice. However, rodent biologists know the differences and would quickly tell you that voles are a separate species with several subspecies that are different from the mouse. The story here is that two opposite-sex prairie voles will form a lifetime affiliation whereas the montane and most other voles do not. Presumably the prairie vole evolved this mechanism because it allowed more little voles to survive through joint nurturing because the male stayed with his mate. Biologists have determined that higher levels of oxytocin and vasopressin are released by the prairie vole to mediate this affiliation. The montane and other voles do not form this affiliation and follow the hit-and-run pattern of mating without follow-up offspring rearing by the male. This is common among mammals in which the mother-child relationship is the dominant social system. It is even common in our nearest genetic animal neighbor, the chimpanzee.

So, do the prairie voles sexually cheat on their mates? Yes, they do. This indicates that the sexual arousal mechanism is somewhat independent of affiliation. And it supports the Coolidge effect which refers to renewed sexual interest with a new partner.

There are no reports of same-sex partner preference in prairie voles although it would be hard to observe homosexual behavior in their burrows. But there are reports of male-male sexual arousal and pair bonding in other species. Some rams prefer same-sex relationships at least as far as sex arousal goes. These particular rams are a pain for sheep farmers who are trying to maintain reproduction rates in their herds, so after behavioral testing (farmers do have some fun) they are culled from the herd. We do not currently know if the rams would pair bond or were just in it for the hit-and-run sex. Certain species of swans form asexual male-male pair bonds or affiliations. There are more such examples in Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow. (By the way, Joan is a transwoman). The chemicals involved in most of her examples have not been investigated but the behaviors she cites seem to indicate the independence of the three mechanisms of love.

Then there is sexual arousal response which I have written about in previous blogs. It is a learned response to formerly neutral stimuli after they have been paired with sexual arousal. Human sexual arousal is learned primarily during puberty but pairings can later come and go in strength. Sexual arousal is independent of sex organs and affiliations. For example, vinyl or leather clothing can be a turn-on for both sexes and whether or not the person is affiliated with the observer. My observations of the BDSM community (I was not a participant but I had a girlfriend who was) indicate that many of its practitioners are pan-sexual and relationships are transitory. The common thread is that pain and other stimuli are so strong that they evoke sexual arousal and continue to signal sexual arousal even as people desensitize to them. In graduate school we used to call this type of thing a “kick in the a** effect.” You can actually induce a male rat to have sex which he would otherwise avoid by putting a painful alligator clip on its tail. Then the BDSMers may move on to other stimuli and other specialists in these stimuli, say from flogging to electrical stimulation (safety notice: nowhere near the chest to avoid heart arrhythmias).

So, what does this have to do with mistaken signals between cisgender women and transwomen? Cisgender women are known to form affiliations with one another through talking and joint activities. If a cisgender woman forms a friendship with a transwoman she accepts as a woman, the cisgender woman should be expected to behave just as she would with another cisgender woman. From upbringing and experience, the cisgender woman knows that that this is just affiliation behavior, not necessarily sex or partner choice behavior. Cisgender women are used to forming asexual affiliations and some last a lifetime.

 However, many transwomen spend time being acculturated as men and have a different perception of the affiliation behavior signals. Trans women may have had to pretend to be in the masculine gender, or are still pretending part-time that they are men. In Western culture, men are taught that any sign of approval and affiliation from a woman is a signal for sex and choice of partner. Many men are not taught and do not know the difference between affiliation, sex, and partner choice. In addition, cisgender men are driven by testosterone and culture to be aggressive in pursuit of a prospective partner. The result is a total misunderstanding of how the cisgender women feels towards a trans woman. Unwanted sexual advances and heartbreak may occur. In these situations, cisgender women are totally baffled that a woman friend is suddenly putting the moves on her. And the transwomen is totally baffled that she is rejected. After all, they are behaving as they were taught.

Although we usually laugh at online or magazine articles entitled “How a woman signals that she is interested in a man” or “how a woman signals that she is interested in sex with a man,” they may be reflective of what cisgender males are taught and believe.  Here are a few of the behaviors listed in such articles.

  • Smiles at you
  • Starts the conversation
  • Laughs at your jokes
  • Asks questions about your activities
  • Compliments you
  • Talks about sex
  • Makes you gifts
  • Calls or writes often
  • Likes talking to you
  • Hugs you
  • Touches you
  • She seeks you out to talk to
  • She develops an interest in your interests.
  • She compliments you when you are looking good
  • She is down to hang out
  • She opens up to you
  • She talks about doing something in the future with you
  • She follows you online and likes your posts
  • You text frequently
  • She sticks up for you

Finally, if you think the evidence above about human love is skimpy, there is a reason for it. Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has funded very little research on human love. Private funding agencies have not done much better. Senator Proxmire from Wisconsin was notorious for mocking certain research studies, saying they were a waste of money. His mechanism was the “Golden Fleece” award for research that he said was responsible for “fleecing” the public. In 1974, he awarded the Golden Fleece to a National Science Foundation study by Ellen Berscheid on “why people fall in love.”  Rand Paul recently mentioned this study on the floor of the Senate in the same vein. Imagine that we refuse to study one of the most important human phenomena because somehow knowledge of it might not be politically correct! All of these behaviors may be signals to males that the cisgender woman is ready for a move but they are also common behaviors between cisgender females who are affiliated friends but not pursuing sexual or partner choice with one another.  Until trans women start to learn about affiliation in cisgender women, confusion will continue.

The Berscheid incident had an impact on me in graduate school and in my career. It was clear to me and my advisors that if love was out of bounds for research, then transgender behavior would be too. So, like Ellen Berscheid, I applied my knowledge of psychology to areas other than those I wanted to study — she in business, me in computing.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]

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