Abandonment to the Body's Desire

By Rachel Pollack


Abandonment to the body's desire is in itself a source of revelation. -- Nor Hall

The above statement appears in Nor Hall's book, Those Women, a study, in part, of women initiated into the ecstatic rites of Dionysos. Dionysos was himself a cross-gendered God, sometimes embodied by a stick figure decorated with a beard and a dress. Dionysos was raised as a girl, and was usually depicted as effeminate. At the same time, his female followers, the Maenads, took on male characteristics, sometimes described as wildly erect, like phalluses. They also would go into a shamanic trance and acquire extrahuman powers, such as the ability to run for miles without tiring, or to wind poisonous snakes through their hair.

As a trance-sexual New Woman and Goddess worshipper, I find I identify more with the Maenads than with Dionysos' cross-dressing males. Part of the power of the cross-sexed blood rite of surgery is to take us fully over the line, so that as we experience our own wildness, and break down walls of official gender roles, we do so as females. In a poem once I wrote, "I have claimed everything/All paths where a woman may walk," and this includes the forbidden paths, the paths of power beyond gender. For when I came out, it seemed clear to me that it was to know myself fully as a woman, not to take on society's limited views of a woman. That knowing includes the exploration of unknown territories. We can go anywhere, become anything which we recognize as true for us -- but we have to start from the right place. We have to stand firmly on the ground of our true gender. And then we can fly.

And yet, in that same poem I wrote, "Only my past I leave behind." Though I did not conceal my history from my friends and colleagues, I almost never referred to it. I did not want to remind them -- or myself -- of the years I lived as a male. Most of us know that feeling. For me, I sensed, rightly or wrongly, that people's reactions to me as simply a woman depended on this other side of my life remaining distant and forgotten. Transsexuals will often say that after surgery, their previous existence fades like a dream. And yet, for some people, this dream may consist of the first forty, fifty, even sixty, years of their lives.

In the last few years I have sought to open up my origins, to look at my childhood, and in fact, to look at my cultural and spiritual history as a trance-sexual woman. As I do this, it strikes me more and more that cross-gender and sexuality is not a matter of sickness, or disturbance, or abuse, as people so often claim, but of passion. The sickness comes from living in the wrong gender. When we cast that off, we begin to live as healthy people. But the casting off comes, as Nor Hall writes, through a surrender to the body's desire. And, it seems to me, we need to recognize that surrender as something both joyous and sacred. As long as we tell others and ourselves, "I did this because I was sick," we cannot become healthy.

Hall's statement acts for me as a reminder, one that I need to hear or read over and over. For I forget it constantly. I strive to forget it, under the pressure of a puritanical society, which demands that we detach ourselves from our bodies. Society will accept us changing our social genders and even our bodies so long as we present ourselves as pathetic and disturbed people desperate for help. If we acknowledge, or claim proudly, that we made these changes as a lifegiving act of passion, we risk losing the moral authority given to victims. But victims have no power. Victims can never celebrate their lives.

When I came out I understood above all else that the knowledge of myself as female rested in the deepest places of my being. I understand now that that means the body. The body of a trance-sexual woman desires to become female, recognizes herself as female. The body desires to change her outer form. Crossing sexuality is not a concept imposed on the body by a detached mind at odds with reality. I never thought of myself as trapped in the wrong body, nor did I hate my body. When I was trying to live as a male, I hated, or rather feared, what my passions were leading me to do. When I stopped resisting my desires I did not hate my body's masculine form, but saw myself as female, whatever my shape.

Desire leads us to revelations, such as the very knowledge of ourselves in our true gender. What else but desire would lead us to do what we do? We take strong drugs to alter the shape and function of our bodies. We face the contempt and ridicule of society, friends, and even family. We take risks of imprisonment, enforced hospitalization, and torture in the form of electric shock and other kinds of "therapy." We run the danger of being beaten or even murdered if discovered at the wrong time by the wrong person. And finally, we undergo, we seek out, surgery on our genitals. Think of the power of a desire which can lead us to do such things. Most of us have experienced this as desperation. As long as we see only the desperation, as long as we cling to it for the dubious permission it gives us, we remain victims. When we start to recognize the driving force as passion, we allow ourselves the possibility of our own truth, of a life based on joy rather rather pity.

Passion answers the challenge put to us in so many different forms, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, "How can you claim to be a woman?" We do not claim anything. We know our gender as a revelation.

The trance-sexual woman sacrifices her social identity as a male, her personal history, and finally the very shape of her body to a knowledge, a desire, which overpowers all rational understanding and proof.

"Abandonment to the Body's Desire" © 1992 by Rachel Pollack; used by permission.