Trans/Sex: ‘Euphoria’ opened up a conversation on cis-trans desire—a complicated problem

Trans/Sex is a column about trans peoples’ relationships with love, sex, and their bodies.

“Something shifted that day,” a tweet from late January 2022 declares. In it, Euphoria star Hunter Schafer carries a leather bag as she walks across the street. Dressed in a tight white tank top, short black shorts, and a small mask with whiskers and a cat’s smile, Schafer looks unmistakably adorable (if not a little stressed out).

The tweet quickly went viral, and Twitter users immediately expressed their undying love for her. Most responses were from queer women, many of whom cisgender, who described Schafer as attractive, beautiful, worthy of love, or outright desirable. As of today, the tweet has over 63,000 likes.

Viral paparazzi photos of attractive female celebrities are commonplace on stan Twitter, but something indeed shifted the day Schafer blew up: The actress is transgender, and she famously plays Jules, a teenage trans girl in a complex relationship with Zendaya’s Rue throughout the show.

Most pop culture interest in trans women is erotically muted, but Euphoria is absolutely clear about the fact that its characters are sexually active, including Jules. The Jules/Rue connection in particular is at the center of the show’s appeal. Rue, who struggles with an all-consuming drug addiction and debilitating mental illnesses, becomes immediately infatuated with Jules. Jules is her center, if problematically at times, pushing Rue forward as they explore the bounds of female friendship. Who better to do that with than Jules, the outsider-insider, a trans girl who is treated like one of the girls, an ephemeral woman who transcends normalcy? In the first season, she is set up as the trans girl manic pixie dream girl of the show, even though she, and the show itself, ultimately rejects and deconstructs the trope by the time season 2 begins.

Nonetheless, viewers’ feelings toward Jules are intense. And as tends to happen on stan Twitter, much of the love and infatuation fans have with her character has transferred over to the actress. Hunter is having a moment—the kind that usually doesn’t come from cis women toward major celebrity trans women. If anything, trans women attracted to other women tend to get the short end of the stick in the wider culture; it wasn’t that long ago that the BBC ran a poorly researched and deeply transmisogynistic article claiming trans women are forcing cis lesbians to have sex with them en masse.

Schafer and Jules’ enormous popularity alongside such visceral transmisogyny begs the question: If Rue/Jules is the pop culture ideal, what are cis-trans relationships really like for cis and trans women?

This is a tricky topic for me as a sex writer. I’ve had IRL sex with cis women since transitioning, yes, and I’ve cybered with quite a few over the internet. I’m familiar with navigating cis desire, but cis-trans relationships? Well, I haven’t dated any cis women since coming out, and most of my offline sexual experiences have been with other trans women. So I spoke with several trans women to get their own perspective on the matter. And most described the experience as fraught, often bumping up against their own fears or anxieties about transmisogyny lurking in the shadows.

One trans woman, ell eff, says she lives in a “very progressive area” and has “had a lot of great experiences” with cis women, particularly older ones. But she notes dating cis women is “definitely a mixed bag” overall.

“A lot of people probably don’t realize that cis women can be as objectifying to trans women as cis men are. They sometimes still see us as a sexy experiment even if they manage to broach it in a kinder way than your average cis guy,” she told me. “Also some cis women view me as lesbian training wheels. Like it’s not as ‘scary’ as getting with another cis woman because (with myself) there’s still a penis involved and not a mysterious and terrifying vagina.”

A trans woman who goes by CorruptiveSpirit online points out that there’s a lot of stress in navigating cis expectations. “I feel like there’s a tension there while dating cis women, both in what they expect you to be, and how I’ve wanted to be accepted in their eyes as both myself and my gender,” she told me. “Part of it is that you’re dancing around the specter of what they think you will be? The sort of unspoken prediction of what and who you are from your background.”

Bigotry and discriminatory thinking is pervasive and palpable, and many cis women who want loving and affirming relationships with trans women are afraid of accidentally hurting their partners. Erica, who is a polyamorous bi cis woman, has been married to a trans woman for 15 years. She told me that many of her close friends are trans women or trans feminine non-binary people, which can be both a “real honor and delight,” but also filled with “anxieties and tensions.”

“I’m definitely worried about being that weird cis person, especially when talking to other people about the people I love, and it’s a line I’m always a little nervous I’m crossing,” she told me. “It’s been something I’ve had to learn, and again am just grateful the trans women in my life (especially my wife) love me enough to say ‘Hey maybe…stop? For a minute?’ when I veer towards talking for them, or over identifying, or being unthinkingly insensitive, or whatever.”

Then there’s outside anxiety from other trans and cis people, which can significantly impact cis-trans relationships. Lily, a cis lesbian with a trans woman fiancée, says her relationship with her partner is “the healthiest, kindest, and most understanding relationship” she’s had in her life. However, Lily has faced transphobic comments from cis lesbian friends who “thought it was odd” that she wanted to date a woman with a penis, while her fiancée’s trans friends “ask her to be wary of me or not to trust me because I may be a TERF since I’m a cis lesbian.” Meanwhile, both women’s mothers consistently fear Lily’s fiancée will abuse her or mistreat her, despite no signs of either in their relationship. All these comments have “greatly” affected their mental health, Lily told me.

“These friends are all LGBTQ+ and those family members are relatively accepting of us individually,” Lily told me. “But it seems like even the most left-leaning/understanding people we know have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of [a] cis lesbian and trans woman dating.”

Sexual anxiety around trans women is pervasive in our society. It can bleed into our relationships with cis women or impact how our friends and family treat us. And it’s all rooted in the Pentheus complex: The paradoxical phenomenon in which a person experiences “a simultaneous attraction and repulsion toward transgender and gender-variant persons.”

The term was coined by Pacifica Graduate Institute Ph.D. candidate Nick Literski in a 2018 paper unpacking the concept and connecting it to the ancient Greek playwright Euripides’ The Bacchae. The play follows the androgynous deity Dionysus’ rise to godhood in Thebes after he is initially scorned and rejected by King Pentheus. Ultimately, his madness-stricken female followers, the maenads, bring about Pentheus’ gruesome downfall.

In the paper, Literski shows King Pentheus’ anxious eroticism toward Dionysus, who he proclaims “quite good-looking / I mean, to women,” both too feminine to be traditionally masculine yet “in the shadow, hunting, / With your pretty face for sex. Aphrodite’s business.” 

“Hard gender dichotomies,” Literski argues, protect people from “feelings of inferiority, even while we remain privately enthralled by the violation of such markers.” In other words, Dionysus instills both attraction and revulsion simultaneously in Pentheus, much the same way that transgender and gender-variant people do in cisgender people today: Because we subvert the status quo.

It’s clear to me that the intense reaction Schafer has received is inseparable from the Pentheus complex. As many trans women have pointed out, Schafer is strongly desired in no small part because she is young, skinny, white, and very passing. She fulfills the perfect fantasy: Her character Jules is the girl who is different, the girl who is trans, the girl who challenges heteronormativity while still being conventionally attractive. Jules disrupts, but perfectly so, and thus serves as a palpable beacon of insight and sexual experimentation for other characters without destabilizing everyone’s relationship with sex and gender (a few men aside).

And yet, Schafer’s transness is a vector for both derision and desire in viewers. I’m immediately reminded of one commenter who suggested Schafer passes so well because she has “a good doctor.” Others have been more blatant in their voyeurism: On a Reddit clone for transphobic women, one person declared Jules “pure propaganda for the young female audience,” bemoaning “lots and lots of fawning over Jules, petting, and lovingly stroking that pretty blonde hair and wiping away tears.”

Euphoria Jules and Rue

Not all cis women think about trans women in such a way. But many do. Enough to the point where, throughout our lives, many cis women emerge between two poles in the Pentheus complex: Those who expresss intense, sexualized fear of us, or those who proudly act out their objectifying desire for our bodies.

Yes, cis women can chase after trans women. No better example exists than the kind of cis chaser many of us are exposed to during our early and pre-transition years: The cis woman, straight or queer, who desires us because we are undergoing gender transition, or because we show shades of womanhood pre-transition. As we transition, they lose interest in us because they fetishize our in-between state.

Snow Fell, a vegan bondage gear retailer and creator, had this exact experience with a long-term cis partner when she was first coming out as transgender. Fell’s girlfriend was initially supportive of her presenting as femme in public, but when she decided to transition full-time and start hormone therapy, her ex- was only “fairly supportive, but not thrilled.” Their relationship ultimately ended when Fell underwent bottom surgery, because, as Fell put it, her ex- was “really just here for the dick.”

“There’s definitely some women who have that thing for ‘trans women on the verge,’” she told me. “There’s something like a chrysalis about it, and they really like that formative stage.”

Fell, like many trans women, ultimately went on to have positive and affirming experiences with cis women in her dating life. But other trans women, exposed repeatedly to both sides of the Pentheus complex’s poles and its various shades in between, may start to express skepticism toward any cis woman who desires trans women. We fear we are about to experience a chaser, we worry we’re falling for someone with a wonky relationship with transphobia, and we start to make assumptions. Assumptions out of pain and trauma and self-defense, for sure, but still assumptions, which can make navigating cis-trans desire particularly difficult for well-meaning cis women.

“There are a few specific things that I worry about, as a cis person. I don’t want to come across as fetishistic, and I don’t want to relate my own experience in a way that feels more like I’m talking over her, or just speak where I’m really not needed,” Maisie, a cis woman who has been in a long-term romantic relationship with one trans girl and dated several others, told me. “And of course, it can be a hard thing to watch someone struggle to trust you—even when it’s completely understandable.”

But cis women aren’t the only ones who have a troubled relationship with the Pentheus complex. Trans women do too.

To be desired by a cis woman is to signal many things. It’s a break from T4T, a rupture that declares one’s acceptance into cis lesbian desires and spaces. It suggests a trans woman, despite what bigots might say, is the real deal: She is deemed attractive by a real cis lesbian, and thus a “real woman.” Cis women become the arbiters of womanhood in some trans girls’ minds.

Fell told me that, while she hasn’t directly experienced it, she’s heard of other trans women who claim T4T relationships give them “extra dysphoria,” because they’re left wondering whether their relationships are “gay” or “gay in the right way.”

“They’re looking for that cis validation of themselves and their relationship. And without that, they’re just like, ‘How do I know I’m really a woman?’” she told me. “It prioritizes the experience of cis women. It sets them as the arbitrators of what womanhood is.”

And the cis body, being privileged for its cisness, is innately desirable to many lesbian trans women because it’s cis. As I wrote on my Substack earlier this year, even leftie T4T trans women are likely to drop their T4T politics when sex with cis women is on the table. In their minds, the trans body is beautiful, but not as beautiful as the cisgender body.

This might sound incredibly self-hating. It is. It’s internalized bigotry and self-hate splayed onto our sex lives, our love lives, our erotic relationships. Ironically, it also forces cisgender women to weld the power to determine womanhood, a power that, in many cases, our partners aren’t asking for and don’t want to begin with.

The Pentheus complex is not just the domain of cisgender people. Trans people can see other trans bodies, or even their own, as vessels for both great disgust and great eroticism. Hence why the cis-trans connection is so fraught, confusing, and difficult in the first place: Because transmisogyny affects everyone. And it can impact who we want to date and why.

Something is shifting, and it’s not just because of Hunter Schafer. The trans body is, bit by bit, becoming less stigmatized. So is trans desire. T4T erotica and trans-led trans porn are growing in popularity. Nomenclature like “girldick” are becoming part of the queer sexual vocabulary. Sex educators are actively creating resources for trans bodies. Now, Euphoria has caused something to shift in how popular culture thinks about queer trans womanhood. The woman-loving trans girl is no longer just a feminized incel, as TERFs often depict her. Thanks to Jules, she gets to be an object of fleeting desire too.

Sadly, this does not rectify how trans women navigate relationships with cis friends, hookups, lovers, partners. Most trans women do not look like Jules. Most cis women are not as chill about transness as Rue. As cis and trans women increasingly come together to build romantic, sexual, or erotic intimacy, we must also recognize the baggage both sides bring to the table. It may be as small as a tote bag or as large as a trunk, but it’s there, and it must be discussed. After all, the Pentheus complex’s power comes from its inability to be named.

As amazing trans artists like Schafer challenge how pop culture depicts trans women, I hope cis and trans women alike will challenge the ways they traditionally think about transness and desirability when they come together. Mutually respectful conversation is where healing begins, where the entire complex fades into the background, and where it eventually holds less power over our personal relationships.