Some words on some problematic stuff

So a while back I wrote about the concept for “Gender Swap”/”The Machine to be Another” and touched on how it relates to trans-ness. And yesterday, Polygon also covered these things. This coverage was problematic for a number of reasons so I’ll dip into them now.

first of all, and perhaps most importantly, a big problem is this:



Ben Kuchera is not the person to speak about these issues. Were the topic covered by someone with experience and a deeper understanding of them, many of the problems I talk about here would not have come up. However, looking through Kuchera’s feed this morning it looks like he appreciates this and hopefully we can expect Polygon to have more diverse writers, covering topics that they are knowledgeable of – though, time will tell on that one.



I’m not optimistic that this will happen though, partly because video games “culture” has beaten the optimism out of me, and also because Kuchera has already burned a lot of bridges with people who could really enrich Polygon’s opinion section and will avoid pitching to him, or would probably turn him down if he approached them. A change of heart is nice but he already has a reputation for being inconsiderate and having the first response to criticism simply be ignoring it because it’s just people that “dislike him“. Trust doesn’t come easily so soon after being consistently dismissed.

Anyway, on to the post itself.

“The demo Girl Mirror Look is a very rudimentary way for someone to experience inhabiting the body of a woman”

Problems start with some accidental sexism pretty early on, the implication is that “someone” is not used to this experience, when ~50% of someones already experience it pretty regularly. Maybe Kuchera doesn’t assume all or most of his readers are men, but the language used suggests otherwise.

“by using low-cost virtual reality equipment to achieve something that sounds like science fiction: They’re allowing people to trade bodies.”

If you haven’t already, please read my original post on this. You simply can’t trade bodies. Saying that you can is dismissive of a whole mountain of things that people have to go through and are forced to experience because of their bodies.


The article then goes on to discuss how seeing things from another person’s physical perspective could perhaps create empathy. It’s an interesting idea on the surface but it doesn’t paint people in a good light: that many can’t empathise with another person without literally seeing through their eyes for a few minutes – I don’t think that gives credit to people’s ability to empathise.

It’s not hard to just look at another person and imagine what it’s like from their physical view point, but the empathy connection comes from bridging a gap – it’s not what you see but what you imagine. You have to imagine what it’s like to live that life, what that person has to go through and the struggles they face. Changing your perspective of this person’s body and life is really not that much – you’re still not living it, you’re still not listening to what they say.

Using visual perspective as a path to empathy also indicates a massive lack of trust – you can’t trust a person’s description of their own life, you need to put your eyes in their head and “have a go” for a few minutes before you decide what their life is like? No, people should speak for themselves. There is quite a bit here in common with hijab tourism and how “trying on” another person’s life for a little bit robs them of their own voice – a worthwhile read on that at this link.

The article then goes on to describe how in Gender Swap, participants are always matching each other’s movement and in constant agreement, that with this, “The sense of empathy can be powerful” we’re told – but I wonder how much use it is to have a tool that can be used to empathise only with someone you already completely agree with and respect?

Then arguments are made that this system relates to studies that “show seeing yourself as someone of another race may decrease your implicit bias”. The one study linked had full control of virtual avatars, and was not a shared consensual experience. I suppose that might apply here, but it just as well might not – the experiences are substantially different. But this is really not my main problem, that starts when Kuchera says;

“While Bertrand is quick to note he’s not a scientist and has no background to discuss the potential mental health benefits of this technology, I did speak to at least one expert who thought the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria.”

OK, I’m just going to do my best to unpick everything that is wrong here.

1) ” I did speak to at least one expert” – as far as I can tell, here “at least one” means “one” (and that ‘expert’ says some really problematic things herself).

2)  “the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria” – I have NO idea what is meant here, either it’s a trans-person swapping viewpoint with a cis person of the opposite birth sex (in which case BOTH bodies have the same gender) or it’s two cis people of different sexes, and couldn’t be said to help “treat” anyone suffering from gender dysphoria.

3) the notion of “treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria” in this way at all is problematic. Honestly I think this is just as likely to be actively harmful to a person with dysphoria. (If pushed I might be able to articulate why, but honestly this is enough of a strain for me as-is, I would rather not go into it right now – though Sam Prell, quoted in the polygon article, touches on some of my concerns).

Kuchera continues;

“Gender dysphoria is a state in which individuals identify as a different gender than their birth-assigned sex. My feeling of discomfort and unease at seeing a female form looking back at me from the mirror in the Oculus Rift demo gives one an indication of what it must feel like for someone who knows they are a man or a woman, but sees and feels the opposite reality in their body.”

Just because you look in a mirror for a minute or so and see a body that you don’t feel fits you does not give you even an *indication* of what it’s like to live with that body (again; see my original post, and again; the idea that YOU need to figure it out like this and not just listen to what trans people tell you their lives and experiences are like is dismissive of their voice).


From here we start to get into some especially unpleasant stuff, Kuchera’s “expert” says… well, a bunch of unacceptable harmful bullshit (I couldn’t find a more diplomatic description than that for it). She begins;

“I can see where this sort of virtual gender-role expression could be at least temporarily helpful,” – “It is a form of cross-dressing in a way. The image you see on the outside is much closer to what you really want, than what cross-dressing would give.”

Dr. Vitale here, is WAY off the mark. For one, when trans people cross dress – they wear clothing typical of the gender they were assigned at birth. A transwoman wearing a dress is NOT cross-dressing, and it’s harmful to say so. Another issue is the conflation of how we want to dress and how we want our bodies to be. They are not equivalent – a lot of doctors treating trans people insist that we spend a certain amount of time (we’re talking years here) acting and presenting as the gender we say we are. Essentially we are expected to conform to various stereotypes associated with being a woman or being a man that seem to be more about making sure we fit in the “normal” gender-binary boxes and are not about helping us find out who we really are when it’s outside their stereotypical expectations. We are judged for not wearing dresses if we say we are women, or vice versa. Despite the fact that our issues with our body and how we relate to clothes – though often linked – are not the same thing. Yes, some trans people will wear clothing typical of their gender as part of an exploration of who they are, but not all – and the requirement of it is problematic because it discourages trans people who just don’t want to. I never wore a skirt until years after coming out as trans, and any doctors I spoke to or who saw me always wore a highly skeptical look – a dangerous and scary thing when they are the gatekeepers between me and effecting changes I want on my body. I felt a pressure to conform to stupid stereotypes from these people who held power over me, and here Dr Vitale is perpetuating that system.

Later, Kuchera says;

“Dr. Vitale was skeptical of how useful this technology could be to treat those with gender dysphoria”

So if Dr. Vitale wasn’t the “one expert who thought the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria.” I wonder who was, because they certainly aren’t quoted anywhere.

Dr. Vitale is quoted again saying:

“”It should help cisgendered women partnered with gender dysphoric males to appreciate what gender dysphoria is and what drives their partner to seek relief through hormonal and surgical means,””

The doctor botching gendered language here, the implication is clearly that the cisgendered woman’s partner is MAAB (Male Assigned At Birth), and gendered female – the partner is therefore female and should be addressed as such. Honestly I worry that a doctor who can’t get stuff like this right is treated as an “expert”.

Dr Vitale goes on to say;

“The machine allows her to retain her female gender identity while seeing herself having a muscular hairy body, no breasts and penis and testicle appendages she might experience as being ‘very wrong.’”

This description is… well, it’s yet another problematic thing. For one, not all transwomen have “muscular hairy bodies” not all of them have “no breasts” not all of them have “penis and testicle appendages” (who the hell says “testicle appendages” anyway?) but most importantly – some transwomen do have some (or all) of these things and don’t experience them as ‘very wrong’.

It is super common for doctors to impose certain expectations on trans people – they imply that gender dysphoria is black and white – either you want to have a sex change and hormones and other surgeries and treatments and ALL of that, or maybe you’re just not gender dysphoric after all. It creates an atmosphere were transpeople have to “act” the expected part and/or lie to get the treatment that they actually need. Plenty of women have penis and testicle appendages without feeling ‘very wrong’ – and the implication that they would is the implication that they should. It’s shaming bullshit.

A thing that is missed here is that a hell of a lot of people experience gender dysphoria but don’t align with “traditional” or expected trans narratives. This article and especially Dr. Vitale’s quotes in it could do real harm to these people – they see an article like this, (one with an “expert” consultant, published in a notable and respected publication) and they will see no place for their identity in any of this talk about dysphoria. This kind of erasure inhibits a person’s ability to explore just who the hell they really are and can result in repression when that is the last thing they need. Dysphoria and transgenderism do not begin and end with people who want a sex change and to fit into a neat stereotype invented by a cis culture.

My final (and relatively minor) Kuchera quote;

“Bertrand admits that the technology is new, and he’s unequipped to deal with the possible medical or scientific value of the work the team is doing. They’re looking for partners in the scientific or art world to help with taking the next steps, and of course funding is a part of that process.”

Just wanna say you shouldn’t give this guy any money for scientific research, the equipment required is relatively cheap anyway and this appears to be someone who has viral impact closer to heart than scientific advancement. Art folk though, this is right up your street I guess.


Ultimately it seems the focus of the piece seems to be that Gender Swap helps cis people empathise with (some) gender dysphoric people, but it is never made clear how it could help anyone who has gender dysphoria. It’s for cis people, it’s so cis people can understand us. We are given no agency – Gender Swap simply isn’t for us, but somehow it’s still about us.

I feel I should say that not all of the article is problematic, quotes from Sam Prell and Jessica Janiuk are informed by experience and understanding (much more-so than the so-called “expert” Dr. Vitale) and I especially appreciate the inclusion of the point “For those of us who live that feeling of dysphoria, we don’t have that relief of being able to just lift the helmet off” which is a key point the article otherwise ignores – that unless you are TRAPPED in another body, you won’t have the slightest idea of what it’s like to be trapped in another body.



I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this, and especially to thank Andi McClure for proof-reading this and giving extensive feedback and suggestions. Comments are disabled but if you’re not going to be a jack-ass then feel free to get in touch with me on twitter.