S/he

It went by a variety of names, from the technical (Gender Complementarity Treatment) through the colloquial (ambisexing, the Switch) to the vulgar (getting lipped, getting boned). Desmond first heard about it on one of the news ‘n’ views shows he liked to watch while Frida was at her fashion class. Something about advances in the biotechnology of organ-cloning and how the new technique, originally developed for use in sex-change operations, was soon to be made available to the general public. A white-capped surgeon, interviewed in the operating room of her swish Whitechapel clinic, brushed aside the suggestion that there was anything unnatural about GCT: the human body contained ample room for two sets of sex organs, she said, it was an evolutionary accident that we only possessed one.

Frida’s account was more impressionistic.

‘It’s dead simple apparently, only takes a couple of hours, local anaesthetic, you can even watch what they’re doing. It’s the latest thing, everyone’s having it done. Apparently they just connect a few nerve-endings or blood vessels or whatever they are, and then sort of graft it on. Or in your case – well, I’m not sure what they do exactly in men’s cases, I’ll have to ask Herm, he and Mandy have just been done. They say they don’t know how they ever managed without them. It’s transformed their life, they said, their sex life’s – well, you can imagine.’

Desmond tried to imagine, but imagination wasn’t easy in this inverted alien landscape, and he abandoned the effort with a shrug.

‘It’s just a fad, like everything. It’ll pass.’

He knew that calling it a fad wouldn’t deter Frida; on the contrary, it would amount in her eyes to a recommendation. Fads were what her life was about, to be in on a fad before everyone else was how she measured her success. Maybe it was her job: working in the make-up department of a movie studio, maybe she was bound to see the world in superficial terms, in cosmetic terms, to see science and medicine as adjuncts of the fashion and entertainment industries. The role of science, to Frida’s way of thinking, was to provide people like her with amusing after-dinner conversation and unusual Christmas presents, a tool for provoking the envy and admiration of her friends, of scoring social points.

Take their honeymoon, which they’d spent at Frida’s insistence on one of the early, horrendously expensive moon cruises. A poor traveller at the best of times, Desmond succeeded in contracting some rare kind of space bug and spent most of the time ashore throwing up into his helmet. Frida responded by scolding him. To be honeymooning on the moon was the kind of silly obvious pun she enjoyed, one she’d extract a lot of mileage from later. She didn’t want him spoiling it by being miserable.

So he knew there’d be little point in opposing her in this latest enthusiasm of hers. She wouldn’t be happy till they’d both been kitted out with their new ‘complementary’ organs, like Mandy and Herm, like the women at her fashion class, like the trendsetters she fondly imagined Desmond and herself to be. ‘Everyone’s having it done,’ she’d said, which was not only untrue but actually the opposite of what she meant. Everyone, in Frida’s peculiar usage, meant a select clique of rich style-obsessed socialites and short-lived international celebrities at whose altar she worshipped and whose lead she followed in everything with puppyish devotion. If she’d really thought everyone was having it done, she’d have wanted to be doing something entirely different.

*

She wouldn’t let it rest, she kept coming back to it. She left him notes and obscene drawings before she went to work. She bought an anatomically correct ambisex doll and left it splay-limbed, tumescent, on the kitchen table. She read him items from her fashion and movie magazines: how the Switch was rumoured to have cured everything from shyness to piles, how ambisexuals claimed to feel truly whole for the first time in their lives. Eventually, exhausted, bored, Desmond gave in.

She came home with a catalogue from the clinic showing the different models they could choose from. The organs came in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Here were penises long and short, fat and thin, circumcised and uncircumcised, smooth and sleek as Tampa cigars or bulbous and knobby as comedy vegetables; vaginas resembling huge pink gashes and others like snugly clasped purses, with clitorises that ranged from the button-like to the tentacular. Desmond read:

4/1C BIGBOY. Designed for the discriminating user, the Bigboy features a specially enlarged scrotum guaranteeing frequent and copious emissions, together with a delicately ribbed shaft for the ultimate in erotic pleasure. Durable yet highly sensitive, the Bigboy will satisfy both you and your partner for years to come. ‘I never thought such pleasure possible. Now I know how it feels to really satisfy a man. My husband joins me in thanking you for bringing this new dimension to our lives.’ Mrs W, Lyme Regis

37/4A SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIAL. Delight your partner with this compact and unpretentious model which makes up for in comfort and serviceability what it lacks in size. Like the famous pistol from which it takes its name, the Special packs a deceptively powerful punch! Ideally suited for the occasional user. ‘Saturday nights will never be the same again.’ Mrs O, New Bristol

62/6F RING MY BELL. A real ding-dong of a model, your bell will be ringing all night long with this high-performance quality vagina! Designed according to the latest bioengineering principles with today’s man in mind, this state-of-the-art model features a specially elongated clitoris guaranteeing orgasm upon delirious orgasm. ‘Ring-a-ding-ding!’ Mr P, Staines

*

The day of the operation arrived – D-Day, Dick Day as Frida had taken to referring to it. On his way to theatre Desmond pondered his impending mutilation. He recalled a comment of Frida’s to the effect that having the Switch was no more serious than having a boil lanced or a tooth out, in the days when people used to have boils lanced and teeth out; in fact it was less serious because you weren’t losing something but gaining something. It was the same argument she used long ago when announcing their wedding plans to his mother: don’t think of it as losing a son, Mum, think of it as gaining a daughter. Well Mum, he said to himself as he lay down on the table, looks like you’re about to gain another daughter.

By the time he was under the knife the drugs had begun to take effect. With his legs splayed in the stirrups above him and the surgeon’s hands invisibly busy between them, he felt perfectly relaxed, perfectly calm. He was struck by the curiously waxen, polished-looking face of the surgeon, by his perfect teeth and coiffed hair and even tan. Was it his imagination or were all doctors beginning to resemble one another?

He felt a little sore afterwards, nothing more. Before dressing he examined himself front and back in the changing-room mirror and was relieved to detect no obvious signs of disfigurement. Only on a chair with his legs up could the full extent of the damage be seen. He stepped into the kilt he’d brought with him – he categorically refused to wear a skirt in public – and cast one final pained glance at himself in the mirror. What a sight. He’d entered the clinic that morning an ordinary man in a suit. He was leaving it a carnival freak in fancy dress, a hermaphroditic fucking Scotsman.

Later, reunited with Frida at the after-care facility to collect the various lotions and silicone refills required for the successful operation of their new organs, he found his gaze involuntarily drawn to the crotch of Frida’s jeans, hoping not to be met by too manly a bulge.

*

It was several days before he would allow Frida to inspect the results of the operation, and then only from a distance. She on the other hand flaunted her new gender with exhibitionist zeal, parading naked about the flat, giggling each time it flapped against her thigh, marvelling at its bulbous veiny realism. It was even longer before he plucked up the courage to test the efficacy of his new anatomy in the bathroom. When he finally did so, he experienced such a gut-wrenching sense of plunging bottomless release, as if his bodily fluids were being bled out of him, strained like water through a sieve, that he immediately contracted his muscles, stood up, turned round and reverted to the more familiar procedure.

Eventually, he knew, he’d be forced to put it to that other, more demanding test. He couldn’t hold out forever against Frida’s persistent wheedling requests, her coaxing, her cajoling, her bullying in bed.

‘Let me touch it, go on,’ she’d half-demand half-plead. ‘I just want to see what it feels like. Let me put the lubricant on.’

‘A few more days, love, I’m not quite ready yet. You know what the doctors said about rushing things.’

‘A few days more! You’re behaving like a prissy little convent girl. I’m not going to eat you, for Chrissakes!’

She had a way with words, did Frida.

*

He finally settled on the evening of April Fool’s Day as the occasion for his deflowering: such a significant event demanded a symbolic date.

They ordered dinner from a Vietnamese delivery service in Leytonstone. A white dinner, in honour of the occasion: swordfish with almond sauce, followed by a cream passionel, Frida’s favourite.

He set a candlelit table for two while she changed. She tied her hair in a bun and put on one of his white linen suits, one of the less voluminous ones from a few years back when he still used to go to the gym. It still managed to look as if it had swallowed her.

She peered at herself in the mirror and shook her head. ‘I can see some serious shopping is called for.’

She took to her role uncertainly at first but with growing conviction, walking, eating, talking as she imagined a man would, hitching the knees of her trousers when she sat down, lowering the pitch of her voice when she spoke. Over dinner they talked about things that didn’t matter. She told him about a football game she’d watched on the airbus on the way home from work, the Bulls against the Rams. He filled her in on the latest gossip from the Census Office, how his departmental boss was rumoured to be having an affair with her new PA.

‘Oughta be ashamed of herself, woman her age. How old is he, this new boy? Just a lad, I bet. Fuckin’ cradle-snatching.’

For a moment he was perplexed. This was not the Frida he knew, she’d always been fiercely approving of relationships between older women and younger men. She claimed women got better at sex as they got older while men got worse, so it was a perfect match. Then he realized that this too was part of the act. She was reacting as she thought a man would react. This was how she thought men were.

Leaving the table to fetch some more wine, he noticed her appraising him from behind.

‘Those stockings really suit you, you know. You haven’t got bad legs for a man your size.’

He had agreed somewhat reluctantly to wear a figure-hugging leather miniskirt she’d bought him, together with a pair of heels and ridiculous fishnet stockings. He’d never realized before just how uncomfortable women’s clothes could be.

Over coffee she started coming on to him. She slipped off her shoe and ran the sole of her foot up and down his calf. She pinched his bottom as he leant to refill her cup. She would have stuck her hand up his skirt if there’d been room for it.

As he stood up to clear away the dishes, she pulled him playfully on to her lap – ‘Leave those, hon, you can do them tomorrow’ – and began rather too vigorously to goose and kiss and fondle him. With a faint shudder of revulsion he felt her counterfeit member stirring beneath him, filling the loose folds of her trousers and bracing itself taut against his bare suspendered thigh.

‘My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling,’ she sang, the words from a favourite old song of hers, ‘I want you to play with my ding-a-ling-a-ling.’

He masked his mounting panic behind a nervous staccato laugh and a grotesque simper.

He undressed quickly while Frida was in the bathroom, ducking beneath the sheet to lie rigid and motionless on his back, legs welded together. She returned reeking of aftershave and clad in a pair of candy-striped boxer shorts, which she removed casually,with a leisurely motion, the lights on.

‘What about, you know, precautions?’

She laughed, an unguarded feminine laugh. ‘Dessie! Didn’t you listen to any of what the doctors said? You haven’t got a womb, just a vagina.’

She drew back the single sheet under which he cowered and straddled him clumsily with her knees. ‘Well, what d’you think?’

It was the first time he’d seen her new organ close up. Against her slight, shapely frame it looked savage and monstrous, even though, she assured him, she’d gone for one of the smaller, less exotic models, conscious of his delicacy. Throbbing to its full arching stature under his gaze, it seemed already a natural extension of her body. As penises went, he supposed it was probably a very nice one.

She looked down at it proudly and cupped her scrotum in her hand. ‘I’m gonna screw the pussy off you.’

He reminded her of the doctor’s advice – take it easy at first, don’t force anything – but she paid no attention. She’d already lowered her head to his loins to work on his redundant member with her tongue, licking it up and out of the way, clearing a path for her entry. Reaching blindly for the pot of LubriFem on the bedside cabinet, she smeared a generous handful of the oily cream liberally over his labia.

Foreplay had never been Frida’s forte, short and sharp and to the point was how she liked it, she always said. She liked to be taken by surprise, literally, when bending over a steaming bath or hunting under the couch for a lost earring.

Sharp was right: when she forced herself inside him he felt she would split him in two. He felt like a tree forked by lightning, like a spear was ripping through his delicate entrails. Carried away by her excitement, she thrust hard and deep, too hard, too deep, interpreting his cries of distress perhaps as a sign of pleasure. The pain or pleasure was somehow increased by the curious sensation of his own penis pressing flat and hard against her hot belly like a twin of the one inside him. Each thrust was a burning scimitar of pain.

He grabbed her by the shoulders and wrestled her roughly from him. She fell back with a groan, discharging semen the consistency of albumen against his upper thigh. He watched the familiar, remarkable spectacle with a mixture of fascination and disgust, subsiding into sobs.

*

Over the following months his relationship with Frida underwent a change. He had always thought of himself as a basically decent, tolerant, forbearing sort of person, but faced with Frida’s increasingly outlandish behaviour he was at a loss as to how to react. He could cope with her habit of wearing men’s clothes and standing next to him in the men’s toilets when they were out together, of leering at women walking in Hackney Gardens with an invitation to him to ‘check out the legs/ass/tits on that.’ He even acquiesced in the matter of her new-found sexual proclivities, squeezing what little hard-earned pleasure he could from their swift and frequent couplings, aiding her in the pursuit of that much-vaunted pinnacle of ambisexual love, the so-called ‘duogasm.’

But he drew the line at being asked to dress in frilly lace underwear the whole time, to shave his legs and armpits and don a wig in bed, to address his wife as Freddy and answer to the name of Desirée. He was a man with a man’s needs, he told her, and among those needs was a need for dignity and self-respect. He reminded her of their marriage vows: do you take this man, this man, not this androgyne, this epicene, this ambisexual.

‘Oh yawn,’ she said. ‘Times have changed. There’s a name for men like you. Unreconstructed males, that’s what they used to call men like you.’

It almost made him smile. If there was one thing he wasn’t, he thought, it was unreconstructed.

*

The ambisex look caught on in a big way. Soon every London High Street boasted a Sextensions or a Clever Dicks where operations were available without appointment. The catchphrase, at one time so outrageous, that ‘we’re all naturally hermaphroditic’ had already become a cliché and ever more bizarre variations seemed the order of the day. One man, a Milanese couturier, hit upon the idea of having a vagina, looking rather like an oversized buttonhole, inserted in his abdomen and was shown on TV, naked with a hard-on, doing sit-ups. ‘He looks full of himself.’ Frida said, apparently without irony.

Another individual had a vagina implanted in each armpit and a penis grafted on to each wrist. A poster of this person, leaning against a telegraph pole with folded arms, was used to promote a new line of stainless cotton singlets marketed by a leading jeans manufacturer. There were records, ‘Self-Satisfied’ and ‘Third Sex,’ which became instant Number One hits.

No one seemed to have even considered the legal implications. Whether, for example, in the unlikely event of an autosexual union engendering offspring (actually less unlikely now that some militant feminist ambisexuals had taken to filling their testicular reservoirs with bottled sperm rather than silicone fluid), a person could bring a paternity or maternity suit against themselves. Could a wo/man accuse themselves of rape? No one seemed to know.

There were other developments too, on the medical side. A new model of organ that grew in situ was produced, allowing fashion-conscious parents to ambisex their children at birth. This was itself soon rendered obsolete by a new drug, Gametene, that could be injected into the foetus during the early stages of pregnancy and so ambisex it naturally in the womb.

Then came the momentous day when Adam Newman (surely a nom de guerre) was announced to the world as the First Man to Bear a Child, the foetus of baby Felix having been transplanted to his stomach wall from the body of his wife, killed in a skiing accident when three months pregnant. For a couple of weeks the man was to be seen everywhere, guesting on every TV chat show with little baby Felix cradled in his arms, proudly showing off the scars from his C-section. He was said already to have become one of the ten wealthiest men alive because of lucrative movie and merchandising deals. Toy manufacturers rushed out millions of baby Felix dolls in time for Christmas: they were just like any other doll except they cried Dadda instead of Mamma.

*

One day he decided he’d had enough.

They didn’t like doing reversals, they said at the clinic. He should have thought of the consequences before he’d had it done. These things weren’t to be undertaken lightly, you know. He told them he was through with it, he’d had enough, sew him up, he was going back to being a regular guy, they could fuck themselves.

Frida wasn’t back from work when he arrived home from the clinic. Her job took her to out-of-the-way places, she kept irregular hours. He sat down on the balcony and steeled himself for her return with a tumbler of Scotch. She could prepare the dinner tonight.

He was beginning to nod off when he heard her keycard enter the slot.

‘What are you doing, sitting in the dark?’

‘I’ve been waiting for my dinner,’ he said, imagining how it used to be done. ‘Where’ve you been?’

She dropped her briefcase on the hall carpet and kicked off her shoes, a pair of sensible brown brogues. ‘Boy, I’m bushed. What a day I’ve had!’

Over recent weeks she’d taken to stripping off when she got in from work, preferring to spend her evenings, she said, ‘as nature intended.’ But this time, when she emerged from the bedroom, she wasn’t naked. She was dressed in a complicated leather corset made up of multiple straps and buckles and zippered pouches.

‘Are you ready for this?’ she said. ‘Are you man enough for this?’

She lifted a hand to the nape of her neck and fumbled with a clasp. Desmond felt a wave of sickening apprehension.

‘Ta da!’

The corset fell away to reveal the body of an alien from another planet. Attached to her armpits, her breasts, her navel, her wrists, was a crop of phalluses of different sizes, shapes and colours – short stubby pink ones, fat wrinkled brown ones, long tapering black ones – like fruit at different stages of ripeness. Like a tree, a penis tree.

She did a catwalk twirl. ‘Well, how do I look?’

He drained the remains of his Scotch. ‘Would it be stating the obvious to say – a total prick?’

*

These were not good days for Desmond. He hadn’t expected to care as much as he did. He hadn’t thought it would bother him, having a wife who was more of a man than he was, who was a man eight times over, who had manhood sprouting from every limb, who resembled, naked, some kind of grotesque giant insect. He hadn’t thought it would bother him but it did.

He didn’t inquire into her new sexual practices, he didn’t want to know. The geometry and mathematics of it scared him. Acts of love between polysexuals were, he assumed, complicated affairs.

Sometimes, though, her exploits were difficult to ignore. One night when a despairing excess of Scotch sent him stumbling to the bathroom to throw up, he found her in the shower stall with their upstairs neighbour, fucking him in the neck. Another time she planned a ‘reunion-party-cum-orgy’ for the members of her old fashion class and their partners, and did he want to join them? He declined the invitation, preferring to conduct his own liquid orgy with a bottle of Oblivion at a riverside bar.

*

The tide turned of course. Tides always turn if you wait long enough.

At first the reports were sporadic and unconfirmed. Then suddenly every TV news show was headlining the ‘infant ambisex scandal’: across the country babies were being born with penises where their noses should have been, vaginas for mouths. There was uproar. Questions were asked, accusations made, the President was quizzed. Government ministers arranged hasty press conferences in which they announced details of a full independent inquiry and ‘compensation for the tragic victims of this appalling catastrophe.’ There was talk of criminal charges being brought against the drugs conglomerates responsible.

The public reaction was instantaneous. Almost overnight ambisexuality and polysexuality became dirty words. Instead of flaunting their gender, ambisexuals began lying about it or concealing it. A number of sick jokes did the rounds: ‘What do ambisexuals call their daughter? Dickhead. What do they call their sons? Cunt face.’ There was a sense everywhere that some kind of limit of unnatural behaviour had been reached and the time was overdue for a return to more responsible standards of conduct.

*

Desmond didn’t buy the official theory. It was too simple, too pat. It looked like a put-up job.

One day at work, on a hunch, he accessed the birth-rate files and ran a socioeconomic check over them. It was as he’d suspected: over the past two years the birth-rate among the upper levels of the scale had undergone a staggering decline. Ambisexuals had stopped having children.

It was clear what had happened. Presented with a whole new range of erotic possibilities, ambisexuals had abandoned parenthood for more selfish pleasures. Recreation had replaced procreation. As a result the wealthiest and most influential section of society was rapidly on its way to copulating itself out of existence. Ambisexuality had become the ultimate contraceptive.

This theory was confirmed for Desmond by a report he heard on the radio one night while driving home, where it was announced that trials on the latest model of exo-womb were complete and they were soon to be made available as planned. The doctor interviewed on the report said he hoped many people, ‘not just women,’ would take advantage of this ‘safer, more convenient and more civilized method of birthing.’ Ambisexual sex might have been out of favour, ambisexual parenting clearly wasn’t.

*

Among the flood of cloying lifestyle-promo films that swamped the nation’s screens over the next few months, the following struck Desmond as the most schlocky of them all.

An ageing postlapsarian couple is shown naked on a deserted beach. The Adamic character is swathed in a thick shaggy pelt of penises, which when erect comes rather to resemble some prickly reptilian armour. Eve’s body barely holds together among the multiple lacerations of labia disfiguring her torso. Locked together in a casual embrace, Adam penetrates her back in half a dozen places. Suddenly, as if by accident, his hand strays between her thighs. Eve blushes, removes his hand disapprovingly, draws up a modest knee.

‘Adam, don’t!’

But Adam, the rogue, is grinning lewdly and already unzipping what turns out to have been his costume, stepping naked and uni-membered from the heavy penis suit with its folds of flaccid virilia, which he deposits in a heap on the sand. Eve appraises his nudity with unconcealed curiosity. He is younger and more robust than he first appeared, with a tanned muscular chest and sturdy legs. Against his well-proportioned body his solitary member, cleverly masked during longer shots by a chastely interposed fern, stands out in shocking relief.

He reaches up to Eve’s neck and locates in one of the orifices at her throat the clasp of the garment she wears. She helps him peel off the flesh-coloured body stocking with its vulval design. This too is discarded – to copulate out of shot perhaps with the penis suit. Adam and Eve regard one another and smile. Eve reclines on the bed of warm sand and draws Adam gently towards her. The camera slowly pans to the surf, foaming white at their feet. A voice-over says something about a reversal clinic being open now, near you.

*

Frida, as he’d known she would be, was one of the first to register for the reversal programme. He was waiting when she returned, candlelit table elegantly set. He wasn’t used to seeing her in women’s clothes and when she first appeared in the dimly-lit doorway, dressed in the simple white frock that she knew he especially liked, he thought he must be hallucinating some wistful spectre of the wife he thought he’d lost. But she was no phantom, she was real. The bandages on her emasculated wrists shone as dully pale in the candlelight as her dress.

She walked across the room in silence, casting him a hesitant glance before lowering herself delicately onto the couch.

‘Thought we might have dinner together,’ he said. ‘It’s all prepared. Swordfish, almond sauce, cream passionel. Our love feast, remember?’

He got down from his chair and knelt in front of her, pressing his palms lightly, experimentally, against her pliant breasts.

‘Ow, steady on, I’m still sore.’ She smiled. ‘You’re a good husband, Des, I don’t deserve you. I’ve given you a hard time, haven’t I? How have you put up with me?’

He shrugged. ‘It’s not been easy.’

She rested a hand on his head, curling a lock of hair round her finger. ‘Oh darling, do you forgive me?’

‘Welcome home,’ he said.

*

Later, in bed, lying beneath him, cushioning his head on her breasts, ‘I’ve been thinking,’ she said.

‘Yes, my sweet?’

‘Well, now this silliness is all over, now things are back to normal, well, I was thinking it might be nice to, you know, start a family.’

He felt his throat constrict, his eyes mist with grateful tears. ‘You know it’s what I’ve always wanted. But I can’t believe it. I mean you’ve always been so set against motherhood. Losing your figure and all that. I thought…’

‘Well, that’s the thing, you see. Now there’s these new operations available, these, you know, exo-wombs or whatever they’re called for men, well, I was thinking, I was wondering if you might…?’

Published in The Time Out Book of London Short Stories, ed. Maria Lexton (Penguin, 1993)