January 29, 2010

On the innate femininity of male to female crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs")

Is the the femininity of male to female crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs") genetic or is it just an erotic target location error?

Image: Tanyarat Jirapatpakon, a kathoey or Thai transsexual woman.

One good online friend asked me the other day why I was so critical towards Ray Blanchard. It was a good question. After all, I have bought his idea of there being a distinct group of heterosexual men fantasizing of becoming women (as opposed to classic transsexuals). Some of them crossdress, and minority of them even end up transitioning, getting hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgery.

Since I am an crossdreamer (AKA "autogynephiliac") myself, I know that we exist. 

On terminology 

Note of 2013: Since this blog post was written I have stopped using the word "autogynephiliac" to refer to people who get turned on by picturing themselves as the other sex. 

The word entails an explanation for the condition that is not only wrong, but also highly stigmatizing. I am now using the word crossdreamer, which has no such connotations.
Erotic target location error

I guess my main problem is with his explanation for this condition. He argues that the reason "autogynephiliacs" get turned on by imagining themselves as women, is because they have internalized their natural object of attraction, i.e. women, into themselves. This is an "erotic target location error".

Basically, he argues, the "autogynephiliacs" are heterosexual men, but somehow, something has gone wrong. Instead of focusing their desire on real women out there, they are attracted to the idea of they themselves being women. It is a kind of self-obsessed narcissism (although he doesn't use those words).

His follower Anne Lawrence has gone as far as suggesting that this can be some kind of alternative sexuality: homosexuality is same sex attraction, heterosexuality is between-sex attraction and autogynephilia is a kind of inside-yourself-sex attraction.


I can see why Blanchard has come to this conclusion. It is partly because of his ideology. He is grounded in traditional evolutionary biology, where the basic pattern of sexuality is oriented towards procreation. In evolutionary terms only heterosexual sex makes sense, as only that can lead to the transmission of genes. (For an alternative view, see my posts on Joan Roughgarden).

Blanchard and his supporter Bailey have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of homosexuality in evolutionary terms. That is hard enough. The autogynephiliacs make it all even more complicated, and by clearly defining them as "normal", although perverted, heterosexuals they avoid further complication.

His explanation is supported by the fact that many "autogynephiliacs" display a kind of narcissistic behavior. Some of them get so obsessed with their secret fantasies and practices, that it gets hard for them to develop normal love relationships with another person. The idea of them being in love with themselves therefore seems to make sense.

In denial?

You could argue that the reason I am reluctant to accept this, is that the thought of being labelled a fetishist or paraphiliac (in essence a dysfunctional pervert) does not appeal to me. And that could be true. I may be living in denial. I have done so before.

Still, I have a deep gut feeling telling me that this explanation is too simplistic. Blanchard may be onto something, but this hypothesis does not ring true. There is much more to this phenomenon than this. The fact is, for instance, that many male to female crossdreamers do manage to establish good and loving relationships with women.

Moreover, his isn't really an explanation. He or his supporters have not really told us how or why this internalization takes place.

Crossexualism leads to autogynephilia

To help myself think more clearly about this, I have started to distinguish between crossdreaming as a condition and a hypothetical cause for crossdreaming. I have called the hypothetical complex that underpins crossdreaming "crossexualism". I am using the cross-prefix as it is already used for crossdressing, and in my own term "crossdreaming".

Crossexualism is the cause, autogynephilia is the effect.

Depending on the individual's biological/personal/cultural or social basis, the crossexual can develop different symptoms. Some end up crossdressing. Others start exploring transgender erotica about men being changed into women (crossdreaming). Some seek pleasure in behaving like women (crossenacting).

It could also be that crossexuals may develop other conditions, like gynemimetophilia (transsensuals, men who are attracted to pre-op transsexuals). Maybe some crossexuals become transgenderists, i.e MTF transsexuals who keep their original genitalia. But this is pure speculation on my part.

AGPs are unfeminine

Blanchard and Bailey deny that "autogynephiliacs" have an innate femininity. They believe that classic transsexual women (who they call homosexual transsexual men) are effeminate, but the "autogynephiliacs" are not. They and several other researchers base this understanding on observations.

Let's for a moment forget about the methodological problems related to defining who look and behave femininely and who don't. Let us forget about the fact that male to female crossdreamers in general transition later in life than classic transsexuals, and that this may influence the observer's ability to distinguish between the feminine and the unfeminine (older women may look less feminine than younger ones). Let us also disregard the fact that even natural born genuine girls may look less feminine than many transsexuals.

Let us for the sake of argument accept that "autogynephile" men in general look more masculine than effeminate homosexual men, and that "autogynephile" transsexuals on average are more manly than classic transsexuals. The male to female crossdreamers -- on average -- find it harder to pass as a woman than the classic transsexuals.

Do AGPs have an inner woman?

If this is the case, does this prove that the male to female crossdreamers have no innate femininity? Or to put it in other terms: Does this prove that the "inner woman" of the crossdreamer is something that has been introduced into his/her psyche from the outside, while the "inner woman" of a classical transsexual is inborn?

(Just to make sure: Blanchard does not believe that androphilic, man-loving, transsexuals are women, but he does believe that they are more feminine that other biological born men, so I guess you could say he does accept some kind if innate femininity. To me they are women.)

The reason Blanchard & Co couple the looks of these people with their potential femininity, is most likely because he believes that the femininity of homosexuals and androphilic transsexuals is hormonal. A demasculinisation of a man may bring about both feminine looks and feminine manners. The looks, manners and psychological femininity are interconnected.

A different approach from Thailand

This brings me over to an interesting discussion taking place on this blog. There are now more than 80 comments on my Beyond the perversion post, encompassing a large number of useful exchanges. One of these discussions was initiated by a sexologist working in Thailand.

Natalie points to an article on the femininity of homosexuals and argues that the genetic condition that causes the femininity of gay men is the same as causes the femininity of autogynephiliacs.

She argues that the main difference between gay men and autogynephiliacs is their sexual orientation, not that the femininity of the homosexuals is essentially different from the one of the AGPs.

Gay gene vs. camp gene

She simplifies this by talking about two genes: "the gay gene" and "the camp gene". The feminine gay man has both, the autogynephiliac has only the latter.

I don't believe that one gene can cause homosexuality or a complex phenomenon as autogynephilia, but let's say that there are specific complexes of genetic and hormonal factors that cause both of these phenomena. If this is the case, would Natalie's line of argument make any sense?

If it did, you would have an alternative explanation for autogynephilia that fits the obervations made by researchers like Blanchard and Lawrence, but that do not reduce autogynephiliacs to fetishists or paraphiliacs.

Jack in Will and Grace

I voiced my scepticism in this way:

"I am no expert on gay men, both I know a few. Few of them are very effeminate (you know, like Jack in Will & Grace), but some are. Still their femininity is not like anything an XX woman would display, especially not if you move into the realm of flamboyant exhibitionism (like the one of drag queens). Truth to be told, I do not know how to understand this type of homosexuality. I like them, but I do not 'get' them!

That makes it hard for me to decide whether the cause of effeminate display among homosexual men is the same as the one for AGP [autogynephilia].

My first reaction is no, because very few AGPs displays the same mannerisms as Jack in Will & Grace. Quite the opposite, actually, we often seem very masculine, both in the way we look and the way we move.

I have clear feminine traits, but they are found in my personality and in my interests, not in any form of 'campness'. I am as far away from camp as it is possible to imagine. Really :-)

But that does not exclude the possibility that there is a factor X that causes both effeminate behavior among gay men and the dream of becoming a woman among AGPs."

My point was that there ought to be a connection between the outward expression of femininity and the inner femininity.

Natalie did not agree.

Gender identity is different from gender expression

Here is her response:

"I wouldn't say 'camp' is a form of behavior which is unwomanly. It is just that women normally don't intend to display it as it has no purpose whatsoever in their ordinary lives. However quite a lot women do engage in that, especially, when it comes to earning fame through glamour and beauty in fashion, film and music industry.

And the very same goes for drag queens. Most drag queens perform it as a form of art, to impersonate females or create an effect parallel to the glam females and hence get a lot of spotlight, attention and wider fame on stage. For them, finding sexual partners or having stable family isn't as essential as their need for media spotlight. Same goes for many XX women from the fashion industry too who are rejecting all traditional female roles for fashion.

But does that rule out they are women and feminine?

Camp is just an outward display or affectation but the genetic makeup which causes it has to be nothing but XX feminine.

Gay males, on the other hand, don't appear femme in the first place but still most are, or at least have been, at a certain stage of life. Fashion may be an area of interest to them or not, but, to form stable relationships and to become potentially attractive clients in the homosexual market, they masculinize themselves and try to avoid every shred of that feminity their problems started with.

But I do suspect that had they not found [in] their early childhood [that] unmanly behaviors were inviting censure from Western society, they would have become more feminine or camp as well. I say this as in my country, just 42% of the kathoey [Thai transsexuals] report they have the mind of a true girl though all of them report feeling different from manly men and also feel they are quite feminine.

Which leads me to conclude that many of these are just feminine gay men who have been put into kathoey category by the Thai society just because they are feminine. Yet they happily grow up as girls.

So, I would say, femininity is present and is the same for all of them- gay and bigender males, drag queens all the way to homosexual transsexuals. The degree of femininity displayed depends on which part of feminity they like most and which serves their purpose of survival provided they are not forced to repress it. But their basic genetic makeup or combinations of genes have same underlying base of femininity.

And so, finally, if autogynephiles are also feminine in some way, they must be having the same combination of genes which make them unmanly. They aren't camp just because they aren't drawn to it and they don't need it as any accessory tool."

Survival strategies

My interpretation of what Natalie says is that homosexual men have two choices:

(1) To suppress their feminine side in order to attract gay men (which is more common in Europe and Northern America), or

(2) to accentuate their feminine side to attract heterosexual men (which is more common in Thailand). These gay men teach themselves feminine mannerisms. According to Natalie the mannerisms are not inborn.

Male to female crossdreamers may be equally feminine at heart, but they do not display their feminine side outwards, as they are not rewarded for it. They are attracted to women, and women like masculine men. Or, at least, the autogynephiliacs believe that women are attracted to stereotypically masculine men only. Because of this they never learn feminine mannerisms.

Note that Natalie used the term "homosexual transsexual". I don't use this term myself because it may lead you to believe that the classical transsexual women are in fact gay men. They are not, as I see it. But you could, even if you follow Natalie's line of argument, say that the "classic transsexuals" are complete women as this femininity is inborn. It is not a result of a free choice or cultural conditioning. The kathoeys that report they have "the minds of a true girls" are classical transsexuals, because they do have the minds of true girls.

According to Natalie, there is another group of kathoeys that are not classic transsexuals, but feminine gay men. Even if male Thais take part in a kind of macho culture, the Thais are fairly tolerant towards the kathoeys. The feminine homosexual male may therefore adapt the role of kathoey with success.

The same may apply to some Latin and Middle Eastern countries, where a man is not considered homosexual if he takes the active part in the sexual act. Feminine gay men may therefore find active heterosexual male partners. Acting feminine pays off.

Identity and mannerisms

I remained skeptical. I argued that this requires that there is no biological causality between genetically based femininity and mannerisms. I.e.: their femininity is biological, but their "campness" is an act.

Some report that many (but not all) autogynephiliacs s find it especially hard to pass after transition, simply because they do not appear feminine or behave in a feminine manner. Natalie's point, though, is that there is a difference between gender identity and gender expression (cp. Betty's comment).

Gender identity is your fundamental and personal experience of being a man or a woman. Gender expression is how you present this identity to the world. There are natural born women who identify as women, but who nevertheless do not appear very feminine in public. In the same way a feminine man can appear masculine in public.

Looking at girls

"I guess there is a certain difference in how homosexuals and heterosexuals look at girls. Homosexual men, more specifically, in most places outside Europe or North America, look at females just like ordinary girls do and try to imitate them as far as possible for presenting their beauty, as their primary purpose is to appear pretty.

They have not much difficulty in imbibing the campness and feminine behavior with just a bit of practice on a highly subconscious level.

However, heterosexuals usually look at women sexually. And so do the autogynephiles although they themselves have a feminine component inside.

So, while these homosexuals would go on making their inner feminine persona presentable and so would concentrate on their outward mannerisms, autogynephiles go on to eroticize this inner woman due to their sexuality. And because they don't see women that way, they fail to behave feminine too.

But that does not mean they are not feminine. I have heard many AGPs have felt different from other boys in childhood and also have had a strong femininity. It's that they haven't noticed their femininity like other girls and homosexuals or Classic transsexuals, because they simply did not need to pay attention to it and also worse, they were obviously made to believe they are boys.
In a way, they were more blind to their female component until their sexuality in puberty showed them...."

Repressed femininity

What Natalie does here is to turn the traditional story upside down: Male to female crossdreamers have, for some reason or the other, repressed their inner femininity. Following your basic dynamic psychology this would mean that this suppressed part of their personality needs to find another outlet, and in the case of autogynephiliacs this is through sexual fantasies.

If I understand Natalie correctly, there is another reason for this as well: Gay men imitate women because they share the same objective: to attract men. Auotgynephiliacs cannot do that, because their objective is to attract women. In our culture a man who behave like a woman is automatically labelled as effeminate and gay, and the autogynephiliacs need to avoid that label if they are to succeed as woman-loving males.

This does not have to be a conscious choice. Early attempts at feminine behavior would have been punished - if not by parents, so by play mates.

So: according to Natalie the autogynephilic eroticism is the effect, and not the cause as it is with Blanchard, Bailey and Lawrence.

Childhood femininity

In order to prove this, you would have to prove that male to female crossdreamers have this feminine component from childhood on. The research does not indicate this. In fact, on an aggregate level the pattern is that classical transsexual M2F women identify as girls at a very early age (younger than five years old), while the autogynephiliacs do not become aware of their condition until puberty.

I suspect that MTF crossdreamers do become aware of their condition long before puberty. In my case I had childhood fantasies of becoming a girl as early as the age of 10 or 11, while puberty started at around 15 (I was damned late!). My dreams of becoming Supergirl was not explicitly sexual in nature.

(Lawrence actually agrees that autogynephilia may appear before puberty, but she argues that it is sexual in nature, all the same).

I cannot remember having dreams about being a girl at the age of five. Natalie may still be right, though. This innate femininity may express itself in many ways in childhood, and not necessarily as a dream of being a girl at that stage.

The outsiders

Natalie argues that many "autogynephiliacs" report that they felt different from other boys in childhood. I get the exact same reports: Even if they do not express feminine behavior, they do display what I -- for lack of a better word -- would call non-masculine behavior.

I hated rough and tumble play, I hated sports, I was the quiet one, and throughout life I has kept this "feminine" approach to life: being the integrator and the peace maker, rather than the aggressor.

Like classic transsexuals, male to female crossdreamers report of school days where they were being bullied and persecuted for being different. Like classic transsexuals many of them were called sissies and faggots, in spite of their budding love for girls.

Parental conditioning

It could also be that MTF crossdreamers do want to be girls at an early age, but that they have been forced to suppress this longing because of parental conditioning. If that is the case, we will have to explain why this kind of repression is less likely to occur amongst classic transsexuals.

One possible answer could be that there is both a gradual and a dynamic dimension to the innate femininity of all these various types of biological men.

By gradual I mean that some men are more feminine than others. As I have noted before, I feel like I have a mix of typical masculine and feminine traits. I have a strong inner woman, but I do not think that I am a woman trapped in a man's body. I also have a strong inner man. That makes me different from a classic transsexual woman.

That would mean that what I have called crossexualism above (the unknown cause of autogynephilia) could be a subcategory under the broader inner femininity concept of Natalie.

By dynamic I mean that the femininity of men can unfold throughout time, as may other psychological traits. For some reason androphilic feminine biological men become aware of their femininity at an earlier age than the gynephilic ones. This could be an effect of their sexual orientation. They are programmed by nature to attract men and that force is so strong that it defeats the many suppression attempts made by family and friends.

(And yes, in case you wondered: Children are sexual beings. They are training for adulthood, and start flirting before they can walk.)

I am not going to conclude on this in this post. This is a work in progress. But I must say I find this discussion very interesting, and I will definitely explore Natalie's ideas in more detail.

I would like to thank Natalie and the rest of you for all these fruitful interventions. Keep'em coming!

[Update for new readers February 2014: I no longer use the words "autogynephiliac" or "autogynephile" to describe transgender persons, as the words themselves refers to the stigmatizing erotic target location theory of Dr. Ray Blanchard (meaning love of oneself as a woman). There is absolutely no evidence to support this theory, and it is predominately used to invalidate the identity of trans people. I have coined the neutral term crossdreamer to describe both female bodied and male bodied people who get aroused from the idea of being their target sex. I have made a few edits in this post to reflect this change.]

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