September 17, 2011

Julia Serano on the concept of autogynephilia

The International Journal of Transgenderism has a paper by Julia M. Serano on autogynephilia in its latest issue. It was published late last year, and I tweeted the news, but I haven't had time finish the post until now.

Julia Serano  is a biologist and a trans-activist, and one of the few that has dared to look into the role of crossdreaming in transsexualism in a constructive manner.

Serano follows up on the critique of the autogynephilia concept made by Moser, and I guess this is another intervention in the battle of the American DSM-5 (The American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), .

In other words: Are men who fantasize about having the body of the opposite sex paraphiliacs (perverts), as the autogynephilia theory claims,  or are they just another variation of this wonderful thing called life?

For a popular summary of the autogynephilia theory, see my article: Autogynephilia on a Napkin.

The Case Against Autogynephilia

In the paper "The Case Against Autogynephilia" Serano (who is herself a transsexual woman) notes that Ray Blanchard, the father of autogynephilia,  and his followers have used the term  to dscribe to significantly different phenomena:

"First, it is used descriptively to denote a type of erotic fantasy common to many (but not all) MtF [male to female] spectrum individuals in which they become aroused at the idea of becoming women."

This Serano calls cross-gender arousal, which is -- I believe -- more and less the same as I call crossdreaming.

Like me Serano readily accepts that such fantasies exist.

She continues:

"Second, the term [autogynephilia] has been used to theoretically describe a paraphilic model in which the aforementioned fantasies arise as a result of a misdirected heterosexual sex drive (i.e instead of or in addition to being attracted to women, the individual becomes attracted to the idea of becoming a woman) and once established, such fantasies become the primary cause of any gender dysphoria and desire to physically transition to female that the individual might experience."

In other words: the male to female crossdresser, crossdreamer and/or transsexual has the hots for the idea of himself as a woman and it is this desire that causes the gender dysphoria.

Serano uses the word "autogynephilia" for this theoretical explanation of cross-gender arousal, as opposed to such arousal as a phenomenon in and for itself.

I think this is a very sensible way of using the terms, and plan to use the distinction myself in the future. So  I will call the very act of having arousing feminization fantasies among the male to female population crossdreaming, while Blanchard's explanation for this act will be called "the autogynephilia theory".

Like me, Serano avoids the bewildering a misleading use of terminology found among Blanchard and his supporters. Blanchards "homosexual transsexuals" are called "androphilic transwomen" (man-loving women), while the "heterosexual transsexuals" become "gynephilic transsexuals" (woman-loving transwomen).

The autogynephilia theory

Serano points out that the autogynephilia theory grew out of observation made by many therapists: There were transwomen that did not fit the traditional transsexual archetype of the feminine, non-fetishistic or asexual ideal of womanhood promoted by many sexologists and psychologists. Instead they found men seeking sex reassignment surgery that

"...were not especially feminine as children or adults, and/or tended to seek out sex reassignment much later in life after having lived for many years as heterosexual men. There were also indications that many in this latter group had previously identified as crossdressers and/or had a history of cross-gender arousal."

Based on a data from a questionnaire given to patients at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Canada Blanchard subdivided MtF transsexuals by sexual orientation into four groups: androphilic, gynephilic, bisexual and asexual.


He found that a majority of the gynephilic, asexual, and bisexual groups reported having experienced cross-gender arousal (crossdreaming) in response to wearing women's clothing on at least one occasion in their lives. (Yepp, only once is enough to become labelled as an autogynephiliac in the world of Blanchard!) As for the androphilic transwomen, only 15 percent reported such arousal.

He called the gynephilic, asexual and bisexual transwomen autogynephiliacs, while the androphilic (man-loving) transwomen were called homosexual transsexuals (HSTS).

By continuing to use the term "homosexual transsexual" Blanchard strengthened the idea of these women being extremely effeminate gay men -- not real women.

Gay men are not paraphiliacs

Given that homosexuality no longer could be called a perversion, the androphilic transwomen were not given the stigmatizing label of "paraphilia" in Blanchard's work. The autogynephiliacs, however, were considered perverted men.

Serano says:
"The fact that paraphilias are presumed to be male-specific...seems consistent with the fact that, according to the medical literature of the time, there appeared to be no FtM (female to male) equivalent to nonandrophilic [i.e. autogynephilic] transsexualism."

Those who have followed this blog know that this is not true. The female to male crossdreamer definitely exist. "Autogynephilia/autoandrophilia can therefore not be an expression of a typical male sexuality, as Blanchard believes.

Target location error

Serano continues:

"Blanchard hypothesized that autogynephilia arose from a 'misdirected type of heterosexual impulse, which arises in association with normal heterosexuality but also competes with it...' He proposed that gynephilic MtF transexuals experience both autogynephilia and 'normal' attraction to women', whereas, asexual MtF transsexuals 'represents those cases in which the autogynephilic disorder nullifies or overshadows any erotic attraction to women'.

"He also argues that bisexuality in MtF transsexuals is better described as 'pseudobisexuality': 'The effective erotic stimulus in these not the male physique of the partner, as it is in true homosexual attraction, but rather the thought of being female, which is symbolized by the fantasy of being penetrated by a man. For these persons, the male sexual partner serves the same function as women's apparel or makeup, namely, to aid and intensify the fantasy of being a woman.'"

Serano here refers to what I have called the man as a dildo theory. From what I hear in crossdreamer life stories, some crossdreamers do indeed treat their male lovers as props. They are at least not initially attracted to them in the same way as they are to men.

The problem with this line of argument is that even if some of the bisexual or androphilic crossdreaming transwomen may be of this sort, there is no proof that all of them are. In other words: there may be "true" bisexuals in the various samples used in this kind of research, and I doubt very much that there are no "true androphilic transwomen" among the crossdreamers.

Blanchard also sticks to a strict dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual that is not supported in other types of research.

The gender variance model

The supporters of Blanchard pit the autogynephilia theory up against the so-called "feminine essence theory" (the women trapped in men's bodies theory). Serano says that this

 "...ignores a more nuanced view that I will refer to here as the gender variance model, which holds that gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and physical sex are largely separatable traits that may tend to correlate in the general population but do not necessarily align in the same direction within any given individual."

This gender variance model is very similar to the mixing slider model Natalie and I have presented at this blog.

I have argued that much of the so-called "narcisssism" found in MtF crosdreamers is caused by sexual frustration which again is caused by the fact that the gynephilic crossdreamers find it hard to identify potential female partners that can let them play the role of "the bottom".

People expect their sexual orientation towards women to be followed by a wish to be "the top" and the penetrator. Instead they long to take the stereotypical female position when having sex. So not only is gender identity and sexual orientation two independent variables; sexual orientation and the typical proactive/reactive sexual preference are also independent.

Serano explains:

"According to this model, transsexuals share the experience of discordance between their gender identity and physical sex (which leads to gender dysphoria and a desire to physically transition) but are expected to differ with respect to their gender expression and sexual orientation (just as nontranssexuals vary in these aspects).

"This variation in gender expression and sexual orientation may lead individuals to follow different transgender trajectories and develop different sexual histories."

"If autogynephilia is to be taken seriously as a theory, it should explain the observed differences as well as (if not better than) the gender variance model," Serano argues. It does not.

The two-subtype model

Is autogynephilia's two-subtype model valid?

One huge problem with arguing against Blanchard is that most of the research done in this field is done by researchers that live and breathe within the same tradition as him. Many of the follow-up studies adopt Blanchard's typology and then set out to prove or disprove his assumptions.

The problem is that if you have already accepted the premise that there are two types of transwomen, and that these two are defined by sexual orientation, it becomes close to impossible for you to develop an alternative explanation, i.e. one based on another typology.

I, for one, think the division between androphilic and non-androphilic transwomen can make sense in some areas, as long as you keep in mind that you are talking about a categorization based on observations, and not on the mapping of the cause of these categories.

In other words: the division between androphilic and non-androphilic transwomen reflects sets we define to describe what we are seeing. The categories are not necessarily attributes that define the persons as having substantially different natures. Nor do they lay out the cause for these differences.

I often use the use of the word "immigrant" as an example. To divide the population into "immigrants" and "non-immigrants" may make sense if you are developing a policy to integrate refugees and foreign job-seekers into the native poulation of the country, but this does not mean that Somalian immigrants are less human than the native population, or that Somalians are the same as Tamils or Kurds.

Indeed, in the case of androphilic vs. non-androphilic transwomen. I think the differences observed can easily be explained by the radical different lesbian and straight transwomen face when growing up in a male body.

Methodological weaknesses

Serano finds other great methodological weaknesses in Blanchard's research. These include:
  • that the subtypes were not empirically derived but rather stemmed from his initial grouping of the individuals based on their sexual orientation
  • he did not include nontranssexual female control groups
  • he relied on clinical samples that may not accurately reflect the greater nonclinical transgender population (there were, for instance, no non-transsexual crossdreamers on board)
  • his results have not been replicated
Serano points to a lot of researchers who dismiss the argument that only nonandrophilic transwomen experience cross-gender arousal. Even Blanchard's own research shows that androphilic transwomen can "crossdream".

Serano writes:
"One of the most troubling aspects regarding autogynephilia is that the proponents of the theory have consistently tried to dismiss the aforementioned exceptions as being the result of misreporting on the part of research subjects. 

"Notably, it is always those transsexuals who are constructed as 'autogynephiles' that are accused of either lying about their sexual orientation, or of supposedly denying their experiences with cross-gender arousal; in contrast, the reports of those who neatly fit the 'androphile' archetype are never questioned ... 
"This double standard is not only illogical (as someone who wished to appear like the 'classic' transsexual would likely deny both attraction to women and cross-gender arousal), but it is tantamount to hand-picking which evidence counts and which does not based upon how well it conforms to the model."

I would add that Blanchard's model would never have been conceived hadn't it been for the fact that the crossdreamers approaching his clinic were so open about their cross-gender fantasies. It seems that they were be unable to hold back any of their secret fantasies, and by God have they been punished for it!   This does not in any way point to the conclusion that crossdreamers are secretive liers.

Serano again:

"If proponents of autogynephilia insits that every exception to the model is due to misreporting, the autogynephilia theory must be rejected on the grounds that it is unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. If, on the other hand, we accept that these exceptions are legitimate, then it is clear that autogynephilia theory's two-subtype taxonomy does not hold true."

Love of oneself as a woman

Next Serano attacks Blanchard's use of his "erotic location error theory" to prove the causality between crossdreaming and gender dysphoria.

As I have argued repeatedly, Blanchard has never provided any kind of proof for the idea that crossdreaming is caused by a kind of alternative sexuality, where the "autogynephiliac" is in love with the idea of himself as a woman. In other words: It is more likely that the crossdreaming is the result of gender dysphoria, instead of the gender dysphoria being the result of cross-gender arousal.

Serano also adds another possible explanation: That both traits may simply correlate in non-androphilic male to female individuals for some other reason.

Serano points out that if we are to believe the androphilic transwomen who do report crossdreaming, cross-gender arousal must be considered the cause of transsexualism also in this group. If it does not cause transsexualism in these individuals, "this would suggest that cross-gender arousal might not cause transsexualism in the nonandrophilic group either."

She adds that the causal relationship forwarded by Blanchard is also brought into question by the fact that many nonandrophilic MtF transsexuals never experience cross-gender arousal.

Blanchard's supporters normally solve this dilemma by arguing that the androphilic transsexuals that do report crossdreaming are self-deceiving androphiliacs, while the autogynephilacs that do not report crossdreaming are lying or sublimating their crossdreaming into some kind of romantic relationship to their inner woman. Which brings us back to the impossibility of falsifying their theory.

Non-erotic crossdressing

Seranon adds:

"While early explorations of feminine clothing and thoughts of female embodiment may be highly arousing (perhaps related to the sexual symbolism associated with femaleness and femininity on our culture), this sexual charge wanes for many MtF cross-dressers and pretransition transsexuals as they begin to interact socially in the feminine role, to develop a conscious female identity, and/or to view their transgender inclinations as authentic and nothing to be ashamed of."

This points to crossdreaming being the effect of an underlying transgender condition, rather than the cause of that condition.

Blanchard tries to solve this challenge to his theory by arguing that "autogynephiles" who come to identify as female has developed a pair-bond with their female selves. He is comparing the relationship between the autgynephiliac and his female self as an old couple who has stopped having sex! (Yeah, seriously!)

For me this is the ultimate proof of how far Blanchard's theory is removed from reality. First of all this argument proves that even Blanchard sees the weakness of his own argument. Secondly, his attempt at saving it is beyond belief.

Serano puts it this way:

"This explanation is quite a stretch, as there is no biological evidence to suggest that humans or other animals are capable of pair-bonding with themselves and/or their own physically sexed bodies... The fact that many MtF cross-dressers and nonandrophilic transsexual continue to engage in relationships with other people after experiencing this sharp decrease in cross-gender arousal strongly suggest that they are not pair-bonded with their female selves. "

But there is more to it than this. Both Blanchard and Bailey belong to a tradition that tries to explain sexuality in evolutionary terms. They have both done a lot of work on homosexual men, trying to explain why such a trait is inherited, in spite of the fact that it should be detrimental to generating offspring. Here, on the other hand, Blanchard is proposing the existence of a third kind of sexuality, where the man is having sex with himself, without even trying to explain how this kind of trait can be propagated throughout generations.

Pre-puberty crossdressing

Finally, Serano points to the fact that many nonandrophilic MtF individuals report that they experienced an awareness of wanting to be female long before they ever experienced cross-gender arousal.

Serano also delivers a devastating attack at Anne Lawrence's attempts at explaining away this weakness in the autogynephilia theory. Lawrence has suggested that nonandrophilic MtF transsexuals who have not experienced cross-gender arousal, or who have experienced such arousal only after becoming aware of their desire to be female, may nevertheless be motivated by a romantic-love version of autogynephilia.

"By the same reasoning," Serano says, "men who love their children, but who are not sexually aroused by them, could nevertheless be said to experience pedophilia."

Summing up

Serano concludes her paper in this way:

"In summary, as a theory of transsexual etiology and taxonomy, autogynephilia seems to have little merit. For this reason, and because its terminology is especially maligning to MtF spectrum people, it is recommended that autogynephilia theory (and the language associated with it) should be avoided in favor of more accurate (and less stigmatizing) terminology. Like all human beings, MtF spectrum people have rich and diverse fantasy lives. Future studies that seek to understand the phenomena of cross-gender arousal, or female/feminine embodiment fantasies, should be conducted in a manner that is respectful of this diversity, deferential to what MtF spectrum individuals say about their own experiences, and careful not to needlessly exacerbate the nonconsensual sexualization that this population already faces in society."

Note that Serano also discusses cross-gender arousal or crossdreaming in her book, the Whipping Girl:

 Reference: Serano, Julia M.(2010) 'The Case Against Autogynephilia', International Journal of Transgenderism, 12: 3, 176 — 187

See also: On Moser's critique of Blanchard's autogynephilia theory
The Massey University study of transgender people (with data that debunks Blanchard)

Update 2015: Since this blog post was written Julia has written several articles on autogynephilia.

I you want access to this and other articles on crossdreaming,"autogynephilia/autoandrophilia" and other transgender conditions, you can  become a member of the XDSC/Crossdreamer Science Circle.  We have copies in our virtual library available for study and research purposes.

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