Is autogynephilia a fetish? And is that why so many would rather not be associated with the term?
Autogynephilia (AGP) means to love oneself as a woman, and the researcher that coined the term, Ray Blanchard, argued that autogynephiliacs had internalized their external love object, so instead of loving a flesh and blood woman out there, they love the idea of themselves as a woman. He called it a paraphilia.
In the online debate about autogynephilia (or crossdreaming, which is the term I prefer) the most common used term for the condition is, however, that it is a fetish.
WHO on fetishistic transvestites
In modern medicine, crossdreaming is often classified as a fetishism. The World Health Organisation manual ICD-10, fives the following definition of crossdressing as a "disorder of sexual preference":
"Fetishistic transvestism: The wearing of clothes of the opposite sex principally to obtain sexual excitement and to create the appearance of a person of the opposite sex. Fetishistic transvestism is distinguished from transsexual transvestism by its clear association with sexual arousal and the strong desire to remove the clothing once orgasm occurs and sexual arousal declines. It can occur as an earlier phase in the development of transsexualism." (F65.1)
Under the category "gender identity orders" there is another type of crossdressers, unsullied by impure desires (F64.1):
"Dual-role transvestism: The wearing of clothes of the opposite sex for part of the individual's existence in order to enjoy the temporary experience of membership of the opposite sex, but without any desire for a more permanent sex change or associated surgical reassignment, and without sexual excitement accompanying the cross-dressing. Gender identity disorder of adolescence or adulthood, nontranssexual type. Excludes: fetishistic transvestism ( F65.1 ) "
This is an attempt to make sense of the group of crossdressers who do not report sexual arousal, but who nevertheless do not want to transition.
You can see that the authors have had a hard time distinguishing between crossdressers who crossdress for sexual purposes and the rest. To be honest with you: I think this distinction is completely bogus.
In this classification the experts uses sexual desire as the most important factor for defining the two groups. This could make sense in a time when sexuality was considered impure and of the Devil. These days sexuality is considered a natural and good part of human existence. Heck, even fetishes are now normally considered an acceptable variation of human sexuality.
To argue that crossdressers who get aroused by crossdressing are fundamentally different from those that do not, must imply that "the fetishistic transvestites" (the crossdreamers) do not share the dreams of the asexual "dual-role transvestites ", i.e. the dream of temporary or permanently being members of the opposite sex. From what I see, many -- if not most of them -- do.
This becomes even more paradoxical when it argues that fetishistic transvestitism can be an earlier phase of transsexualism:
"Transsexualism: A desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one's anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one's body as congruent as possible with one's preferred sex."
(The WHO definitions are clearly based on Harry Benjamin's sex orientation scale. Benjamin solved the paradoxes presented above by arguing that there were no clear boundaries between the different types of fetishists and transsexuals.)
What is a fetish?
There are many definitions of sexual fetishism, but at the core of most of them is the notion that something nonsexual, such as an object or a part of the body, arouses sexual desire or is necessary for one to reach full sexual satisfaction. Since a lot of autogynephiliacs crossdress, it is easy to conclude that female clothing is this object.
In modern psychology the main explanation is that sexual fetishism is the result of some kind of psychological imprinting or of a traumatic experience.
Crossdreaming is nothing, or nothing but a fetish
One of the the persons taking part in the Mr. Autogynephiliac discussion I referred to in an earlier post put it this way in an email to me:
"I simply don't believe the term AGP [autogynephilia] needs to exist in any capacity. It can be described as a fetish, as the term fetish makes no statement as to the distress experienced as a result. I certainly would never relate it in any way to Gender Dysphoria. I simply don't understand why they are grouped together in any way, in the same way that I do not understand the grouping of transvestic fetishism is part of the LGBT."
The people criticizing Mr. A presented this as a given fact. I got the following response when I questioned this:
"You are attempting to use other qualities associated with 'AGP' [autogynephilia] to elevate it to something it is not. A virus for example (used to illustrate categorization only) is a virus irregardless of what complications it is often associated with. No matter what happens to the individual or what pain it causes, it's category does not change. The anxiety or similarities to other things does not change what it is at its root."
In other words: I am trying to turn crossdreaming (autogynephilia) into something that it is not, thus making it more palatable for both the crossdreamers themselves and society at large. This attempt does not change the fact, though: Crossdreamers have nothing in common with true transsexual women (or whatever you choose to call them); they are -- at best -- fetishists.
What causes crossdreaming, really?
When I started this blog, I was actually pretty much convinced that autogynephilia (or crossdreaming, as I call it) was caused by psychological trauma. Now I am pretty sure that this is not the case. The crossdreamer life stories vary too much. There is so much pain and confusion in the emails and comments I get, so much that point in the direction of a deeper cause, a cause that is at least partly biological in nature.
In the debate on autogynephilia there is a tendency to say that the observed symptom is the cause. Autoynephilia is nothing but a fetish. Autogynephiliacs are nothing but fetishists. There is no explanation for how this condition comes about.
In all fairness, Ray Blanchard -- the one who coined the term -- has never said that autogynephilia equals its symptoms. He actually believe AGP is inborn. But since he has no real explanation for why autogynephilia exists and he has worked so hard to get it into the American DSM manual of mental disorders, most people are probably satisfied with the conclusion that autogynephilia is what it appears to be. A perversion. End of story.
In the DSM-V proposal crossdressing is still called a fetish, while autogynephilia without crossdressing is called autogynephilia. This is probably due to some compromise in the relevant committee. Blanchard has gotten the term autogynephilia into the manual, but his more conservative colleagues are reluctant to give up the fetish terminology.
Beyond the fetish
The people who criticized Mr. A. argued that the fact that autogynephiliacs and transsexuals both feel pain does not mean that they are the same. I agree. But there is more to it than that. The distress felt by autogynephiliacs is not primarily caused by the fact that most people find crossdressing strange or that they feel guilty for being "fetishists".
One important cause seems to be that the crossdreamers or autogynephiliacs have a deep longing to take the traditional female position in a sexual relationship. They want to be the bottom and not the top. It is very hard to explain this urge as a result of a fetish for female attire.
Based on my own experience and from what I hear from others, I have come to believe that this longing is biological and instinctual. Many, if not most, crossdreamers have -- fully or partly -- a female copulation or mating instinct, and that can only be explained as biological in origin.
The inner body image
The M2F crossdreamers and the transwomen also share another deeply ingrained "instinct". Their body image is out of skew with their male bodies.
The crossdreamers define this in positive terms: They long for a female body. The transwomen often define it in negative terms: They hate their male parts. But basically they are both experiencing the dissonance between having a female body image and a male body.
I suspect the different use of language partly reflects the transwoman's wish to present her condition as non-sexual, and partly the fact that some trangendered people are more gender dysphoric than others.
How this inner female body image appears is a mystery. As I have noted earlier, the variation in trangender upbringings and the fact that our cultures do not encourage the development of transgender dreams, leads me to believe it is biological.
There is another possible explanation: That the body image is a psychological response to a psychic trauma, in the way anorexia is a cry for help. In this case it could be that these men are suffering because of the pressure to behave in a manly, insensitive and aggressive way. The body image is their subconscious telling them that they would like to behave in a more feminine way.
The reason I doubt that this explanation is the correct one -- or the only one -- is that we have too many life stories of intersexed people being reassigned the wrong sex after birth because of ambiguous genitalia. Most often these kids end up longing for the body of their genetic sex when growing up. This means that their body image is inborn, and not the result of their upbringing. In other words: there is such a thing as an inner body image that is independent of the actual physical body.
Besides, even if the psychological explanation was true, it would mean that these transpersons have psychological profiles or personalities that fit better with the stereotypical opposite gender role, which confirms that their gender dysphoria is inborn.
Crossdreamers that do not crossdress
Then there is the fact that many of us -- me included -- are not crossdressers. I do not get turned out by wearing panties and a bra. I would look ridiculous in lingerie! My fantasy is to have a female body. I guess you could argue that this is a fetish as well, in the same way as some men get turned on by rubber suits, but I find the comparison lacking, to say the least.
The reason Blanchard decided to abandon the term "cross-gender fetishism" was actually this. He says:
"Freund’s term cross-gender fetishism came closer to describing this phenomenon than the familiar term transvestism, in that the definition of cross-gender fetishism explicitly included the element of cross-gender ideation. Freund’s concept of cross-gender fetishism still, however, implied the presence of a fetish-object, even if it allowed that object to be some symbol of femininity other than clothing."
Blanchard does not consider autogynephilia/crossdreaming a fetish, because for some
autogynephiliacs there is no external object to get aroused by. There are no feminine garments that turn them on!
And if you believe that crossdressers and people like me are in the same category, you cannot call us fetishists. Remember that a fetish is normally understood to be the use of inanimate objects as a stimulus to achieve sexual arousal and satisfaction.
But if my condition is basically the same as the ones of crossdressers, that would mean that the crossdressing is a symptom of something deeper, and not a fetish.
A gender mix
There is, of course, much more to my condition than my sexual fantasies. My personality seems to be crossing the traditional gender lines on many levels, not only on the sexual one. Many crossdreamers report that they found it hard to adapt to the traditional role of boys when they were kids. They were less assertive, more timid, more nerdy maybe.
This applied to me as well. I did not think of myself as a girl as a kid, and I shared many of the typical boy interests (World War II and dinosaurs come to mind), but I was considered shy and non-aggressive. I hated most of the rough and tumble play. You could say that some of us were more feminine in that respect -- also before puberty and the appearance of any fetish-like behavior. This makes me suspect that the male/female divide is much more complex than both Blanchard and some TS activists want us to believe.
Many who have feminization fantasies also dream about being women full time. That is: Their dreams are not only erotic. They encompass many sides of of what it entails to be a woman. I think this is also what Roughgarden is hinting at in her rebuttal of Bailey's book on transsexuals. These autogynephiliacs may be the ones that are most likely to transition. But we don't know, because we are not asking the right questions.
Why do the CT activists want to label AGPs as fetishists?
In the autogynephilia debate several of the transsexual participants uphold the idea that autogynephiliacs /crossdreamers are fetishists. It is paramount for them to keep the distance to anyone that has admitted to having erotic fantasies about becoming a woman.
Of all people, they should know how hard it can be to have your identity reduced to a perversion. So why do they do this?
It is a paradox, also because the scientific world view that gave birth to the AGP-as-a-fetish-concept is the same as the one that underpins the theories of Blanchard and Bailey, the arch enemies of these activists.
Both the activists and the scientists seem to operate within a binary world where there are men and women, and nothing in between. For Blanchard and Bailey this binary system is based on biological "body sex", for the activists it is based on "brain sex", but both of them reaffirm the Western ideal of clear and distinct identitites for men and women.
Too much at stake
I can actually understand why these activists feel so strongly about this, and why the liberal scientist and transwoman Joan Roughgarden finds it hard to explain why autogynephiliacs should be included in the Pride Parade.
The transsexual community has struggled for years to get people to understand that there is such a thing as gender dysphoria or gender incongruence, i.e. that it is possible for a biological male to be a woman inside.
They have also managed to develop an understanding of this gender identity as biological. They are born with it. This is not something caused by psychological trauma, cultural imprinting or social constructions. They cannot escape from their female identity. They cannot "pull themselves together" and live as men, simply because they are not men. And I believe them. "Classic transsexuals" are women, no "buts" involved.
However, one of the reasons for their success is probably that their narrative is not challenging the basic premise: that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. By arguing that there is a second type of transpeople that do not fit with this narrative, the crossdreamers may undermine this consensus.
The very existence of crossdreaming and crossdressing may seem to raise doubts about the validity of the claims made by many transsexuals. How do you know that a transsexual is the real deal, and not an "autogynephiliac"?
People may believe that these classic transsexual women are not women after all. Maybe they are just male fetishist or some strange unholy mix of the masculine and the feminine? This very doubt may rip up wounds that barely have had time to heal, and it may undermine the legitimacy of the life choices of transwomen.
There is such a risk. I can see that. As Roughgarden puts it:
"Today we transgendered people may enjoy the best prospect we've had since the time of Jesus to enter mainstream Western society and live productive, normal lives. We don't want this prospect to be undermined by bizarre sexualities. "
But the fact that these classical transsexual women exists, doesn't mean that there cannot be other types of gender dysphoria. And it cannot be right to sacrifice crossdreamers on the altar of convenient silence in order to to spare the feelings of other transpeople.
Besides, as I see it the very existence of crossdreaming does not undermine the understanding of classic transsexual women being real women. There is research that points to a biological basis for the gender identity of "classical transsexuals". The fact that crossdreamers/crossdressers may share this biological basis does not change this.
Insurance and politics
There are other reasons for the controversy, as well.
In Scandinavia we have public health systems that do not care about the distinctions between AGP/TG/TS or whatever. The state will normally pay for your sex reassignment surgery if your distress is acute and the operation will not endanger your health. In the US you need to get your insurance company to pay for it, and I am pretty sure these companies will be reluctant to pay for you indulging your fetish.
And in spite of the strong arguments for giving transsexuals SRS made by people like Blanchard and Lawrence, I guess there are even hospitals that would refuse to do surgery on an autogynephiliac.
The legitimacy of crossdreaming transwomen
So, if anyone has the right to be pissed at me, it is the transsexual women who had erotic fantasies about having a woman's body before transitioning - in other words transwomen who risk being classified as autogynephiliacs.
After all, I accept that there may be two types of transsexuals, in the same way as do these TS activists. Since many of them argue that these transwomen are not women at all, my line of argument could be used to stigmatize transwomen who were crossdreamers before transitioning, and who even considered themselves to be men at one time.
By labeling all crossdreamers as fetishists, you force a large number of post-op transsexuals to keep quiet about their life history. Crossdreamers who want to transition must also keep quiet about their true condition. If they admit that they have had sexual fantasies about becoming women, they risk ending up on the south side of the border, and they will not be admitted into the hospital. Nor will they be accepted as women by some other transwomen. They are unclean.
Many of the classical transsexuals desperately want the autogynephilia problem to go away, because they believe that a wide, public, debate about this may undermine any hope they have of a normal life as normal woman. There will always be this suspicion of them being nothing but fetishists, even if they are nothing of the kind.
I think they are wrong. Most cisgendered people do not care about the nuances of transgender typologies. Moreover, most people have sexual kinks. That transgender people also have some, should come as no surprise.
Fetish, the Other F Word
For a second opinion, see Fetish, the Other F Word by Dented Blue Mecedes. She makes some very interesting point about the use of the fetish category and transgender issues.
"I’ll start by saying that I believe that we all have fetishes, which are usually approximately defined as images or ideas that cause sexual arousal. It can be something as innocent as candlelight dinner, men or women in uniform, or ripped shirts and bared chests, as long as those things consistently put one in that 'romantic mood.' The primary difference between breast fetish and foot fetish is that one is considered socially acceptable… the other is driven underground, where it stews and brews and sometimes bubbles over in 'creepy' ways, to thus generate support for the stigma via the repression principle. (...)"
She argues, like me, that medical terms like "fetish" is used to label all too human prejudices:
"By learning what 'fetish' is, I’ve come to seriously believe that modern psychiatry does not adequately understand it, and that there is a serious difference between that and paraphilia. It’s become a convenient dumping ground for anything in the sexual realm that runs afoul of moral standards. And there are a LOT of things in the sexual realm that we’re taught are socially unacceptable."
As for crossdreaming -- or autogynephilia -- she argues that what appears to be a fetish, may perfectly well be a symptom pointing to a deeper gender dysphoria:
"For this reason, I believe that many (though certainly not all — there are plenty for whom the appeal is tactile, role play or context) people we consider transvestitic fetishists are in a pre-transsexual situation, their identity issues often submerged to the point that they only surface in a sexual context. It does not mean that they are not 'real, or not 'serious enough,' it simply means that they are still heavily repressed by fear, confusion, perhaps self-loathing, fears of the possible implications on their families, jobs, relationships…. These people may need the support and wisdom of the trans community, and may add future strength in numbers and participation, provided we don’t actively alienate them."
Amen to that!
Trannystar Galactica is a collaborative YouTube channel looking at transgender issues.They have a video comment on fetishism that can serve as a comment to this blog post.
A version of this post was originally published over at Sex Gender Body.