April 4, 2014

New Study Dismisses the Autogynephilia Approach to Transgender

Are there really two types of transgender people, or are there only different blends of characters and personality traits? This may seem like a purely academic question, but the answer has actually strong repercussions for how people look at both crossdreamers and transsexuals.
Different but the same
Illustration photo by Tomwang112/thinkstock.

In a new paper, Dr. Jaimie F. Veale, brings new evidence that the various shades of male to female transgender are indeed variants of something related, and not two distinct categories.

The two types of trans women

One common idea regarding male bodied transgender people (including transsexual women) is that there are two distinct types.

Since most of this research is on transsexual women the types are often referred to as late onset and early onset, referring to when they used to go to the heath system to get help transitioning.

Both health personnel and researchers noticed early on that the ones transitioning late in life where more likely to be sexually attracted to women, while the early onset were more likely to be attracted to men.

Since all healthy women were supposed to be attracted to men, the early onset ones soon became the model for the perfect transsexual woman. Indeed, as some transsexual women scrambled to get access to the group of real women, the two categories became more than practical descriptive categories used to discuss the different variations of transgender. Now they were referring to tow distinct phenomena, with completely different causes, an A team and a B team.

Are the differences categorical or dimensional?

In her new paper on Dr. Ray Blanchard's variant of the two type typology, Dr. Jaimie F. Veale refers to this as the difference between what she calls categorical constructs (as in the difference between cats and dogs) and dimensional constructs  (as in the difference between black and white cats). A categorical difference is one of either/or, while a dimensional difference refers to a continuum.

Is the difference between early onset and late onset transsexual women a difference that exists only in our heads -- a practical concept used to group people of one very diverse population? Or is it an absolute difference that is found out there?

If it is categorical  it should be achievable to develop a test  to determine whether a person belongs to one or the other of  these two completely distinct populations.

Blanchard's two types

Blanchard believes that his types refer to be a difference of the categorical  kind. To him the difference between the two groups is determined on the basis of sexual orientation, and sexual orientation only.

In his universe gay men are fundamentally feminine, and the "homosexual transsexual" (as he calls the androphilic, man-loving, transexual woman) even more so. An early onset transsexual woman is therefore a kind of hyper-effeminate gay sissy (He actually uses the word sissy!).

The late onset group is defined as being "non-homosexual".  He seems to believe that bisexual and heterosexual men all belong to the same group sexual orientation wise.  Since non-homosexual men cannot be feminine in his universe, their condition is explained as a "paraphilia" and "an erotic target location error." These men (Blanchard does not accept that trans women are women) are actually having the hots for their own inner imaginary female.  Blanchard calls this condition "autogynephilia", meaning "in love with oneself as a woman."

As one can see, this means that the two groups of androphilic and autogynephilic trans women have little in common, except from the belief that they are women.

Using Blanchard against Blanchard

Both Blanchard and Veale belongs to a scientific tradition that believes that one can settle such controversies by using the scientific methods of natural science. Veale therefore uses the same methods and the same categories as Blanchard in her analysis.
Dr. Jaimie Veale

This is a tricky tactic. Anyone who has read Blanchard critically will soon see that his results are very much determined by his model and not by the observed facts.  In other words: By accepting Blanchard's premise, you might easily end up replicating his findings, even if the model is wrong.

Veale is aware of the problem, though, and seems to navigate skillfully around the most rocky reefs. The advantage of using the same methodology as Blanchard, is that it becomes much harder for him and his supporters to dismiss her research as unscientific.

Arguing for a continuum

Veale has already in earlier research made her position clear. She does not believe we are dealing with two distinct categories. She believes that what we see are variations of the same underlying phenomena.

This does not mean that she denies that there are differences between the two groups. Her new study confirms that there are clear patterns here, but she believes that these differences can be explained by the way androphilic and gynephilic (woman-loving) trans women are treated by the world around them and by other psychological factors.

The present paper is based on a sample of 308 respondents filling in an online questionnaire. The study aims at testing the solidity of Blanchard's research, and in particular the idea that there are two distinct groups of transsexual women.

But how do you do this?

It is not as hard as one may think. As long as you believe there is a categorical difference (cp. cats and dogs) instead of a dimensional difference (Siamese and Persian breeds of cats), you need to prove that there are dimensions where the two categories do not overlap. Cats and dogs have fur, four paws and a liking for meat, but they cannot interbreed, they are evolutionary far apart and behave differently along a large number of dimensions.

Blanchard has tried prove that there are such differences between the "autogynephiles" and the "homosexual transsexual". If the two groups overlap along these dimensions, his theory has been falsified.

Some of you might argue that this has been done already, and repeatedly, and you will be right. But this is not a theory that will die easily, probably because it fits well with common prejudices about sex and gender.

Veale also uses statistical methods (which I am not going to describe here) to determine if it is statistically likely that the distributions of responses to the scales on the questionnaire are due to there being distinct groups.

The four scales of Veale's

Veale is testing Blanchard's theory by using  four scales:
  • Attraction to feminine features in males (which is a dimension Blanchard has not taken into consideration)
  • Attraction to transgender fiction (like in tales about crossdressing, male to female bodyswap and magical sex changes)
  • Core Autogynephilia Scale (a scale developed by Blanchard to determine "autogynephilia". It is suppose to measure sexual attraction to the fantasy of being a woman)
  • Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy Scale (attraction to being admired by another person as a woman)
  • Sex Linked Behaviors Questionnaire (a test developed by McConaghy to determine sexual orientation)
Main finding

Veale is using a large number of different methods to interpret her data, but regardless of what she does to them, she is not able to replicate Blanchard's finding of the two types of transsexual women being like cats and dogs. What she finds is different flavors of cat. In scienteese this is written out like this:

"Blanchard’s (1989) typological theory proposed two distinct etiological pathways of MF transsexualism based on sexuality, which should manifest in a taxonic latent structure of MF transsexuals’ sexuality, especially in measures related to this theory. This study’s finding of evidence for a dimensional latent structure is inconsistent with Blanchard’s theory."

Veale refers to other studies as well as her own, and concludes that there is no one to one relationship between sexual orientation and "autogynephilic" fantasies and/or "transvestic fetishism". Indeed, even Blanchard's own numbers shows that a small, but significant, number of androphilic trans women report such fantasies.

Veale's study confirms that gynephilic trans women  are more likely that androphilic trans women  to report such fantasies, though:

"In accordance with previous research (Blanchard, 1989; Freundet al., 1982; Johnson&Hunt, 1990; Nuttbrocketal.,2011a; Smithet al.,2005), androphilic MF transsexuals scored significantly lower than nonandrophilics on Core Autogynephilia.This difference was also seen for the Attraction to Transgender Fiction and Attraction to Feminine Males scales, which was expected given that these are measuring phenomena closely relating to autogynephilia. Veale et al. (2008) reported similar findings using this sample with groups based on cluster analysis."

Still, the fact remains, that  androphilic trans women who according to the theory should not report "autogynephilic fantasies" do so. This should be enough to sink the autogynephilia theory. In addition Veale documents that there is nothing in the data that suggest that suggest that the patterns seen reflect an underlying "essential" difference between the two types.

A more nuanced understanding of sexual orientation

Veale is expanding upon previous research. This time she has done an interesting study aimed at expanding our understanding of the differences between the groups. 

In one virtual experiment she pretends that Blanchard's theory is true. In a simulation she stipulates that the two groups are essentially unrelated, as Blanchard believes. She then looks at to what extent the presumed "autogynephilic" group can be attracted to men. This is basically why she has included the "attracted to feminine men" dimension in the analysis, a phenomenon Blanchard has not looked at.

What she finds is that the non-androphilic trans women (the autogynephiles according to Blanchard) is much more attracted to feminine males than Blanchard allows for. According to Blanchard autogynephiles should show zero interest in men. But many of them do, and this time it is not about the faceless props Blanchard and his supporters refer to when explaining away "autogynephilic" fantasies about having sex with men.

This reminds me of all the discussions I have had with female to male crossdreamers, where the majority also reports an attraction to feminine looking men (see my discussions with Rayka)

I am also reminded of Natalie's contribution to my Crossdreamer Vocabulary where she underlines the difference between an outer and inner gender. Being attracted to a man with a feminine inner gender is different from being attracted to a man with a masculine inner gender, Natalie argues. 

Furthermore, I am reminded of studies of lesbian love, and especially butch/femme relationships, where femmes are attracted to the  masculine sexuality of women, but not to masculine men. 

Veale relates her finding  to "the observation that MF [male to female] transsexuals sometimes report attractions to other MF transsexuals and will often partner with them", interpreting this as another sign of diversity and variance that go beyond the traditional heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy.

Recent discussions over at Crossdream Life also confirms that there are many male to female gynephilic (woman-loving) crossdreamers who gradually develop (or reveal) an attraction to men. This especially applies to some of those who transition.

Basically, what these observations tell us is that the modern idea of heterosexuality and homosexuality being absolute opposites of each other is misleading. Instead we see different blends of attraction to masculine/feminine  features (morphology) or masculine/feminine personality traits in both men and women. Such an understanding would explain why so many pre-modern cultures do not distinguish between attraction to men or women, but instead focus on the difference between being the active or receptive partner when having sex. 

The purified  heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy is one that only exists in our minds. The reality out there is much more complex, and that complexity cannot be harmonized with Blanchard's two type model.

Transgender fiction

Veale also notes that what really keeps the two groups apart is their interest in transgender fiction and not their autogynephilia. 

She writes:

"It is also notable that the Attraction to Transgender Fiction scale had greater ability to separate potential taxa in the MAXCOV analysis than the Core Autogynephilia scale. This finding suggests that what differentiates sexuality in MF transsexuals most may not be 'core autogynephilia', but rather attraction to themes found in transgender fiction."

My own take on this is very simple: Androphilic trans women are more likely to have their sexuality affirmed than gynephilic trans women even before transitioning, for the simple reason that they can choose to have a "gay male" sex life (even if they are neither gay nor male at heart).

The gynephilic ones fall in love with women and feel therefore obligated to live up to the role of the aggressive man in bed, most often failing miserably in the process. The attraction of sexual fantasies where you get a body and a role that fits your inner identity therefore becomes much more important. This is where you explore your sexuality: In your dreams.

Veale provides no explanation for this in this paper.

No differences in desire to be attractive

Veale notes that "Another notable finding is that androphilic and nonandrophilic MF transsexuals did not differ in Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy."

That is: The need to be seen and admired as a woman is the same in all groups. I suspect you would find the same if you asked women assigned women at birth. Most women like feeling sexy, and be affirmed as being attractive. That is only natural.

Veale's take on transgender diversity

Veale's explanation of the diversity of transgender lives is very much in line with the one I have presented here in this blog:

She writes:

"More recent theories that explain this sexuality diversity of transsexuals and other people with gender-variant identities using social and psychological factors do not rely on a typological distinction. Nuttbrock et al. (2011a) found that transvestic fetishism, a component of autogynephilia, was positively related to age and White ethnicity. They argued that expression of a gender-variant identity in older and White people tends to be more secretive and therefore experienced as exotic and associated with physiological and emotional arousal, leading to the sexual arousal component. 

"In a follow-up article, Nuttbrock, Bockting, Rosenblum, Mason, and Hwahng (2011b) found evidence that secretive cross-dressing partially mediated the relationship between transvestic fetishism and both age and ethnicity. 

"Veale, Lomax, and Clarke (2010c) independently proposed a similar theory to account for autogynephilia. As well as these social factors, their Identity-Defense Theory proposed that personality factors and coping style/defense mechanism use may also account for some of this difference."

According to the Identity-Defense Theory some transsexual children are more likely to repress their gender identity than others, which at least partly explain the difference between early and late onset.  Veale notes elsewhere that introvert gender variant kids are more likely to try to follow the gender behavior expected by their parents, as introverts are more likely to be people pleasers. Indeed, Veale goes as far as indicating that this may also influence their sexual orientation: A repression of gender variance may go hand in hand with a repression of same-sex attraction.

In other words: You may perfectly well divide a group transgender male bodied persons and transsexual women into two parts based on sexual orientation or early/late onset. Doing so will reveal some interesting patterns, some of them being related to sexual arousal associated with imagining oneself as a woman, others related to varying enthusiasm for transgender erotica. 

But none of these differences are mutually exclusive. There are androphilic crossdreamers, as well as gynephilic trans women who find little fascination in transgender erotica. This means that there must be other factors than sexual orientation that explain why two such groupings appear. Veale argues that these differences are caused by different social contexts and not by sexual orientation.

Please note that Veale's doctoral thesis is based on a much larger sample of respondents that this paper. That thesis come to the same conclusion as this paper. The autogynephilia theory has no basis in facts.

Jaimie F. Veale: "Evidence Against a Typology: A Taxometric Analysis of the
Sexuality of Male-to-Female Transsexuals" Arch Sex Behav March 2014 ref DOI 10.1007/s10508-014-0275-5

Related blog posts:

Jaimie Veale's study of gender variant people throw new light upon crossdreamers
What explains the difference between the two types of MTF transgender?
The Massey University Study of Transgender People
On Moser's critique of Blanchard's autogynephilia theory
Julia Serano on the concept of autogynephilia

The Official Abstract of Veale's Paper

"Previous theories and research have suggested there are two distinct types of male-to-female (MF) transsexuals and these types can be distinguished by their sexuality.

Using the scales Attraction to Femininity in Males, Core Autogynephilia, Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fanasy, and Attraction to Transgender Fiction as indicator variables, taxometric analysis was applied to an online-recruited sample of 308 MF transsexuals to investigate whether such a distinction is justified. 

In accordance with previous research findings, MF transsexuals categorized as ‘‘nonandrophilic’’ scored significantly higher on Core Autogynephilia than did those categorized as ‘‘androphilic’’; they also scored significantly higher on Attraction to Femininity in Males and Attraction to Transgender Fiction. 

Results of one of the taxometric procedures, LMode, gave slightly more support for a dimensional, rather than taxonic (two-type), latent structure. Results of the two other taxometric procedures, MAMBAC and MAXCOV, showed greater support for a dimensional latent structure. Although these results require replication with a more representative sample, they show little support for a taxonomy, which contradicts previous theory that has suggested MF transsexuals’ sexuality is typological."

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