January 11, 2015

What trans and genderqueer people think about the origins of gender variance

Our 2014 survey shows that a majority of queer and trans people believe their gender variance is caused by an interaction between psychological, biological, cultural and social factors.

There is a lot of debate among gender variant people about what causes their sexuality and gender variance. What is it that makes some of them feel alienated from their own social role, their bodies or the expected sexuality of their gender?

Illustration by Daria Karaulnik

A quest for identity and/or an attempt to fit in

This discussion is partly driven by a natural need to understand and define themselves or their relation to others.  It most often stems from a desire to find some sort of personal solid ground: "This is who I am!"

This kind of insight may also -- combined with personal strength and perseverance -- make it easier for a person to protect important aspects of their personality against the pressure of social conformity.

There are also those out there who are developing mental models that can help them fit into the gender role models of their community. Those who have accepted the the "Men are from Mars" and "Women are from Venus" binary are, for instance, more likely to be attracted to models that accentuate the differences between the genders.

The majority go for complexity

There are ways of finding out how genderqueer and transgender people, crossdreamers and crossdressers included, think about the origins of their gender variance.

My wife and I carried out a survey last year targeting gender variant people in general. We got 1202 responses in all.

We asked them: "If you have cross-gender feelings, experiences or a cross-gender identity, what do you think this is caused by?"

There were four options:
  1. "An interaction between psychological, biological, cultural and social factors"
  2. "Biological factors (e.g. genes and hormones)"
  3. "Personal experience (psychological, social and cultural factors)"
  4. "Other"
Our selection of options in many ways reflects the traditional conflict between explanations based on biology and those that favor a psychological and/or cultural approach.

If we look at the total sample, which includes a wide variety of types of gender variant people, we find that the great majority believe that their sexuality and/or identity is created by a complex interaction of factors, social and biological included.

Click on image to enlarge.

How crossdreamers feel about the origins of gender variance

902 of the respondents can be clearly classified as crossdreamers (i.e. they answered yes to the question: "Do you sometimes experience sexual arousal from imagining yourself as another sex or gender?").

If we take a closer look at the crossdreamer population, the overall distribution of responses is more or less the same as the one for all gender variant respondents. The majority of crossdreamers believe in a more complex, systemic, explanation for what causes gender variance, which includes both "nature" and "nurture" (58%). 22% go for biological factors only and 14% for the nurture option.

Causes of gender variance, selected groups of respondents.
Click on image to enlarge.

If we look at the crossdressers alone, the results are more or less the same as for all respondents and all crossdreamers.

Nature and nurture

People believing in the traditional "female brain trapped in a man's body" paradigm are most likely found under the "biological factors" options (although others might have ticked this one off as well). This group is less than half the size of the largest one.

We have no way of knowing how many of the 14% who answered "personal experience" believe their crossdreaming is some kind of erotic imprint or sexual fetish only. We deliberately avoided words like "fetish", "autogynephilia" and "crossdreaming", partly because they would require detailed and complex explanations, and partly because some of them have negative connotations among gender variant people.

Many of those who selected the psychology only option may believe in more complex reasons for why personal experiences can cause gender variance. We do not know.

There is an interesting difference in responses as regards the respondents' gender assigned at birth. Crossdreamers assigned female at birth are much more likely to go for the nature/nurture interaction explanation (67%) than the ones assigned male at birth (55%).

We don't know why this is so. It may be an effect of age difference, as a majority of the female bodied respondents replied to the Tumblr version of the survey. Tumblr users are in general much younger than the general population.

What transsexuals think about the origins of gender variance

Note that 25% of the crossdreamer respondents considered themselves transsexual, while 78% of the transsexual respondents reported crossdreaming. There is definitely some overlap between the two groups, but they are in no way identical.

If we look at all transsexual respondents, crossdreamers and non-crossdreamers included, we find a different distribution of responses from both the total number of respondents and crossdreamers in general.

The interaction between different social and biological factors alternative remains the most popular (47%) explanation, but the percentage who believes biological factors alone determines their gender variance is now as high as 40%. The percentage who believes their gender variance is caused by psychological factors alone drops to 8%.

I would guess that the more severely a person suffers from gender dysphoria, the harder it gets for him or her to interpret this as the end result of personal experience only. The main reason for this is that it is hard to pinpoint in what way the upbringing and personal experiences of trans women and trans men differ from non-transgender people.

Most people who experience -- let's say -- abuse, sexist parenting, various types of psychological trauma or and gender-violating personality traits (to name some of the suggested explanations) do not become trans. The stronger the mismatch between the inner identity and the life one has to live becomes, the harder it becomes to reduce this mismatch to pure psychology.

There may also be an element of social pressure behind this alternative way of looking at gender variance. It seems that people in general find it easier to understand, accept and embrace the idea that transsexuality is biologically determined, as this clearly removes any aspect of choice. If you cannot be otherwise, you can not be blamed for your gender transgression. We find the same mechanism in the way many treat homosexuals.

More posts based on the gender variance survey.
Here is a presentation of the survey and its methodology.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this Jack, I find your posts so interesting. I have lots of respect for what you are doing for all of us.

Jack Molay said...

Thank you!

joanna Santos said...

I believe that it is very difficult to get to the source of all this not only because we lack scientific evidence but also because there is inherent bias in the responses that people give. For example someone who believes they are firmly in the transsexual camp will play down their crossdreaming in an attempt to distinguish and separate themselves from the rest. If we rely solely on responses we are faced with this challenge.

Conversely it is nice to see that dysphorics are more and more certain that their difference lies in large part in biology rather than only psychology which is significant. Having tried everything in their power to cure themselves they have come to the inevitable conclusion that there is more involved here than will power. This is not a habit or a lifestyle choice and they know it viscerally especially after living many decades with dysphoria.

Thanks for this Jack.


Sandra Lopes said...

I just came across this survey. It's actually interesting from the perspective on how crossdreamers see themselves, and what they believe that caused their crossdreaming. Thanks for doing the survey and posting the results!

Of course, what this survey captures is merely belief — and a belief conditioned by what crossdreamers read about themselves and/or what other crossdreamers tell them. By itself, it doesn't say what actually causes crossdreaming, just what crossdreamers believe in. That's quite a difference, but should also be taken into account.

Under 'other' there could also be quite more creative answers, like, say, 'it's magic', 'God did it to me', or 'it was fated/destiny/karma'. Such answers would be pretty unscientific but could also have addressed belief.

Jack Molay said...


You are right, of course, this does not say anything about what really causes the crossdreaming.

Still, the survey helps us kill a few myths:

1. That most crossdreamers/crossdressers think of themselves as fundamentally different from transsexuals as regards the originis of their "condition".

2. (As noted in other posts) That they do not suffer from gender dysphoria.

I have been thinking about your latest post on 90 percent of crossdressers being fetishists and fetishists only.

The question is: Did we capture that "90 percent" in this survey?

We did distribute the invitation through facebook-groups and forums catering to this cohort, and my guess is that many of them filled in the form, but we have no way of knowing if their part of our sample is representative.

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