April 19, 2015

The Problem with Arousal

Guest writer Joanna Santos argues that it is time we liberate ourselves from  models that reduce gender variance to sexual arousal.
Trans people are liberating themselves from the
stifling theories of the past. (Photo: moodboard)

By Joanna Santos

I have lived all my life with the knowledge that something was different about me. By the age of 4 or 5 years old, although aware that I was a boy, I had an interest in playing with dolls and trying on my mother’s shoes. But quickly enough I learned to suppress those desires because the messages I received were that I was not to indulge in these activities.

Since then I have come full circle and after a long period of reflection and angst (during which time I kept an almost daily blog), I have come to return to the state where I began my life. I have returned to being as true as I can to a nature that was always there but within the confines of the reality that I now live as an ageing adult.

After having read every book and every article on the subject of gender dysphoria I could get my hands on, I finally had to concede that there was not going to be a conclusive answer regarding the way I was made and why I was drawn to being a female. I had to finally accept without question that it made up part of my natural wiring and nothing was going to change that.

My gender expression need not be tied to my natal sex. No matter what society expects of you, it’s best to adhere to an expression that fits your comfort level and your self-image. This lesson was the hardest to learn because I came from an era where there was little latitude or permissiveness on that front. One was a male or one was a female and that was that.

Things have changed considerably since then.

We are now on the cusp of a revolution which I am still young enough to be able to witness first hand. Yes the same old arguments exist among the academics who will argue about Blanchard’s two typologies of transwomen and which one is more genuine but for me that is now entirely irrelevant because the true question is: “in which form do you feel most comfortable to live out your life?”


Ray Blanchard's term autogynephilia has become a term some people use to describe male to female transgender people who are attracted to women (gynephilic). Blanchard has argued that they are nothing but "paraphilic" heterosexual men aroused by their own image as women. He  argues that what they feel cannot be reduced to a fetish, but many who use the word nevertheless understand it this way.

If an autogynephilic transsexual (to use Blanchard’s terminology) is truly a fetishist then logically a gender role transition in the form of hormone replacement treatments and surgery should not be a desirable outcome. Indeed, many non-dysphoric males enjoy crossdressing fetishes and have no wish to live as females.

Why then are some late-transitioning males with a history of experiencing eroticism while crossdressed happily undertake gender role transitions without regret? The question has not yet been adequately answered.

Two Models

Much of the debate on male to female transgender has up till now been dominated by a model of two types of transsexuals: those that transition late (most likely gynephilic trans women -- "autogynephilies" to use Blanchard's terminology) and those that transition while young (androphilic trans women, or "homosexual transsexuals" to use Blanchard's offensive term).

The "late onset" trans women have often been attracted to women or both sexes, while the "early onset" have been attracted to men. This is changing now, as more and more gynephilic trans women come out of the closet at an early age. Still, the idea that there are two distinct classes of trans women remains.

According to this way of thinking, drag queens, who don’t experience arousal when dressed in women’s clothing resemble the androphilic (man-loving) transsexuals who, without transitioning, would grow up to become gay men. Both tend to be effeminate when young and as children tend to prefer the company of girls to boys.

It is often said that they experience no arousal while dressed because the sight of a beautiful woman in a dress and heels is not alluring to them. Instead they speak about immersing themselves in a character and indulging in an exaggerated form of femininity as performance.

The gynephilic transsexual, on the other hand, experiences the cross-wiring of being attracted to a woman while at the same time being drawn to the idea of being one. There is a longing borne out of jealousy and attraction mixed together and passed through the filter of male plumbing.

I remember as a teen wanting to be with a girl but also wanting to be like her and dress like her. This created a great deal of confusion and an increased desire to get rid of this conflict by suppressing my dysphoria and wilfully ignoring it. The problem is that eventually it resurfaces and often with increased potency when it is left untreated.

This categorizing based on sexual orientation by Blanchard did not help me understand my own origins.  All I took from this is that different groups of trans women have different life experiences and that this may cause them to express their gender identity in different ways. A male to female trans person attracted to men may, for instance,  more easily find a home in the gay male community, while the gynephilic one will be more tempted to stay in the closet in the hope of attracting women and being a normal male.

Be that as it may, pre-transition androphilic transsexuals reported by Blanchard and others were also experiencing arousal when thinking of themselves as women and making love to a man. They were reporting this in lesser numbers than gynephilic transsexuals but the percentages were not insignificant. This is not that surprising since they were fantasizing about something they wanted while still possessing male anatomy.

I have experienced arousal when crossdressing since the onset of puberty but my impetus was not the arousal itself but rather the desire to express my femininity; the erotic overtones seemed to adhere themselves to that experience and bring the joy of it tumbling down bringing with it guilt and shame. With increasing age, the arousal appears with less frequency but the feminine feelings only intensify. This is why I have established a part time life as a woman as a response to curb any pressure I may feel to transition.

The level of self understanding to process all of this took many years and while at first I was willing to believe that I was a fetishistic transvestite in need of healing, what I found instead is that I suffered from gender dysphoria.

There are plenty of examples of transwomen who have successfully transitioned who fit Blanchard’s autogynephilic model and yet are living happily in their new gender role. Once having ingested hormones and seeing their libido decrease they should logically have been less motivated to want to be women if the driver were exclusively arousal to one’s own image as a female. Instead the opposite has happened and they are better adjusted and happier living in their chosen gender role.

Many of the leading male to female trans activists and thinkers are bisexual or gynephilic. Yet, as far as I can see, they are thriving now that they are able to express their female identity. Andrea James, Julia Serano, Renee Richards and Lynn Conway are examples of transsexual women who would fall under this category.

It's All About Sex

Arousal may be a lame duck argument and many therapists and gender experts do not accept the Blanchard/Bailey/Lawrence model of transseuxalism because it reduces the desire to transition to one of two options depending on one's sexual orientation:

A heterosexual male so aroused by his own image as a woman to actually want to modify his body;

A homosexual male who wants to expand his partners by being able to attract heterosexual men by becoming a woman.

Simply stated this is what Blanchard’s work did: it noted the sexual orientation of transsexuals and categorised them accordingly, but he more importantly and perhaps more insidiously, postulated that the main motivator for transition was sexual in nature. The observed behaviour which Harry Benjamin had noted as a symptom was now the main driver for transition.

My own arousal patterns acted more as a deterrent to even considering transitioning since I was worried that they were a sign that I was not really a transsexual (whatever that term actually means). It was only years later when learned that Renee Richards (the first transsexual I ever heard about) actually fit the Blanchard autogynephilic model and started out as a prolific crossdresser.

The Next Generation

Nevertheless, young transgender persons today don’t concern themselves with whether they experience arousal or not. They are instead basing their decisions on what the feel their identity is. Indeed they are more aligned with the model that Harry Benjamin established all those years ago where sexual arousal was not part of his disorientation scale but rather the degree to which the individual experienced detachment from their birth gender. Benjamin actually recommended the use of hormones for some of his patients who clearly had a history of arousal and dressing.

Perhaps this issue shouldn't entirely be about gender role reversal. For many people it might be best to talk in terms of adapting their gender expression. After all when we ingest hormones and have surgery we are undergoing the most extreme form of gender role transition but every expert will tell you that we are not able to change a man into a woman or a woman into a man.

What we are doing is allowing them to undergo a change that permits them to live in the gender role that aligns their physical body with their interior self image. If you read WPATH and their standards of care for transgender and gender variant people you will note that there are various recommendations to help manage gender dysphoria that do not necessarily involve hormones or surgery.

Where We Go From Here

If society were to relax its expectations on males the way that it has on women, I venture to guess that less individuals would be tempted to fully transition. Even now we see some transsexual women who do not opt to have bottom surgery for example.

We are discovering that gender is really about an elastic range of expression that is not always directly tied to natal sex. Just like many drag queens indulge in gender expression without wanting or needing to be women, we need not modify our bodies to expand that range.

However this represents a frontier that many people find troubling for it is the last bastion of certainty and expectation. It’s all right to be homosexual because you don't see it but a man in a dress is disruptive and confusing to people and for some an invitation to violence.

When I was growing up the people we then termed as transvestites were considered sick and perverted people which is why I held a highly negative image of cross gender expression. Young people now identify as gender queer, androgynous, non-binary, etc in an attempt to describe the feeling that they do not fit perfectly into a rigid stereotype and many dress the way they feel. Their daily life is far from perfect but it’s better than when I was growing up and hopefully it’s a reflection of our growth as a society.

For more of Joanna's writings, see Musings from my everyday life...

See also "The Autogynephilia Theory, Again..."

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