September 28, 2009

Beyond the binary

Note that this article was written at a time where I still thought it was possible to use the word "autogynephilia" to describe erotic crossdreaming ofr what Julia Serano calls "female embodiment fantasies". That was a mistake. The term is so closely connected to the transphobic theory underpinning it that any use of it can be read as support of the explanation given by Ray Blanchard. I did not support that explanation then (as this article reflects) and I do not do so now.

As I have noted in previous blog posts, the autogynephilia concept grew out of a theory developed by Ray Blanchard. He operated with two different and unrelated types of male to female transsexuals.

Group 1: Nonhomosexuals or autogynephiliacs

Blanchard supporter Anne Lawrence writes the following about the autogynephilia category: "For heterosexual men, the preferred erotic target is mature women, an erotic preference called gynephilia. According to the model proposed by Freund and Blanchard (1993), some heterosexual men who experience erotic target location errors for their preferred erotic target are also sexually aroused by wearing women’s clothing or by otherwise temporarily attempting to resemble women..." Lawrence presents a table of "target location errors" (click on it to enlarge): It is a fascinating table. Pedophilia (attraction to children) is as "uncomplicated" as gynephilia (the desires of normal straight men), while autogynephiliacs are grouped with those who desire to amputee one of their limbs (!).
Group 1, the autogynephiliacs, consist of mis-directed heterosexuals, according to this theory. They get aroused by the idea of having a female body, because they internalize what should have been an external "object", a woman in flesh and blood.

Group 2: Homosexual transsexuals

So what about the other group of transsexual?
Personally I find their description of this group hard to understand. It is as if these researchers have taken the stereotype of the feminine queen or fairy and turned it into a scientific category.
The homosexual M2F transsexuals are simply feminine gay men.
At times it looks like Lawrence and Blanchard accept this group as "true" women. After all, they do not try to acquire the body type of their object of desire. Lawrence again: "Homosexual MtF transsexuals are not sexually aroused by the idea of being women, but instead seek sex reassignment because they are, as previously noted, naturally very feminine on many physical and behavioral dimensions (Blanchard et al., 1995; Whitam, 1987, 1997), resulting in the prospect of greater social and romantic satisfaction and success after sex reassignment than before. Natural resemblance to the status they want to attain (i.e., womanhood) thus provides an obvious explanation for homosexual MtF transsexuals’ desire to undergo sex reassignment." In one way you can say that they change into women to get laid.
However, at the same time these are persons who do not experience sexual arousal out of getting female genitalia, and who in many cases are indifferent or even hostile to their new vaginas.
I fail to see how these can be less "dysfunctional" than the autogynephiliacs -- if we accept this way of thinking. It seems to me that Blanchard and Lawrence accept neither homosexual transsexuals or autogynephiliacs as women. They remain men in their view, both before and after the surgery.

The evolutionary narrative

I believe much of the reluctance of Blanchard & Co to accept the narrative of autogynephiliacs being women, and not mis-directed men, is that they are deeply rooted in evolutionary science.
That is in itself not a problem with me. I believe we have a lot to learn from evolutionary science, also from so-called sociobiological research, i.e. research that tries to explain social and cultural phenomena as the result of biological evolution.
There is clearly a biolgical foundation for some of the differences between the genders. After all, the hormonal balance is different, and we know that both testosterone and estrogen influence the way we behave.
It may be, however, that Blanchard and Lawrence have gone into a trap that is not uncommon in this research field. They oversimplify a complex sociobiological phenomenon.
Evolution is about the transfer of traits via genes. Traits that benefits the survival of a genetic lineage will help those genes survive in the battle for survival. Traits that may harm the organism are rooted out. In simple words: They die out because the individuals that carry those genes die and fail to get viable offspring.
The normal way of understanding this arms race is via the mixture of genes between male and female. In normal terms: Men and women have to get together to produce kids, and only those that get children can transfer their genetic heritage to posterity.
In this narrative, the traditional male/female bonding becomes the norm. Everything else is a deviation. This explains why both Blanchard and Lawrence continue to call autogynephilia a paraphilia, a misdirection of sexual desire. The phenomenon does not make sense in evolutionary terms.
(Interestingly enough Blanchard and Lawrence seem to accept homosexuality as a natural behaviour, even if it makes as little sense in evolutionary terms as autogynephilia.)
The error of their way is, I believe, that they fundamentally think of the feminine and the masculine as two mutually excluding complexes of traits or sets of looks and behaviours, because they believe this division is necessary for procreation and the dissemination of genes. 

Man: a complex set of variables

We all know that what makes us masculine or feminine is a mixture of traits, and that no man and no woman are completely masculine or exclusively feminine. After all, all men have the genetic code for woman and visa versa. We are not two separate species.
The end result of the merger between the sperm and the egg is a human being based on a large number of genes. However, there is not one gene for each behavioural trait. Most of the traits are caused by a combination of genes. Different combinations may give different behaviour. Here's a relevant quote from the New Scientist: "Everyone knows tall parents tend to have tall children, and recent studies of the genomes of 30,000 people identified about 50 genes associated with being tall or short. Yet together these genes accounted for only about 5 percent of the inheritance of height." If the genetic causes for height are this complex, it is reasonable to believe that the causes for sex and gender are equally complicated.
And that is not all: We also know that the genes make proteins that are used to tell the cells how to behave. There is a proteom as well as a genome. The complexity of this system is mind boggling and the number of possible combinations of genes and proteins seemingly endless. The proteom may even be influenced by your surroundings: what you eat and what you experience (stress).
On top of that our personality and our sexuality may be influenced by the hormonal balance in the fluids in the womb, toxins in our environment as well as social and cultural factors and -- dare I say it? -- free will.
Given all this variation, why should we expect human beings to fall exclusively into one of two mutually exclusive categories: male or female? They clearly do not.
The pure existence of homosexuals prove that the Y chromosome does not necessarily a "normal" man make. And homosexuals exist, even if they are at an evolutionary disadvantage (they are less likely to get kids).
There are clearly combinations of factors that bring forth autogynephiliacs in the same way as there are combinations that produce homosexuals.

Beyond the binary

A possible alternative narrative can therefore be the following:
Yes, autogynephiliacs are in a way women trapped in men's bodies. In the lottery of genetic combinations, they clearly won some very strong feminine traits, as well as some basic feminine instincts.
But you can also say that they are men trapped in a woman's mind. They have man's body, and love women as other heterosexual men do, but the woman stops them from having a more traditional love life.
To this Blanchard and Lawrence may say that yes, this is exactly what they have been arguing all the time. Autogynephiliacs are the outcomes of an unfortunate mix of genes that stops them from becoming "normal men".
All right, but there are two important differences between my story and theirs:
(1) For me there is nothing normative in any of the genetic cocktails called men. Men fantasising about having a woman's body are not necessarily suffering from a mis-directed libido. They are not necessarily less capable of loving others than other men or women. Their condition is no more pathological than homosexuality. They are what they are. Sure, we have problems making our love life work -- maybe bigger problems than many -- but no one finds love easy.
(2) Autogenphiliacs may not be women trapped in men's bodies. That narrative is, after all, as traditional and conservative as the one of Blanchard and Lawrence.
Maybe autogynephiliacs are more than mere women, and more than mere men. Maybe they have something of both. This applies to all human beings, of course, but in the autogynephiliac this is more acute than in most, precisely because of the conflict between sexual desire, the body and the surrounding culture.

A curse and a blessing

If that is the case this condition will be a curse as well as a blessing.
It is a curse, because at the moment there are few that accept the legitimacy of this type of combination of feminine and masculine traits. Blanchard and Lawrence have given us a category, but has also labelled us as freaks. Some other transsexuals insist that this combination is unnatural as well: M2F transsexuals are really women and only women, so get that surgery and find yourself!
It can be a blessing, because we, more than many others truly bridge the genders. It should be easier for us to understand both women and men, than "normal" women or men (or homosexuals for that matter). Blanchard would disagree, and argue that being men we know nothing more about women than other men. Many transsexual activists would in one sense agree with Blanchard on this one: only women know how women feels, and the only real women of the transgender community are the genuine transsexuals: women trapped in men's bodies, not fuzzy borderline people like the autogynephiliacs.
Be that as it may: I think you will find that autogynphiliacs often get along better with women than the majority of men. They have greater empathy, simply because they recognize themselves in the other sex.
Anyway: Thanks to Blanchard and Lawrence as well as the many transsexual activists out there many of us have the opportunity to choose our way of life: mostly male or mostly female. Surgery is a possibility, if your family life and professional life allows it.

To sum up

Is autogynephilia a well defined sub-category of humanity? I think not. Not in a scientific sense, no.
I find no absolute boundaries between the sexes or the genders or whatever it is that define us. Statistically speaking the variations tend to conglomerate around some larger groups ("traditional heterosexual men and women") but the borders seem fuzzy or porous.
As a term used in a discussion of gender identity it is very useful though, which is why I am not joining those that accuse Blanchard and Lawrence for crimes against humanity.
They believe in what they do and they truly believe that they are doing us a favour. They have definitely helped me understand myself a little better, even if I cannot agree with all they have to say.


  1. great post. you're doing really good work here, jack.


  2. "They think they're helping us" is weak medicine indeed, every oppressor with a pedigree does that -- but having a Ph.D. is not license to be part of destroying people's lives. While Blanchard et. al. may not be doing that individually, the aggregation of this work -- much of which was set in motion by John Money -- is anything but curative. It's cultural genocide, a study at a time, just as it has been for decades now.

    While I can with a great deal of reluctance accept Blanchard et. al. work may not be as nefarious in its implications as, say, The Bell Curve (or viz. sex/gender/sexuality issues, Green), it's still attempting to operate in a social vacuum (as if you can separate the social from the biological). Also, this sort of assertion acts as if science doesn't have ethical implications within communities. It does. This is a common thread among evolutionary scientists, in my experience -- the brain is all, the social just an artifact. It's rather shameful, in my humble opinion.

    Sources: Sex Changes, Califia; Sissies and Tomboys, Rottnek (ed.); The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, Colapinto.

    (Posting anonymously because I'm tired of being hassled over such things in my personal life)

  3. Thank you for your work. It really helps me when things get bad, to read that others, too, are trying to make some sense out of this...


  4. I've been reading your site for awhile now trying to understand more about this. I believe I'm an autogynephiliac, I like to imagine myself as a female and sometimes dress up like one to sexually satisfy myself. I will get small towels and put them in my shirt to make them appear to be breast. I have no attraction to men, I love women and long to be in a relationship with one and have 5 kids. I am very shy though and have only have had a few girlfriends, sometimes I think I'm this way because of my lack of pressing the issue with the ladies. Like I've went threw my life wanting a girl so bad that it made my mind think like this and do what I do even when I have a girlfriend. I wasn't like this when I was young, it started when I first started masterbating around 17. That's when sometimes I would desire to be a girl. I even say if I can't find me a girl to marry by the time I'm 30 I will start taking hormones, which I know would be a mistake but the thought of it is errousing me right now. I'm just trying to understand this more and identify my problem, I have researched everything from transvestic fetish and that led me to autogynephilla. Have you ever heard of anything like my case. Someone that had lack of sexual/iniment interactions with females that made them want to be a female or have a female body? Id like your opinion on this if you have the time.

  5. Justin, I think your story illustrates how extremely complicated our situation is.

    Is it your lack of female contact that causes you to dream about becoming a woman, or is it your dream about becoming a woman that causes you to be alone?

    I was very much like you. I longed for women, but did not dare to approach them for more than non-sexual friendships.

    To tell the truth, I didn't think they would be interested, as I had an image of myself as being kind and friendly, but unmanly and not attractive in THAT way.

    In retrospect I think I was protecting myself against being hurt. There were girls out there that were interested. I just filtered out their signals and ran if the situation became to "threatening".

    It might be that I subconsciously doubted my own "manliness" exactly because I had such feelings.

    This fear of women was definitely a psychological condition, and it took me a few years in therapy to get around that fear. I found the courage and found the girl. I am sure you can too.

    There is one difference, though. Although I was aware of my transgender fantasies, I probably believed that the therapy would cure me of those as well.

    That I would "regain" full masculinity and that these dreams would disappear. I did actually become more assertive and willful, but the dreams did not disappear.

    As you will see from my latest blog post (A man trapped in a woman's mind) I now tend to believe that my autogynephilia has a biological basis that I cannot get away from, but that the way it expresses itself is influenced by childhood experiences.

    Which brings me up to one of the hardest parts of standing in between the genders. When you find the love of your life, what do you do? Do you tell her, and risk losing her or do you not tell her, and live with the shame of keeping an important part of you away from her?

    I think the tale of Susanne in some of the other blog posts gives a good illustration of how hard this can be for both parties. I would love to hear from some of my other readers how they cope with this problem.

    As you probably have noticed, I tend to believe that we as autogynephiliacs (or whatever we will end up calling ourselves) live outside the traditional male/female binary. We are definitely heterosexual men who love women, but there is also a strong feminine component inside us. All men have such a component, I guess, but in us it is much stronger.

    At the moment I am NOT convinced that we are truly 100% women trapped in man's body, and that we -- because of this -- should seek sex reassignment surgery. Although it might be that I will change this opinion when I learn more about myself an others.

    If we are not 100% women the question of becoming a woman or not depends on how we are able to cope with our lives in between the genders. I guess that if our inner woman is very strong, it makes sense to switch sides. Many autogynephiliacs have done so with great success. If not, it would make more sense to stay a man on the outside and find other ways of expressing the woman side.

  6. Is it your lack of female contact that causes you to dream about becoming a woman, or is it your dream about becoming a woman that causes you to be alone?

    Its my lack of female contact I think that causes me to dream about becoming a women


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