February 4, 2010

Joan Roughgarden and autogynephilia

The final part in a series about Joan Roughgarden and her studies of sex, gender and nature. In this post I look at what Roughgarden's alternative view of evolution and sex can mean for male to female crossdreamers.

Joan Roughgarden's reflections on biology and gender began with a gay parade in San Fransciso:

"In June 1997 I marched in my first gay pride parade. I walked up Market Street in San Francisco, from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building. The parade was one of the biggest I had ever seen, and the sidewalks on both sides were packed six deep. I had heard that 1 in 10 people is gay or lesbian, but had always felt this number exaggerated. At this parade, though, I began to realise for the first time that the number of gays may indeed plausibly reach that figure."

The biologist in her found this to be quite of a problem:
"My discipline teaches that homosexuality is some sort of unexplained anomaly. If the purpose of sexual contact is reproduction, as the standard explanation has it, how can all these gay people exist? One might argue they are somehow defective, that some developmental error or environmental influence has misdirected their sexual fantasies. If so, gay and lesbian people are here for a brief time during our species' evolution, awaiting removal when natural selection prunes those with lower Darwinian fitness."

Same-sex behavior is common

Roughgarden finds, though, that same-sex behavior is common in nature, and have probably been so for a very long time, which means that Darwin's view -- that males and females have preordained roles of "horny handsome warriors and discreetly discerning damsels" -- is wrong.

"In many species, including ours, females are not necessarily less eager than males, nor do females all yearn for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Females often solicit males, and males often decline. Moreover, in many species the supposed sex roles reverse. Even Darwin acknowledged species of birds, like the jacana, in which the females are highly ornamented and the males dull and drab, reversing the peafowl story.

Many animals, indeed, do not even sort neatly into two sexes at all. If you go snorkelling on a coral reef, about one-third of the fish you see make both eggs and sperm at either the same time or different times during their lives.... In fact the most common body plan among multicellular organisms, including plants, is for a single individual to make both male and female gametes at some time during their life. "
She therefore concluded that the condition where an individual can be unambiguously classified as either male or female is not the norm.
Sex for bonding instead of procreation
Roughgarden also came to the conclusion that mating is mostly directed at forming and managing relationships, and not necessarily about the transfer om sperm. However, strong relationships will ultimately result in the successful production and rearing of offspring.
In an article in the New Scientist she makes the following observation:
"In humans, for example, suppose Ozzie and Harriet have two children, have been married for 50 years, and make love regularly each week - say, Thursday night. After 50 years they will have mated over 2500 times, and produced two children, thus mating 1250 times per offspring produced. Sounds inefficient? Not if we suppose that regular mating allows the couple to stay together to successfully rear their two children. "

In this context homosexuality make a little bit more evolutionary sense.
Homosexuality in man is not a disease. There are just too many gay people around for that to be the case. As Roughgarden says:
"A 'common genetic disease' is a contradiction in terms, and homosexuality is three to four orders of magnitude more common than true genetic diseases such as Huntington's disease."
Roughgarden suggest that homosexuality is a social inclusionary trait - that is, it provides animals, including perhaps humans at times, with admission to social groups. It evolves whenever same-sex cooperation helps achieve an evolutionarily successful life: to survive, find mates and protect one's young from harm.

Nature loves variation

Note that there are two messages here.

The first is the one about heterogeneity, in the sense that nature loves variation. This is the reason I have spent so much time on presenting Roughgharden to you. Not because she is right in everything she says (no one is), and not because she defends autogynephilia as something natural (she doesn't), but because she expands our view of what sex and gender is in a natural context.

By doing this she undermines the ideology that forms the basis of the more simplistic and binary tales about how men and women ought to behave gender wise.

We know that tale well. It is the one about the the two distinct roles of the genders,. It is the one about sex being mainly a vehicle for procreation, which means that heterosex must be the norm. And it is the tale that leads the storytellers to label all behaviors and all desires that do not follow these well defined roles as fetishes, paraphilias and perversions.

She clearly demonstrates that most of the (mostly male) biologists writing in the areas of evolution and sex, have inherited and accepted the traditional tale about gender roles, and that they project these attitudes out upon animal behavior. In this way they can use their interpretation of animal behavior to reinforce traditional views on what it means to be a man or a woman.

Blanchard and Bailey have been born out of this tradition, and although they are much more radical and tolerant than most give them credit for, this has led them into interpreting their findings within a traditional framework.

This is why they cannot accept that M2F transsexuals should be considered women. They already have a hard time explaining the existence of gay men! This is also why they develop the theory of "autogynephiliacs" having internalized their object of desire (women). That is the only explanation that makes sense to them, because what kind of evolutionary tale can make sense of men that love women, but still dream about being women?

Opening a new door

Roughgarden opens a door to new theories and new explanations, that not only make sense from a political human rights perspective, but which also helps us understand nature.

This is a nature that has room for feminine male morphs among birds and other mammals. Such a nature may also have room for alternative male identities among humans. A nature where males mount males and females mount females, may also have room for humans that fantasize about replacing the top position for the bottom.

This does not mean that male to female crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs") necessarily are the feminine male morphs of homo sapiens. Crossdreamers are not clearly distinguishable from other males as are the feminine male birds. No, the point is that there is so much variation as regards gender roles among animals, that we can and should be open for the same kind of variation amongst ourselves. From that perspective crossdreaming may make sense, also from an evolutionary point of view.

Roughgarden's problem

Roughgarden's problem is that the participants of her Pride Parade do not necessarily share her enthusiasm for the heterogeneity of nature. The fact is that many of her transsexual sisters hate the idea and believe in the traditional dichotomy of the sexes. Many of them do not want to take part in the Pride Parade at all, as they feel they have nothing in common with homosexuals and the "transgender".

They could even be right in this. As I have noted before, I truly believe classic transsexuals are what they claim they are: Women. Period. Not gay men.

Nor do all homosexuals embrace the idea of a rainbow of evolution, where the colors of the gay flag represents a continuum of human sexuality and gender identity. Instead they spend a lot of time trying to decide who can be considered red and who are purple.

The toxicity of "autogynephilia"

When it comes to the MTF crossdreamers, Roughgarden actually finds it hard to find room for them in her rainbow. This may come as a surprise, as Roughgarden is one of the scientists that has most clearly attacked Michael Bailey's book on transsexualism and autogynephilia.

In her article The Bailey Affair: Psychology Perverted (2004) she actually attacked Bailey's and Blanchard's idea of there being two different types of transsexuals:

"From a transgender perspective, Bailey’s claim that all transgendered women match one of these two profiles is clearly counterfactual. Many transgendered women come out late in life and yet are sexually oriented to men, many come out early in life and yet are oriented to women, many who are oriented to women are attractive nonetheless, many have changed direction of sexual orientation when they transitioned, many are bisexual, and many are not sexually active.

"Transgendered women also encompass heterogeneity in occupation, presentation, temperament, sexual history, and ethnicity. Furthermore, transgendered people are not as fixated on sex as Bailey evidently is. The need to locate in the social and occupational space of one’s gender identity, to live as a woman, is a stronger motivation for many transgendered women than is attaining sexual pleasure. So, the initial dilemma faced by transgendered women was to discern how Bailey went wrong, why so far off course, and perhaps try to lend some accuracy to his account."

I was therefore very surprised when I saw that Roughgarden accepts Anne Lawrence's story about autogynephilia as her own in Evolution's Rainbow, a book published the same year (2004). And she does this in spite of the fact that Lawrence has adopted the Blanchard/Bailey theory.

Roughgarden, admittedly, does not accept the absolute dichotomy between androphile transsexuals and gynephile/bisexual "autogynephiliacs" as Lawrence does, but she does accept the idea that the motivation of crossdreamers (she calls them "autoerotic") is sexual desire (pp. 270):

"I believe Lawrence's narrative brings out a valid distinction between trangender expression motivated by gender identity and that motivated by fetishism. Transsexuals can be motivated by either, and cross-dressers can too. On the gender-identity motivated to fetish-motivated spectrum, transsexuals cluster towards the former and cross-dressers toward the latter. Each transgendered person probably has his or her own personal mix of these motivations." (p. 272)

The autogynephiliacs are in minority

Nor does Roughgarden buy the idea that "autogynephiliacs" are in majority among the transwomen who transition:

"Although Lawrence's narrative demonstrates that an autoerotic component can exist in male-to-female transsexualism, I am not persuaded that many people match this profile... As far as I can tell, the vast majority of narratives freely told by transgendered people among themselves, and those recorded by ethnographers throughout history, demonstrate that actualizing gender identity -- not sex drive -- is the primary motive for transgender expression." (p. 272-272)

This is, unfortunately, impossible to prove or disprove, because an crossdreaming M2F transsexual who admits to having sexual fantasies of this sort, will most likely be labelled a freak, not only by society at large, but also by other transsexuals. The temptation to stick to the traditional narrative must therefore be very high.

Since Blanchard and Lawrence couple "autogynephilia" to sexual orientation, I guess they would say that it is easy to identify the crossdreamers. All of the women loving and bisexual M2F transsexuals are "autogynephilic", and then some.

They argue that many of the transsexuals who report that they become androphilic (attracted to men) after transitioning, are "autogynephiliacs" as well. The reason for this is that Blanchard and Lawrence do not believe their attraction to men is real. These transsexuals are attracted to the idea of being a woman desired by men, not to men in and for themselves.

Maybe this is the case, I do not know, but it is extremely hard to prove. You will have to argue that the "autogynephiliacs" lie to the researcher (and maybe to themselves) when they say that they are attracted to men, and then you need to prove that they are lying. I cannot see that this has been proven.

A reluctant acceptance

Still, this is important, because if crossdreamers are in majority among post-op transsexuals, Roughgardens solution to the "problem" becomes very problematic. The danger is that she and other transsexual women may end up branding a large number of other transsexual women as mere fetishists.

She struggles hard with the question of how to include the crossdreamers in the Pride Parade:

"However, even a single case of autoerotic transsexualism raises the issue of inclusion. Here is a test of whether we're really inclusive ourselves. Do we really believe in diversity, or are we riding its bandwagon? After all, it should not matter why a sister becomes a sister. I will love her and support her anyway.

"At the same time, the sensational publicizing of autoerotic transsexualism poses a threat to the future of transgendered people. 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. We don't want to give ammunition to those who wish to pathologize us, and endorsing autoerotic transsexualism would seem to do just that." (p. 273)

At this point Roughgarden becomes political. She no longer embraces the heterogeneity of the rainbow, because she knows that society will find it very hard to swallow the idea of sex driven crossdreamers being real women. Since she accepts the Blanchard/Lawrence explanation of the cause of "autogynephilia", she ends up leaving her own radical path of real acceptance to a position of reluctant acceptance.

Roughgarden describes the way the gay and lesbian organisations finally decided to include transsexuals, and then she adds:

"Similarly, I believe we must include transsexuals motivated more by autoerotic impulse than by gender identity, however few they may be. To do otherwise cedes the moral high ground."

This was not the kind of embrace I had been hoping for. You do not get crossdreaming transsexuals to admit that they have had such fantasies by telling them that they are accepted only because doing otherwise would be ceding the moral high ground.

The problem

The problem here is not that Roughgarden leaves her gradualist approach and suddenly goes for two distinct types of transsexuals. As I have noted before, I think there are valid reasons for working on the assumption that there are two groups, even if it should turn out that they are somewhat overlapping or have a common biological basis.

Male to female crossdreamers seem to be predominantly gynephilic (oriented towards women). If they transition, they normally transition later than androphilic transsexuals. (Although that can be of social and cultural reasons -- as they are gynephilic, most of them find it easier to try out a "normal" life first.)

The crossdreamers also get turned on by imagining themselves as women, while androphilic transsexual women most often say that they do not. The androphilic transsexual women seem to get turned on by men only (or by women if they are lesbians).

The autoerotic component in crossdreaming can be caused by the fact that crossdreamers are gynephilic (attracted to women), though. In spite of what Blanchard and others may tell you, most "autogynephiliacs" are perfectly capable of loving a real woman "out there".

Crossdreamers may have some of the same biological basis for their femininity as do feminine gay men and classical transsexuals. We simply do not know.

And that is exactly why Roughgarden's discussion of autogynephilia is so disappointing. She gives in to the fear of the community and fails to explore the most obvious avenue of exploration: to see whether crossdreaming can have a biological and evolutionary explanation. In other words: could different forms of femininity in men give them a special role in society and in the evolutionary process?

A possible solution

It is a hard to explain how potential genetic complexes causing homosexuality are passed down the generations. The same applies to androphilic  M2F transsexuals.

But it is very easy to explain why crossdreaming can survive in the the fight between "selfish genes".

First: crossdreamers love women. For this very reason their chances of getting offspring is much higher than for homosexual men and classic transsexual women.

Second: All things considered, many crossdreamers can be considered good husband material. Even if they sometimes are as "hopeless" as other men, some women will find their feminine traits if not attractive, so at least helpful. They may not be Brad Pitts, but they are more likely to take care of the children.

They may have strange habits -- obsessions even -- but are probably less likely to be unfaithful. In an imperfect world, this may not be such a bad deal for a woman. Besides: So far women have had a broader perspective of what makes a good spouse: a perspective that includes more than broad shoulders and a nice ass.

Finally, most women do not know anything about crossdreaming, and many potential husbands hesitate to tell them about it in fear of being marked as freaks. This is a vicious circle indeed, but it does not stop the crossdreamers from procreating.

Crossdreamers often get kids, so if their condition is genetic, it will be carried on to the next generation.

The feminine male morph

If we like Natalie accepts that MTF crossdreamers have a strong feminine side mixed in with their masculine appearance, you get closer to the alternative male morphs Roughgarden are talking about.

These are men that on average are less aggressive and assertive, and who worships femininity. This is the reason so many of them get bullied when young: They do not fit the traditional male paradigm. They are not gay, but they are not "real men" either.

Still, many of them are successful in life. Many of them have steady jobs and can be trusted providers and partners. In this way they do represent an alternative male role. This is not a role that is appreciated much in our culture -- at least not yet -- but I can easily imagine earlier cultures where they have had a more defined role. (I'll come back to that in a later post).

The effeminate gay men can also fit this profile. In cultures with arranged marriages, you can even explain why their femininity is carried on to the next generation, but it becomes increasingly harder to do so in cultures where homosexuality is accepted.

Why Roughgarden does not take the final step

The reason Roughgarden misses the final step is the fact that she seems to accept the bizarre sexuality argument: Crossdreaming is not caused by evolution. It is nothing but a fetish or a paraphilia. And the reason she comes to this conclusion is not that she has any scientific basis for doing so. After all, she disagrees with Blanchard on nearly everything else.

No, the reason appears to be the other transsexuals' fear of being associated with people the "normals" are bound to consider perverts.

Such is the state of Western culture, that even today, after 100 years of sexual liberation, anyone who get turned on by the wrong thing risks being cast out. In spite of Freud and Kinsey, libertines and hippies, it is still considered suspect to have a "fetish".

To dream of becoming a woman in order to take care of kids is OK. To dream of becoming a woman in order to go shopping with the girls is OK. To get turned on by the idea of having sex like a woman, is not. Even if the same man has proved that he is a good father, a good partner and a good husband.

We have to add color and all dimensions

What this tells me, is that we have to get beyond the narrative of crossdreaming being only a fetish or only a paraphilia. In a sex fixated Western culture that narrative leads to the conclusion that crossdreamers are nothing but perverts, and no one can live with such a label and still feel proud of themselves.

I know for sure that the underlying cause of crossdreaming -- whatever that is -- may lead to mental illnesses and gender dysphoria. But that is not who we are. The same underlying phenomenon -- I have called it crossexualism -- also leads to a lot of positive traits, abilities and mentalities that have to be included in this tale.

By labeling crossdreamers as fetishists we are reducing four dimensional multicolor human beings into static sex-driven black and white flatlanders. This is not fair to the men that have this conditions, and it is definitely not fair to the M2F transsexual women for whom desire was just one of many reasons for transitioning.

Roughgarden has not closed the door: She argues that both crossdressers and transsexuals can be driven by a mix of fetish and gender identity motivations. By saying so she also leaves room for a more complex discussion of what crossdreaming is about.

My hope is that we ultimately may come to a point where the "fetish" is understood as an effect of the underlying gender identity issue. Whether that will happen, remains to be seen.

This series consists of the following posts:
Sex, gender and nature, part 1
Joan Roughgarden and autogynephilia


Since this blog post was written I have stopped using the terms "autogynephilia" and "autoandrophilia" to describe people. The reason for this is that the terms implicitly communicates an explanation for why some people get aroused by imagining themselves as the opposite sex . This explanation, that this is some kind of autoerotic paraphilia,  is both wrong and stigmatizing. Instead I use the neutral term "crossdreamers".

Click here for a discussion of the dark side of the autogynephilia theory.

Edit of March 2014: The term "autogynephilia" has been replaced with "crosssdreaming". The term "classic transsexual" has been replaced with the term "androphilic transsexual". 


  1. This is an excellent write-up of the different points-of-view on autogynephilia. I think what this comes down to is how each person defines the various terminology used... I glanced back at the previous blog entry of transgender and transsexual glossary. Two important definitions not listed are "man" and "woman". As stated in the blog entry, "There is much confusion about what terms means within the area of transgender and transsexual issues..."

    What definition should be used for "man" or "woman"? Wikipedia? APA? Can each person define these terms however they wish? Are MtF post-op transsexuals no longer transgendered? Are they just women and not even "transsexual" anymore? Who defines what a transsexual is? The APA? A person's therapist? Each person? Do we now have to drop the term "transsexual" and come up with some new terms (like autogynephilia) to describe in detail the desire to change one's sex because of their motivation? Should a person's motivation for changing their sex be a determining factor? There might be hundreds of different motivations besides "feeling like a member of the opposite sex all their life"... If motivation is removed from the definition of a transsexual, what are we left with?

    Too many questions without answers...

    The suicide and attempted suicide rates for transsexuals has been reported to be higher than average. I think that the time spent by the medical community coming up with all these various definitions would be better spent on trying to lower the suicide rate...


  2. Robyn,

    I agree, but the high suicide rate is mostly caused by shame and confusion.

    The shame and the confusion are there because we have mentalities and words that indicate that the we should feel ashamed (cp."fetishist" or "pervert"). The confusion is there partly because the words do not help us or others to understand who we are.

    By the way, I informed Joan Roughgarden about this blog and got a very friendly and helpful email in return.

    She says that she is definitely open to the proposition that we have to get beyond the narrative of autogynephilia being only a fetish or only a paraphilia.

    She is also open to the idea in my last sentence, that there "may come to a point where the 'fetish' is understood as an effect of the underlying gender identity issue."

  3. My name's Chris, I've been reading your. I am 41 years old and have been beset with gender issues for the past 20 years. I have went down so many paths trying to explain this aspect of me and none of them have made sense until I found out a few days ago what AGP is.

    It has been wonderful to discover an explanation that made sense, but I also see that I and people like me have no place in the Trans GLBT communities.

    At least before finding out about AGP, I felt like I had some solidarity, not just with Trans folk, but with Gays and Lesbians as well. Now I'm just a white guy with a fetish...after reading Joan Roughgarden doubly so.

    I guess all we can do is find support in our friends and family. I came out to my mom yesterday, it did not surprise her at all because of my grandfather =) So there you have it.

  4. Hello Chris,

    The fact that the term exist helped me a lot as well, even if I am not convinced that this is "just a fetish". It might equally well be based on some kind of biological condition.

    As I noted in my previous comment, Roughgarden is also open to the idea that autogynephilia may have a biological basis. We seem to lack the data necessary to determine one way or the other.

    The fact that your grandfather was a crossdresser points in the direction of heredity.

    As for the LGBT thing, it is certainly true that some of those communities are welcoming crossdressers and other "gender variant people". There are classic transsexuals who do not want to have anything to do with us, however.

  5. To preface this comment, I have a wonderful girlfriend who I love and whom I enjoy sex with regularly. I don't however get what I need from the sex itself but rather have to indulge (silently) my autogynephilic fantasies while in the act in order to push myself over the edge.

    What I want to know about this whole "just a fetish" business is why, if it's a fetish as Joan RoughGarden suggests, do I not ever fantasize about sex at all (sex should still be the base fantasy, right?) and why when my libido is extremely low or completely absent, do I still want more than anything to wake up in the body of a woman?

    Why would I consider complete separation from my family, my current life, friends and everyone I know as acceptable in order to have this come true?

  6. To A.C:

    There are a lot of reports from AGPs who transition that indicate that when they start on hormones their sexual urges subside. Their longing to become a woman does not. This points to an underlying factor that is not fetish-like.

  7. I think there exist a lot of variations within the GLBT community. I have met many people in the gay forums, many of them are more feminine than natal women and some of them are more masculine than biological men. Among TGs, there is indeed nothing like "classic transsexuals". There are extremely feminine gay men for sure, who are close to homosexual transsexuals and are attracted to men. But, there are also many heterosexual transsexuals who are gynephile, but don't have AGP. They feel like woman inside, but are not sexually arosued by that. But I think AGPs are similar to this latter people, only, that maybe they are too sexual. For, one thing many heterosexual TGs say is that they are largely asexual despite having some attraction to females.
    Indeed, humans are capable of having a wide range of genders and sexualities!!

  8. Jack,

    To be a complete devil's advocate, I would propose the theory that perhaps AGPs decide to transition at that point because they miss the sexual urges.

    Another equally plausible theory is that some of the inner turmoil in the individual has been resolved and the addiction part of AGP is no longer necessary.

    Words from Cloudy and myself stating that the majority of AGPs are not feminine might not negate the idea that some of them on some level are female. Butch lesbians are frequently not super feminine either and yet they are female. We tend to define gender based on it's most common members not the outliers.

    Btw, Sarah has a very good point. Even though research defines large general targets, there is variation. Personally, there are people even here who I could not really tell what their true issues were without meeting with.

    If you sample enough people, you will almost always find an exception to any rule. Femininity and androphilia are highly correlated but there are femme lesbians, etc. Some things can be explained away as psychologically generated target errors but we can't feed a person into a giant calculator and use a couple terms to define their life.

    - GQ

  9. Jack,

    How about suggesting that AGP is a natural result of being both gynephilic and having a gender identity issue of some sort?

    A person who wants to be a female and is gynephilic is probably going to naturally be turned on by imagining themselves to be an attractive female. After all, they probably realize that they do have a male body and there is some divorse from self. So, they are in a sense becoming what they are attracted to even if at some level, it is what they also are.

    The fact is that psychology can to some extent be bent, reshaped, and distorted. A HSTS could be twisted so they believe they are AGP, etc. The true psychology is always there but how to we get to it? And how do we keep any of these conditions from getting to the point where they become pathologies to start with?

    We know that biology is messy, so why the gender binary? This seems to imply that people naturally try to normalize themselves into male and female roles with some being more successful than others W(which I suspect is true). We would expect TS to be those who fail at the male role but why do so many AGP succeed so well in a role that is supposedly not their own?

    - GQ

  10. GQ,
    I understand what you intend to ask about AGP. But, you see, you yourself know the answer from what you are saying-human gender is non-binary and lies in a wide spectrum. So, that means TS gender is also not black and white.
    So, why at all is it necessary that AGPs should fail at their male role just because they are feminine?
    Since human gender is non-binary, doesnt it really imply that gender of a TG (like AGP) is also non-binary? Why should it be that just because a person can fulfil his male role, he should not be considered a candidate of being TG? He may not be full TS,but, he may be bigender,to some extent gender-fluid. But still his miseries are no less profound.

  11. Sarah,

    Sometimes it is just about asking the right question ;) We are all kind of just trying to rationalize our own place in the big fishbowl :)

    There are likely varying degrees of mismatch in a gender role but evidence seems to suggest two predominant reasons why people might desire to transition.

    The patterns I have seen seem to suggest that most AGP people are innately masculine with a sexually confused gender identity. The feminine androphilic TS is innately feminine and generally seems to act on a survival imperative though some can be seen as just very gay men. There is always room for variation :)

    I by no means am saying that any category is better than any other. We are just all different. Trust me, my problems make most of the AGPs on this board look completely normal. Jack knows.. I don't throw too many rocks and I do live in a beautifully decorated glass house :)

    My gender issues are probably very different than most of the people here but like them, I did grow up very very ashamed of who I am. I still am ashamed of who and what I am.



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