May 21, 2020

The Autogynephilia Theory Debunked by New German Study

transgender asian woman with asian woman

The autogynephilia theory of Ray Blanchard has been part of the transgender discussion since the late 1980s. It is currently being aused by anti-transgender activists in order to undermine the legitimacy of transgender identities. A new German study proves – again –  that the theory has no foundation in reality.

If autogynephilia theory is a completely new concept for you, you might want to read the following  short summary of what it is all about. If you already know the theory, you can skip the next part.

A very short introduction to Ray Blanchard's theory about the two types of transgender women

Blanchard's two type theory on transgender women and MTF crossdreamers has its root in the late 19th century idea that gay men and lesbian women are "inverts".  According to this way of thinking a gay man has a female sexuality and a lesbian woman has a male sexuality. This is why, the story goes, all gay men are effeminate and all lesbian women are butch.

This isn't true, obviously, but it was a neat and simple to understand model. Transgender women were extremely effeminate gay men and transgender men were extremely masculine lesbian women.

This is the basis of Blanchard's category of "homosexual transsexuals" (HSTS). Trans women who love men are gay men who try to seduce straight men by presenting as women.

The people who came up with this model  faced one serious challenge, though. There were transgender women who loved women.

They attempted to solve this problem by focusing on the crossdressing of these "men". So the "transvestites" where straight men who got turned on by dressing up in female clothing – a  parallel to a fascination for rubber and leather, if you like. They were therefore put in the same category as other sexual perversions ("paraphilias" in the current lingo).

Blanchard still  thinks that both gay and trans people are mentally ill, but trans women who love women (including those he calls "pseudo-bisexual") are doubly so. Unlike the androphilic (man-loving) trans women, they are basically in love with the image of their inner female self, as Blanchard sees it. They are suffering from an "erotic target location error". They are "auto-gyne-philiacs" (broken Greek for "self-woman-love").

This means that Blanchard is expanding  upon the traditional "transvestic fetishism" model: It is not the clothing that is the trigger anymore, but the idea of being or becoming a woman.

As you can see, the model rests on one very important premise: What causes the transgender identities in the two categories (HSTS vs autogynephiles) has to be completely different. These women will have to have nothing in common beyond the desire to live as women.

If there is overlap between the two, the model's explanatory power is lost. The gender identity of man-loving (androphilic) trans women can no longer be reduced to an effect of their sexual orientation. The gender identity of woman-loving (gynephilic) trans cannot be caused by a "erotic target location error". Instead you will have to identify another factor or factors that explain their gender variance.

The German study of "autogynephiliacs" and "HSTS"

The German researchers – Jelena S. Laube, Matthias K Auer, Sarah Biedermann, Johanna Schröder, Timo O. Nieder, Peer Briken, Johannes Fuss and Thomas Hildebrandt – have been taking Blanchard's theory very seriously.

In their paper "Sexual Behavior, Desire, and Psychosexual Experience in Gynephilic and Androphilic Trans Women: A Cross-Sectional Multicenter Study" (Journal of Sexual Medicine) they make use of new data provided by 189 gender dysphoric transgender women recruited at four transgender health care centers in Germany.

If Blanchard is right, this should happen

The researchers  argue that if Blanchard is right about his theory, the following hypotheses should reflect reality:
  • Significantly more gynephilic (woman-loving) trans women will report sexual arousal in association with crossdressing than androphilic (man-loving) trans women.
  • Gynephilic trans women will show significantly higher solitary sexual desire and less dyadic (partnered) sexual desire  and behavior than androphilic trans women.  In other words: The man-loving trans women would want to have sex with others, the woman-loving ones not.
  • Sexuality and sexual fantasies will play a central role in the lives and the transitioning process of gynephilic trans women.  Significantly more gynephilic than androphilic trans women will claim to have been motivated to transition by sexual desire and the desire to realize sexual fantasies.
  • Since they are considered "paraphiliacs" gynephilic trans women will  show evidence of heightened sexual desire. 
  • Gynephilic trans women may have a particularly negative psychological experience of sexuality.
  • Gynephilic and bisexual trans women will not differ substantially with regard to these aspects. The main difference will be between the woman-loving and bisexual trans women on the one hand  ("the autogynephiliacs") and the androphilic ones ("HSTS") on the other.

Let us take a look at what they have found, argument by argument.

Crossdressing

Blanchard gets a point for the idea that gynephilic trans women are more likely to get aroused by crossdressing than the androphilic ones.  They do, also according to this study.

However, Blanchard's model rests on the premise that bisexual transgender women are just a variant of gynephilic transgender women. The bisexual trans women are only "pseudo-bisexuals" to him. Both groups  are "autogynephiliacs".

This is important for Blanchard, because, as noted, he wants to reduce the transgender identities of male-attracted trans women to a form of male homosexuality.  If you find bisexual transgender women in this group that part of the theory falls apart. And it does.

The data shows that the bisexual trans women are much closer to the androphilic ones as far as this kind of arousal goes. This is something Madeline H. Wyndzen pointed out back in 1998, but it is helpful to have new data that supports this observation.

Remember that Blanchard's theory also requires that only the "autogynephiles" get aroused by dressing up as women.  The androphilic trans women do not. Their erotic target is men "out there".

The German researchers, however, point out that several studies, including Blanchard's own, document that many androphilic trans also report sexual arousal in association with crossdressing. They refer to Leavitt and Berger, who found that 36 percent of androphilic trans women reported such arousal.

They dismiss Blanchard's argument that trans women who experience such arousal have to be gynephilic even if they say that they love men:
It is not possible to rule out that a fraction of trans women in the present study may have misrepresented themselves as androphilic for reasons such as social desirability or fear of not receiving the desired gender affirming treatment. 
However, it seems unlikely that half the number of androphilic trans women are in fact gynephilic. 
Criteria for the integration of a participant into the androphilic group were rather strict. Only individuals who stated to be exclusively attracted to males were included in the androphilic group. Furthermore, this study was conducted in Germany, where GAMI [gender-affirming medical intervention] is granted irrespective of sexual orientation.
To use my terminology: There are many erotic crossdreamers among male to female transgender people who love men. 

Solitary and Dyadic (Partnered) Sexual Behavior

Note that the researchers cannot find much of a difference between the groups as regards their desire or willingness to have sex with others.

The authors write:
In line with the hypothesized theory, some authors have suggested that gynephilic trans women may show “diminished capacities for heterosexual [. . .] pair-bond formation”. Our study does not support this notion, showing comparable engagement in relationships in gynephilic and androphilic trans women. This observation is in line with other empirical studies, which indicate that gynephilic trans women are just as likely to be involved in a relationship as androphilic trans women. 
So even if we say that gynephilic trans women may struggle more to get a satisfying sex life if  their femininity and/or gender identity is not affirmed, that does not mean that they are less sexually active than the androphilic trans women. The idea that these transgender women are "in love with their inner woman" as opposed to being attracted to real women "out there" has been falsified.

Sexual Desire

Indeed, the researchers found no significant difference in solitary, dyadic (i.e. socially interactive), and total sexual desire, nor did gender affirmation surgery make any difference in this respect.

They add that:
Overall, no significant differences in the attributed importance to sexuality could be found between exclusively gynephilic, bisexual, and androphilic trans women.
They also point out that paraphilias (sexual perversions) have often been associated with  heightened sexual desire, so you should expected the "autogynephiliacs" to get more turned on than other trans women. No such difference can be found in this study.

By the way: It seems to me that since the the term "heightened sexual desire" is not applied negatively to straight male sex,  this idea is clearly grounded in old fashioned ideas about what constitutes "proper sex". Moreover, the idea that a heightened sexual desire should be taken as proof of these trans women being men is based on traditional ideas about men being horny hunters and women being low libido prey. It is sexist nonsense.

Sexual Desire as a Motive for Transitioning

In the study the percentage of trans women who acknowledged a sexual motivation for gender affirmation did not differ significantly between the three groups, the researchers report:
Our data, however, provided no grounds for the assumption that gynephilic trans women attribute a particularly great importance to sexuality. Only a minority of exclusively gynephilic and bisexual trans women claimed to view sexuality to be an “important” aspect of their life. Furthermore, the majority stated that it would be of little or no importance if they were to lose the ability to experience sexual arousal in the course of GA.
Ironically,  in this study it is the androphilic trans women in particular who state that the desire to realize concrete sexual fantasies motivates them for GA (gender assignment).

What is interesting, though, is that none of the androphilic trans women of this study claimed that they had felt less “truly transsexual” because of their sexual fantasies. On the other hand one fourth of of the bisexual trans women reported that they felt less so because of their erotic crossdreaming.

I would argue that this could be caused by an especially toxic cultural feedback loop, where theories like the one of Blanchard instill shame and guilt in bisexual transgender women to a much larger degree than in trans women who love men. I suspect that this is because the androphilic trans women, all things considered, are closer to the heterosexual ideal.

Psychosexual Experience

The researchers did not find any significant differences as regards psychosexual experience:
Overall, trans women of this study appeared to have a rather negative psychological experience of their sexuality. This becomes evident when comparing the results of this study with those of 216 cisgender men and women from a study evaluating the German version of the MSQ [the Multidimensional Sexuality Questionnaire]. The comparison shows that androphilic and gynephilic trans women descriptively score lower on all subscales of positive and higher on all subscales of negative psychosexual experience.
In other words: There are no differences between the different groups of transgender women as regards their experience of sexuality. But we can see the effects social transphobia, homophobia, biphobia and sexism have on all of them.

We might say that the narratives presented by people like Blanchard help creating the suffering they are using to "prove" their theories.

Conclusion

The researchers conclude:
Overall, the results of this study could provide no evidence for the hypothesis that sexual behavior, desire, and psychosexual experience differ substantially in gynephilic and androphilic trans women. Although there were differences among the groups (especially between exclusively gynephilic and androphilic trans women), of which some could be interpreted to be in line with Blanchard's theory of autogynephilia, the overall impression gained from the data of this study is that sexuality among the collective was very diverse.
And this is, as far as I see it, the most important lesson to be learned: Blanchard's theory is reductionist to the point of being absurd. The model requires that the two groups of transgender women are clearly distinct and with little or no overlap.  The German study proves that there is only small differences between the groups and a lot of overlap. In other words: Blanchard's theory has been falsified. From a scientific point of view it is dead.

This does not mean that you cannot discuss the differences between lesbian, straight and bisexual transgender women, in the same way you can discuss the differences between lesbian, straight and bisexual cis women. Of course you can! But what this and other studies show, is that you cannot use these differences to sort trans women into two distinct categories as far as what causes their gender dysphoria goes.

Given the significant overlap with cisgender sexualities you cannot use these differences to classify one group of trans women on the basis of a "paraphilia", either. Cis women also masturbate, have autoerotic fantasies and get turned on by being perceived as sexually attractive.

I often say that trans people are as just as likely to have a sexual kink as cis people, but you cannot reduce their identity to that kink. A woman who likes BDSM is still a woman, regardless of whether she is cis or trans.

Arousal from crossdressing, the only main difference found

In my experience anti-trans activists  have a tendency of moving their goal posts when their favorite theory has been debunked. 

Blanchard denied the existence of gay trans men. So when some realized that gay trans men actually existed, they did not see this as proof of Blanchard's model being falsified (which it was, given that he sees "autogynephilia" as an expression of a typical male sexuality). Instead some of them expanded the autogynephilia concept to encompass those assigned female ("autoandrophilia"). Now there were female perverts too. I guess you could say this was a kind of sad victory for gender equality.

This time they will no doubt hang on to the only significant difference found in this material, namely that gynephilic trans women are more likely to get aroused by crossdressing. They will have to abandon the strict two type typology, but they can still hold on to the belief that gynephilic trans women are kinkier than the androphilic ones.

Indeed, that has already happened. When I shared this study over at reddit, I soon got a comment from one "SorryDadImGay" which states that:
Table 2 in this study shows a large difference in rate of arousal from crossdressing between androphilic and the gynephilic and ambiphilic groups. The word "debunked" does not apply here, this study mildly supports the typology and isn't designed in a way that can prove or disprove Blanchard's 2 type taxonomy for sure either way.
The fact is that the study does not support the typology and it was deliberately designed to either confirm or disprove Blanchard's two type taxonomy. So why cannot SorryDadImGay admit as much?

There may be many reasons for this denial, but I suspect that he does not understand the scientific consequences of presenting a theory that requires two completely different explanations for what clearly is one phenomenon.

What is happening here is a mix-up between the overall macro-level (observations of trans women in general) and the micro-level (observations of individual transgender women). Good scientists know that as far as human phenomena are concerned, the patterns you observe in the population as a whole does not normally apply to all individuals. Yes, men are more likely to be taller than women, but that does not mean that there are no tall women. And tall women are not men, simply because they are tall.

Blanchard's theory requires that all trans women belonging to one of the two groups share all the important properties of that group. All gynephilic trans women have to be suffering from an "erotic target location error" and none of the androphilic trans women can get aroused by the idea of being a sexy woman. His explanation for why they have become the one or the other requires this. A difference in the "rate of arousal from crossdressing between androphilic and the gynephilic and ambiphilic groups" does not cut it. There are no shades of grey. As the scientist Jaimie Veale has put it: Blanchard's model is categorical, not dimensional.

A Corona two type model

To give you an example from the current pandemic. Let us say you want to make a theory explaining the spread of Covid-19. You observe that on the aggregate level (the macro-level) senior citizens are more likely to get sick than those who are younger. You now hypothesize that being old  is causing Corona. You create a two-type taxonomy where the the seniors get Corona and the non-seniors do not.

This requires that everyone aged 60 or more get the disease and none of those below 60 do. This is clearly not the case, so now you come up with a few supporting "epi-cycles" that is meant to help you save your theory: (1) All seniors will eventually get the Corona, and (2) all of the non-seniors are lying about there age or they are suffering from the common flu.

"This is pure nonsense," you say. "No serious researchers will come up with such a stupid theory." Yet, this is exactly the kind of pseudo-scientific reasoning we are facing in Blanchard's theory.

My Corona theory is a theory that it is easy to falsify. And so is Blanchard's theory. But unlike Blanchard's theory, the senior citizen theory does not have the necessary cultural support among gerentophobics (those who hate old people) to survive. Blanchard's theory has found that kind of support among the transphobes.

To give another, real life, example: In the US black men are more likely to get arrested than white men. You can now make a theory that says that black men are born criminals, while white men are not. You have "naturalized" crime. Black men commit crimes because they are black. To the extent white men commit crimes, it is because they have been framed. they have been forced to, are mentally unstable or are statistical outliers.  There are a lot of pseudo-scientific racist theories that make this point.

In order to defend such a two type taxonomy, you have to ignore all historical, social, economical and political factors that might explain these statistics. Indeed, you have to ignore racism as a relevant factor (as racist cops are more likely to arrest black men than white men).  Blanchard and his supporters are doing something very similar. They are so obsessed with "naturalizing" trans women ("It is in their nature") that they ignore every psychological, social, cultural or political factor that might otherwise have explained the behavioral differences we see on the micro-level.

For instance: There is ample evidence that "feeling sexy" or autoeroticism is a common phenomenon among both men and women, cis and trans.  As one cis woman wrote over at the BBC site:
For years now, I’ve mainly masturbated to images or fantasies of myself. I conjure up memories of myself lying naked on the beach, or remember a time when I touched myself in the bath while my housemates were downstairs. Someone else’s touch just doesn’t do it for me in the same way.
Indeed, many researchers argue that the "normal" female sexuality is more reactive than proactive. I am not so sure about that, but you could use such an observation to argue that the autoerotic fantasies of trans women is proof of them having a normal female sexuality, and not the other way around.

The German study does not say that all gynephilic trans women are autoerotic while the others are not. Nor do these researchers say that those who get turned on by dressing up in private are exclusively autoerotic. They are talking about overlaps and averages, which makes it impossible to sort trans women into two neat categories.

Now, you might say that since so many gynephilic trans women report erotic cross-gender fantasies, that proves that there is a correlation between such fantasies and being a trans woman who loves women. And yes, on an aggregate level there is. But correlation is not the same as causation. The fact that six out of ten men admit that they masturbate, tells us that autoeroticism is very common among men, but it does not prove that their gender identity is caused by an "erotic target location error."

Keep in mind that the dominant model for understanding transgender identities these days is dimensional and not categorical. Gender variance is now seen as growing out of a interplay between various genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, environmental, personal, social and cultural factors, which leads to diversity both as regards the sense of self, sexuality and the way trans people interpret their own experience. That is what the data shows, and that is what the German paper also leads up to.

Why do the gynephilic women engage more in erotic crossdreaming?

Still, it is interesting that the researchers find this difference, and that begs the question: Why are gynephilic trans women more likely to report arousal when crossdressing than the androphilic ones?  The German team does not say.

I suspect this is an effect of culture. Androphilic trans women are more likely to gravitate towards the gay subculture, which – all things considered – is more tolerant of crossdressing than cis culture (as in drag performances).

A transgender woman who has not yet transitioned may get her femininity affirmed in these circles, even if she is seen as a man by some. Feminine clothing and expressions may still be eroticized, but these feelings are now seen in a "dyadic" context, to use the vocabulary of the German researchers. These feelings are more likely to be seen as an expression of natural femininity by others, and that means that "feeling sexy" is not seen as an autoerotic perversion, but a natural expression of a female or feminine sexuality.

The gynephilic trans women, on the other hand, have often had a past where they have tried to live and present as cis men. They might have believed that their chances of finding a female partner have rested on this ability. Their crossdressing has therefore not been seen as an expression of their female self by others, at least not in a sexual setting.

Even if they do have sex with women, they often do so in the role of the cis man, which means that their true gender and their real sexuality is not affirmed. This is why the clothes themselves may trigger arousal in solitary crossdressing. There is no response from others in such a setting. It is therefore easier to conclude that this sexuality, as opposed to the one of the androphilic trans women, is autoerotic and only autoerotic, when in reality the main difference is found in the social and cultural context. (More about this here.)

Quite a few researchers have suggested similar socio-cultural explanations for the differences we see between gynephilic and androphilic trans women. Up till recently, gynephilic trans women have been more likely to transition later in life. Nutbrock  & Co have 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. According to the Identity-Defense Theory of Veale & Co. 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.

But none of this matters, really. As the German researchers point out: There is a lot of overlap between gynephilic and androphilic trans women in this respect, which reflect the real diversity of transgender lives. The two type model of Blanchard does not capture this diversity.

To quote Julia Serano, trans activist and scientist:
In summary, autogynephilia’s taxonomy and etiology have been disproven, and alternate models that better explain all the available data have been forwarded... Much like earlier sexological theories, such as “all girls suffer from penis envy,” or “boys become homosexual because they have dominant mothers,” I can understand why people once found them to be compelling. But the science has not borne them out. Like its predecessors, autogynephilia theory should be viewed as a historical artifact.

Why bother?

I am sure some of the readers who have followed this debate will ask why I bother writing about this, or why these researchers have carried out this study. I mean, we have known for a long time that the autogynephilia theory is bogus and that even Blanchard's own data falsify it.

The problem is that Blanchard managed to create a narrative that fits the transphobic prejudices out there. He has given anti-transgender activist a pseudo-scientific vocabulary that allows them to present their bigotry as science.  Indeed, he is now actively supporting anti-trans activists online.

I have seen lesbian "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" (TERFs) use this theory over and over again to present trans women as dangerous sexual perverts, in spite of the fact that Blanchard's thinking also requires us to classify lesbian women as mentally ill. They do not care about the scientific value of the theory. Their only agenda is to use it as a weapon against transgender women.

In other words: As long as transphobes make use of the theory, we have no choice but to address their arguments. They will no doubt try to move the goal posts now, so that they can continue to call gynephilic trans women sexual perverts and androphilic trans women misguided lesbians, but every time they do so, their own legitimacy weakens.

This paper, together with the ones of people like Jaimie Veale, Charles Moser, Larry Nuttbrock and Julia Serano, will also have an effect on the scientific discourse on transgender identities, which again affect the way the health system treats transgender patients. This is already happening.

The international ICD-11 health manual no longer refers to "fetishistic transvestism" (and it has never mentioned "autogynephilia"). They simply refers to "gender incongruence" as a real phenomenon that may require medical assistance. This diagnosis is no longer considered a mental illness and the sexual fantasies of trans people are not considered relevant.

There are still health service providers who are stuck in the old narrative, however, and it will take time before all the gatekeepers stop using "autogynephilia" and "transvestic fetishism" to invalidate transgender women, but we are moving in the right direction.

References and further reading

Top photo by Ranta Images. According to Ranta one of these Asian woman is transgender, I don't know which. Still, I thought it might serve as a good illustration of gynephilic trans women.

6 comments:

  1. The study specifically says that there was evidence in line with Blanchard's theory and that there were differences b/t andro and gynephilic groups. So I don't think the study debunks anything. Also, even if the study had completely contradicted the theory, that would not be a "debunking," it would be a data point to be considered alongside other data points.

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    1. I've always thought the prevalance of erotic cross dressing in gynaphiliac trans women seemed to have an obvious root: in these types of trans women, who were often deeply repressed and still coming to terms with themselves erotic crossdressing may have seemed like the only psychologically safe way to explore a feminine identity. After all it's much less shameful to cross dress in secret and tell yourself that you just have a fetish than to admit that you really feel like a woman and thus have to confront everything that will mean about your life going forward. Repression creates dysfunction right? I've known gay men who dated very masculine women while they were in denial. That doesn't seem to indicate that gay men are just straight men who fetishize masculinity. Much simpler and more elegant explanations exist and manage to suffice, without all the mental gymnastics and data contortionist blanchardism requires.

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    2. Yepp, that is a much more meaningful and simpler explanation than the convoluted "erotic target location error" hypothesis, for sure.

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  2. Nonsense. The paper clearly and systematically falsifies the arguments made by Blanchard one by one, and if you had really read my presentation, you will have understood why.

    The reference to "evidence in line with Blanchard's theory" is clearly a reference to the observation that gynephilic trans women are *more likely* to experience erotic crossdreaming than androphilic trans women. Unfortunately the autogynephilia theory does not allow for terms like "more likely". Its explanatory power rests on an absolute divide between the two types of trans women, and this research clearly proves that there is significant overlap. When nearly half of the androphilic trans women report erotic crossdreaming, the theory has been falsified.

    As for "data points" to be considered along other "data points". I have provided links to several other studies that documents exactly the same thing. So unless you want to turn the autogynephilia theory into a kind of religion that requires complete adherence and irrational devotion, there is no way you can save it.

    This horse is dead. Stop beating it.

    Instead I suggest you look into yourself and consider why you would want to defend such a theory. What kind of need is it satisfies in your life? Transphobia? Homophobia? Misogyny? Self-hatred?

    By defending this theory you are causing a lot of harm among transgender people, so you'd better have a very good reason to defend such activities. I don't think there are any reasons that can be used to defend such behavior.

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  3. Is the erotic target location error just trigger probably from my case is more !

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