Response to Fleming on ETLE

Rod Fleming recently did a video criticizing me as well as others, so I thought I would respond to it. Like with my critique of Contrapoints, I jotted down some notes while watching it, which I’ve written up as a cleaner critique below. Let’s start with a summary of the biggest points:

There’s an important point where we agree: Autogynephilia is not defined by behavior or other surface-level phenomena. I argued for that recently in my blog post Is autogynephilia real? The phenomenon, the construct, the theory. (Perhaps ninja’ing Fleming? He might’ve been working on his video when I posted my blog post.) I recommend reading the blog post for more info, but roughly speaking, I defined autogynephilia as a sexual interest which accounts for stereotypically-autogynephilic phenomena and which is due to an inversion of gynephilia.

Another point where we agree: This sort of strict definition represents a challenge for research like Moser’s which examines AGP in cis women, or for my research which examines AGP in gay men. What I think Fleming underestimates is the degree to which it represents a challenge to Blanchard’s research, while overestimating the degree to which “inversion of gynephilia” has been documented to be a cause of autogynephilia.

It should also be noted that I think Fleming misunderstands why I study AGP in cis women. I’m not trying to prove that autogynephilia “is normal”, whatever that means. Rather, I see some potential things one could learn from it; e.g. it might teach us something about how to measure autogynephilia in post-transition trans women, about how to define autogynephilia, and it might help me write a response to Serano. Furthermore, anyone who is paying attention to the evidence on this topic can easily see that Blanchardians are in deep denial about this phenomenon, so if one wants to learn something that goes beyond Blanchardian’s thoughts, this would be a great place to dig in.

How well-proven is ETLE?

Rod Fleming relies a lot on the concept of an erotic target location error, stating that this is a defining feature of AGP. And I agree… sort of.

Let’s go back to the initial invention of the concept of autogynephilia. People were trying to understand the nature of transsexuality, and they had accumulated a variety of phenomena. Some patients seemed, informally speaking, as if they were “women in men’s bodies”. Some patients seemed like homosexuals who had developed gender issues. Some had a long history of transvestic fetishism, and these were often also attracted to women. In addition to transvestic fetishism, there were a variety of other genderish sexual phenomena that had been observed. How is one to make sense of this?

Over time, a whole bunch of theories had been developed. Some saw the transvestic fetishism as being obviously a consequence of homosexuality, others saw it as a way of dealing with insufficient masculinity, and still others thought it to be an inversion of attraction to women. This concept of an inversion seems to pre-date Blanchard; for instance, Havelock Ellis coined the terms Eonism or sexo-aesthetic inversion with a similar-sounding reasoning.

Blanchard is gay, and I bet that probably made it easier for him to realize that autogynephilia wasn’t a form of homosexuality. Blanchard (and Freund?) instead came up with the idea of an erotic target location error, that an inverted attraction to women explains sexual phenomena like transvestic fetishism and motivates gender dysphoria and transition. This was part of his typology which organized the mess of transsexual phenomena into two types, autogynephilic and homosexual.

But how well-proven is this ETLE idea? Fleming makes it sound very well-proven, talking about long and complicated measures used to diagnose them, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It might be worth looking at the studies which examine it:

  1. Blanchard (1991), Clinical observations and systematic studies of autogynephilia
  2. Blanchard (1993), The she-male phenomenon and the concept of partial autogynephilia
  3. Freund and Blanchard (1993), Erotic Target Location Errors in Male Gender Dysphorics, Paedophiles, and Fetishists
  4. First (2005), Desire for amputation of a limb: paraphilia, psychosis, or a new type of identity disorder
  5. Lawrence (2006), Clinical and Theoretical Parallels Between Desire for Limb Amputation and Gender Identity Disorder
  6. Lawrence (2009), Erotic Target Location Errors: An Underappreciated Paraphilic Dimension
  7. Kolla and Zucker (2009), Desire for Non-Mutilative Disability in a Nonhomosexual, Male-to-Female Transsexual
  8. Lawrence (2009), Anatomic Autoandrophilia in an Adult Male
  9. Hsu and Bailey (2016), Autopedophilia: Erotic-Target Identity Inversion in Men Sexually Attracted to Children
  10. Hsu, Rosenthal, Miller and Bailey (2017), Sexual Arousal Patterns of Autogynephilic Male Crossdressers
  11. Hsu and Bailey (2019), The “Furry” Phenomenon: Characterizing Sexual Orientation, Sexual Motivation, and Erotic Target Identity Inversions in Male Furries
  12. Fuss, Jais and Grey (2019), Self-Reported Childhood Maltreatment and Erotic Target Identity Inversions Among Men with Paraphilic Infantilism
  13. Brown and Barker (2019), Erotic Target Identity Inversions Among Men and Women in an Internet Sample

In addition to these, there are the studies that find relationships between autogynephilia and sexual orientation among transsexuals, such as Blanchard (1989) and Blanchard (1985).

Now, given these studies, what would we need to find for Rod Fleming to be right?

First of all, we would need to find evidence that erotic target location errors are a thing that occur, i.e. that an allosexual interest can be inverted such that it causes a sexual interest in being the target. Proving the causality in this is somewhat difficult, but this at least gives some correlation patterns we would expect to see.

Next, Fleming claims that this is the only possible cause of autogynephilia. This is not necessarily an empirical question, as Fleming claims this by definition; but if so, given endorsements of typologies of transsexuality, we would expect that such typologies rule out the possibility that alternative “pseudoautogynephilias” which might be caused by other factors than ETLE cannot cause gender issues; or we would at least expect to see some sort of differential diagnosis, considering Fleming’s claims of long and complicated tests.

So, are these supported by the studies? Sort of/not really.

It might be tempting to count the transsexual studies which find that non-HSTSs have more autogynephilia (or at least, autogynephilia-like phenomena) than HSTSs as evidence for a correlation between the allosexual and autosexual target. However, that would be obviously wrong, due to Berkson’s paradox; while these studies to an extent test for a negative correlation between sexual orientation and autogynephilia, they also implicitly test for autogynephilia and homosexuality both causing gender issues, and they test for autogynephilia and homosexuality being associated with gender issues under distinct conditions. To understand in greater detail why they test for all three, I recommend reading Age of onset as the origin of discrete types of gender dysphoria; but roughly speaking, Blanchardianism relies on all three effects being in play, and so tests of only transsexuals will not be able to identify that any given effect is in play.

But I do buy there being a correlation between the two. I don’t think the auto/allo correlation has been well-documented for autogynephilia in the literature, so I’m not sure how Fleming makes that implication (possibly he does so by misinterpreting the transsexual studies?), but I find autogynephilia and gynephilia to be correlated, and the various studies of other conditions (like apotemnophilia, autopedophilia, and furries) that I listed tend to find correlations too, so it appears to be a general rule.

The main problem I have with this is that the rule appears to be too general; whenever you have two sexual interests with content overlap, it appears you find high correlations between them. For instance, you find correlations between masochism and sadism, or between exhibitionism and voyeurism. Are these predicted by ETLE? If not, could whatever causes this provide an alternative explanation to ETLE for correlations between internal and external erotic targets? Hard to say, because ETLE is understudied.

Either way, do studies do differential diagnosis to identify true ETLEs? … Not really. I mean, certainly Freund and Blanchard (1993) do claim that there is a distinction, where apparent autopedophilia could instead be motivated by masochism. But they don’t empirically distinguish their consequences, e.g. they don’t show that masochistic pseudoautopedophiles are unable to end up with age identity disorder as a result. Similarly, Brown and Barker (2019) make this distinction, but they don’t use the distinction for anything.

Fleming’s claims of “long and complicated” scales from diagnosing it also aren’t very accurate. Blanchard has created multiple scales for assessing autogynephilia, such as the Core Autogynephilia Scale, or the Cross-Gender Fetishism Scale, but they simply consist of lists of behaviors that one could endorse; they hardly support his point that diagnosis requires more care than just considering autogynephilia as a behavior. Furthermore, the only nonlinearity in the scales involves shortening the core AGP scale if the participant doesn’t report any fantasies of having been a woman. So ultimately I don’t think Fleming is accurately describing the diagnosis here.

And you know, maybe that is a problem! This is arguably pretty much what I complained about in my phenomenon/construct/theory post. Maybe we should use more careful methods for diagnosing autogynephilia, but in that case the entire Blanchardian theory falls together with my studies on autogynephilic gay men, which is a point I don’t think Fleming has appropriately considered.

Autogynephilia in gay men

I claim some gay men are autogynephilic. Philosophically, this puts me in a pickle, because this is in contradiction with defining autogynephilia as being the condition that comes from an inversion of gynephilia.

One way to interpret this is that one could interpret this as a purely linguistic, definitional disagreement; I think the concept of autogynephilia should be broadened to contain non-ETLE phenomena that look similar, and I think we should understand that sometimes gay men exhibit this.

Alternatively, I’d instead suggest another interpretation: The original definition of autogynephilia makes certain assumptions, and these assumptions have turned out to be incorrect. Thus we need a new model to replace it. Specifically, in my phenomenon/construct/theory post, I characterized the conventional definition of autogynephilia as stating that autogynephilia:

  1. is the single common cause underlying stereotypically autogynephilic phenomena,
  2. represents a sexual interest, analogous to others like heterosexuality or fetishism,
  3. can be caused by an inversion of gynephilia,
  4. cannot be caused by anything without gynephilia.

What I noticed was that there were some gay men who engaged in stereotypically autogynephilic phenomena. This is quite simply not compatible with the definition lined up by 1-4. There are a number of ways one could fix this:

a. Reject (4); claim that autogynephilia can be caused by something else too.
b. Modify (1) to state that certain other sexual interests can cause stereotypically autogynephilic phenomena without being truly autogynephilic.
c. Modify (1) even more, such that things that are not sexual interests can cause stereotypically autogynephilic phenomena.

I’m not sure what Fleming says to this; he didn’t really go into detail about the apparent autogynephilic homosexuals. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of people go for option (c), arguing that this originates from gender issues, internalized homophobia, or all sorts of other things. I’m not really going to address (c) much, except to say that those who go for it should also do some philosophical legwork to address how they know that these alternative causes can’t also be the causes of autogynephilia in most gynephilic transsexuals. For instance, if one proposes that gender issues can cause autogynephilia-like sexual interests in gay men, why shouldn’t they be able to cause autogynephilia-like sexual interests in straight men too? If they can, how do you save Blanchardianism from the resulting issues of causal direction?

Anyway, assuming we’re going to reject (c) for the same reason we reject similar theories in gynephilic individuals, that leaves (a) and (b). I advocate both (a) and (b); specifically, I advocate introducing a distinction between broadsense autogynephilia, which we get by (a), and narrowsense autogynephilia, which we get by (b). Broadsense autogynephilia represents any sort of sexual interest in being a woman; narrowsense autogynephilia represents an interest in being a woman due to an inversion of attraction to women.

r/Blanchardianism - Multi-type AGP hypothesis
Relationship between narrowsense AGP and broadsense AGP. For more, see Multi-type AGP hypothesis.

Furthermore, I propose that most of what we traditionally associate with autogynephilia – such as its effects on gender feelings – is associated with broadsense AGP. Well, except when it’s associated with AGPTS instead or something. But basically, this is my justification for considering broadsense AGP to be the more important variable, because that is the one we would generally be paying attention to in downstream theories (though upstream theories would presumably pay more attention to the narrowsense AGP vs other types distinction).

Autogynephilia in cis women

Part of Fleming’s motivation for his video seems to be to critique studying AGP in cis women, so I think I should address this too.

Fleming seems to reject AGP in cis women primarily for two reasons. First, the whole ETLE discussion we’ve just had, and secondly, by appealing to it being “normal” for women and abnormal for men.

I see “normal” as a bit of a problematic word, as it lumps together meanings like “common”, “morally OK”, “harmless” and “evolutionarily selected” into a single word, despite them being distinct. Consider:

TendencyCommon?OK?Harmless?Selected?
Strong AGP in mennoyesdepends1no/against
Homosexualitynoyesreasonably2against3
Wanting to rapesort of?4nonolikely for5
Female independenceyes
(for now6)
yesyes,
actively good
against6
Severe disabilitiesnoyesnoagainst
Very high intelligencenoyesyes,
actively good7
unsure8
See footnotes for more details.

There’s some relationships between these different aspects; if something is harmful and morally blameworthy then we might consider them not OK. And if something is not OK, we might try to reduce its prevalence. Things that are selected against will obviously reduce their own prevalence, and furthermore our preferences were created by selection, so all else equal we would expect to consider things that are selected against to be harmful.

But… none of these are really relevant for the question of whether cis women might (realistically only sometimes/rarely) be AGP. Consider homosexuality in men as an example; it’s not “normal”, as it is selected against, but it wouldn’t be ridiculous to propose that exclusive androphilia is a thing that one can coherently talk about existing in women. So when I see a cis woman who writes something like:

Sometimes when I look in the mirror after shower, or when I have a good day, or I am just aroused – then I like to look at my naked body, my waist, breasts, just like this. And on top of that I especially love my hair, they are beautiful, brown, golden, auburn. And my beautiful blue eyes. Then I feel like a goddess. And it is arousing.

… then it’s not unreasonable to wonder if she might be autogynephilic, even if she doesn’t have to deal with the same downsides as men do.

That’s not to say that autogynephilia in women affects the calculus of normality for autogynephilia in men much. But that’s not why I’m looking into autogynephilia in women. (Admittedly this, or variations like normality for autogynephilia in trans women, is something that others are interested in studying AGP in cis women for. But Fleming needs to pay attention to what I am actually saying when he critiques me.)

Rather I see some alternative benefits:

  • The measurement of autogynephilia in men is pretty straight-forward. You can just ask them whether they are aroused by the thought of being women, or ask them whether they imagine being women in sexual fantasies, or lots of other options, and you get a relatively OK measure. (Not perfect, of course, but fine.) But it’s not obvious that these would work on fully-transitioned AGP trans women, due to lots of factors, one of which is that they might be confused about the question. But plausibly autogynephilia in fully-transitioned trans women would function similarly to autogynephilia in cis women, so understanding how it functions among them can help improve our understanding of it in trans women (who are harder to study for many reasons).
  • More generally, there are some ambiguities in how to define autogynephilia. Is any sexual fantasy in which one imagines being a woman autogynephilic? Presumably not, considering cis women. But then, where do we draw the line? Perhaps cis women could help us define this more precisely.
  • Many critics of Blanchardianism invoke autogynephilia in cis women as an argument. It can be hard/awkward to respond to this without having a good understanding of autogynephilia in cis women, so I need to research it.
  • Many Blanchardians are obviously biased against the idea. Fleming is biased, as seen in his video. Blanchard and Dreger are biased. Bailey is biased. Whenever I see bias against some idea, I start getting a tingling that maybe I should look more into that idea to learn more.

Just to clarify, I haven’t settled on an all that specific opinion about AGP in cis women. This is what I wrote last I got asked about it, but I drift around a bit in my thoughts on it over time.

Other stuff

There’s a couple of other minor points:

  • Fleming argues that autogynephilia is narcissistic, which seems unfounded. Fleming argues that autogynephiles have especially beautiful wives, which seems unfounded.
  • Fleming argues that autohomoeroticism is a social contagion, appealing to Blanchard. But Blanchard distinguishes between AHE and ROGD.
  • Blanchard himself acknowledges that there is at least one homosexual autogynephile, so Fleming’s argument that it is definitionally impossible doesn’t seem to be accepted by Blanchard.

Is autogynephilia real? The phenomenon, the construct, the theory

Autogynephilia is a sexual interest in being a woman. Some people argue that autogynephilia isn’t real, often citing Serano’s The Case Against Autogynephilia to support it. I’ve previously counter-argued that autogynephilia is real, but recently I’ve taken a deep dive into psychometric theory that makes me want to revisit the topic in a more nuanced way.

Critics of autogynephilia – or at least, the well-informed critics of autogynephilia – rarely argue that no males find sexual fantasies in which they are women arousing, that transvestic fetishism isn’t a thing, or things like that. These are sufficiently obvious that it would be crazy to deny it. Rather, they argue that these are not sufficient for autogynephilia to be real, but instead that the surrounding theory about autogynephilia is inaccurate, and this makes autogynephilia not real. For instance, quoting Serano:

As others have noted, conflation between the descriptive and theoretical definitions of autogynephilia has lead to a great deal of confusion in the literature on the subject (Wyndzen, 2005). For example, when an author describes an individual as an autogynephilic transsexual, are they simply stating the fact that the individual has experienced “autogynephilic” fantasies in the past? Or are they suggesting that the individual suffers from a paraphilia and became gender dysphoric as a result of such fantasies? To avoid this problem, throughout this article, I will use the term cross-gender arousal to describe sexual arousal that occurs in response to cross-dressing or imagining oneself being or becoming a member of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth, and I will use the term autogynephilia exclusively to denote the paraphilic model that Blanchard and others have forwarded.

While nobody seriously doubts the existence of cross-gender arousal, there has been considerable debate about autogynephilia. The aspects of the theory that have garnered the most contention are its claims that (a) transsexual women come in two (and only two) subtypes—androphilic and autogynephilic and (b) the assumption of causation—that a “misdirected heterosexual impulse” causes cross-gender arousal, which then subsequently causes gender dysphoria and a desire to transition. While numerous critiques of the theory exist, proponents of autogynephilia have attempted to play down the significance of these critiques on the basis that they were not published in the peer-reviewed literature (Bailey & Triea, 2007; Lawrence, 2007). Here, drawing on these previous critiques, I argue that autogynephilia theory is clearly incorrect. I also discuss how the typology and terminology associated with the theory needlessly sexualizes MtF spectrum people and exacerbates the societal discrimination this group already faces.

One the one hand, I think saying “autogynephilia isn’t real” to attack ideas that are extremely peripheral to the concept of autogynephilia, such as whether there are exactly two types of transsexuals, is extremely misleading and confusing. This isn’t something I’m accusing Serano of doing in this quote, but this is something people who cite her often engage in, and they should stop that.

On the other hand, I can’t entirely reject the point that the validity of a concept inherently depends on the theory surrounding it. Probably the best exposition I’ve read on this is Scott Alexander’s review on Kuhn (probably Kuhn’s writing themselves, as well as later work based on them, are all great places to also read about this). Basically, when doing science, you typically work within a paradigm which dictates the concepts that are relevant to consider, the ways in which things generally work, and the methods of solving questions. There’s no guarantee that concepts that make sense in one paradigm make sense in other paradigms, and generally if someone is working from different school of thought, they might interpret the same object-level observations completely and utterly differently.

So is that the end of the discussion? Either one accepts the entire Blanchardian paradigm, in which case autogynephilia is real, or one is totally justified in including the claim that autogynephilia isn’t real in one’s overall take on things? No incremental progress, just everything or nothing?

I think I have an alternative: Blanchardians usually cite autogynephilic phenomena to defend the concept of autogynephilia, while skeptics usually critique the broader theory of autogynephilia, but inbetween the two extreme ends, we can identify the construct of autogynephilia as covering a sexual interest that explains the phenomenon while being distinct from the theory. Let me explain:

The phenomenon

In my earlier post, I gave lots of examples of the phenomenon of autogynephilia. For instance, I referenced sexual AGP communities (NSFW, hereherehere), trans women reporting autogynephilic sexuality (here, here), autogynephilic men being gender dysphoric (here) and so on.

The phenomenon of autogynephilia is generally identified as being males who engage in sexual fantasies or behaviors based on imagining themselves as women or associating themselves with feminine things. Blanchard observed five kinds of autogynephilia:

  • Anatomic autogynephilia, sexual fantasies and play with having female anatomy.
  • Interpersonal autogynephilia, sexual fantasies and play involving being admired as a woman and having sex with men as a woman.
  • Transvestic autogynephilia, dressing as a woman in sexual contexts.
  • Behavioral autogynephilia, sexual fantasies and play involving behaving as a woman.
  • Physiological autogynephilia, sexual fatnasies and play involving having female physiological functions, such as pregnancy, menstruation, or sitting while peeing.

Realistically, I don’t think these five kinds are a particularly accurate view into how autogynephilia-the-phenomenon works; out of the five top fantasies found in my qualitative survey, only one (“heterosexual sex”) is present in the standard measure of these five types of AGP. So most likely these five kinds of autogynephilia are kinda misleading when it comes to what the phenomenon of autogynephilia really is. But whatever, this isn’t the biggest problem, though it is to some degree a problem, and I will return to that later.

Anyway, the key pattern here is that this is all observational. Notice, for instance, that while in the beginning of the post, I defined autogynephilia as a”sexual interest in being a woman”, but for describing autogynephilia-the-phenomenon, I merely say that it consists of “fantasies and play”, to avoid deeper theoretical conclusions. We observe certain sexual fantasies, we observe certain correlations, we observe lots of things. But “observing” things cannot be a real theory, as it doesn’t tell you how things work; it might be useful for prediction perhaps (“autogynephilia is a symptom of gender dysphoria”), but correlation is not causation. Many different causal theories can be proposed to understand this phenomenon of autogynephilia, and some of the popular causal theories end up treating it as pretty much irrelevant.

The construct

So if autogynephilia-the-phenomenon isn’t sufficient, then what is? The construct of autogynephilia is what makes it start seeming much more relevant, and it’s one of those “hidden assumptions” that might, at least for Blanchardians, be so obvious as to rarely get stated. But I think it’s worth making it explicit. It states that there is a trait, “autogynephilia”, which functions as follows:

  1. It can be understood as a common pathway which is the cause of autogynephilia-the-phenomenon.
  2. It represents a sexual interest, analogous to other sexual interests like gynephilia or fetishism.
  3. Implicitly, in order to represent a sexual interest, the concept of “sexual interest” itself must be coherent and cover the things we wish to place under it.

This is actually really vague. The reason that it is vague lies in point 3; it lacks the definition for what a “sexual interest” is. Here, it is common for Blanchardians to define it as an arousal pattern (see e.g. here for argument), and I agree (with some qualifications, e.g. presumably the arousal is moderated by libido, but the orientation is the effect that exists before the moderation by libido), but for this to make sense, it presupposes an entire theory of sexuality that needs to be explicated. I’d say it goes something like this:

The core of people’s sexuality consists of an “orientation”, which to each possible interest assigns some sort of sexual value. This orientation is reflected in people’s arousal, as they become aroused to the interest in proportion to the sexual value and their libido. Furthermore, also moderated by libido, their orientation creates a sexual motivation to seek out their interest, which affects desires/behaviors/compulsions, though these can also be affected by other factors, such as social norms and pragmatics. The motivation also affects sexual fantasies, but sexual fantasies are likely less influenced by social norms and pragmatics.

This is far from a perfect theory of sexuality. There are likely numerous sexual phenomena that it fails to address; the ways it currently addresses the phenomena are vague and not quantitatively precise; important parts of the theory are dubious (rather than orientation → motivation → fantasy, could one not imagine orientation → fantasy → motivation, where the fantasy functions as a sort of “conditioning”?); and all of the theory is unproven. I will return to that later, but for now, just consider it a hypothetical example of what a solution to (3) might look like.

This leaves (1) and (2). The trouble with them is that they are both tightly coupled to causality, which makes them difficult to evaluate. I have some thoughts on how to show the causality, which I will return to later, but for now, one good starting point might be to evaluate their surface-level plausibility. For instance, Hsu found possibility (1) to be plausible, as when he collected items that covered different types of autogynephilia, he found them all to be correlated, as would be predicted if autogynephilia represents a common cause, and he found his items to be good at distinguishing between ordinary men and men who are involved in autogynephilic groups (in the sense of autogynephilia-the-phenomenon).

But even if one demonstrates that (1) is not obviously wrong and pretends that “not obviously wrong” = strong support, that still leaves (2). To properly validate autogynephilia-the-construct, one would have to show that it represents a sexual interest, which involves first figuring out what “sexual interest” means (as in point (3)), and then show that this plausibly applies to autogynephilia (as in point (2)).

I’m not aware of any time this has been done. Anne Lawrence has sort of played around with it, for instance in Becoming What We Love, or in sections of Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, but my impression is that her goal here was more to illustrate aspects of autogynephilia, rather than to evaluate whether autogynephilia constitutes a sexual interest.

There are parts of the critiques of autogynephilia that soooooort of go into this, e.g. Julia Serano argues that unlike other sexual interests, autogynephilia tends to go away over time, is present in cis women, tends to lead to emotional attachments and is preceded by ideation in childhood. Certainly if autogynephilia differs from most other sexual interests in all these ways, we should pause and reconsider whether it can really be lumped under the same concept, as (2) asserts. However, I think Serano’s claims are wrong and that they either represent things that she made up without a basis, ideas she got from others who made them up without a basis, or ideas that are based on low-quality observations.

(Serano furthermore distinguishes sexual interests into paraphilias and sexual orientations, which further complicates her argument. Outside of etiology, I doubt this distinction is particularly meaningful (and I’m not even sure it’s meaningful when it comes to etiology), so I don’t think this is super relevant to bring up. However, if you want to know which things exactly she associates with paraphilias vs sexual orientations, you should read her paper.)

Anyway, one could argue that autogynephilia-the-construct as usually presented includes two additional assertions:

  1. Autogynephilia is influenced by gynephilia, being caused by an “inversion” of one’s gynephilia, a process called “erotic target identity inversion”, and is only one out of an entire family of erotic target identity inversions.
  2. There are no other causes of autogynephilia than ETII.

There’s a big critique that can be made of (5), but there’s also something that can be said about (4). So let’s start with (5) and continue to (4) afterwards.

There are three statements that appear to be in conflict. The first is (5), that autogynephilia is always an inversion of gynephilia. The second is (1), that autogynephilia-the-construct is the cause of autogynephilia-the-phenomenon. The third is the observation that some exclusively androphilic and asexual individuals exhibit autogynephilia-the-phenomenon.

The classical solution to these conflicts is developmental competition and meta-attraction (some autogynephiles have in a sense inverted their heterosexuality; they are attracted to being with men, but only as a woman). This is fine as far as it goes, but meta-attraction cannot account for all autogynephiles’ interest in men, and at this point I’m pretty convinced that at least some exclusively androphilic males exhibit autogynephilia-the-phenomenon. (I am not sure about the situation for asexuals/anallosexuals.)

There are two possible solutions to this. One is to drop (5), and say that there exist other forms of autogynephilia, perhaps one associated with androphilia. The other is to drop (1), and say that there are things other than true autogynephilia which can cause phenomena similar to autogynephilia-the-phenomenon. As androphilic AGPs appear to have a similar degree of gender issues to gynephilic AGPs, and as their sexual fantasies look relatively similar (but not entirely identical), I favor dropping (5). But one could also drop (1) instead, and replace it by the assertion that true autogynephilia is only one of the possible causes of autogynephilia-the-phenomenon. These options lead to two genuinely distinct constructs. Dropping (1) leads to what I call “narrowsense autogynephilia”, as it (hopefully! assuming the construct of autogynephilia/ETII is valid) refers to the narrowest, classical notion of autogynephilia, representing an inversion of gynephilic attraction. Meanwhile, dropping (2) leads to what I call “broadsense autogynephilia”, as it refers to autogynephilic phenomena in the broadest sense that is coherent. I expect it to be possible to relate both kinds of autogynephilia in a single model, e.g.:

r/Blanchardianism - Multi-type AGP hypothesis
Diagram relating different kinds of autogynephilia. “AHE” and “meta” here refer to sex as a woman with women and men respectively.

Now, this next part might be considered a bit pedantic, so feel free to skip to the next section as it’s not super important for the overall point of the blog post. But basically, one thing to consider is that (4) is underspecified. This comes into play when one considers other sexual interests that are also proposed to be due to this inversion, such as furries, apotemnophiles, and so on. Namely, these other interests raise the question, is the process that moderates the gynephilia → autogynephilia effect, the same as the process that moderates the other effects? Something akin to this?

Under this hypothesis, there is a variable, “erotic target identity inversions”, which moderates the conversion of any sexual interest (gynephilia, attraction to women; acrotomophilia, attraction to amputees) into an autosexual form.

Or is it more a parallel phenomenon, where each inversion plays out independently across different individuals?

Under this hypothesis, any sexual interest contributes to its autosexual inversion, but the contribution is independent across the interests.

These are genuinely distinct hypotheses, and they have distinct interpretations and predictions. I think Blanchardians tend to favor the first one; for instance, in their autopedophilia study, Hsu and Bailey found that among pedophiles, autopedophilia correlated strongly with autogynephilia, which is the sort of thing you’d expect under the former but not the latter study. However, at least to a degree, this observation could also be explained by the presence of a “general factor of paraphilia”, which appears to exist too. In my attempt to test it, I did not find autogynephiles to have a greater correspondence between the traits they would like to have and the traits that they are attracted to than others, which appears to be in contradiction with the former theory and in support of the latter one.

The theory

And then there’s the theory; while the construct represents the causal claims relevant to defining the construct of autogynephilia, the theory represents all other causal claims related to autogynephilia. The theory implicitly relies on the construct, as one cannot talk about the relationship between autogynephilia and other things if autogynephilia isn’t real, but the construct doesn’t rely on the theory in the same way.

It can be hard to define where the construct ends and the theory starts; for instance, if sexual interests are proposed to be motivating, then that makes autogynephilia’s effect on gender issues part of the construct rather than the theory. There’s some definite distinctions; e.g. the claim that trans women are always either autogynephilic or androphilic and never both would be theory and not construct.

(Uhh… except that the main empirical validation of ETII as a concept comes from observing that androphilic trans women are less likely to be autogynephilic. But this is less about ambiguity and more about the validation of the theory being a bit of a garbage fire.)

But for some things, like AGP being motivating, to some degree it might be more a difference of perspective. For instance, part of the construct definition of AGP is that it works like other sexual interests. Thus, if one keeps a focus on these, e.g. by starting with an idea of how sexuality works, and then testing whether this applies to AGP, that could be considered construct validation. However, if one has something one has observed in AGPs, and one isn’t making any claim of it applying to other sexual interests, then this represents AGP theory. More generally, autogynephilia-the-theory takes autogynephilia-the-construct for granted, and seeks to understand how this relates to other things of interest, whereas autogynephilia-the-construct primarily studies the internal workings of autogynephilia.

Does clinical experience constitute construct validation?

Autogynephilia-the-construct has been “validated” in the sense that there are a number of case studies, clinical experiences, and so on that line up with the idea. I’m not really satisfied with that, though.

As far as I can tell, this sort of clinical experience isn’t particularly reliable. It’s easy to come with several examples of this. The assumption, now known to be false, that autogynephiles cannot be androphilic is a clear example of this. Despite the lack of sound theoretical basis, it has also been asserted that autogynephilic transsexuals have no degree of femininity, which has never been demonstrated and appears contradicted by studies (e.g. this). And of course, as I mentioned earlier, the forms of autogynephilia that have been identified by Blanchard do not well represent the forms that autogynephilia actually takes on in typical fantasies.

One can also consider systematic biases. These sorts of data will tend to skew towards particularly severe, ego-dystonic or otherwise unusual (e.g. in this case, transsexual) cases. These cases are unlikely to give an accurate view of how autogynephilia presents in general. (I constantly have to remind people that the general pattern when studying autogynephiles in a less filtered way is “autogynephiles appear remarkably normal”.) It will also tend to lead to a bias towards more-persistent cases, which if we understand persistence to be part of the construct of sexual interests creates a potential bias.

Clinical experience certainly has a lot of advantages too, though. It allows going into much deeper detail than would be viable in quick standardized surveys, it is generally longitudinal, and it allows some degree of nonsystematic experimentation which may give hints to causality. (Though the previously mentioned biases, as well as factors like regression to the mean, makes this kind of experimentation very dangerous.)

Overall I appreciate the value of clinical experience as a source of anecdotes that can be used to guide theory formation, but I can’t see it as a viable reason to consider theories to be confirmed.

The validation crisis in psychology

I believe debates about whether autogynephilia is real should center on whether autogynephilia-the-construct is real. To understand why, suppose autogynephilia-the-construct isn’t valid. This would mean that apparently autogynephilic phenomena are not motivated by an underlying sexual interest. That would certainly be very strange and hard to imagine, but that is precisely why it is so important; the world must function in a very different way than I imagine if autogynephilia is not a valid construct, and so that implies that I must rethink my beliefs a lot in such a case.

It would probably be helpful to consider various alternative proposals to autogynephilia-the-construct:

  • On page 173 of his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, Michael Bailey quotes a transvestic fetishist who asserts that the arousal to autogynephilia-the-phenomenon is simply normal gynephilic sexuality, while the motivation to engage in it has nothing to do with sexuality, but is instead simply to “feel feminine”.
  • Serano argues that “autogynephilia” ends up covering multiple distinct phenomena, including reactions to dysphoria and societal sexualization of women, or that they are into it for the sake of novelty. These proposals are very different from how I understand sexual interests to work, and so it would be fair to say that under these sorts of hypotheses, autogynephilia would not be a valid construct (or at least, need not be a valid construct).

(It is worth noting that certain critiques of autogynephilia theory rely on autogynephilia-the-construct being valid. For instance, Nuttbrock and Veale have argued that it arises through the process of “Exotic Becomes Erotic” hypothesized by Bem; but this process is intended to explain how sexual interests develop, and so it is only valid to apply if one understands autogynephilia to be a sexual interest.)

If autogynephilia is not a sexual interest, but instead takes the form of something like the above, then certainly a lot of the Blanchardian theories surrounding autogynephilia look quite silly and often nonsensical. Given what I know, I don’t think this is particularly likely, and instead think that autogynephilia is rather obviously a valid construct.

But…

Here’s the problem: Autogynephilia as a construct has not been validated. Oh sure, symbolic steps towards validation have been performed, such as demonstrating that measures of autogynephilia can discriminate between certain groups. But nobody has taken a powerful construct of sexual interests, and systematically checked that autogynephilia fits under this. As far as I know, there hasn’t even been developed a strong theory of sexual interests that it can be validated against.

Unvalidated, weak theories are hardly unique to Blanchardianism; it’d probably be harder to think of constructs and theories that are validated than ones that are not. Certainly the critics of autogynephilia do not fare any better; concepts like “gender identity”/”gender dysphoria”, “exotic becomes erotic”, “sexualization” and so on are all underprecisified and have only symbolic gestures towards validation. But this isn’t limited to gender topics. Things like the “Big Five” personality traits would probably not fare much better here. It’s not even a problem with psychology research; concepts used by people in everyday life, such as impulsivity, are not validated, and I believe that they are often invalid (this has rarely been demonstrated, but for e.g. impulsivity it appears to be the case). Essentially, this is the state of psychological research:

One “solution” would be to simply disregard psychology as a domain. I don’t think that’s viable, because I want to understand how humans work, and I also don’t think anyone is actually going to do this; instead they are just going to rely on theories that are culturally popular, which is hardly an improvement.

Another solution would be to just keep doing what we are already doing. Combine weak theories, anecdotes, and stray thoughts into vague “predictions”, confirm these predictions and keep on piling up ever bigger questionable theories. Use these vague studies to argue with other people who use other vague studies to contradict you. Keep claiming that your unvalidated constructs are better than their unvalidated constructs. Not particularly appealing, I’d say. It’s probably fine to do this as exploratory research until a clearly defined framework has been established, but one should actually make progress towards having a solid framework over time.

Now, I’m absolutely guilty of this too. My only excuse is that I was just acting like everyone else, but that excuse is hardly enough to justify continuing to act like this, so what am I going to do? I’m going to put much more attention to fundamentals related to validity. New goal: validate that autogynephilia is a sexual interest. And more generally, outside of exploratory research, I’m going to pay much more attention to construct validity.

I’ve talked with other researchers (who are more tightly linked to the scientific establishment) about validity, and they seem to see the concerns too. However, they are more tied up in getting funding and publishing papers, so they tend to address more-immediate questions, rather than focusing on the deeper theory. Which, to be fair, can still be useful, but it seems to me that much more value can be achieved by putting things on solid ground. Since I’m not really addressing the importance of funding or the value/harm of publishing invalid research, this proooobably won’t convince them to change up their method of work. But since I am primarily concerned with understanding how these things work, I’m definitely going to change my method.

The way forward

I used to think proper construct validation was nearly impossible, and so disregarded the question. After all, requiring impossible things would demand that I remain entirely agnostic on how psychology works, which is hardly a workable position. Painfully slow and vague progress in invalid psychology is superior to this.

However, more recently, I’ve been realizing that a large part of it is simply due to the theories being too vague to be meaningful. Obviously you can’t test your theory if you don’t make clear predictions. (Or well, often you can disprove the theory because even vague predictions are precise enough to sometimes be proven wrong.)

In particular, for the case of autogynephilia, the claim is that it is a sexual interest. OK, how do we test that? First, specify what sexual interests are. We’re presumably going to want it to cover factors like arousal, behavior, desire, sexual fantasy, compulsions, proto-sexual childhood ideation, and porn use. Probably more. So build a theory of sexual interests that covers this, by studying sexual interests in general. And then verify that this applies to autogynephilia.

It’s particularly easy when it comes to sexual interests because they are proposed to be a system of several parallel phenomena that all function analogously. I’ve previously attempted to explain how that helps, though that explanation wasn’t very clear, but roughly speaking it goes as follows: It’s easy to come up with many incompatible causal theories that fit any one of them, but it’s unlikely that anything other than reality will fit all of them. Thus, studying sexual interests in general will give us a much better understanding of the causality involved than studying them in isolation will. (Assuming “sexual interest” is a valid construct, but then, if it isn’t then neither is autogynephilia.)

Anyone can “predict” that sexual arousal to the fantasy of being a woman is going to be correlated with wanting to be a woman. This is compatible with autogynephilia-the-construct, but it’s also compatible with there being content overlap (being a woman) between the two items, or by reverse causality, or by monomethod bias, or by all the various other theories that have been proposed. (Confounding can also lead to correlation, but without more specific explanations like content overlap, it doesn’t predict correlation.) That things are positively correlated with each other is called a positive manifold, and this is predicted by lots of theories people come up with. (🤔 Is this a bias in human theory development?) It’s much harder to predict the quantitative strength of this correlation, and few theories would be able to consistently predict this across many variables.

This relies intrinsically on having a strong theory that makes not just qualitative pseudopredictions about the signs of correlations, but instead makes quantitative statements about the exact strengths of causal effects, from which correlations can be derived. Of course, such a theory must to a degree be fit to data to know the coefficients involved; but by being a more universal theory, we can test it on different interests than it is fit to.

(This helps with inferring causality from correlation. However, ideally this should be supplemented by other causal information. Unfortunately, it is super rare that this becomes viable, as causal inference is hard.)

All of this mainly focuses on the validity of structural relationships in the theory. However, this isn’t the only form of validity that is relevant; also relevant is external validity. So far my plan is to assess these different concepts using self-reported surveys, because this is super cheap. However, that kind of data is of very low quality, which may turn out to be an obstacle both for theory inference, and for validity of the inferred theories. I don’t have a great solution for this yet, though I am on the lookout for ones.

In the hope that it can help convince people of the relevance of performing this sort of research, it’s also worth emphasizing what this can give us: directly constructing and validating a model of sexual interests gives a straightforward research program, which if it succeeds will provide powerful arguments on a variety of questions. Pretty much any theory that can be formulated across sexual interests (“porn exposure causes paraphilias”, anyone?) can likely be examined using these methods. And that’s a lot of theories. Perhaps particularly relevant for autogynephilia is the debate about direction of causality; since presumably sexual interests motivate behavior, it’s a reasonable argument for autogynephilia causing gender issues if autogynephilia is a valid construct.

Conclusion

For evaluating whether autogynephilia is real, we should consider whether there is a sexual interest in being a woman that accounts for apparently-autogynephilic phenomena. So far, it has not been demonstrated that a sexual interest in being a woman exists, and so the claim that autogynephilia is real is hardly on solid empirical ground.

This is part of a broad tendency of psychological theories (whether formal and scientific, or informal) to deal with ill-defined and unvalidated concepts. Thus, those that critique autogynephilia for being unproven are not wrong due to their critique being wrong, but instead wrong to raise isolated demands for rigor on just autogynephilia and not everything else too (including on many of the very concepts used to critique autogynephilia).

I personally still believe autogynephilia is real, but I also have some work before me to actually demonstrate that.

Universal laws are causal inference

Edit: It has come to my attention that I did a terrible job of explaining this. I think it’s very important, but the explanation needs to be improved.

OK, the title might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s an effective way of summarizing an amazing piece of insight I’ve been thinking about lately.

Suppose you have a causal system. For simplicity, we’ll say that it contains two variables, A and B. Being a causal system means that one of the variables might affect each other. But how can we tell, from pure observation, which variable is the cause, and which is the effect? That should be impossible, right?

For instance, if A and B each have a variance of 1, and their correlation is 0.5, then that can either be due to the rule:

A ~ N(0, 1)
B ~ 0.5 * A + N(0, 0.75)

(which is to say, where B is determined by a combination of A and random noise; noise is denoted by N(µ, σ2), which refers to the normal distribution)

Or it can be due to the rule:

B ~ N(0, 1)
A ~ 0.5 * B + N(0, 0.75)

(where A is determined by a combination of B and random noise…)

These rules give the same observational data, yet are literally opposites. Which poses a problem for causal inference. There are methods of doing causal inference anyway, such as experiments, instrumental variables, and theory, but these are all far too expensive or difficult in many cases. Is there an easier way?

Detour: Some coefficients are unstable across contexts

One of the main cases where you will see this discussed is in genetics. Within genetics, one has what is known as the heritability coefficient, h2, which is generally understood as a quantity that describes how much genetic influence there is on a trait. It is defined to be the fraction of variance caused by genetics.

But by talking about “fraction of variance”, nongenetic factors that increase variance will decrease the heritability. For instance, if you have a number of plants, and you place some of the plants in good conditions and some of the plants in bad conditions, then the growth of the plants will be less heritable than if they were all placed in the same conditions, as there is now extra variance due to the environmental condition. If, on the other hand, the heritability had been unstandardized, if one had talked about just the variance in growth, rather than the fraction of variance in growth, then the condition might not reduce the heritability.

(… or it might. If there are gene-environment interactions or other nonlinearities, as there likely is, then it could very well also affect the heritability. But we will ignore nonlinearities here.)

So one way that standardizing makes coefficients unstable is that they allow downstream conditions to affect the coefficient. To tie this into our previous examples with A and B, even if A causes B at a consistent coefficient of 0.5, the correlation between them is going to vary depending on the noise of B. In the previous example, the causal coefficient matched the correlational coefficient, but if B’s noise had been 0, the correlation coefficient would be 1, while if B’s noise had been 1, the correlation coefficient would be 0.44.

Another way that standardizing makes coefficients unstable is that they introduce a dependence of the upstream conditions. For instance, genetic variance can be lowered in cases of inbreeding, population bottlenecks, avoiding assortative mating, and more. Or in terms of the A/B example previously, if A has lower variance, then the correlation will be lower.

The core asymmetry

Notice an important thing in the above: if A causes B, then variance in A will increase the correlation, while variance in B will decrease the correlation. That’s an asymmetry between A and B! Exactly what is needed for causal inference.

Just to hammer it home, here are covariance matrices for the two causal relations, and two different sizes of variance for A and B each.

Top: Structural equation model diagram which shows the relationships between the variables. eA and eB are the noise terms, with the noise variance being represented by a and b. Bottom: The covariance matrices implied by different values of a and b.

Despite the causal effect being the same in each of the cases, the covariance matrix ends up differing due to the different variances that are introduced. And because of the asymmetry between A and B over the covariance matrices, only this linear causal relationship and not the one in the opposite direction fits the data.

Or to illustrate it in another way, I can generate datasets for each causal direction, for differing variances:

Each circle represents an N=infinity dataset generated by the previously described causal models, with blue dots generated by the A->B model and orange dots generated by the B->A model. The Y coordinate shows the correlation between the two variables in the dataset. The X coordinate shows the relative amount of variance in A and B.

As you can see, while different causal models can overlap observationally, they trace out different curves of possible observational data in the space of covariance structures.

Automagic causal inference

Now this is all well and good, but in reality any dataset is only going to have one noise variance for each of A and B, so how is this useful? This is where the “universal laws” part of the title comes in: if one can make ones theory describe multiple distinct situations, then one could embed the variables A=A'(x), B=B'(x) into a larger family of situations, and require the same theory to apply for each x.

In that case, simply by successfully fitting the theory, as long as the situations are sufficiently distinct, you have much greater confidence in causal validity than you would in a standard case where you are considering only one situation. (It is necessary for the situations to be sufficiently distinct, as otherwise it might fit to all of them through sheer luck.) This is because it’s easy for a wrong theory to accidentally fit a single situation, but hard for it to fit multiple situations.

To give some examples of how that might work:

  • You might wonder if people support some specific political policy because they believe it is beneficial to them. In that case, you could generalize and look at policies in general, examining whether there is support for the general theory that people support policies if they believe they benefit them.
  • You might wonder how people answer a personality item, what influence factors like desirability, memories, actual applicability, etc., have on their response. In that case, you can consider the general theory of how people answer personality items.
  • You might wonder what factors go into creating some kink. Is it porn depicting the kink, traumas surrounding the kink, taboo, etc.? You might also wonder how the kink influences behavior, and in particular whether there is some mediation going on, e.g. does fantasizing increase the likelihood of acting on it? In that case, rather than considering the specific kink, one could consider a general theory of kinks, as this then allows performing causal inference over these questions.
  • And particularly relevant for this blog, you might wonder what makes some people wish to be the opposite sex and what makes some people happy with their sex. And again, here one could embed it into a general theory about how people’s desires to be something specific works.

These are just some beginning examples I’ve thought of, because they are relevant to the topics I’m researching. I would not be surprised if there are analogous examples for other topics, considering how there are so many examples everywhere I look.

(Uhm, though there is one major complication: All of the examples I gave are in the domain of psychology, where measurement error is rampant and correlated, data is ordinal rather than interval/ratio, constructs are dubious and generalizability is unlikely. So it’s pretty relevant to look into how big of a problem these things will be; this is something I’m currently examining in simulations, and I will look at it more in the future.)

What’s interesting to me is that compared to all the other methods of causal inference, this method seem extremely… easy? You don’t need to have a good instrument, you don’t need to carefully look at conditional independences, you just need to look at generalities. And considering how important theory is to do anything practical, you need to look at generalities anyway, so this isn’t necessarily a big restriction. So I feel this is likely a method I will look into more to better understand.

Contra Blanchard and Dreger on Autogynephilia in Cis Women

Some argue that it is not just males who can be autogynephilic, but instead that cis women are also autogynephilic too. In an interview, Blanchard countered:

My own arguments against the claim that autogynephilia frequently occurs in natal females were more general and not directed at Moser’s survey. I wrote, for example, that the notion that typical natal females are erotically aroused by—and sometimes even masturbate to—the thought or image of themselves as women might seem feasible if one considers only conventional, generic fantasies of being a beautiful, alluring woman in the act of attracting a handsome, desirable man (or woman). It seems a lot less feasible when one considers the various other ways in which some autogynephilic men symbolize themselves as women in their masturbation fantasies. Examples I have collected include: sexual fantasies of menstruation and masturbatory rituals that simulate menstruation; giving oneself an enema, while imagining the anus is a vagina and the enema is a vaginal douche; helping the maid clean the house; sitting in a girls’ class at school; knitting in the company of other women; and riding a girls’ bicycle. These examples argue that autogynephilic sexual fantasies have a fetishistic flavor that makes them qualitatively different from any superficially similar ideation in natal females.

(Emphasis mine.)

A similar argument was proposed by Dreger:

I’ve talked with Blanchard, Bailey, and also Anne Lawrence about this, and my impression is they all doubt cis (non-transgender) women experience sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women. Clinically, Blanchard observed autogynephilic natal male individuals who were aroused, for example, at the ideas of using a tampon for menses or knitting as a woman with other women. I have never heard a natal woman express sexual arousal at such ideas. I’ve never heard of a natal woman masturbating to such thoughts.

One might think that before making this argument, Blanchard would’ve tested the relative frequencies of sexual interest in menstruating in autogynephilic males vs female in general, but he didn’t.

At some point I realized, hey, this idea is totally unfounded and probably wrong, so I should test it so we can stop running in circles. Here’s my results:

8

Bar charts from my porn survey on autogynephilia. Each row represents a different operationalization of autogynephilia. Each column represents a different group that was studied. I will focus on the third row and the second, third and fourth columns for this post. Participants were asked to answer “How arousing would you find the following…?” for a large number of sexual interests, relatively uniformly shuffled together.

I defined autogynephilic cis men as participants who said that they were men, not transgender, and endorsed “A little” or more arousal to “Imagining being the opposite sex”. I defined non-gynephilic cis women as participants who said that they were women, not transgender, and “A little” or less attracted to women, while gynephilic cis women were defined as having “Moderate” or more attraction to women.

As can be seen in the diagram, both gynephilic and non-gynephilic cis women endorsed more arousal to “Yourself menstruation (if you are male, imagining that you were able to menstruate and menstruating)” than autogynephilic men did.

Endorsement from all the groups on this item was extremely rare. This raises the question of how relevant Blanchard’s argument is in the first place, as it attempts to reason about the nature of autogynephilic using an extremely rare manifestation of autogynephilia. But regardless, Blanchard’s argument was not supported.

Limitations

 

My survey was very nonrepresentative. I posted it on /r/SampleSize, which is known to have much higher rates of autogynephilia in males than the general population. How this generalizes to female participants is unclear, but it’s probably a good guess that the rates of endorsement are elevated for them too. (Furthermore, one can raise some questions about the validity of the items used.)

This implies that my survey doesn’t really show the real rates in cis women, and so still leaves the problem that we don’t know how high the rates are. The solution to this problem is that Blanchardians should stop making up unfounded arguments that cis women are not autogynephilic. Instead, they should either stop arguing about it, or do what the people who argue that cis women are autogynephilic do and study it directly. (See 1234, and 5.)

Conclusion

I’ve gone through different takes on whether cis women are autogynephilic, ranging all the way from “yes” to “no”. My current take is agnosticism. Is that agnosticism really justified? Shouldn’t the answer be, “no, obviously”?

I notice several deep… “anomalies”, with the claim that autogynephilia is rare in cis women:

  • Ray Blanchard and Alice Dreger use very strange and contorted arguments to argue for it, even though they should know better.
  • Homeovestism, or something very much like it, appears to be common in women.
  • When using scales similar to what Lawrence suggested for assessing autogynephilia in women, one can get exceedingly high endorsement rates.
  • A number of people have claimed publically that autogynephilia is common in cis women to audiences that contain large numbers of women, without any pushback. For instance, Scott Alexander’s post even gave an extremely overt example of what autogynephilia means (so there can’t be much confusion), yet women in the comments didn’t go “hey, that sounds wrong”.
  • I know trans women whose cis female partners have claimed, to the protest of the trans women, that autogynephilia is normal female sexuality.
  • Many who disagree with it, such a gender critical women, seem very openly hostile to research being done on it, as if they were trying to hide the truth, and also attempt to counterargue using contorted arguments like that it is impossible by definition.

Can all of these be explained away? Yes, with some assumptions and legwork. Is “autogynephilia is fairly common in cis women, but some people are opposed to acknowledging it because it is inconvenient” a simple theory that can account for these anomalies without trouble? Also yes.

With these, one could almost ask whether my take on autogynephilias being highly prevalent in cis women should be “yes, obviously”. I still have some concerns that I want to look into before I endorse this though, namely:

  • I think that some of the overtly autosexual things in my list of A*P interests are unlikely to be as common in cis women as they are in cis men.
  • There is still some nonzero concern that cis women are misinterpreting the items given, though this concern is gradually shrinking due to factors that make the intent more clear.
  • Another theory that could well account for many of the anomalies would simply be that I am in a very autogynephilic corner of the world; men on sites like reddit or SlateStarCodex are much more autogynephilic than the general population, so why wouldn’t women be too? So the question is, do all of these findings apply to representative samples too?

I don’t think autogynephilia in women necessarily changes that much from a theoretical standpoint. Certainly it better allows for some magical innate gender identity theories, but it doesn’t prove such theories. Furthermore, due to women’s low sexual specificity, it doesn’t even particularly challenge ideas like erotic target location error.

I think it would help to not make up arguments without grounding, though.

Contra Serano and Lehmiller on Autogynephilia Prevalence

Serano just published a new review, claiming to “debunk” autogynephilia again. I’m not going to comment on most of it as it is just a repeat of some old and tired arguments, but one part stood out to me:

In addition to cisgender women experiencing FEFs, subsequent studies have shown that many cisgender people experience cross-sex/gender sexual fantasies as well. In a recent study of 4,175 Americans’ sexual fantasies, Lehmiller (2018) found that nearly a third of his subjects reported having sexual fantasies that involved being the ‘other sex’, and a quarter had fantasised about crossdressing.

Serano claims that Lehmiller has shown autogynephilic and autoandrophilic fantasies to be common here. However, this is not the case. Lehmiller did not use a representative sample, as he writes in his book:

This book is built around a massive survey of more than 350 questions taken by more than four thousand Americans, including persons from all fifty states. Although the sample is not necessarily representative of the US population, it does consist of an incredibly diverse group of individuals. Participants ranged in age from eighteen to eighty-seven and had occupations spanning everything from
cashiers at McDonald’s to homemakers to physicians to lawyers. The group included all sexual and gender identities, political and religious affiliations, and relationship types, from singles to swingers.

Rather, he ran his survey on social media:

In total, 4,175 adults age eighteen or older who were current citizens or residents of the United States completed my survey, most of whom had heard about it through a major social media channel like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit. Given that this was the primary way people learned about my survey, the demographics of my sample tended to skew more toward the average social media user than they did toward the average American. For instance, the median age of my survey participants (thirty-two) was about six years younger than the overall median age in America.3 Likewise, my participants were more highly educated and more affluent than the average American. My survey did not disproportionately attract people of one sex, though—it was virtually a fifty-fifty split between those who said they were born
male and those who were born female.

Is that a problem? Yes; my experience with doing surveys on social media is that they tend to attract very high rates of autogynephiles/autoandrophiles, compared to what we would expect on the basis of representative surveys.

Because, yes, there are representative surveys on the rates of autogynephilia/autoandrophilia, and they give much lower rates than what Serano writes. To give two examples, this study finds a rate of autogynephilia of around 10%, and this study finds a rate of transvestic fetishism in males of around 3%.

I shouldn’t have needed to say this, but it’s wrong of Serano to ignore representative studies when discussing the prevalence of autogynephilia and autoandrophilia.

Serano also continues afterwards:

Second, the notion that FEFs have the potential to cause transsexuality is specious and not supported by the evidence (Serano, 2010, 2020). After all, almost a third of Lehmiller’s subjects experienced cross-sex/gender sexual fantasies (Lehmiller, 2018, p. 66), yet the vast majority of these people will never develop gender dysphoria or desire  to transition.

This again is a highly misleading argument. While these autogynephiles don’t transition, they have a large change in their affective gender identity (see e.g. this, finding effect sizes from 1.9 to 2.9), making them much closer to being trans than non-autogynephiles. Furthermore, autogynephilia can exist in different intensities and different types, which might also affect things.

In conclusion, one cannot trust Serano to accurately report the state of the evidence on autogynephilia.

A dataset of common AGP/AAP fantasies

Autogynephilia is a sexual interest in being a woman, and autoandrophilia is a sexual interest in being a man. However, what does this mean in practice?

There are a number of ways one can examine this. For instance, there exist many porn/erotica sites catering to autogynephiles, and they have been observed in clinical contexts, with their fantasies sometimes being recorded. However, I worry that these do not necessarily get at typical such fantasies, but instead get at more extreme and unusual variants, due to their greater selection effects.

To solve this, and to get more data on autoandrophilia, I did a survey asking about qualitative autogynephilic and autoandrophilic fantasies. More specifically, on /r/SampleSize I posted a survey titled “Can you look at some porn For Science? Survey #5” which asked about a broad variety of things, mostly of which were not related to this topic. Near the end of the survey, I asked people whether they found it arousing to “Imagine being the opposite sex”, and among those who answered anything other than “Not at all”, I asked the following open-ended question:


Fantasies about being the opposite sex

Optional. Above, you said that you would find it arousing to imagine being the opposite sex. I’m currently studying the nature of sexual fantasies about being the opposite sex, and as part of this it would be useful to know more about what exactly people fantasize about. So: If you were to fantasize about being the opposite sex, what sorts of things would you imagine?

I’m both interested in the scenarios you imagine (e.g. what sorts of sexual actions are in play, what sorts of environment and partners do you imagine, what sort of body type do you imagine having?) and in the perspective of the fantasy (e.g. who is the object of desire in the fantasy, do you imagine things from a first-person view, etc?).

Feel free to add any other information about experiences or feelings that you may consider relevant to this sexual interest. For instance, it would be interesting to know if you had any thoughts about what makes this sexual fantasy feel attractive to you.


About 500 cisgender women and about 1100 cisgender men completed my survey. Out of these, 96 cis women and 203 cis men answered my question about AAP and AGP fantasies respectively. The dataset, along with some extra variables that I thought it would be worth sharing, can be accessed here. (Note that a few of the participants opted not to have their raw answers shared, and so it contains only 290 data points.) In order to give an overview, I’ve run through the fantasies to try and list the most commonly described themes:

Disclaimer: There were a lot of sexual fantasies and I didn’t have a systematic way to code them, and I did it all by hand, so there may be some mistakes in the following list.

  • 33.5%: Heterosexual sex. (57 AGP, 28%, e.g. “I imagine a luxurious hotel with an handsome abd muscular men after a long diner.”, 39 AAP, 41%, e.g. “I mean not to write too porny but I’ve imagined having a dick and having fairly rough sex with a woman.”)
  • 24%: Masturbating. (45 AGP, 22%, e.g. “I imagine fingering myself”, 25 AAP, 26%, e.g. “I’m mostly interested in being able to feel the pleasure of masturbation with a penis”)
  • 20.5%: Homosexual sex. (41 AGP, 20%, e.g. “sex with my current girlfriend”, 20 AAP, 21%, e.g. “Having gay sex with my partner”)
  • 12%: Being dominant/powerful. (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “I imagine myself sometimes as an attractive woman, sometimes as a normal woman, and since men are less picky about who they choose to have sex, just choose someone, invite them over and be dominant with them.”, 19 AAP, 20%, e.g. “Fucking someone while having a penis seems fun and powerful. “)
  • 11%: Implied heterosexual sex (e.g. mentioning “penetration” abstractly). (23 AGP, 11%, e.g. “being penetrated vaginally from a first person perspective.”, 11 AAP, 11.5%, e.g. “thrusting inside of someone’s genitalia”)
  • 11%: Blowjob. (9 AGP, 4.5%, e.g. “I watch reverse blowjob stuff sometimes.”, 17 AAP, 18%, e.g. “thrusting inside of someone’s mouth”)
  • 10.5%: Orgasming/sexual pleasure. (31 AGP, 15%, “World be fascinating to experience orgasms from the female perspective.”, 6 AAP, 6%, e.g. “I would fantasize about what having a penis would feel like. I like to imagine what my partner is feeling during sex.”)
  • 9%: Multiple partners (AGP only). (19 AGP, 9%, e.g. “I would imagine sex with multiple partners at once, giving and receiving, the gender of the partners ismt really important to me but normally if think about the fantasy its me with men.”.)
  • 7%: Caressing/fondling oneself. (26 AGP, 13%, e.g. “Playing with my boobs”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “I imagine touching my strong, firm, well developed muscles and jerking off”)
  • 6.5%: Being submissive/overpowered. (21 AGP, 10%, e.g. “I would be a sexy little slut that gets used in all sorts of kinky ways.”, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “But also the reverse. Having a woman have power over me. The main focus is the penis.”)
  • 6%: Used strap on/packer to simulate penis (AAP only). (6 AAP, 6%, e.g. “I’m a gay woman and have engaged in the above with a strap on as the giving party.”)
  • 6%: Curiosity. (13 AGP, 6.5%, “I’m curious how sex as a woman would feel.”, 5 AAP, 5%, e.g. “Really curious about what it is like to have a penis.”)
  • 6%: Ejaculating (AAP only). (6 AAP, 6%, e.g. “I want to know what it feels like to ejaculate!”)
  • 5.5%: Crossdressing (AGP only). (11 AGP, 5.5%, e.g. “I like female clothing, so my fantasies often have myself and my partner(s) dressing as a woman. Mainly skirts, stockings and pink/purple stuff.”.)
  • 5.5%: Receiving a lot of sexual attention/being desired. (17 AGP, 8%, e.g. “seeing what it’s like to be a girl and receive all the attention”, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “Getting a lot of pretty girls that want to have sex with me, and being able to pleasure them just with my own body.”)
  • 5%: Casual sex (AGP only). (10 AGP, 5%, e.g. “I do fantasize about being a woman and how much of a slut I would probably be.”.)
  • 5%: Specific body characteristics (mentions concrete characteristics). (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “Having smallish tits”, 7 AAP, 7%, e.g. “I (usually) imagine myself as a skinny man with the face similar to my actual face but having a beard.”)
  • 5%: Attractive body characteristics (e.g. fit). (17 AGP, 8%, e.g. “Everyone in my fantasies are healthy and generally fit.”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “I would imagine being a fit man and pleasuring a woman from a first-person view.”)
  • 4.5%: Overall body size (small for AGP, big for AAP). (8 AGP, 4%, e.g. “I am a small woman who gets fucked in the vagina by a large man.”, 5 AAP, 5%, e.g. “I imagine being bigger than whatever partner I have. Being so big and tall that I can hug them and practically engulf them.”)
  • 4.5%: Stronger orgasms. (8 AGP, 4%, e.g. “I’m interested in how it would feel. Women supposedly have stronger orgasms, and it’s sensations I as a man don’t normally (or at all feel).”, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “I don’t know what it would feel like to have sex with that sexual organ. That means I can imagine it feeling better than anything I’ve ever experienced.”)
  • 4%: Only mentions a sexed characteristic and nothing else in the fantasy. (AAP only) (4 AAP, 4%, e.g. “having a dick”)
  • 4%: Anal sex. (5 AGP, 2.5%, “anal (not painful)”, 5 AAP, 5%, e.g. “my penis swinging while being anally penetrated.”)
  • 4%: Using sex toys. (13 AGP, 6.5%, e.g. “Using a vibrator / dildo”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “I fantasise about using a fleshlight or fucking a man in the arse.”)
  • 4%: Answers that didn’t give any specific info or said that they did not have any A*P fantasies. (11 AGP, 5.5%, e.g. “I don’t know”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “Literally everything just to see what it’s like as a man “)
  • 3.5%: Imagining being androgynous (e.g. GAM, …). (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “I usually fantasize about being a woman while still having a dick.”, 6 AAP, 6%, e.g. “body type, like my own (I still have breasts as well) but with an average to large sized penis.”)
  • 3.5%: Cunnilingus. (6 AGP, 3%, e.g. “I think about having someone perform oral sex on me.”, 4 AAP, 4%, e.g. “I imagine going down on or fucking a woman”)
  • 3.5%: Transforming (AGP only). (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “While I consider myself masculine, I am still very much attracted to femine features and actions, and would find becoming an attractive woman to be very arousing.”.)
  • 3.5%: BDSM (AGP only). (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “The fantasy scenarios vary but generally revolve around some form of bondage, as I personally find female bondage infinitely more attractive than male.”.)
  • 3%: Clothing (AGP only). (6 AGP, 3%, e.g. “wearing sexy outfits and nylons, wearing dresses and heels”.)
  • 3%: Sex with someone genderbending (e.g. drag queen, GAM, …). (6 AGP, 3%, e.g. “Sometimes I just imagine being the opposite sex in a solo fantasy where I’m jerking off while enjoying my body, other times I imagine that my (female) partner had a dick and would penetrate me with it. “, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “Also sometimes I fantasize about being a man and having sex with a dragqueen.”
  • 3%: Easier orgasms (AAP only). (3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “I think sex as a man is easier to reach orgasm and I like to imagine what it would feel like to have that easy stimulation.”)
  • 3%: Sex (partner’s nature unspecified). (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “Masturbation and having sex”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “I think it would be interesting to experience sex with a dick.”)
  • 3%: Ejaculate (AGP only). (6 AGP, 3%, e.g. “And feeling them cum in my pussy, ass, and mouth as well. I’d also like to be came on.”.)
  • 3%: Focus on partner. (1 AGP, 0.5%, e.g. “In this scenario I believe I would be more aroused by my partner than the act itself.”, 5 AAP, 5%, e.g. “The most arousing part is imagining the woman’s pleasure rather than my own.”)
  • 3%: Mimicry-A*P. (5 AGP, 2.5%, e.g. “I mostly fantasize about being hot women I see on Instagram or in real life”, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “imagine what it would be like to be a man I’m attracted to fucking a girl I’m attracted to. “)
  • 2.5%: Multiple orgasms (AGP only). (5 AGP, 2.5%, “Multiple orgasms are interesting. “)
  • 2.5%: Feeling sexually attracted to someone. (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “They have beautiful body parts and can really get into “the zone” when aroused.”, 4 AAP, 4%, e.g. “The amount of attraction I have towards a woman, like I feel like men would have more primal, untamable urges.”)
  • 2.5%: Being attractive (AGP only). (5 AGP, 2.5%, e.g. “I just feel like I’d be more attractive as a girl.”.)
  • 2.5%: Exhibitionism. (6 AGP, 3%, e.g. “Imagine initiating sexual situations including public sex”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “fantasies: usually in public, with people watching. I’m the object of desire. 3rd person view.”)
  • 2%: Exaggerated sexual dimorphism. (5 AGP, 2.5%, e.g. “she is busty (d-cup+), BMI around 25-30, big ass, trimmed not shaved, glamorously beautiful, vulnerable eyes, exposed vulva.”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “I imagine myself with a large penis and a muscular, vascular body with a beard.”)
  • 2%: Intimate/loving sex. (3 AGP, 1.5%, e.g. “The scenario changes according to my mood and but can include having passionate sex with someone I love.”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “Even though I assume the male role in those fantasies, it’s usually from a 3rd person perspective, and boringly romantic, as opposed to anything too racy or kinky.”)
  • 2%: Being normal. (5 AGP, 2.5%, e.g. “In casual gay sex encounters I prefer strict top/bottom or dom/sub roles, usually but not exclusively with me being the bottom/sub. As a female in a straight male/female casual sex encounter it would be easier not having to navigate who is in what role (I am aware women can be dom but I would not be interested in that).”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “I’m lesbian, and as progressive as the world is, it just seems easier to imagine being able to talk to women as a man rather than a woman. It’s more of the fear of being gay in my environment (the south and conservative parents) that have me imagine being a man having sex with a woman.”)
  • 2%: Fantasy comes up in dreams. (1 AGP, 0.5%, e.g. “I recently had a dream”, 3 AAP, 3%, e.g. “This mostly comes up in my dreams.”)
  • 2%: Acting flirtatiously. (5 AGP, 2.5%, e.g. “imagine teasing and turning on the opposite sex”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “Sometimes I imagine I’m single and try to pick up a woman to have sex with.”)
  • 2%: Watching one’s own body. (7 AGP, 3.5%, e.g. “Haven’t really thought about it much. I was more thinking of the hypothetical “if i was a girl for a day I’d just play with my boobs in front of a mirror” thing lol”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “I imagine in it third person, but like watching myself.”)
  • 2%: Impregnation. (3 AGP, 1.5%, e.g. “being impregnated”, 2 AAP, 2%, e.g. “imagining creampie-ing a woman and getting her pregnant”)
  • 2%: Merging or swapping bodies (AGP only). (4 AGP, 2%, e.g. “So in this dream, we decided to switch bodies so that we would have to meet again later to switch back. […] During sex I enjoy being very intimate, intertwined (literally sharing as much skin surface as possible and sensing breath and pulse) and feeling what the woman feels and I love the way women experience arousal and sex, so becoming her or merging bodies would be the next level in this.”
  • 1.5%: Attracting straight people (AGP only). (3 AGP, 1.5%, e.g. “Having sex with straight men that I’m attracted to.”.)
  • 1.5%: Rape (AGP only). (3 AGP, 1.5%, e.g. “often forced male-on-female”)
  • 1%: Friendships becoming sexual (AGP only). (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “Friendships turning sexual. slender lesbian top. I read a lot of yuri romance and thus have an unrealistic idealized fantasy about lesbian romance and sexuality”.)
  • 1%: Masochistic emasculation fetish. (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “I’d also like to be a cuck and watch as a man cum in my wife so I can eat out her used pussy.”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “As previously mentioned, I’m into orgasm denial and chastity. This kink is logistically more feasible with dicks instead of cunts.”)
  • 1%: Extreme masochism (e.g. slavery, brainwashing, …). (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “I could be sold into sexual slavery, forced to perform sexually. Maybe I’m trapped in a machine that forces orgasms. Maybe a mysterious monster is magically draining my intelligence and simultaneously stimulating me to keep me from resisting. After their torment, I’ll be reduced to a brainless fuckable objectified being, which is one of my fantasies for a partner as well.”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “usually he’s a vampire for the purpose of being able to torture him more without him dying, because dying isn’t sexy. He doesn’t have sex with girls unless they rape him, and he never enjoys it. Most of the scenarios don’t involve sex at all though. There’s a lot I haven’t said, but it’s embarrassing.”)
  • 1%: Peeing (AGP only). (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “Sexual touching and peeing”.)
  • 1%: Everyday activities. (3 AGP, 1.5%, e.g. “I typically imagine myself just being female in my day to day life”, 1 AAP, 1%, e.g. “I imagine waking up in a man’s body and spending the day as a man.”)
  • 1%: Feet (AGP only). (2 AGP, 1%, e.g. “I like girls feet so I have thought about what it would be like to be a girl with cute feet and tease guys with foot fetishes”.)
  • 0.5%: Voyeurism (AGP only). (1 AGP, 0.5%, e.g. “Getting to see inside of a women’s locker room / changing room”)
  • 0.5%: Corsets (AGP only). (1 AGP, 0.5%, e.g. “Corsets/extremely small waists”)
  • 0.5%: Watching porn (AGP only). (1 AGP, 0.5%, e.g. “If I were to engage in a sexual fantasy involving me becoming a woman, I would only indulge in solo sexual acts, such as masturbation or watching porn.”.)

Does porn exposure create peculiar sexual interests? RCT suggests no

One proposed cause of peculiar sexual interests is porn depicting the interests in question. There’s clearly a correlation between use of such porn and having such interests, but the immediate problem is that this correlation could just as well be due to causation in the reverse direction; there’s no doubt peculiar sexual interests will lead to use of porn depicting such interests.

To test the association, I posted a survey to /r/SampleSize titled “Can you look at some porn For Science? Survey #5”. Among a huge range of other things, the survey contained an opt-in section showing porn depicting a random out of three sexual interests: autogynephilia (a comic depicting the Marvel character Thor transforming into a woman, a captioned picture of a nude woman getting a massage with the captions explaining that she used to be a man, and a picture of a woman having sex shown from her point of view), bondage (three pictures which each depict a man and a woman tied up with rope), and feet (three stock photos showing male and female feet… yeah, I might’ve been a bit lazy in getting pictures for this sexual interest). Furthermore, before and after being shown the porn, participants were asked about their sexual interest in the kinds of things depicted by being asked to rate their arousal to the following:

  • Imagining being the opposite sex
  • Tying up your partner (using rope)
  • Being tied up by your partner
  • Caressing your partner’s feet

The hypothesis I am examining is whether exposure to the corresponding types of porn will cause an increase in the above interests.

As a sample size, in total I got 1052 male participants who opted in to seeing the porn and who completed all of the relevant questions. About one third of these were randomly assigned to each type of porn.

Initial sexual interests

The different sexual interests varied somewhat in their prevalence, as can be seen below:

tested_interests

Frequency of various degrees of endorsement of various sexual interests.

I think these rates are higher than what is typically seen in the general population, but it’s what I usually get on reddit. This seems to be because reddit is unusually paraphilic. In order to perform the analysis, I coded the degrees of interest using integers from 0 to 4. When people rated their arousal to the stimuli, they rated them using integers from 0 to 0 to 6.

Validity of stimuli used

First, it might be a good idea to examine the validity of the stimuli used. Below, I show the univariate regression slopes from a number of sexual interests (listed along the y-axis) to a number of stimuli (listed along the x-axis):

12

Regression slopes indicating how much an expressed sexual interest was associated with arousal to the given stimuli. The last three columns are a breakdown of the stimuli used for autogynephilia, as I perceived them to be more conceptually heterogeneous than the stimuli used for the other sexual interests. As comparisons, I’ve also added two extra sexual interests (“Sex with a man”, “Sex with a woman”), as well as corresponding stimuli (erotic images depicting either men or women).

As can be seen, each stimulus has reasonably high validity; for instance, they all exceeded a slope of 0.4 from the sexual interest they were intended to measure, and the highest slope for each sexual interest was for the stimulus intended to tap into the sexual interest. One problem with validity, though, was that the autogynephilic stimuli were also arousing to heterosexual men. This problem is probably to be expected, as a typical autogynephilic stimulus will depict a woman, which seems like it would be sufficient to be arousing to gynephiles too.

Basic results

When comparing the control group and the intervention group, we didn’t see much effect:

Interest Group Before After
Imagining being the opposite sex Control (n=725) 1.35 (1.36) 0.93 (1.15)
Intervention (n=378) 1.32 (1.38) 0.91 (1.12)
Tying up your partner Control (n=730) 2.04 (1.27) 2.08 (1.3)
Intervention (n=373) 2.01 (1.36) 1.96 (1.32)
Being tied up by your partner Control (n=730) 1.77 (1.35) 1.83 (1.36)
Intervention (n=373) 1.71 (1.39) 1.73 (1.39)
Caressing your partner’s feet Control (n=751) 0.97 (1.09) 0.97 (1.11)
Intervention (n=352) 1.0 (1.12) 0.79 (1.05)

The “Before” column shows the average interest before exposure to the stimuli, while the “After” column shows the average interest after exposure to the stimuli. I’ve written the standard deviation in parentheses after each result.

The main change is that for both the control and intervention group, interest in autogynephilia was reduced in the “after” condition compared to the “before” condition. I believe this is because I asked individuals who reported any interest in autogynephilia in the latter case to give a qualitative description of what autogynephilic things they were into; it seems this lead to some of them no longer reporting AGP interest. This problem makes some forms of data analysis less workable, but it should not be a major problem as it applied to both the control group and the intervention group.

To test whether the intervention had any effect, I computed the change in arousal before and after having the intervention.

Interest Group Change p
Imagining being the opposite sex Control (n=725) -0.41 (0.87)
Intervention (n=378) -0.39 (0.88) 0.719 NS
Tying up your partner Control (n=730) 0.03 (0.67)
Intervention (n=373) -0.05 (0.67) 0.061 NS
Being tied up by your partner Control (n=730) 0.05 (0.64)
Intervention (n=373) 0.04 (0.6) 0.798 NS
Caressing your partner’s feet Control (n=751) -0.01 (0.65)
Intervention (n=352) -0.18 (0.66) <0.001 ***

Out of these, the only significant effect was for “Caressng your partner’s feet”, but it was the opposite direction of what would be predicted by porn causing it. (Perhaps a result of me using poor-quality stock photos for the stimulus? Not sure.)

Heterogeneity

This tells us that on average, porn doesn’t cause peculiar sexual interests. However, possibly one might hypothesize that the effects differ depending on the individuals; maybe porn turns some autogynephiles non-autogynephilic, but also turns some non-autogynephiles autogynephilic.

One possible sign of heterogeneity would be if the intervention group has higher variation than the control group in their degree of change in sexual interest. This does not seem to be the case, though I think I need very large sample sizes to detect it through this means, so it’s not a great method.

Rather, let’s look at it in a different and probably more relevant way: Among those who report being “Not at all” interested to begin with, how interested are they afterwards? This tells us something about whether porn can create an interest in someone who doesn’t have it to begin with.

Interest Group After p
Imagining being the opposite sex Control (n=268) 0.15 (0.48)
Intervention (n=145) 0.1 (0.38) 0.247 NS
Tying up your partner Control (n=88) 0.31 (0.53)
Intervention (n=59) 0.22 (0.52) 0.309 NS
Being tied up by your partner Control (n=153) 0.25 (0.49)
Intervention (n=92) 0.17 (0.43) 0.183 NS
Caressing your partner’s feet Control (n=301) 0.14 (0.38)
Intervention (n=142) 0.1 (0.3) 0.231 NS

There was no evidence that porn exposure could cause sexual interests among those who did not already have them, and in fact all the signs pointed in the opposite direction.

Discussion

At first glance, this might look to be in contradiction with what other studies on boots fetishism (1, 2, 3) found. They found that by pairing an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. a stimulus that the subjects are already attracted to) with a stimulus of a boot, they could make the subjects get erections to boots in isolation. My primary worry with these sorts of studies is that possibly they don’t actually create a sexual interest in boots, but instead set up an expectation that boots will be followed up with an attractive stimulus, which might lead to erections upon seeing boots in anticipation of seeing the attractive stimulus. They did not ask the men whether they were interested in the boots themselves, but instead merely measured their penile arousal to the boots. In addition, they found that repeated exposure to the boots would extinguish the tendency to get erections to them, which seems different from how fetishism usually works (being seemingly stable over longer periods of time).

My survey implicitly included pairings with unconditioned stimuli; the autogynephilic stimuli were somewhat arousing to straight men, and the bondage stimuli were somewhat arousing to men regardless of orientation, presumably because in addition to containing the kinks of interest, they also contained men and women, at least one of which people typically find attractive.

One possibility is that these sorts of effects would only come into play with extended exposure to the porn. But why would someone get extended exposure without being into it in the first place? The main suggestion I’ve heard for this is if one already has ended up with one peculiar sexual interest, then one might end up “picking up” adjacent ones that fit well with the one one has, and thus tend to co-occur in the same erotic material. But this is a pretty speculative theory that lacks evidence.

There are some anecdotal observations of people getting new kinks when encountering a new form of porn. This result throws doubt on them, but it also throws doubt on the common alternate explanation, that people “discover” their kinks from such porn; if a discovery effect applied, then it seems like that should also be found by my survey. However, as my survey was 18+, it does allow early-life discoveries, as well as early-life modifications of one’s sexuality. Such effects are speculative, though. It also does allow the possibility that people’s sexual interests regularly change and people somehow rapidly discover the porn that matches their new interests, faster than I would be able to “catch” in my survey.

The subset of the data collected for the survey that is relevant to this analysis is available here. Note that some people opted not to have their results shared publically, so this dataset will not be quite the same as the one I performed this analysis on.

Using instrumental variables to test the direction of causality between autogynephilia and gender dissatisfaction

[Epistemic status: experimental. Half-way speculative with some input from data.]

TL;DR: I use instrumental variables (paraphilias and masculinity/femininity) to test the direction of causation between autogynephilia and gender issues, and find evidence that it goes mostly from autogynephilia to gender issues, but also to some degree from gender issues to autogynephilia.

Autogynephilia – a propensity to be aroused by the thought of being a woman – is extremely extraordinarily strongly associated with gender dissatisfaction and cross-gender ideation in males. One controversial hypothesis, which I personally believe, is that this association is causal, autogynephilia → gender issues. However, this claim is controversial, as the causal aspect has not been properly demonstrated yet.

… mainly because causal studies are hard! It’s not like we have any simple way of randomly assigning people autogynephilia or gender dysphoria to people and seeing what effects that would have, and even if we did, that would probably be considered unethical.

But there are alternative ways of testing causality than randomized controlled trials. An important one is through the use of instrumental variables. Essentially, suppose we want to test the causality X → Y. In that case, if we can find another variable Z, then we can use this variable to test the X → Y causality, as long as Z satisfies certain assumptions:

  1. Z must affect X; we are essentially using Z as a stand-in for experimenting on X. If you are familiar with randomized controlled trials, then think of those high in Z as being the intervention group (except we are letting Z do the intervention, instead of doing it randomly), and those low in Z as being the control group.
  2. Z may not affect Y through other means than through X.
  3. Z may not be confounded with X or Y; that is, there must be no unmeasured factors that affect Z as well as X or Y.

Or graphically:

instrumental_variables

Assumptions made by instrumental variables estimation. Red arrows indicate forbidden connections. U represents any unmeasured confounders that may make the analysis invalid.

So far, there are two potential instrumental variables I can think of for examining the question of autogynephilia’s causal relationship with gender issues:

  • Paraphilias all seem to correlate with each other. This makes sense if there is a “general factor of paraphilia” that affects all of them; thus we can use this general factor as an instrumental variable that affects autogynephilia, to measure the effect of autogynephilia on gender issues.
  • Masculinity/femininity can easily be thought to affect gender issues; if someone has a poor fit to gender norms, then it would make sense for them to become uncomfortable with their assigned gender.

So, that’s the theory, which I’ve been aware of for some time, but now I have some data that will allow me to start testing it in practice! My initial power calculations suggested that I would need a very large sample size (1000+) to have enough power to meaningfully examine this question, and it’s not super trivial to get this. However, I’ve sometimes done “porn surveys” where I show participants on /r/SampleSize some porn and have them rate it, and usually these surveys are very popular, easily achieving the needed sample size. Therefore I decided to include the questions necessary to test this in a porn survey that I was doing for other reasons (more on that later, hopefully), to achieve the sample size needed.

Model: Paraphilia → Autogynephilia

So, how do we measure this general factor of paraphilia so that we can test the direction of causality? Essentially, we look at a bunch of paraphilias unrelated to autogynephilia. These paraphilias will all have some degree of influence from the general factor, as well as some random unknown influence from other sources. Thus, each of them is a noisy indicator for the general factor of paraphilia. We can find out how noisy they are by looking at how much they correlate with each other; because if they correlate with the general factor at a strength of h, then their correlation with each other would be at a strength of h2. (There’s some additional math that handles this in a more nuanced way, but I won’t go into that here. If you want to read up on it yourself, the keyword is “structural equation models”.)

So, we can use a set of paraphilias to estimate the correlation between the general factor of paraphilia and any other variable, by looking at how much the paraphilias correlate with the other variable, and adjusting for the noise inherent in using a proxy. However, there is one big complication to this: paraphilias have more structure than just the general factor. In addition to the general factor, paraphilias also correlate with each other in more specific ways. Consider for instance submissive paraphilias; they tend to correlate more with each other than they do with random paraphilias. This becomes a problem, because if one picks too many paraphilias within a single narrow domain, one ends up measuring this narrow domain instead of the broader general factor of paraphilia. So, when selecting the paraphilias, I tried to make them as unrelated to each other as possible, with mixed success. Here are the paraphilia items I selected for testing the model:

  • Treating your partner roughly in bed, e.g. spanking, shoving around, biting, scratching, or pulling hair
  • Being tied up by your partner
  • Exposing your genitals to an unsuspecting stranger
  • Watching a video of yourself masturbating
  • Having an older sexual partner take on a dominant parent-like role in the relationship
  • Imagining having sex with an anthropomorphic animal (furry)
  • Caressing your partner’s feet

For each of the above, participants were asked how arousing they found it. There were also a number of other sexual interests in the list, including normophilic ones (e.g. “Having sex with a woman”), and autogynephilic ones, of which I will use the following items:

  • Imagining being the opposite sex
  • Wearing clothes typically associated with the opposite sex (crossdressing)
  • Picturing a beautiful woman and imagining being her
  • Wearing sexy panties and bras
  • Imagining being hyperfeminized, i.e. turned into a sexy woman with exaggeratedly large breasts and wide hips

The survey I’m basing this on was a porn survey, and so I couldn’t easily fit in a detailed gender dysphoria measure. However, I included a handful of questions in a masculinity/femininity test and in a disgust sensitivity measure:

  • As a child I wanted to be the opposite sex
  • I feel I would be better off if I was the opposite sex
  • (“How disgusting do you find the following?”…) Imagining yourself being the opposite sex

I try to call this by the imprecise term “gender issues” instead of saying “gender dysphoria” because these do not measure very strong gender issues. One big improvement that could likely be made in future surveys would be to use a better measure of gender feelings.

Anyway, I then set up the following model in a statistics program, and ran it on the data from the cisgender male participants in the survey:

model_paraphilia

Structural equation model assuming paraphilias as an instrumental variable for autogynephilia.

(Here’s a bit of a technical point, so it might be worth skipping over if you don’t care: This model contains a cyclic causal connection, which is not usually allowed in causal models. I fit it as follows: If we let C be the matrix containing the coefficients for the SEM, and V be the matrix containing the residual variances, then I compute the implied covariance matrix as (I-C)-1V(I-C)-1 T. This essentially treats observed covariances as being what you end up with when one reaches an equillibrium after the causal effects are iteratively applied.)

If I fit this model, I get these results. The output here is a bit technical, so I will try to summarize:

  • The model finds evidence for bidirectional causality, but mostly in the autogynephilia → gender issues direction. (Specifically, B~0.56 from autogynephilia to gender issues, and B~0.2 from gender issues to autogynephilia.)
  • The model is very definitely wrong (as decided by the χ2 test); this is to be expected with these kinds of models once one gets enough sample size, as obviously it is too simplistic to assume that there are only three major factors that account for the covariation between the traits. As people say, “all models are wrong but some are useful”.
  • The model is also kind of bad; the numbers labelled “NFI”, “TLI” and “RMSEA” are measures that essentially assume the model isn’t true, and try to quantify how bad the fit is. Generally you want the NFI and TLI to be in the 0.9’s, and the RMSEA to be 0.05 or lower, all of which this model fails to achieve. Future research should probably look into creating a model that isn’t this terrible.

It’s also worth testing how stable these results were, as some of the measures I included were kind of “funny”. For instance:

  • As part of the gender issues measure, I asked people how disgusting they found “Imagining yourself being the opposite sex”. This is a weird question, but if I drop it from the model, I get very similar results; B~0.49 from autogynephilia to gender issues, and B~0.21 from gender issues to autogynephilia.
  • One of the paraphilia items asked about ageplay in a way that might include a degree of “role reversal”, and role reversal could plausibly be associated with gender issues in some way. If I drop it, I get B~0.58 from AGP to gender issues, and B~0.18 from gender issues to AGP. If instead I allow it to have a residual correlation with gender issues, I find no effect. Thus role reversal is probably not problematic for this model, but it is hard to say for sure.
  • When people answer my questions, they answers get discretized into the specific categories I provide (e.g. agree/disagree), rather than me getting data from what we can only assume is a more continuous underlying distribution. If I control for this in an ad-hoc way, I get B~0.54 from autogynephilia to gender issues, and B~0.25 from gender issues to autogynephilia. I used an ad-hoc way to control for this, though, so in the future it should be examined in a more numerically justified way.

In conclusion, using paraphilias as an instrumental variable seems to support the causality going in both directions, but mostly from autogynephilia to gender issues.

Model: Masculinity/femininity → Gender issues

The concept behind this second model is that if someone has a poor fit into gender norms, it seems plausible that they would start feeling dissatisfaction with their gender, or at least openness to being the opposite gender. Thus, we can use masculinity/femininity as an instrumental variable for gender issues.

But first we need some philosophy on what masculinity/femininity even is. I want to eventually write a blog post going into more detail on this, but to keep it brief:

There are various psychological differences between males and females; for instance, males tend to be more horny. These are not necessarily the same as masculinity/femininity, and therefore I will call them “gender differences”. Some of these psychological differences, as well as some things that are not gender differences, end up included in expectations for men and women, and these expectations appear to be closer to what people mean when they use the phrase masculinity/femininity than the gender differences are. I have done some research to find some things that could plausibly be relevant for the concept of masculinity/femininity, and have come up with this preliminary list of items:

  • I prefer talking to people about their daily activities rather than their feelings
  • I like being well-dressed at all times
  • As a child I often played with girls
  • As a child I often played with boys
  • I would be interested in being a fighter pilot
  • I would be interested in working as a machinist
  • I keep myself well-groomed
  • As a child I played with toy weapons or objects meant to simulate them (e.g. gun-shaped sticks)
  • I am interested in medical shows
  • I do not enjoy watching dance performances
  • I am very sensitive and easily hurt
  • I am muscular
  • I have a curvy body
  • [Arousal to] Being treated roughly in bed, e.g. spanked, shoved around, bit, scratched, or pulled hair

I deliberately avoided aspects of masculinity/femininity that I perceived to be strongly overlapping with gender identity, such as whether one wears feminine clothes, or whether one considers oneself to be masculine/feminine, as I think that makes its connections to gender issues too tautological, and so plausibly makes the model invalid. The dataset includes some data related to this, though, so you can play around with it if you download it.

In the previous models, I defined traits by assuming that there is some underlying “true” trait that makes all of the items correlate with each other. I don’t currently think this can be done with masculinity/femininity; instead, I will treat these items as an “index”, so I say that masculinity/femininity is whichever way they affect gender satisfaction. Or graphically:

formative_model

Individual indicators are assumed to cause a synthetic variable that we label masculinity/femininity, rather than be caused by this variable.

This is called a formative model, and it has some disadvantages relative to the model we used previously. In the previous models, called reflective models, the model inherently prescribes some relationships between the items, making it able to be tested much more aggressively. In addition, reflective models automatically control for measurement error, whereas formative models don’t.

And I want to add: Currently, I don’t think we don’t have a good idea of what constitutes masculinity/femininity. Most existing scales, including my own, do not correlate all that much with what is informally referred to as masculinity/femininity. (To be more precise: They seem to correlate on the order of magnitude of 0.4. As a correlation between two separate variables, this is quite high for the standards of psychology, but these are not intended to be separate variables, they are intended to be a measurement. Usually we want measurements to share at least 70% of their variance with what is being measured, whereas a correlation of 0.4 implies that they share only 16% of variance.) I interpret this to mean that we don’t really know what masculinity/femininity is, and so in the future the concept of masculinity/femininity I’ve written about here may change. But in the meantime, let’s look at the results.

So, I fit the following model:

model_mf

Structural equation model assuming masculinity/femininity as an instrumental variable for gender issues.

The initial fit gave these results, which asserted that autogynephilia overwhelmingly affects gender issues (B~0.8), and that gender issues actually reduce autogynephilia (B~-0.24), but it contained some elements that I found dubious, so I modified the model:

  • For some reason, the model claimed that arousal to being treated roughly in bed was masculine, even though I had intended it to be added as a feminine item. This might be an artifact of item phrasing, in that the item I had found to be associated with self-perceived femininity was “My partner acting dominant in bed”, but I wanted something more specific for my current survey, and therefore replaced the item. If I delete this item, I get B~0.6 for autogynephilia affecting gender issues, and B~0.16 for gender issues affecting autogynephilia.
  • Another issue I have is that the masculinity/femininity factor ends up almost entirely defined by the “As a child I often played with boys” item. I am concerned that having the variable defined so narrowly might lead to problems, so I removed this item to have it be defined more broadly by the other items. Combining this with the other change yielded B~0.55 for autogynephilia affecting gender issues, and B~0.24 for gender issues affecting autogynephilia.

Doing those modifications yielded these results. Here, we can observe that the resulting model is not as bad as the model that used paraphilias as an instrumental variable, though it is still quite bad.

Overall, the results seem to agree with the results based on using paraphilias as an instrumental variable: the causality is bidirectional and mostly goes from autogynephilia to gender issues.

Combined Model

Autogynephilia and gender dysphoria might be related in three ways: one affecting the other, the other affecting the one, or confounding where they are affected due to some common factor. Due to the two instrumental variables we have, we can find the causal effect in each direction, and so whatever correlation remains must be confounding. (In theory – assuming that there aren’t any major problems with the models, even though there probably are…)

To test this, I simply fit a straightforward extension of the previous models to the data:

model_combined

Structural equation model that allows confounded relationship between autogynephilia and gender issues.

Fitting this model yields these results. This model finds that most of the connection between the two variables is either autogynephilia causing gender issues (B~0.5) or confounding (0.15), with only negligible causality from gender issues to autogynephilia (B~0.05). This is kind-of sketchy, as both the previous models agreed that there was some causality from gender issues to autogynephilia.

It’s hard to tell for sure what happened, but it seems to me that some of the assumptions were violated. Specifically, masculine/feminine traits seem to have correlated with paraphilic interests. Thus, to fix this, I let the masc/fem items freely correlate with the paraphilia items too. This yielded these results, where autogynephilia causes gender issues (B~0.49), gender issues cause autogynephilia (B~0.23), and there is little confounding (0.05).

Limitations

For all of this to be valid, the assumptions behind the models have to hold. There are a number of ways in which this might not be the case:

Using paraphilias as an instrumental variable for autogynephilia assumes a “factor model”; that is, it assumes that there is a latent factor which causes the covariance between the different paraphilias. As an alternative to factor models, some people think of things as being “networks”. For instance, perhaps people “start out with” some sexual interest, “pick up” adjacent sexual interests, and repeat. This would be compatible with conditioning models of sexual interests. In such a case, the relationship between autogynephilia and other paraphilias would be bidirectional causality, with the paraphilias strengthening each other.

Using paraphilias as an instrumental variable also assumes that there are no other paraphilias that affect gender issues. If, for example, submissiveness tends to affect them, then this assumption is invalid and the effect of autogynephilia on gender issues will have been overestimated. Even more generally, paraphilias have not been sufficiently demonstrated to satisfy the requirements for instrumental variables (though my initial examination into this look optimistic – more on that another time).

The masculine/feminine traits are a grab-bag of different personality traits that I have lumped together. The assumptions behind instrumental variables need to be established for all of them, and so far we don’t even have an argument for why it should hold for any of them.

The masculine/feminine traits included questions about appearance. It is known that people tend to have extremely inaccurate ideas of how attractive they look. This raises the question of whether they also have equally inaccurate ideas about other aspects of their appearance. If so, this might have implications for the masculinity/femininity measure, though for now it’s hard to say how strong those implications will turn out to be.

The place where I got this data, namely reddit, has very high rates of paraphilias, and of autogynephilia specifically. This is going to increase the causal estimate for autogynephilia → gender issues, as there is more variance in autogynephilia on reddit than elsewhere. It also has very high rates of trans people; I have excluded trans women from this analysis due to a number of problems with including them (changes in traits due to transition, unsure about the self-report accuracy, …), but excluding them also leads to some biases (underestimation of effect sizes, particularly ones linked to gender transition).

It might be worthwhile to look into whether the bidirectional causality can be attributed to only certain narrower subtypes of autogynephilia. The current survey asked about autogynephilia quite broadly, so it is hard to say much about this

There are thus lots of things that could productively be researched in the future.

Conclusion

This is by no means a perfect test, and I’m not sure people on either side of the issue are going to be convinced by it. (Certainly it will be interesting to see what people say.) It might be worth considering some intuition for both sides of the issue:

  • There’s a straightforward way that autogynephilia could cause a desire to be female, and that’s because it’d be hot. There are also more subtle ways, though; for instance, there’s evidence that paraphiles tend to get attached to their paraphilic objects of interest, perhaps in similar ways that romantic attraction operates. Furthermore, maybe engaging in autogynephilic fantasies and behavior helps “normalize” the concept of being the opposite sex to oneself, as one has to keep confronting oneself with it?
  • Some people think that sexual interests reveal hidden desires. I’m don’t think I believe that, but there are two other categories of explanations that I find more plausible: Autogynephilia questions like “How arousing would you find it to imagine being the opposite sex?” correlate almost perfectly with questions like “How often do you imagine being the opposite sex?”. Thus, plausibly, people infer their arousal to it on the basis of how often they fantasize about it. But a man who is comfortable with the idea of being female might be more comfortable fantasizing about it. And, many claim that a man who is distressed about having a male body would also avoid fantasies where he has this, and likely replace them with fantasies where he has a male body.

It should also be noted that these results could easily be overthrown. You need massive sample sizes to estimate the parameters accurately enough that they can be used for instrumental variables, and even this data is a bit too “close for comfort”.

To make it easier for others to research, I’m releasing the data used for this analysis. I can’t release all the data, as some people opted to not have their responses shared, but here is a subset of the data from those who opted in to having it shared. I will also eventually be releasing the full survey results, so I guess stay tuned!

Julia Serano’s new article is intellectually dishonest about the history and empirical support of the autogynephilia model

Julia Serano just wrote a new article claiming todebunk” Blanchard’s typology. Let’s take a look. (Archive with the version I’m addressing in case there are edits.)

Dishonesty about the history of autogynephilia

Julia Serano starts out with:

In my many years as a scientist, I have never before seen a theory so riddled with ad hoc hypotheses as autogynephilia.

This is certainly wrong; reality has a surprising amount of detail, and you would be surprised at just how many strong, well-established theories are filled with seemingly ad-hoc hypotheses. Here, Serano defines ad-hoc hypotheses as hypotheses added to the theory to prevent “anomalies not anticipated” from falsifying it. But let’s take the examples Serano gives:

The central tenet of autogynephilia theory is that there are two (and only two) types of trans women, each with a different sexual-orientation-related cause — “homosexuality” or “autogynephilia” — the latter of which Blanchard claimed arises as the result of a “misdirected heterosexual sex drive.” But if this is indeed the case, then how does one explain the existence of bisexual and asexual trans women, who are neither “homosexual” nor “heterosexual” in sexual orientation?

Claiming that Blanchard’s theory did not anticipate bisexual/asexual trans women, and fails to explain them except with ad-hoc hypotheses, is an outright lie. Blanchard developed his theory as a simplification of earlier 4-type theories, which explicitly contained types for bisexual and asexual trans women, and so of course he knew of their existence. This prevents them from being an “anomaly not anticipated”, and indeed many of his papers explicitly study them.

Well, Blanchard (1989b) proposed that the former group is not truly bisexual, but rather merely experiences “pseudobisexuality” — a concept Blanchard invented out of thin air in a classic display of bisexual erasure.

While Blanchardians may overuse this concept, it is not without merit; it has been supported by some initial research (1, 2, as well as informal research), and it is dishonest to pretend that it is not.

And Blanchard claimed that asexual trans women are not truly asexual, but rather represent instances where “autogynephilic disorder nullifies or overshadows any erotic attraction to women” (Blanchard, 1989a, p. 324). Subsequent studies have undermined both of these hypotheses (Veale et al., 2008a; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a)

Again Serano is being dishonest here; the claim that asexual trans women are not truly asexual is not something Blanchard pulled out of nowhere, but is instead supported by the fact that asexual trans women report a great deal of autogynephilia. Indeed, both the studies Serano cites found that a large amount of autogynephilia in the asexual group. (In the former study, Veale claims that “no transsexuals classified as autogynephilic reported asexuality”, but the trans women who were not “classified as autogynephilic” in her study (through a sort-of arbitrary statistical procedure she used) still reported a lot of autogynephilia.)

Serano’s distortions about the history and nature of autogynephilia theories are particularly striking when one considers that she immediately follows it up with accusing Blanchardian’s of distorting the history. Regardless, it is worth responding to her accusations here:

If someone refuses to relinquish their pet theory, yet are confronted with insurmountable evidence contradicting it, there are two obvious tacks they can take. The first is to simply ignore all of the counterevidence — I call this the “pretend it never happened” approach. One can see this tactic in a recent paper from J. Michael Bailey’s group (Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey, 2014) in which they attempted to expand upon Blanchard’s early autogynephilia research without ever once addressing or citing the multiple lines of counterevidence that had been published by that point, and which together disprove the theory (e.g., Bettcher, 2014; Moser, 2009, 2010a; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a, 2011b; Serano, 2010; Veale et al., 2008a; Veale, 2014; this body of work is further discussed in my previous essay, Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates). For a further critique of Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey (2014), see Veale (2015a).

There are huge problems with this accusation, though. The paper Hsu et al cite does not address autogynephilia in trans women or Blanchard’s transsexual typology, and indeed they do not even cite Blanchard’s theories on transsexuality. Rather, they explore autogynephilia in cisgender men. For this purpose, the “multiple lines of counterevidence” that “disprove the theory” (not really, but that’s another story) are simply not relevant.

She also brings up another paper which supposedly engages in this:

A similar “pretend it never happened” gambit can be found in a recent review by Zucker, Lawrence, & Kreukels (2016), in which the authors invoke “autogynephilia” and Blanchard’s taxonomy, and lament contemporary researchers’ tendency to ignore the theory, going so far as to call this an “intellectual erasure in the discourse.” And yet, over the course of that seven-paragraph passage, they (like Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey before them) fail to reference or discuss any of the aforementioned research and reviews that refute the theory. Intellectual erasure in the discourse indeed!

But this paper doesn’t endorse Blanchard’s typology! Rather, they limit themselves to a more abstract correlational description, which would be endorsed by several of Blanchard’s critics, including Veale and Nuttbrock, both of whom have proposed theories based on this.

Ignorance about male autogynephiles

As a counterargument to the autogynephilia model, Serano brings up the fact that some men have autogynephilic fantasies, and comments:

I honestly cannot tell you why significant numbers of cisgender people seem to have “cross-sex/gender” fantasies. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that part of the appeal is simply novelty — after all, our sexual fantasies are quite often centered on circumstances or scenarios that are unlikely or unattainable for us in real life (Dubberley, 2013; Lehmiller, 2018).

This sort of idea places cis men’s autogynephilic fantasies in an entirely separate domain than trans womens. Yet a very important observation is that the men who are autogynephilic have a strong increase in gender dysphoria and desire to be a woman. Thus, a proper unified theory of autogynephilia and gender dysphoria will need to explain not just why trans women have such fantasies, but also why men with such a sexual interest are more likely to have various forms of subclinical gender issues.

Serano presents the situation as if Blanchardians were not aware of male autogynephilic fantasies, but considering that there have been several studies published on them – some of which she cites in this very post – it is quite dishonest. This is not an unexpected phenomenon, it is an extension of the concept of the paraphilia.

Serano’s nonsense scenarios

Serano proposes another argument in her article:

I have taken to calling this the “popsicle argument” for the following reasons: Back when I was a young child — before I became consciously aware that I was transgender — I ate a lot of popsicles. Like, a whole lot. Sometimes during the summer, I would eat up to three a day! So now I’m thinking that maybe it was all those popsicles I ate that caused me to become transgender. What, you don’t think that’s very plausible? Okay, well go ahead then, try to disprove it!
You can’t. It is impossible to 100% rule out this hypothesis. Sure, you can point to the overwhelming majority of people who eat popsicles but don’t ultimately become transgender (just as I can point to the overwhelming majority of people who experience FEFs or MEFs, but don’t wind up transgender), but that does not rule out the possibility that popsicles turn some tiny subset of popsicle eaters transgender. But at the same time, no matter how invested I am in my “popsicle argument,” I cannot rightfully claim that it is a valid scientific theory. Because for a theory to be deemed scientific, it must be falsifiable. Otherwise, it is merely conjecture. Or pseudoscience.

This is entirely unreasonable. Autogynephilia is probably by far the strongest correlate of male gender dysphoria, at least among the known correlates, while there is no reason to think that popsicles have any sort of link to it. Yes, there are some important questions about the direction of causality, but there’s a huge difference between something with a plausible causal mechanism and a strong statistical link, versus something with no proposed mechanism and no statistical link.

She then follows this up with a couple of scenarios.

In the first scenario, she gives the example of an autoandrophilic trans man, and asks whether I’d even entertain the possibility that the autoandrophilia was a cause of his gender dysphoria. Yes, dumb question, of course I would; you’d have to be dogmatic not to. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that autoandrophilia is an important cause of gender issues in natal females.

Her next scenario is twice as silly; she gives the example of a gay boy who had homosexual fantasies and ends up believing that these fantasies caused him to be gay. As Serano points out, he was probably gay the whole time; and as I would point out, similarly, we would expect autogynephiles to be autogynephilic the whole time, regardless of their fantasies. Bizarrely, Serano turns it around and compares sexual orientation to gender identity. The point of her argument seems to be that ego-dystonic, subjectively “compulsive” autogynephilic fantasies do not support autogynephilia theory, but can instead by explained by her “FEF” model. However, let’s go back a bit to her explanation of why trans women would have “female embodiment fantasies”:

[…] Critics of autogynephilia have long argued that FEFs and MEFs are such an obvious coping mechanism for transgender people (especially those who are pre- or non-transition) to mitigate or overcome gender dysphoria. […]

But it does not make very much sense that someone who is uncomfortable with the fantasies would use them as a coping mechanism, especially not in the cases where they do not want to be women.

(As for her broader point that there’s nothing wrong with men being autogynephilic, I very much agree but this does not seem to be anything Blanchardians disagree with either, and it’s unclear where she got the idea. Heck, Blanchard was the one who introduced the distinction between benign “paraphilias” and harmful “paraphilic disorders” to the DSM.)

Serano’s own article is evidence for the Dregerian narrative

Julia Serano introduces the Dregerian narrative:

I will end this essay with what may be the most common of all pro-autogynephilia handwaves, namely, the assertion that transgender activists are irrational, overly sensitive, science-denying extremists who are engaged in a relentless censorship campaign against autogynephilia theory.

Of course with all the dishonesty we see in Serano’s article, there seems to be extremely good reason here to think that it applies, at least sometimes. Serano also brings up the closure of Zucker’s clinic, without mentioning that it was eventually found to be the result of unfair extremist activism, exactly as the Dregerian narrative points out.

Serano brings up a number of examples too:

If you are skeptical about this, may I ask what your stance is regarding other false and potentially damaging pseudoscientific movements, such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, or those who champion “race science”?

The problem here is that, due to her political bias, she is likely lumping genuine science in with pseudoscience like climate change denial and antivaxxing. For instance, I imagine that she would lump discussion of racial intelligence gaps under “race science”, yet researchers in the scientific field of intelligence research generally agree that genetic racial differences play a role in intelligence gaps. So we can definitely see that Serano easily ends up letting her politics influence her scientific beliefs.

One should be careful about going to far with the Dregerian narrative. One should always first and foremost focus on the actual arguments and facts. But at some point, when there is sufficient bias, it would be unreasonable not to ackowledge that there is some clear degree of political bias involved here.

Data on behavioral autogynephilia in cis women from /r/IAF suggests similar rates as in trans women

[Epistemic status: The data examined in this post is unreliable, and the post itself is a bit silly/tongue-in-cheek. The main point in this post is that people should be less overconfident about autogynephilia in cis women. Previously, I have expressed skepticism that autogynephilia is as prevalent in cis women as it is in natal males, disbelieving that it is normal female sexuality, and I remain skeptical of widespread autogynephilia in cis women, but I think it’s a position that needs to be criticized seriously (especially since some cis women, like Alice Dreger, believe that it is common) rather than dismissively, hence my defense.]

Behavioral autogynephilia is arousal to performing feminine behaviors. The general autogynephilia scale measures it using items like sitting in a feminine way or speaking with a feminine voice, but canonical examples given of behavioral autogynephilia might also include knitting, being a cheerleader, or similar. Behavioral autogynephilia is often rare in cis women, and so it is often used as an example to prove that autogynephilia is not normal cis female sexuality, e.g. here:

My own arguments against the claim that autogynephilia frequently occurs in natal females were more general and not directed at Moser’s survey. I wrote, for example, that the notion that typical natal females are erotically aroused by—and sometimes even masturbate to—the thought or image of themselves as women might seem feasible if one considers only conventional, generic fantasies of being a beautiful, alluring woman in the act of attracting a handsome, desirable man (or woman). It seems a lot less feasible when one considers the various other ways in which some autogynephilic men symbolize themselves as women in their masturbation fantasies. Examples I have collected include: sexual fantasies of menstruation and masturbatory rituals that simulate menstruation; giving oneself an enema, while imagining the anus is a vagina and the enema is a vaginal douche; helping the maid clean the house; sitting in a girls’ class at school; knitting in the company of other women; and riding a girls’ bicycle. These examples argue that autogynephilic sexual fantasies have a fetishistic flavor that makes them qualitatively different from any superficially similar ideation in natal females.

(emphasis added)

The exact rate has so far been unknown, though. However, recently, /r/ItsAFetish ran a poll to find the rate:

agp_iaf

Rates of behavioral autogynephilia among women, according to a poll by /r/IAF. Archived results.

It may be useful to consider the rates found in trans women for comparison. For this, there is a survey on /r/AskTransgender that may work:

agp_mtf.png

Rates of autogynephilia on /r/AskTransgender as measured by a number of different questions.

For behavioral autogynephilia, the relevant question was “Enacting stereotypical feminine behaviors (painting nails, knitting, etc.)”. Thus, apparently, in cis women the rate is 7%, while in trans women, the rate is 11%. This means that there is a difference of 7%/11%~0.6.

Due to the content of /r/ItsAFetish, it is unlikely that the participants have been confused about the meaning of the questions. This is relevant because in other surveys, such as those which find that most women report being aroused by the thought of being women (1, 2), it is often hypothesized that most women are not actually aroused by the thought of being women in the same sense that natal males are, but instead confused about the meaning of the question because they have never observed autogynephilia in males. This problem is unlikely to come into play here.

There seem to be a number of conclusions that can be drawn here:

  1. Behavioral autogynephilia is not typical cis female sexuality, but it is also not typical MtF sexuality.
  2. Presence of behavioral autogynephilia does not strongly distinguish between cis women and MtFs.
  3. If you strongly disbelieved one of the above two statements – and I suspect a lot of people arguing against autogynephilia in cis women disbelieved statement 2 – then you should be less confident about your assertions about autogynephilia.