Is autogynephilia gay? (Spoiler: no)

Autogynephilia is a tendency to be aroused by the thought of being a woman, dressing as a woman, or a tendency to have sexual fantasies in which one imagines oneself as a woman. This strikes some people as gay, likely through some sort of association between women, femininity, and gay men. But is it true?

You might think that this has already been disproven by the many studies (e.g. here) that find that autogynephilia and exclusive attraction to men are very strongly negatively correlated among trans women, but what needs to be taken into account is that we are conditioning on a collider here, namely seeking gender transition, possibly leading to Berkson’s paradox where the correlation between two variables is reduced (or made negative) by restricting your sample. In fact, a simple calculation will tell you that these results suggest a positive correlation between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia in the general population, unless some other effect is in play.

Are other effects in play? I think so; we know there’s meta-attraction, social desirability bias, and some people who want to get past gatekeepers. So we need a more-direct estimate.

This is a bit tricky to estimate, though. The obvious method would be to estimate the rate of homosexuality among autogynephiles and among non-autogynephiles and compare these two numbers, but since homosexuality estimates seem to vary wildly by sample and method, it becomes very important to use a consistent approach for this. The ideal would be to simultaneously estimate AGP; homosexuality, and its overlap, rather than combining different samples in possibly unreliable ways.

Through my surveys on reddit, I regularly get data on this, and because the AGP rates on reddit are very high (~50% for any degree of AGP, no matter how small, and perhaps around 2% for high degrees of AGP), it is very easy to get clear results here: gay men are less AGP than straight men. Here’s a select set of surveys showing that it holds for a lot of different ways of asking about AGP:

Survey Approach Prevalence difference Degree difference
One Word On Trump, And 19 Other Questions Picturing self as female in sexual fantasies (regardless of reason; includes those who do it for non-paraphilic reasons) 2x higher for straight men than gay men (39% vs 18%) 2.5x more strongly for straight men than gay men
A Survey on Gender, Sexuality and Other Things Aroused by thought of self as woman 3x higher for straight men than gay men (44% vs 14%) 4.6x more strongly for straight men than gay men
Gender and Psychology Survey Aroused by wearing women’s clothes 2.3x higher for straight men than gay men (22% vs 10%) 2.6x more for straight men than gay men
Porn Survey 4 Aroused by picturing a beautiful woman and imagining being her 2.3x higher for straight men than gay men (70% vs 30%) 3.4x higher for straight men than gay men

I don’t really expect that different ways of asking or different places to sample would make much difference. As long as the basic methodology is followed, I think you’d always get this sort of result. As such, I conclude that AGP is in fact negatively associated with male homosexuality. This works well with the theory that AGP is a variation of gynephilia that is self-directed in some sense.

Since homosexuality is also associated with being feminized in some sense, this also suggests that autogynephilia isn’t a feminine sexuality. But this is something I can go into more detail with in a later post…

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Response to Contrapoints on Autogynephilia

Some time ago, Contrapoints made a video on autogynephilia. I’d watched it before without finding it convincing, but I finally decided to write down some notes while watching it, so now I can do a fuller response to it. I’m not going to include everything I observed with my notes, so you might want to read those too if you want a full idea of what I thought of the video.

Contrapoints misrepresents autogynephilia theory

In the beginning of the video at 2:50, Contrapoints contrasts Blanchard’s typology with the idea that trans women transition because of gender dysphoria. However, Blanchard’s typology does not assert that most trans women’s transitions are driven by pure lust, but instead that autogynephilia in some sense contributes to the development of gender dysphoria, which then usually is a main motivator for transition.

This issue comes up quite a lot of times. At 16:43, she says that dysphoria (rather than “being a fetishist” or “being essentially a woman”) was the reason she transitioned. At 38:47, she says the theory doesn’t describe her conscious motivation to transition. At 34:12, she contrasts herself and most transwomen with Anne Lawrence, a trans woman who believes in Blanchard’s typology, despite the fact that Lawrence also talks about the concept of gender dysphoria (my browser counts 212 mentions in her book). At 22:05, she makes the argument that she has been wearing women’s clothes for months without getting aroused by it.

Does this mean that Contrapoints is simply confused about the theory that she is criticizing? No; at 37:05, she brings up the romance hypothesis, which asserts that trans women experience such strong emotional feelings from their autogynephilia due to autogynephilia extending to their romantic orientation too. She talks about this theory for 35 seconds, and then spends 30 seconds rejecting it as being nonsense. But this means that she knowingly has spent the rest of the video criticizing an entirely different theory than Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory!

I think this is really worth emphasizing. Contrapoint’s video is 49 minutes long, but she only spends a single of those minutes truly criticizing the autogynephilia theory. Of course, I’m going to respond to some of the rest too, but a lot of it kinda misses the point.

From autogynephilia to dysphoria

Contrapoints says that the romance hypothesis is ridiculous, and I will admit it’s somewhat weird. However, she presents it as a last-ditch effort to save the typology, by saying that we “shift the goalposts”, despite the fact that it has been part of Blanchard’s typology from very early on. This creates an impression that Blanchard’s theory was proposed, disproven, and then edited to become unfalsifiable, which is pretty misleading.

But that ignores the point: isn’t the romance hypothesis too weird? Maybe. But even if that is true, there are lots of other ways we could imagine that autogynephilia could contribute to gender dysphoria:

  1. Many trans women seem to feel that men and manhood are just objectively terrible in some way. At 35:30, Contrapoints talks about “the evil magic of testosterone”, and at 19:49 she talks about how she thought of PiV sex as “getting the poison out”. Perhaps autogynephilia predisposes one to developing negative psychological complexes about men or manhood.
  2. Autogynephilia leads to repeatedly getting psychological reinforcement from the thought of oneself as a woman. Thus, fans of conditioning-based theories might suggest that autogynephilic stimulation carves the desire to be female into the brain slowly over time.
  3. Especially today, many with autogynephilia will have it suggested that they are “eggs” (slang for self-closeted MtFs) and should transition. Perhaps obsessing over this question (especially when committing more and more to a transgender identity) leads to gender dysphoria.

Now, this should not be taken as an endorsement of any of the above possibilities. I consider it to be something of an open question how exactly AGP leads to gender dysphoria, and it’s something I’m trying to study. However, the point is that the options aren’t just romance hypothesis, purely sexual, or no typology. This is the exact sort of false dichotomy (trichotomy?) that Contrapoints herself criticizes at 14:20.

But how about that romance hypothesis? I think it’s more valid than Contrapoints considers, and it’s worth talking about why. Essentially, if we imagine that some aspect of romantic emotions are innate and linked to our sexual orientation in some way, then we should expect people with different forms of sexual orientations to end up with romantic feelings around different subjects.

We obviously observe this with gay people, who tend to end up in relationships with the same sex instead of the opposite sex. That might be making it a bit too easy for me, though, because a big objection becomes that paraphilias would not constitute a sexual orientation. But why not? Having a paraphilia means that your sexual interests are different from the norm; would it not make sense that this also implies your whole sexual system inherits this difference?

My suspicion – which I have not confirmed with data (though others apparently have?) – is that paraphilias in general involve an emotional/romantic component. Labelling this “pair bonding” when the sexual interest isn’t another human is a bit weird, but the point that this label is getting at is that it would be the same psychological mechanisms that are activated, just in a different way. One of the things that makes me find this plausible is reports of “objectophiles” who get romantically involved with inanimate things. But ultimately, this is something that requires more research to be fully understood.

What does autogynephilia entail?

Throughout the video, Contrapoints defines the distinction between true autogynephiles and trans women with cross-sex gender fantasies to be about whether they experience dysphoria or are driven by lust. Given that I experience gender dysphoria, I guess this means that I can bring up some of my own experiences as commentary on Contrapoints’.

As Contrapoints admits at 34:59, trans women often get off to fantasies about being women and often experience arousal during crossdressing. This is very similar to what autogynephilic cisgender men experience, and she does admit that these men are truly paraphilic. However, Contrapoints instead chooses to argue that what trans women experience is normal female sexuality corrupted by the influence of testosterone, and this is what she spends a very large chunk of her video building up to.

There is some surface plausibility to aspects of her argument. Women’s sexuality seems to focus less on their partners as a goal to conquer, and more about what their partner thinks about them. The most common counterargument to this is that AGPs can have a much more fetishistic approach to this, focusing on aspects of womanhood that are odd and not of interest to cis women. Contrapoints presents herself as being mainly interested in similar things to what cis women are interested in. At 26:07, she argues that hormones further switched her sexuality to become more like cis womens, for example by getting rid of some of her paraphilias.

What are we to make of Contrapoints’ characterization of herself? My experiences with HRT in many ways mirror Contrapoints’, but one thing I found is that while I don’t feel a need to engage in my paraphilias on HRT, I’m still able to. Thus, I think the main effect here is due to a reduction in sex drive. Indeed, there are some lines of evidence (e.g. here) that suggest that the main difference in paraphilic interests between men and women is due to differences in sex drive. If this is true, then this can help account for reduced paraphilic sexuality in trans women on HRT.

In addition, it is my personal experience that I can to some degree shift which aspects of my sexuality I’m emphasizing. Obviously I can’t completely get rid of my paraphilias, but there was a time where I didn’t believe autogynephilia theory either, and during that time I kept my sexual interests shifted more to a domain like what I perceived cis women’s sexuality to be. This didn’t involve avoiding autogynephilia, just emphasizing different aspects of it.

Contrapoints spends a lot of time talking about her sexuality. However, one problem with this is that she’s only one person, and she’s presenting her own sexuality through her own biases in a context where she’s specifically trying to debunk Blanchard’s typology. This makes it questionable that she gives a full and accurate representation of her own sexuality, let alone the median trans woman’s. I don’t think her own narrative can constitute a proof or disproof of anything without considering it both in the context of other trans women’s narratives, and in how the narratives evolve throughout a person’s life.

Contradictions on Feminine Essence Theory

Feminine Essence Theory” is the term Blanchard uses for a broad family of theories which asserts that trans women have some sort of “essence” (often a sex-dimorphic structure in the brain) in common with cis women, and that this essence explains their desire to transition. At 15:05, Contrapoints asserts that she does not believe in the feminine essence theory, and claims that it is just a metaphor used to explain transness to others who aren’t interested in a deep philosophical detour. However, what does she believe in then?

She doesn’t say. At 16:20, she decides to delay it to a future video. I assume she’s referencing either The Aesthetic or Pronouns, both of which are arguments on whether trans women are women which avoid the question of why trans women transition. Contrapoints instead chooses to explain her transition with “dysphoria” without answering the question of what is causing her dysphoria (exactly the question Blanchard’s typology is meant to answer).

But it gets worse. As mentioned before, Contrapoints builds up a large argument that autogynephilia in trans women is just related to normal female sexuality. This argument makes sense in the context of a Feminine Essence Theory where trans women are assumed to have some essence in common with cis women from birth, but once you admit that this isn’t the case, it’s hard to see how one can appeal to cis female sexuality as an explanation of anything that’s going on in trans women. You can’t explain autogynephilia by saying “or maybe I’m just a woman who wants someone to fuck me once in a while”, as Contrapoints does at 38:05, without first subscribing to some form of feminine essence theory.

HSTS vs AGP

A theme that Contrapoints repeatedly brings up is that Blanchard has the option of comparing trans women to men or to women, and Blanchard chooses to make the comparison to men.

For example, she at 33:41 she accuses Blanchard of overextending the concept of autogynephilia to apply to pretty much any sexual feeling that “Cluster B” (her word for AGP) trans women could have. However, she never brings up a real argument for why “Cluster A” (HSTS) trans women do not have the same feelings. If trans women’s autogynephilia is just a twisting of normal female sexuality, surely both types should be equally autogynephilic?

Similarly, at 28:00 she complains that Blanchard expects trans women to desire men in the same way gay men desire men, rather than the way women do, and that this is why he thinks AGP trans women are not truly attracted to men. But shouldn’t we expect this argument to apply to straight trans women too? Yet HSTSs do in fact desire men in similar ways to gay men, with strong, specific physiological sexual arousal to male visual stimuli post-HRT. Why would straight trans women have this interest if bisexual trans women don’t?

Contrapoints doesn’t really address these arguments, but I think some basic knowledge of HSTSs goes a long way toward ruling out many wrong theories about gender dysphoria. An underappreciated fact, for example, is that before pre-HSTSs consciously consider themselves women, they tend to never even imagine themselves as female in sexual fantasies.

Smaller Issues

There’s an endless amount of smaller issues with Contra’s video, but they’re not really worth giving their own section:

  • At 5:10, she admits that trans women do fall into two broad clusters, but then dismisses them as “mere correlation clusters” due to the existence of exceptions. But how do two different clusters come into existence without positing different causes? It can be explained, but she doesn’t even seem to try.
  • At 6:10, she states that it’s unfalsifiable to propose that trans women might be misrepresenting some of their experiences. But this is dishonest of her, as self-report is not the only possible source of data about a person, and these statements about the accuracy representations can be verified against different sources of info.
  • At 6:45, she acts like the cover of The Man Who Would Be Queen is made to make fun of trans women, and says that the first two parts of the book is about HSTSs. But TMWWBQ is mainly about feminine gay men, not trans women, and so it’s dishonest to imply that this is about trans women.
  • At 24:27, Contrapoints makes fun of the concept of treating trans women’s AGP as paraphilic by comparing it to cis men who send dick pics, asking whether they are “autophallophiles”. But we already consider men who like showing other people their penises paraphilic, as this is an example of exhibitionism.
  • Contrapoints’ argument about the suffix ‘-philia’ at 25:45 does not make much sense when considering that Blanchard literally coined the word teliophilia to refer to the most normal sexual attraction pattern (attraction to adults). We need to coin words to describe concepts we encounter whether they are normal or not.
  • At 6:00 and various other places, she says that trans women almost always reject the theory of AGP. As mentioned before, this should be taken with a grain of salt due to her defining AGP theory in a different way, but it’s also worth mentioning that on page 83 of Veale’s masters thesis, she found that 42% of trans women felt that autogynephilia applied at least a little bit to their own experiences, and 23% felt that it applied “quite a lot”. Even more felt that it applied to other’s experiences.
  • At 38:47, Contrapoints claims that she would just tell us if she had autogynephilic feelings, as she has no motive to lie after going in so much detail about her personal life. But this ignores the fact that the entire trans community is expecting her to debunk Blanchard’s typology, not confirm it.

Conclusion

Contrapoints does not properly address autogynephilia in the way Blanchard presented it, choosing instead to knock down a strawman. She focuses a lot of her argument on the idea that what Blanchard labels autogynephilia is just a twisted form of normal female sexuality that appears in trans women, despite having started out by distancing herself from the idea that trans women have some essence in common with cis women (which is precisely what would allow trans women to have this normal female sexuality in the first place). She criticizes Blanchard for not having cis female control groups, despite the fact that his HSTS control groups would seemingly work just as well for his purposes. All of these flaws in her argument are huge, and so I don’t find her video convincing.

What is an “identity”?

[See also this, the comments I made that I’m basing this on.]

In trans contexts, some people talk about the concept of an innate gender identity. I don’t think this exists, at least not in the sense it’s usually used.

Let’s come with one example. A common policy proposal is that you should respect people’s gender identity, e.g. by using the correct pronouns. This policy has important benefits and so I’m not here to argue against this policy, but it uses “gender identity” in a sense that’s generally not innate. For example, while many trans people end up developing secret suspicions that others may be “trans and repressing it”, few would say that in such cases they are obligated to start using different pronouns. And most people who advocate for this policy don’t think you should stop using the preferred pronouns if you conclude that the person in question transitioned for “the wrong reasons”.

Instead, this policy proposal uses a rather shallow notion of gender identity, usually something like “whatever the person states they are” or “whatever the person presents as”1. This shallowness is a feature rather than a bug, but it also means that the notion of “gender identity” used isn’t especially innate. In fact, most trans people change this identity in order to transition.

In addition to not being innate, it’s also not really what we usually mean by identity. Typically a social identity is defined by a strong expression of group allegiance. For instance, people who are politically active and have strong political opinions have a strong political identity; people who publically spend a lot of money and time on a specific subject can be said to have their interest in the subject as part of their identity; and people who strongly emphasize certain attitudes or personality traits that they have may be said to have these traits as part of their identity.

These sorts of identities probably serve many purposes. For instance, they let others know what they can expect of you, they let you precommit to certain roles, they let you signal your values or skills, and they let you define yourself more. It is probably nearly impossible to talk about identities without talking about their signalling value.

Gendered things can appear in these sorts of identities. Some people reject doing things that they consider too gender-nonconforming. Some men might feel embarrassed and emasculated if they had to do things that were too feminine. Some people make it clear that they reject unfair gender roles, and may change their presentation to signal this (e.g. butch women). Some people clearly express a preference for associating with women over men, or with men over women.

The thing about these sorts of social identities is that they’re not innate. You can’t be born with genes that specify a specific political party that you should endorse. A social identity is the story you tell about yourself, and this story is written by your interactions with the world. However, you can be born with innate propensities that affect how your story is likely to be expressed. If you are very open to experiences, you are less likely to end up with a conservative political identity. As such, simple tests for innateness will definitely hint to some innate elements. This applies to gender-related social identities too; how masculine or feminine you are is going to affect how you narrate your gender experiences.

Identities aren’t necessarily easy to change, though. If you’re a liberal activist, you’d probably find it difficult to become a conservative Christian. Part of this is the many commitments you’ve made. You’d have to replace a lot of your social circles, go back on many principles you’ve endorsed, and generally lose a lot of your current life. Part of it is that you probably became a liberal activist for a reason. You likely resonate a lot more with the liberal activist message than the conservative Christian one. Part of it would be embarrassment and psychological pain from such an abrupt shift. It would just look really weird.

But this sort of identity is often changed by transition. AGP trans women sometimes describe embarrassment and rejection of femininity pretransition; this is a masculine social gender identity. But afterwards, they typically embrace femininity very  strongly, creating a feminine social gender identity. Thus, for AGPs, the social gender identity is generally an effect rather than a cause of their transition.

For HSTSs, it’s possibly more complicated. They tend to have a strongly developed GNC identity long before transition. Likely, this identity has a large effect on their transition. Perhaps among gender dysphoric kids, the “desisters” are those who wind down their GNC identity and “persisters” are those who keep building on it. This wouldn’t necessarily be about becoming less GNC, but could instead involve expressing the GNC in more socially-accepted ways. Perhaps something as simple as heterosexuality is enough to motivate winding down the GNC identity. But this is mostly speculation.

Regardless, even if one has a very masculine social identity, one can still feel a lot of pain about being male. (I’d know…) The desire to be of a certain sex is often called an affective gender identity, but I think it might be more intuitive to call it a gender aspiration. Regardless, I think when people talk about the notion of an innate gender identity, this is the concept they’re generally referring to. But this isn’t really an identity, even if it may be associated with one.

Is it innate? I think this depends on the person. An HSTS’s affective gender identity probably cannot be separated from their social gender identity and the trouble they experience when interacting with society. On the other hand, an AGP has a clear drive to become female (and an AAP a clear drive to become male) that is probably as innate as you’re going to get.

1. There are many variations of the policy of respecting people’s gender identity that can be done with different costs and benefits. I’m not here to advocate any specific one, as it’s outside the scope of this blog post.

Is AGP real? (Spoiler: yes)

A tendency that has started popping up is to instantly dismiss any talk about autogynephilia with “autogynephilia isn’t real”. Often, it’s followed up with something vague about questioning the underlying methodology of the studies on it or rejecting the researchers involved because of transphobic biases. Sometimes, it even includes resources to somewhat-serious attempts at debunking it (e.g. Moser, Serano, Contrapoints, …), and generally the implication is that the mere mention of the AGP model is thus fundamentally flawed.

But some notion of AGP is clearly real. If nothing else, take a look at the sexual AGP communities (NSFW) hereherehere, or lots of other places. So anyone bluntly saying “AGP isn’t real” without qualfiers is at best ignorant, and at worst deliberately obscuring the truth.

(Sidenote: anyone saying that autogynephilia is real but that no trans women have even traces of AGP is also at best ignorant and at worst deliberately obscuring the truth; see for example here. There’s plenty of evidence that AGP traits are common in trans women, which even Blanchard’s opponents find.)

A trickier argument is that what trans women have and what cis men have is somehow distinct. Usually this distinction is made by pointing out that trans women have gender dysphoria, while AGP men typically do not. This is where it gets trickier, but note that AGP men are more gender dysphoric than cis men, so you can’t easily just make a binary distinction here. I tend to find that essentially all sufficiently-AGP men are likely to feel that they’d like being female, and that they tend to be less satisfied with being male than non-AGP men. Ultimately these men are still not generally floridly dysphoric, but it would make sense that only the most-dysphoric upper tail actually end up identifying as transgender.

When I’ve asked people what definitions they would use to distinguish AGP cis men from pre-identification trans women for the purpose of studying distinctions between AGP men and trans women, they have generally refused or been unable to give a real response. Maybe this basic overview post will help motivate them to say something.

And then there’s one last point. Some raise the issue that the common operationalizations of AGP may be too broad. For example, anyone who has ever pictured themselves as female in detail while aroused will score at least 6 out of 8 on Blanchard’s core autogynephilia scale (if they answer honestly). Combine this with people (MoserVeale and even me) who find that cis women will answer affirmatively to even stronger questions (including literally endorsing arousal to “being a woman”).

(It would probably be dishonest of me not to mention Alice Dreger’s (cis woman!) response here: “[…] I am not convinced that natal women can’t be aroused in autogynephilic ways […]”.)

I take this concern pretty seriously, but I also believe it is seriously misguided. Ultimately it’s an empirical issue, and the main pieces of empirical evidence on it are Blanchard’s study which found that his core AGP scale does distinguish between his two types of trans women, and the various cases where cis women have been asked. For the cis women, quite a few have reported that they are confused by these sorts of scales. This and other factors (e.g. that “AGP” cis women are more likely to be attracted to men, while AGP trans women are more likely to be attracted to women, than their non-AGP counterparts) makes me think that we are assessing something different in cis women and trans women when using these scales. I am, however, working on methods that might assess things more effectively:

agp_development

Pictured: results from a survey that among other things asked about “mimicry-AGP”.

Ultimately, I can’t yet fully thoroughly debunk the idea that autogynephilia measures are too broad yet. I’m told by people I trust that various measures work in specific ways (e.g. that HSTSs don’t picture themselves as female in sexual fantasies before they consciously consider themselves female), and so far the evidence also seems to point to that. So I conclude that with the evidence available to me, AGP really genuinely does look true. But I can’t unambiguously prove it to the point where denial is completely impossible.

However, the fact that objections exist does not mean that the entire concept was totally flawed from the benning. The objections themselves aren’t a debunking of AGP as a concept, they’re objections that may or may not turn out to hold water. As such, AGP isn’t fake, AGP isn’t debunked, and AGP isn’t a hoax. AGP has been disputed, but so has everything in the universe.

Sexual Orientation and Childhood Femininity

Some lesbian trans women claim to have been very feminine during their childhood, but AGP theory generally contradicts that claim. How can we know if the theory is right?

One potential approach would be to find some natal male kids who are very feminine and see how many of those who grow up to be trans women also grow up to be gynephilic.

Study Androphilic (%) Bisexual (%) Gynephilic (%)
Wallien (2008) 83% to 100% 0% 0% to 17%
Steensma (2013) 91% to 100% 0% to 9% 0%
Spack (2012) 55% to 65% 20% to 24% 10% to 11%
Devita (2011) 87% to 93% 7% 0% to 7%

Spack’s study found somewhat higher rates of nonandrophilic orientation than the others, likely because his study did not only include those who had shown signs in childhood, but instead everyone young that he treated (some of whom are AGP).

This suggests that around 90% of trans women with diagnosable childhood GD are attracted to men. Of course, there might be some undiagnosable elements that this misses, such as private ideation, non-expressed dysphoria, secret crossdressing, or similar, but this is not exactly the sort of overt childhood femininity we’re looking for.

Next, how many trans women are there who are attracted to men in the general population? The NTDS found a rate of 23%, and I generally hear numbers in the range of 10% to 30%, so that seems realistic enough; let’s go with that. Conservatively, suppose that all of these trans women were very feminine as kids. This implies that 23%/90%*10%/77%=3.3% of the rest were feminine as kids.

This seems like a lot fewer than what I usually hear if I ask people, and in fact it’s also fewer than various self-report statistics suggest. For this reason, I’m very skeptical when non-androphilic trans women report having been feminine.

Freud was bonkers, Blanchard is not

Blanchard’s transsexual typology is sometimes compared to Freud’s ideas. After all, both propose that sexuality is extremely important in the development of important parts of one’s psychology and identity. This comparison is unreasonable, because Blanchard’s proposals of sexual motivations are based on direct observations of these sexual interests, while Freud’s are, well… bonkers. Let’s take a look.

It’s hard to directly establish a causal proof of autogynephilia. However, there’s no doubt that most trans women have experienced AGP, with many initially thinking that their gender issues are a fetish. We can also see that autogynephilia is a strong predictor of gender issues in cis men (see also this study). Some say it goes away with transition, but I doubt that. Regardless, there’s clearly something going on here, rather than being some craziness pulled out of thin air, and the proposal that AGP may cause a desire to be female isn’t exactly illogical. How does Freud compare?

Let’s take a look at “penis envy”, because “penis envy” sounds kinda similar to autoandrophilia, the mirror image of autogynephilia. According to Freud, girls develop a sexual interest in their mothers, but then realize that because they don’t have a penis, they aren’t equipped to have a sexual relationship with them. This makes them want to obtain their father’s penis, which leads to a sexual interest in their fathers. Then they blame their mothers for their “castration”, and decide to eliminate the mothers by trying to learn to mimic them so they can steal the affection of their fathers. Due to fear of punishment for this, they then decide to focus their sexual attention on men in general, rather than just their fathers. Yes, really, that’s the theory.

I don’t know that this deserves an explanation of how it differs from Blanchard’s typology, but let’s try anyway. We directly observe the existence of autogynephilic attraction. For the “penis envy” to make sense, we’d have to directly observe girls first have an incestual attraction to their mothers, and then to their fathers. In addition, it doesn’t at all make sense that desire to have a penis should lead to sexual attraction to one’s father, while in Blanchard’s theory it makes perfect sense that sexual attraction to being female would lead to desire to be female. Freud’s theory also proposes an incredibly elaborate path of psychosexual development, which doesn’t really seem plausible or justifiable.

How about another theory, “the Oedipus complex”? According to this theory, boys develop a sexual interest in their mothers, but then realize that this is in competition with their father’s relationship with their mothers, and therefore decide that they should kill their fathers. The boys then realize that their fathers are stronger than them, develop a fear of their fathers castrating them, repress their sexual interest in their mothers, and try to instead mimic their fathers. The increased similarity between the boys and the fathers reduces their castration anxiety and leads to healthy psychosexual outcomes.

Again, this would look a lot more plausible if many men were sexually attracted to their mothers, or if men regularly killed their fathers so they could marry their mothers. Supposedly, Freud wrote that he had once experienced arousal when watching his mother dressing, so maybe he was engaging in typical mind fallacy. Regardless, this theory is obviously completely bonkers.

Now, seriously, compare this to AGP theory: For unknown reasons, some men find it arousing to picture themselves as women. This leads to a desire to be women, and in some rare cases this desire can evolve into an extreme degree of distress that eventually makes them seek sex change. The trans women who got off to crossdressing before transition were motivated (either directly, or more likely, indirectly through the development of dysphoria) by this sexual interest. Many trans women misreport their experiences to better fit a “classical trans narrative”, and you can detect these misreports by asking independent sources (such as parents), using Social Desirability Bias measures, or by looking at the evolution of their narratives over time.

Now there’s no doubt that this is controversial, and it should not be argued for without evidence. As I pointed out earlier, though, there’s plenty of evidence for many of the elements in this story. Since it’s possible that there’s some other set of dynamics that just happen to look a lot like AGP-causing-dysphoria, causality is hard to formally establish, but lots of the individual pieces are easily directly observable, which makes it entirely unlikely Freud.

Regarding Asexual AGPs

One of the controversial aspects of Blanchard’s typology is that it asserts that asexual trans women transition because of autogynephilia. Many people find it ridiculous to suggest that asexuals transition for reasons originating in sexuality, because, y’know, they’re asexual. How could Blanchard come up with such an idea?

Most obviously, because the asexual trans women themselves report having experienced autogynephilia. In this study, Blanchard asked trans women whether they had engaged in transvestic fetishism, and found that 75% of his asexual group answered yes. Similarly, Nuttbrock found that 67% of his asexual group had experienced transvestic arousal at some point in their lives.

Need more convincing? On page 83 of Jaimie Veale’s Master’s thesis, she has a table showing how well trans women feel that the concept of autogynephilia applies to their own experiences. Obviously since many trans women feel that AGP is invalidating, there’s going to be a degree of bias where no group feels it totally applies to them. But do the 31 asexual trans women feel that it makes less sense in their case than the other groups do? Nope; 45.2% of the asexuals feel that it applies at least a little bit to them, versus 40.8% of the other groups. The only group with a higher percentage is the gynephilic trans women, at 53%. (Sidenote: due to her way of recruiting participants, Veale did not have any non-autogynephiles in her sample.)

Thinking that asexual trans women are not explained by autogynephilia demonstrates a striking unfamiliarity with asexual trans women’s experiences. That’s understandable for those who are just asking questions. However, if someone explicitly states that the typology can’t explain asexual trans women, well… then they are probably not a very reliable source on the validity of Blanchard’s typology.

How might asexual trans women end up autogynephilic? Well, it’s hard to know, but a common speculation is that it’s due to the phenomenon known as “competition”: basically, autogynephilia is related to (allo)gynephilia in the sense that it is a self-directed variant of gynephilia. Most gynephiles are not autogynephilic, but many autogynephiles are allogynephilic. Autogynephilia and allogynephilia can coexist to various degrees, with some having a skew towards allogynephilia, some varing approximately equally much of both, and some having a skew towards autogynephilia. Asexual autogynephiles are then those who have a very strong skew towards the autogynephilic part of their sexuality, to the degree where they experience no or negligible allogynephilic attraction. In a sense, the autogynephilia and allogynephilia “competes”, so that autogynephilic interest overshadows allogynephilic interest.

groups

The relation between exclusivity of AGP and possible identities. Note that this relation is very very far from deterministic, as there are many factors that may affect how one identifies.

Some early pieces of data indicated that this model was true because they suggested that the most-autogynephilic people were least attracted to other people. However, this finding doesn’t look very well-supported by newer data, so there might be some subtleties at play that are not yet fully understood. More research is needed.

Autogynephilia is Not Narcissism

The legend of Narcissus describes a beautiful man who fell in love with his own reflection and withered away as he stared at it. This myth is the origin of the term narcissism, a tendency to have inflated self-importance, need for admiration and lack of empathy, and is associated with an excessive focus on achieving power or improving one’s appearance.

Autogynephilia has been compared to narcissism, through the idea that autogynephiles are attracted to themselves, which is similar to Narcissus’s situation, and therefore very narcissistic. There are three major problems with this comparison:

1. Self-attraction is not narcissism. Narcissism as a personality construct is named after Narcissus, but this is a metaphor. Narcissists aren’t literally sexually attracted to themselves. They want to be admired by others, but this is very different from self-attraction.

2. Autogynephilia is not really self-attraction. Or at least, if it is, it is in a more-complicated way. Autogynephiles are attracted to being female, but often they don’t really have a “themselves as women” to be attracted to. There’s some lines of evidence that suggest that AGP should more be seen as “attraction to being people who are female”, which is a far more outwardly-directed form of autogynephilia. Perhaps interpersonal autogynephilia has some narcissistic elements, but it is only one of multiple forms of AGP.

3. Autogynephilia has not been strongly linked to narcissism. Obviously, trans people have somewhat elevated rates of many mental illnesses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if narcissistic personality disorder was one of them. However, there’s no proof that there’s a strong effect, where narcissism is universal among autogynephiles, and I’ve found essentially no effect in a survey on it. Most other paraphilias than autogynephilia were linked to narcissism, and if you think about it, that makes sense. It’s a lot closer to the real definition of narcissism to get off to exposing yourself to other people, or to degrading other people, than it is to get off to the thought of being female.

Realistically, autogynephilia and narcissism should be thought of as being two completely orthogonal constructs.

An Issue With ETLE?

What is autogynephilia? According to the Erotic Target Location Error model, it is in some sense the application of gynephilic attraction to yourself; that is, a sexual interest in being what you find attractive (erotic target identity inversion), plus an attraction to women (gynephilia). This hypothesis predicts that other sexual interests (e.g. attraction to amputees or children) have corresponding autophilias (e.g. apotemnophilia or autopedophilia), which might act analogously to autogynephilia (e.g. causing body integrity identity disorder or age dysphoria).

There’s some evidence of this; for example, apotemnophilia and autopedophilia exist and tend to cooccur with acrotomophilia and pedophilia. However, there’s a lack of research in the validity of the concept within the normal range of attraction. For example, do autogynephiles who like redheads also want to have red hair? Some time ago, I did a survey awkwardly named Survey on traits you’re attracted to or would like to have where I examined exactly that. I decided on a number of traits that one might find attractive and/or want, asked people about those traits plus a number of other things (e.g. AGP), and got these results:

attractiveness_correlation

The correlation coefficient between attractiveness of and desire to have various traits, split by various groups. The “(Average)” spot at the end shows the average correlation coefficient over all of the traits.

First of all, let’s think about what we would a priori expect. It’s perfectly possible that something other than ETLE might cause a correspondence, so we can’t assume that non-ETLEs would have zero correlation. However, surely ETLE should lead to a greater correspondence than there would otherwise be, perhaps in proportion to the intensity of the ETLE. So a pattern of [Non-AGP cis men < AGP cis men < Transfems] would be appropriate. It would also be great to have [Cis women < Transfems], since otherwise there would be a lot of worry about confounding, but it’s not as clear that we can assume this to hold.

Now, in practice I don’t really have a big enough sample to talk about the transfems, so it’s probably better to focus on the non-AGP and AGP men. As you can see, there was quite a big correspondence between what traits they found attractive and what traits they wanted to have, but this applied equally well to both AGP and non-AGP men. I don’t think this is conclusive evidence, as I can see a number of problems with the approach, but it’s certainly something that’s worth taking into account.

Let’s talk problems with my approach:

  • A lot of the traits I used are a bit weird. I had a hard time picking good traits, and I didn’t make it easier for myself by trying to pick traits that followed certain rules (not too sexually dimorphic, not too universally seen as good/bad, equally attractive in men and women, not signalling membership of specific subcultures). I didn’t even manage to follow the rules to a degree that I felt was satisfactory either. Perhaps a better selection of traits (and rules?) would improve things.
  • It’s not clear that the traits picked could truly be said to be part of the participant’s sexual orientation. It’s possible that the main thing both of the questions measured was how positive an emotional valence people had around the traits, with essentially no signal coming through in terms of sexual orientation. In that case, it’s not surprising that I found no effect.
  • It’s unclear whether the desire to have those traits would apply if having them didn’t come with being female. Even if we assume an AGP man who likes redheads would also desire to be a woman with red hair, it’s not clear that this would lead to especially much interest in being a man with red hair. On the other hand, many apotemnophiles are interested in losing limbs without changing sex, and many autopedophiles are interested in being children without changing sex, so it seems that maybe the same should apply to other traits.
  • It’s possible that the men I involved weren’t AGP enough. It would be relevant to repeat this test with some men who are extremely AGP.

AGP does not go away with transition

It is commonly anecdotally reported that AGP goes away with gender transition for trans women. For example, many in this survey about AGP on /r/AskTransgender reported having experienced it going away, studies like Doorn (1994) found similar changes, and even surveys by me show that pretransition trans women have more AGP than posttransition ones:

agp_disappears

Comparison of AGP rates in trans women who are pre-HRT vs post-HRT from a survey on 4chan. (Yes, 4chan is unreliable, but not uniquely so in a way that I would expect to mess with these results – after all, it’s similar to what we see from the other sources I’ve mentioned.)

So, with all of this evidence, how could I possibly deny that AGP disappears with transition? Well, let’s state what we’ve found above more clearly: if you take trans women, who know they’re being examined specifically in the context of trans issues, and ask them specifically about autogynephilia in the sense of something experienced by trans women, and in particular in an environment that expects it to disappear with transition, you’ll find that it disappears with transition. Yup, I’m going to call social desirability bias.

Probably the simplest solution to this is just to ask more stealthily. Don’t specifically ask trans women, ask people in general and consider the subset that happens to be trans. Don’t ask whether it disappeared with transition, just check if it did. Don’t make the purpose anything trans, just test it independently. And probably use a measure that gives different instead of the same results for cis women and trans women, just to make it harder to question the results. Here’s the results:

agp_development

From my first survey asking people to look at and rate the attractiveness of various sorts of pornography, titled “Can you look at some porn For Science?”. Trans women remain very AGP regardless of transition status.

Obviously, this isn’t perfect; I’m sure there’s a ton of rough edges that could be cleaned up. Bigger sample size, asking about more forms of transition, checking social desirability bias, tweaking the question used, examining the effect that HRT has on libido, etc.. However, I’ve found similar results in other surveys that varied things a bit, so I expect it to generalize well.

So, let’s break down what I did a bit. First, I assessed AGP in trans women as part of a number of other paraphilic interests, asking “How sexually arousing would you find the following?”. I picked the phrasing “Picturing an attractive woman and imagining being her” because an AGP trans man suggested (based on his pre-transition sexuality) that this might work for assessing AGP in cis women (which is important because of the point that it would be stupid to use a scale that gave the same results in cis women and trans women). I also had an item asking about “Picturing myself as the opposite sex, or with certain physical features of the opposite sex”, which is what I used to define Highly AGP Men (who had to answer “Very” on that question to be considered “highly AGP”).

Now as you can see, having transitioned did not prevent trans women from being AGP. I asked about hormonal and social transition separately. Then I defined people to be pretransition if they had not started either but intended to either almost immediately or in the longer term, hormonally-transitioning if they were currently using HRT (regardless of progress), socially transitioning if they had to some degree socially transitioned (defined by the participants). Post transition was defined by having both hormonally transitioned (to the point of not expecting more changes from HRT) and socially transitioned (to the point where they did not intend to socially transition “more”). Even those entirely post-transition were usually very AGP!

This doesn’t even account for the fact that some people probably still saw through it or were in denial, or that some people’s libido might’ve been tanked to the point where their AGP is unobservable. It doesn’t account for the fact that some of the participants might’ve been HSTS (and at least some of the responses are compatible with being HSTS, but who knows when it comes to reddit…).

So that is my take: AGP does not go away with transition, but if you ask it in a context where the trans women want to present it as going away, they probably will.