Why do trans women transition?

This blog post is part 1 of a blog debate that I intend to have with Jack Molay about the transgender etiology. In it, I will lay out my current beliefs about the question in the title, which includes the Blanchardian typology, as well as other things that you will see below. This post is not intended as a strong argument for Blanchardianism, nor as a detailed explanation for all of the nuances that I know, but is instead just intended as a starting point for the exchange, which will show my direction of analysis and provide options for further inquiry.

The importance of a baseline

To me, an answer to why trans women transition is a causal model that relates the various factors involved in trans women’s transition as accurately as feasible. However, if you think about it, getting a full model of this would be quite excessive. For instance, if trans women can’t get food, they die and can’t transition. So a full causal model would include farming, transport, places to buy food, cooking, digestion, and so on. And that’s just one example; there are all sorts of other domains, from limb movement to education that a full model would need to include.

One thing that these all have in common is that they are concerns that are shared between humans in general, and which are studied outside of trans contexts (e.g. in economics). Including them in the model would thus be a bit redundant; they can be taken as a baseline and we can instead focus on the differences between trans women and this baseline. There may still be cases where it would be relevant to invoke the standard factors, because they moderate some aspect of the core model, but most of the time we should be taking the standard factors for granted.

Thus, to me this changes the question to, in what ways do trans women differ from cis men, in such a way that the former end up transitioning but the latter don’t? To answer this question, we must discover some relevant axes of variation, as well as their causal relationships, which come together to explain, as best as possible, trans women’s gender issues.

Trans women transition due to gender dysphoria

Or so the saying goes. Gender dysphoria is understood as various forms of distress that trans women feel about their male characteristics. To me, it seems that it gets described in various ways, including pain, disgust and despair. It makes obvious sense that someone who feels such would want to transition to no longer be like a male, and since I experience such feelings myself, I can definitely believe that trans women do so too. Plus it would be a completely unrealistic conspiracy that so many trans women say they feel it, without them actually feeling it.

Realistically, this is a bit simplistic to me, though. Not only do trans women feel gender dysphoria, they also feel that they would be better of with female characteristics, which is sometimes called “gender euphoria”, though I think “cross-gender ideation” would be a more scientifically standard term. Most cis men don’t feel this way, but instead feel that it’d be pretty bad to be female, and it also makes sense to me that feeling this way contributes to transition. After all, if you think both male and female traits suck, that’s not much reason to seek to have the opposite kind.

Some people make a big deal out of this distinction between positive and negative feelings. I don’t really, as it seems to me that they kind of tend to flow into each other. From a practical point of view, there’s concepts like hedonic adaptation, where something that used to become positive ends up neutral, and losing it becomes upsetting. From a theoretical point of view, coarse general models of psychology I know, like rational decision theory or prospect theory, do not distinguish between positive and negative preferences like this, but instead places them all on a single continuous scale. It seems like we would need to have some detailed model of the human motivational system to untangle this, and I don’t have that yet. (Though it may be relevant to develop for these topics.) Thus I tend to lump all of this into a broader term, which I label “gender issues”. So trans women transition due to gender issues.

But wait, can we be a bit more specific with this? So gender issues are positive or negative emotions about being female or male. But what exactly are positive or negative emotions? Where do they come from? My understanding is that a core element of it lies in appraisal; positive emotions correspond to appraising something as being good for you, while negative emotions correspond to appraising something as being bad for you. So this all roughly speaking boils down to “trans women transition because they don’t like being like males and want to be like females”.

Trans women transition for reasons unrelated to gender dysphoria

Really, it’s not quite right to say that trans women transition due to gender issues. There’s also going to be all sorts of other factors contributing. For instance, in different environments, transitioning is differently viable. Over time, transitioning has become more socially accepted, and there have come to be more medical interventions to support transition.1 There are also individual differences in expected transition outcomes, which probably influences things. There may also plausibly be differences in self-acceptance or knowledge that contributes to or prevents transition. This is all pretty complex.

A lot of these are probably things that you can learn a lot about just by being around people with various degrees of gender issues, and you can find them to make a lot of theories about it. I’m not going to go all that much in-depth with it, but I think a lot of the theories about this that you could get from people with gender issues are going to be right, with the caveat that they are likely to present the people themselves as making “the right” choice, and so possibly leading to a bias for or against transition.

One thing that often comes up is concepts like “gender identity”, “feeling that one is a woman”, and such. I get pretty 🤨 about that, because they seem to lump different things together. If we were to take things overly literally, “feeling that one is a woman” might include things like believing that one has female anatomy. However, this is rarely what trans women mean when pressed on it; instead they often seem to fall back on these terms ultimately referring to gender issues. (I.e. “wanting to be a woman is feeling like a woman”.) That said, there are some trans women who do lean all the way into it, and claim to have felt confused each time they realized what their sex characteristics were. I’m not sure how much I should really take them at face value, though.

Trans women transition due to autogynephilia

Ok, so trans women transition because of gender issues; because they don’t like being men and want to be women. But where do those gender issues come from? Let’s for a moment consider trans women who are not exclusively attracted to men. (We’ll get back to trans women who are exclusively attracted to men later.) Again and again, some peculiar things about their sexuality has been noticed.

Beginning from very long ago, they have been found to often be sexually aroused by wearing women’s clothes, a tendency which Blanchard documented statistically in his studies. This is something that has often been replicated, e.g. by critics of Blanchard like Nuttbrock. Contrast this with cis men, who generally aren’t into this. Blanchard also found that they tend to have sexual fantasies in which they imagine being biologically female. Trans women also often report having had a “gender swap fetish”, and finding being female to be erotic. I myself tend to imagine myself as female in sexual fantasies, and have at various times had sexual fantasies that had more or less focus on that.

My interpretation of this is that these and other phenomena all represent a sexual interest in being a woman. This sexual interest is called autogynephilia. Since the notion of a sexual interest is a rather central concept to my model, it is worth going into more detail:

Most people end up in relationships with people of the opposite sex. The reason they do this is because of their sexuality; people have evolved to be attracted to the opposite sex, as this tends to make them reproduce. However, people differ, and one way that they differ is in their sexual interests; some are into the same sex, some are into masochism, etc.. We can observe sexual interests in what people do in purely-sexual situations, such as what their sexual fantasies are about, or what erotic material they use, or similar. However, these sexual interests are really primarily meant to influence people’s general preferences for life, which they indeed do as can be observed by how most people reliably end up in relationships with the opposite sex.

Since we observe trans women to have a sexual interest in being women, it is logical to conclude that this is a big contributor to their gender issues. Furthermore, if we look at autogynephilic cis men, then these cis men have an incredibly dramatically large upwards shift in gender issues, as would match the understanding that the autogynephilia is a primary factor in trans women’s gender issues.

Now, autogynephilia isn’t the full story. Most autogynephiles do not transition, and there’s still the question of how they end up autogynephilic, plus the question of how autogynephilia actually mechanistically ends up influencing gender issues. And for that matter, we only have a vague understanding of autogynephilia, by lumping together various anecdotes and theory pieces. I’ve tried to create a more definite understanding by doing a qualitative survey, which you can see the results of here, but it is still limited by various factors. There’s a lot of controversy over where exactly to draw the line between autogynephilic and non-autogynephilic sexuality, and I am not going to take an opinion on that yet. Researching autogynephilia and sexuality more would definitely be good for the theory. But still, it’s at least one major piece of the puzzle.

Where does autogynephilia come from?

The origin of autogynephilia is a bit of a mystery still, just as how the origin of homosexuality is. However, we do have some hunches. A common idea, proposed by most people who think about this question, including by Ray Blanchard and Julia Serano, is the idea that Blanchard labelled Erotic Target Location Errors.

Roughly speaking, the idea goes like this: It seems kind of striking that autogynephiles desire to be women, when usually males are sexually attracted to women as partners. Plus autogynephiles seem to be less likely to be gay than non-autogynephiles. Maybe some of the mechanisms that can make you sexually attracted to women can also make you sexually attracted to being a woman, under certain as-of-yet unknown conditions.

Something that could be understood as further supporting this would be research on other sexual interests in being something. For instance, furries are known to be interested in being anthropomorphic animals, but they are also attracted to anthropomorphic animals. As another example, some pedophiles also report a sexual interest in being children. And there is a condition known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which functions much like gender dysphoria except with disability instead of gender, and people with BIID are often attracted to amputees.

It is very unlikely that ETLE can account for all autogynephiles. Some autogynephiles are gay, and obviously ETLE cannot account for them. It might also be that ETLE isn’t real at all; one would then need some other set of explanations to account for the previous observations, but that doesn’t seem all too difficult, at least with our current knowledge. But we’ll see.

The transsexual typology

Trans women who are not autogynephilic are usually found to be exclusively attracted to men, as you can see in the studies I linked earlier. There’s also a number of other characteristics in which non-autogynephilic trans women are striking, such as being more feminine and transitioning younger. These are known as HSTSs (homosexual transsexuals).

I find it pretty difficult to untangle why exactly they transition, and this certainly isn’t helped by the fact that their reasons for transition hasn’t been studied much. A lot of people seem to just find it “obvious”, probably because they equate masculinity/femininity with gender satisfaction, which I think is wrong. But I can give some conjectures for what is going on with them.

First, it is well-known that there is a connection between masculinity/femininity and sexual orientation; conditional on sex, those attracted to men are more feminine than those attracted to women. This likely explains a good part of why HSTSs are more feminine. But as I will explain shortly, I think there is more to it than that.

I think the femininity is probably related to their gender issues in some way. For instance, in many cases society has various forms of gender norms, where men are preferred to be masculine and women are preferred to be feminine; if one is a feminine male in these sorts of places, then it would make sense that one would end up with dissatisfaction about being male.2

I think there may be other connections too, though. For instance, if you’re attracted to men, you’re going to have an easier time fitting in as a woman than if you are attracted to women. And if probably some aspects of femininity, such as presentation, are more a result of rather than a contributor to gender dissatisfaction.

But there’s another important point to be made about what distinguishes HSTSs and AGPTSs, namely desistance. Some clinicians deal with boys who experience gender dysphoria, and these boys are typically very feminine and typically grow up to be attracted to men, just as would be associated with HSTSs. However, they also typically desist from their gender issues, and become happy with being male. See e.g. this qualitative and this quantitative study for some more overview of what that may look like. So one characteristic of HSGD is that it tends to go away with time.

My theory for why this is is that there are specific conditions where HSGD tends to apply; for instance, maybe boys face stronger gender norms as children than as adults. These conditions likely also lead to further separation between AGPTSs and HSTSs; so I think part of what makes HSTSs more feminine is that they tend to come from contexts where femininity is more likely to lead to gender problems, and not just because homosexuality is linked to femininity.

Ultimately, untangling HSTSs is still something I’m working on, and a big problem in this is that it often comes back to a vaguely defined notion of “femininity”. One of my current major projects is to make “femininity” more crisply defined; once this is achieved, perhaps it can support us in getting a better understanding of HSTS.

Conclusion

All of this really needs more research, and unfortunately there’s not really anyone doing much research on this. I think this model is a good starting point in understanding things, though.


1. This is part of why I am pretty 🤨 about aspects of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” theories, which claim that gender issues are transferred by “social contagion” between individuals with no predisposition towards gender issues. There are all sorts of social factors that could contribute to transition being more viable, and which could “look like” social contagion. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

2. One major place where this may especially play out is in the dating market. Gay men have a preference for masculine men, and so that may be an obstacle to feminine men. For many, this may not be as much of a problem because the preference against feminine men is weaker among feminine men; so “fem4fem” is pretty viable. Some anecdotes say that HSTSs have a particular preference for masculine men, which makes sense in this framework. Especially since the most masculine men tend to be attracted to women. But it has AFAIK never been demonstrated that HSTSs have a preference for masculine men, and there is some evidence to contradict it. I would really like to see this studied more carefully.

Why most studies on autogynephilia and sexual orientation are of no evidentiary value for ETLE

Autogynephilia is a sexual interest in being a woman. According to the theory of erotic target location errors, autogynephilia is connected to gynephilia (attraction to women) in some sense, being a sort of inversion of it. The idea being that in most cases, gynephiles have something that prevent them from ending up autogynephilic, but in some cases they don’t.

In the weaker forms endorsed by Julia Serano, attraction to women is merely one contributing factor that isn’t strictly necessary to end up autogynephilic. I consider this speculation to be quite likely; e.g. it aligns with my findings that self-reported autogynephilia is 2-3x rarer and weaker in gay men than straight men. In the stronger forms endorsed by Kay Brown, Rod Fleming, and Michael Bailey, the theory asserts that attraction to women is in some sense1 a necessary factor for becoming autogynephilic. I believe that this theory is unsupported by evidence, and in fact even contradicted by some evidence that I have collected.

But this blog post isn’t about the distinction between these two theories. Rather, it’s about the fact that most of the studies cited for either of them are, from a Blanchardian perspective, totally trash and of no evidentiary value at all. At least for the ETLE question; there may be other questions that they can tell us something about.

To give an example, let’s have Kay Brown present the evidence:

So, back to autogynephilia.  This is an observed phenomena.  NOT a theory.  I’ve already explained how one hypothesis has met several tests… that there are two types of transsexuals who have been shown statistically to have certain common traits with-in each type and two correlated and mutually exclusive traits.  As a reminder, those traits that correlate are gynephilia and autogynephilia.  The traits that are anti-correlated are exclusive androphilia and autogynephilia.

This correlation leads to proposing another hypothesis, namely, that for autogynephilia to exist, there must be an underlying gynephilia.  For someone who is androphilic, there is no existing gynephilia to lead to autogynephilia.  The data would support this hypothesis extremely well.  In fact, as I have shown in my earlier post, analyzing Leavitt and Berger’s study, that correlation is very, very high… perhaps showing an effect size that is higher than many experimental results in psychology that are accepted and not considered in any way controversial.  Just to remind ourselves just how strong the effect size is, let’s revisit the data, looking at only the issue of reported autogynephilia and a history of sex with females:

AGP:         6.7%         33.3%          50%

Sex w/f:  0%            33.3%         58%

Phenomena and Theory… …or how to confuse fact and fiction, Kay Brown, On The Science Of Changing Sex

So Kay Brown’s argument is that autogynephilia requires gynephilia because in trans women, autogynephilia is highly correlated with attraction to women.

Blanchard advanced a similar argument:

The first hypothesis suggested by Hirschfeld’s observation – that autogynephilia is a misdirected type of heterosexual impulse – predicts that one should find higher levels of autogynephilia in heterosexual – or at
least nonhomosexual – men than in comparable homosexual men. This prediction has been supported by the results of a study by Blanchard. The subjects in this study were 212 adult male-to-female transsexuals. These were divided into four groups: one homosexual (attracted to other males) and three nonhomosexual (attracted to females, to both sexes, or to neither sex).

The measure of autogynephilia used in this study was called the Core Autogynephilia Scale, or CAS for short. Most of the items in this multiple-choice questionnaire measure ask whether the respondent has ever become sexually aroused while picturing himself with various features of the female anatomy (e.g., breasts). Therefore the CAS is primarily a measure of anatomic autogynephilia.

The four transsexual groups were compared on the CAS (and on several other psychosexual variables that are not immediately relevant). As predicted, all three categories of nonhomosexual males were more likely to report sexual arousal in association with fantasies of womanhood than the homosexual males. This finding supports the view that autogynephilia is, as Ellis put it, “really a modification of normal hetero-sexuality.”

Clinical observations and systematic studies of autogynephilia, Ray Blanchard

So that’s a big part of the standard argument from the Erotic Target Location Error side: You see a strong correlation between autogynephilia and gynephilia in trans women, which would seem to support ETLE theory. And indeed this seems to be quite a consistent finding of studies in trans women. So how could I possibly call this of no evidentiary value? The issue is an elementary statistical error:

Berkson’s Paradox

To understand the problem, it’s time for a lesson on my favorite statistical paradox! Berkson’s paradox! Stealing the explanation from this twitter thread, let’s consider some important questions: Why are handsome men jerks? Why don’t standardized test scores predict university performance great? Why are movies based on good books usually bad? Why are smart students less athletic? Why do taller NBA players not perform better at basketball?

Stolen slide illustrating Berkson’s paradox. By selecting a subset of the population, you introduce a negative correlation between the variables you select on.

If we filter our sample on the basis of some set of variables, then that filtering introduces a ton of spurious correlations between all of the variables that are upstream of our filtering. The usual pattern will be negative correlations between the causes of the thing you are filtering on, but we might have other things going on, depending on the specific details of the distribution.

In the case of autogynephilia and sexual orientation, the studies considered so far all filter on transsexuality. Thus, regardless of the true correlations in the general population between the variables, these studies will tend to find spurious negative correlations between the causes of transsexuality. And what are some causes of transsexuality? Autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia!2 So regardless of what the actual true correlation is between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia, by studying it in trans women, we would expect to observe a spurious negative correlation. This makes it of no evidentiary value to find the correlation in trans women.

Taking stock

It’s true that there’s a robust negative correlation between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia in trans women, but that is a spurious result. This eliminates most of our evidence about negative relationships between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia. It is for this reason that, when I reviewed the evidence on whether autogynephiles can be exclusively androphilic, I mostly ignored the studies in trans women. Instead, to figure out the association, one has to do one of four things:

  1. Get a large unfiltered sample of males, and look at the correlation between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia directly.
  2. Compare an unfiltered sample of males to a sample of autogynephilic males, and see if they differ on their rates of exclusive androphilia.
  3. Compare an unfiltered sample of males to a sample of exclusively androphilic males, and see if they differ on their rates of autogynephilia.
  4. Mathematically adjust for the effect of filtering, e.g. adjusting for the fact that autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia are both causes of transsexuality in the original studies.

Option 4 seems tricky; it requires specific knowledge of small nuances in how autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia contribute to transsexuality. Options 2 seems finicky; if filtering for autogynephilia goes wrong, then it might also accidentally filter for or against exclusive androphilia, which would mess things up. And similarly for option 3.

Option 1 at first seems more promising, but it faces the problem that both autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia are rare, and so maybe it requires a sample size on the order of 5000 or more. Plus with effects that subtle, even tiny measurement errors can cause big problems.

My solution resembles option 1 the most, but with a caveat. I usually do my studies on reddit, and reddit is highly autogynephilic and also somewhat more gay than average. This possibly exposes me to the same sorts of Berkson’s paradox that I talked about before – but not necessarily. I think there’s a good case to be made that I’m not facing it, but I’ll banish that point to a footnote.3 Regardless, the high rates of autogynephilia on reddit makes me need much less sample size to investigate it, and with it I have found some evidence of a negative connection, but also some evidence of the existence of exclusively androphilic autogynephiles.

Illustrations in a simulation

In case the whole argument was a bit unclear, let me give some hypothetical numbers to illustrate how filtering for transsexuality could lead to a spurious connection.

Imagine that autogynephilia is uncorrelated with androphilia, that 20% of males are autogynephilic and 20% of males are androphilic, and further that autogynephilia and androphilia each lead to a 50% chance of transitioning. Obviously these numbers are way too high, but I pick them so that we can have a reasonably small simulated sample size.

Suppose we have 100 males that are representative for these numbers. I will use lowercase letters to represent cisgender men, and uppercase letters to represent trans women. I will use the letter “x” to represent non-autogynephilic heterosexuality, “a” to represent autogynephilia, “h” to represent exclusive androphilia, and “b” to represent both autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia (i.e. “GayGP”). The sample might look as follows:

           | non-androphilic       exclusively androphilic
-----------+-----------------------------------------------
           |
non-AGP    | xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
           | xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx      hhhhhhhh
           | xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx      HHHHHHHH
           | xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
           |
           |
AGP        | aaaaaaaa              b
           | AAAAAAAA              BBB

In the general population, we see no correlation between autogynephilia and exclusive androphilia. For instance, among non-androphiles, we have 16/(16+64)=20% who are autogynephilic. Meanwhile, among androphiles, we have 4/(4+16)=20% who are autogynephilic. And vice versa.

On the other hand, if you restrict yourself to trans women, you get the sample:

           | non-androphilic       exclusively androphilic
-----------+-----------------------------------------------
           |
non-AGP    | (none)                HHHHHHHH
           |
AGP        | AAAAAAAA              BBB

Here, among non-androphilic trans women, we have 8/8=100% who are autogynephilic. Meanwhile, among androphiles, we have 3/(3+8)=27% who are autogynephilic.

This is a huge correlation, comparable to that in the classic studies on trans women! And the correlation gets even stronger as you reduce the prevalence of androphilia and autogynephilia, to more realistic levels. There’s a lot of additional nuances here, where the results can shift around a lot depending on how you assume the factors lead to transsexuality. But I think the most important lesson to draw is that you should be very careful in what you conclude about autogynephilia from studies of trans women – you might get surprised. In particular, such studies are of no evidentiary value for the purpose of ETLE theory.


1. This runs into a slight nuance due to a phenomenon related to asexuality in AGPs. Specifically, it is believed that high degrees of autogynephilia overshadow and outcompete gynephilia, which can make the ordinary gynephilia disappear, even if it really did cause autogynephilia. I am skeptical of this theory, but it is a bit separate for this blog post – maybe it will come up in some later blog.

2. There’s a fun element here. Usually ETLE is considered to be a Blanchardian theory, in opposition to gender identity theories. However, while it is invalid for Blanchardians to cite these sorts of studies in support of ETLE, it is perfectly valid for gender identity theorists – because they don’t believe autogynephilia causes transsexuality! And indeed ETLE provides an alternative explanation to Blanchardianism for a number of phenomena related to Blanchard’s typology.

3. To understand why it might work fine for me, let’s consider the other name of Berkson’s paradox, collider bias. It is named so due to what it looks like when you draw the conditions for it up in a graph. Consider for instance the studies of autogynephilia and sexual orientation in trans women. We might draw the following graph to illustrate the causes of transsexuality:

autogynephilic → trans ← homosexual

I.e. autogynephilia and homosexuality both cause transsexuality. This pattern, where one thing has multiple causes, is called a collider. Berkson’s paradox only applies to colliders. So the question then is whether my surveys face a similar collider, e.g.

autogynephilic → redditor ← homosexual

This is conceivable, but I don’t expect this to be the pattern. While reddit could plausibly select for homosexuality since it is well-known for being progressive, it is not a site for autogynephiles and there’s not much reason to expect explicit selection for it, especially because the effect is so incredibly big that it is hard to believe.

Instead, it seems that reddit is much more paraphilic than the general population. This raises the question of whether there maybe is a collider of the shape:

autogynephilic ← general factor of paraphilia → redditor ← homosexual

If there is, it doesn’t seem to have much effect; when investigating it, homosexuality seemed uncorrelated with the general factor of paraphilia. On the other hand, maybe it is positively correlated in the general population, and the collider bias just eliminated it on reddit. But this would still mean that we at least wouldn’t expect a spuriously negative correlation between autogynephilia and paraphilia.

Of course it’s always hard to say these sorts of things for sure. It’s not the strongest case. Getting unfiltered data is impossible, and figuring out what ways it has been filtered is nearly impossible. Maybe we should just pack up and give up on social science.

Autogynephilia is not a natural abstraction (but transgender identity is?!)

John Wentworth proposes the natural abstraction hypothesis:

Our physical world abstracts well: for most systems, the information relevant “far away” from the system (in various senses) is much lower-dimensional than the system itself. These low-dimensional summaries are exactly the high-level abstract objects/concepts typically used by humans.

These abstractions are “natural”: a wide variety of cognitive architectures will learn to use approximately the same high-level abstract objects/concepts to reason about the world.

I recommend reading his posts on it, as I find him very insightful. But I have been thinking of what his post means for autogynephilia, and I think it looks pretty dire.

First, let’s try to understand what the natural abstraction hypothesis means for humans. A human is a system, and humans vary from each other in various ways. If the natural abstraction hypothesis applies to humans1, we would expect that we can talk about human differences in simple ways where broadly everyone agrees about the concepts.

An example where this happens is homosexuality. Going by the literal definition, a gay man is simply a man that is sexually attracted to other men, and not to women. However, beyond the literal definition, this has far-reaching consequences, as a gay man is very likely to end up with boyfriends instead of girlfriends, which further may trickle down into differences in family planning. In addition, gay men differ from straight men in a number of ways, most notably in being feminine.

The consequence of this is that the gay/straight dichotomy for men is a natural abstraction; it is reasonably clear who is gay, and what gay men are like, and as a result everyone is roughly on the same page when it comes to what it means to be gay.

On the other hand, to me autogynephilia seems to decidedly not be a natural abstraction. The literal definition of autogynephilia is similar to that of homosexuality; an autogynephile is sexually attracted to being a woman.

However, whereas for gay men this then almost inevitably trickles down into the rest of their life, for most autogynephiles it appears to stop here. Sure, autogynephilia is going to be associated with a strong shift in how one feels about being a man vs a woman, but men are generally very happy about being male, and so even with a strong shift in it, one isn’t necessarily even going to want to be a woman. And even if one does, it’s probably not going to lead to transition, since the bad cost-effectiveness of transition makes it rare unless one is truly desperate.

(Sidenote – this isn’t to say that autogynephilia isn’t a hugely relevant factor in males developing gender dysphoria. It definitely is, in the sense that it is a major contributing factor in most of the cases that end up gender dysphoric. The issue is that it is only an occasionally relevant factor; for most autogynephiles, gender dysphoria doesn’t come up.)

And sure, outside of gender issues there might be various sexual consequences for relationships, but this again probably doesn’t differ much from masochism/pegging/fetishism “far away”; it’d just be absorbed into a notion of “unmanly kinkiness”.

As a result, you don’t really get to know who is autogynephilic, and autogynephiles don’t end up differing much from non-autogynephiles.2 This makes it both hard and irrelevant to keep track of autogynephilia, and it prevents people from agreeing on there being a concept of autogynephilia and on what this concept means. Hence, autogynephilia is not a natural abstraction.

Consequence: people’s notion of “autogynephilia” cuts through the category of autogynephiles

The key consequence of this is that almost anyone talking about autogynephilia is confused. But to understand how, let’s consider a common way that some people end up talking about autogynephilia.

Suppose you are a gender-questioning male. You are considering whether you should transition to live like a woman, or whether you should stay as a man. Due to the connection between autogynephilia and transsexuality, you are likely to be autogynephilic, having had fantasies involving yourself as a woman. Depending on your temperament, you might decide to investigate this further.

There are various communities for erotic material involving transforming into a woman or similar. Those communities can contain a wide variety of men, including many who would not even want to (permanently) be women. Obviously there’s a distinction between the transsexual, who desperately seeks to transition to live like a woman, and these men, who just have it as an occasional fantasy. These men who don’t want to be women will tend to frame themselves as having “just a fetish” for being women (as opposed to being transgender), and nobody has really come up with an alternative phrasing for that.

So, this automatically leaves you with a distinction of “just a fetish” on one side, and transsexuality on the other side. And the notion of “autogynephilia” as being a sexual thing can sound vaguely like the notion of “just a fetish”; so these concepts get merged, and our poor gender-questioning male ends up with a notion of autogynephilia that precludes transsexuality.

Of course, this notion differs from Blanchard’s notion of autogynephilia; Blanchard’s autogynephilia would place both the “just a fetish” guy and the transsexual under the same label, as both being autogynephilic. The issue is that nobody cares about this common grouping, and so people trying to come up with categories on this domain are usually going to come up with categories that cleave through Blanchard’s autogynephilia, and instead splits it up. Further, these categories may at times due to surface similarity or political factors end up equated with Blanchard’s notion, despite being different.

Transgender identity is a more natural category than autogynephilia

A favorite activity of Blanchardians is to complain about the notion of gender identity. Personally, I’ve used the derisive term “Magical Innate Gender Identity” to emphasize how it doesn’t provide any explanatory power (“magical”) of why one is as one is. It is also fairly common to complain about the circularity in gender identity. Or similarly, Anne Lawrence has a page on it in her book:

A chapter addressing transsexuals’ opinions about the meaning and significance of autogynephilia would be incomplete without a brief statement of the case for autogynephilia operating as a meaningful explanatory factor in the lives of autogynephilic transsexuals, whether or not it is acknowledged as such. This is easily accomplished: With the exception of cross-dressing, we autogynephilic transsexuals rarely display female-typical behaviors, attitudes, or interests during childhood or adulthood (e.g., Blanchard, 1990 ; Whitam, 1987, 1997 ) . Consequently, our gender dysphoria cannot plausibly be attributed to gender-atypical behaviors, attitudes, or interests. What can the gender dysphoria of autogynephilic transsexuals be attributed to? From what source does it derive? Autogynephilia provides the only obvious answer: Our gender dysphoria and our resulting cross-gender identities are direct outgrowths of our paraphilic desire to turn our bodies into facsimiles of women’s bodies.

If autogynephilia is not considered a meaningful explanatory factor, then attempts to account for the gender dysphoria and cross-gender identities that we autogynephilic transsexuals experience quickly become circular, self-referential, and slightly ridiculous:

Q: Why do you want to become a woman?
A: Because I experience gender dysphoria.
Q: What does that mean?
A: That I experience persistent discomfort with my male sex and gender role.
Q: Why are you so uncomfortable with your male sex and gender role?
A: Because I want to become a woman.
Q: Why do you want to become a woman?
A: Because I have a strong and persistent cross-gender identity.
Q: What does that mean?
A: That I desire to be the other sex and live and be treated as a member of the other sex.
Q: In other words?
A: I want to become a woman.

I would argue that an account that treats autogynephilia as a meaningful explanatory factor offers at least a modest improvement:

Q: Why do you want to become a woman?
A: Because I experience a paraphilic erotic desire to have a woman’s body.
Q: Is there anything else?
A: After having that desire for 20 years, I’ve started to think of myself as a woman, too.
Q: Anything else?
A: I love women and I have a desire to become more like the women I love.
Q: I’m beginning to understand—but it makes me think your sexuality is very odd.
A: You’re right; but I can only play the hand I was dealt.

Perhaps someday we autogynephilic transsexuals will be able to forthrightly acknowledge the paraphilic hand we were dealt and play that hand without equivocation or apology. I will discuss this possibility in greater detail in Chap. 12.

Anne Lawrence, MTIMB, page 178

And this is all well and cute; autogynephilia helps explain the origin of gender issues in a noncircular way. But the issue is that most of the time, the origin of the gender issues don’t matter. It’s not a natural abstraction!

On the other hand, gender identity is a natural abstraction. Again similar to homosexuality, the literal definitions of being transgender are often quite limited, such as “identifying as a different sex than what one was assigned at birth”, but it seems to typically have a number of fairly clear consequences. Most of the time, being transgender and being transsexual seems interchangable; most (openly?) trans people seek medical treatment. And this medical treatment ends up having broad-ranging implications, including for appearance, fertility and medical topics. Trans people also socially transition, which further influences their appearance, and involves living like the opposite sex.

Most people have some notion of “trans woman”. They might not always agree on the details, but they are going to have some idea of the basics. This is because, unlike for autogynephilia, it is a category that is relevant “at a distance”.

More examples of equating other categories with autogynephilia

As an example of autogynephilia being an unnatural abstraction, I previously mentioned gender-questioning males who instead find the notion of “just a fetish” vs “transsexual” to be a more natural abstraction. However, there are many other cases where people seem to find distinctions that they consider to map onto the autogynephilic/non-autogynephilic distinction, but which don’t really.

Probably the most standard case is when people want to make some sort of distinction between “good” and “bad” transsexuals. Obviously it would be overly stereotyping to equate autogynephilic transsexuality with being non-passing or masculine, but people still find it relevant, for various reasons, to think about these distinctions of passing vs nonpassing or feminine vs masculine. Blanchard’s typology aims to partly explain why masculine trans women might exist, and as a result the label “autogynephile” from the typology ends up sometimes being equated with it.

One funny variant I’ve seen of this is radical feminists, who sometimes object to trans women transitioning in an overly sexual way. This has sometimes lead to radical feminists labelling some HSTSs as autogynephilic, because these HSTSs get large breast implants, present themselves in a sexy way, and take on jobs in sex work. This remains an example of the general pattern; the radical feminists have a particular thing they care about (sexualized vs nonsexualized transitions), and they pick up the label “autogynephilia” as the “closest neighbor” that they have a word for.

This is very political. However, the point is not limited to political contexts. I have seen people distinguishing themselves as non-autogynephilic because they are more transvestically than anatomically AGP (or more interpersonally AGP than either of the other two). I have seen people distinguish themselves as non-autogynephilic because they aren’t very AGP or primarily AGP. And so on. The point is that people have various distinctions they want to draw, which they map onto the “AGP/non-AGP” dichotomy, even though usually the distinctions they want to draw cleave right through the Blanchardian “autogynephilia” category.

This leads to a constant semantic shift in what “autogynephilia” gets used to refer to, away from the theoretically and scientifically justified notion, to all sorts of irrelevant and more dubiously-real categories. Further, it leads to a lot of fragmentation in meaning, that makes it hard for anyone to understand what is talked about.

Autogynephilia will never be a natural abstraction

When faced with this issue, Blanchardians sometimes express irritation at activists for suppressing autogynephilia, and hope that greater acceptance of autogynephilia will lead to the formation of a crisper autogynephilic identity, which implicitly would make autogynephilia more of a natural abstraction.

This seems like wishful thinking to me. For autogynephilia to become a natural abstraction in the way that homosexuality is, you’d need some strong unified lifestyle, or at least some common cause to rally under. But autogynephiles don’t seem to ever be likely to end up with a shared life path, nor do they ever seem like they’d have much of a common set of political goals.

Not even porn or erotic communities have a notion of autogynephilia! They have all sorts of other notions, including narrower content-based presentations of autogynephilia, such as “transgender transformations”. But they don’t have an overarching term to describe all autogynephiles and nobody but autogynephiles. If autogynephilia isn’t a natural abstraction at this relatively close level, how could we ever hope it to be a natural abstraction at a broader level?

Natural abstractions vs truth

I like the correspondence theory of truth. Under this theory, a statement is true if it corresponds to reality. Thus, autogynephilia theory is true, because autogynephilia is a sexual interest and contributes to gender issues.

This blog post about autogynephilia not being a natural abstraction doesn’t change this. However, it does raise a central question: Who cares!? Well, I care. And since you’re a reader of this blog, you probably care too. But we are exceptions; everyone else is too busy with their everyday life/transition/political pushes/etc. to care much about getting these details right. And this means that they get them wrong. This is going to lead to a constant fog of error in discussions involving autogynephilia, which means that trans people are rightly going to end up concluding that autogynephilia talk is just nonsense.

What should we do here? What can we do here? I don’t know. I guess big name Blanchardians like Michael Bailey or Ray Blanchard himself could maybe fight against the entropy by picking fights with people who misuse the terms. But it doesn’t seem like their personality to do this, and it’s not even clear if this is a winnable fight.

This feels a bit like a problem with no likely solution.


1. I think there’s a case to be made that the natural abstraction hypothesis does not apply to individual humans. A human has a unique sequence of DNA that will persist in influencing them throughout their life, yet plausibly resist low-dimensional summary. Attempts to model humans runs into the wall that humans are the ones who are doing the modelling, and it seems kind of dubious to model something that is just as complex as yourself. I guess we will have to see what happens, though.

2. A lot of people seem to have various ideas of what autogynephiles are like. Computer nerds! Masochists! Autistic! Misogynistic! Unassertive! Dissociating! Intelligent! Anime fans! Porn addicts! As far as I can tell, these ideas vary from “actually there’s a slight trend in the opposite direction” (e.g. for misogyny) to “ok there’s some trend in this direction but it’s pretty small” (e.g. for autism). I think it is more accurate to just think of autogynephiles as being indistinguishable from nonautogynephiles.

Against the “extreme male brain” model of autism

Simon Baron-Cohen has been pushing the extreme male brain theory of autism for a while. It asserts:

[…] ‘Empathising’is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with
an appropriate emotion. […] ‘Systemising’is the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system. […]

[…]

I will be arguing that systemising and empathising are two key dimensions in defining the male and female brain. […]

[…] According to the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, people with autism or AS should always fall in the [extreme systematizing range]. […]

[…]

So in other words, it is the proposal that systematizing, maleness, and autism are near-identical, and that empathising, femaleness, and non-autism are near-identical.

The main problem with this theory is that it is obviously empirically disproven. For instance, in one study that is often cited to support it, Testing the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people, they get the result:

And sure – there was a difference between the groups in the direction predicted by the theory. But look at the magnitude of the difference. It’s nowhere near as big as the theory claims; there’s tons and tons of overlap between the groups.

We can also take a look at table 3 in the study. The extreme male brain theory predicts that autistic people should always fall in the “extreme systematizing” area, yet only ~10% of autistic people end up there, with almost half of all autistic people ending up outside of the systematizing-skewed region.

In conclusion, E-S EMB theory of autism does not add up.

EMB Motte-Bailey

If it were any other theory, the effect sizes might be considered respectable. There’s no rule of science that an effect has to fully separate the groups under investigation to be relevant. Some discussions of science get hijacked by identity politics, where people refuse to acknowledge an effect, just because it’s not “big enough” according to their subjective judgement.

However, EMB isn’t just the theory that autistic people are more prone to systematizing than non-autistic people. Rather, it is a theory that this empathisizing-systematizing shift is the core defining feature of autism. That’s a perfectly valid theory to have, but it makes it necessary for them to be highly correlated to be true. After all, if autism is the same thing as a systematizing skew, then how can people be autistic without having this skew, or be non-autistic while having the skew?

Sometimes EMB proponents say that this isn’t really what the EMB theory says. Instead, they make up some weaker predictions, that the theory merely asserts differences “on average”. This seems like a motte-bailey strategy; they want to talk big about how empathizing-systematizing is the explanation for autism, but they don’t want to actually commit to the theory (because it is wrong). If the EMB theory had instead been named the “sometimes autistic people are kinda nerdy” theory, then it would be a lot more justified by the evidence – but also not look nearly as deep or insightful, which is presumably why it wasn’t named as such.

The Blanchardian fallacy

The Blanchardian fallacy is the assumption that humans vary across exactly one binary axis, being either autogynephilic or homosexual transsexuals. Obviously I am being somewhat cheeky here – nobody really believes this. But while nobody believes this, Blanchardians do seem to have a tendency to assume that things are linked to autogynephilia when this isn’t really justified.

To give some examples – one person once asked me, is there a connection between being philosophically oriented and being autogynephilic? Anecdotally, a lot of autogynephilic transsexuals seem to be very philosophical, so could it be…? Nah (at least if the personality data I’ve collected is right); and actually it is inappropriate to generalize from autogynephilic transsexuals to autogynephiles in general, because autogynephilic transsexuals can differ from ordinary men due to other factors than autogynephilia.

Is there a link between autogynephilia and dissociation/optical illusions? Not according to my data, despite there seemingly being a link between transsexuality and dissociation/optical illusions. The assumption that there must be is the Blanchardian fallacy again. How about autogynephilia/nerdiness? Anecdotally a lot of trans women seem nerdy. It’s hard to say for sure due to potential collider bias, but so far I haven’t seen support for links. (Recently I’ve been wondering if it might be an artifact of women’s dating preferences – the same sorts of women who are attracted to nerdy men are also attracted more likely to be attracted to MtF transsexuals, so it would make sense that nerdy males would be more likely to transition, as it shrinks their dating pool less. But this is speculative. And this is itself assuming that transsexuality is linked with nerdiness; maybe it is not and my anecdotes are misleading.)

Some people argue that the trans activists that attacked Michael Bailey are narcissistic, and take this as an indication that autogynephiles are narcissistic. But narcissism can vary independently of autogynephilia (and indeed it doesn’t appear to be correlated with autogynephilia).

I’ve been guilty of the Blanchardian fallacy myself too. My impression is that the notion of AGPTS/HSTS split makes it very easy to naively seek out correlations and inappropriately generalize them. In recognizing the Blanchardian fallacy, I’ve started becoming very cautious about what sorts of inferences I make. One of the most important aspects of this is rigorous distinctions between autogynephilic transsexuals (AGPTSs) and autogynephiles in general (AGPs). There may be many factors that lead to transition beyond autogynephilia, and which end up distinguishing AGPTSs from AGPs.

Another thing that is important is to be hyper-aware of what sorts of selection biases you face. In learning about autogynephiles, you will encounter information about various autogynephiles that exist. But this information will be filtered through various processes, and depending on the process you can end up with arbitrarily skewed ideas about what autogynephiles are like.

Most likely, a similar post could be made that focuses on HSTS – but I do not have as many examples in mind there.

Investigating the effect of stress on gender dysphoria

Some people report that they feel stress contributes to their gender dysphoria, being more gender dysphoric when they are more stressed. I’ve been skeptical of this, but Pasha did a survey where he found that a lot felt it applied to them:

Pasha’s takeaway from this seemed to be to take it at face value; some felt more gender dysphoric due to stress, while others did not. However, even with this survey, I was still pretty skeptical. Causal inference is hard, and it doesn’t seem super logical that stress would make you dysphoric. Couldn’t it just be that there was some sort of confounding, perhaps with the being a specific kind of stressful context where one is more dysphoric?

But then I got an idea. Stress levels vary a lot over time due to knowable exogenous factors. For instance, social tension is pretty stressful. Thus, if we investigated the gender dysphoria associated with those exogenous factors, we could perhaps untangle it from this.

If this was to be done properly, then it would probably involve some sort of experience sampling method. But that’s very invasive and a lot of work, so I hacked it by describing 7 stressful and 7 non-stressful situations1, and asking people to say how gender dysphoric they would feel during those situations. I posted this survey to /r/Blanchardianism, /r/TGandSissyRecovery, and /r/detrans and got 54 responses.

Results

Before we go into the results regarding reactions to situations, it is worth first looking into whether I replicated Pasha’s result of respondents feeling that stress contributes to gender dysphoria. I had three questions asking about this, which I analyzed with a latent class model in order to summarize the responses. 40% of my respondents felt that they were more gender dysphoric when stressed. Of these 40%, half felt less gender dysphoric when relaxing, while the other half felt that it was complicated. 20% of the respondents reported that they generally felt no gender dysphoria, while 30% of respondents reported that they felt equally gender dysphoric regardless of stress, and 10% reported that they felt more gender dysphoric when relaxing. I will get back to the results by different subgroups later in the post, but first let’s consider the overall average results in the survey.

Here is a scatterplot with the different situations, as well as how stressful and gender dysphoria inducing they were perceived to be:

All of the stressful situations were on average perceived to be more stressful than all of the relaxing situations. Further, overall the ranking in terms of stressfulness seems to make a lot of sense; situations that are intuitively more stressful are also quantitatively placed in more stressful spots in this plot. However, there was no correlation between stressfulness and gender dysphoria. Case closed, there’s no contribution of stress to gender dysphoria, end of investigation?

Method flaw: focus

Definitely not. I had multiple spots for comments in the survey, and some respondents pointed out some things that may be problematic for the previous investigation:

If being distracted alleviates someone’s dysphoria, it follows that being stressed could do the opposite.

When I have a urgent problem that needs focus to be resolved, I tend to not think about my body and dysphoria related things in that moment, but I still feel that I want to be male. I just have less focus on dysphoric feelings.

Time to think when lying in bed can open up opportunities for thoughts to wonder to stressful topics

If I’m walking on my own I’ll be left with my thoughts so it comes up.

That is, a topic that came up several times was a feeling that situations that require more focus can help distract from the dysphoria, and therefore temporarily reduce distress. This… actually seems like a really compelling point? Just eyeing the scatterplot, it vaguely seems like focus could account for it.

In order to investigate this, I asked Pasha to collect ratings from /r/SampleSize on how much focus each of the situations require, so that this information could be added to the model. The ranking of focus requirements, from most to least, was as follows:

  • High-stakes situations
  • Struggling with duties
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Social tension, loud/noisy places, and doing something creative
  • Spiders and other creep
  • An obstacle blocking your task
  • Reading news about problems in the world
  • Eating food
  • Listening to music
  • Taking a walk
  • Going to bed on a Saturday evening
  • Knowing that all of your chores are completed

This seems like a pretty reasonable ranking to me. So what happened when I used both focus requirement and stress to predict dysphoria? Nothing; an R^2 of 0.0026. To get an overview of what is going on, let’s take a look at a scatterplot, with the amount of gender dysphoria interpolated2 between the different situations:

Scatterplot showing situations placed according to their stressfulness and focus reguirements. In order to emphasize the overall structure, I colored regions according to the amount of gender dysphoria associated with situations in that region, using machine learning to interpolate. Red = more gender dysphoric than average, blue = less gender dysphoric than average.

This looks like… pure noise probably. Given that the different scenarios vary quite a lot in how dysphoria-inducing they are, it seems like there must be something that can explain it. But stress + focus requirement does not seem to be it.

Effect of situation on dysphoria is consistent across groups?

Here’s something to consider: some participants felt that stress contributed to gender dysphoria, while others didn’t. This raises the question that perhaps the ambiguous results are just due to individual differences in how different situations relate to gender dysphoria.

To investigate this, I investigated things by subgroup. It turns out, the different subgroups have very high agreement about what situations are gender dysphoria inducing:

The main disagreement seems to be high-stakes situation and struggling with duties, where those who feel that stress contribute to dysphoria feel more dysphoric, and news about problems, where those who feel that stress doesn’t contribute to dysphoria feel more dysphoric. Speculatively, I’d guess that it is perhaps more a question of whether not living up to responsibilities causes dysphoria? Or maybe related to self-esteem rather than stress? Not sure.

But to me, a much more noteworthy observation is that there appear to be large situational differences in how gender dysphoric people feel, and that these situational differences are basically agreed on by people who otherwise seem to interpret the factors in their dysphoria very differently. To me, this suggests that it may be fruitful to scale up these investigations, by collecting data on the relationship between dysphoria and a broader range of situations, as well as taking a much larger number of ways that the dimensions differ into account.

If any readers want to suggest situations or situational factors that should be taken into account in further research on this, I would encourage you to do so in comments or through any other method.


If you want the dataset, send me a message or join the discord. There’s more that can be done with this dataset, and I hope to eventually get around to some further investigations to blog about later, but the post must end at some point, and this is that point.

1. The descriptions given in the blog post above are brief titles rather than full descriptions. The full descriptions in the survey can be seen below:

  • Obstacle blocking your task: When there is an obstacle blocking your task (e.g. you need to use the sink but someone has left dishes in the sink; or similar), to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Going to bed on a Saturday evening: When you go to bed on a Saturday evening, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Social tension: When two or more other people around you have a conflict or otherwise social tension, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Eating food: When you are eating food, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Loud/noisy places: When you are in loud/noisy places, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Hanging out with friends: When you are hanging out with friends, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Struggling with duties: When you have some task that someone is expecting you to handle (such as a task at work that your boss expects you to deal with), but you are struggling with it and are about to meet with the person who has given you the task, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Taking a walk: When you go for a walk (not to get to some specific place, just for leisure/exercise), to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Spiders and other creep: When there’s a spider, a moth, or some other creep in your room, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Knowing that all of your chores are completed: When you have completed all of your chores and are free for the immediate future, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • High-stakes situations: When you have to deal with high-stakes situations, such as a test or needing to make a good impression to someone you only meet briefly but who has a big effect on your future, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Listening to music: When you listen to music, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Reading news about problems in the world: When you get news about problems or potential problems in the world (e.g. war, pandemics, economic trouble, political scandals, etc.) to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?
  • Doing something creative: When you do something creative, to what degree do you feel distressed about being male, wishing instead to be female?

2. More specifically, I used a support vector machine for regression with a radial basis function. I wouldn’t make too much of the interpolation, it’s just to get a big picture overview of what’s going on.

Contra James Cantor on desistance

In 2016, James Cantor wrote a blog post about desistance of gender dysphoria, arguing:

Despite the differences in country, culture, decade, and follow-up length and method, all the studies have come to a remarkably similar conclusion: Only very few trans- kids still want to transition by the time they are adults. Instead, they generally turn out to be regular gay or lesbian folks.

However, while this is an accurate summary of the results in males, it is not an accurate summary of the results in females. Out of the 11 studies he cited, 7 studies dealt with males only, 1 study had only a single female participant, and only 3 studies had multiple female participants. Among the desisters, the studies with females got the following results:

Thus, looking over the studies that Cantor cited, there were 41 female desisters, of which 28-31 appear to be heterosexual, 3-5 appear to be bisexual, and 2 appear to be lesbian. This does not seem to match the idea that they generally turn out to be regular lesbian folks; rather they seem to generally turn out to be heterosexual.

Across these studies, there were no persisters in the first study, 9 persisters in the second study, 3 persisters in the third study, and 24 persisters in the fourth study, for a total of 36. In the latter three studies, the numbers of persisters who were exclusively gynephilic appear to be 7, 2, 13-14 respectively, for a total of perhaps 23. (It is worth noting that while 23 is much smaller than 36, most of this gap is due to participants with unknown sexual orientation.)

Overall, persistence among natal females appears to be near-perfectly correlated with sexual orientation. What to make of this correlation is unclear2, but certainly it seems to make Cantor’s characterization inaccurate.


1. It’s a bit unclear to me from the study text, but it seems like possibly this study may have sample overlap with the other dutch study. The “psychosexual outcome” paper got its sample from the clinic between 1989 and 2005, while this study got its sample from the same clinic between 2000 and 2008. This doesn’t seem to change the substantive conclusion of this post, but it may be worth keeping in mind.

2. There seem to be two general approaches; either sexual orientation gets assumed to affect desistance, or desistance gets assumed to affect sexual orientation. For instance, I’d be inclined to think that for someone to desist, some sort of factor must change that makes it more advantageous to live like one’s assigned sex, compared to transitioning. A heterosexual orientation surfacing might be such a factor. But that’s speculative. Another thing that one could claim is that transitioning somehow influences orientation. Alternatively, one might believe that there is misreporting in sexual orientation. Point is, there’s a lot of possibilities here.

Quick heads up: Julia Serano believes in ETLE too

Autogynephilia is a sexual interest in being a woman. Erotic target location error is a theory which asserts that this sexual interest is connected to gynephilia (a sexual interest in women as partners); that there is ???something??? which usually prevents men’s gynephilia from finding the thought of being a woman to be erotic, but that this ???something??? is missing in autogynephiles.

Some people say that they find ETLE theory absurd, mock it, and call it debunked. And then they endorse people like Julia Serano, who claim to critique it. But here’s Julia Serano’s critique of it:

A third factor that may influence embodiment fantasies is sexual orientation, albeit not in the way that Blanchard envisioned. Specifically, if an individual is attracted to femaleness and femininity in a more general sense (e.g. they find such qualities erotic in their partners), then these same attributes might also be sexually salient with regard to their own embodiment, leading to more frequent or intense FEFs. (A similar correlation between attraction to maleness and masculinity, and MEFs, might also be expected.) Or to phrase this conversely: If an individual is not attracted to female or feminine attributes more generally, then they may be less likely to find FEFs arousing or compelling. This fairly simple explanation (which Blanchard never explored) is consistent with the correlations researchers have found between sexual orientation and embodiment fantasies, but without invoking direct causality.

Julia Serano, Autogynephilia: A scientific review, feminist analysis, and alternative ‘embodiment fantasies’ model

But this is literally just erotic target errors restated! Serano’s argument is that maybe there’s a link between autogynephilia and gynephilia where whichever mechanism that creates gynephilia also for some reason sometimes creates autogynephilia, which is precisely same as Blanchard’s postulation about the same.

It may be worth quoting Blanchard and Freund to illustrate the similarities in the theories:

What kind of defect in a male’s capacity for sexual learning could produce anatomic autogynephilia, transvestism, and fetishism, singly and in various combinations? Common to all these phenomena is a kind of error in locating heterosexual targets in the environment. In fetishism, the individual orients toward a particular garment (e.g., panties, brassieres) rather than those parts of the female body the garment usually covers. In transvestism, the individual is aroused by the appearance of an attractively clad woman, but he locates this image on himself rather than another person. In anatomic autogynephilia, the individual is oriented toward the characteristic features of the feminine physique (e.g., breasts), but he attempts, in some way, to locate these features on his own body.

The above analysis suggests the failure of some developmental process that, in normal males, keeps heterosexual learning “on track,” perhaps by biasing erotic response toward external rather than internal stimuli, and inherent rather than variable features of the female appearance. This putative defect allows the development of various misdirected – but still recognizably heterosexual – behaviors, and makes it possible, if not probable, that more than one misplaced interest will appear in the same individual.

Ray Blanchard, Clinical observations and systematic studies of autogynephilia

So in other words, Blanchard’s ETLE theory is that for some reason the gynephilia is applied to one’s own embodiment, as Serano describes. Or in other words, both agree that some sort of gynephilic eroticism contributes to autogynephilia, and so both agree on ETLE.

Julia Serano is not the only one I’ve seen who has done this; e.g. I’ve seen someone else propose that ETLEs don’t exist and any correlation between autogynephilia and gynephilia is just because gynephilia makes it easier to sexualize having a female body… which of course is the core claim of ETLE theory, making it puzzling that someone might call that a contradiction of ETLE.

Examining the structure of male sexual interests

Sexuality keeps coming up in this Blanchardian sphere of gender research, and so it would be nice to have an overview of how it works. Fortunately, Pasha, the creator of the /r/AskAGP subreddit, recently did a HUGE survey on /r/SampleSize, where ~1000 people responded to 84 different sexual fantasy items2. Since the structure of male and female sexuality seems to differ, in this post I will focus on the responses from the 494 cisgender men who responded.

A good starting point for understanding a domain of variables is factor analysis1. Factor analysis tries to model the data using a lower number of “factors” which group together the variables that are highly correlated, thereby abstracting the data and revealing large-scale structures. I can then inspect the fantasies that it lumps together, and name the factors to summarize the results in a readable way. Here are the results for applying factor analysis using 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8 factors:

Bass-ackwards factor analysis applied to the male sexuality data. Each level represents a factor analysis. At the first level, I extracted one factor; at the second level, I extracted two, and so on. The boxes at the bottom show some of the items that were assigned to each factor. The arrows between the levels show how the factors correlate between the different factor analyses.

At the final level, there were eight factors; which I tend to think of in two groups, four “broad” factors that I assume shape everything else, and four “narrow” factors that I assume are less important for sexuality in general (though they may be very important in specific contexts). I picked names for the broad factors using the following reasoning:

  • One very consistent factor was characterized by a very large number of generic partnered sex acts. This seems core to the definition of allosexuality (sexual attraction to other people), so therefore I labelled it Allosexuality.
  • The second most consistent factor was primarily characterized by androgynous men. This made it seem like it denoted attraction to feminine men. However, it was also heavily characterized by masculine men, and it was negatively characterized by women (i.e. those who scored higher in this factor were less attracted to women). The feminine men were also secondarily placed on a different factor relating to androgyny, so therefore I decided to label this factor Homosexuality.
  • A third very stable factor contained a variety of items relating to wild sex with many strangers. This seemed reminiscent of what social scientists call sociosexuality (essentially meaning promiscuity or “sluttiness”), so therefore I labelled the factor Sociosexuality.
  • Fourth, all the way there appeared to be a factor that contained a variety of peculiar sexual interests that did not seem to be particularly defined or characterized by any common theme. My assumption is that this factor reflects the General Factor Of Paraphilia, so therefore I labelled it Paraphilia.

I picked names for the narrow factors using the following reasoning:

  • One factor involved oneself being the opposite sex, often combined with various sex acts. On this blog, it is well-known that this represents Autogynephilia, a sexual interest in being a woman.
  • A related factor involved attraction to masculine women. It also to an extent involved attraction to feminine women, but my suspicion is that this is due to the factor analysis getting confused by bisexuals. Furthermore, androgynous men seemed to have a secondary loading on this factor. Therefore I emphasized the Androgyny part more than for the Homosexuality factor, and named it Androgyny/Gynephilia.
  • A well-known factor that popped up involved bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism. Therefore I named it BDSM.
  • Finally, another factor that came up involved things with zoophilic and pedophilic themes, as well as themes involving bodily waste. Furthermore, my experience with looking at other survey data on sexuality makes me have some suspicions about what would also have been included if the items had been there, and that makes me label the factor Disgust/Taboo.

These generally seem like some reasonably interpretable factors. Furthermore, while it was difficult to fit into a diagram, it appeared I could coherently continue the factor analysis further, to 15 factors. An image can be seen here, but to summarize it split as follows:

  • Allosexuality remained as it was before
  • Homosexuality remained as it was before
  • The Disgust/Taboo factor split into three parts; a relatively pure Pedophilia/Ageplay factor, a Bodily Waste factor, and a Nonhuman Anthropomorphic factor.
  • The BDSM factor split into four parts; two relatively pure factors involving Submission/Masochism and Dominance/Sadism, plus the Bodily Waste factor, plus something that appeared to be a Fetishism factor (involving latex and leather)
  • The Paraphilia factor continued with a difficult to interpret generic Paraphilia factor, but it also spun off three other factors, namely a Fetishism factor, a Roleplay factor, and a Transvestism factor.
  • The Sociosexuality factor continued with a general Sociosexuality factor, but seemed to spin off a Roleplay factor as well as a factor that appeared to involve bimbos or body modifications.
  • The Androgyny/Gynephilia factor continued into an Androgyny/Gynephilia factor in the final layer, but it also appeared to reduce interest in a factor seemingly related to Transvestism.
  • The Autogynephilia seemed to split into an anatomic Autogynephilia factor and a Transvestism factor.

The full factor analysis can be seen here.

Towards a new general factor of paraphilia (GFP) measure

I have an idea for how to empirically prove that autogynephilia causes gender issues, but in order for the idea to work, I need some variable that influences autogynephilia. This study of paraphilias gives a good candidate for it. To see why, let’s recap some principles.

Almost all paraphilias are positively correlated with each other. This indicates that they have some sort of common underlying causes. If we lump all of these causes together into a single variable, then this variable is usually labelled the General Factor of Paraphilia. Of course, this is not very useful unless we can actually measure the variable. But fortunately, there’s an easy way of measuring it: simply measure a broad variety of the narrower paraphilias, and average them together. Causes that are specific to individual paraphilias will then disappear in the averaging, while causes that are common to all paraphilias will add up.

Because of the rich factor structure discovered in the previous section, it is important to sample paraphilias from a broad variety of factors, so that we don’t just end up measuring the narrower factors. Studies I’ve seen of the topic often fail to do this, and instead seem to sample mainly from the BDSM and Disgust/Taboo factors. In theory, this reduces the accuracy of their general factor measure.

To attempt to do better, I sampled paraphilias from a broad variety of factors. The correlation matrix can be seen here:

Correlation matrix between a broad range of paraphilic interests.

As described in previous posts, I then extracted the general factor of paraphilia, and looked at the correlations that remained after controlling for it. This yielded the following matrix:

Correlations after controlling for the general factor of paraphilia.

To shorten the list and obtain a purer measure, I then removed a number of items due to them being too correlated with other items on the list:

  • Anal penetration was too correlated with bondage, and so I removed anal penetration.
  • Attraction to women wearing men’s clothes was too correlated with autogynephilia. If I was optimizing purely for a measure of GFP, I would remove autogynephilia, but since the idea is to use this in conjunction with autogynephilia measures, I instead removed attraction to women wearing men’s clothes to avoid getting at anything too specific to this.
  • Having a cigarette-smoking partner was not very correlated with the GFP, but was relatively correlated with humiliation masochism, and so therefore I removed it.
  • Nyotaimori was too correlated with doctor roleplay, and therefore I removed it.
  • Flashing was not very correlated with the GFP, but was a bit too correlated with other variables for my liking, especially since it is a courtship disorder and therefore might be controversial to ask about in a survey. Therefore I removed it.
  • Bearded women were not very correlated with the GFP, but they were correlated with attraction to nippleless partners and to statues, so therefore to avoid introducing extra noise, I removed them from the list.
  • Similarly, balloons were mostly uncorrelated with the general factor of paraphilia, but were too correlated with latex and were therefore removed.
  • Getting peed on was correlated with humiliation masochism and therefore removed.
  • Making your partner adhere to a diet was mostly independent of the GFP, and was vaguely correlated to a variety of other things, and so was removed.
  • It might be worthwhile to investigate having sex with a religious figure. I removed it at this step because it was correlated with interest in sex with older partners, but as you will see, that item got removed at a later step in this test construction, and therefore this could be revisited.
  • Cat ears were removed due to it correlating with a variety of other items.

This yielded the following items:

New selection of GFP items.

To further evaluate the items, it seemed appropriate to analyze them together with Allosexuality and Sociosexuality items, to ensure that they interact well. Upon doing so, some problems popped up:

Correlations between paraphilia items, sociosexuality items, and allosexuality items.

The bondage item appeared to be strongly associated with sociosexuality and allosexuality. The item about sex with older partners appeared to be strongly associated with sociosexuality. And the item about sucking on your partner’s tongue was strongly associated with allosexuality. Therefore, to achieve a cleaner paraphilia measure, these items were removed. I fit a confirmatory factor model to a reduced set of items, and it seemed to achieve a not-too-terrible fit. Thus the final set of items are:

  • Imagining being a member of the opposite sex
  • Having your partner call you slurs or insults
  • Imagining having sex with a vampire
  • Having your partner wear latex
  • Having a sexual partner with no nipples (blank skin where the nipples would be)
  • Rubbing your genitals on a piece of furniture
  • Having surgery to modify your body to be more erotic to your partner
  • Touching a naked statue
  • Pretending that you are a patient and your partner is your doctor as sexual role play

These are my current best attempt to make a brief general factor of paraphilia measure. For the psychometrically inclined, it has an alpha of 0.67, which is not so good, and indicates that the measure could use improvement. However, to me it seems like a reasonable starting point to work from.

Who are the paraphiles?

It might be nice to get some idea of how paraphilias relate to other variables. Let’s start with other sexual interests. It is commonly claimed by Blanchardians that different sexual interests compete, so that if one is more into one thing, then one becomes less into other things. I found no trace of this in the sexuality survey, with the general factor of paraphilia instead being highly correlated with allosexuality all across the spectrum:

Essentially it was rare for participants to be paraphilic without being allosexual. The only form of paraphilia that I found evidence for being negatively associated with allosexuality was the disgust/taboo cluster of paraphilias.

Most likely, the correlation here is underestimated due to sampling effects; since this was a survey with a huge number of sexual fantasies, there wasn’t much reason for asexual or low-libido people to participate, and so they may end up undersampled. On the other hand, reddit has much higher rates of paraphilias than the general population, and this may lead to a higher correlation, due to there being more variance to examine.

I also found paraphilias to be even more correlated with sociosexuality. It might be entertaining to think about whether sociosexuality should be considered to be a paraphilia; it seemed like there were some paraphilias that it ended up closer to than it did to allosexuality.

I also decided to look at some group membership. I’ve heard some anecdotes and seen some studies to suggest that autism might be associated with paraphilias. However, when looking into it, I didn’t find much effect:

Shifts in paraphilic and other sexual interests for autistic men. The left three variables are the general factor of paraphilia, allosexuality, and sociosexuality (measured in standard deviation units), while the variables on the right are the specific paraphilias used to estimate the GFP (measured in absolute units). Black bars represent standard errors in the estimate. The numbers in the title refer to the sample size for autistic vs non-autistic men.

If anything, the main thing characterizing autistic men is that they were much less allosexual than non-autistic men. My hunch is that this is the key; being less allosexual, the proportion of paraphilic to normophilic activities they engage in will be paraphilic-skewed.

Another group of interest would be polyamorous men:

Shift in paraphilic and other sexual interests for polyamorous men.

As can be seen, they are much more sociosexual, but also much more paraphilic, than monogamous men. This matches previous observations that I have seen about polyamorous people having a kink for their partner having sex with someone else.

I’ve seen some people suppose that homosexuality is a paraphilia. However, this doesn’t really seem to be so; or at least, gay men don’t seem all that particularly paraphilic:

Shift in paraphilic and other sexual interests for gay men.

Bisexual men, on the other hand, seem to be more paraphilic:

Shift in paraphilic and other sexual intersts for bisexual men.

This matches a hunch I’ve had for a while that bisexuality and homosexuality are more orthogonally related than continuously related. That is, I suspect that bisexuality results from a great level of sexual flexibility, or something like that.

We were also interested in the relationship between paraphilias and intelligence. Anecdotally, there seems to be a correlation between the two, with many of the communities that are highly paraphilic being known to also be highly intelligent. We had two measures of intelligence; first, we had asked people if they had ever taken an IQ test, and if so, what their score was; and secondly, we asked if they had taken the SAT, and if so, what their score was. The score was asked in broad buckets, with IQ being scored in buckets of 10 and SAT being scored in buckets of 100. Of the people who reported scores, most reported far above average, so YMMV if you believe that reddit is full of geniuses. But if you do believe the data, then I can say that there was moderate correlation between the two cognitive scores, at r~0.36. To get an overall cognitive score, I averaged them together.

Scatterplot containing intelligence and paraphilias. To reduce the degree to which points overlap due to low measurement fidelity, I did some slight reweighting before taking the averages so they would be more noisy, but there is probably still overlap.

There was no correlation between intelligence and paraphilias, r~-0.02. So there goes that theory.

Attraction to androgyny

A final thing to investigate is the structure of attraction to androgyny. In surveys I often find I want to ask about attraction to androgynous people, but I don’t know what dimensions exactly to include. On my request, this survey included a bunch of androgynous archetypes, and so I can factor-analyze them:

  • a woman who has a full beard and a lot of body hair
  • an otherwise feminine woman who is mainly into penetrating you using a strapon
  • an assertive, muscular woman with masculine interests (a tomboy)
  • an ambitious career-focused woman who has a high position in a business job
  • an “Amazonian” woman; a woman who is taller and stronger than you are
  • a woman who exclusively wears masculine clothes, has short hair, is socially dominant, coarse, and has masculine interests
  • a nerdy woman who is awkward and not very interested in people
  • a woman who has small breasts and narrow hips
  • a man who has very effeminate, “campy” mannerisms and speech (but who still presents masculine)
  • a physically androgynous man who often wears women’s clothes (a femboy)
  • a very short, narrow-shouldered man with a soft face
  • a sweet/caring unambitious man who wants to be a househusband and start a family
  • an otherwise masculine man who is mainly into being anally penetrated by you
  • a sensitive/emotional artistic man, who is physically slender and tends to daydream
  • a physically masculine man who finds it hot to wear women’s clothes during sex
  • a pre-operative passing trans woman (MtF, a feminine-looking woman with a penis)
  • a pre-operative passing trans man (FtM, a masculine-looking man with a vagina)
  • a passing trans woman who has had surgery to get a vagina (MtF)
  • a passing trans man who has had surgery to get a penis (FtM)
  • a very androgynous person who you can’t tell whether is male or female

For most of the above, the question asked was how arousing the participants would find it to have sex with the archetype. However, for the final archetype the question was how arousing they would find to make out with those of the archetype.

I also included a number of nonandrogynous controls:

  • a physically fit man who likes to engage in sports
  • an ambitious career-focused man who has a high position in a business job
  • a nerdy man who is awkward and not very interested in people
  • a sweet/caring motherly woman, who wants to be a housewife and start a family
  • a female cheerleader
  • an artistic, feminine woman

Overall, I found I could squeeze four factors out of it: attraction to men, to women, to masculine women, and to trans/androgynous people.

Bass-ackwards analysis of the archetype items for men. The factor analysis can be seen here.

When looking at the data, I got the impression that there was some nonlinear structure that couldn’t be accounted for by the factor analysis. Perhaps it’s just bisexuals being more into androgyny, but it might be worth looking into in the future.

Conclusion

This is a rich dataset, and I’ve probably only scratched the surface. If there’s anything specific you want me to investigate, consider contacting me on discord via tailcalled#7006. I’m likely to also make further blog posts in the future on the basis of this dataset. This is a pretty big and aimless blogpost, so I have to find some way to end it, and I’m deciding to do so here.


1. Strictly speaking I used principal component analysis rather than factor analysis. PCA tends to yield nearly identical results to FA, but is computationally more readily available.

2. The items originate from a variety of sources. Some were included due to having been used with success in previous surveys. I suggested some because I wanted to study attraction to androgyny. Pasha included some to study “pairs” of self-related and other-related items (e.g. attraction to bimbos vs to being a bimbo). In order to get a broad sample, I also used GPT-3 to brainstorm items, with me picking the most plausibly relevant ones out of a big set.

Revisiting the instrumental variables strategy for testing AGP GD causation

Autogynephilia correlates with cross-gender ideation, gender dysphoria, and other gender issues. Usually Blanchardians attribute this to autogynephilia causing gender issues, but critics point out that correlation!=causation, and often argue that it is instead gender issues that cause autogynephilia, because someone who wants to be a woman would also want to engage in sexual activities as a woman and such.

A while ago, I had the idea that we could test the causal relationship between AGP and GD by looking at people who are more or less kinky. Specifically, the idea was that while some could imagine that wanting to be a woman would cause autogynephilia, it wouldn’t make much sense for it to cause kinkiness in general. Therefore, if we observe a correlation between kinkiness and gender issues, it would make most sense for this to be due to a kinkiness -> AGP -> GD effect, and therefore it would support an AGP -> GD causality. I found such an association, and therefore concluded that there was support to the AGP -> GD effect.

Shortly after I wrote the post, Michael Bailey sent me an email criticizing it by pointing out that applying instrumental variables in this way can be problematic, linking to a paper where he made the critique in detail. Which in retrospect is pretty obvious; I even emphasized these sorts of problems in my blog post, but perhaps I didn’t take them seriously enough, considering that I did still attempt to do this.

I think I’ve come up with a way to fix the method, and test the AGP -> GD effect in a much more solid way. This blog post intends to give an introduction to this concept; I still need more data before I can definitely test it, but I can use the previous data as an illustration.

Empirical causal inference in science 101

The main point of doing research is to uncover causal relationships. A common problem in science is that you’ve got two variables X and Y (in this case, AGP and GD), and you want to figure out the causal effect of X on Y. To solve this problem, a broad range of methods have been developed. Enumerating them all can be daunting, but luckily they mostly tend to follow a pretty consistent formula: To identify the effect of X on Y, you isolate some cause of X and look at how Y varies as this cause varies. So for instance, when you do a randomized controlled experiment, the cause of X that you isolate is your experiment, and then you look at how Y varies from your control group to your experimental group.

https://cdn.substack.com/image/fetch/f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/https%3A%2F%2Fbucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fpublic%2Fimages%2F232226d4-353a-4231-ab30-ac13a4ae8333_756x358.png
Most forms of quantitative causal inference between variables X and Y involve finding some cause Xc of X that doesn’t suffer from problems due to confounding or reverse causation. See the blog post for details.

The core assumption that this method makes is that the cause you isolate is not correlated with the outcome of interest, other than via its effect on X. Putting the case of autogynephilia and gender dysphoria into this framework, my strategy was to isolate general kinkiness as a cause of autogynephilia, and then look at how gender dysphoria varies between non-kinky and highly kinky people. But one could easily question whether the assumption holds here; for instance, you might suspect that people who are more sexually open-minded are both more kinky and more likely to want to be the opposite sex. Or really, lots of other things.

In particular, part of the problem is that “kinkiness” is a particularly difficult sort of variable to use for this approach. If I take the average interest across a wide range of sexual interests, then the variable I am measuring is “whatever things contribute to a wide range of sexual interests”. This is a pretty unbounded category of causes; while I have trouble thinking of any one single thing that would go into it (libido maybe?), it also seems unlikely that this is definitely going to be unconfounded. My plan after writing the blog post was to start investigating these sorts of hypotheses, searching for confounders and adjusting for them. But ultimately the problem is that you only need a very tiny violation of the assumptions to get wrong results, and therefore this is not a viable strategy.

This is a general problem with figuring out the AGP <-> GD causality

I investigated the causal direction using general kinkiness as a root cause, but there are other attempts to figure out AGP <-> GD causality that fall into the same general category, and which encounters the same problems.

Consider for instance time as a cause of autogynephilia. Kids are, for complicated evolutionary reasons, not very sexual, with libido instead firing up at puberty. As such, Blanchardians might want to use the contrast between childhood gender issues and adulthood gender issues as a measure of the contribution of autogynephilia.1 This can be critiqued in a lot of ways, but perhaps the best critique is to point out that it’s far from obvious that this is unconfounded. Puberty is also a time where a lot of sexual differentiation happens, and where gender-related topics become relevant in new and different ways, so it’s very far from obvious that this is an unconfounded measure of the effect of AGP.

Another example involves relationship status. An AGP researcher I’ve talked to argued that you could use the differences in autogynephilia and gender issues between times where an autogynephile is single and times where the autogynephile is in a romantic relationship to estimate the effect of autogynephilia on gender issues.2 The idea is that some autogynephiles feel that they are more autogynephilic when they don’t have a girlfriend. Leaving aside the issue that I am kinda skeptical of the effect of relationship status on autogynephilia, it seems far from obvious to me that relationship status doesn’t influence gender issues through other means. It seems to definitely influence the pros and cons of transitioning, and it seems like someone who has more opportunity to transition would also have a greater interest in doing so. Which makes relationship status an invalid variable to use to estimate these things.

I think the problem pops up all the time in these debates. HRT, random variation in GD over time, shifts in GD when seeing or thinking about sexy women, etc.. Almost all the back-and-forth arguing about the validity of AGP models comes down to the issue that we’re trying to parse out causality from a bunch of proxy related variables, without having a definite idea of how these variables function.

It is worth saying that the problem is not that we know some specific confounding variable that makes the tests invalid. Rather, the bigger problem is that we have no idea how the variables are related, so there could easily be tons of confounders and unintended mediators that we don’t understand. These sorts of methods shouldn’t be taken lightly, with all the arguments mindlessly thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Rather, we need to take a step back and identify some more well-justified method for studying this.

Kan være et billede af udendørs og tekst, der siger "ENDOGENEITY Me adding more controls to my regression"

Recently, I decided that this whole class of methods was inherently flawed for investigating things, and looked into alternate methods of causal inference, most notably analogy-based reasoning. For instance, one such argument would be “we know autogynephilia is a sexual interest, and sexual interests cause desires, rather than being caused by the desires”. But these alternate methods have their own new and exciting difficulties to struggle with, so I haven’t been able to do anything definite with them. But as I mentioned in the beginning of the post, I’ve come up with a way to fix the standard approach for causal inference, so let’s get around to this.

Maybe we should just investigate how our causes work

So back to the matter at hand. We want to know the effect of autogynephilia on gender dysphoria. So to do this, we look at the causes of autogynephilia, and identify general paraphilic tendencies as a cause. But the problem is, we don’t know how general paraphilic tendencies work, so maybe they have some hidden correlation with gender dysphoria (e.g. via sexual openmindedness) that make our tests invalid.

The problem illustrated diagramatically. Each node represents a variable, and the arrows represent causal effects while the lines represent unknown effects. GFP refers to the general kinkiness variable that we estimate by asking people about a bunch of unrelated paraphilias. ??? refers to hidden confounders that may make our analysis invalid.

In fact, if we knew the strength of the hidden correlation, we could just subtract it off in order to make our tests valid again. There’s some asterisks here that should be taken into account, but I think it’s at least a promising path forward. But that raises the question, how do we figure out the hidden correlation between general paraphilia and gender issues?

The obvious way to figure out whether this is the case would be to correlate general paraphilic tendencies with gender issues. If there is some sort of connection between them, then that connection should show up as a correlation between the two. But of course the problem is, the connections between paraphilias and GD also include the kinkiness -> AGP -> GD connection, which is precisely the connection that we want to estimate. We would end up subtracting the correlation from itself, yielding zero no matter what.

So is there some way that we can figure out the kinkiness <-> GD correlation, minus the kinkiness -> AGP -> GD path? Here’s my idea: Just look at the correlation between kinkiness and GD in non-AGP men. If the men aren’t AGP, then the kinkiness -> AGP -> GD path cannot be in play. Next, subtract this off from the correlation between kinkiness and GD overall, and you get your causal estimate.

Rather than investigate the associations among all men, we can simply investigate the associations among non-AGP men. This doesn’t include the kink -> AGP -> GD path, allowing us to investigate potential confounders.

Results

I figured this method out a while ago now, and I had actually intended to do a separate survey to collect new data to test it. But then I started getting distracted, and I figured, hey, I’ve got the previous porn survey that I originally tested this method in, I might as well try it again on that data. Later we will discuss some reasons why this survey isn’t ideal, but it seems like a reasonable starting point.

So a bit of background, the dataset I’m going to analyze comes from a survey I posted to /r/SampleSize, titled “[Casual] Can you look at some porn For Science? Survey #5 (18+) NSFW”. In the survey, I showed people various erotic images containing men and women doing various erotic things. In addition to this, I also asked a number of questions, including questions about sexual interests and gender issues. I got about 1000 male responses, making it quite a large sample size. Which is good, because this method is incredibly data-intensive.

To measure general paraphilia, I had some items measuring sexual interests by asking about arousal on a rating scale from “Not at all” to “Very”. I took the average response to how aroused the participants said they would get by the following themes (alpha=0.52):

  • Being tied up by your partner
  • Exposing my 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

To measure autogynephilia, I took the average response to how aroused the pariticipants said they would get by the following themes (alpha=0.81):

  • 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

Those who answered “Not at all” to all of the above were categorized as non-AGP (n=316), while the remainder were classified as AGP (n=828).

To measure gender dysphoria, I had some items that asked about how masculine/feminine the participants were, with a rating scale going from “Disagree Strongly” to “Agree Strongly”. Among those, I used the following two to assess gender issues (alpha=0.61):

  • As a child I wanted to be the opposite sex
  • I feel I would be better off if I was the opposite sex

Among non-AGPs, the correlation between GFP and GD was 0.02 (with a standard error of 0.06 according to bootstrap). This could be taken to indicate that there was no confounding between GFP and GD at all, though make sure to read the rest of the blog post to see an asterisk with this interpretation. Among AGPs, the correlation between GFP and GD was 0.15 (SE 0.03). Therefore, subtracting them yielded a correlation of 0.13 (SE 0.07).

This 0.13 number is pretty low, but it is the value for the GFP -> AGP -> GD path, not for the AGP -> GD step of it. To get the latter, I divide out by the GFP <-> AGP correlation among AGP men. This is a correlation of 0.37 (SE 0.03), yielding a value of 0.35 (SE 0.2) as the causal effect of autogynephilia on gender issues among autogynephiles.

This effect is technically not an effect for the whole sample, but instead only among the subset that are autogynephilic. I can assume it simply linearly extrapolates to the entire sample, in which case I get a total effect of 0.36 (SE 0.2). If I subtract this off from the original correlation of 0.45 (SE 0.03) between autogynephilia and gender issues, that leaves an effect of 0.1 (SE 0.2) that isn’t explained by the AGP -> GD effect. So this examination indicates that 80% of the correlation between autogynephilia and gender issues is causal AGP -> GD.

Evaluation

And here’s the bad news: the effect of 0.36 is not statistically significant. That’s not to say that it’s too “small” to be important or something like that. Rather, statistical significance is a technical term used to describe when the sample size is big enough that it would be hard for the result to have been achieved by chance, just from randomly picking people who happen to align with the theory. In order for a result to be statistically significant, it must be the case that if there were no effect, you’d only get results as extreme as that result 5% of the time. But that would require our effect to be greater than 0.4, which it is not.

The good news is that the remaining correlation of 0.1 also wasn’t statistically significant. It would have to exceed 0.38 to be significant, which it very much did not.

What this lack of significance means is that this survey isn’t the final step in the story. We need to collect more, bigger data. Compared to just going with the direct correlation, this method needs very large sample sizes. I would estimate that this method requires about 15x as many participants as the more straightforward methods, though it depends very much on the details.

We also need better data. The paraphilia and gender issues measures used in this survey were very low-quality. I’ve been working on better measures, but I could still use improvements. The autogynephilia measure is also kind of ad-hoc, and could benefit from more coherence and thought.

It may also help to get more controls. If we can better account for other factors that influence gender dysphoria, then that can let us estimate the effects more precisely for autogynephilia. It may also be that we can somehow combine this with my analogy-based methods to improve things.

It should also be noted that this method can be used for other things than autogynephilia theory too. For instance, it could likely be used to test the “autoandrophobia” theory that is often brought up by critics of autogynephilia. This theory is rarely explicated, but I did once talk with a trans woman who gave me her idea of it. In that variant, people end up with certain random things that they are disgusted by, similar to how people end up with certain random things that they find erotic; and if one then ends up finding having male traits to be disgusting, then that would cause gender dysphoria. This theory could be tested by replacing the general factor of paraphilia with a general factor of disgust sensitivity, and replacing autogynephilia with autoandrophobia.

Finally, let’s take a discussion of the potential problems and assumptions with this method. This is going to get technical, so I guess be warned about that. After the discussion of problems.

Conditioning is not a counterfactual

This first point is kind of abstract, so let’s instead discuss my favorite statistical paradox, Berkson’s paradox. I like the examples given in this twitter thread: Why are handsome men jerks? Why don’t standardized test scores predict university performance great? Why are movies based on good books usually bad? Why are smart students less athletic? Why do taller NBA players not perform better at basketball?

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Ew7SkFMU8AcxUam?format=jpg&name=large
Stolen slide illustrating Berkson’s paradox. By selecting a subset of the population, you introduce a negative correlation between the variables you select on.

If we filter our sample on the basis of some set of variables, then that filtering introduces a ton of spurious correlations between all of the variables that are upstream of our filtering. The usual pattern will be negative correlations between the causes, but we might have other things going on, depending on the specific details.

So when we compute things for the non-AGP and AGP men separately, we may very well introduce some additional correlations that don’t correspond to anything real. How big of a problem is this? Lemme give you my threat model, to evaluate what happens.

Threat model: AGP merely reflects a kinky way to express gender feelings. The association between the GFP and GD is not due to GFP -> AGP -> GD, but instead due to some underlying common cause, e.g. sexual open-mindedness or something abstract like that.

The most common critique of the AGP->GD hypothesis is to claim that it makes more sense for there to be a GD->AGP effect. If we then filter for those who are not AGP, then that seems like it should lead to exactly the sorts of classical Berkson’s paradox effect that I’ve brought up here: You would only be included in the sample if you are not AGP, which you would be unlikely to be if you were both kinky and GD, so you’d have to either be neither kinky nor GD, be only kinky, or be only GD. Further, if you were only GD, then you would probably need to be less kinky than average to cancel it out, while if you were only kinky, then you would probably need to be less GD than average to cancel it out. So this could explain why we got a correlation of 0.02 between kinkiness and gender issues among non-AGPs; maybe the “true” correlation was higher, but it was masked by the filter effect.

So that seems like a problem. But, this isn’t the only filtering we did. We also looked at the correlation between AGP and GD among AGP men, and subtracted off the correlations from each other. Thus, if the Berkson’s paradox effect is equally big for both of them, it should cancel out. Could that be the case? And if it isn’t the case, could we estimate the discrepancy and adjust for it?

Here’s one condition where it would be the case: All of the variables are normally distributed and linearly related, and when we filter for non-AGP men, we take the men who have below-average amounts of AGP, while when we filter for AGP men, we take the men who have above-average amounts of AGP. Because we’d then be filtering equally strongly when we took the below-average and above-average AGPs, it would exactly cancel out, and there would be nothing to be concerned about.

The problem with this condition is that it’s obviously wrong. For instance, the distribution of AGP looks like this:

That looks extremely non-normal to me.

But there are many ways that it could be rescued. Suppose, for instance, that you believe the participants see being a woman as having some degree of eroticism, which may be negative or positive, and suppose that a man ends up AGP if he sees being a woman as having a positive degree of eroticism. In that case, you’d expect to see some sort of distribution similar to the above, where there’s a large spike around 0, and a distribution above this. Further, if you believe that there are many factors that influence the latent eroticism (and you almost must, considering that we can’t find any factors that predict AGP), then it seems reasonably to suppose that this is normally distributed, as tends to happen in polyfactorial cases due to the central limit theorem. So in this model you would have AGP expressed as follows:

AGP = max(0, kinkiness + gender issues + ..?other factors?..)

An alternative would be a conjunctive model. The previous model assumes that if there is some factor that influences the latent eroticism of being a woman strongly enough, then that factor alone can cause AGP, by overpowering the other factors. But what if instead you think that factors need to interact to cause AGP? A simplistic example might be that if you are AGP if you are kinky and open to being a woman; but other more nuanced models are possible. Here you would express AGP as a product:

AGP = kinkiness * gender issues * ..?other factors?..

(Here, all of the factors would need to be positive; otherwise you get bizarre inversions where if a factor gets negative then all of the other factors end up having the opposite effect.)

It turns out that these models are approximately isomorphic! Specifically, first notice that the maximum function and the exponential function have approximately the same shape for small input values:

Shapes of the maximum function and the exponential function.

Therefore, we can approximately replace the first model with the following:

AGP = exp(kinkiness + gender issues + ..?other factors?..) = exp(kinkiness) * exp(gender issues) * …

Applying the exponential function to the other factors is exactly what is necessary to turn them strictly positive, as is expected by the conjunctive model. Overall I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of different models for how things could interact, and most of them seem like they end up approximately isomorphic to this model (though I’m open to hearing counterexamples if you have any), so I think it’s probably okay to use.3

So to recap, what this implies is that the Berkson’s paradox effect will be equally big if we filter equally hard on the AGP category and on the non-AGP category, which will happen if we have equally many in each of the categories.

And that’s actually part of the problem with the porn survey. I had 316 men in the non-AGP category, and 828 men in the AGP category, so that means only 28% of the respondents were non-AGP. Meanwhile, in the general population, about 3%-15% of men are AGP and the rest are non-AGP. So in neither case, I would end up with an even split. However, on reddit, the proportion of AGPs is actually often quite close to 50%, so it might be doable there. (I’m not sure what happened in the porn survey – I suspect it’s just that AGPs are horny.) Otherwise, it might also be interesting to look into whether there are any mathematical ways to adjust for the asymmetry.

Nonlinearities kill

Part of the assumption made in this method is that whichever confounders there may be between kinkiness and gender issues work the same way in AGPs and non-AGPs. If this is true, then I think the approach is in pretty good standing. However, what if they don’t? Suppose for instance that we have some sort of situation like this:

That is, suppose gender dysphoria is caused by some sort of neurological feminization (it’s not particularly important that this is so, but I had to pick some concrete variable), and suppose that gender issues arise from this. But suppose further that sexual openmindedness (or whatever, the particular variable isn’t very important) moderates this effect, such that the effect of ladybrains on gender issues is stronger for those who are sexually openminded (maybe the others repress, or are unwilling to admit their gender issues, or whatever).

In that case, AGPs would be more likely than non-AGPs to have ladybrains, and therefore the confounding between GFP and GD would be stronger for them. Which would lead to my method concluding that AGP causes GD, even though in this case it doesn’t.

It would probably be a good idea to evaluate how sensitive this method is to nonlinearities. In additions, ways of making it more robust should be evaluated. Further, in the context of nonlinearities, it should be noted that the method sort of relies on something nonlinear-like going on. I split on the basis of AGP vs non-AGP, with the logic being that the GFP can’t influence AGP among non-AGPs. But for there to be some context where the GFP can’t influence AGP, there must be a nonlinear relationship between the GFP and AGP.

Estimation shenanigans

When I computed the effects, I did all sorts of subtractions of correlations and such from each other. This isn’t strictly valid; the correct way to adjust for the confounding between GFP and GD depends on the nature of how the confounding works, leading to a spectrum of possible adjustments. Furthermore, if variances differ (for instance, there’s more variance in AGP among AGPs than among non-AGPs, as non-AGPs have 0 variance in AGP), then using correlations rather than regression coefficients is invalid.

In fact, if I take this last point into account and reevaluate the coefficient from the data, then I get an effect size of 0.38 (SE 0.17), which just barely manages to be statistically significant. But this isn’t the only estimation shenanigan I did, and in order for the results to be believable, it would be good to go through and see if the estimation can be made more accurate. In cases where we don’t have sufficient information to make it more accurate, we should try varying the assumptions to see how sensitive it is to them.

Overall, due to all of these complications, this should merely be seen as a proof of concept, and not necessarily as a finished, definite solution. But I think the trick I presented in this post, of comparing the effect in AGPs and non-AGPs, make me more open to the possibility that this class of methods for causal inference may be workable for deciding the validity of AGP->GD causality.


1. From the perspective of Blanchardian theory, what would be most convenient would be if AGPs didn’t have any childhood gender issues at all, because this would seriously cast doubt on the possibility of GD -> AGP. However, pursuing this argument is not very viable, because when pressed, Blanchardians admit that often times, AGPs do have some gender issues in childhood.

Blanchardians argue that this may be analogous to how children sometimes end up with childhood crushes, with the childhood gender issues corresponding to a sort of romantic ideation. Which, sure, whatever, seems like a fair enough possibility. But it complicates the idea of using time as a cause of autogynephilia for causal inference, and Blanchardians should stop making this argument.

2. The idea behind this proposal is that autogynephilia and gynephilia “compete”; at times where someone is more sexually engaged with women, they don’t have enough “left-over attraction” to be attracted to being women. I have not seen much convincing theory or hard data supporting this; as far as I can tell, it’s solely based on some clinical anecdotes. I don’t really buy it, which makes me extra critical about using it to estimate these things.

3. One interesting thought that comes up here is the question of, if there’s a continuous liability of eroticizing being female, is it really only the positive part that affects things? For instance, you could imagine that the negative part represents finding AGP themes to be a direct “turnoff”. But the estimation method I came up with ends up assuming that there is no effect in the negative part of the spectrum, and attributing any effect there is found to confounding. From a theory point of view, if there is such a thing as “negative AGP”, then that would obviously disprove Blanchardianism.