Response to Contrapoints on Autogynephilia

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

Contrapoints misrepresents autogynephilia theory

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

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

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

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

From autogynephilia to dysphoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does autogynephilia entail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contradictions on Feminine Essence Theory

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

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

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

HSTS vs AGP

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

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

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

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

Smaller Issues

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

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

Conclusion

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

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What is an “identity”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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