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

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

Dishonesty about the history of autogynephilia

Julia Serano starts out with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignorance about male autogynephiles

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

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

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

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

Serano’s nonsense scenarios

Serano proposes another argument in her article:

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

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

She then follows this up with a couple of scenarios.

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

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

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

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

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

Serano’s own article is evidence for the Dregerian narrative

Julia Serano introduces the Dregerian narrative:

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

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

Serano brings up a number of examples too:

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

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

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