Response to Fleming on ETLE

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

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

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

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

How well-proven is ETLE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autogynephilia in gay men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autogynephilia in cis women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather I see some alternative benefits:

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

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

Other stuff

There’s a couple of other minor points:

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