This is a point that I find myself repeating, so I thought it would be a good idea to write it up in a blog post. A kind of annoying problem that I run into when reasoning and communicating about autogynephilia is that, well, it’s not very well defined.
As everyone reading this likely knows, autogynephilia originates in the study of transsexuality. Trans women were observed to have various peculiar sexual behaviors and fantasies, with the most common observation being transvestic fetishism. However, Blanchard noticed that usually, it didn’t seem like the point of it was the clothes, but instead that it was more about being a woman, in that the fantasies often included imagining having female anatomy and such. Thus was born the idea of autogynephilia; a sexual interest in being a woman.
The problem I have is, autogynephilia is always studied under weird conditions. For instance, suppose you study some cultural group, such as men from a crossdresser club, or self-identified autogynephilic trans women. In that case, you’re not just studying autogynephilia; you’re also studying the cultural group, with all of peculiarities that come with it. It seems to me that there is very little self-awareness in Blanchardian circles that this is done. I think this is a big contributor to the problems mentioned in this blog post, but it’s probably not the sole contributor.
The boundary of autogynephilia is vaguely set
Anyway, there’s some phenomena that get lumped under autogynephilia, but what defines the extent of the term? It clearly must include transvestic fetishism and anatomic autogynephilia, since this is historically what it derives from and since these are still to this day considered to be core signs of autogynephilia.
But consider my observation that the most common fantasies among autogynephiles appear to be of engaging in fairly standard sexual scenarios as women; should this be considered autogynephilic? Presumably not necessarily, but presumably yes under some conditions, right? Maybe if the focus is on your own female body during those fantasies? Maybe if you have them as a male who is not intending to transition? I would say yes to both of these.
Or let’s go back to the question of anatomic autogynephilia. What exactly is the appeal here? Being more feminized, being a woman, being attractive according to your own preferences, something else? These are pretty similar, but they get subtly different in edge-cases. But these edge-cases aren’t necessarily super obscure; while “being more feminized” and “being a woman” might have a lot of overlap among cis men, it may have less overlap among some trans women, who live and look like cis women. For them, is autogynephilia about being hyperfeminized, or about their current lived body, or about something else? There’s a lack of well-defined sufficient and necessary conditions here.
The phenomenon of autogynephilia is vaguely characterized
I think autogynephilic fantasies in cis men is pretty well-defined. While I’m kind of critical about traditional descriptions of it (like the five-type anatomic/transvestic/interpersonal/behavioral/physiological distinction) that focus on more extreme cases in more obscure communities, if you combine those descriptions with the qualitative survey I did, you get a pretty broad but also practically grounded idea of what autogynephilia can involve there.
However, what about trans women? Trans women often report changes in the focus of their sexuality with transition, but it’s not very well documented what goes on there. Some trans women are open about autogynephilia, but it seems logical to conclude that those who are less in denial about it also have more extreme forms that are harder to deny. Plus, the autogynephilia they are open about may intersect with other sexual interests. Despite being to a large degree a theory about trans women’s sexuality, we don’t know how autogynephilia presents in trans women.
Ideally, we would have in-depth, qualitative study of post-transition AGP trans women’s sexuality, without introducing selection bias towards those who are more openly AGP. This has not been done; it’s probably pretty hard to do perfectly, but it could probably be better approximated than has been done currently.
Or let’s go back to the cis men. Sure, their autogynephilic fantasies might be reasonably well-understood. But it’s often proposed that autogynephilia involves other elements, some of which may be more attachment-based or emotional. While these have been anecdotally documented by various people working with crossdressers, these are again going to be a sample selected for being more extreme in this dimension. These are things that need to be understood better.
The theory of autogynephilia is vaguely understood
There’s really a whole bunch of different ways that autogynephilia gets characterized across contexts. Some of these are subtly different, while others are very different. Let’s try to list some conceptions:
- Inverted gynephilia: Gynephiles are attracted to women in a wide range of ways, from seeing them to having sex with them. For autogynephiles, this attraction is inverted, such that whatever they as a gynephile would find attractive for a woman, is something the autogynephile they would find attractive as a woman.
- Symbolic autogynephilia: There are various things that people associate with womanhood, such as feminine clothes, female bodies, exaggeratedly feminine or female-only things, etc.. Autogynephiles are attracted to associating themselves with the things that they associate with womanhood.
- Autosexual gynephilia: Autogynephiles are attracted to themselves as women. They have some image of themselves as women in their mind, or they actualize this image in their body or presentation, and they are sexually attracted to this in much the same way as anyone might be sexually attracted to any person.
- Mimicry autogynephilia: When autogynephiles form images of or encounter attractive women, their target ends up being like them. It’s not really about themselves as women, because if they were female, they would not be focusing on themselves, but instead be focusing on other women that they would continue to desire to be like.
- Genderbending autogynephilia: Autogynephilia are interested in transforming from men to women. This is part of a more general interest in genderbending and androgyny, as can be observed from e.g. their attraction to transsexuals.
To me, inverted gynephilia seems to match the fantasies in the qualitative survey pretty well. And it also seems like the simplest and most plausible model. But there are some aspects and presentations of autogynephilia that it doesn’t account well for. Another possibility is that autogynephilia isn’t really one thing, but is instead a mixture of all of the above.
Blanchardians don’t really seem to have converged on an option here. A lot of these could go under the label of “erotic target location error”, but probably inverted gynephilia is the most straightforward translation of this concept. When Lawrence insists that it is the “mere thought of being a woman” that is interesting to AGP, that more seems to resemble symbolic autogynephilia.
I think pinning this down would actually be pretty important to making the theory more describable to trans women. While it’s easy enough to describe how it functions in cis men without resorting to theory, just by describing the observed phenomena, this might not straightforwardly extrapolate to trans women, as e.g. all of the previous theories give relatively similar results when applied to cis men, but wildly different results when applied to trans women.
To some degree, if we just studied the phenomena in trans women, we could ignore the theory and just present trans women with the resulting phenomena. But this feels a bit circular; ideally we would be able to deduce, from theory of what autogynephilia is, how it presents in trans women.
How to fix this
To some degree, this is a question of definition. As in, probably setting the boundary will always be a bit arbitrary, and there’s no absolute right and wrong way to do it. However, setting useful boundaries will be easier if we have some more data, so that we have a good idea of what we are including and excluding. And data can also help guide theory, which can help guide definitions.
In various places, such as the book Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, there’s already some documentation of how the most striking examples of autogynephilia in trans women might work. But this book was specifically created by asking trans women to submit their own stories and self-descriptions; this runs into the problem that trans women who have subtler presentations of autogynephilia might be more likely to deny to themselves that they are really autogynephilic, and so fail to get included in the book. But this means that when autogynephilia is understood in terms of what is included in the book, the trans women with subtler presentations of AGP may find it hard to relate. So since there’s already plenty of striking examples, the goal should more be to spend time collecting standard, more-representative examples of autogynephilia in trans women.
And in cis men too – I’ve got the qualitative survey, but it’s really kind of limited. Most of the respondents only presented one autogynephilic fantasy, but presumably they have more. Ideally we would get a more concrete idea of the general range of their sexuality, by exploring their interest in a broader variety of fantasies. This could tell us something about the degree to which different fantasies “go together”, and maybe get us closer to “necessary and sufficient” conditions for AGP.