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.