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.