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Book Review: Men Trapped in Men's Bodies (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 3 part review. Part 1 Part 2

Autogynephilia and sexuality

The relationship between autogynephilia and other parts of the autogynephile's sexuality are varied. Lawrence spends a lot of time on this, but I don't find it particularly interesting or enlightening in most respects, so I'll just leave you with a few key points.

Since autogynephilia appears to be a misfiring version of heterosexuality, it unsurprisingly coexists with it; however, it also competes with it in various ways. In different people, the following are all possible:

  1. Normal heterosexuality is present most of the time, except during an autogynephilic "episode"; autogynephilic feelings are ended by orgasm.

  2. Normal heterosexuality and autogynephilia coexist, with soft rather than sharp boundaries, or some blending. Autogynephilic feelings may go away temporarily while falling in love with a woman.

  3. As (1), but autogynephilia is dominant and only temporarily goes away after orgasm.

  4. Normal heterosexual attraction to women exists, but orgasm is only possible while having an autogynephilic fantasy.

  5. Romantic attraction to women exists, but only autogynephilic fantasies/behaviors are sexually arousing.

  6. Complete absence of romantic or sexual attraction to anyone except a female version of oneself.

I wasn't able to get a good sense of how common each of these was except that the last was relatively rarer, and the first wouldn't be common among MtF transsexuals since they would be less likely to transistion.

Autogynephilic transsexuals' interpretations of autogynephilia

While a frankly shocking number of respondents (selection bias?) expressed that their autogynephilic sexual feelings were the dominant factor in their transition or desire for transition, most respondents, while acknowledging their autogynephilia, gave it an alternative interpretation or attributed to it a lower degree of significance.

Some of these alternative interpretations are present in the discourse, and seem to represent an attempt to rationalize the reality of autogynephilia in the context of the prevailing dogma of the transgender movement. Lawrence catalogues and argues against these briefly; since they are probably of interest I'll summarize them here.

  1. Autogynephilia is a symptom, not a cause, of transsexualism. This is the idea that gender dysphoria precedes autogynephilia, and that autogynephilia is a somehow a response to the female gender identity or to gender dysphoria, such as an escapist fantasy. This position is contradicted by the evidence that autogynephilia generally precedes the female gender identity, and doesn't explain why the fantasy of becoming female is so erotic.

  2. Autogynephilia can't be part of the reason for desire to be female because nonsexual desires preceded puberty. Lawrence appeals to the fact that sexual feelings can and often do start before puberty, including in many of the transsexuals cited in the book, as a counterargument, as well as to the unreliability of memory and testimony in such cases. I don't think this is a knock-down argument against the second part of the statement, but at any rate the first part just doesn't follow.

  3. Autogynephila is just the sexualization of childhood cross-gender wishes (for coincidental or idiosyncratic reasons). Lawrence's response here seems to be bewilderment, and I'm inclined to agree; these reasons seem like so many just-so stories, many of which are bizzare in their leaps of logic.

  4. Autogynephilia can't be the reason for transition, because it feels incidental / something else seems more important. But while the direct motivations might not be autogynephilia, this ignores the role that autogynephilia likely played in the development of the more immediate reasons.

  5. Autogynephilia is just part of normal female sexuality. This one shows up a lot, due to a couple of studies which seemed to find autogynephilia in natal women. I recall that Scott drew a similar conclusion from a question on one of his SSC reader surveys. The problem with those studies (and Scott's has a similar issue), according to Lawrence (p 176), is that they do not

adequately differentiate between being aroused by wearing sexually provocative clothing or by imagining that potential romantic partners might find one attractive (which some natal women apparently do experience) and being sexually aroused simply by the idea that one is a woman or has a woman’s body (which natal women arguably rarely or never experience).

  1. Transsexualism is due to a feminized brain in a male body. This is of course one of the "standard" theories, but makes no sense in the context of autogynephilic transsexuals who are within the normal-male distribution in everything except for wanting to be feminine.

Non-transsexual autogynephiles

Lawrence devotes a chapter to the testimonies of the of non-transsexual autogynephiles who responded to the survey. With a few exceptions (such as the people who just wanted to have breasts, but nothing else) they were very similar to those of the transsexuals, only somewhat less so. The primary distinguishing factor is that they had not made the decision to transition, for various reasons. This is further evidence for Lawrence's conclusion (which really ought to be the default one) that autogynephilic transsexualism, autogynephilia in heterosexual men, and fetishistic transvestism are all regions in the same general cluster ("part of a spectrum" as they say), differing by degree and specifics more than kind.

Lawrence talks about clinical implications

At the end of the book we come to Lawrence's suggestions for what can and should be done in clinical care. Given that Lawrence is an advocate of Blanchard's theories and thus not in good graces with the trans activists, perhaps you can guess what they are...

I'll spare you the tedious scrolling. Yeah, it's a trick question. Here are a few things Lawrence proposes:

  • Transition (including SRS) is a good way to manage the gender dysphoria associated with autogynephilic transsexualism.

  • Cross-sex hormones are a good way of both giving men with less severe autogynephilia some of what they want (feminization) while also reducing their libido and thus (sometimes) the intensity of their autogynephilia.

  • Autogynephilia should be destigmatized, and presented according to Lawrence's theory that it is a sexual orientation and not just a paraphilia.

  • Puberty blockers in adolescence should be used more for autogynephilic boys, so that if they decide to transition they can have more feminine bodies and do so at an early enough age that they don't have baggage.

  • Autogynephilic adolescents should be given an environment supportive of things like cross-dressing, so that they can develop cross-gender identities more quickly and so be comfortable with (and eligible for) transition at an earlier age.

I'm afraid I disagree on all counts. (Well, I'm not exactly happy with the stigmatization part, but given the other items I suspect I don't envision the same sort of destigmatization that Lawrence does.) I guess the difference is that Lawrence is transsexual and thinks that it's a good thing, whereas I'm not and don't.

Also from this section, I can't resist quoting the following related, and rather incisive, bit about the attitudes of the trans activists and the associated medical industry (p 209):

Thirty or 40 years ago, mental health professionals who specialized in treating gender identity problems used to argue that paraphilic men—autogynephiles—who sought sex reassignment were not acceptable candidates because they were not genuinely transsexual. Nowadays, their successors seemingly want to argue that paraphilic men—autogynephiles—who seek sex reassignment have become acceptable candidates because they are not genuinely paraphilic!

My own final thoughts on autogynephilia

As I indicated early on, I think that autogynephilia is both real (personal experience is hard to deny on this one) and likely to be a key driver for a good fraction -- probably half in the eighties and a substantially higher proportion now -- of MtF transitions. Lawrence persuasively argues that autogynephilia is deeply tied up with the feelings (cross-gender wishes and identity, gender dysphoria, and so on) that lead to transition even when it is not the consciously-experienced primary motivation. But I disagree somewhat with the overall picture Lawrence paints.

Lawrence's model seems to be the following:

(Male heterosexual + ETLE) -> (autogynephilia) -> (cross-gender wishes and behaviors) -> (cross-gender identity and gender dysphoria)

where autogynephilia is understood in the "sexual orientation" sense that includes both overt lust but also some kind of romantic attraction to the feminized image of oneself and some sort of pair-bonding to that feminized self.

I'm skeptical about both "erotic target location error" and "autogynephilia as sexual orientation". The first honestly sounds quite a bit like "dormitive potency" (it's an unenlightening description, not an explanation) and the second seems like it doesn't quite cover the right territory. It seems to me that the model is stuck in a worldview where the explicitly sexual elements of things are the most basic and real, and everything else is just accretions around that.

My model is somewhat more complicated, but the gist is that the core thing is a whole complex of self-reinforcing desires all around the theme of "desire to be female/feminine", of which autogynephilia proper (the sexual arousal) is a very important part, but not necessarily more fundamental than the rest. Hence we see some people for whom the autogynephilia-proper seems to exist almost as an afterthought, or is even felt to be fundamentally undesirable (maybe because it spoils the "purity" of the rest of the fantasy), and others for whom it is almost the whole thing, as well as different times and places of emergence of various aspects of the desire, with sometimes the sexual preceding and sometimes succeeding cross-gender wishes. That is, the cross-gender wishes are at the same fundamental level as the sexual desire, and are mutually reinforcing with it, rather than being a simple consequence of it. I also disfavor ETLE as an description of what's gone wrong. I think that normal heterosexual desires-for femininity, including, of course, the purely sexual/lust part, "bleeding into" an abnormal desire-to-be female/feminine, is a more helpful way to think of it. But that may be mostly a difference in philosophical disposition.

Responding to Questions

I'm willing to answer questions in the comments. This includes questions about my own experience, if you think they'd be enlightening (I kept my experience out of the review itself since (a) I'm not transsexual, and (b) it seemed a bit too much like navel-gazing).

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Have you read Andrea Long Chu's essay "On Liking Women" in N+1?

She argues that the grammar of LGBT activism is wrong, people can't experience identity, they experience desire and deduce identity from that. She depicts being a trans woman less as "looking inside herself and knowing she is a woman" and more as "wanting to be a woman". She says something that might be considered ETLE, along the lines of 'I've never been able to separate liking women from wanting to be like them" but her examples are more about intense social bonds and wanting to fit in with female friend groups than AGP fantasies. The experience of "I admire and feel like I belong with this set of people and want to change myself to be like them" is a pretty common story of identity formation that seems more generalizable than the standard trans narrative, but less demanding of political sympathy.

I do think that autogynephillia as a distinct thing from typical female sexuality exists, but I'm not convinced it's as easily disentangled as the quoted rebuttal suggests. You need to have some sort of model of what 'normal' female sexuality is like to refute the idea that trans people aren't doing what we would predict someone with normal female sexuality to do in a male body. If we came up with some sort of brain transplant machine and put a straight cis-woman in a man's body we might expect her to fantasize about being back in her female body.

Male heterosexuality is very much about object lust for the female body, the reverse is a component of female heterosexual desire but given the popularity of non visual and more narrative pornography with women it seems less central than the experience of being desired (by someone who is worth being desired by). Wanting to "be desired" seems continuous with wanting to "be desirable" and women will talk about abstractly liking "feeling sexy" independent from having sex.

As your quote indicates some cis-women become aroused by wearing lingerie, presumably because they are imagining being found attractive by a partner. You could pathologize this and say that they have invented a male persona who they have fallen in love with and are aroused by imagining being desired by this persona. But humans are status seeking monkeys and being high status (desirable) feeling good in some way doesn't seem pathological to me.

So now is the typical trans woman experiencing something like this, where having female genitalia is arousing because they imagine it will make them more desirable to others, or are they experiencing a version of male lust for the female body as an object? I don't know how you'd answer that on a survey. I'd look at the behavior of post-op transgender people, are they compulsive masturbators and sex addicts constantly aroused by living out their greatest fantasy, or do they seek out relationships with others in which their body is (in part) an object of desire.

[Andrea Long Chu] says something that might be considered ETLE, along the lines of 'I've never been able to separate liking women from wanting to be like them" but her examples are more about intense social bonds and wanting to fit in with female friend groups than AGP fantasies

I find that extremely difficult to reconcile with Chu's most famous quote from their book “Females”:

“To be a sissy is always to lose your mind. The technical term for this is bimboification. Captions often instruct viewers to submit themselves to hypnosis, brainwashing, brain-melting, dumbing down, and other techniques for scooping out intelligence.

The gestures most often looped in GIF format almost always register the evacuation of will: wilting faces, trembling legs, eyes rolled back into heads. Even the GIF format itself communicates this, a kind of centrifuge for distilling the femaleness to its barest essentials — an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes. Sissy porn did make me trans.”

This has nothing to do with social bonding: it's 100% sexual objectification of the female body. It reads exactly like the sort of thing a pornsick male would write while furiously masturbating. I'm not saying that's morally wrong, but it shows that these males have a porn fantasy first, and a desire to fit in with the girls comes secondary, at best.

Anecdotally, people with a fetish for bimboification seem to be almost exclusively male. As you also mentioned, women are typically very selective about who they sexually desire, while men fantasize about indiscriminate and frequent sex is. The biological/evolutionary reasons behind this difference between the sexes are obvious. So transwomen with a bimboification fetish, like Chu, strike me as extremely male-brained.

You need to have some sort of model of what 'normal' female sexuality is like to refute the idea that trans people aren't doing what we would predict someone with normal female sexuality to do in a male body. If we came up with some sort of brain transplant machine and put a straight cis-woman in a man's body we might expect her to fantasize about being back in her female body.

I’m sure that in her sexual fantasies, she would be female-bodied. Those fantasies would, however, probably involve a brooding billionaire outlaw vampire who found her irresistibly desirable in the course of their mission undercover as a married couple. Or something. They almost certainly would not involve manicures, makeup, leg shaving, plain cotton panties, menstruation, or similar details of ordinary life as a woman.

I won’t say no natal woman has ever gotten off on these things. There are billions of us, and people can be very peculiar. Livejournal and then Tumblr were both female- and misfit-dominated, and they are overflowing with fanfiction, much of which is porn. I’m sure examples could be found.

But it was a bit of a cliche on those sites that, when a novelist introduces a female character doing normal female things like getting ready for the day, and her every move is narrated like erotica - She drew on her jeans… one leg. after. the other. As she descended the stairs, she felt her tits gently bounce. etc - then, “Oh my god, you just know a man wrote this.”