I mentioned a few posts back that I’d dallied with Twitter recently. I closed my account eventually because I found the aggression associated with much activity on the platform to be upsetting. People who had never met me, or even exchanged messages with me, would assert confidently and aggressively that I was AGP (an autogynephile). The assertion carried an implicit moral judgement – when I’m out and about, or in the ladies changing room trying on a new dress, I’m all aroused and isn’t it disgusting to think about that sort of behaviour? Things spread like a contagion around Twitter, where the vector is the sharing of microscopic and carefully selected snippets of information. These conceptual bacteria are selected because they suit people’s prejudices, and they get tweeted and retweeted, until one rapidly has a group of folk who share a common perspective that is fed by an entirely unbalanced information-gathering system, leading them not to a consensus, but rather, to its inverse.
The concept of autogynephilia provides a convenient heuristic for trans-haters. I’ve written at length about it elsewhere on this site. The idea originates with Canadian psychologist Ray Blanchard, who hypothesised that there were two types of gender dysphoric individual: those who were attracted to men, or androphilic gender dysphorics, and those who were attracted to women. Blanchard hypothesised that the majority of the latter group were autogynephiles. He defined an autogynephile to be somebody who is erotically attracted to the idea of themself as a woman. He calls it an “erotic target location error” – a paraphilia.
In the debate about gender identity, the idea has proved to be dynamite: as trans people have come out and asserted their right to exist and enjoy protections in law, there has been a parallel movement to explain away transgender identities as fetishistic behaviour. Blanchard’s hypothesis of autogynephilia has provided a scientific framework with which to debunk the notion that transwomen are people expressing an inner sense that they have a feminine identity; the autogynephilia hypothesis (it is argued) suggests its just a sexual kink.
“AGP” has metamorphosed into an easy put-down. Are you attracted to men? If the answer is no then you must be AGP, because Blanchard proved it. For some transsexuals the concept has proved attractive. There are those who wish to prove themselves to be “really” trans. Have you had surgery? Maybe you’re AGP. Not had surgery and not gay? You really are AGP. The willingness of those who are also gender dysphoric to be so quick to judge people they have never known is particularly upsetting.
Then there are those transsexuals who are believe that they are best described as autogynephiles. There is Anne Lawrence, whose work I’ve dealt with elsewhere, or Miranda Yardley in the UK. Miranda is outspoken and thoughtful on many issues, and she addresses fearlessly issues that are not addressed honestly by much of the transgender community. However, she also falls prey to the desire to mass-diagnose people she has never met as AGP. On Twitter I also met ex-trans people who assert aggressively the universal origin of gender dysphoria in AGP. These people are uniformly unable to engage in sensible debate, and unable to consider that another person is incapable of experiencing the same desires as them. And then there are feminists. Of course for many feminists the theory of AGP plays to their darkest fears. But I must say that gender critical feminists were actually the group on Twitter most willing to sustain intelligent discourse, and the least hasty to judge.
In the arena of public discourse, the issue appears to be in large measure binary: Blanchard’s theory of AGP states that you’re attracted to men or you’re AGP. Try as I like to claim that I experience no erotic arousal while presenting in my feminine guise, there is no shortage of people who apparently have a much keener sensitivity to what happens between my legs than I do. If I don’t feel aroused, well I’m just not feeling things properly. Or I’m lying. Moreover, it is asserted, the psychologists’ manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) recognises AGP, which further proves I’m delusional or lying.
Let’s start with the DSM. DSM-5 includes autogynephilia as a sub-category of “transvestic disorder”, which is defined as “in tense sexual arousal from cross-dressing fantasies, urges or behaviors”; for many of the “haters” on Twitter gender dysphorics are now diagnosed by the DSM as AGP. For Blanchard inclusion of autogynephilia in the DSM was certainly a win because it incorporated his theory into the lexicon of psychological disorders. However, despite the ire that this move has provoked among transgender activists it falls short, to my understanding, of supporting the universal binary labelling of gender dysphorics as either “gay” or “AGP”. Trans activists have produced voluminous and multitudinous entries on blogs and web sites decrying the inclusion of autogynephilia in DSM-5 but I think the move still leaves enormous room for alternative diagnoses. It simply recognises that autogynephilia exists and as I’ve said elsewhere, I believe this is the case and, moreover, that the condition is widespread. My beef is that its not a catch-all diagnosis. The American Psychological Association, publishers of DSM-5, support this perspective, through a very carefully written description of gender dysphoria published on its web site.
Blanchard has a Twitter stream that is provocative and outspoken but also well-reasoned and thoughtful, although there is no doubt that he is the authentic grumpy old man and he displays no intention of dispelling the widely held notion that “AGP” is a universal theory for gender dysphoria that assigns all individuals to one of two precisely defined character types. This feeds the public desire to find a universal put-down for Trans people. I think his apparent unwillingness to inject nuance through this medium – in which he is engaged regularly – is disappointing. However, it should also be noted that he has been an outspoken advocate of surgical solutions for gender dysphorics in extremis during his professional career.
In contrast to his Twitter profile, however, Blanchard’s academic work is much more nuanced. There are plenty of caveats, exceptions are discussed and he admits that more work is needed. One cannot read his academic papers and conclude that his theory of autogynephilia is a universal, binary system for categorising gender dysphorics. Recently there have been forays into public engagement that have demonstrated a transfer of some of this subtlety. Recently, he and Michael Bailey (another psychologist who gave prominence to the concept of autogynephilia) made presented overview of gender dysphoria on the web site 4thWaveNow. In contrast to popular recapitulations of the AGP hypothesis, this piece is thoughtful, and written in more measured tones. The boundaries are fuzzier, and they identify a third category of gender dysphoria – rapid onset gender dysphoria, a type especially associated with adolescent girls..
“The first type—childhood-onset gender dysphoria—definitely occurs in both biological boys and girls. It is highly correlated with homosexuality–the sexual preference for one’s own biological sex–especially in natal males…The second type—autogynephilic gender dysphoria—occurs only in males. It is associated with a tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as a female. This type of gender dysphoria sometimes starts during adolescence and sometimes during adulthood”.
They go on to say:
“The most obvious feature that distinguishes childhood-onset gender dysphoria from the other types is early appearance of gender nonconformity…A very gender nonconforming boy may dress up as a girl, play with dolls, dislike rough play, show indifference to team sports or contact sports, prefer girl playmates, try to be around adult women rather than adult men, and be known by other children as a “sissy” (a term generally used to ridicule and shame feminine boys).”
This paragraph certainly describes me as a child: I believe I displayed all of these traits. I must admit that I found it surprising to find Blanchard and Bailey agreeing that I do not fit their description of an autogynephile.
“Childhood-onset gender dysphoric boys who desist usually become nonheterosexual men. A smaller percentage have reported that they are heterosexual at follow up. Those who transition become transwomen attracted to men.”
Again, we see that the tone is measured and absolutism is lacking. The language is that of academic discourse – “highly correlated” (not either/or)”; “usually” (not always); “a smaller percentage have reported” (again, not either/or). My own experiences are in fact not categorised by Blanchard as characteristically “AGP”, and neither are they categorised by DSM-5 as fetishistic or autogynephilic. As a child I displayed exactly the kind of behaviour that Blanchard and Bailey describe as characteristically non-gender-conforming. I was bullied mercilessly for being a sissy at primary school, and I always got along much better with girls; in contrast, boys were a mystery to me and I never really knew how to play with them. It was only in adolescence thatI learned to fit in and act like one of the boys. Even now as an adult, I find I get along much better with the women I work with than the men, who in their 50s still betray many of the traits that mystified me as a child.
For me this underlines the importance of speaking out about these issues. There is a large and complicated debate to be had. The concept of autogynephilia is undoubtedly an important contribution to the understanding of gender dysphoria, but we must recognise its complexity and accept the paucity of good academic research.
As a professional scientist I am reminded often to consider the ethics of scientific enquiry and practice. That there is a moral imperative for leading academic scientists engaged in debate about issues that have a real and substatial impact on the life experiences of real human beings to speak carefully, in measured tones that reflect in public discourse the kinds of uncertainties that they readily acknowledge in their academic work. In the desire to speak out in public and translate their academic work into society, it is vital that oversimplification does not lead to misapprehensions that do real harm to real people.