Blanchard began with a binary model of gender identity disorders – dysphoric individuals are either fetishistic cross-dressers or transsexuals who wish to live permanently as women. Having posited autogynephilia as a necessary element in understanding the spectrum of transgender behaviours, he effectively redefined this binary model: specifically, gender dysphoric individuals are either autogynephiles or homosexual transsexuals.
Early in his work, Blanchard encountered a significant number of transsexual individuals who claimed that there was no (or very little) erotic element to their condition. Blanchard et al  reasoned that the social stigma associated with transgender presentation was such that dysphoric individuals might deny any erotic element to their condition in order to render it more respectable. Moreover, they suggested that self-deception might lead cross-dressers to deny the erotic element in their activities. For those seeking sex reassignment surgery there was a further significant consideration: so well entrenched was the existing binary view of gender dysphoria that individuals who reported sexual arousal associated with cross-gender behaviour would be denied treatment on the grounds that they were simply fetishistic cross-dressers.
Blanchard et al  noted that cross-dressing behaviour often begins before puberty and commonly survives castration and vaginoplasty, indicating that “the relationship of erotic arousal to cross-dressing is unlikely to prove one of simple reinforcement“. However, they argued that if an intrinsic link could be established between these phenomena then it “might suggest directions for seeking the cause of heterosexual cross-dressing, for example, among those brain structures (or learning mechanisms) that developmentally or concurrently affect erotic behavior in human males” .
Many subjects who reported arousal at some stage in the past reported a diminution of arousal with age. Blanchard et al suggested that this “might reflect a general decrease in erectile speed, rigidity, or persistence rather than solely some specific loss of response to cross-dressing” .
Although Blanchard’s approach to the analysis of gender dysphoria was based almost entirely on the analysis of questionnaires, he chose to adopt a different in order to address these apparently contrary instances. A phallometer was used to measure the volume of the penis. Changes in blood flow to the penis resulting from sexual arousal would be accompanied by changes in penile volume that could be measured by observers. A group of 37 heterosexual cross-dressers was selected by Blanchard et al , and sorted into sub-groups based on their responses to a questionnaire about their erotic responses to cross-dressing in the past year. These responses ranged from “never” to “always”. 10 heterosexual control subjects were also examined.
The subjects listened to an actress reading stories, all in the second person (“you wore…” etc), while measurements were made using the phallometer. I must say that while I do not possess a phallometer, I do possess a cheesometer and I can testify that it measured full-scale deflection while reading the preposterous fantasy provided as an example by Blanchard et al . If their study provides firm evidence for anything it must be that cross-dressers are possessed of over-active imaginations. This remark is not entirely facetious – it may be a significant contributor to the results of the investigation. From a very early age, transgendered children learn to accommodate very concrete dissonances (eg the presence of male genitalia) as they attempt to shape feminine identities.
Blanchard et al reported that a degree of arousal was measured for all groups of cross-dressers when presented with cross-dressing stories, and not by the control group. However, the discussion in this paper is extraordinarily brief and superficial. A number of questions beg answers.
- Only one between-group comparison was carried out, which showed that there was no significant difference to neutral stimuli. One wonders why: surely between-group comparisons of responses to other stimuli are more meaningful?
- The group sizes were extraordinarily small – three of the groups of cross-dressers were numbered in single figures. For a study of human behaviour one wonders whether it is in fact meaningful to apply the kind of statistical measures that were described in this study to such small groups of subjects. No information is provided about the range of behaviours within each group.
- While arousal to cross-dressing stimuli provided the strongest response for the group that reported always being aroused by cross-dressing, it is notable that for the other three groups of cross-dressers, the story that provoked the greatest arousal was that in which the subject was a female with a male partner; the degree of arousal in the cross-dressing story was weaker and the degree of arousal in the story in which the subject was a male with a female partner was weaker still. Given that these subjects were assessed as “heterosexual” by the authors’ own questionnaire investigation, there appears to be a significant anomaly. This anomaly passes entirely unremarked by Blanchard et al.
- There are other curiosities in the data (for example the control group registered more arousal to the stories in which they were a female with a male partner than to the cross-dressing stories); these were not addressed in the paper.
Why would “heterosexual” cross-dressers be more aroused by stories involving a male partner than by those involving a female partner? There are a variety of possibilities. Perhaps the stories were so written as to provoke fetishistic responses. Perhaps cues for erotic responses were found through word-association, or other psychological triggers that are undeveloped in non-cross-dressing heterosexual males. Perhaps the questionnaire used to assign sexual orientation was defective. Perhaps the fact that the subjects of this study were preselected through self-reporting with a gender identity disorder was a contributor. All of this is pure speculation, of course, but it underlines that there are many unanswered questions.
The paper by Blanchard et al has been widely cited by his supporters as providing concrete empirical evidence that sexual arousal is an inalienable element of heterosexual gender dysphoria. I am not a professional psychologist, and I have not carried out clinical studies. However, the account presented here is entirely at odds with my own experience. The cheesy story reproduced by Blanchard is representative of a certain type of TG literature, but I find it more ludicrous than erotic. I cannot say with 100% certainty that a phallometry analysis would indicate zero change in penile volume if I had participated in the experimental study carried out by Blanchard et al, but my own experiences tell me that the conclusions of Blanchard et al are quite wrong in my own case even if in no other.
I apologise in advance for a number of anatomical details but they are important to the argument I am about to make. I have been married for nearly three decades. I find my wife extremely attractive, even after so much time. When I am with her I get an erection quickly, and I have not noticed any significant diminution in the response over the years. Perhaps I’m unusual, but I know that I do not fit Blanchard’s explanation that a lack or arousal when cross-dressing simply reflects a general decline in erotic arousal with age. When my wife goes shopping for a smart dress, she often takes me with her to help her choose. “How do I look?”, she’ll say, and I’ll respond “you look gorgeous” – and I will start to get an erection. I can’t help it; after three decades, spending time contemplating my wife looking her best gives me a hard-on. Yet I can go into the exact same changing room wearing female clothes, and try on the nicest dress I can find, and there won’t be a glimmer of activity down below. It simply doesn’t happen. Male clothing offers a certain amount of restraint for a tumescent penis. However, in female mode, I wear normal (and hence very flimsy) ladies knickers under what are often flimsy skirts. If I got an erection, there would simply be no hiding it. I realised this only recently, and the fact that the possibility had not previously even crossed my mind tells you how small a part erotic arousal plays in my dressing. When I visit the toilet, and roll down my tights, my penis is invariably flaccid.
I’m not claiming that I’ve never been aroused while wearing female clothing: I remember it happening in adolescence. But the arousal was a transient element (viewed from the perspective of my whole life), and the one strong erotic attachment that I have known – to women and, for three decades to my wife – has changed little in nature of the same long timespan. This leads me to believe that while my gender dysphoria has inevitably become entangled with my sexuality, it is not at root an erotic phenomenon.
I have never had sexual fantasies about being a woman, or about having female sexual organs. Blanchard’s accounts of autogynephilic fantasies have provided me with an explanation as to why some of the more openly fetishistic members of the cross-dressing community describe their penis as a “clitoris”, but such talk has always seemed, frankly, ridiculous to me (and I apologise to you if it’s important to you to think about yourself in that way). I have never had fantasies about being a woman with a male partner; all my life my fantasies have always been about women and about being with them as a man. A t-girl once said to me, “I bet you’d love it if you wife would let you have sex with her while you were dressed”. But I wouldn’t. It would simply be too confusing, because our sex life has revolved around me, as a man, making love to her, as a woman. As I read Blanchard’s accounts of transsexual narratives I find myself repeatedly saying to myself “no, I’ve never felt that”.
You could conclude that I’m a prude, or follow Blanchard and suggest that I’m deluded. Maybe I walk around in my flimsy skirt with a huge bulge from my hard-on, and I just can’t see it? I don’t think I’m that crazy. What I do know is that there has been no significant decline in my sexual arousal mechanism over the years, and my wife still turns me on really quickly. In contrast, I am not aroused by being dressed as a woman. Its not a difference of degree, it’s a binary divide: yes, no. Unlike Blanchard’s subjects, I don’t fantasise about being a woman to turn me on when I’m with my wife, I just look at her and I get an erection really quickly. On the other, hand, I suppose that if I fantasised about being with my wife when I was dressed, maybe something would stir…
- Blanchard, R.; Racansky, I. G.; Steiner, B. W. “Phallometric Detection of Fetishistic Arousal in Heterosexual Male Cross-Dressers”, Journal of Sex Research, 1986, 22, 452-462.