In part one of this series, Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates, I provided an overview of Ray Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory and the numerous lines of evidence against it, and explained why it continues to be forwarded despite its lack of scientific validity. In this follow up essay, I will critique last-ditch efforts by autogynephilia’s proponents to salvage or resuscitate the theory.
I will presume that readers here are already familiar with that previous essay and the many points I make in it, so I encourage you to read that first if you haven’t already. Over the course of this piece, I will sometimes suggest that readers consult various “rationales” (e.g., rationale #5; rationales #3 and #7) — these can all be found in the third section of that essay: “So who still believes autogynephilia theory, and what are their rationales?”
This piece is divided into the following six sections, feel free to skip ahead if you wish: 1) Autogynephilia theory: chock-full of ad hocs, 2) Distorting the history of autogynephilia, 3) A tsunami of handwaving, 4) Can cisgender people truly experience “autogynephilia”/FEFs?, 5) Are FEFs capable of causing gender dysphoria in anyone?, and 6) The “scientists versus activists” trope. As with the previous essay, this is a “long read,” as I wanted it to be as thorough as possible.
Autogynephilia theory: chock-full of ad hocs
Wikipedia describes an ad hoc hypothesis as “a hypothesis added to a theory in order to save it from being falsified. Often, ad hoc hypothesizing is employed to compensate for anomalies not anticipated by the theory in its unmodified form.” In my many years as a scientist, I have never before seen a theory so riddled with ad hoc hypotheses as autogynephilia.
The central tenet of autogynephilia theory is that there are two (and only two) types of trans women, each with a different sexual-orientation-related cause — “homosexuality” or “autogynephilia” — the latter of which Blanchard claimed arises as the result of a “misdirected heterosexual sex drive.” But if this is indeed the case, then how does one explain the existence of bisexual and asexual trans women, who are neither “homosexual” nor “heterosexual” in sexual orientation? Well, Blanchard (1989b) proposed that the former group is not truly bisexual, but rather merely experiences “pseudobisexuality” — a concept Blanchard invented out of thin air in a classic display of bisexual erasure. And Blanchard claimed that asexual trans women are not truly asexual, but rather represent instances where “autogynephilic disorder nullifies or overshadows any erotic attraction to women” (Blanchard, 1989a, p. 324). Subsequent studies have undermined both of these hypotheses (Veale et al., 2008a; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a), and it simply makes more sense that, if cisgender people may be either homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or asexual, then transgender people should also display a similar range of orientations. In other words, right from the start, Blanchard relied on ad hoc hypotheses in order to shoehorn the diversity of trans women into his two subtypes.
But it doesn’t stop there. Blanchard also had to contend with the many exceptions that undermine his proposed taxonomy and etiology — namely, supposed “autogynephiles” who never experience female/feminine embodiment fantasies (FEFs) and supposed “homosexuals” who do. Blanchard (and subsequent proponents of the theory) infamously suggested that such occurrences must be the result of “autogynephiles” “lying” or “misreporting” their experiences with FEFs or their sexual orientations, respectively. There are numerous problems with these claims (as I detail in Serano, 2010, p.181), most notably, that they are tantamount to cherry-picking which evidence counts depending upon whether it fits Blanchard’s model or not. This essentially renders autogynephilia theory unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific.
Another issue Blanchard encountered was the sharp decline in FEFs often experienced by trans women over time, which runs contrary to his claims that FEFs are both a paraphilia and central to their female identities and sexualities. Blanchard tried to explain away this problem by proposing that such individuals must have formed a “pair-bond” with their female selves. This is an extraordinary claim, given that the term “pair-bonding” has traditionally only been used to refer monogamous relations between two individuals (not between an individual and their own gender identity), plus the fact that most people Blanchard categorizes as “autogynephiles” continue to have romantic and sexual relationships with other people (and thus are clearly not “monogamous” to their female selves). I review and debunk this “pair-bond” claim further in Serano, 2010 (p.182–3).
Then there are the many trans women who have experienced FEFs, but only after they had previously experienced gender dysphoria or a desire to be female — this obviously undermines autogynephilia theory’s proposed causality (i.e., that FEFs are the cause gender dysphoria in such individuals). Anne Lawrence has proposed an ad hoc hypothesis to account for this: Citing extremely rare cases of young children who precociously experience erections, she speculates that trans women who experience trans-related feelings as young children well before reaching puberty (and thus prior to experiencing FEFs) may nevertheless still be driven by sexual arousal. In that same paper (Lawrence, 2007), she also expanded upon Blanchard’s “pair-bond” hypothesis to recast “autogynephilia” as a form of “romantic love” that can occur independent of sexual arousal — a maneuver that allows proponents of the theory to insist that individuals can be “autogynephiles” even if they never once experience FEFs. I more thoroughly address these science-defying ad hoc hypotheses in Serano, 2010 (p.183).
A pattern readily emerges from these numerous examples: 1) critics point to facts and exceptions that undermine or outright disprove autogynephilia’s taxonomy and etiology, 2) in response, proponents of the theory craft additional (and sometimes wildly unrealistic) ad hoc hypotheses to explain away those facts and exceptions, and thus go on acting as though the theory still holds true. While there may be occasions where proposing a single ad hoc hypothesis might be warranted, any theory that requires this many caveats and work arounds should be viewed with considerable skepticism, if not outright rejected.
Distorting the history of autogynephilia
If someone refuses to relinquish their pet theory, yet are confronted with insurmountable evidence contradicting it, there are two obvious tacks they can take. The first is to simply ignore all of the counterevidence — I call this the “pretend it never happened” approach. One can see this tactic in a recent paper from J. Michael Bailey’s group (Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey, 2014) in which they attempted to expand upon Blanchard’s early autogynephilia research without ever once addressing or citing the multiple lines of counterevidence that had been published by that point, and which together disprove the theory (e.g., Bettcher, 2014; Moser, 2009, 2010a; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a, 2011b; Serano, 2010; Veale et al., 2008a; Veale, 2014; this body of work is further discussed in my previous essay, Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates). For a further critique of Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey (2014), see Veale (2015a).
A similar “pretend it never happened” gambit can be found in a recent review by Zucker, Lawrence, & Kreukels (2016), in which the authors invoke “autogynephilia” and Blanchard’s taxonomy, and lament contemporary researchers’ tendency to ignore the theory, going so far as to call this an “intellectual erasure in the discourse.” And yet, over the course of that seven-paragraph passage, they (like Hsu, Rosenthal, & Bailey before them) fail to reference or discuss any of the aforementioned research and reviews that refute the theory. Intellectual erasure in the discourse indeed!
Proponents of autogynephilia not only pretend that recent research and reviews challenging the theory were never published, but they also sometimes act as though the theory was once widely embraced, even though this was never so. When I searched PubMed using the term “autogynephilia” and limiting the search from 1989 (the year Blanchard first proposed the concept of autogynephilia) to 2003 (the year J. Michael Bailey’s controversial book The Man Who Would Be Queen was published), I only found six papers, all authored by Blanchard. Using Google Scholar (which casts a wider net) with the same parameters, I only found one additional academic journal article — a 2001 Eskins and King sociology paper, which I will return to momentarily. In unrelated searches, I have come across a few other academic/scientific articles from this time period that either cite those old Blanchard papers but never mention “autogynephilia,” or else mention “autogynephilia” in passing (e.g., as but one of many theories about trans people that have been proposed) but never pursue it further than that. It appears that most researchers of the time were either not aware of the theory, or did not find it compelling enough to follow up on.
If you page through the aforementioned 1989–2003 Google Scholar search (using the link above), you will also find a handful of non-academic-journal articles about the theory that have since been cited in other publications. Most of these were penned by Lawrence, who began vociferously promoting the theory within transgender communities and elsewhere in the late 1990s. In fact, I first learned about the theory from the magazine Transgender Tapestry, which over the course of three issues in 2000–2001 (issues 92, 93, 94, which are now all digitally archived) published Lawrence’s argument for the theory, along with community feedback and commentaries, which were mostly negative (some of these articles appear in the Google Scholar search results as well). Indeed, the previously mentioned Eskins and King paper explicitly states that they would not have investigated the theory were it not for Lawrence’s advocacy on its behalf. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Lawrence touting a theory that resonated with her. But it seems clear that, prior to 2003, only two people were actively publishing about and promoting the theory: Blanchard and Lawrence. This is hardly a scientific consensus.
In 2003, Bailey’s book came out, and due to the backlash against it (which I discuss in Serano, 2008, and in the final section of this essay), Blanchard’s theory subsequently gained notoriety. To be clear, the theory was still not widely accepted, but more people were aware of it, and some researchers began investigating it — this is why there was ultimately a flurry of papers published on the subject in the late 2000s and early 2010s (i.e., the ones I listed in the first paragraph of this section, and which autogynephilia’s proponents are wont to ignore).
In conclusion, autogynephilia was never a widely accepted theory, and there is now a large body of peer-reviewed research and critical reviews that disprove its main tenets. To say or suggest otherwise is merely revisionist history.
A tsunami of handwaving
In addition to “pretending it never happened,” another approach to dealing with insurmountable counterevidence is to engage in handwaving. Wictionary defines handwaving as “Frantic or conspicuous gesturing (during an argument etc.), especially as contrasted with a lack of underlying substance or meaning; empty gesturing.”
With regards to autogynephilia theory, perhaps the best example of handwaving in action is Anne Lawrence’s “Letter to the Editor” scourge: Virtually every time that a peer-reviewed research paper has been published that challenges or contradicts autogynephilia theory, Lawrence has penned one or more “Letters to the Editor” to complain about it; here are some examples:
- When Daskalos (1998) reported changes in sexual orientation among trans women (which, for obvious reasons, confounds autogynephilia theory’s two subtypes), Lawrence wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 1999).
- When Smith et al. (2005) showed that a significant number of “homosexual” trans women experience FEFs, Lawrence wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 2008b); see Smith et al. (2008) for their rebuttal.
- When Veale et al.’s (2008a) findings challenged several aspects of autogynephilia theory, Lawrence (along with J. Michael Bailey) wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence & Bailey, 2008); see Veale et al. (2008b) for their rebuttal.
- When Moser (2009) showed that FEFs occur in cisgender women, Lawrence wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 2010a); see Moser (2010b) for his rebuttal.
- When Nuttbrock et al.’s (2011a) findings challenged several aspects of autogynephilia theory, and showed that factors other than sexual orientation (specifically age and race) contribute to FEFs, Lawrence wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 2010b); Nuttbrock et al. (2010) responded. Apparently, Lawrence wasn’t satisfied because she then wrote another Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 2011); see Nuttbrock et al. (2011b) for their rebuttal.
- When Veale (2014) showed that trans women’s sexualities fall along a spectrum, rather than into discrete subtypes, Lawrence wrote a Letter to the Editor (Lawrence, 2014); see Veale (2015b) for her rebuttal.
There is nothing wrong with the occasional Letter to the Editor, particularly when you believe that there is a major oversight in a particular research paper. But in all my years as a scientist, I have never before seen one individual pen seven different Letters to the Editor, all regarding a single pet theory. And if you take the time to read all the aforementioned research papers and author rebuttals, you will find that there is no overarching oversight in any of them; rather, they each attempted to test different aspects of Blanchard’s theory in their own way. As is typical of handwaving, Lawrence nitpicks over anything and everything: how these research groups recruited their samples and/or classified them, the survey questions they asked, how they interpreted their data, the conclusions they draw, and so on. Taken together, it’s clear that Lawrence’s main beef with all of these peer-reviewed studies is that they “failed” to produce the same results and to reach the same conclusions as Blanchard had. This, of course, ignores the fact that the purpose of scientific research is not to simply reaffirm existing theories, but to rigorously test them.
I will not bother addressing all of Lawrence’s complaints here, as the authors cited above have already done so in their rebuttals. However, I will address what has since become a central focus of pro-autogynephilia handwaving, namely, the nature of FEFs. As I discussed in my previous essay, Blanchard’s theory was never really about FEFs per se; it was about the belief that there are two fundamentally different types of trans women, each with a distinct sexual-orientation-related cause — this premise has since been disproven. So it seems disingenuous for proponents of the theory to now try to shift the debate away from Blanchard’s taxonomy and towards FEFs — a strategy that is sometimes referred to as moving the goalposts.
In any case, given that many people now mistakenly associate the term “autogynephilia” with FEFs (rather than with Blanchard’s disproven taxonomy), and that autogynephilia’s proponents now resort to handwaving over the nature of FEFs in their attempts to shield the theory from criticism, I will spend the next two sections dissecting these efforts.
Can cisgender people truly experience “autogynephilia”/FEFs?
Proponents of the theory typically talk about “autogynephilia” as though it were a tangible condition that some people clearly have and others clearly do not. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is no brain scan or blood test that one can take to definitively determine whether or not they test positive for “autogynephilia.” To the contrary, researchers merely infer its presence or absence based upon the answers that subjects provide to highly subjective questions about their sexual fantasies and experiences with sexual arousal.
In Blanchard (1989b) — the original research article upon which autogynephilia theory is largely based — Blanchard relied on three different scales to measure “autogynephilia” (i.e., FEFs). They are as follows:
- Core Autogynephilia Scale, which consists of several questions along the lines of: “Have you ever become sexually aroused while picturing yourself having a nude female body or with certain features of the nude female form?”
- Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy Scale, which consists of several questions along the lines of: “Have you ever become sexually aroused while picturing yourself as a fully dressed woman being admired by another person?” (Other questions involve various states of undress.)
- Cross-Gender Fetishism Scale, which consists of several questions along the lines of: “Have you ever felt sexually aroused when putting on women’s jewelry or outer garments (blouse, skirt, dress, etc.)?”; “Have you ever felt sexually aroused when putting on women’s underwear, stockings, or a nightgown?”; and so on. (The entire scale can be found in Blanchard, 1985).
A couple things are immediately striking about these survey questions. First, their “have you ever” yes-or-no format casts a fairly wide net. An individual need only experience said sexual fantasies once, or on rare occasions, to score the same on these scales as someone who has had these same fantasies on a regular ongoing basis. Similarly, someone who briefly experienced these fantasies a very long time ago will nevertheless score the same as someone who currently experiences them. In fact, according to these measures, a middle-aged trans woman who briefly experienced FEFs as a teenager can still be said to be “autogynephilic.” Given Blanchard’s insistence that “autogynephilia” constitutes a paraphilia, and that paraphilias have historically been defined as “chronic and lifelong” and “intense and persistent” (see DSM-IV-TR and DSM-V, respectively), it seems utterly bizarre that Blanchard would set such an extraordinarily low bar for individuals to be deemed as having such a condition.
Although, come to think of it, if Blanchard had made his criteria more stringent — for instance, by changing the language from “have you ever” to “do you regularly,” or else allowing subjects to rate the frequency or intensity of their sexual fantasies on a sliding scale — then far fewer lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women would have been deemed “autogynephilic” according to such measures, and Blanchard’s taxonomy and proposed etiology (i.e., that “autogynephilia”/FEFs cause these individuals to become transgender) would become even less plausible. I will return to this point shortly.
Second, anyone who is actually familiar with the research literature on sexual fantasies will immediately recognize that Blanchard’s “Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy Scale” — which asks subjects if they have had sexual fantasies that involve other people admiring or desiring them as women — measures an extremely female-typical fantasy. For instance, in their review of the sexual fantasy research of the time, Leitenberg and Henning (1995, p. 484) found that (as a general rule): “Men’s fantasies are more active and focus more on the woman’s body and on what he wants to do to it, whereas women’s fantasies are more passive and focus more on men’s interest in their bodies.” (Note: many of the research articles Leitenberg and Henning review were published before or during the time frame that Blanchard was carrying out his autogynephilia-related research, so he should have been aware of these trends.)
More recently, in his study of 4,175 Americans’ sexual fantasies, Lehmiller (2018, p.83) found that: “…women appear more likely than men to see themselves as the object of desire in their sexual fantasies. Therefore, having a specific person in mind may not matter as much to women because they themselves are usually — though certainly not always — the focus of the fantasy, not their partners. By contrast, it appears that men are more likely than women to view their fantasy selves not as objects of desire but as acting on an object of desire, which would make having a specific partner in mind more important for men.”
These findings not only call Blanchard’s Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy Scale into question, but his Core Autogynephilia Scale as well. After all, if most cisgender women tend to be “the focus of the fantasy, not their partners,” then questions like, “Have you ever become sexually aroused while picturing yourself having a nude female body or with certain features of the nude female form?” might also be salient or pertinent for some of them. In fact, in her book chronicling women’s sexual fantasies, Dubberley (2013) details numerous examples in which cisgender women’s primary focus is on her own body and/or her various states of undress (see Chapter 3 on exhibitionism, although similar fantasies also occur elsewhere throughout the book).
Given all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that, once other research groups began administering similar surveys to cisgender women, many were found to exhibit “autogynephilia”/FEFs. Veale et al. (2008a) — the first autogynephilia-related study to use a control group (as Blanchard never bothered to) — found that 52% of their cisgender female subjects experienced FEFs at levels comparable to trans women that Blanchard classified as “autogynephilic” (see also Moser, 2010a). In a separate study of cisgender women, Moser (2009) found that 93% of his subjects experienced FEFs to some extent, with 28% experiencing them at high levels. Regarding the latter study, if you include subjects who responded with either “frequently” or “on occasion” to specific questions — i.e., setting the criteria as low as Blanchard (1989b) did with his “have you ever” questions — then Moser found that:
- 65% of cisgender women responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by contemplating myself in the nude.”
- 64% responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by contemplating myself wearing lingerie, underwear, or foundation garments (e.g., corsets).”
- 48% responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by contemplating myself fully clothed in sexy attire.”
- 76% responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by dressing in lingerie or sexy attire for a romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner.”
- 63% responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by preparing (shaving my legs, applying make-up, etc.) for a romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner.”
- 86% responded affirmatively to the question: “I have been erotically aroused by imagining that others find me particularly sexy, attractive, or irresistible.”
It now seems clear that Blanchard’s autogynephilia scales are (to some degree) measuring female-typical sexual fantasies. Being that trans women identify as women, we should very much expect them to experience FEFs! And given Moser’s (2009) and Veale et al.’s (2008a) findings regarding cisgender women, there is absolutely no justification for singling out trans women’s FEFs as constituting “autogynephilia” or deeming them to be “paraphilic” — unless, of course, what is supposedly “abnormal” about said FEFs is the fact that they occur in people who were assigned male at birth (AMAB). This latter position (which some proponents of autogynephilia theory seem to hold) is not only cissexist (in that it holds trans women to different standards than cis women), but it also ignores the fact that cisgender people sometimes have fantasies about being a sex other than the one they were assigned at birth. As I summarized in my previous essay:
Lehmiller (2018, p. 66) found that “. . . about one-quarter of men and women had fantasized about cross-dressing, and nearly a third had fantasized about trading bodies with someone of the other sex.” Blanchard has claimed (see Cameron, 2013) that the counterpart to FEFs — sometimes called “autoandrophilia,” but which I will refer to as male/masculine embodiment fantasies (MEFs) — do not exist, but Lehmiller found that, “11 percent of the women I surveyed reported sexual fantasies about becoming men and that 20 percent had fantasized about dressing up as men” (pp. 97–98). In a qualitative study of women’s sexual fantasies, Dubberley (2013) chronicled numerous examples of MEFs (pp. 158–159, 164–167, 218–232), and other evidence of MEFs in cisgender women and trans male/masculine people can be found elsewhere (see Serano, 2016, notes #11 and 13, and references therein).
I honestly cannot tell you why significant numbers of cisgender people seem to have “cross-sex/gender” fantasies. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that part of the appeal is simply novelty — after all, our sexual fantasies are quite often centered on circumstances or scenarios that are unlikely or unattainable for us in real life (Dubberley, 2013; Lehmiller, 2018). But I can tell you with certainty that a main reason why many transgender people have such fantasies: to imagine ourselves inhabiting the right bodies (i.e., bodies that are congruent with our gender identities). Critics of autogynephilia have long argued that FEFs and MEFs are such an obvious coping mechanism for transgender people (especially those who are pre- or non-transition) to mitigate or overcome gender dysphoria. This also provides a cogent explanation for why so many trans women report a sharp decrease in FEFs post-transition, as they no longer need to imagine themselves being in the right body anymore (see Serano, 2010, pp. 182, 184, for further discussion, plus critiques of alternative explanations).
Clearly, autogynephilia theory cannot account for the breadth of this phenomenon: the fact that both FEFs and MEFs exist, that they occur in both transgender and cisgender people, and in both AMAB and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people. Elsewhere, I have forwarded an alternate (and nonpathologizing) embodiment fantasy model that is far more consistent with all the available data, as well as contemporary thinking in the field of sexology. I outline this model in Serano (2016) and discuss it in more depth in Serano (2020). A main premise of this model is that embodiment fantasies are not a singular monolithic entity — people may experience them for various reasons and to different extents. Two especially relevant contributing factors are as follows: 1) While up to a third of all people may experience “cross-sex” embodiment fantasies (Lehmiller, 2018, p.66), we might expect such fantasies to occur more frequently or intensely in transgender-spectrum people relative to cisgender people, for reasons discussed in the previous paragraph; 2) While both FEFs and MEFs have been reported, we might expect the former to be more prevalent than the latter given the fact that femaleness and femininity are routinely objectified and sexualized in our culture in ways that maleness and masculinity are not (for discussions of this sexualization, see American Psychological Association Task Force, 2007; Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Serano, 2007, 2009). This second point helps to explain both the prevalence of “cross-sex” FEFs in AMAB people (relative to MEFs in AFAB people), and why “self-directed” FEFs (centered on one’s actual body) occur quite frequently in women (whereas “self-directed” MEFs in men are less commonly reported).
This model is not only consistent with all the previously described findings, but it helps to explain why embodiment fantasies seem especially common or prominent in trans women, as both points #1 and #2 may apply to them, particularly when they are pre- or non-transition. Elsewhere (Serano, 2007, pp. 283–306; Serano, 2016; Serano, 2020), I have described how additional factors — particularly being forced to hide or repress one’s gender dysphoria and/or feminine inclinations — may exacerbate FEFs in this population; similar arguments have been forwarded by other groups (e.g., Veale, Lomax, & Clarke, 2010; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a, 2011b).
Once we acknowledge this multiplicity of factors that may inform or influence a person’s experiences with embodiment fantasies, it becomes clear that Blanchard’s original “autogynephilia” surveys (and others derived from them) are an especially blunt tool to study this phenomenon. While they may provide some usefulness in assessing whether a subject has experienced FEFs or not, they do not provide any insight into why they do so. It is certainly true that some trans women (particularly those who were forced to hide or repress their female/feminine inclinations for a period) may have experienced intense “cross-sex”-like FEFs in the past (or present), but others who answer affirmatively to Blanchard’s “have you ever” survey questions may simply be describing the female-typical FEFs that one might expect of someone who identifies and lives as a woman. The pro-autogynephilia camp seems intent on lumping all of these individuals together into one monolithic group — i.e., “autogynephiles” — but that’s strikes me as profoundly lazy and incurious from a scientific perspective.
So now that we have examined the diverse nature of FEFs, let’s turn our attention back to pro-autogynephilia handwaving. Despite all the evidence discussed above, proponents of the theory have largely discounted embodiment fantasies experienced by non-AMAB people, especially the existence of FEFs in cisgender women. This attitude is epitomized by Lawrence’s Letter to the Editor in response to Moser (2009), which she entitled “Something Superficially Resembling Autogynephilia in Women” (Lawrence 2010a; see Moser, 2010b for his counter-rebuttal). The main thrust of Lawrence’s argument involves circular reasoning: She presumes that “autogynephilia” is a verified condition in trans women, and she then goes on to argue that what Moser’s cisgender female subjects experience cannot possibly be “bona fide autogynephilia.” However, as I made clear at the onset of this section, the only evidence that “autogynephilia” exists in trans women is that, if you give trans women surveys inquiring about their experiences with FEFs, many respond affirmatively to those questions — this is precisely what happens if you ask cisgender women the same types of questions!
In that same Letter to the Editor, Lawrence also argued that Moser’s survey questions did not “adequately assess the essential element of autogynephilia — sexual arousal simply to the thought of being a female.” What Lawrence neglects to mention is that Blanchard’s original surveys did not assess this either: His subjects were merely asked whether they had ever experienced sexual arousal “while picturing yourself having a nude female body or with certain features of the nude female form” (Blanchard, 1989b). In fact, Blanchard explicitly stated that he coined autogynephilia “to refer to the full gamut of erotically arousing cross-gender behaviors and fantasies,” and considered what he called “anatomic autogynephilia” (“static fantasies . . . consisting of little more than the idea of having a woman’s body”) to be a small subset of the former (Blanchard, 1991). As I alluded to earlier, had Blanchard originally defined “autogynephilia” more stringently (e.g., strictly in terms of “anatomic autogynephilia,” as Lawrence proposes we now do when assessing cisgender women’s FEFs), he surely would have found that even fewer trans women experience it, and his theory’s taxonomy and etiology would become even less tenable.
A similar ploy was recently forwarded by Blanchard himself in an interview with Quillette (Perry, 2019). When asked about the existence of FEFs in cisgender women, Blanchard’s replied this way:
I wrote, for example, that the notion that typical natal females are erotically aroused by — and sometimes even masturbate to — the thought or image of themselves as women might seem feasible if one considers only conventional, generic fantasies of being a beautiful, alluring woman in the act of attracting a handsome, desirable man (or woman). It seems a lot less feasible when one considers the various other ways in which some autogynephilic men symbolize themselves as women in their masturbation fantasies. Examples I have collected include: sexual fantasies of menstruation and masturbatory rituals that simulate menstruation; giving oneself an enema, while imagining the anus is a vagina and the enema is a vaginal douche; helping the maid clean the house; sitting in a girls’ class at school; knitting in the company of other women; and riding a girls’ bicycle. These examples argue that autogynephilic sexual fantasies have a fetishistic flavor that makes them qualitatively different from any superficially similar ideation in natal females.
Now I don’t doubt that some people have had these particular fantasies — seriously, almost anything you can imagine is probably sexually arousing to somebody. But what I can say is that these examples are not commonplace FEFs for trans women to experience (based on my 25 years being active in trans communities, and my 15 years researching and writing about trans women’s sexualities). In fact, none of these fantasies even appear in Blanchard’s autogynephilia-related scales (i.e., Core Autogynephilia Scale, Autogynephilic Interpersonal Fantasy Scale, or Cross-Gender Fetishism Scale) that he used in his 1989 paper that provides the foundation for his theory. Once again, had Blanchard initially defined “autogynephilia” more strictly (e.g., to only include FEFs related to menstruation, enemas, house cleaning, knitting, and girl’s bicycles), a very small fraction of trans women would have responded affirmatively to that definition, and his taxonomy would entirely fall apart.
In other words, proponents of “autogynephilia” need to pick a side: They must either define the concept broadly enough so that most trans women can be said to have it (in which case, such experiences will necessarily overlap with the FEFs commonly experienced by cisgender women), or else define it more narrowly to prevent significant overlap with cisgender women’s FEFs (in which case, far too few trans women will qualify for the condition, and Blanchard’s theory will become even more implausible than it already is).
Elsewhere, I have seen Blanchard and other proponents of the theory cite other seemingly extreme examples — for instance, pointing to “sissification”/“forced feminization” pornography, or citing instances where trans women’s FEFs occurred in association with submissive fantasies, forced-sex fantasies, and/or fantasies involving faceless men — to suggest that these fantasies must represent a unique phenomenon (i.e., “autogynephilia”) that is entirely distinct from anything that cisgender women experience. While I agree that cisgender women probably don’t have fantasies about being “turned into a woman” (since that is their baseline experience), many do have sexual fantasies about being or becoming men, or having male body parts (Dubberley, 2013; Lehmiller, 2018) — wouldn’t that be the correct analogous experience in this case? As for the notion that cisgender women don’t have fantasies involving faceless men, forced sex, BDSM, humiliation, and so on, Blanchard really should read Dubberley’s and Lehmiller’s books, as they describe many examples of such things. For curious readers, the two links in the previous sentence will take you to reviews by Jack Molay that include numerous excerpts from those books highlighting the overlap between trans and cis women’s sexual fantasies in these regards.
Autogynephilia’s proponents seem hell-bent on constructing a particular straw man argument: They portray critics of the theory as naively believing that cisgender women’s FEFs are just like trans women’s FEFs, when in fact none of us are actually making that case. What we are actually saying is that trans women are diverse in our sexualities and sexual fantasies, just as cisgender people vary in these respects. Sure, some of our experiences may overlap with one another’s, or with those of various cisgender people, but that doesn’t mean that we constitute the “same type” of person, or suffer from the “same disorder.” The irony of the pro-autogynephilia camp’s straw man argument is that they are the ones pushing a naive and monolithic view of FEFs — one that insists that such fantasies must 1) arise from a “misdirected heterosexual sex drive,” 2) only affect AMAB people, and 3) cause gender dysphoria in a subset of people who experience them. As I argued earlier, claim #1 appears untrue, as significant numbers of trans women of every sexual orientation report experiencing FEFs. Claim #2 is clearly false given the vast diversity of embodiment fantasies that I have described throughout this section. Claim #3 — the assertion that FEFs have the capacity to cause gender dysphoria in AMAB people — will be interrogated in the following section.
Are FEFs capable of causing gender dysphoria in anyone?
Anyone who is familiar with logic or the scientific method has likely heard the adage correlation does not imply causation. In other words, just because X and Y tend to occur together, that doesn’t necessarily mean that X causes Y. It could be that Y causes X. Or that some other factor Z causes both X and Y. Or that Y increases the likelihood of Z, and that Z is what causes X. Or perhaps it’s merely a coincidence that X and Y frequently occur together. And so on.
In his original research, Blanchard came across a correlation that others before him had previously reported: Trans women who were sexually oriented toward women to some degree (e.g., those who were lesbian and bisexual) were more likely to report experiencing FEFs than those who were exclusively sexually oriented toward men. Of course, it was an imperfect correlation, as plenty of exceptions exist (as I’ve discussed throughout this piece). Nevertheless, Blanchard went ahead and proposed a causal relationship, namely, that FEFs are the cause of gender dysphoria in these trans women. Astoundingly, Blanchard never once explored obvious alternative scenarios — e.g., that individuals who experience sexual attraction toward women may simply find FEFs more salient or stimulating than individuals who are not at all sexually attracted to women; or that, rather than FEFs causing gender dysphoria, perhaps gender dysphoria (especially when it is repressed) increases the likelihood of experiencing FEFs (both these scenarios are explored in Serano, 2016, 2020).
Blanchard’s failure to even consider the latter possibility is particularly mind-boggling given that his own research and case studies revealed plenty of supposed “autogynephiles” who reported experiencing gender dysphoria or a desire to be female prior to ever experiencing FEFs (reviewed in Serano, 2010, pp. 181–183).
So why did Blanchard so hastily jump to conclusions? Elsewhere (Serano, 2007, 2009), I have chronicled how the sexualization of femaleness and femininity in our culture leads people to project sexual motives onto trans women, but not trans men — for readers who’d rather not consult those texts, I summarize this argument in rationales #3 and #7 of my previous essay. Given that these sexually-motivated-trans-women stereotypes have been pervasive in our culture and predate Blanchard’s research on “autogynephilia,” it seems likely that they clouded or influenced Blanchard’s judgment, leading him to make the rookie mistakes of confusing correlation with causation, and to not even consider (let alone test) alternative hypotheses.
Current demographics indicate that most trans women are non-heterosexual in their sexual orientation (National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011, p. 28). Thus, autogynephilia theory essentially asserts that “sexual fantasies gone awry” is the primary cause of gender dysphoria in trans women — a claim that neither Blanchard nor anyone else would ever attempt to make about trans men. To top it off, Blanchard provides absolutely no hard evidence to back up the notion that FEFs are even capable of causing gender dysphoria in anyone.
In fact, all of the available evidence strongly suggests that FEFs are not capable of causing gender dysphoria in anyone. For starters, nearly a third of Lehmiller’s (2018) cisgender male subjects had experienced FEFs to some degree, yet there is no indication that these individuals subsequently develop gender dysphoria en masse. As for the less-than-1% of AMAB people who do ultimately become trans women, most either never experience FEFs, or experience FEFs only after they have experienced gender dysphoria. Given how uncoupled the experience of FEFs are from the onset of gender dysphoria in AMAB people, it seems highly unlikely that the former has the potential to cause the latter. Rather, it is far more parsimonious to conclude that gender dysphoria develops independently in a small percentage of AMAB people (as it does in AFAB people), and that a subset of these AMAB transgender people (along with a subset of cisgender women and men) will subsequently experience FEFs for a variety of reasons (which I explored last section, and in Serano, 2016, 2020).
I have encountered proponents of the theory who will argue: “But still, you can’t prove that autogynephilia doesn’t cause some people to become transgender.” This has to be the most brazen attempt of moving the goalposts ever. Blanchard’s theory asserts that “autogynephilia”/FEFs is the most common cause of gender dysphoria in trans women, and that it affects all lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women — a charge that is demonstrably false. So now, proponents of the theory have the gall to claim that it is somehow incumbent upon critics like me to disprove the possibility that FEFs might cause gender dysphoria in some small ill-defined fraction of trans women? Logical fallacy much?
I have taken to calling this the “popsicle argument” for the following reasons: Back when I was a young child — before I became consciously aware that I was transgender — I ate a lot of popsicles. Like, a whole lot. Sometimes during the summer, I would eat up to three a day! So now I’m thinking that maybe it was all those popsicles I ate that caused me to become transgender. What, you don’t think that’s very plausible? Okay, well go ahead then, try to disprove it!
You can’t. It is impossible to 100% rule out this hypothesis. Sure, you can point to the overwhelming majority of people who eat popsicles but don’t ultimately become transgender (just as I can point to the overwhelming majority of people who experience FEFs or MEFs, but don’t wind up transgender), but that does not rule out the possibility that popsicles turn some tiny subset of popsicle eaters transgender. But at the same time, no matter how invested I am in my “popsicle argument,” I cannot rightfully claim that it is a valid scientific theory. Because for a theory to be deemed scientific, it must be falsifiable. Otherwise, it is merely conjecture. Or pseudoscience.
When autogynephilia’s proponents suggests that FEFs might cause some ill-defined subset of individuals to become transgender, they are merely engaging in speculation, nothing more. Despite this fact, some people continue to make these claims, and still others are inclined to believe them — both tendencies are likely informed by the sexually-motivated-trans-women stereotypes that I discussed earlier (see rationales #3 and #7). So allow me to offer a few other hypothetical scenarios (none of which involve popsicles, I promise) that will elucidate the many problems with this “FEFs might cause some people to become transgender” argument.
Chris was assigned female at birth. During his teenage years, he began having sexual fantasies that involved him being physically male. Sometimes he would imagine himself as a man having sex with a partner, but other times he would become aroused by the idea of having a male physique. In fact, Chris even experienced sexual arousal the first few times he wore exclusively masculine clothing (which, by the way, is not unheard of; see Bockting et al., 2009). Chris is now contemplating transitioning, and he believes that these early sexual fantasies (i.e., his MEFs) are what ultimately caused him to become transgender.
So do you believe, or at least entertain the possibility, that these MEFs caused Chris to become transgender? If your answer is no (despite Chris’s self-assessment), but you do believe that FEFs might or must cause some trans women to become transgender, then you seem to be operating from the same sexist beliefs — i.e., that women are sexual objects and men are not, therefore wanting to be female must be sexually motivated whereas wanting to be male cannot possibly be — that give rise to the stereotypes I describe in rationales #3 and #7 of my previous essay.
May I also ask: Would the gender of the partner who Chris imagines himself having sex with influence your thinking at all? For instance, if that partner is a woman, would you perceive Chris’s MEFs as simply natural fantasies that any red-blooded heterosexual man would have? Or if that partner is a man, would you view such fantasies as unnatural, possibly paraphilic, and potentially gender-dysphoria-inducing? If you experience a disparity in assessment regarding these two potential fantasy partners, then I’d encourage you to read rationale #5 from my previous essay, because it likely applies to you.
Moving forward, for readers who think it is quite likely that MEFs and/or FEFs cause some people to become transgender, I offer you the following scenario:
By most accounts, Philip had a typical boyhood. Until suddenly, shortly after the onset of puberty, he began having fantasies that involved kissing or intimately touching other boys. Over time, these fantasies became more frequent and intense, until eventually all of his sexual fantasies included at least some homosexual content. Philip described these homosexual fantasies as “compulsive” in that no matter how hard he tried to resist them, he could not make them stop. Eventually, Philip began experimenting with same-sex relationships in real life, and ultimately came out as a gay man. Philip is convinced that the homosexual fantasies that he experienced during his teenage years are what turned him gay.
Given our society’s increasing understanding and acceptance of same-sex attraction, I’d imagine that most people who read this scenario today will feel that it is quite a bit off. Rather than take Philip’s self-narrative at his word, many readers might instead argue: “Philip’s sexual fantasies didn’t ‘turn him gay.’ He was gay the whole time, but just in denial, or not fully aware of it yet. In other words, his sexual fantasies arose from his homosexuality, not the other way around! And the only reason why he found those fantasies to be ‘compulsive’ was because he was unable to change his sexual orientation and he hadn’t yet learned to accept his homosexuality.”
If you agree that the most likely explanation here is that Philip was gay (or predisposed that way) to begin with, and that his sexual fantasies were merely an early discovery or exploration of that aspect of his person (rather than the cause of his same-sex desires), then it follows that the same is likely true for the subset of trans women who experience FEFs before consciously realizing that they are transgender. Indeed, sexual orientation and gender identity are similar in this regard, in that there are some people who “always knew” that they were gay or transgender, and others who were not fully aware at first, but who eventually put the pieces together and figured it out over time. For individuals in the latter situation, fantasies (whether sexual in nature or otherwise) may provide an early safe setting for them to explore or experiment with these aspects of themselves while they are still in the “questioning” phase.
Seriously, if somebody routinely has heterosexual fantasies, nobody would ever claim that those fantasies “turned them straight.” And if someone is consistently the sex that they were assigned at birth in their sexual fantasies, nobody would ever claim that said fantasies “turned them cisgender.” In both these cases, we’d instead assume that those fantasies are simply a reflection of who these individuals are and what they desire, rather than being the cause of their gender identities or sexualities. Frankly, it takes quite the cisnormative contortionist act to presume that these facets must function in the completely reverse order (where fantasies cause the identities or sexualities) in transgender people.
I purposely added the detail where Philip found his homosexual fantasies to be “compulsive” to make a secondary point. Some AMAB people who experience FEFs (whether eventual trans women or not) similarly describe them as “compulsive” or “addictive,” and I’ve seen proponents of autogynephilia cite this fact in their attempts to discount the relevance of cisgender women’s FEFs (on the basis that the latter are presumably not “compulsive”). But what if a cisgender woman imagines herself “having a nude female body” (to use Blanchard’s vernacular) in virtually all of her sexual fantasies — shouldn’t that qualify as a “compulsive” fantasy? If you are inclined to say no, can I ask why not?
“Compulsive” doesn’t simply mean “I do it all the time” or “I can’t stop myself from doing it.” Rather, “compulsive” is an extremely loaded word that is inexorably tied to negative value judgments. As an example, I cannot stop myself from thinking about food from time to time, and I feel compelled to eat something several times a day. Yet no one would ever describe those thoughts or behaviors as “compulsive,” because we consider hunger and eating to be natural, normal, and healthy attributes. Unless, of course, how or what I was eating was deemed to be unnatural, abnormal, or unhealthy for some reason — in that case, some people would likely describe my eating habits as “compulsive.”
In other words, the concept of “compulsivity” presumes a priori that there is something inherently wrong with the thought or act in question.
Similarly, most people experience heterosexual desires and fantasies on a regular basis — these people simply cannot stop themselves from finding certain people attractive and imagining themselves having sex with them! Yet, virtually nobody describes their own heterosexuality as “compulsive,” as it is expected in our culture, and deemed natural, normal, and healthy. However, if your sexual desires or fantasies veer into territory that is deemed unnatural, abnormal, or unhealthy for some reason (as was historically the case for homosexuality), then many people (perhaps including yourself) will view those thoughts as “compulsive.” Indeed, back when it was formally pathologized, psychiatrists often described homosexuality as “compulsive,” and cited this “compulsivity” in their justifications of what we now call conversion therapy (see e.g., Gershman, 1957; McConaghy et al., 1981).
Research by Joshua Grubbs and collaborators (Grubbs et al., 2015; Grubbs et al., 2018; Grubbs & Perry, 2019) provides crucial insight here. They have shown that people who feel “addicted” to Internet pornography do not actually watch more pornography than other people. Rather, what distinguishes them from their “non-addicted” peers is that they experience “moral incongruence” with regards to that behavior — that is, they believe that watching pornography is a shameful or immoral act, and thus they interpret their own desire to watch pornography as “compulsive” or “addictive” as a result. Grubbs & Perry (2019, p.33) went on to argue that “…these findings extend beyond the realm of [Internet porn use] alone, and may also apply to sexuality more broadly.”
I believe that Grubb et al.’s work has broad applications for gender and sexual minorities, as we are often made to feel shame for our identities and desires, and we may come to interpret them as “compulsive” (due to similar feelings of moral incongruence) as a result. As an example, when I first became consciously aware of my gender dysphoria as a child (a couple years before I first experienced FEFs), I remember feeling worried that I was becoming “addicted” to what I called the “girl thoughts” (i.e., when I would think about or imagine myself as a girl). In retrospect, I wasn’t “addicted” to those thoughts, I was simply experiencing gender dysphoria — a condition that one cannot simply will away. Nowadays, when I think of myself as female (whether in a sexual or non-sexual context), it doesn’t feel “compulsive” or “addictive” to me, because I’ve come to accept myself as a trans woman.
In rationale #8 of my previous essay, I addressed “self-identified autogynephiles” — a small yet vocal faction in these debates. Many of them describe having long experienced “compulsive” FEFs, and how autogynephilia theory has helped them to “make sense” of their desires (i.e., they bought into Blanchard’s premise that they suffer from a “misdirected heterosexual sex drive,” and that any subsequent gender dysphoria they may develop is merely a by-product of that “paraphilic desire”). While I don’t doubt that these individuals have found some degree of comfort in Blanchard’s theory, I’d encourage them to consider an alternate hypothesis: Perhaps there is nothing wrong with AMAB people having FEFs. And perhaps, if they had initially come to the conclusion that being female, feminine, and/or transgender was nothing to be ashamed of, they would not require the concept of autogynephilia to explain their sexual fantasies and/or gender identities. (Note: this hypothesis is consistent with previously mentioned research and theories suggesting that repressing one’s female/feminine inclinations leads to more intense or frequently reported FEFs.)
Also in rationale #8, I drew an analogy between self-identified “autogynephilic” trans women who believe that their experiences with FEFs are what caused their gender dysphoria, and those gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals who believe that their early experiences with childhood sexual abuse were the cause of their sexual orientation. (I am under the impression that this latter group is dwindling in numbers, but this used to be a frequently professed LGB self-narrative when I was coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s.) In both cases, there is no compelling evidence for said causality, yet that doesn’t stop some individuals from strongly insisting that these two things must be linked in this manner. Along with moral incongruence, I believe that negativity bias may also be playing a role in fostering a preference for such causalities.
Negativity bias refers to the human tendency to dwell more on negative outcomes than positive or neutral ones, and to attribute negative (but not positive) outcomes to some external agent or event (reviewed in Morewedge, 2009; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). To apply this to our discussion at hand, if you happened to turn out to be heterosexual or cisgender, then I’ll bet that you probably haven’t spent much (if any) time attempting to explain why you turned out that way (perhaps it was all those heterosexual and cisgender sexual fantasies you’ve had?!?), as those outcomes are deemed positive or neutral in our culture. But in a milieu where gender and sexual minorities are stigmatized, many of us will feel the need to seek out some kind of explanation for the “negative outcome” that has befallen us. But it can’t just be any old cause. For instance, it couldn’t possibly be eating popsicles, as popsicles are generally viewed in a positive or neutral light. This is why my earlier “popsicle argument” comes across as so preposterous — because how could such a benign thing be the cause of a “bad outcome” like being transgender? Rather, we invariably presume that some “bad thing X” that must have caused “bad outcome Y.”
This helps to explain why there is no shortage of supposed ‘bad thing X’s that have been proposed to cause LGBTQ+ identities: childhood sexual abuse, bad parenting, gay teachers, activist agendas, peer pressure, social contagion — the list goes on and on! In my case, having been raised Catholic, I assumed that the “girl thoughts” that I experienced as a child were the result of God punishing me for something sinful that I must have done. I suppose that if I had experienced FEFs prior to my consciously grappling with gender dysphoria, I might have blamed those “shameful,” “dirty,” sexual fantasies for “turning me transgender.”
Over the years, I have come across a number of self-identified “autogynephilic” trans women who have described Blanchard’s theory as revelatory. Blanchard himself often cites these individuals’ testimonies as though they had the capacity to single-handedly redeem autogynephilia’s disproven taxonomy and etiology. (For the record, they do not.) Anyway, I can certainly understand why some trans women, upon learning of Blanchard’s theory, might feel a sense of relief upon finally having an explanation (regardless of how scientifically specious it is) for why they “compulsively” experienced sexual fantasies that they were ashamed of, and/or why they turned out to be transgender. I would encourage them to not mistake correlation for causation (as Blanchard had), and to not view their sexual fantasies and/or gender identities as a “bad outcome” that needs to be attributed to some prior inimical cause. Perhaps gender and sexuality are simply complex traits (see rationale #2) where some of us inexplicably wind up being atypical or outliers, through no fault of our own.
The “scientists versus activists” trope
I will end this essay with what may be the most common of all pro-autogynephilia handwaves, namely, the assertion that transgender activists are irrational, overly sensitive, science-denying extremists who are engaged in a relentless censorship campaign against autogynephilia theory. For an excellent example of this handwave, look no further than the aforementioned Blanchard Quillette interview, where he spends nearly a quarter of it making this particular case. (It is quite the read — he even drops the phrase “culture wars” twice!)
I have come to call this argument the Dregerian narrative, as it was popularized by Alice Dreger in her 2008 Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB) article about the backlash against J. Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and it eventually became the basis of her 2015 book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. I will not be delving into the details of that backlash here, as I have already done so in Serano, 2008 (my peer commentary on Dreger’s ASB article). I will, however, spend the next few paragraphs dissecting the Dregerian narrative, as it comes up frequently in debates about autogynephilia, and it has since been repurposed to dismiss transgender perspectives on other important issues (such as the closing of Ken Zucker’s gender-reparative clinic in 2015, and the controversy surrounding Lisa Littman’s “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” paper in 2018).
It is one thing to protest or critique things that you believe are wrong or harmful — whether it be an erroneous claim or flawed argument by a scientist, or an activist action or assertion that you believe goes too far. By all means, go ahead and critique that particular person, statement, or event, if you feel you must. It is an entirely different thing to make blanket claims or insinuations about all scientists or all activists — e.g., suggesting that they are all harmful, or irrational, or naive, or out to destroy free speech and other people’s lives. My objection to the Dregerian narrative is that it essentially makes this latter case against transgender activists as a whole.
As I detailed in my previous essay, autogynephilia is a flawed theory that has been contradicted by multiple lines of evidence and follow up research, and additionally, it unnecessarily sexualizes trans women’s identities and motives for transitioning, thus making it an effective tool for those who wish to invalidate or smear us (which is precisely why many transphobes have embraced and promoted the concept as part of their anti-transgender propaganda campaigns; see rationale #10). Given that autogynephilia theory is both incorrect and potentially harmful, individuals (whether scientists, activists, or knowledgeable laypeople) have every right to denounce it, ignore it, and/or critique those who continue to forward it. If you are skeptical about this, may I ask what your stance is regarding other false and potentially damaging pseudoscientific movements, such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, or those who champion “race science”? Should we all simply accommodate all those perspectives and allow them to proliferate unabated? Or is it incumbent upon us (as scientists, social justice activists, and/or concerned citizens) to speak out against these debunked theories and the harm that they inflict or enable?
I can understand why Blanchard might find it convenient to blame all the objections to his theory on “culture wars” and “trans activists run amok,” or for Lawrence and her co-authors to portray most transgender health professionals’ and researchers’ rejection of the theory as “intellectual erasure in the discourse.” But the fact is that most people who are familiar with the diversity of transgender people and/or the full breadth of the research related to this topic simply reject autogynephilia for being a flawed and disproven theory. There is no “activist conspiracy” going on here.
Of course, had Dreger acknowledged the many legitimate complaints about the theory, then her readers would have likely understood why so many transgender people, allies, and advocates protested Bailey’s book (and last I looked, penning critiques and signing petitions fall squarely within the umbrella of protected free speech). But instead, Dreger relied on a heavy-handed and skewed retelling of events. For starters, Dreger presents autogynephilia theory as though it were sound science (even in 2015’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, which came out well after most of the critical reviews and counterevidence against the theory I have cited were already published; once again, it’s the “pretend it never happened” gambit), and condescendingly portrays trans women who object to the theory as supposedly adhering to a naive “feminine essence narrative” (which, interestingly enough, resembles the “sexual inversion” model that folks like Blanchard and Bailey believe in, not the “gender variance” position that most trans critics of the theory forward; see rationale #5). Dreger also dwells on personal attacks against Bailey (which, according to her own account, were spearheaded by just three trans activists), rather than seriously addressing the many cogent complaints and critiques that countless other trans people forwarded, thus creating the impression that the entire backlash against the book was unreasonable and unjustified. And Dreger purposefully framed the backlash against Bailey as a threat to academic/scientific freedom, without ever once discussing the important issue of academic/scientific responsibility (which I address at the end of Serano, 2008), or the many efforts by Bailey et al. to silence their critics (e.g., by accusing any trans woman who denounces the theory of “lying,” “misreporting,” or “deceiving” other people; I will return to this shortly).
But the main thrust of the Dregerian narrative — and the reason why it tends to resonate with uninformed readers — is that it constructs a false “scientists versus activists” dichotomy, where the former are presumed to be authoritative, objective, and rational, and the latter are depicted as naive, subjective, and irrational. This framework completely erases the many scientists (psychologists, sexologists, trans health practitioners, etc.) who reject autogynephilia theory based on their own professional experiences and/or the numerous peer-reviewed research studies that challenge or contradict it. This false dichotomy also purposefully ignores the fact that many of the trans activists who oppose the theory (e.g., me) are scientists themselves and/or have penned logic- or science-based critiques of it. And quite frankly, Dreger’s narrative likely stokes unconscious biases or feelings that many in the straight cisgender majority harbor toward transgender people (e.g., “apparently, not only are trans women mentally deluded perverts, but now they’re trying to suppress free speech and destroy science too!”). In this respect, it is difficult to view the Dregerian narrative as anything other than a broad indiscriminate ad hominem attack against any and all transgender people who refuse to kowtow to Blanchard et al.’s outdated view of gender identities and sexualities.
For those unfamiliar with ad hominem, Wikipedia describes it as “. . . a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.” Or to put it slightly differently: The Dregerian narrative is one massive handwave. Which is why proponents of autogynephilia (who can no longer justify their beliefs based on the scientific evidence) have come to rely on it so heavily.
Once we recognize how the Dregerian narrative functions as a sweeping ad hominem attack against transgender critics of autogynephilia theory (whether Dreger intended this or not), and how the concept of autogynephilia itself is routinely used to undermine trans women’s identities, experiences, and perspectives (whether Blanchard originally intended this or not), then we should become rather alarmed by how regularly autogynephilia’s proponents tend to play the “autogynephilia card” against critics of the theory. What is the “autogynephilia card,” you may ask? Well, it’s when proponents of the theory — who on the one hand, argue that the concept of autogynephilia is simply non-value-laden science — turn around and use that same concept to undermine the veracity, objectivity, or rationality of its critics. Here are but a few examples:
In his Quillette interview, Blanchard contends: “I think the self-defeating behavior of trans activists has persisted because the idea of autogynephilia cuts too close to the bone. If the idea had no resonance with them, they would simply have ignored it.” Yes, if any trans activist believes that autogynephilia theory is flawed because there are so many exceptions to it, plus the fact that you confused correlation with causation, didn’t bother to use controls, and have proposed a plethora of ad-hoc hypotheses in a futile attempt to sustain the theory’s viability, then the trans activist in question must be a “closeted autogynephile” — well played sir!
Anne Lawrence took this one step further in her article “Shame and Narcissistic Rage in Autogynephilic Transsexualism” (Lawrence, 2008a), where she essentially pathologizes “autogynephilic” trans women who speak out against Blanchard’s theory as suffering from the psychiatric condition “narcissistic rage.” (By the way, psychiatrists often associated “narcissism” with homosexuality back when the latter was pathologized, and the concept has also been wielded against women who express feminist sentiments). So in other words, according to Lawrence, if I write an essay (like this one) pointing out all the ad-hoc hypotheses, handwaving, moving the goalposts, straw men, ad hominem attacks, and other logical fallacies forwarded by autogynephilia’s proponents, then I am merely exhibiting symptoms of “autogynephilia” and “narcissistic rage”? Wow, you really put me in my place, Anne — well done!
In a 2007 article for the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, which sports the very serious and science-minded title “What many transgender activists don’t want you to know: and why you should know it anyway,” Bailey & Triea (2007) explicitly list the names of seven trans women critics of Blanchard’s theory, and argue that all of these activists reject the theory because they are “autogynephiles in denial.” For those inclined to give Bailey the benefit of doubt here, you should also check the article that he and Blanchard co-authored for the explicitly anti-trans website 4thwavenow (Bailey and Blanchard, 2017). Specifically, this passage:
Yet a number of vocal transgender activists who have histories typical of autogynephilic gender dysphorics do not hesitate to pressure parents, legislators, and clinicians for acquiescence, laws, and therapies that do not distinguish among types of gender dysphoric children.
Not only does that passage push the Dregerian “trans activist conspiracy” theory to new levels (Legislators?!? Holy cow, are “autogynephiles” now secretly running our government?!?), but each word in the clause “vocal transgender activists who have histories” links to a different trans activist’s website. You know, to not-so-slyly convey to readers that these particular trans women are all irrational, out of control, science-denying extremists who are deceiving the general public about their true intentions. And by the way, the word “who” in that passage links to my website.
Unlike Bailey and Blanchard, I don’t need to resort to ad hominem attacks, invalidate their gender identities, spread hearsay about their real or imagined sexual lives, or diagnose them from afar (which, by the way, seems to be in clear violation of the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule). Nor do I need to invent a counter-Dregerian narrative — e.g., “all psychologists and sexologists are transphobic bigots who are only interested in pathologizing us!” — because in actuality, most contemporary psychologists, sexologists, and trans health professionals are on my side of this debate, as they too overwhelmingly reject autogynephilia theory (for reasons I detailed in my previous essay).
I have spent significant time and energy critiquing autogynephilia over the years, not because it “cuts too close to the bone” (as Blanchard suggests), but because it offends me as a scientist to see a thoroughly disproven theory that defies obvious facts, and is riddled with logical fallacies, be peddled to laypeople as though it were some kind of authoritative consensus. And if the fact that I am a trans woman has had any influence on me writing these essays, well, it’s because I have personally had the theory weaponized against me, not only by the usual anti-transgender activists, but by Blanchard and Bailey themselves.
Over the course of this essay, my previous essay, and elsewhere, I have laid out a thorough case for why autogynephilia should be rejected. This case is primarily based on the theory’s lack of scientific validity, and secondarily, because the concept of autogynephilia is increasingly used as a tool to invalidate trans women’s identities, experiences, and perspectives. The fact that Bailey, Blanchard, and other proponents of the theory are now going around proclaiming that all of these arguments and critiques should be summarily dismissed because “Julia is a trans woman, and that’s just the autogynephilia talking,” . . . well, let’s just say that they are proving my second point for me.
Note added August 10, 2020: The peer-reviewed article originally cited as “Serano, forthcoming” (now called Serano, 2020) is now published: Autogynephilia: A Scientific Review, Feminist Analysis, and an Alternative ‘Embodiment Fantasies’ Model.
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