Autogynephilia and Anti-Transgender Activism

Ray Blanchard’s 1989 theory of autogynephilia posited that there are two fundamentally different types of trans women distinguished by their sexual orientation, and that lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women’s gender dysphoria and desire to transition are caused by “autogynephilia” — a proposed paraphilia characterized by sexual fantasies centered on being female and/or feminine. Numerous follow up studies have shown that autogynephilia’s taxonomy and etiology do not hold true, and that significant numbers of cisgender women and men have analogous sexual fantasies (reviewed in Serano, 2020, and references therein).

While contemporary scientific and medical communities have largely moved on from the theory, autogynephilia has been increasingly promoted by anti-transgender activists, such as the so-called “gender critical” movement (sometimes referred to as TERFs), and social conservatives who are more generally anti-LGBTQ+. These activists continue to tout autogynephilia (sometimes abbreviating it as “AGP”) because it serves their agenda of undermining transgender people, rights, and/or healthcare. They invoke the theory in the following ways:

  • The theory paints the majority of trans women as “heterosexual men,” thereby enabling misgendering, plus providing justification for efforts by some trans-exclusionary “LGB” splinter groups to severe ties with the trans community (based on the premise that trans people are predominantly “straight”).
  • The specter of “heterosexual men with a sexual fetish/paraphilia” plays into anti-trans campaigns that attempt to conflate trans women with “sexual predators,” and which claim that trans-inclusive policies represent a potential threat to women and children (despite all evidence to the contrary).
  • Because autogynephilia theory (or certain renditions of it) caricature trans women as being “perpetually aroused” by wearing women’s clothing, some anti-trans activists have likened being in the mere presence of a trans woman (such as a co-worker) to being nonconsensually roped into that person’s presumed sexual endeavors. This, of course, reinforces the aforementioned “sexual predator” trope.
  • Some anti-trans activists have used autogynephilia theory to discourage gender-affirmative approaches for assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) adolescents and teenagers under the presumption that they must be merely “autogynephilic” rather than authentically transgender.
  • Other anti-trans activists claim that gender-affirmative approaches to gender-diverse children are being promoted “to serve the political interests of autogynephilic adult males.”

I will provide concrete examples of all of these anti-trans talking points throughout this essay.

Prominent autogynephilia advocates are aligned with these anti-trans activists

Rather than rectifying these misconceptions, researchers who continue to promote the theory — most notably J. Michael Bailey and Blanchard himself — have closely aligned themselves with these anti-trans movements. Both regularly provide interviews about trans people and autogynephilia to gender critical, social conservative, and far-right media outlets (examples below). Bailey and Blanchard have also co-written pieces for the anti-trans parent website 4thWaveNow (which regularly compares trans communities and healthcare to “brainwashing,” “eugenics,” “cults,” “lobotomies,” and “grooming”). In fact, Bailey and Blanchard’s 2017 4thWaveNow article Gender Dysphoria Is Not One Thing promoted both “autogynephilia” and “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in tandem, portraying them as “male” and “female” variations of gender dysphoria that should be viewed with suspicion.

From his Twitter account (@BlanchardPhD), Blanchard routinely makes incendiary (and often bizarre) comments about trans women, and routinely retweets posts from explicitly anti-trans activists and websites. As for Bailey, he co-signed a letter from the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group American College of Pediatricians applauding the Trump Administration’s efforts toward rescinding transgender rights and anti-trans discrimination protections.

Here are a few noteworthy examples in which Blanchard and Bailey have appeared on explicitly far-right and anti-trans media outlets to promote autogynephilia and/or spread other misinformation about trans people:

Still other instances of Blanchard and Bailey wielding the concept of autogynephilia to intentionally disparage specific trans women and/or trans activism more generally are detailed in the final section of this essay.

Recent anti-trans books promoting autogynephilia theory

The following recent anti-transgender books — all of which set out to undermine trans identities, rights, and/or healthcare — all uncritically forward Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory without mentioning or seriously engaging with its many critiques and contradictory evidence:

  • Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, by Abigail Shrier
  • Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, by Helen Joyce
  • Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, by Kathleen Stock
  • The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, by Debra Soh
  • When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, by Ryan T. Anderson
  • Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, by Sheila Jeffreys

In some cases, these books cite autogynephilia as a reason to oppose trans-related healthcare, such as in this passage from Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally:

“Studies at the Clarke Institute in Toronto arrived at a similar conclusion: that discordant gender identity in adult males could arise from homosexuality or from autogynephilia, a man’s sexual arousal in presenting himself as a woman. This is the research that led McHugh to believe that providing surgical alteration to these people is ‘to collaborate with a mental disorder rather than to treat it’.”

Other times, autogynephilia is invoked to insinuate that trans people are “perpetually aroused” in everyday circumstances, such as in this passage from Joyce’s book Trans:

“Autogynephiles’ fantasies are of a different nature. The way they symbolise themselves as women in their imaginations has a ‘fetishistic flavour’ that is ‘qualitatively different from any superficially similar ideation in natal females’, Blanchard writes. For example, they report arousal at the simple act of putting on everyday women’s clothes. Natal women do not find getting dressed for work an orgasmic experience.”

Kathleen Stock (author of Material Girls) has argued that adult trans women who advocate on behalf of gender-affirmative healthcare for trans youth do so because they are driven by their own “autogynephilia.” The following quote is from Christa Peterson’s article “Kathleen Stock, OBE,” which chronicles Stock’s many online anti-trans statements:

“When one woman pointed out that she had been able to develop breasts at 40 with HRT in response to claims that puberty suppression might make young people miss a key window, Stock called her a ‘a male who gets aroused at the thought of having breasts.’ ‘Poorly understood, life-changing medical interventions, on mostly female children, are being shielded from public scrutiny in order to serve the political interests of autogynephilic adult males,’ she announced. ‘The autogynephilia tail is wagging the puberty-blocking dog.’ When someone challenged her on this, she said ‘I stand by my diagnosis,’ adding that ‘many of the loudest (partly because male) voices policing critical discussion of the treatment of ‘trans’ kids barely disguise their autogynephilia’.”

Accusations that “autogynephilic” trans women are constantly (and nonconsensually) forcing other people to participate in their sexual fantasies

This idea has garnered significant momentum in “gender critical” circles, especially in the United Kingdom. Here are three examples from prominent gender-critical activists.

On Graham Linehan’s podcast “The Mess We’re In” (episode #26), gender-critical activist Helen Staniland says:

“In society, there are lines that we draw, and we cannot engage nonconsenual people in our sexual fantasies. You know, do it in the bedroom when there’s no one there, and you’re all good. You can’t dress up as a woman at work, say, and expect people to call you she because it’s a part of your sexual fantasy. It’s obvious this is wrong. Well, it’s obvious to us. But it isn’t obvious to people who have never heard of autogynephilia.” [quote begins at 32:20]

On a podcast entitled Transhumanism & Autogynephilia, influential gender-critical activist Jennifer Bilek makes this claim multiple times; here is one instance:

“Yeah introducing this into the cultural, into the corporate culture is really, really frightening. It’s really, really frightening to me because you’re appropriating female biology and this is okay. Not only that but you’re telling people that you know, this is their sexual proclivity, why don’t you keep it in the bedroom? Why are you letting it out into the culture and saying, objectification and disembodiment are cool, normal. It’s an identity. It’s completely fine. Well, this demands that other people are involved in your sex life, basically. Right, because you need this validation, right? For your paraphilia, you need this social validation. So I’m set up now as your validation for your paraphilia.” [quote begins at 16:40]

The gender-critical website Women are Human interviewed the founder of another popular gender-critical website Trans Widows Voices, and the latter said this:

“Unfortunately, in this instance, the desire of many feminists to show that they are accepting of gender-nonconforming behavior entirely overrode their usual ability to think critically. They took the man’s claims entirely at face value, and, for a couple of days, gender-critical social media was full of women saying ‘Good on him!,’ ‘We need more of this!,’ etc. What they failed to notice was that the man in question, if you applied a modicum of critical thought to the article, was very plainly autogynephilic and had been given a license to exercise his fetish at work. Aside from wearing a skirt, if you actually looked at the images of him, he was wearing women’s shoes, stockings/tights, and a padded bra. Further, he described a typical pattern of escalating boundary-breaching behavior — and that he had high heels, makeup, and wigs at home. Also, he described, in his own words, ‘borrowing’ clothes from girlfriends. He was duping everybody around him about his motivation.”

Conservative media outlets promoting autogynephilia in their efforts to undermine trans people, rights, and/or healthcare.

Here are just a few examples and excerpts:

From The Federalist, How Conversion Therapy Bans Will Trap Transgender Children:

“A clue to the real nature of transgender is this: psychologist Ray Blanchard, and many others, described two types of transwomen. Around 90 percent are late-transitioning straight men with a sexual fetish for being and living as women, and a history of cross-dressing — autogynephilia. The rest are early-transitioning, effeminate gay men who find it easier to live as women. Blanchard’s two-type finding is the elephant in the room. It’s this simple: gender identity is an alibi for activists’ real motives. The truth that adult transitioning is usually sexually motivated, in a way we’d consider deviant, would be hard to sell to the public, and would embarrass transwomen.”

From The American Conservative, Peak Trans, Part II:

“Adult males who choose to transition are motivated by sexual fetishes, including autogynephilia, and their own childhood trauma. I have a theory that our culture has made traditionally masculinity seem undesirable while at the same time promoting a feminine ideal that is unattainable for women. So to feel desired some men are adopting an exaggerated female stereotype.”

From National Review, The Origins of the Transgender Movement:

“Then there’s the person with autogynophilia [sic]. That’s the person who finds the thought of themselves as a woman to be sexually exciting. Studies of interviews with such individuals, conducted by sexologists like Ray Blanchard or Anne Lawrence, suggest that it’s anything ranging from a man who’s turned on from the check assistant’s calling him ‘ma’am,’ to somebody who likes to urinate on sanitary pads and to pretend they’re menstruating, and many other things that I think many of us would find too unpleasant to dwell on so early in the morning. That’s basically when in the 1990s, the definition of trans began to change. Transsexualism, specifically as a sexual fetish, as autogynephilia, had been known as a perversion.

The Focus on the Family pamphlet Helping Children with Gender Identity Confusion includes a bullet-point list entitled “What causes gender confusion?” Just after “Chemicals in our ecosystem…” it states: “Gender confusion is a type of fetish where some adolescent boys and men are aroused by putting on women’s clothes. (This is sometimes called ‘autogynephilia’ — love of oneself as a woman — or ‘transvestic fetishism.’).”

Other instances in which autogynephilia is cited as a reason to deny trans-related healthcare

In the journal The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (2009, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 97–125), Richard P. Fitzgibbons, Philip M. Sutton, and Dale O’Leary argued in their article, The Psychopathology of “Sex Reassignment” Surgery: Assessing Its Medical, Psychological, and Ethical Appropriateness, that said surgeries are unethical, and their case relies heavily (see pp. 102–110) on Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory.

The gender-critical group Gender Dysphoria Alliance Canada released a conspiracy-laden statement entitled Trans Men Fight Back. The group is explicitly pro-conversion therapy and against gender-affirmative care for youth, and they claim that “Children are being taught a false narrative in the media and in public schools, which is confusing them… in order to protect the egos, fantasies and capitalist desires of AGP males.” [ellipsis in the original text]

In summary

There was a time, years ago, when one could sincerely claim that Blanchard’s theory of autogynephilia was a “controversial yet viable” model, or purely a matter of “scientific debate.” But that day has long since passed. Subsequent research has yielded numerous lines of evidence that, taken together, disprove the theory. And autogynephilia’s most prominent advocates have clearly aligned themselves with anti-trans activists.

As discussed in both of my critical reviews of the theory (see last sections of Serano 2010, 2020), the primary reason why anti-trans activists embrace autogynephilia is because it sexualizes trans people. Studies have shown that individuals who are sexualized (reduced to their sexual bodies, behaviors, or desires, to the exclusion of other characteristics) are seen as less than human, are not treated with empathy, and are not taken as seriously as those who are not sexualized. This is why sexualization has historically and repeatedly been used as a tool to disparage a wide range of marginalized groups, including women, people of color, and other LGBTQ+ subgroups.

It is time for everyone who is science-minded, and everyone who believes that trans people deserve to be treated with respect and equity, to stand together and denounce “autogynephilia” for what it has become: a mere pseudoscientific talking point in anti-transgender propaganda and disinformation campaigns.

Thank you to everyone who helped with providing sources for this essay, including many examples that I had to omit for the sake of brevity. For more on this subject, please check out my other Medium essays Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates and Autogynephilia, Ad Hoc Hypotheses, and Handwaving.

If you appreciate the work that has gone into writing this piece and documenting this trend, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, Outspoken, & the unusually queer novel 99 Erics. juliaserano.com