Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reconceptualizing “Autogynephilia” as Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies (FEFs)

[note added November, 2016: This essay (with additional material!) now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. If you want to read that updated chapter, it can be downloaded here]

Note added 7-14-15: a follow up post (of sorts) detailing all of the recent scientific papers demonstrating that Blanchard's theory is incorrect can be found in The Real "Autogynephilia" Deniers.

In 2010, two review articles appeared in the peer-review literature: My article The Case Against Autogynephilia was published in The International Journal of Transgenderism, and Charles Moser's article Blanchard's Autogynephilia Theory: A Critique appeared in the Journal of HomosexualityBoth of our papers presented numerous lines of evidence that disprove the main underpinnings of autogynephilia theory, namely, the assertions that trans female/feminine-spectrum people can be readily divided into two clear-cut categories based upon sexual orientation and the presence or absence of “autogynephilia,” and that “autogynephilia” is the primary underlying cause of gender dysphoria and desire to transition in trans women who experience it. (Note: subsequent analyses by Talia Bettcher and Jaimie Veale have further demonstrated that autogynephilia theory is incorrect.)

Where our papers differ is that, while Moser continues to use the term “autogynephilia” to refer to sexual fantasies and patterns of arousal in which the “thought or image of oneself as a woman” plays a contributing role, I instead argue that we should no longer use this term for the following reasons:

  • There is a several-decade-long history in which “autogynephilia” has been described in the scientific/psychiatric literature as both a sexual orientation and a cause of gender dysphoria and transsexuality. Since neither appears to be the case, it would be misleading to continue using the term in this manner.
  • There is a similarly long history of “autogynephilia” being described as a “male”-specific phenomenon and a paraphilia—these notions are interrelated, as (according to psychiatric dogma) paraphilias are extremely rare or nonexistent in women.[1] However, recent studies have shown that many cisgender women (up to 93%) have experienced “erotic arousal to the thought or image of oneself as a woman.” Therefore, we should no longer use a term that is so closely associated with paraphilias and “erotic anomalies” (as Blanchard calls them) to describe what appears to be a relatively common (and non-pathological) form of sexual thought or fantasy experienced by many female/feminine-identified people.
  • “Autogynephilia” (as defined in the scientific/psychiatric literature) conceptualizes trans women as “sexually-deviant men,” and thus is unnecessarily stigmatizing and invalidating of trans identities. For this very reason, the concept of “autogynephilia” has been increasingly appropriated by lay people who forward anti-transgender ideologies and political agendas.[2]

For these reasons, in my review I argued that we should replace the misleading and stigmatizing label “autogynephilia” with the more comprehensive (and less pathologizing) term Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies (FEFs).

Here is the rationale for this nomenclature: I refer to them as “fantasies,” because that is what they are: a type of sexual/erotic thought or fantasy. It is widely acknowledged (in both sexology and society) that sexual fantasies vary greatly in the population, and if two people just so happen to have a similar fantasy, it does not necessarily mean that they share the same underlying “condition” or are a similar “type” of person.[3] (In contrast, Blanchard argued that there are two distinct types or categories of trans female/feminine people—“autogynephilic” and “androphilic”—distinguished by the presence or absence of the paraphilic condition “autogynephilia.”) 

The word “embodiment” references the well-accepted notion in philosophy and cognitive studies that our thoughts, perceptions, and desires do not happen in a vacuum—they occur within, and are shaped by, our bodies. As I pointed out in my book Whipping Girl (pp. 268-269), most of our sexual fantasies involve (at least) two bodies: our own body, and the body of the person we are attracted to (for a more rigorous exploration of this, see Talia Bettcher’s excellent article When Selves Have Sex). In fantasies centered on sexual attraction, most of the attention or emphasis may be placed on our imagined partner’s body and behaviors, but our own bodies and behaviors are nevertheless often present (e.g., we may imagine them doing something to our body, or our body doing something to theirs). In “embodiment fantasies,” more (or perhaps in some cases, all) of the attention and emphasis is instead shifted toward our own (real or imagined) bodies and behaviors. 

Finally, the “female/feminine” in FEFs refers to the fact that aspects of our own (real or imagined) female body and/or feminine gender expression play a central erotic role in the fantasy (although other erotic components, such as our imagined partner, may also exist in the fantasy).

For similar reasons, I favor the term Male/Masculine Embodiment Fantasies (MEFs) over the psychopathologizing term “autoandrophilia.”[4] While MEFs do exist, they seem to be less common than FEFs. In Chapters 14 and 17 of my book Whipping Girl, and in my essay Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations, I have laid out a compelling case that the relative prevalence of FEFs is foundationally rooted in, and typically viewed through the lens of, our cultural tendency to sexualize and objectify femaleness and femininity. This explains why many people (of diverse sexual orientations and anatomies) who are (or wish to be) female and/or feminine report having experienced such fantasies or erotic thoughts either occasionally or often. It also explains why male- and/or masculine-identified people—whose real or imagined bodies no doubt play some role in their sexual fantasies (e.g., they might imagine other people doing things to their penis and/or themselves doing things with their penis)—do not typically view their bodies as central to their fantasies, as we are all culturally conditioned to view male/masculine bodies as the subjects (rather than the objects) of sexual desire.

In the aforementioned Whipping Girl chapters and in The Case Against Autogynephilia, I further argued that at least two other additional factors are likely to contribute to the observed trends in the prevalence and demographics of FEFs and MEFs. First, while neither of these phenomena is transgender-specific, they do seem to be more common (or commonly reported) in pre- and non-transition transgender-spectrum people. It makes perfect sense that someone who has not yet attained their imagined or identified sexed body, or who are unable to safely share their desired gender expression or presentation with the world, would focus more attention on those elements in their fantasies than people who can take those aspects of themselves for granted. Indeed, this would help to explain the well-documented dramatic decrease in intensity and frequency of FEFs reported by many trans women once they socially and physically transition.[5]

Second, one might expect that the intensity or frequency FEFs would be more pronounced in individuals who are sexually attracted to femaleness/femininity more generally (e.g., in their partners); an analogous correlation might be expected between MEFs and attraction to maleness/masculinity in others. This would explain the increased levels of FEFs reported in lesbian and bisexual trans women compared to heterosexual trans women (as reported in many previous studies), and numerous lines of anecdotal evidence indicating that MEFs are not uncommon in gay trans men, and in female-assigned people who identify as “girlfags.”[6] Similarly, numerous cis femme-identified queer women have told me (in informal conversations) that they regularly experience FEFs. While more formal investigations would be necessary to confirm this anecdotal evidence, the notion that attraction to femaleness/femininity and experiencing FEFs (or attraction to maleness/masculinity and experiencing MEFs) may be correlated to some degree seems reasonable and helps explain previously reported patterns of FEFs in trans female/feminine-spectrum people.

So that is a brief introduction to my multifactorial model to explain the phenomenon formerly known as “autogynephilia (note: other potential factors that may facilitate the development of, or amplify, FEFs can be found in Whipping Girl, pp. 253-276 and 283-313). This model allows for a variety of outcomes, as each of the previously described potential factors simply increases the likelihood of (but does not strictly determine) the presence of FEFs or MEFs within any given individual. Like all sexual fantasies, FEFs and MEFs are not a permanent condition—they may appear, disappear, reappear, intensify, de-intensify, evolve, or vary for unknown or inexplicable reasons. And unlike Blanchard’s theory, the existence of FEFs and MEFs does not contradict or deny the known diversity in transgender identities, trajectories, and sexualities.

[btw, If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page.]


1. American Psychiatric Association, DSM-IV-TR, 568. While the accuracy of this claim may be debatable, the crucial point here is that this notion (that paraphilias are male-specific) is what allowed Blanchard to portray “autogynephilia” as a paraphilia in the first place: In his 1989 paper in which he first introduces the concept (Blanchard, “The Classification and Labeling of Nonhomosexual Gender Dysphorias”), Blanchard considers the presence of “autogynephilia” in many trans women, and the supposed lack of its counterpart in trans men, to be evidence that it must be a paraphilic impulse (under his presumption that trans women are “men” and trans men are “women”). In stark contrast, recent findings (e.g., Charles Moser, “Autogynephilia in Women”) indicate that what Blanchard calls “autogynephilia” is a more general sexual phenomenon that may be associated with female/feminine-identified people (both cis and trans), rather than being a trans-specific paraphilia. 

2. For example, Dale O’Leary, “Legalizing deception: Why “gender identity” should not be added to antidiscrimination legislation,” Catholic Exchange (June 25, 2009) [currently online at http://www.donotlink.com/fakj] and Sheila Jeffrey's recent book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, which I discuss in the middle of this essay (which, not coincidentally, describes how a journalist who was determined to make transgender activists look bad tried to portray me as "autogynephilic").

3. Harold Leitenberg and Kris Henning, “Sexual fantasy” Psychological Bulletin 117 (1995), 469–496; Emily Dubberley, Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Women's Sexual Fantasies (London, UK: Black Lace, 2013).

4. “Autoandrophilia” seems to have first appeared in the sexological literature in a singular case study of a cisgender gay man; see Anne A. Lawrence, “Anatomic autoandrophilia in an adult male,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 38, no. 6 (2009), 1050-1056. For less pathologizing examples, see Tracie O’Keefe, “Autogynephilia and Autoandrophilia in Non-Sex and Gender Dysphoric Persons,” Paper presented at the World Association for Sexual Health conference, Sydney, April, 2007; Jack Molay, “Autoandrophilia, on women who fantasise about having a man's body,” Crossdreamers, February 13, 2010.

5. See Serano, “The Case Against Autogynephilia,” and references therein.

6. For evidence of MEFs in gay trans men, see the Discussion section of Matthias K. Auer, Johannes Fuss, Nina Höhne, Günter K. Stalla, Caroline Sievers, “Transgender Transitioning and Change of Self-Reported Sexual Orientation,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 10 (2014), e110016. “Girlfag” is a term (mostly used in online communities) to describe androphilic (i.e., attracted to men) female-assigned individuals who identify with gay men, gay male culture, and/or fantasize about being gay men having sex with other men—for instance, see Ili, “‘I am something that does not exist!’ (On queer schwulwomen, girlfags and guydykes),” and numerous other posts listed in Jack Molay, “A Reader’s Guide to the Crossdreaming and Autogynephilia Blog,” January 1, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. *Note: I will not be publishing *any* comments for this piece. Not a single one (aside from this one). So please don't even bother. Thanks. -julia