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Autogynephilia is the name given to the pseudoscientific hypothesis that transgender women who aren't exclusively attracted to men are transitioning purely as a result of a fetish for being viewed as females. This covers lesbian, bisexual, asexual, and pansexual trans women. The term translates from Greek to something like "self-woman-love," with the intended meaning "love of oneself as a woman."
The hypothesis is often accompanied by the notion that transgender women attracted exclusively to men are actually overtly effeminate gay men, transitioning purely because they believe living as a woman would be easier. And since these trans women are developmentally identical to gay men, they are labelled "homosexual transsexuals" (never mind that most trans people describe their sexual orientation in terms of their preferred gender, meaning that trans women attracted to men consider themselves heterosexual).
The idea was originated by Ray Blanchard and Kurt Freund in the 1980s, and endorsed by onetime celebrity psychologist J. Michael Bailey (who later resigned as psychology chair at Northwestern University). Many cis women experience autogynephilia; according to a study, 93% of female participants "would be classified as autogynephilic".
If you noticed something odd in the previous paragraphs, in that nothing in it can be meaningfully applied to trans men, then you're absolutely right. That is because this hypothesis doesn't deal with their existence (which would have to be covered under a separate hypothesis such as "true" gender dysphoria). Every time you read "transgender" below, just remember: "This hypothesis completely ignores the existence of trans men."[note 1]
The hypothesis lays out two groups, and only two groups, of trans people:
- Excessively effeminate, and exclusively attracted to men, called "Homosexual Transsexuals"
- Everyone else, who thus automatically have erotic fantasies about being a woman, and are called "Autogynephiles"
Note that the theory ignores bisexual and asexual trans women, and excludes trans men completely.
Books on the theory
- "The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism" is a 2003 book by the psychologist J. Michael Bailey
- "Men Trapped in Men's Bodies" by sex researcher and trans woman Anne Lawrence
Research critiquing and debunking autogynephilia
After Dr James Cantor tweeted that "Autogynephile-deniers are the anti-vaxxer's of sexology", fellow academic Julia Serano compiled a list of scientific research critiquing and debunking autogynephila as a theory. She also explains in another paper how the largely debunked theory is used to dehumanise and denigrate trans people.
Psychologist Randi Ettner said that Bailey’s use of Blanchard’s theory had “set the field back by 100 years.”
- The Case Against Autogynephila - Julia Serano
- Blanchard's Autogynephilia Theory: A Critique - Charles Moser
- Autogynephilia in Women - Charles Moser
- Sexuality of Male-to-Female Transsexuals - Veale, Clarke and Lomax (notable for, unlike Blanchard / Bailey, using a control group of cis women).
Assumption of falsehood
While the vast majority of transgender women fit neither category, Blanchard dismissed these many exceptions by accusing those research subjects of "misreporting" their experiences.
J. Michael Bailey, a notable proponent of autogynephilia, quotes Clarke Institute employee Maxine Petersen as saying "most gender patients lie" and he himself claims that "the most common way that autogynephiles mislead others is by denying the erotic components of their gender bending".
Anne Lawrence goes further and dismisses the (completely understandable) criticism of the concept by trans women as 'narcissistic rage'.
Philosophy professor Talia Mae Bettcher pointed out that “Because Bailey believes transsexual women tend to lie or misrepresent, nothing a trans woman can say contests this theory.” - in other words there is no way trans women can defend themselves against Blanchard and Bailey's theory about their entire personhood when his first assumption is not that his theory is incorrect, but that the vast majority of trans women are lying about their own experiences.
This leads to the biggest criticism from a scientific standpoint, in that the hypothesis is speciously unfalsifiable. While at first, it seems like it would be possible to find a trans woman who is attracted to women, but does not erotically fantasize about having Lady Parts, it invites one to beg the question, and take it as fact that one is simply lying about not having such fetishes, because being attracted to women would mean you have autogynephilia.
Entirely apart from being unfalsifiable, the "autogynephilia" label is used derogatorily to separate the "genuine" from the "fake" trans women, a practice that has been around pretty much as long as being transgender.[note 2] This works within the hypothesis, because the autogynephile group is based on exclusionary criteria, so nearly anything can be used against a trans woman in order to rhetorically move them from the category of "genuine" trans women into that of "autogynephile" "fakes". While it is obvious within the framework put forth by autogynephilia that even a single passing interest in a woman would "disqualify" one as "genuine", it is less apparent — because it's implicit in the categorization process — that even simply not looking feminine enough can be used to cast doubt upon the trans woman's actual motivations for transitioning.
And finally at the tail end of all of this criticism is that even the "genuine trans women" are labeled by the hypothesis as if they were men. This allows proponents for it that are against homosexuality to dismiss all trans women en bloc as either perverts or homos. No trans woman is thus allowed to be considered a genuine woman, despite neurobiological indications to the contrary.
Autogynephilia, while being entirely unscientific as a hypothesis, does refer to a real phenomenon. Transgender people may get aroused by the idea of being their target gender or having sex as their real gender. Transgender philosopher Julia Serano has called the phenomenon "female/feminine embodiment fantasies" (or "male/masculine embodiment fantasies" when referring to female to male transgender people). Among other terms used we find "crossgender arousal" and "crossdreaming".
Most trans activists and researchers in the field argue that such fantasies are natural expressions of the real identity and sexuality of these transgender persons. Transgender people who have not transitioned will obviously have to imagine themselves as being their true gender in sexual fantasies. Given that gender identities exist in continuums there are also other transgender persons who may experience such fantasies, even if they publicly identify with their assigned gender. Some of them may be transgender people living in denial, some may have deliberately chosen to present as their assigned gender for other reasons, while others again may be non-binary or genderqueer.
How autogynephilia is used against trans women
The IRS has used this debunked theory as an excuse to deny a trans woman medical expense deductions.
- Autogynephilia, ContraPoints
- Making Sense of the Autogynephilia Debates, Julia Serano
- Autogynephilia, Ad Hoc Hypotheses, and Handwaving, Julia Serano
- Gynephilia, an actual scientific term for someone attracted to women, regardless of that person's sex or gender.
- Rapid-onset gender dysphoria, another pseudoscientific hypothesis used to discredit trans people.
- In the DSM 5, Blanchard did put a trans male version of autogynephilia in, but in his own words, it was simply "not to be accused of sexism", which isn't really how science works.
- N.B.: being transgender is not a modern invention.
- Charles Moser MD PhD (2010) Blanchard's Autogynephilia Theory: A Critique, Journal of Homosexuality, 57:6, 790-809, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2010.486241
- The Real Autogynephilia Deniers
- Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations
- The Sex That Would Be Science
- The Case Against Autogynephilia
- Blanchard's Autogynephilia Theory
- Autogynephilia in Women
- Sexuality of Male-to-Female Transsexuals
- The Real Autogynephilia Deniers
- The Man Who Would be Queen, pp. 172-173
- Narcissistic Rage
- Pretenders to the Throne
- The Case Against Autogynephilia
- Julia Serano: "Reconceptualizing 'Autogynephilia' as Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies (FEFs)"
- IRS in Tax Defense