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“”Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me. I'd fuck me hard. I'd fuck me so hard.
|—Buffalo Bill, The Silence of the Lambs|
Autogynephilia is the "mental illness" described by the theory that transgender women who aren't exclusively attracted to men actually have a sexual fetish for viewing themselves as female. This covers lesbian, bisexual, 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 theory 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).
The theory is often accompanied by the notion that transsexual women attracted exclusively to men take an identical developmental route as homosexual, but are so overtly effeminate that they find it difficult to operate in life as even a gay man. And since these trans women are developmentally identical to gay men, they are labeled "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.)
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 theory doesn't deal with their existence (which would have to be covered under a separate theory such as "true" gender dysphoria). Every time you read "transsexual" below, just remember: "This theory completely ignores the existence of trans men."
The theory 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"
The central core of the theory holds that one small subset of trans women are genuinely programmed to be like women, and thus are of course, automatically and exclusively attracted only to men...just like cis women are only ever attracted to men.
This leads to the biggest criticism from a scientific standpoint, in that the theory 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, the theory 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" transsexuals, a practice that has been around pretty much as long as transsexualism. This works within the theory, 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 theory 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.
Worse so, when any trans woman denies having any erotic fetishes about herself, then this is used as conclusive evidence to show that she is indeed autogynephilic, because only an autogynephile would lie about this. A wonderful catch 22 for anyone suspected of autogynephilia... which of course, could be any trans woman.
And finally at the tail end of all of this criticism, is that even the "genuine transsexuals", are labelled by the theory as if they were men. This allows proponents for the theory that are against homosexuality to dismiss all transsexuals 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 theory, 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. Transsexual 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 transsexual 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.
- Gynephilia, an actual scientific term for someone attracted to women, regardless of that person's sex or gender.
- 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.
- Warning: the No True Scotsman Fallacy is used to defend this statement!
- N.B.: transsexualism is not a modern invention.
- Julia Serano: "Reconceptualizing 'Autogynephilia' as Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies (FEFs)"