I am not a trans woman. However, I have talked to a lot of assigned male at birth trans people, as well as those who are considering transition, and I know how much a lot of people struggle with the discourse around autogynephilia. I know people who desperately, desperately want to live as women, but feel alienated when they read that autogynephilia isn’t a thing. Does that mean they aren’t women? That they’re just perverts?
To be clear, nothing in this post should be taken as an endorsement of the Blanchard-Bailey theory of autogynephilia, which is clearly untrue. The Blanchard-Bailey theory denies the existence of autoandrophilia, in spite of its obvious truth (hang around some transmasculine slash fans sometime). It divides trans women into two binary categories– autogynephiliac late-transitioning queer women who work as programmers, and non-autogynephiliac early-transitioning straight women who work in typically feminine professions– going so far as to claim all trans women fall into one or the other category. In reality, most trans women do not fit the autogynephile-homosexual binary; the factors may or may not be correlated, but there are many exceptions. They claim all trans women are autogynephiles, when a substantial percentage– perhaps most– have never experienced autogynephilia. And they have claimed that denial about whether one is an autogynephile is a common trait in autogynephilia, making their theory (based primarily on self-report) utterly unfalsifiable– the definition of bad science.
Also, this post should not be taken to mean that any people should not transition. I think all three groups I discuss should transition if, upon reflection, they believe that is the best choice for them.
I think the concept ‘autogynephilia’ combines three conceptually different things.
First, trans women who jerk off while imagining themselves having a female body. This is perfectly ordinary female behavior– after all, most cis women jerk off imagining themselves with breasts and a vulva as well. They may also imagine themselves as more conventionally attractive than they are, which– again– is perfectly normal female behavior which many cis women engage in as well. They may become aroused when wearing sexy clothes, such as lingerie and red lipstick, which is also common among cis women. This form of autogynephilia can be safely classified as the unfair pathologization of ordinary female sexuality when done by a person assigned male at birth.
Second, autogynephilia may be a manifestation of gender dysphoria. Typical instances of this form of autogynephilia include sissification or forced feminization fantasies, transformation fantasies, erotic crossdressing, and sexual fantasies about such nonsexual activities as talking to women as a woman or putting in a tampon. Slash and yaoi fandoms are a common home for transmasculine autoandrophiles.
It is unclear to me how exactly the link between gender dysphoria and autogynephilia happens. It may be that gender dysphoria often manifests more strongly around puberty when one’s body becomes more sexed, the same time that sexuality comes to the forefront, and so naturally winds up eroticized for many people. It may be a coping mechanism or sublimation of feelings that are difficult to deal with. It may be that gender identity is closely connected to sexuality for many people who have a gender identity. Naturally, this is different for cis women who have gender identities (who typically have no doubt about whether they’re women or not) and trans women who have gender identities (whose experience might be more of a desperate desire to be a girl than a secure knowledge of same). A trans woman might fantasize about being forced to become a woman (if she feels ashamed of her desires), about magic that turns her into a woman (if she feels it’s impossible), or simply about being a woman.
It has been observed that autogynephilia often lessens or even goes away after transition. Anne Lawrence, puzzlingly, declared that this was because autogynephiliac trans people are romantically in love with their female selves and naturally the sexual element decreases later in a relationship, which is… not how sexual fetishes work. To me, a more plausible explanation is that when gender dysphoria decreases– such as when you’re gendered properly and have a body you’re comfortable in– autogynephilia, being linked to it, decreases as well.
It would be remiss not to mention that some people experience unwanted sexual arousal while crossdressing for gender-identity-related reasons. I am not sure why this is, but it seems relevant.
Third, there are what one might call ‘true autogynephiles.’ The majority of autogynephiles appear to have no particular desire to transition– they’re perfectly comfortable being straight men who occasionally jerk off to sissy porn or Corruption of Champions. Nevertheless, a very small percentage of trans people say that they were primarily motivated to transition because it was erotic to them. While this is extraordinarily rare, I do think it is worth mentioning, and I support true autogynephiles having access to treatment, the same way I support all gender dysphorics having access to treatment. (Yes, autogynephiles who want to transition are gender dysphoric. Look up the DSM-V definition of gender dysphoria.)