It's a male's propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female... or is it?
Let's say you're a friendly LGBTQ ally scrolling through the internet, and suddenly you see a reference to autogynephilia. And not just a neutral reference, but an angry or condescending one, or an all-out rageful one. What gives?
In order to understand why autogynephilia is controversial, we have to know its origins and how it's used against transgender people today.
The basic definition used by medical and psychological professionals is "a male's propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female. It is the paraphilia that is theorized to underlie transvestism and some forms of male-to-female (MtF) transsexualism."
Basically, the idea is that some people who are assigned male at birth are so aroused at the thought of their own bodies as female that they need to completely transition to living as female. It's so extreme that it's thought of as a paraphilia, which is the fancy name for a sexual fetish.
The concept was first proposed by Ray Blanchard in the late 1980s, and developed by Michael Bailey in his book The Man Who Would Be Queen. Trans activist and scholar Julia Serano chronicles the rise and acceptance of the theory in her paper, "The Case Against Autogynephilia." Bizarrely, this theory was accepted as medical doctrine despite having very little evidence in support of it.
The main problem, as I see it, is that while some trans women (for whether or not to use the space in trans women, versus transwomen, see this blog post) probably are aroused by their erotic imagery of their bodies as female, so are other women, cisgender women (or women assigned female at birth) who might identify as straight, or bi, or lesbian.
We're all taught that women's bodies are sexy (thanks, patriarchal male gaze!) and we all probably identify with our bodies as sexual objects to various degrees. So until there's better research on how women of different types experience their bodies as arousing, it's unfair to single out and stigmatize trans women as unnaturally drawn to this kind of self-eroticizing imagery.
This isn't confined to gender or sexual identity, either. As I point out in my blog post, "Trans People Aren't Sick, the Entire F*cking Patriarchy Is," "lots of people fantasize about their bodies or identities being different than what they currently are, and we don't pathologize them to nearly the same degree. Fat people might fantasize about being skinny, and feel turned on by the image of their bodies as thin. Differently abled people might fantasize about having use of various parts of their bodies, and it might be a sexual fantasy."
Lots of people have lots of types of fantasies, some of which are more or less related to the bodies they inhabit, the bodies they wish to inhabit, and/or the bodies they wish to interact with, sexually or otherwise. It seems to be that fantasy is something that many humans share, and fantasizing about different types of bodies would have to get really extreme for it to be worth a whole medical diagnosis.
Further, the idea of autogynephilia unnecessarily conflates gender identity (one's internally perceived experience of gender) with sexual arousal (what one experiences as sexy, sexual, and arousing). Feminists have worked for centuries to de-couple gender from sexuality, so it really boggles my mind that scholars and scientists claiming a feminist background would support this notion (such as Alice Dreger).
A lot of trans women have vehemently argued that their identity as female is very much about gender, and not so much about what they're turned on by, and hence wielding autogynephilia against them disempowers their voices and discredits their ability to be rational, thinking beings who should have autonomy when it comes to gender expression and access to medical care.
I mean, imagine if male doctors were still intently insisting that all women suffered from hysteria, but every time we tried to speak up and said, "No, actually we are unhappy with the lack of opportunities in our sh*tty Victorian-era lives," they just shushed us. Or if whenever African-Americans tried to challenge stereotypes that make them out to be more primitive and violent than whites, they were told, "Shut up, because science."
That's the level of silencing and inaccuracy masquerading as medicine that we're seeing here.
This is also the part where I acknowledge that I'm a cisgender woman, so this isn't a struggle that directly impacts me. However, I have some fancy letters behind my name that confer on me expert status on this stuff, so while I study trans issues and advocate for trans people wherever possible, it's also important to incorporate their voices more directly when possible.
To that end, I invited a few trans friends and colleagues to share their experiences of autogynephilia with me.
One, Jain, responded, "While the concept of autogynephilia may have merit to some, when used in a therapeutic context, it represents an interpolation of the clinician's sexual fixation on the patient. It is harmful to eroticize a person's whole identity, but more so when that person is in the vulnerable position of needing psychological care, or needing validation of their right to exist in society."
Folks posting about their experiences on the internet also have shared a lot about how autogynephilia impacts them. Julia Serano, for example, wrote in a comment on one of her blog posts, "The problem isn't the fantasies, but the way that some people (Blanchard, Jeffreys, others) invoke them to dismiss the identity/perspectives/legitimacy of trans women. Having just been described as an 'autogynephile' in a national magazine, I completely understand your fears of the concept being used to invalidate our identities."
Or, as Amy Dentata incisively tweeted, "'Autogynephilia'. Or as cis women are allowed to call it, 'feeling sexy.'"
Finally, autogynephilia seems like a weirdly limited concept because it only has explanatory value (supposedly) for trans women. What about trans men? What about non-binary folks, or genderqueer or agender folks? Why do we allow them to transition without this damaging and disempowering diagnosis about self-fetishization? What's so unique about trans women in this regard?
I find the whole thing really problematic, saying that unidirectional gender transitions MUST be about sex going one way, but probably not going the other way. But then, there's a long and problematic history of sexualizing trans women, so this is probably related to it.
So, yeah. If you're interested in being a good ally to trans folks, I'd encourage you to read some of the pieces I've linked to here, and think long and hard about whether this is an idea you want to see spreading, or whether it's one you want to challenge. And again, always respect trans voices when it comes to issues that, you know, directly impact them.