Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates

Julia Serano
Oct 15 · 32 min read
photo by PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.com

As a scientist who has written extensively about the field of transgender health, I am always astounded by how often Ray Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory is cited or invoked, given that it has been so resoundingly refuted in the research literature. In this essay, I will attempt to explain why so many people still find the theory compelling, despite its lack of scientific validity. Hopefully, this will be a helpful “explainer” for lay readers who don’t necessarily want to get too “into the weeds” regarding this thirty-year-old sexology theory, but want a general sense of what all the fuss is about.

This essay is divided into three sections: 1) The theory (and the evidence against it) in a nutshell, 2) Trans women’s objections to the theory (on top of it being incorrect), and 3) So who still believes autogynephilia theory, and what are their rationales? A companion essay entitled “Autogynephilia, ad-hoc hypotheses, and handwaving” is in the works, and I will link to it here as soon as it is complete; unlike this piece, that one will delve into some of the more esoteric arguments and claims made by those who still adhere to the theory.

While this is a long article (for the sake of thoroughness), feel free to skip around if you wish. Be warned that some of the links may take you to PDFs of research articles, while others may point to research articles that lie behind journal paywalls. If you encounter any unfamiliar terms along the way, I encourage you to consult my transgender-themed glossary.

A brief history of the theory and the evidence against it

In 1989 — the year that Ronald Regan stepped down as U.S. president, and Milli Vanilli dominated the pop music charts — psychologist Ray Blanchard proposed his theory of autogynephilia (Blanchard, 1989a, 1989b). In contradiction to the commonly accepted model (both then and now) that transgender people have a gender identity that is incongruent with their birth-assigned sex, and distinct from their sexual orientation, Blanchard proposed that there were two fundamentally distinct types of trans women, each with a different sexual-orientation-related cause. Blanchard presumed that heterosexual trans women (i.e., those who are exclusively attracted to men) were driven to transition because of “homosexuality.” And he claimed that all other trans women (i.e., those who are lesbian, bisexual, or asexual) suffered from a “misdirected heterosexual sex drive” that led them to become attracted to the idea of becoming women themselves. Blanchard called this supposed misdirected-heterosexual-sex-drive “autogynephilia,” and he believed that it was simultaneously 1) a paraphilia (i.e., a pathological sexual desire), 2) a sexual orientation unto itself, and 3) the cause of any gender dysphoria and desire to transition exhibited by this population.

The primary evidence Blanchard offered in support of his theory was a mere correlation: Individuals in his “autogynephile” group were far more likely to report having had sexual fantasies centered on being female and/or feminine than his “homosexual” group. (Confusingly, Blanchard also refers to these fantasies as “autogynephilia,” as he believed they are simply a manifestation of his proposed paraphilia; for clarity, I will call them female/feminine embodiment fantasies, or FEFs for short.) However, Blanchard’s own studies (and all subsequent ones) showed that there are plenty of exceptions to this correlation (e.g., individuals he categorized as “homosexual” who experienced FEFs and supposed “autogynephiles” who did not). And those “autogynephiles” that did experience FEFs generally reported that they first occurred only after they had already experienced gender dysphoria or a desire to be female (thus ruling out that the former causes the latter), and/or that they eventually experienced a sharp decrease or complete absence of FEFs over time (thus undermining the notion that these fantasies are central to these trans women’s identities or sexualities). I discuss these and numerous other problems with Blanchard’s theory and original research more extensively in my article The Case Against Autogynephilia (Serano, 2010); Charles Moser makes similar points in Blanchard’s Autogynephilia Theory: A Critique (Moser, 2010a).

Because of these shortcomings, autogynephilia was never widely accepted in the field, and it probably would have gradually disappeared into the annals of discarded hypotheses were it not for two evangelists of the theory: Anne Lawrence (who self-identifies as an autogynephilic transsexual) and J. Michael Bailey (whose 2003 pop-science book, The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism, touted the theory). To this day, Lawrence and Bailey remain the two staunchest proponents of the theory, and together with Blanchard, are responsible for almost all of the unwaveringly pro-autogynephilia academic literature that exists.

After the publication of Bailey’s book — which garnered significant critiques and backlash for reasons I summarize in Serano (2008) — other independent researchers began to investigate aspects of the theory, and their results further disprove autogynephilia’s taxonomy (its “homosexual” versus “autogynephile” classification scheme) and etiology (that “autogynephilia”/FEFs are the cause of gender dysphoria in lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women). I reviewed some of this work in Serano, 2010; more recent studies are summarized in my blogpost The real “autogynephilia deniers” and in a forthcoming article that is currently undergoing peer review (for now, I will refer to it as “Serano, forthcoming”; I will link to it as soon as it is published). In addition to previously discussed points, this body of research demonstrated that: 1) trans women’s sexualities fall along a continuum, rather than into distinct subtypes (Veale, 2014), 2) lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women tend to differ significantly from one another in their experiences with sexual attraction and FEFs (Nuttbrock et al., 2011a; Veale et al., 2008), and therefore lumping them together into one monolithic subtype appears unwarranted, 3) factors other than sexual orientation (specifically, age and race) significantly influence the prevalence of FEFs, with older and white subjects experiencing the highest levels (Nuttbrock et al., 2011a), and relatedly 4) the aforementioned disparities are largely explained by the fact that older and white individuals were also most likely to have dressed femininely in secret (Nuttbrock et al., 2011b). In fact, Nuttbrock et al. found that the prevalence of FEFs was a whopping five times greater in subjects who dressed femininely exclusively in private compared to those who dress femininely full-time in public. This last point lends further support to alternative models that have proposed that especially intense or frequent FEFs may be a by-product of, or exacerbated by, being forced to hide or repress one’s gender dysphoria and/or feminine inclinations — see Serano, 2007 (pp. 253–271, 283–306), 2016, forthcoming; Veale, Clarke, & Lomax, 2010; Nuttbrock et al., 2011a, 2011b.

Perhaps no evidence undermines autogynephilia theory more than recent studies that have shown that FEFs are quite common in cisgender women, and that cross-sex/gender embodiment fantasies also occur among the greater cisgender population. For instance, Veale et al. (2008) — the first autogynephilia-related study to use a control group (which Blanchard never bothered to do) — found that 52% of their cisgender female subjects experienced FEFs at levels comparable to trans women that Blanchard classified as “autogynephiles” (see also Moser, 2010). In a separate study of cisgender women, Moser (2009a) found that 93% of his subjects experienced FEFs to some extent, with 28% experiencing them at high levels. In a recent study of 4,175 Americans’ sexual fantasies, Lehmiller (2018, p. 66) found that “. . . about one-quarter of men and women had fantasized about cross-dressing, and nearly a third had fantasized about trading bodies with someone of the other sex.” Blanchard has claimed (see Cameron, 2013) that the counterpart to FEFs — sometimes called “autoandrophilia,” but which I will refer to as male/masculine embodiment fantasies (MEFs) — do not exist, but Lehmiller found that, “11 percent of the women I surveyed reported sexual fantasies about becoming men and that 20 percent had fantasized about dressing up as men” (pp. 97–98). In a qualitative study of women’s sexual fantasies, Dubberley (2013) chronicled numerous examples of MEFs (pp. 158–159, 164–167, 218–232), and other evidence of MEFs in cisgender women and trans male/masculine people can be found elsewhere (see Serano, 2016, notes #11 and 13, and references therein).

From all of this work, it seems reasonable to conclude that 1) sex/gender embodiment fantasies are fairly common, 2) they may be centered on our everyday bodies, or else involve “. . . having a different body shape, genital appearance, or personality” (Lehmiller, 2018, p. xviii), and 3) as with all sexual fantasies, people likely experience them for a variety of reasons. I provide sensible and non-pathologizing explanations for why they may occur more intensely or frequently in certain subpopulations in Serano (2016), and more thoroughly in Serano (forthcoming). For those interested in further understanding embodiment eroticism (and why autogynephilia is woefully inadequate to account for it), I highly recommend Talia Bettcher’s article “When Selves Have Sex: What the Phenomenology of Trans Sexuality Can Teach About Sexual Orientation” (Bettcher, 2014).

In summary, autogynephilia’s taxonomy and etiology have been disproven, and alternate models that better explain all the available data have been forwarded (and are cited above). Much like earlier sexological theories, such as “all girls suffer from penis envy,” or “boys become homosexual because they have dominant mothers,” I can understand why people once found them to be compelling. But the science has not borne them out. Like its predecessors, autogynephilia theory should be viewed as a historical artifact.

Trans women’s objections to the theory (on top of it being incorrect)

Before addressing why people are still drawn to Blanchard’s theory despite all the evidence against it, I think it is useful to ask why so many trans women are strongly opposed to it, as there is a lot of misinformation out there! Autogynephilia’s proponents have long dismissed trans women’s critiques of the theory by insisting that we must be in denial of the role that sexuality plays in our lives and/or in denial of “the science.” Those anti-science accusations may have seemed convenient during the early-to-mid-2000s, before much of the counterevidence and critical reviews that I cited above were published. But today in 2019, if anyone is in denial about the science regarding this theory, it is clearly those in the pro-autogynephilia camp — indeed, this is a main premise of The real “autogynephilia deniers,” so I won’t pursue this argument further here.

When people claim that trans women are in denial of the role that sexuality plays in our lives, all I can think is, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” There are tons of examples (far more than I could possibly cite) of trans women frankly discussing their own personal sexual experiences (including with FEFs), or more generally discussing the rich and complex topic of transgender sexualities. I have done both in my own writings.

No, the reason why many trans women vociferously object to autogynephilia theory — far more so than for any other theory that sexologists have penned about us over the last half century — is threefold. First, the theory is ludicrously rigid. Even if you know nothing about transgender people, think for a moment of some other minority group that you do know something about. Got it? Okay, now imagine some guy in a lab coat proclaiming that there are two (and only two!) subtypes of that group. And they are completely distinct from one another, no overlap whatsoever. Wouldn’t that strike you as pretty silly? Well, that’s exactly how most trans women reacted when Lawrence started promoting the theory within trans communities in the late 1990s/early 2000s (I am old enough to remember those reactions). Many responded that they didn’t fit into either of Blanchard’s groups, or that the theory did not account for their own experiences with gender dysphoria, gender expression, sexual orientation, and/or FEFs. It just seemed so obviously incorrect to many of us, as it could not account for our own lived experiences, or the diversity of trans women we knew personally.

This brings us to a second important reason why many trans women object to the theory: Rather than thoughtfully listening to what we had to say, and reevaluating or rejecting the theory accordingly (as scientists are supposed to do when confronted with contradictory evidence), proponents of autogynephilia instead insisted that any trans woman who does not fit neatly into Blanchard’s model must be lying, misreporting, or in denial of their experiences. In Serano (2010), I cite multiple examples of this tactic from Blanchard, Lawrence, and Bailey, and explain why it flies in the face of the scientific method. If you would like to see a more recent example of this tactic, look no further than this interview with Bailey where he essentially diagnoses Caitlyn Jenner as an “autogynephile” from afar, despite having no idea whether she’s ever experienced FEFs, while outright dismissing her experiences with gender dysphoria as a young child (Throckmorton, 2015). Again, maybe you don’t know much about transgender people, but just imagine for a moment that you had some formative experience as a young child, but some guy in a lab coat who you’ve never even met in person proclaims (in a public forum, no less) that you must be “lying” about or “misremembering” that experience, because he knows exactly what “type” of person you are. You know, because of “science.”

A third main objection to the theory from trans women’s perspectives is that it needlessly sexualizes us. I spend the second half of Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations (Serano, 2009) discussing what sexualization is, and why it can be horrific for those who experience it, so please consult that for a more detailed analysis. But for readers who’d prefer a quick thought experiment instead, I offer this: Remember my earlier example of a guy in a lab coat proclaiming that all members of some minority group fall into two discrete subtypes? Well, imagine that scenario again, but then he follows it up with the zinger: and both types are sexually motivated in virtually everything they do!

Here’s another thought experiment that may hit closer to home: Consider, for a moment, some socially unconventional sexual fantasy you may have had — maybe once, a dozen times, or perhaps scores. Maybe it involves some atypical sexual position or scenario, or a same-sex encounter, or being in a threesome, or some variety of BDSM, or perhaps it was some kind of sex/gender embodiment fantasy. (And don’t fear, all of the aforementioned sexual fantasies are fairly common; see Dubberley, 2013; Lehmiller, 2018.) Now imagine that some guy in a lab coat proclaims that all people who have experienced that particular sexual fantasy constitute the same “type” of person and suffer from the same underlying “disorder.” And what if, rather than merely being published in some obscure sexology research journal somewhere, several of these proverbial guys-in-lab-coats began writing pop-science books and doing interviews with mainstream (and right-wing) media outlets (as Bailey and Blanchard have) raising public awareness about the fact that you are supposedly this “type” of person who is perpetually “sexually motivated” by that sexual fantasy that you’ve occasionally had. How might that make you feel?

In Serano (2010), I forwarded this scenario in the hopes that many cisgender women might be able to relate to it:

Many . . . women have sexual fantasies about being raped (reviewed in Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). It is one thing to respectfully attempt to explore and understand such rape fantasies. It would be an entirely different thing to insist that there are two subtypes of women — those who have rape fantasies and those who do not; to use the label “autoraptophiles” when describing women who have such fantasies and to insist that they are primarily motivated by their desire to be raped; to include “autoraptophilia” as a modifier in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; and to encourage the lay public to actively distinguish between those women who are “autoraptophiles” and those who are not. Such actions would undoubtedly have a severe, negative impact on women (who are already routinely sexualized and marginalized in our culture). Yet, proponents of autogynephilia have argued that transsexual women should be viewed and treated in an analogous manner.

In The real “autogynephilia deniers” — which I wrote partly in response to James Cantor, a colleague of Blanchard’s who took to Twitter to dismiss people (like myself) who oppose the theory as “science deniers” — I offered this analogy in the hopes that he (or at least, other sexologists and sexual minorities) might be able to better relate to our situation:

James Cantor is an out gay man, so perhaps he might appreciate the following (purposefully satirical) analogy: When you get right down to it, there are two fundamentally distinct types of gay men — those who are primarily driven by erotic thoughts and images of themselves as being sexually on top (apicalphiles) and those who are primarily driven by erotic thoughts and images of themselves as being on the bottom (basalphiles). Anyone who says that gay men’s identities are more complex than this, or that their sexualities fall more on a continuum, are clearly basalphiles in denial. And since I have a PhD in *science* (even though I don’t put it in my Twitter handle à la @JamesCantorPhD), what I’m saying must be undeniably true. And as a scientist, I think we should talk more about gay men’s identities in terms of their apicalphilia or basalphilia. Because you can’t really understand gay men unless you know what sexual positions they strive for in their fantasies & in their bedrooms. And if you think that information about gay men’s sexual histories and proclivities is a personal matter and not a public one, well then, you have clearly established yourself as a basalphile-denier.

I would absolutely love to live in a world where people are not routinely stigmatized and slut-shamed for their solitary or consensual sexual fantasies and histories. But we do not live in that world. And for the record, I have nothing against people who wear lab coats — I’ve worn them many times myself in the past! But let’s face it, there are really two types of scientists (although they aren’t necessarily mutually-exclusive, nor would I ever claim that they are sexually motivated): Many of us are drawn to science because we are curious about how the world works, and we are open to changing our premises and hypotheses in the face of contradictory evidence. Then there are the obstinate bullies who wrap themselves in the veneer of science (represented by the metaphorical “lab coat” above) and attempt to pass themselves off as “objective experts” whose every position and opinion is unassailable. And the worst kind of the latter type of scientist are those who use their authority status to peddle two-dimensional stereotypes of marginalized groups. Which brings us to . . .

So who still believes autogynephilia theory, and what are their rationales?

If you comprehend the first section of this essay, and can relate to the second section, then you can probably understand why some trans women are quick to accuse anyone who invokes the theory of being transphobic. While it’s certainly true that many unapologetic transphobes have taken to wielding “autogynephilia” in this manner (and I will address them shortly), I do not believe that this is the motivating factor for many people who are drawn to the theory. In fact, after much consideration, I can think of at least nine ideologies or rationales (other than, or in addition to, transphobia) that can lead people to embrace Blanchard’s theory. I present them below, in no particular order.

But first, a disclaimer: It is common for people to confuse autogynephilia (Blanchard’s proposed “misdirected heterosexual sex drive” that supposedly causes gender dysphoria in lesbian, bisexual, and asexual trans women) and FEFs (sexual fantasies that people of various genders and sexualities may experience) simply because Blanchard conflated these things in his original writings. Blanchard did not discover FEFs — they were reported and discussed by many researchers prior to him — so there is no logical reason to continue to use his neologism to describe them. In fact, it would be downright misleading given that Blanchard intentionally coined “autogynephilia” to describe a hypothetical cause of gender dysphoria that has since been disproven (Serano, 2010; see also the companion piece to this essay). Anyway, since there remains some confusion about this issue, let me be clear: What follows are common rationales for why people embrace Blanchard’s taxonomy and etiology; FEFs themselves do not require any special rationale, as they have been widely reported and are known to exist.

1) Lack of familiarity with the subject.

Virtually all of us — scientists and laypeople alike — have, at some point in our lives, said, “Well, the science says that . . .” about a subject that we are not intimately familiar with ourselves. Perhaps some of you read an article by Blanchard, or heard an interview with Bailey, which presented autogynephilia theory as though it were settled science or the consensus view? There is nothing wrong with initially believing the theory is correct (especially if that’s how it was initially presented to you), but hopefully the flaws and counterevidence that I cited in the first section has since convinced you otherwise. If, however, that large body of evidence doesn’t sway your thinking at all, then I would suggest that you are driven by one or more of the remaining rationales.

2) Lack of understanding of complex traits.

In biology, sexology, and related fields, it is now generally accepted that most human traits (including those related to gender and sexuality) are complex traits that arise via the intricate interplay of numerous (perhaps even countless) factors which may be biological, cultural, experiential, and/or environmental in origin. Hallmarks of complex traits are that they result in spectrums of outcomes rather than discrete ones, and an inability to point to any singular “cause” for said outcomes. (I discuss this further with regards to gender and sexuality in Chapter 13 of my book Excluded.) While most researchers in these fields today understand this, laypeople are generally unfamiliar with the concept, and may instead favor overly simplistic explanations. Blanchard’s theory — wherein all trans women arise as a result of either “homosexuality taken to the extreme” or “sexual fantasies gone awry” — may appeal to this yearning for simple causation and discrete outcomes.

3) Unconscious sexism (aka, transgender stereotypes, part one).

Remember earlier, when I compared autogynephilia to past theories like penis envy and dominant mothers who turn their sons gay? If I were to ask you what exactly is wrong with those two earlier theories, you probably wouldn’t say, “They were not supported by subsequent research!” (even though this is true). Rather, your first response would likely be: “Those theories were so obviously rooted in sexism!” Well, I would argue that the same is true for autogynephilia theory. I first made this case in my 2007 book Whipping Girl, but here is how I put it in Serano (2009):

These assumptions — that trans women are inherently sexually promiscuous, sexually deceptive, sexually deviant and sexually motivated in our transitions — persist in what are perhaps the three most common trans woman archetypes seen in the media over the years: the gay man who transitions to female in order to seduce unsuspecting straight men, the male pervert who transitions to female in order to fulfill some kind of bizarre sex fantasy, and the overrepresentation of trans women as sex workers. In sharp contrast, transsexual men are not typically portrayed in a hypersexual manner, nor are they depicted as being sexually motivated in their transitions. Instead, the most common ulterior motive projected onto trans men is that they transition in order to obtain male privilege. Because women are viewed as the “lesser sex” in our culture, people often cannot understand why anyone would give up being a man in order to become a relatively disempowered woman. So they assume that trans women transition in order to obtain the one type of power that women are perceived as having in our society: the ability to be sexualized and to be objects of heterosexual male desire. Thus, the hypersexualization of trans women and our motives for transitioning merely reflects the implicit cultural assumption that women as a whole have no value beyond our ability to be sexualized.

As I detail in that essay, these hypersexualized depictions of trans women have existed in the media since the 1960s, and were repeatedly reproduced by writers and producers who had no first-hand experience with transgender individuals or the field of sexology, indicating that they are rooted in presumptions about women and men, not knowledge about trans people. Given the pervasiveness of these “sexually motivated trans women” stereotypes, it’s not that surprising that Blanchard may have also unconsciously reproduced them when crafting his theory of autogynephilia. In fact, Blanchard’s fascination with trans women’s sexualities and his simultaneous disinterest in trans men’s sexualities (as evidenced by his publication record) was quite typical for the field of sexology during the mid-to-late twentieth century. I called this phenomenon “effemimania” when I chronicled it in my book Whipping Girl (pp. 126–139, 283–313).

In contrast, contemporary trans health practitioners are more likely to recognize that transgender people (like cisgender people) exhibit a spectrum of sexualities, and the researchers who study them now take into account the diversity of gender and sexual histories, trajectories, and identities that exist among these populations (see e.g., Bockting, Benner, & Coleman, 2009; Kuper, Nussbaum, & Mustanski, 2011; de Vries, 2012; Cerwenka et al., 2014; Scheim and Bauer, 2015; Katz-Wise et al., 2015; van Anders, 2015; Galupo, Henise, & Mercer, 2016; Hammack, Frost, & Hughes, 2018; Kuper, Wright & Mustanski, 2018; to name but a few). By the way, these latter articles have not faced any outcry or protests, demonstrating once again that trans people aren’t opposed to thoughtful scientific explorations of our identities and sexualities, just attempts to deny, oversimplify, or disparage them.

Effemimania is not the only autogynephilia-enabling rationale that is more common among the old-guard of sexologists, but not typically held by more contemporary researchers. In fact, the next three rationales are all also endemic to that past era of sexology.

4) A belief that atypical and non-reproductive expressions of sexuality are inherently pathological.

It used to be commonplace for sexologists to label sexual desires or behaviors that they deemed “non-normative” or “non-reproductive” as paraphilias, and to presume that the people who exhibit them must share the same underlying “disorder,” “disturbance,” “error,” or “anomaly” (all these terms appear frequently in Blanchard’s writings on autogynephilia). However, the field as a whole has gradually (albeit not completely) moved away from pathologizing solitary and consensual expressions of sexuality in this way (Giami, 2015; for reviews about why such expressions should not be pathologized, see Joyal, Cossette, & Lapierre, 2015; Moser & Kleinplatz, 2006). But Blanchard holds fast to the old ways: While he was Chair of the DSM-5 Paraphilia subworkgroup in 2009, he spearheaded a move to drastically expand the category of paraphilia to include: “. . . any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners” (reviewed and critiqued in Hinderliter, 2011). Blanchard has also since insinuated that, if he were to “start from scratch,” he would be inclined to reclassify homosexuality as a paraphilia (Cameron, 2013). Lawrence and Bailey have also pushed for categorizing atypical (but consensual) expressions of sexuality as paraphilias via Blanchard’s “erotic target location errors” theory — the specifics of that theory are beyond the scope of this essay, but critiques of Blanchard’s, Lawrence’s, and Bailey’s deployment of it can be found in Bettcher (2014), Moser (2009b), and Grey (2019), respectively.

Contemporary sexologists who hold nonpathologizing views of human sexual diversity tend to view FEFs as simply sexual fantasies or patterns of arousal that some people experience to varying degrees. In contrast, those who are prone to view atypical and non-reproductive sexual desires as inherently pathological may be inclined to view FEFs (and other embodiment fantasies) as “errors” and “disorders,” and may find Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory appealing for these reasons.

5) Favoring sexual inversion over gender variance.

Most trans health practitioners and researchers today view gender identity (whether one understands themselves as a girl/woman, boy/man, or other), gender expression (whether one’s behaviors and interests are feminine, masculine, or other), sexual orientation, and physical sex attributes, as all naturally varying in the population (i.e., they give rise to a spectrum of outcomes), and all separable to some extent (i.e., they may not all align with one another within any given person) (American Psychological Association, 2015; Coleman et al., 2011; Hidalgo et al., 2013). According to this perspective, transgender people — whose gender identity is incongruent with their birth-assigned sex — would be expected vary in their gender expressions and sexual orientations, just as these facets vary within the cisgender population. In Serano (2010), I referred to this now widely accepted view as the gender variance model.

In contrast, the old-guard of sexology — including most proponents of autogynephilia theory — seem to believe in what has historically been called sexual inversion. The name originated in a nineteenth century sexology theory that conceptualized gender and sexual minorities (i.e., LGBTQ+ people) as either men who have “female souls”/“feminine brains” or women who have “male souls”/“masculine brains.” Sexual inversion seems rooted in gender essentialism — the belief that men are inherently “one way,” and women inherently the “opposite way” — which explains why it is such a common stereotype of, and lay explanation for, LGBTQ+ people (see Mitchell and Ellis, 2011; Budge, Orovecz, Owen, & Sherry, 2018; and references therein).

Importantly for this discussion, sexual inversion conflates gender expression and sexual orientation — presuming that expressing femininity is inexorably tied to attraction to men, and expressing masculinity tied to attraction to women — in a manner that ignores or denies many people’s lived experiences (e.g., femme lesbians, masculine gay men, bisexual people). It also leads people to view homosexuality and transsexuality as being slightly different outcomes for the same “type” of person (i.e., “males-with-feminized-brains,” “females-with-masculinized-brains”). Indeed, this sexual inversion stereotype is clearly the basis for Blanchard’s “homosexual” group, whom he viewed (in both name and his descriptions) as akin to feminine gay men. This explains why this group remains taken for granted in all of his studies — for instance, he spends relatively little time discussing these individuals, and (unlike his “autogynephile” group) he never accuses them of “lying” or “misreporting” their experiences (see Serano, 2010). In contrast, trans women who are not highly feminine and/or not exclusively attracted to men seemed to have perplexed Blanchard, so he invented an entirely new “type” of trans woman (with a distinct “cause”) in order to explain their existence. This maneuver is entirely unnecessary from the gender variance perspective.

Relatedly, in his paper introducing autogynephilia theory (Blanchard, 1989a), one of Blanchard’s main rationales for inventing this second “type” of trans woman was that he did not believe that a corresponding group of trans men (i.e., not especially masculine and/or not exclusively attracted to women) existed. But today, we now know that such individuals are fairly common (as one would expect according to the gender variance model). In an attempt to correct for this past oversight, Bailey and Blanchard (2017) (writing for the explicitly anti-trans website 4thWaveNow) recently expanded Blanchard’s taxonomy to include five different transgender subtypes, two of which (“rapid onset” and “autohomoerotic”) attempt to account for trans men who do not fit their “sexual inversion” mindset. If, rather than clutching onto the simplistic notion of sexual inversion, they learned to accept the gender variance model (as most in the field of sexology have), there would be no need to keep inventing new “types” of trans people, each with their own distinct imagined “cause.”

6) A failure to consider how social forces shape the lives of gender and sexual minorities.

As detailed in Blanchard (1989a), autogynephilia theory was his attempt to provide an explanation for two general demographic trends that were regularly reported during the 1960s–1980s in North American gender clinics: an outwardly feminine group of trans women who often spent time in gay male communities before deciding to transition, and a group who initially repressed their feminine inclinations and often spent time in crossdresser communities before deciding to transition. Blanchard (like many sexologists and psychologists way back then) attributed essentialist and intrinsic “causes” to these individuals without giving any consideration to how social pressures — especially transphobia, homophobia, traditional sexism, and effemimania — might have shaped the course of their lives. This is arguably the most outdated aspect of autogynephilia theory, as these fields now recognize how local cultural norms and social oppression can influence gender and sexual minorities’ identity formation, life trajectories, sexual experiences and histories (reviewed in D’Augelli, 1994; Hammack, 2005; Herdt, 2004; Martin and D’Augelli, 2009; Kuper, Wright, & Mustanski, 2018). For instance, there is a large body of evidence demonstrating that, while gender-diverse people exist across cultures and throughout history, the specific identities, social roles, and behaviors they engage in may vary considerably. And different generational cohorts of North American gay men and lesbian women also differ significantly from one another in their sexual expressions, identities, and the subcultures they created in response to the specific social circumstances they faced (reviewed in Hammack, 2005; Martin and D’Augelli, 2009). Thus, it would be unrealistic to presume that the same wouldn’t also be true for transgender people.

Frankly, Blanchard’s taxonomy seems downright archaic in a world where trans kids are no longer necessarily forced into social isolation, and where they typically first come out into trans communities, rather than gay male or crossdresser ones. Furthermore, many trans kids today socially transition during childhood or adolescence (independent of their sexual orientation), may come to identify as genderfluid or nonbinary rather than as girls or boys (options that were not available to many of us in the past), and have the opportunity to openly explore same-sex/gender relationships without being ostracized by their peers. It’s quite a stretch to presume that Blanchard’s 1980s-era “two subtypes” somehow apply to trans individuals who grow up in a world where even Facebook offers more than 50 different gender identity categories (and I say “even” here because most younger people view Facebook as an “old person’s” social media platform).

In Chapter 17 of Whipping Girl, I forwarded a nonpathologizing explanation for the two major demographics of trans female/feminine people that existed before the turn of the millennium — it explains how various social pressures conspired to create those two trajectories, and why those of us who were forced into a “crossdresser stage” sometimes mystified or exoticized femininity, often leading to intense FEFs; this model is briefly summarized elsewhere (Serano, 2016, forthcoming). Unlike autogynephilia theory, this model is compatible with the significant increases in people who now openly identify as trans, especially at younger ages — that is to say, a societal-wide reduction in transphobia, and an increase in access to trans-related information and healthcare, have enabled these newer possibilities (Serano, 2017). And in stark contrast to autogynephilia theory, this model is consistent with Nuttbrock et al.’s findings (2011a, 2011b) that trans women of younger generations experience drastically lower levels of FEFs relative to older generations, apparently due to their not having to hide their feminine inclinations to the same extent that their predecessors had.

While contemporary researchers now appreciate the impact that dynamic social forces may have on gender and sexual minorities’ lives, proponents of autogynephilia theory live in an alternative reality where the “two types” of trans women Blanchard discovered in a Canadian gender clinic in the 1980s must have always existed, and will continue to exist for all eternity. One of the more preposterous examples of this can be found in the previously mentioned Bailey and Blanchard (2017) article, wherein they attempt to illustrate Blanchard’s “homosexual” and “autogynephile” subtypes by referencing celebrity trans people Jazz Jennings (who was born in 2000 and socially transitioned at a young age) and Caitlyn Jenner (who was born in 1949, long before there were any resources for, or awareness of, transgender children, let alone the possibility of social transition), respectively. As I alluded to earlier, Jenner has said her first trans-related experiences occurred around the age of 8 or 9 — several years prior to when FEFs would be expected arise, if they ever did in her case — so making her their exemplar for “autogynephilic” trans women seems pretty silly. (Unless, of course, this category has nothing to do with FEFs — put a pin in that thought, we’ll get back to it shortly!) If Jenner had been a child today (rather than in the 1950s), it seems quite likely that she may have come out as trans and perhaps even socially transitioned at a young age. Anyone who has more than two brain cells to rub together can recognize that, if that had happened, Jenner would have had a drastically different life trajectory than the one she ended up having, one that would have likely impacted her in countless ways, including with regards to her sexual experiences and history. In other words, Jenner isn’t a “type” of trans woman; she is an individual who lived in a particular time and place, and responded to her specific social situation in a particular way — just as all trans women (and people more generally) do.

Okay, now we can yank out that proverbial pin . . .

7) A “gut feeling” that there really are “two types” of trans women (aka, transgender stereotypes, part two).

Given that people tend to associate the word “autogynephilia” with FEFs (rather than with Blanchard’s overarching theory), what I will say next may come as a surprise to some: Autogynephilia has never really been about FEFs. It’s primarily about a “gut feeling” that there are “two types” of trans women. This helps to explain why proponents of autogynephilia blissfully ignore the many “homosexual” trans women who’ve experienced FEFs and their “autogynephile” counterparts who have not. It explains why both Bailey and Blanchard have repeatedly forwarded case studies of supposedly quintessential “autogynephiles” who all describe having trans-related experiences years before they experienced FEFs (Bailey, 2003, pp. 151–152, 160, 167; Blanchard, 1991). While such examples would lead most science-driven researchers to question the theory’s proposed causality (i.e., that FEFs caused these individuals to become transgender), Bailey and Blanchard remain unphased, because the theory is not really about FEFs per se; rather, it’s about reifying their “gut feelings” about “two types” of trans women. In fact, Bailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, reads like a case study in transgender-lookism, where “homosexual” trans women are invariably depicted as sexy and “real-looking” and “boy-crazy,” whereas “autogynephilic” trans women are depicted as barely presentable “men in dresses” consumed by their unrelenting sexual fantasies (I am paraphrasing here, but not by much). At one point in the book, Bailey outright says: “Once you have learned about autogynephilic and homosexual transsexuals and seen several of each, distinguishing them is easy. If Blanchard and I saw the same 100 transsexuals, I would be surprised if we disagreed on more than 2” (Bailey, 2003, p. 192).

This is why Bailey and Blanchard (2017) feel so supremely confident in using Jennings and Jenner as their “homosexual”/“autogynephile” archetypes, despite not knowing whether either of them has ever actually experienced FEFs in real life. Because the theory is not about FEFs! The theory is about one thing, and one thing only: You can readily tell that there are two distinct “types” of trans women! Just by looking at them!

The reason why autogynephilia theory remains so refractory to all the counterevidence and criticisms is because lots of people have this very same “gut feeling.” Indeed, these “two types” of trans women have existed in the cisgender imagination for quite some time, long before Blanchard ever penned his theory. Talia Bettcher (2007) has described these two stereotypes as “deceivers” and “pretenders.” Independently, in my review of media depictions spanning several decades, I referred to these same stereotypes “deceptive” and “pathetic” trans women (Serano, 2007, pp. 35–52; an earlier online version of that essay can be found in Serano, 2005). These stereotypes reflect laypeople’s assumptions about why a “man” might “choose” to become a woman, and both are assigned sexual motives (in keeping with rationale #3, which is why I subtitled this one “transgender stereotypes, part two”). Specifically, if a trans woman “passes” as a cisgender woman — especially if she is someone whom the average heterosexual man might find appealing — she is automatically presumed to be a “gay man” who transitioned in order to “deceive” straight men into sleeping with her. But if a trans woman doesn’t “pass” as cisgender, then this seems to present a dilemma, given our culture’s sexist and heteronormative presumptions, namely: why would you even want to be a woman if straight men won’t find you attractive?! So we tend to concoct a different (i.e., non-“deceiver”) motive for these trans women: Hey, women are sexy, so these “men” must want to become women because they find that sexy! In either case, hetero-male-sexuality is normalized, women are sexualized, and trans women (by virtue of choosing to become women) are hyper-sexualized (I discuss this in greater depth in Serano, 2007, pp. 253–271; Serano, 2009).

Stereotypes are insidious and difficult to recognize if you do not know what to look for. If any readers initially bought into these stereotypes, I would never hold that against you, provided that you do not allow said stereotypes to distort your opinions about trans women and the science on this matter moving forward. If an individual trans woman “passes” or is conventionally attractive, it’s not because of her sexual orientation; it’s most likely because she transitioned at a relatively young age and/or just so happened to not have especially male-typical physical attributes. And if a trans woman does not live up to heteronormative ideals (e.g., conventional femininity), it has nothing to do with her sexual fantasies; it may simply be a matter of her personal preferences and/or queer sensibilities. After all, some cisgender women are tomboys, and many queer cisgender women tend to exhibit gender expressions and/or fashion senses that significantly differ from their straight female counterparts. Given this diversity, we should expect transgender women to also vary in these same ways.

8) Self-identified autogynephiles.

While most trans women reject Blanchard’s theory (for reasons discussed in the second section of this essay), there are a few (e.g., Lawrence) who self-identify as autogynephilic transsexuals and believe that their early experiences with FEFs are what caused them to ultimately become trans women. Some even find Blanchard’s theory revelatory because it acknowledges an aspect of their sexualities that they had previously kept hidden, or had not seen depicted in mainstream accounts before. While such individuals are free to self-identify as they wish, and to develop their own personal narratives as they see fit, by no means should their personal beliefs trump the many lines of evidence that refute autogynephilia’s taxonomy and etiology.

As an analogy, some people believe that the sexual abuse they experienced as children is what caused to them become gay, despite the fact that there is no compelling evidence that this is a legitimate cause of homosexuality. (This analogy, and the unlikelihood that FEFs have the potential to cause gender dysphoria in anyone, will be further explored in the soon-to-be-released companion essay.) While I would never speak out against an individual who embraces these lay theories as personal explanations, I do take issue with those who project them onto other gender and sexual minorities. By championing Blanchard’s theory in a “I believe it’s true for me, so therefore it must be true for everyone” manner, these individuals are not only ignoring the science on the matter, but they are actively invalidating the personal experiences and perspectives of countless other trans women.

Ever since Blanchard’s theory garnered attention outside of transgender-specific discourses, there is now a second group of people who sometimes self-identify as “autogynephiles”: cisgender men who experience FEFs and use the word “autogynephilia” to describe what they consider to be their personal kink. As discussed above, if this is how they wish to describe themselves and their FEFs, so be it, provided that they are not projecting Blanchard’s erroneous theory onto other people.

9) Transmedicalists.

Whenever a minority group is marginalized, and maligned as “unnatural” or “illegitimate,” some members of the group will inevitably emphasize their proximity to, and similarities with, the dominant majority in an effort to gain respectability. And in the process of asserting their own “realness” and legitimacy, they will often throw the rest of the minority group under the proverbial bus. Within trans communities, such individuals have gone by many names over the years; HBSers, truscum, and transmedicalists are a few of the more recent ones. One thing these groups have in common is that they often cite old-guard sexology theories — especially those steeped in sexual inversion (see rationale #5) — in order to argue that they are “real” trans women and men, while all other trans people are merely “perverts” or “pretenders.” Those who stoop to such tactics will often cite Blanchard’s theory in an effort to smear trans women they dislike or discount as “autogynephiles.” In other words, transmedicalists wield the term in a manner similar to . . .

10) Transphobes looking for justification for their beliefs.

I am not using the word “transphobe” lightly here; I am specifically referring to people who are ideologically opposed to our existence and who actively work to undermine transgender recognition and acceptance. Most notably, this includes religious conservatives (who are more generally opposed to LGBTQ+ people) and anti-trans feminists (often called “gender critical” or “TERFs”), both of whom increasingly work together in their efforts to roll back transgender rights, and both often cite autogynephilia theory in their anti-trans propaganda (a few examples are linked to in The real “autogynephilia deniers”). Why do they do this? Well, as I discussed in the second section of this essay, the theory sexualizes trans women’s identities and motives — essentially, it’s the transgender equivalent of slut-shaming. More to the point, it provides a (pseudo)scientific justification for these groups to mischaracterize trans women as “perverts” or “predators” who pose a potential threat to cisgender women and children in public restrooms and elsewhere (despite the fact that there is no credible basis for such accusations). This is a tried-and-true tactic that has been used more broadly against LGBTQ+ people for over half a century — see e.g., recurring attempts to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, or recent claims that LGBTQ+ educational efforts are tantamount to “grooming” children.

Given the way that “autogynephilia” has been increasingly weaponized against trans people, you might think that supposedly objective scientists like Blanchard and Bailey would speak out against these abuses of the theory. But they have not; if anything, they have knowingly fanned the flames. For instance, Bailey and Blanchard have co-authored multiple guest posts for the TERF blog 4thWaveNow, which regularly compares transgender activism, individuals, and transitioning to brainwashing, eugenics, cults, lobotomies, and of course, predators and grooming. While Bailey has made many derogatory comments about trans people over the years (see e.g., Bailey, 2003; Veale, 2015), he has apparently formalized his position via co-signing a letter from the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group American College of Pediatricians applauding the Trump Administration’s efforts toward rescinding transgender rights and anti-trans discrimination protections. As for Blanchard, well, now that he’s no longer actively doing research, he seems to spend a lot of time on Twitter retweeting anti-transgender propaganda by the aforementioned groups, penning his own tweets about how demonic possession, goth/emo culture, and anime may be linked (in his mind) to people becoming transgender, and occasionally providing conservative media outlets with interviews like Meet the Bold Sexologist Questioning Transgender Orthodoxy.

A belief in autogynephilia theory, in and of itself, does not makes one a transphobe. But I can’t help but notice that few (if any) of the theory’s most vocal supporters have spoken out against the ways in which “autogynephilia” has been increasingly misused and abused by actual transphobes — perhaps this is a tacit indication of where their true allegiances lie. In any case, for those readers who have previously been inclined to accept Blanchard’s theory at face value, or who have been “on the fence” in these debates, I hope this essay has helped to elucidate the many ways in which the concept of autogynephilia is not supported by the scientific evidence, and how it is incompatible with contemporary thinking in the field of sexology.

Finally, debates about autogynephilia have been raging for about twenty years now, and die-hard adherents of the theory have amassed a seemingly never-ending series of caveats, loopholes, and esoteric talking points intended to undermine the counterevidence that I cited above, or to resuscitate the theory in some form or other. Given the length of this essay already, I will address those concerns in a separate companion piece, entitled “Autogynephilia, ad-hoc hypotheses, and handwaving” — I will link to it as soon as it comes out.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade