Transsexual Analysis: 3. A woman trapped in a man's body or autogynephilia?

Transsexual Analysis

Nature vs nurture: humans are diverse  |   Diversity in society  |   Woman in a man's body?  |   Trauma can shape us  |   Emasculation trauma

Trauma and sexuality  |   Perversion or lifestyle choice?  |   How to treat?  |   Superficiality  |   Problems and reversion  |   In summary

3. A woman trapped within a man's body or autogynephilia - or both?

This commentary focuses on male-to-female transsexualism, although in some areas the circumstances may be conversely true for female-to-males.

For some decades controversy has existed in regard to the manner in which extremely feminine males and masculine females decide to live their lives, that is, how they deal with the situation of being different.

In this context, the obvious questions to ask would be:

Until now, the trans community has tended to rely on time-tested cliches to explain itself, such as "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body" or "I'm a woman inside" (for M2Fs). Many people, including transsexuals themselves, do not see this explanation as credible, or at least so impossibly subjective that it inspires distrust.

By definition, females are organisms with large sex cells (ovaries) and males are those with small ones (sperm). Therefore, barring intersex situations, it is not possible for a female to be trapped in a male body, nor vice versa. By the same token, it is impossible for a male to actually become a female, to be shaped by the imperatives of those who carry large sex cells (or vice versa).

Technology can only create a "cultural" woman who is a facsimile of a biological woman. Of course, this may be a moot point given that, except in matters of procreation, we do not relate to each other on a chromosomal or skeletal level, nor in relation to our internal organs.

Therefore the concept of being "a woman in a man's body" simply refers to a male possessing unusual levels of stereotypically feminine mental, emotional and/or physical characteristics.

However, these innate qualities will necessarily differ from that of natural females due to the dynamics of mating, as discussed below (and also in regard to upbringing, which is discussed later).

Biology and the sexes

Richard Dawkins' bestseller, The Selfish Gene, examines the way the size of our sex cells shapes our behavior, primarily due to the level of "parental investment" in our offspring. Biologically, there is a never-ending to-and-fro battle between the sexes.

Depending on the species, males and females tend towards two strategies, which Dr Dawkin's colloquially terms "He-man" and "Domestic Bliss".

In the "He-man" scenario, the males of the species are large and powerful. The dominant male in the group mates with all of the females, jealously guarding his harem from other males in the group. The females are attracted to the most dominant male, knowing instinctively that he will have the best possible genes to pass onto her offspring, thus maximizing their chances of survival. This behavior is reinforced through generations via natural selection, that is, the genes of females who are not attracted to the "he-men" of such species tend not to survive.

On the other hand, Dr Dawkins' "Domestic bliss" strategy is seen when females withhold sexual privileges to males - unless they can demonstrate that they will help with child rearing. In this case, male strength is less desired than male commitment.

Females in this scenario will avoid males that appear to be the type who would "do the deed" and then quickly leave in order to mate with other females, leaving the female stranded to rear the offspring single-handedly. A female would prefer not to spend a gestation period unable to spread her genes, while the father is still free to spread his genes with any gullible female that he finds - to his genetic advantage.

However, a female can refuse to mate unless the male builds her a nest or goes through an elaborate courtship ritual. In this way she can force the male to make a major investment in the offspring, making him less likely to run off impregnating others. After all, he needs to make sure that his considerable "investment" will come to fruition, ie. his offspring survive and perpetuate his genes.

"Loose" females of a domestic bliss type species are at an evolutionary disadvantage since, without coercing males to help out, their offspring stand a lesser chance of survival than those of her more discerning peers since she must rear her young without any assistance.

While Dr Dawkins declined to make comparisons between human behavior and that of other animals, it is easy to think of examples of where the above dynamics play out in the human world.

By the same token, in terms of evolutionary dynamics, it is difficult to see how a genetic male can sensibly claim that s/he is a woman trapped in a man's body or vice versa. The fact is that, in nature, the basic agendas of males and females are markedly different. It is only in cultural terms that this basic tenet does not apply, and this is the domain od transsexualism.

How the usual differences between males and females play out

The major differences between male and females can be broken into physical and psychological & emotional.

Physical gender differences are fairly straightforward, the main feature being differing gonads and breasts. There are also a number of complementary secondary sexual characteristics such as body size and shape, skin texture, hair distribution and density, facial features, voice, voice intonation and manner of movement.

Stereotypical psychological gender-specific traits are a collection of gender-marked behaviors that will tend to naturally follow, depending on whether a person has large (female) or small (male) sex cells.

This affects how we relate with each others. Examples might be our desire for closeness and approval as opposed to independence, our emotional expression, our sensitivity, empathy, forcefulness, competitiveness, the way we use language, our manner of speaking, our body language, how decisive we are, and so on.

Discounting hermaphrodites and genitals, there is clearly room for overlap in all of the above characteristics between the genders.

Nonetheless, it is as rare for any individual male to be oriented towards the feminine in all of the above psychological stereotypes as it is for a single female to have a mentality that's typically masculine in all areas. Even discounting cultural shaping, the effect of our genitals and sex hormones alone makes this unlikely.

So when a transsexual states that she is "a woman trapped in a male body" or that she's "a woman inside", it is easy to understand why so many people are instinctively skeptical. This is especially so if the transsexual is large, heavy-boned, muscular, deep-voiced, forceful, dryly analytical and unemotional, and quite simply doesn't "vibe" like a woman.


In recent years Dr Ray Blanchard and others have raised the ire of the trans community with alternative explanations to explain male-to-female transsexualism, especially his "autogynephilia" concept.

In brief, Dr Blanchard's ideas go like this:

Transsexuals can usually be grouped into two categories - homosexual and autogynephilic. The homosexual type is at that extreme feminine end of the male spectrum. They were the "girly boys" who simply found the male role too at odds with their basic natures to lead happy and productive lives in that role. They tend to seek gender reassignment at an early age, report an active and enthusiastic desire for men,, little or no fetishistic history (although this is very likely under-reported), and perform stereotypically feminine jobs such as hairdressing, secretarial/office and sex work.

The group he terms "autogynephiles" are transsexuals who apparently behaved in a gender-congruent manner in youth with relatively uneventful schooling years, and had a history of transvestic fetishism. They form heterosexual relationships and marry in their former lives, and can be found in any manner of occupations, including hyper-masculine ones such as the military and engineering. Quite a few identify as lesbian after making the change.

Dr Blanchard asserts that autogynephiles are sexually aroused by feminization. The sense of wellbeing (created by arousal) with which feminization provides them becomes indispensable to their happiness. Many transsexuals vehemently deny any sexual arousal at their feminized state, and it would be fair to say that if they were perennially aroused by being feminized they would be thoroughly exhausted!

To explain this apparent dichotomy, let's take the example of an elderly, long-married couple. While no longer enjoying a sexual relationship, they may still find that the comfort of each other's presence and company to be a crucial part of their lives, and they become co-dependent. In much the same way, according to Dr Blanchard's speculations, autogynephilic transsexuals may find their "relationship" with their cross-presented self or opposite sex transformation fantasies may become more platonic in nature but they deepen with age and take on increasing importance. It would be fair to expect that this occurs with many crossdressers as well as autogynephilic transsexuals, but Dr Blanchard's focus is on male-to-female TSs.

At the risk of offending transpeople, it is clear that his theory, while flawed, does help to clarify some aspects of transsexuality, at least as it pertains to some individuals.

Flaws in the autogynephilia model

The issue is not black and white: Dr Blanchard's theory's main flaw is the black-and-whiteness of his definitions, so much so that the unstated "shades of gray" must be applied to the theory for it to be applicable in most cases. Again, diversity necessarily applies, with only a minority of transsexuals being either extremely autogynephilic or not autogynephilic at all. The majority most probably have experienced some degree of autogynephilia during at least at some stage during their lives, even though this is rarely openly admitted by either of Dr Blanchard's sub-groups. The reason for this will be further explained later.

It is likely that it is this black-and-white approach that generates so much hostility in transpeople to his theories. Nobody wants to be squeezed into (uncomplimentary) rigid boxes which fail to take their individual circumstances into account.

By way of analogy, imagine if it was claimed that that males can be placed into two groups - beanpoles and shrimps. If you are over 5'8" (173cm) you are a beanpole and, if not, you are a shrimp.

A statement like this would hardly inspire faith in those in the 5'6" (168cm) to 5'10" (178cm) range. Logic tells us that most males will in fact fall into this middling range, as per a Bell Curve. As such, focusing on the extremes will tend to exclude a majority of cases, and any hypothesis that is wrong in the majority of cases clearly needs refinement.

The problem with black-and-white viewpoints

Seeing things as they are, the detail explains the reality.

A black-and-white viewpoint sacrifices the essence and meaning.

Dr Blanchard's reason for taking an absolutist approach may be caused by his apparent lack of consideration of the causes of autogynephilia - nor those of its relative, fetishistic transvestism (or "crossdressing" to use the more socially considerate term). This will be discussed later.

It must be also said that there are a number of rather more significant, motivators / rationales behind transsexuals' decisions to change other than sexuality. Usually such decisions are based on discomfort with biological gender roles and physiology and the feeling that they "have to play a role" in order to be accepted.

While Dr Blanchard acknowledges that transsexuals do have other reasons for transitioning, he tends to de-emphasize them, which may be useful for promotional purposes but ultimately reduces the credibility of his approach.

Confusing of cause and effect: While it is convenent to divide transsexuals into two simple categories, the reality, is more complex. As discussed later in this analysis, it is not only possible but probably quite common for high levels of childhood femininity to be the reason for autogynephilia.

In this context, a boy may have strong feminine leanings but suppresses them to avoid rejection by parents and peers, a fact that is not acknowledged by Dr Blanchard and advocates of his hypotheses.

Not all feminine people are stereotypical: Another aspect of Dr Blanchard's theory that fails to ring true is the sexism of his definitions. His autogynephilia tests include questions regarding occupation. The tests imply that homosexual-type transsexuals tend towards hairdressing, entertainment (ie. drag shows) secretarial/office and sex work.

If this is the case, then one would assume that all homosexual transsexuals are uniformly either uneducated, lack interests outside of intimacy with men, or lack intellectuality (just like normal woman?[sic]). In fact, Dr Blanchard has been quoted as saying that high level ability in the use of computers in a transsexual is a near-guarantee that she is autogynephilic. The implication is that ability with computers is unfeminine which, while holding true for many, is a assertion which could be argued against by the many thousands of females working in IT.

The joy of feminization is not an exclusively male domain: Another aspect of Dr Blanchard's autogynephilia theory which requires correction is his assertion that autogynephilia - a sexual/emotional response to feminization - is an exclusively male phenomenon. Numerous normal women "feel sexy" when they dressed up for a special event or when they wear certain items of clothing /jewelry / makeup. That is, when they take on a form of personal presentation they may feel especially potent in their receptiveness. They may even be somewhat aroused at the thought of the effect they will have on their beau. It is not the same thing, but it can look the same at times.

At times similar feelings reported by some transsexuals could conceivably be mistaken for autogynephilia. This could also be seen as a matter of degree, the level of intensity of such feelings being determined by novelty value and taboo.

It will be proposed in future chapters that autogynephilic urges and male hyper-femininity (in physicality, mentality or both) are far from necessarily mutually exclusive, as is maintained by Dr Blanchard. More credibly, it is all simply a matter of degree.

Invalidating use of language: Another problem with the autogynephilia theory, and that of its proponents, is the language used to describe the two supposed categories of transsexuals.

Classing transsexuals as "homosexual type" is confusing. While the term "homosexual" in this context refers to a transsexual's former life, its use as a classifier (perhaps inadvertently) implies to the layperson that no matter how many changes such transsexuals undergo, they remain homosexual men rather than heterosexual constructed women.

While this point may be considered debatable in some civic and psychiatric communities, it rarely is for the transsexuals involved. M2Fs go to extraordinary lengths, often traversing the most extreme physical, mental and emotional challenges to become what they believe is, at the very least, a certain kind of woman - to basically feel more at home within themselves and the world. In this context, "androphilic" is a far more appropriate descriptor for this category of transsexual.

The issue at hand here is not that any connection with homosexuality is wrong per se, but the possible implications if the theory is distributed in the community at large, and especially within legal settings.

Further, the black-and-whiteness of Dr Blanchard's model leaves those with autogynephilic orientation in an invidious position, leaving the way open for proponents of this ideas to follow up with witty, but invalidating, titles for their treatises such as Anne Lawrence's Man in a man's body and Dr Bailey's The man who would be queen, where Dr Bailey consistently uses male pronouns when describing transsexuals.

Most individuals who have spent their lives struggling with gender issues will not thank the writers for their preference of wit over sensitivity. Even if such titles are simply attention-grabbers, the inevitable implication is "no matter what you do, you will always really be a man".

Such a fundamentalist, scientific-determinist position ignores feminist theory, which has long maintained that while "male" and "female" are biological realities, "man" and "woman" are social constructs, the former being immutable and the latter subject to variations, depending on the individual and the prevailing culture.

Certainly, some transsexuals are more successful than others in being recognized in the world as their target gender. Nonetheless, politeness and consideration require that the (very considerable) attempts to make the change be recognized, regardless of the apparent authenticity of the person's final resultant form.

Again, this harks back to issues of stigma and taboo, where those "at the bottom of the pile" are considered fair game when it comes to cruel humor. If the comments - including jibes and silkily-veiled attacks - made of queer people (in both gender identity and sexuality) in the media were made about colored people, those of certain religious faiths, people with disabilities and so forth, there would be an outcry. For example, some years ago a senior politician earnestly pronounced that he was "conservatively tolerant towards homosexuals". Had he stated that he was conservatively tolerant towards black people he would have been in deep trouble, but this implicitly homophobic comment went mostly unremarked.

Proponents of Dr Blanchard's ideas (generally inadvertently) simply play into the hands of homophobic/transphobic politicians and lawyers in undermining transsexuals' human rights.

While it may be tempting for some analysts to attempt to jolt the trans-community out of their simplistic "woman trapped in a man's body" mantra, the use of the blunt instruments of invalidating language and cynical implications are unlikely to be helpful.

Why language is important

At present there are debates regarding discrimination and marriage and adoption rights of gays and transsexuals. If queer people are to be eventually permitted to marry and adopt, the rights may well be first afforded to transsexuals within a heterosexual (post operative) relationship.

If expert witnesses are called to give evidence in court cases and start referring to the woman in the marital union as "homosexual type" (not to mention autogynephilic), this could prove detrimental to her and her partner's case; magistrates and judges lack the knowledge of the issues to be able to properly contextualize the terminology.

The stakes here are high. Continuing discrimination in the legal arena not only affects the lives of transsexuals and their families, but also those of their partners and, especially, of children waiting for adoption to save them from institutionalization (studies indicate that children raised in institutions are over 150 times more likely to be institutionalized as adults).

Therefore, definitions should not be decided upon in an insular, trans-oriented manner, but with regard to their implications within the broader community.

The missing link

The only patterns found in transsexualism thus far has resulted in transsexuals being divided into two groups - primary types (or homosexual types in Dr Blanchard's terminology) and secondary (autogynephilic) types.

However, this classification system does not address questions as to why, in regard to homosexual transsexuals, some extremely feminine males take a transsexual path while others became feminine gay men (occasionally straight or bisexual). Nor does it explain why some fetishistic boys later become transsexual while others remained transvestite.

There is little doubt that while the degree of effeminacy or intensity of autogynephilic attachment almost certainly play a role in the two types' responses to their situations, it does not fully explain the situation. Psychiatrists are yet to find any real consistency in the backgrounds of M2F gender transgressors, regardless of the proposed classification types.

Therefore, at this stage analyists are yet to find any absolute clue as to what created this need for transsexuals to change roles; their backgrounds vary greatly:

The list goes on. There is almost no consistency - at least not in absolute terms and no attempt at classifying transsexuals to date has been successful in explaining all anomalies.

It is more likely then, that the consistency exists in relative terms. The consistency can be expected to lie in what went on in those children's minds at the time, not necessarily in what happened to them. To summarize further:

Transsexualism is not about what transsexuals' personal characteristics or events that occurred during children's formative years but how they felt about themselves as a result of those characteristics and/or events.
This point will be revisited later in Chapter 5, but to put this idea in context we need to look at the causes of displaced sexual desire - that is, the sexual desire some people feel for activities other than healthy, loving relationships with others.

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