Transsexual Analysis: 4. Trauma can shape us

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

4. Trauma can shape us

It is generally believed that some kind of childhood trauma is the usual cause of displaced sexual desire, or to use the pejorative and uncharitable term, "perversion".

One common thread between the most profound childhood traumas experienced - such as assault, rape and sexual abuse - is a lack of control, leading to a sense of disempowerment and/or humiliation. In the case of humiiation, the child feels that s/he is stuck in, forced or coerced into, a situation that could lead to severe disapproval from, and rejection by, his/her peers and elders.

Humiliation is an intense hurt, too often underestimated in a materialistic society that places greater importance on physical conditions than psychological ones. Wars are fought over perceived national humiliations, where hostility is fueled by feelings of disempowerment. Many suicides have occurred as a result of people feeling that some disgrace they have experienced is irretrievable; a phenomenon that cuts across all cultures and time periods.

Human beings are social animals and our ability to relate satisfactorily with others is vitally important to our wellbeing. So humiliation can be an exceedingly powerful force.

On an individual level, intense humiliation or other traumatic events in our early years can shape us dramatically. For example, highly masochistic people often have a history of childhood violence or abuse. Yet in later life they are not hurt (at least not psychologically in an overt fashion) by such abuse and actually seek it out for sexual arousal. So what happened?

Trauma and coping mechanisms

High intensity fear, pain or humiliation can all be utterly devastating and traumatic. If the intensity reaches a level that is beyond a person's ability to cope, then trauma occurs. Especially important in this context is the fact that trauma, especially childhood trauma, permanently changes the physiology of the brain.

These permanent changes manifest in permanent hair-trigger responses to events or scenarios that are perceived to have caused the trauma. For instance, a woman who has been raped when left alone in her house may later experience panic attacks when left alone in her house. Shell-shocked war veterans often react badly to sudden noises, often never fully desensitizing.

Scientifically, this startle reflex is caused by a "short circuit" from the amygdala (the "emotional" part of our brain) to the cortex, without processing by the neocortex (the "reasoning" part of the brain). In practical terms this means that the startle response activates automatically in relation to what is perceived as the traumatising event. While in milder cases some assistance can be gained via cognitive therapy, allowing patients to lead relatively normal lives, this response is a permanent disability.

At this point our coping mechanisms come into play. It is not unusual, for example, for a masochist who had suffered abuse in early life to repeat those traumas in adulthood - but this time she or he is in control.

Every time a masochist goes through the ritual, s/he becomes just a little less sensitized to those painful memories, a little less disturbed, and eventually takes ownership of that pain. S/he is in control now, not the trauma.

It is known that trauma is associated with a lack of control, not necessarily with experiences per se. In one experiment, mice exposed to electric shocks in the laboratory were found to be noticeably less traumatized if they were provided with access to a device allowing them to turn the current off. Conversely, the mice with no way of stopping (controlling) the shock were far more traumatized

If a person lacks an understanding of the feelings that lie beneath his or her desires - through denial or lack of self awareness - then there is a good chance that their needs will escalate. The secret to gaining true control is achieving an understanding of those desires before they become habitual. That is, such desensitization exercises are most therapeutic if performed with the conscious aim of desensitizing.

However, if underlying causes of desenitizing behaviours remain unexamined, trauma victims undertaking an instinctive, desensitizing "cure" will find that that cure becomes increasingly less powerful through familiarity. There is a direct analogy here with drug abuse, where the addict acclimatizes to the narcotic and therefore always requires more and more to "get a buzz".

This leads trauma victims with little self-awareness to seek increasingly extreme remedies so as to regain the intensity required to repeat the trauma with the desired effects, the desired affect ultimately being a greater sense of control.

Autogynephilia and emasculation trauma

In this context, autogynephilic tendencies would seem to most likely stem from a sense of emasculation trauma, and this will be discussed further in Part 5.

To this end, autogynephiles (and crossdressers) often escalate their cross-gender activities with age, at times to the ultimate degree. This is simply an observation, not a value judgment on decisions to change gender roles. If the level of trauma experienced makes the male role unsustainable in the longer term for affected individuals, then that is as fair a reason as any to make the change, given the permanence of the affliction.

This is the reason why it is so essential for the psychiatric community to better understand these dynamics. Young people who have experienced emasculation trauma/autogynephilia should be properly treated so that they can undertake any coping activities with a clear aim of desensitizating. If left to their own devices, their self-feminization activities and fantasies will probably become habitual, taking on a life of their own, ultimately reinforcing feelings of emasculation rather than alleviating them. The purpose here is not to prevent people from transitioning, but reduction of post-traumatic stress.

Gender reassignment in individuals with high level emasculation trauma with highly established patterns of feminizing behaviour can still result in greater levels of happiness and adjustment - even if the person is quite masculine - because they may then achieve a sense of resolution in their lives which would be otherwise impossible.

Given the sensitivities involved, it should be pointed out that the above does not mean that trauma-facilitated transsexualism is not a pathological condition and the author does not believe that transsexualism should be considered a disorder is the DSM-IIIR. While intense emasculation trauma experienced by many transsexuals can be considered a disorder while they remain in the male role, in many cases once they have changed roles they are effectively "cured" and perfectly capable of leading productive and "normal" lives.

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