“Autogynephilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a woman. “Autoandrophilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a man. There’s no term that describes both, but we need one, so let’s say autogenderphilia.
These conditions are famous mostly because a few sexologists, especially Ray Blanchard and Michael Bailey, speculate that they are the most common cause of transgender. They point to studies showing most trans women endorse autogynephilia. Most trans people disagree with this theory, sometimes very strongly, and accuse it of reducing transgender to a fetish.
Without wading into the moral issues around it, I thought it would be interesting to get data from the SSC survey. The following comes partly from my own analyses and partly from wulfrickson’s look at the public survey data on r/TheMotte.
The survey asked the following questions:
First of all, thanks to the 6,715 people (182 trans, 6259 cis, 274 confused) who answered these questions despite my disclaimers. Here’s how it worked out. 5 is maximally autogenderphilic, 1 is no autogenderphilia at all:
|Cis men (5592)||2.6||1.9|
|Cis women (667)||2.5||2|
|Trans men (35)||1.9||2.3|
|Trans women (147)||3.2||1.3|
|Group* (n)**||Autogynephilia (1 – 5)||Autoandrophilia (1 – 5)|
|Straight cis men (4871)||2.6||1.8|
|Bi cis men (430)||2.6||3.3|
|Gay cis men (197)||1.7||3.4|
|Straight cis women (375)||2.4||1.9|
|Bi cis women (201)||2.8||2.5|
|Lesbian cis women (31)||2.5||1.9|
|Straight trans men (5)||???||???|
|Bi trans men (19)||???||???|
|Gay trans men (3)||???||???|
|Straight trans women (5)||???||???|
|Bi trans women (76)||3.1||1.4|
|Lesbian trans women (39)||3.4||1.2|
**results are marked as ??? for groups with sample size lower than 20
The survey confirmed Blanchard and Bailey’s finding that many lesbian trans women had strong autogynephilia. But it also confirmed other people’s findings that many cis people also have strong autogenderphilia. In this dataset, autogenderphilia rates in gay cis men were equal to those in lesbian trans women.
Autogenderphilia in cis people was divided between fantasies about being the opposite gender, and fantasies about being the gender they already were. What does it mean to fantasize about being a gender you already are? I asked a cis female friend who admitted to autogynephilia. She told me:
My literal body is arousing – it’s hot that I have breasts and can get pregnant and have a curvy figure and a feminine face and long hair, and it’s hot to dress up in femme clothes. There are certain gendered/social interactions that are very hot, or that can easily springboard into ones that are very hot. I’ve honestly wondered whether I might not be nonbinary or trans male, because I’m not really sure how euphoric being female is, besides that it’s like living in a sex fantasy.
(score one for the hypothesis that this kind of thing causes gender transition, because after reading this I kind of want to be a woman.)
Uh…moving on. The highest rates of autogenderphilia were found in bi cis men (autoandrophilia), gay cis men (autoandrophilia), bi trans women (autogynephilia), and lesbian trans women (autogynephilia).
These groups all have three things in common: they identify as the gender involved, they are attracted to the gender involved, and they are biologically male.
I would guess biological men have more of every fetish, regardless of their current gender identity, so it’s not surprising that they have more autogenderphilia also. In fact, we see that in biological women, the two highest categories are bi cis women (autogynephilia), and lesbian cis women (autogynephilia); again, they identify as the gender involved, and they are attracted to the gender involved.
So abstracting that away, the SSC survey data suggest a very boring hypothesis of autogenderphilia: if you identify as a gender, and you’re attracted to that gender, it’s a natural leap to be attracted to yourself being that gender.
The SSC survey hypothesis explains the same evidence that Blanchard and Bailey’s hypothesis explains (that lesbian trans women very often have autogynephilic fantasies), but reverse the proposed causation: it’s not that autogynephilia causes gender transition; it’s that identification as a gender is one factor that causes autogenderphilia.
But after that, it can go on to explain other things that Blanchard and Bailey can’t explain, like why cis gay men have as much autoandrophilia as trans lesbian women have autogynephilia. Or why some people with low levels of autogenderphilia transition, but many people with high levels don’t. I think it’s a simpler and more defensible explanation of the evidence.
I asked some people I know who supported Blanchard and Bailey’s theory for their thoughts. They focused on a few concerns about the data.
First, weird Internet samples plausibly have more of every paraphilia. This might inflate the rate for cis gay men and the number of trans lesbian women, assuming the latter all had to be above some cutoff; that might falsely lead me to believe the two groups have the same rate.
One counterargument might be that the responses among cis people alone are enough to generate the hypothesis discussed above. The low rates of autogynephilia in gay men, compared to in straight and bi men, suggest that being attracted to a gender is a prerequisite of autogenderphilia to it. And (adjusting again for the general tendency of male-bodied people to have more fetishes) the higher rates of autogynephilia in cis women/autoandrophilia in cis men, compared to autoandrophilia in cis women/autogynephilia in cis men, suggest that identifying as a gender is a prequisite to autogenderphilia to it.
Another counterargument might be the similarity of the histograms produced by cis gay male and trans lesbian female responses; they don’t look like they’re being generated by two different processes which have only coincidentally averaged out into the same summary statistic:
This doesn’t look like all cis men over a certain cutoff are becoming trans women; it looks like the curve for cis gay men and trans lesbian women are being shaped by the same process.
Second, did the survey questions accurately capture autogenderphilia? Fetishes range from very mild to very extreme; some people like being slapped during sex, other people have whole BDSM dungeons in their basement. Is it possible the survey captured some boring meaning of autogenderphilia, like “sure, I guess it would be hot to be a woman”, but some people have a much stronger and more obsessive form? The histogram above argues against this a little, but there might be ceiling effects.
Alice Dreger seems to take something like this perspective here:
Q: Do you think autogynephilia might be a part of the female experience, trans or cis? I’ve seen some (very preliminary) theorizing about it as well as a paper with a tiny sample size that suggest that cis women also experience sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women.
A: I’ve talked with Blanchard, Bailey, and also Anne Lawrence about this, and my impression is they all doubt cis (non-transgender) women experience sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women. Clinically, Blanchard observed autogynephilic natal male individuals who were aroused, for example, at the ideas of using a tampon for menses or knitting as a woman with other women. I have never heard a natal woman express sexual arousal at such ideas. I’ve never heard of a natal woman masturbating to such thoughts.
I asked the same cis female friend who gave me the quotation above, and she described using a tampon to masturbate and finding it hot. I think Dreger makes an important point that there are some pretty unusual manifestations of autogenderphilic fetishes out there and we should hesitate before drawing too many conclusions from a single question that lumps them all together. But also, Alice Dreger seems like an really dignified and important person who probably doesn’t hang out with people who talk openly about their menstruation-related masturbation fantasies, and she should probably adjust for that. Maybe she could move to the Bay Area.
There’s a common failure mode in psychiatry, where we notice people with some condition doing some weird thing, and fail to notice that huge swathes of people without the condition do the exact same weird thing. For example, everyone knows schizophrenics hear voices, but until recently nobody realized that something like 20% of healthy people do too. Everyone knows that LSD users can end up with permanent visual hallucinations, but until recently nobody realized that lots of drug-free people have the same problem. Schizophrenics definitely hear more voices than healthy people, and LSD users have more permanent visual hallucinations, but it’s movement along the distribution rather than a completely novel phenomenon.
I think autogenderphilia is turning out to work the same way, and that this will require us to reassess the way we think about it.
As usual, I welcome people trying to replicate or expand on these results. All of the data used in this post are freely available and can be downloaded here. I’ve also heard Michael Bailey is going to release his own interpretation of these data, so stay tuned for that. I’d like to delve into these issues further on future surveys, so let me know if you have ideas about how to do that.