The transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner has raised many questions about transgender issues. One that has not been widely discussed is autogynephilia as a trajectory for males who experience gender dysphoria. My impression of Jenner’s story is that she manifests aspects which are often associated with autogynephilia so it seems odd to me that the topic has not come up.
Michael Bailey is professor of psychology at Northwestern University and one of the more prolific sex researchers in the world. He kindly accepted my invitation to discuss autogynephilia in light of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.
Throckmorton: What is autogynephilia? And how do autogynephilic individuals differ from androphilic men who become women?
Bailey: Before explaining what autogynephilia is, let me begin by explaining what it looks like. It occurs in natal males (those born male, regardless of whether they switch gender later), and it generally first manifests in adolescence, with the onset of puberty and sexual feelings. In the large majority of cases, it begins with erotic crossdressing. Generally, a boy discovers it’s sexually exciting to put in female clothing, especially lingerie, in private, look at himself in a mirror, and masturbate. People who know these boys don’t usually see them as feminine. Males like this usually are attracted to females, though some are not attracted to other people. A subset will discover other, related erotic fantasies, sometimes including the idea of having female anatomy (such as breasts and a vulva). If the anatomical fantasies predominate, then gender dysphoria is most likely to be intense. Males who eroticize the fantasy of having women’s bodies are most likely to get sex changes, for obvious reasons.
The phenomena I’ve talked about so far don’t make much sense if we take the conventional approach that these males have women’s brains. They make much more sense explained via autogynephilia. Autogynephilia might best be thought of as an unusual sexual orientation that occurs in natal males (those born male, no matter what they become). It’s very similar to male heterosexuality, because the erotic target is a woman. The difference is that in autogynephilia, the target is a self-constructed internal image–it’s like inwardly-turned heterosexuality. These males eroticize and fall in love with a woman they create within themselves
WT: Do you believe that Caitlyn Jenner is autogynephilic? If so, why?
MB: I believe it is very likely that Caitlyn Jenner’s transition was motivated by intense autogynephilia. I believe this because the best science suggests there are two completely different reasons why natal males become women: because they are feminine androphiles (lovers of men) or because they are autogynephilic. Jenner’s history shows none of the former and is very consistent with the latter. I refer specifically to his previous heterosexual marriages and secretive crossdressing.
WT. She says she always had gender dysphoria and that there was no erotic component. Would she say this if she were autogynephilic? Why?
MB: Autogynephilic individuals experience gender dysphoria, typically beginning in adolescence, when their intense erotic longing for female characteristics almost always begins. There is evidence (John Bancroft published an article long ago) showing that after changing sex, some show memory distortion. They begin to assert that their gender dysphoria began in early childhood and was far more overt than they had alleged before. They also deemphasize the erotic component, even if they admitted it before. I think they do this for at least two reasons: shame (because: sex is involved) and the desire to believe they really have the brains of women (as Jenner suggests she does–um, how does she know that?). I think also that Jenner (and others in the spotlight) likely enjoys the media spotlight, and the mainstream media loves the “was always a woman trapped in a man’s body” story and can’t deal with the “experienced intense sexual arousal when crossdressing or imagining I had a woman’s body” story.
WT: If Jenner doesn’t want people to think her transition was due to autogynephilia, why shouldn’t we just go along?
MB: This inaccurate denial of autogynephilia is not for the good, because being honest could help lots of males struggling with their autogynephilia. (And there are lots who are.) It might help them understand themselves. It might help them accept themselves. It would at least say “Autogynephilia is nothing to be ashamed of.” I would say that people who admit and deal with their autogynephilia are even admirable.
Falsely misrepresenting one’s gender issues is also bad for science. It’s not good for people to believe false things merely because journalists don’t want to go certain places. Even among scientists, too many don’t bother to learn about the relevant literature and just listen to transgender people’s explanations (“I have the brain of a woman.”). This leads to bad scientific studies and ideas.
I think that Jenner’s brain has nothing more in common with the brain of a natal woman than mine does. She’s not that kind of woman. Her gender dysphoria was much more akin to times in my life when I had erotic and romantic longings for someone I couldn’t have.
WT: Do autogynephilic individuals have attraction to other people?
MB: Usually, they are also attracted to women in the world (i.e., women besides their inner creation) as well. Some of these individuals marry–some tell their wives and some don’t. Wives who know often feel like they are married both to their husband and to the other woman. And the men (many–probably most–never become women) sometimes struggle between their love for their families and their desire to become women. This desire is like a typical man’s midlife crisis.
A subset of autogynephilic males report that they are bisexual, but knowledgeable scientists think this is not true bisexuality. Rather than attraction to men’s bodies, these individuals enjoy the fantasy of being courted by, desired by, or even engaging in sex with men, as women. This makes them feel quite feminine, and is thus exciting. Another subset identifies as asexual. These have plenty of sexual fantasies–it’s just that the sexual fantasies are all about the internal woman, and there’s nothing left for women in the world.
WT: What research support does this phenomenon have?
MB: There is a great deal of support originating in Toronto in the important clinic formerly run by Ray Blanchard, the scientist most responsible for the study of autogynephilia. Blanchard observed that erotic arousal at the idea of having a female body was uncommon among natal male gender patients who said they were exclusively attracted to men (he referred to these as “homosexual” because with respect to their birth sex, that is their sexual orientation). In contrast, it was very common among natal male gender patients attracted to women, those who identified as bisexual, and those who identified as asexual–he referred to these three subtypes as “non homosexual” because they were not exclusively attracted to men. Homosexual natal male gender patients tended to have been extremely feminine since childhood. Nonhomosexual patients, not so much. (In follow up studies of preadolescent boys so feminine they wanted to be girls, not a single one was attracted to women as an adult.) Non homosexual natal male gender patients’ gender dysphoria is rarely evident in childhood but begins in adolescence. Homosexual patients request sex reassignment surgery much younger than non homosexual patients do–at least they have in the past. This partly reflects the fact that many non homosexual patients form families that delay them from pursuing such surgery.
A good resource summarizing this science (up to 2003) is the third section of my book (free pdf). A more scholarly and updated treatment is Anne Lawrence’s book.
Tomorrow, I will post the second part of my Q&A with Michael Bailey. In that part of the interview, Bailey opines about the proper therapeutic response to autogynephilic individuals, minors and transgender issues, media reporting about autogynephilia and his critics.
Part two of this Q&A is here.