Introduction 3: Words, Words, Words
(But Mostly About One Word In Particular)
I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates.
It is in the nature of certain contemporary debates that their most fundamental terminology is simultaneously contested, changing, and inadequate. This is doubtless true of many different things—if you clicked here without having noted the title of this substack (or not knowing what “autogynephilia” means (in which case hold on a moment)), you might think I was talking about any number of different things. I am, of course, talking about one particular thing (or at any rate one cluster of things); but saying what that cluster is is complex, since how to speak of it is central to the debate. When both the ontology and the vocabulary of a topic are fundamentally confused, it is hard to begin, and precision is impossible. Everything must come first; everything depends on something else having already been said.
This makes writing about this topic (or any one with similar fraught basic vocabulary) not only terribly difficult, but also freighted with both necessary tedium and all-but-inevitable offense. The tedium comes from the necessity, in each work, to rewrite a dictionary of the terms one will employ, a dictionary which is sufficiently different in each work (and also sufficiently contested in the culture, and yet somehow at the same time sufficiently unfamiliar) that it can't be omitted, while simultaneously being sufficiently familiar that it can't help but be boring.1 And the offense, too, is inevitable: if one attempts, as I, poor foolish Yorick, am trying to do, one cannot speak without alienating both.2 Naming here is inevitably political: one can't begin to talk, since once has to have already said a lot to justify one's very first word. Nothing can come first. The cackle of Zeno triumphant can be heard, distantly but unceasingly.
An unavoidable trap: so I will, of course, not avoid it. It is hard to craft either a narrative or an argument (and this substack will include both, entwined and alternating and confused) that is necessarily prefaced by a lengthy exposition dump — even harder to craft one that is prefaced by exposition which is both familiar and fraught! But this is the hill that must be climbed, if we are to see the other side of it.
I will have, I am sure, a great many things to say about all the other words swirling about this debate, but here at the ragged end of a long introduction, let me talk just about one, the one I have taken for my title and which I am using to describe myself: autogynephilia.
It’s frankly an admittedly unsuitable term. It is a technical term from a highly controversial (some would say "debunked") theory; it is a theory whose conclusions are offensive (some would say "harmful") to those whom it seeks to describe; and, worst of all, I am using it in a way significantly different from the way it is used in that theory! What a mess.
The term "autogynephilia" (whose derived term, "autogynephile", simply follows from English grammar) was coined by scientist Ray Blanchard in the 1980s as part of his theory of transsexuality. He divided transsexuals into two categories, first, gay men who wanted to become women to attract (straight) men; and, second, men who derived sexual pleasure from erotic fantasies of seeing themselves as women, but who were, themselves, attracted to women. It is the desires of the latter group that he dubbed "autogynephilia".3 (If this seems an odd concept to you, never fear: I will explain more about what it is like in later essays.)
Blanchard's theories have met very stiff resistance, above all from the trans community — for what are probably obvious reasons. He reduces gender identity, which trans activists take to be a deep, fundamental psychological trait, to an outgrowth of sexual desire; he thus categorizes being trans4 as a paraphilia (thus, inevitably, a "mere" paraphilia). He is reductive about the human psyche and a complex net of phenomena. And so forth. He has his contemporary defenders, and I don't mean to adjudicate what is worth preserving in his ideas from what is not. I am simply here to kidnap his word.5
Is Blanchard’s theory true, I might “bold/In a hasty parenthesis” ask? The answer is: I have absolutely no idea, and that is not for lack of reading about it. I would say that there is an intense scholarly debate on the issue—except that the one thing that both sides seem to agree upon is that there is not live debate, and that it is a settled issue: they simply disagree about which side is right! If you, Brave Reader, wish to run in after my foolish self, here are two places to start. The best critic of Blanchard (and Bailey and Lawrence) that I know is Julia Serano, who has made the case frequently: a recent popular version is on medium, here and here, while a more scholarly presentation of her case is here (pdf). The best defender of Blanchard et. al. that I know of is Kay Brown, who has made her case in many essays on her blog; start here and then read here and then here. They both agree there is no scholarly debate—and they disagree about which side one. — Oh, and while it shouldn’t make a difference, I might add: both Serano and Brown are trans women. — At any rate, if you can see clear of this morass, reader, you are better than I. One key point of dispute seems to be whether Charles Moser’s 2009 article “Autogynephilia in Women” (pdf) is decisive (as Serano says) or nonsense (as Brown maintains). At any rate, I have no idea who is right here. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.
Despite the morass of confusion around the issue, I hope we can take it as read that there are a lot of people who have a deep gender identity which is contrary to what is variously called their sex assigned at birth and their birth sex,6 and that for many if not most of them this is experienced as having nothing to do with their sexual orientations nor erotic issues more generally. Whether Blanchard is right or not—and, again, I have no idea—he is not experienced as right by a great many trans people;7 and this actually matters. People experience gender dysphoria; they transition. To dismiss transness as a paraphilia is not offensive, but something far worse: it is incorrect.
Which doesn’t mean that sex and sexual feelings have nothing to do with the matter, either. It would be ludicrous (and insulting, and incorrect) to call marriage a sexual institution, or to say that people who introduce their spouse are flaunting their sexuality, or making others implicit in it. But this is not to say that sex is not part of why people get married. It’s just to say it’s not all of it—not reducible to it. Similarly, while it is the orientation of desire that defines what we mean by gay and lesbian (it's sexual orientation, right?) it doesn’t make being gay or lesbian reducible to sex either. Being gay, or being lesbian, is about who you crush on, who you dream of marrying and building a life with, who you swoon for in stories. Again, sex is part of this, but it’s in no way reducible to it. My sense is that being trans is similar— including the part where, for some people, sex has nothing at all to do with it (there are marriages which aren’t about sex (for convenience, for tax or immigration purposes, simply recognizing a largely non-sexual friendship, etc); there are asexual gay and lesbian people, who fall in love with the same sex but aren’t interested in actual sex with them).
So Blanchard's theories, whether or not they are true or even contain insights that are worth preserving, simply will not do as an overall description of humans' lives and psyches. To say that some trans women transition because they are autogynephilic is like saying that some men marry because they are straight: arguably true but really misleading.
But this, ironically, is precisely what makes the word "autogynephilia" worth kidnapping — not as an explanation for trans people's underlying motives (and certainly not as a synonym for transness, or even group three transsexuals) but rather as a concept which is related but fundamentally different. There are people born male who have a female gender identity, who over time come to present as women, and (in many cases) to medically transition as well. This is a phenomenon of identity, and while it will intersect (for the obvious reasons and in some obvious ways) with sexual orientation and desire, it is no more reducible to that than anyone's gender is reducible to their sexual orientation or desire.
But what about those people who, whether or not they transition (and some do, some don’t) get a specifically erotic charge out of imagining themselves as women?8 Perhaps there should be word for them—for us? We can—and, in a later essay, will—debate whether it should properly apply only to cis men who get off on imagining themselves as women, or should also apply to trans women before they transition (including before they come out, even to themselves), but at least in the former case, couldn’t we use a word for that? Can’t we call people who are men, or at least present as (and in many cases still think of themselves as) men, who fantasize about being women autogynephiles? The word is, after all, sitting right there, with all the right Greek roots and everything—practically transparent to many English speakers. It’s already widely understood. We could just… walk off with it.
This is a usage that would not depend on Blanchard’s theories. Trans women who have transitioned are not autogynephiles, for they are now women. Men—should we call them cis? Yet more confusion! But surely they are men—who don’t and never will transition, who merely erotically fantasize about being women, are autogynephiles. (Pre-coming out/pre-transition trans women we will set aside for now.)—Conceivably, we might even see (if we decide Serano and not Brown is right about the debate) this as refuting rather than confirming Blanchard’s theories: See this woman here? She was born male, but identified as a woman, and so has transitioned; and this identity is deeper than (and far broader than) the erotic, which is only a part of it (as, for most people, it is part of nearly everything). In contrast, this man, here, he has not transitioned, nor does he identify as a woman; he merely imagines, or wishes, or dreams, that he was one, knowing that he, in fact, is not. Those are the autogynephiliacs, Dr. Blanchard: not the former.
But the term is associated with Blanchard’s theories, which are, in fact, controversial. Are there other terms we might use? — Sesquipedalianist Reader, there are.
Let me first introduce crossdreaming, a term which was coined by Jack Molay,9 as an alternative term to autogynephilia — one whose first benefit, and not an insignificant one, is to be gender-neutral, thus covering not only autogynephilia but also autoandrophilia. And yet, as so often happens with words, the synonym actually became (or contained, or revealed) a different, arguably broader, meaning within it. Crossdreaming is (as its coinage implies) not simply sexual, but includes any sort of dreaming (fantasizing, desiring, wishing...) about being the opposite sex.10 In Molay's writings, crossdreaming is often (not always) accompanied by crossdressing. Understandably: after all, if one dreams something, then acting it out is a perfectly natural thing to do (at least, it is a human thing to do: and humans are part of nature.11 But one can obviously crossdream without crossdressing, and crossdress without crossdreaming — think, for instance, of women who disguise themselves as men to go to war: this might be (in at least some cases) a purely practical contrivance, and not one that had any dreaminess about it. Drag-queens are unquestionably cross-dressers, but are they cross-dreamers?12 Most telling for our purposes, not everyone who crossdreams is autogynephilic; for some it is more a fantasy. And even were that not the case, it is useful to distinguish the general desire to be the opposite sex from a more specifically erotic fantasy of being (or longing to be) the opposite sex. That still needs a word. What are we to call them? — Call us?
Trans activist Julia Serano (op. cit.), rejecting the term "autogynephilia" (and not discussing "crossdreaming" as an alternative, although she cites Molay in footnotes and has clearly heard of it) suggests "Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies", or FEF (and the equivalent MEF instead of autoandrophilia), citing various reasons for rejecting autogynephilia as a term, including its "conceptualiz[ing] trans women as 'sexually deviant men,' and thus is unnecessarily stigmatizing and invalidating of trans identities", as well as the debunking Blanchard's causal theories and the fact that ciswomen, when surveyed, have similar thoughts (a fact which, as I mentioned, is a point of contention.)
Another extended consideration of what to call this category of thing, by a man who also self-reportedly is one of us, is this essay by Felix Conrad. He rejects the term "crossdreaming" for these purposes for the same reason I do, that it is a term that leaves out the erotic element which is central to it. (I believe that Conrad, like myself, adopts the term "crossdreaming" as perfectly useful for what it is, just denies, as I do, that it is a replacement for what I am calling "autogynephilia".) He also rejects "autogynephilia", however, due both to its connections to Blanchard's theory and to its rejection by the broader trans community (with which he allies himself). Conrad coins, as his suggested replacement, "gynesexual," along with its complementary word "androsexual". Like Serano, he makes a good case.
But I will persist, despite these cases, in using it. The reason, ultimately, is simple: it remains the most widely used term, including by others who feel similar things to myself. This is not to be lightly dismissed. All words are imperfect; they not only stigmatize or malign but convey. While it is hardly a casual cocktail party word, "autogynephilia" remains more common than "crossdreaming" (while also, I have suggested, meaning something narrower) to say nothing of " Female/Feminine Embodiment Fantasies" or "gynosexual", which to my knowledge no one has used apart from their coiners and those citing them. I am trying to speak to as many people as possible; using the word which the greatest number of people will recognize is what language is, ultimately, for: to communicate.
I most certainly do not mean to stigmatize or invalidate trans identities; I wish, rather, to distinguish what I am calling autogynephilia from them. A trans person has transitioned, or is transitioning, to live as a different gender than the one they were assigned (or sex they were born to); an autogynephile is a man who has erotic fantasies of being or becoming a woman. What overlap there is, or isn’t, between the two categories is a point to then be discussed, not defined by fiat. But at the very least there is a category of people who do fantasize about being female who just aren’t one—who don’t identify as women and have no intention of transitioning to be one, either.13
In other words, my hope is to reclaim the word from Blanchard, just as "queer" has been reclaimed from the more anonymous attackers that used it to hurt, well, us.14 And as for the autogynephile community — perhaps I should call them the crossdreaming community, since that seems to be the preferred term15 — I certainly mean no offense to the community with which I align myself (closely enough to write this whole series of essays based on that). But I must use the words that seem true to my experience if I am to tell about my experience. And my experience, while including crossdreaming (as I will discuss), is to a large extent centered on autogynephilia, and not the broader category. So I will use both words, using them to mark a distinction I see in myself, and (perhaps, sometimes) in others.
Perhaps I shall convince some of my fellow crossdreamers who might also be autogynephiliacs to follow my example. Perhaps these distinctions may prove useful for trans women too. Or perhaps I shall turn out to be an exception, and that there aren't enough people who feel as I do to justify the term. (In which case, if they are moved to find or invent or simply popularize alaternate words, why, that is good too.) What I am proposing here is a way of speaking, one that I have found useful in thinking through my own experiences. If, in the end, it is not useful, I will withdraw it into my private language.16 In the meantime, I hope readers will not take offense at what is, among other things, a verbal experiment — an essay, in the sense which Montaigne coined the word, meaning a "try" or an "attempt".
Hopefully that shall be enough to go on with. Next week I will leave words about words for the moment, and begin to speak some words about my experiences.
Update: This post prompted some objections, which I have responded to here. The full response, however, will be the full project; my hope is that the entire thing will justify itself. Anything short of that will necessarily be inadequate. But I have made a beginning, and if you’ve made it this far, you might as well go read the next bit.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This essay is the third of three introductions. The first can be read here; the second can be read here. At least for the foreseeable future, this newsletter will post once a week on Wednesdays, and will be free (both subject to change as circumstances warrant).
If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick (I don't know why twitter wished that backwards).
At the moment I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to. (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) Therefore, if you know anyone who might find it of interest, I would be grateful if you would send it there way.
Thus Susan Stryker's Transgender History: the Roots of Today's Revolution (Second Edition, New York: Hachette, 2017) devotes its first chapter — a full sixth of its text — to "Contexts, Concepts, and Terms". History books often include definitions in their early text, but rarely to that extent.
What are we to call the land that is sometimes referred to, poetically, as the land between the river and the sea? Israel? Palestine? Both or neither? To begin a sentence is to take a stand. So too here.
I will admit that I have never read Blanchard's works—it’s not my field—but this theory is summarized in a great many places, in scholarly literature, in popularizations, and online. I first began applying the term "autogynephile" to myself based on these second-hand descriptions. It is not particularly of interest to me whether or not I have fairly or adequately summarized Blanchard's theories. The reader is invited to go look for themselves if they care. The page that I read to check my memory of the details (and write this paragraph) was this one, but I no more got my information from them then you get your information from Wikipedia if you were to look up a date you're fairly sure you know but want to double-check. Why do I not read and judge his works for myself? Tasking Reader, this is a memoir, one which flirts with scholarly apparatus because that is my character; it is not scholarship. It is accurate to my experience — and, I would guess, many self-diagnosed autogynephiles — to have ascribed the term to ourselves without a full technical knowledge of its origin. Words do not belong to their coiners, as Charles Pierce was to learn to his regret. (cf note 4 below)
Blanchard, of course, characterizes only one type of trans women as having autogynephilia, of course; but he seems to think that sexual desire is crucial to the experience of non-autogynephilic trans women too, simply a different type of desire.
Charles Pierce, who coined the term "pragmatism" to describe his philosophy, later coined the term "pragmaticism" to describe his philosophy as opposed to the (in his view) misreadings and wrong-headed extensions that others had made of it — the new word, he remarked, being "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers". This anecdote contains some implicit advice to the coiners of technical terms which Blanchard to his loss failed to heed. Shut up and get in the trunk, honey, this dictionary is loaded.
Remember how I was saying that even the most basic ontological issues are politically contested, and that makes it hard to talk?
Not, importantly, all: a number of trans women describe themselves as autogynephiles, including Anne Lawrence, one of the leading researchers in the Blanchardian tradition.
This would have, of course, a mirror phenomenon, of women who get an erotic charge out of imagining themselves as men, which has been called (in an obvious derivative from Blanchard's coinage) autoandrophilia. I don't mean to short-change those who fall in this category by focusing on the other; I am simply writing, above all, out of my own experience, and my experience is to port, not starboard.
This is usually said as: wishing to be of the opposite gender. Yet if gender is identity, then surely for gender the wish is the act, to say I do is to do it? (Identification is the ultimate performative, with not even an utterance needed.) For me, at least, this does not capture the matter at all. What a lot of people—what I, at least—wish for, is that I was the opposite sex: and this can be either wishing one was the sex that matched one's gender, one wishing to be a different sex and a different gender (but what then of identity? What does it mean to wish something that one can do with a thought?), or wishing to be a different sex without wishing for a different gender — but here the complexities become, I hope, explanations. At the very least they will have to do for them.
Although we also define nature as the not-human (what else could it mean?). Unhandsome! Unhandsome!
It is this tangle of confusion, and its cousins, that has led to the raising of what has been called "the trans umbrella", sweeping anyone whose gender differs from their birth-sex's assigned gender in anyway into one big heap. (Yet who does not differ from society's gender expectations in at least some ways? Anyone who conformed perfectly to them would be an oddball, a freak — even, one might say, a queer.) And then there are some transsexuals who object to being tossed in with the rest, and seek to run out from under the umbrella into the rain.
Some will doubt this last point, and call me an egg waiting to hatch. And who am I to say they are wrong? But then, they are not in a position to say they are right, either. Rather: let time judge between us. If I am wrong, Patient Reader, I promise that I will come here and say so.
I guess "us"? In a later essay I will discuss whether or not I'm properly called trans; the question of whether “queer” applies to me is basically the same. In the meantime: I am part of your community if you want me to be, and if not, not.
With, of course, its correspondingly different focus: as I have said, crossdreaming is broader that autogynephilia, and does not seem to necessarily imply a sexual component (as autogynephilia does). The community is of crossdreamers, not specifically autogynephiles.