The Nature of Autogynephilic Desire: Interlude
Content warning: general talk about my looking at porn and my thoughts about it.
Organizational note: This is a follow-up to last week’s post, Desiring to be Desired, but it is not The Nature of Autogynephilic Desire, Part 2. Rather, this is a personal interlude, one which I have no particular confidence is shared by others. It may be so, it may not. (In contrast, I do think, although based on admittedly patchy evidence, that my descriptions apply to a number of my fellow autogynephiles.) But I am inserting it into this series because it will provide important background for Part 2—at least for the way that I experience the phenomenon I am going to describe in part 2.
In short, a even-more-personal-than-usual section in a generally personal argument, which will, however, have bearing on the overall characterization I am attempting in this series.
At some point between when I became an adult (turned eighteen, went to college) and the present, porn transformed from something that one would assume any random person had never and would never, look at, a thing that only a particularly depraved slice of the population had any exposure to, such that to talk to someone about "your porn" would have been an accusation, to, nowadays, something which one would assume any random person had seen, not necessarily extensively, but at least a little. Terms like “BDSM” and “safe word” are now used in mainstream media (e.g. in reviews of 50 Shades of Grey), and are assumed to be widely known.1 In many cases nowadays, a denial that you ever look at porn has become somewhat of a joke, and is flatly unconvincing, even for many people for whom it is, in fact, true.2 (It’s like denying you’ve ever tried drugs. Not everyone has—I myself, for instance, have not—but if you deny it it just sounds silly (do you even believe me?)) The universal was never true, but the oversimplifying assumption is now in the opposite direction.
It is easy to say that the vehicle for change here was the internet, and one would be a fool to deny it its role. But I would insist that it was not solely that. Pornography stood in a very different place in 1993, when the first widely-used web browser was released, than it did forty years earlier, when the first issue of Playboy (published in December, 1954) was published. A lot of history went into changing the cultural position of porn, from the specific history of the porn industry, to the broader development(s) of the sexual revolution as a whole, to the still-broader context of all the cultural changes in those tumultuous forty years considered as a whole. And, of course, this change too is hard to characterize precisely: porn was hardly invented de novo like Aphrodite from the head of Hugh Hefner in 1953, and even today women who perform in it are still (appallingly and immorally) shamed for doing so, although this is less widespread by far than it was previously (by decade: less so now than 2011, less so in 2011 than in 2001, and so on). These things are hard to pin down; doing cultural history is, as one famous historian said, “like nailing jelly to the wall”.3
Here’s one example of what I mean. One evening when I was in college (which is to say, before the world wide web got going, but shortly before), standing around with a few friends, a woman asked the group why men would go stand at newsstands and look at pornographic magazines.4 “Why would they do that?” she asked. Note the “they”: she asked the question in a way which assumed that no one there would do such a thing—only foul people did that. And certainly if any of that group did, everyone (the speaker & listener alike) assumed that they would be properly embarrassed about and ashamed of doing so.5 The point is that at the time looking at porn, not just too much, not just a lot, but ever having done so, was a matter for shame, for embarrassment, for humiliation. Note that this is not just a matter of keeping it private, the way that actual sex would be, i.e. one wouldn’t want to be seen doing it, it’s not a matter for casual conversation, but everyone knew it happened. Which is to say that having sex would be embarrassing if you were caught or admitted it, but it wasn’t at all shameful. In contrast, looking—having ever looked at porn—was a matter of genuine shame: if you did it—looked at porn—you were, in some sense, wicked.6
And like most people who did so did at the time, I felt very intense shame about the fact that I looked at porn7 regularly, felt that what I was doing was morally wrong. But I did so for what I think were different reasons than for many people. Many if not most people found porn embarrassing because it was sexual, or because of its association with masturbation.8 But for me, growing up as I did in a very liberal household (with a proudly, actively feminist mother), what embarrassed me was that it objectified women. This, in fact, made me feel — still makes me feel, to this day, even as I can articulate (and in many ways fully believe) the rational arguments against this position — like an evil person. After all, if, as Gloria Steinem famously said, “A woman who has Playboy in the house is like a Jew who has Mein Kampf on the table,"9 then I was doing the equivalent of reading Mein Kampf.
Remember, this was all a few years before "sex positive" feminism became mainstream, and even longer before it became dominant. One of the hot-button issues in feminism in the 1980s was the anti-porn ordinance drafted by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. They argued for banning porn on the basis that it was discrimination against women—basically taking the sort of harassment standards that are now common in workplaces and making them society-wide. Which is to say, major, respectable (certainly in the circles my parents moved in) intellectual and political figures were saying that I was wicked, and trying to outlaw the wicked thing I did. Those who opposed them argued largely from civil liberties viewpoints, with a hefty dose of saying that gay and lesbian porn wasn’t exploitative so we needed to be careful not to ban that; in other words, they didn’t defend what I was doing and seeing. And I should emphasize that this was not something I read about once; I knew a lot about their work, since my mother wrote about it and discussed it at the dinner table. For that matter, being a bookish kid, I would regularly pick up books from my mother's collection (remember, she was a feminist scholar) and read them. Those ideas, and the broader ones from which they sprang, were well known to me. On many levels I believed them.
So I was ashamed of looking at porn — more than ashamed of masturbating (which I don’t think I ever have been: embarrassed, when my wife has (once or twice) walked in on me, sure; ashamed, no). This shame led to a cycle during my high school and college years which went something like this: I would buy an issue of Playboy, masturbate, and then feel upset and furious with myself, stick the magazine away. Over time I would collect several issues of Playboy, each time doing the same. But eventually one time, at some point just after masturbating, the shame would rush in overwhelmingly and I couldn’t take it any more, so, in humiliation and self-loathing, I would sneak the magazines out of the house and throw them away where no one would see them even in the garbage. This shame was utterly different than the sort of titillating, erotic shame that some people (including me) have as a central part of their sexual fantasies; it was utterly painful, corrosive, hollowing.
Over and over I would buy several issues only to dispose of them. When I threw them out I would swear off ever doing so again; and then, eventually, I would break down and buy another, and then another. When I would give in and restart the cycle, I would curse myself for throwing out the earlier ones — partly because there were particular images that I had liked but which were now lost to me, partly because the whole thing was simply expensive. (More than once I bought & then discarded & then bought the same issue.) As time went on, the cycles lengthened: I would wait longer before destroying what I had accumulated, collect more, this time swearing that I never would throw them out again, only to break that oath as I did the opposite.
By the time I got to college, throwing out my collection was a rare event; I last threw one out, I believe, the year after I graduated. And then started collecting again.
I would say that the cycle is now broken, since I still have, in some storage unit, two boxes filled with issues of Playboy (and a few other, raunchier porn mags and comics). But it's not true; the purging phase has simply gone digital, and over the last decades I have deleted bookmarks and folders of saved images, only to go find them again. I made and deleted a Tumblr, back before it purged its porn; I have made a site on bdsmlr (a Tumblr-substitute), ran it, and then deleted it.
Now, the digital cycle has been lengthening the way that the cycle regarding physical magazines once did, so perhaps I have broken free of the cycle after all: but then, that is always how it seemed when I was at the peak of one. All it would take is a single moment of digital erasure to restart the whole process again.
So that is what I am talking about when I say I felt shame—self-loathing, really—at my porn use. Although it went beyond that. I vividly remember sitting in a high school class, convinced that my classmates and teacher could read the wickedness on my face. I felt—in some ways still feel—unworthy of love, sometimes even of life, simply for this.
And the lines here were incredibly unclear. After all, as a teenager, my sexuality more or less was my porn use. (I never had a girlfriend, nor a boyfriend for that matter.) Additionally, it is basic to male sexuality—at least in our culture (and whether this is cultural or biological or some mix of the two need not detain us)—that men are attracted to women visually. But if you were attracted to women visually—if you ever noticed their breasts, for instance—then you were objectifying them. This was worse than looking at porn, since this was a real live woman, not some photograph of someone you’ll never meet!
What it boiled down to was that I didn’t just feel that porn was evil: I felt that desiring women as such was evil. To desire women was to objectify women; objectifying women was, clearly and unquestionably, wrong. Women were, unquestionably and clearly, hurt by male desire.
Now I should pause here to make something absolutely, unequivocally clear: feminism was an overwhelming positive advance for humanity as a whole. I know this; there is simply no gainsaying it. I would never for a single instant wish to walk back any of it. The fact that I am saying that I was raised by a feminist mother, and believed that desiring women was evil, is not in any way, shape or form meant to say that I am, therefore, anti-feminist. I am still feminist—if, again, feminism will have me (which some feminists will and some won’t).
It’s not even clear that feminism was in any straightforward way to blame for my guilt and shame. My mother was on the anti-censorship side of the intra-feminist porn wars. Once, when a former teacher of mine was fired for (among other things) showing middle schoolers pornography, my mother made a point of telling me that there was nothing wrong with either pornography or masturbation. But what we pull from the zeitgeist — even, or perhaps especially, from a fairly atypical clump of strands picked out of the zeitgeist by the happenstance circumstances of our lives — is rarely restricted to what we are purposefully taught. And, as I said, I was the sort of kid who read, at random, from my mother’s collection of feminist books. She wasn’t on the anti-porn side, but she had all their books.
And it should hardly need to be said that even if feminism was responsible for my guilt and shame, and that of many millions of men too, it has done so much good in the world that to even mention this particular harm (if harm it was) as a mark against it is laughable. I am not making an anti-feminist point; at most I am saying that there is a slight downside to one of the great triumphs of human history.
For that matter, I am at this late date not at all sure that my guilt and same were wrong. I do think, most of the time, that they were; but I often still feel strongly that they were actually correct. It may be that feminism was responsible for instructing me in moral ways, and that the guilt and shame were just due to my actual wrongdoing. So maybe feminism, far from being to blame, was to credit for what moral instruction I, in my unworthiness, somehow received.
Nevertheless, as a horny young man—which is to say, as a young man, if not just as a man tout court—it lead to a heavy psychic burden.
I was not alone in feeling this way. Computer scientist Scott Aronson has written, on his blog "Shtetl-Optimized":
...from the age of 12 until my mid-20s... I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.
My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.
Aronson goes on to talk about how this led to "constant suicidal thoughts", saying that “At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself.”10 My guilt and shame never went that far, thank goodness, but it was intense — and remains so.
And, of course, I too had a recurring fantasy of either having been born a woman or been gay (I don’t recall ever hearing of the notion of asexuality back then). For a brief time I thought I might be gay—but it was, in fact, only that I wished I was. This did lead, however, to the only time before my mid-20s that I bought pornography (an activity that was always fraught for me, and to a certain degree itself eroticised) without feeling some shame, and that is the time that I bought a gay male porn magazine to see if I liked it.11 I did that with a clear conscience.12 Men didn’t mind being objectified! I, and every man I ever talked about it with, rather longed for it. So gay porn was not morally wrong—indeed, since I felt (even before my brief period of thinking I might be gay) very strongly in favor of gay rights, I was basically prepared to say it was in fact a moral good, bringing out into the light an oppressed sexuality. Nor did I think that lesbians buying images of naked women would be wrong. The only thing that was wrong was men buying pictures of naked women.—What I was doing.
And, of course, it was not being gay that I primarily wished to be, but a woman. Now I am not saying—I am very specifically not saying—that the shame and guilt and foulness I felt within myself, simply for being a man who was sexually attracted to women, made me autogynephilic. I have already said how far back my autogynephilia goes, so it can’t be that this shame was the cause of my autogynephilia and crossdreaming. Nor, once again, was feminism the sole cause. But somewhere in the culture there was a complex set of causal factors that made me feel this shame, and I think that feminism (in the specific, contingent ways I was exposed to it) played a role in that, which in turn played a role in encouraging my autogynephilia. I think my shame nurtured a thread of the autogynephilia that was already within me, and caused a tendency that I already possessed to maintain itself more strongly than, perhaps, it would otherwise have. Precisely how strong it was before the porn shame grew so strong in me and precisely how strong my autogynephilia would have been lacking it are things I can’t even begin to guess (and which may not be coherent questions at all). But I am confident that the shame was neither the sole cause nor uninvolved.
And the entire situation, of course, fed into my desiring to be desired, and my more specific fantasy of having been a Playboy playmate. The lines I draw around these phenomena and fragments of history are artificial, imposed so that I can understand my experience, and so I can explain it to you.
Eventually, as I have alluded to, buying porn grew easier. People, as has often been noted, can get used to a great many things. But even if the act itself became less fraught, the fact that I looked at porn and masturbated was something I hid away as a shameful, evil secret.—Until, all of a sudden, everyone assumed that everyone did.13 It was a strange experience, one that I suspect I share with many men who were born around when I was, to have something so shameful and hidden become so suddenly normalized; the shame has been pulled out from under us like a rug, and I suspect many of us stumbled, mentally. But I have never read anyone write about it, since, of course, we all grew up to be ashamed of it. Even I write of it now only under this Penn name; I would not dare to write of it under my Teller name.
In fact, I still feel the shame. The complex thing, the really truly hard thing, about this shame is that it is shame over a thing that is (at least partially) actually shameful. And precisely where that line lies is complicated and contested: which is to say, you can never be sure (I can never be sure) when I have crossed it.
Objectification of women is a real problem. Women really are hurt by men looking at them as sex objects — in the wrong way. Men do, regularly, habitually, press their desires upon women in a way that is harmful. Evil.
So is pornography evil? — And by "pornography" I mean, here, pornography of women. Pictures and films of naked women. When looked at by men. For in contrast to that, I feel quite sure that pictures of naked men are not evil. While there are, no doubt, exceptions (people are complicated; you can find exceptions to almost any generalization) men are, as I said, not hurt by objectification. If you wish to say this is socially contingent, because of the society we have built (which slut-shames women, and encourages men to excuse their own conduct with "boys will be boys"), then say it; its cause is complicated, but the reality is not. Whither or whether or how, it is true for us. So yes: the cleanest conscience I have ever felt was in buying that gay porn mag in college. But all those endless pictures of naked women; am I evil, for having looked at so much?
I can't say for certain. I don’t even know for certain (at least, I don’t feel certain) that men desiring women isn’t evil; I sometimes think it might be, at least a man desiring any woman who has not previously expressed desire for him. I might be evil, I might not be; I can’t be sure. I don't even know precisely what it would mean to be able to say for certain, or if this is a sort of thing about which one can be certain, or even if it's a well-formed question. The problem is, I really want to know.14
There are certainly those who will read this substack and decide I am, or at least have done a lot of, evil. Those who do so from religious or socially conservative motives don't bother me, because I am not afraid they might actually be right. But those who are against porn for feminist reasons do bother me, because they might really well be right. I don't think they are — if I thought, in sober reflection, that they were, I would find a way to stop, or at least try very hard to. But I remain in doubt: and so the shame has continued, and does continue, through the very moment I am writing this sentence, and probably beyond.
I do not wish to exaggerate. This shame, so utterly intense in adolescence and college, has largely faded, in part through sheer repetition (all evil gets easier with time), in part because of the broader cultural changes, in part because of my wife’s acceptance of my bad habits (although she quite reasonably never wants to hear about it or see it).15 It is still there, still part of me, but a lesser part, and one which rises to my attention less frequently than before. (Those who think pornography is a moral wrong will, of course, see this as my habituation to an evil.) But it is lesser, an old wound that sometimes aches rather than an active and crippling injury. Some wounds heal, even those that heal so slowly that we think, years in, that they never will.
Maybe even those that maybe never should.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends—since, 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!) So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.
If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick.
Next week: The Nature of Autogynephilic Desire, Part 2
I remember vividly the first time I ever heard the term “safe word”; it was at an SF convention, where I heard the writer Ceclia Tan, who had written a collection of erotic SF called Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords (which I suspect wouldn’t be true, but never mind), define it on a panel. At the time, she seemed to assume that no one had ever heard it before and I would guess that she was largely correct (although probably some people there had). I suspect that today on a similar panel the speaker would assume everyone knew the term—although, of course, some people won’t have.
The funny thing is that Playboy used to have really good articles; one actually could read it for the articles! (And at least some people did, since there was a braille edition back in the day.) That was, in fact, the whole point: Hefner’s project of making pictures of naked women respectable hinged on the respectability and quality of the rest of the magazine. He usually delivered. — And I, of course, know this because I would read the articles… after masturbating to the pictures, who are we kidding. (Back when I subscribed, though, my wife would often read it for the articles—and never look at the pictures. I doubt she was the only wife/girlfriend to do that.)
I don’t know actually know which historian said this—a teacher quoted it and I’ve forgotten the citation—but I am pretty sure they were actually talking about intellectual history (a closely allied field) not cultural history. Nevertheless, the point stands.
Nowadays people might ask the same question, out of simple cultural confusion: why would anyone do it? Well, in the age of the internet, there isn’t much reason to, and I suspect precious few people do. But in the Dark Ages…
One man there was cagey about his looking at porn, but didn’t quite deny it. He said though, “But Yorick—Yorick is a feminist.” And everyone nodded. Because it’s true! I was, and am—at least, if you define feminism such that not only a man can be one (not everyone does) but a man who looks at porn can be one (at the time I doubt such a definition would have persuaded anyone, but probably today some would agree with it). But at the time, everyone assumed that someone who was vocal about supporting feminist beliefs (as I was) would never, ever look at porn mags (which, however, I did); it just wasn’t conceivable. I fear I did not have the integrity nor the guts to say so; it would have ruined my reputation.—Which is the point I am making.
A good memoir that captures this period is Chester Brown's book The Playboy: a Comic Strip Memoir (1992). I certainly had very different specific experiences than Brown did, but overall in that work I recognize my adolescence and young adulthood. Anyone interested in this little slice of social history should definitely read it.
Perhaps I should clarify that I mean here just images, not movies, since the latter are (certainly in the days of the internet) the most common form of porn. I am talking about magazines, largely issues of Playboy.
Speaking of things that no one discussed doing but which everyone knew people did!
Quoted in Laura Lederer, "'Playboy Isn't Playing,' An Interview with Juidth Bat-Ada", in Laura Lederer, ed., Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography (William Morrow, 1980), p. 122. I don't think that I saw this precise quote at the time (although it's also true that I plausibly could have), but the general attitude was familiar.
Rather infamously, in one of the most appallingly tone-deaf and borderline sociopathic misreadings I have ever seen, journalist Amanda Marcotte summarized this (in a column far more widely read that Aaronson's original post, which was burried deep in the comment section on his blog) as " I believe that women and gay men do not experience either sexual desire or fear of rejection, mostly because I haven’t considered the possibility that people not exactly like me have internal lives and desires of their own," going on to say that he thought that “he's definitely suggesting that having to learn to speak to women instead of having naked women show up in your bed by magic is worse than being raped“. I think this genuinely foul response was motivated by the sense that if any wrong were conceded to feminism in this regard, then feminism would suffer a major setback. I don’t think it would, morally; but so blindly simplistic is our cultural arguments, that in that respect at least she might not have been wrong.
If I seem on this substack to repeat various disclaimers at times, and to over-qualify matters in obvious ways, it is an attempt to prevent such a malevolent misreading of what I am saying here (probably in vain; “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.”
Ironically, one of my friends (herself a lesbian) offered to buy me a magazine on the theory that I would be too — embarrassed? scared? ashamed? I'm not sure what the fear was precisely — to do it myself. I said it wouldn’t be a problem, and it wasn’t (even at a time far more homophobic than today), but I never told her that, on the contrary, it was the only time I bought pornography without fear, embarrassment and shame.
It goes a bit beyond that. I (like Scott Aronson, if not to the same extent) also felt this shame in my interactions with real people. Thus I have always felt able to flirt, at least a little, with men: because it doesn't threaten me. Once, at a wedding, I asked a man (whom I knew, and knew was gay) to dance. He was running around the room asking every woman in sight to dance — perhaps for the same reason I asked only him, perhaps simply because the world was very different in the early 1990s. One of the people at that wedding later expressed surprise when I was got married to a woman—”didn’t he dance with the best man at your wedding?” she asked the former bride. But the inquirer missed the point. My asking the best man to dance wasn’t a sign that I was (really) gay; it was a sign that I was not. It was unthreatening to ask a man, because it didn't mean anything.—But no: it was not because I was not gay. If I had been (if I were) gay, I would hit on guys without fear, since I would know there was nothing immoral in doing so. Fear of rejection, yes; fear of gay-bashing, perhaps; but not fear of doing evil. Which is, really, a far greater fear.
Although even now, while one can say frankly that one looks at porn, saying out loud that one masturbates is fairly taboo. I have said it frequently in this essay, because it seemed dishonest and ridiculous not to. I wonder, Delicate Reader. if you found it offensive, or funny, or gross? If so… is this something you do not do? If you can’t say you don’t, why is it in fact shameful to say that one does?
Philosopher Hilary Putnam said (in The Many Faces of Realism) that he abandoned the idea that morality was a mere convention when he was faced with a real moral dilemma that mattered to him. It did him no good to tell him that it could be socially constructed either way; he wanted to get it right!
The only other friend whom I have talked with about this was the friend who then canceled me. She actually was incredibly sweet about the fact that I thought I was evil for looking at porn, for even desiring women at all, and tried to help me, psychologically, until the time when she decided I was evil for other reasons, and cast me aside.