I’ve been trying to wrap my head around autogynephilia for a few months now, and while I’m still evaluating the evidence for and against it, I want to make a point: when we pathologize people who do gender differently, we’re responding rationally within a sick system.
Autogynephilia is a concept dating from the 1980s that reputedly describes the experience of people who are assigned male sex at birth and choose to transition to live as women, or perhaps experiment with feminine presentation in other ways, e.g. cross-dressing (Julia Serano gives a brief history of the term in her article The Case Against Autogynephilia).
The thing that’s truly bizarre to me about autogynephilia is that it takes a huge group of people – trans women – and says “hey, you think you want to change your gender identity, but it’s actually a sexual fetish.” Granted, some trans people do experience sexual arousal, or have fantasies, about their bodies or gender identities or gender presentations being different than what they currently are.
But then, lots of people fantasize about their bodies or identities being different than what they currently are, and we don’t pathologize them to nearly the same degree. Fat people might fantasize about being skinny, and feel turned on by the image of their bodies as thin. Differently abled people might fantasize about having use of various parts of their bodies, and it might be a sexual fantasy. I can imagine that cisgender (assigned female at birth, and living as women) women who are bisexual might eroticize parts of their own bodies, and might amplify their femme gender presentation as a response to that sexualization of their own bodies… and hell, isn’t that happening anyway under the male gaze? Where’s the pathologization of straight cis women who beautify themselves in response to years of conditioning about how female bodies should be sexy in precise ways?
What got me started on this was listening to trans friends vent about how frustrating it is to have their experiences of gender invalidated by medical and psychological professionals who tell them that nope, it’s about sexual desire, not gender identity. And the weird thing is that feminists like Alice Dreger (who’s done great work with the intersex rights movement and with censorship issues) are on board with it, as I saw when I came across Serano’s critique of Dreger’s work on gender.*
I would think more feminists would get this. We’ve fought for years for the right to represent ourselves and our life experiences, to be part of the cliques of theory-makers and medicine-givers, psychologists and therapists and biologists and doctors and everyone else who’s tried to regulate, medicate, pathologize, and stigmatize women’s lived experiences. We’ve fought for women’s studies as a discipline, for rap groups and consciousness-raising sessions, for safe spaces as well as integration into the business world, damn near every profession out there, and even Science-with-a-capital-S.
So who are we to turn around and say, “Sorry! You don’t get to have a say in how you are represented, how your lives are understood, how your diversity is expressed”? The fight over self-representation (especially as it relates to pathologization) has been fought before, in the hands of native anthropologists (why do only white people get to study both other cultures and their own?), in the debates about sex worker representation and legislation, and more. Which identity groups get to rule over not only their own representations, but also others? Whose worldview is so valid that it gets to discount that of others?
Sadly, I think we learned this from the patriarchy: that we need totalizing theories to make sense of the world, that we need to assign categories to people who are different from us, and that in order for our own struggles around gender oppression to be valid, everyone’s experiences need to be squeezed into similar boxes. But if I’ve learned anything about gender and sexuality, it’s that humans are endlessly diverse and varied, so it’s really tough to come up with just one universal explanation for everything.
Further, I’m shocked and appalled at the conflation of gender identity, gender presentation, sexual orientation, sexual fantasy/desire, and embodiment that I see in the concept of autogynephilia. Conflating these things rarely goes well for people. Historically, when women have been reduced to their bodies, we’ve been oppressed in countless ways. We know, factually, that not everyone who presents masculine or feels male is attracted to women, and not everyone who presents feminine or feels female is attracted to men. Mashing these categories together might describe some people’s experiences, but certainly not everyone’s, and when you start to assign values (normal vs. deviant; healthy vs. unhealthy among others) to these categories, that’s where you start to run into trouble: stigma, bigotry, hate crimes.
I’m told I need to read Anne Lawrence‘s book Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism, that it’ll make everything about these concerns clear. It’s now in my to-read list. As I learn more, I expect I’ll make other posts on this topic, because it’s caught my interest in a way that might make it one of my upcoming projects.
So, we’ll see where this goes. I just think more people should be aware of this kind of totalizing concept that is used to invalidate other people’s life experiences… as a scholar and an activist, it really inspires me to dig deeper to figure out what’s going on here!
*You may notice that I cite Serano’s work a lot. Her approach to gender identity resonates with what I’ve learned about gender in the last decade+ of being involved with academic gender studies.