Autogynephilia: What’s the Big Freaking Deal, Anyway?
About a year ago I was reading on Dr. Anne Lawrence’s site about a new theory of the origin of trans called “autogynephilia.” This theory asserts that many trans women—and transsexual women in particular—desire reassignment surgery because they are eroticizing the feminization of their bodies.
The first thing that struck me about it, of course, was that it only accounted for trans women. I very seriously doubt that many trans guys are turned on by the notion of being a woman, so therefore the word “autogynephilia” obviously doesn’t apply to them. I am reluctant to accept any theories of trans identity that do not account for the fantastic diversity within the world of trans, and if you’re forgetting 50% of the trans population, I think you need to reconsider your theory.
The second thing that struck me had nothing to do with the theory itself: it related to the reaction to the theory from transfolk. Holy cow, you would have thought that the autogynephilia theorists had suggested that transfolk were direct descendants of Adolf Hitler. Not surprisingly, I’ve heard very little reaction from trans guys. This is another case in which their erasure from trans contexts has eliminated their voices.
The reaction that I saw was predicated mostly upon the notion that there was no such thing as a “true” erotic trans nature. In my opinion this originated with Harry Benjamin’s pathologized Standards of Care crowd in the late ’60’s. A very clear distinction was made between transsexuals and transvestites. According to the prevailing trans theories of the time, transsexuals were people who felt that they were a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Transvestites, on the other hand, were men (because it was always men, right?) who sought sexual gratification from the act of wearing the clothes of women.
Being transsexual means that you have to conform to a very narrow definition of what is acceptable in the realm of transsexuality. We all know transsexuals who read up on what psychiatrists want to hear, and tell psychiatrists exactly those things in order to get “permission” to see a surgeon. I’ve done it myself before, with at least three different therapists.
According to psychiatric standards, one of the defining characteristics of transsexuals is the reputed lack of eroticisation of trans natures. Trans people can’t be sexual because that would make us fetishists. Being a fetishist means that we are transvestites, not transsexuals. And THIS means that we do not need hormone treatments or any kinds of surgery because we should just be happy putting on the clothing of the “opposite” sex and jerking off in private, kept company by our shame and self-hatred.
As a result of this psychiatric division between transsexuals and cross-dressers, transsexuals react quite outspokenly to any suggestion that they might be eroticizing gender transgression. If their psychiatrists thought for one second that they were getting turned on by silk panties, their transition plans could be pushed back for months, years, or maybe even cancelled entirely. Many transsexual women heard about autogynephilia and stated publicly-in quite an indignant tone-that they were NEVER aroused by being trans, and had in fact never thought about it. Somehow this asexuality is thought to be a purer form of trans, a form in which people can exist happily in a sexual vacuum. It sounds pretty Victorian and smothering, if you ask me. If I can’t masturbate, I don’t want your revolution.
Let me let you in on a little secret. And shhhh, keep it between us, because we wouldn’t want the rest of the world finding out, would we?
It’s our secret, right? You promise?
Here it is.
Some non-trans XX women get turned on by their bodies and their clothes.
I swear that this is true.
The feel of silk against your skin. A sheer negligee sliding over your shoulders. A tight skirt that shows off your ass. The smell of your leather jacket. Sexy thigh-high boots. A riding crop. Your comfy terrycloth robe that you’ve had for ten years. Playing with your nipples. Running your fingertips gently along your inner thighs. Feeling the narrowness of your waist, gently increasing in size as you run your hands lower, lower, down your hips and legs. How can these things not be erotic? They feel good. The sensations can be intense, and the reactions you get can be rewarding. The clothes make you feel sexy and desirable. The self love makes you feel validated and comfortable with yourself. It’s acceptable for XX women to do most of this; in fact, for better or for worse, it’s often encouraged.
So why is it a problem for transsexual women to feel the same way?
My take on the whole thing (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) is this: who cares why you’re trans? We are placing so much emphasis on the origins of our genders and sexualities that we’re forgetting our lived realities. Ask yourself: Why is genital reconstructive surgery (GRS) the only surgery for which you need letters of approval from two different mental health professionals, one of them a psychiatrist? If I want a nose job, no sweat. If I want to get my fat sucked, no sweat. If I want pectoral, breast or calf implants, no sweat. If I want to have my birth cunt sliced up and my clitoris reshaped to make them look like those of a prepubescent girl, no sweat. But if I want to turn my penis inside out, STOP THE TRAIN!
The fact is that we have no idea where transsexuality comes from. Maybe it comes from abnormal prenatal hormone levels. Maybe it’s early childhood conditioning. Maybe God made us this way. Maybe it’s because gender transgression gets us wet or gives us a boner. Maybe it’s because we weren’t allowed to see The Three Stooges and thus be subjected to proper male conditioning, or maybe it’s because our mom let us play baseball instead of making us learn to jump rope with the other girls. Maybe it’s all of the above, or none of the above, or alien mind rays, or the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup we ate when we were ten years old.
The assertion that person X’s feelings are more valid than person Y’s feelings because of some imagined hierarchy of origin pisses me off. I find it to be an elitist attitude. It makes me cringe. It makes me angry.
I’ve known that I was trans for as long as I can remember. I remember going to bed each night and praying that I would wake up as a girl the next morning. I remember the anguish of waking up and seeing that I still had a penis. These memories are very clear to me. They date back to when I was four years old, at least, and maybe earlier. My parents first took me to see a psychiatrist about my “gender issues” when I was seven years old.
If I didn’t dislike the word “transsexual” so much, it could be applied to me. I’m taking hormones and I live full time as a woman. I never get read as a guy any more, even when I’m in androgynous raverdyke mode. I am passing privileged. I’m ranked reasonably close to the top of that stupid transgendered hierarchy that places attractive passing transsexuals at the top and non-passing fetish transvestites at the bottom. By all indications I should be happy with my lot in life. If I was so inclined (and I’m not), I could win many of these absurd competitive comparison games that so many trans women play in order to validate their place in the social order of trans. I could very easily define myself in terms of why I am better than other people. Forget that, jack.
Because ya know what? I’m also a sex radical and a pleasure whore. I denied this for a long time, but now I’m not ashamed to admit that I get turned on when I put on my leather corset, garter belt, black stockings and boots. I love playing with my tits. I masturbate. I have sex with other women. My sexuality is such a fundamental part of who I am that I will violently defend the right to control and define it myself. Don’t even THINK about trying to take it away from me.
I am completely fine with the fact that some trans women don’t find their transsexuality a source of erotic pleasure. I am also completely fine with the fact that some trans women DO find their transsexuality a source of erotic pleasure. But you can’t invalidate someone else’s experiences just because you don’t share them.
The fact that someone thinks that thongs are sexy doesn’t mean that she is or is not a real woman. There is beauty in diversity. We’re here. We’re different. Get used to it!