Female Embodiment Fantasies
Mini pre-note: I’m trying to add open access links where I can, if I’m missing any let me know.
I’ve been reading, albeit out-of-order, articles from Vincent, Erikainen and Pearce’s collection of essays TERF Wars: Feminism and the fight for transgender futures. The entire work has been an excellent overview of trans, radical and queer feminist perspectives on issues raised by the recently re-ignited anti-trans border wars within feminism. It also serves as a much needed review of how these have broken into collaborations with the religious and nationalist far rights, which I would highly recommend to anyone on this topic. I may write a broader review at a later point, but particular standouts for me include Sally Hines’ contribution addressing the historic evolution of feminist “Sex Wars” as a core philosophical debate within Western feminism for at least 150 years (with a rare and important inclusion of elements in other parts of European feminism outside of the US), Emi Koyama’s classic essay “Whose feminism is it anyway” confronting the implicit racism of assimilationist white middle class trans women as well as exclusionary feminisms, and an especially important contribution from Rowan Hildebrand-Chupp challenging the shared contempt for detransitioners produced by both sides of the “TERF War” effectively sharing an ideology driven by the values of eliminating detransition (whether to maintain access to transition services or to eliminate them).
I’ve still yet to make it around to reading Camminga’s article on the erasure of African transgender voices and the selective platforming of African cis voices so far as they reiterate views already common within the Global North, Lua de Mota Stabile’s piece on Sex work abolitionism and hegemonic feminism, Jay Bernard’s piece on frictions between radical trans liberation and the increasing confinement of trans interventions into neoliberal institutions, or the timely afterword from the editors inserted on the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic on the escalating TERF Wars.
Jones and Slater’s coverage of the struggles over toilets as a territorial dispute covers a lot of familiar ground but I think forms a really vitally citable base of widely recognisable trans experience of these conflicts collected in an open access peer reviewed article, and Cristan Williams re-telling of the course of RadFem woman ontology is a vivid and biting refresher whether you’ve read her extensive work interviewing classic radical feminists before on the topic or not.
I’m also looking forward to reading Florence Ashley’s commentary on ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ in particular because of how difficult it is to address the rapid onset of quite deliberate pseudoscience in the wider field of transology.
On Julia Serano’s reparative sexology
Julia Serano has replied to my thoughts here. https://twitter.com/JuliaSerano/status/1294820952086163456?s=19
I’m taking a break from tweeting random thoughts about many of these articles as I go to pay a special attention to Julia Serano’s piece on Autogynephilia. I’ve been wanting to discuss this for quite a while (not quite since Serano published Whipping Girl, but not far off) and this new article provides me with an impetus to finally put my thoughts together in writing.
In her introduction Serano notes the resurgence of Ray Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory (AGP) in recent years (and indeed the necessity of refuting it). I can say quite clearly that I have been startled to see not just the increasingly hostile discussions of it from “Gender Critical” (GC) accusers¹, but also I would add the growing adoption of AGP among trans women I have encountered online associated with the GC movement, most publicly of late, Debbie Hayton who has claimed it as her own sexual orientation (although she is far from the only trans woman under the influence of GC ideology to do so). I have also encountered at least one trans man who had for a time been persuaded through contact with GC circles to self-identify as suffering from “autoandrophilia” (sexual attraction to oneself as a man - the mirror image theory of AGP) despite this being a non-existent orientation within AGP theory. The psychological harms of the shame that AGP as a framework can perpetuate have been discussed in mental health case studies.
For those who are unfamiliar, AGP is a theory of transsexuality by and large inherited from a century of sexological pathologisation of all forms of sexual “deviance” from a heterosexual and cisgender norm. Blanchard’s theory emerged in the 1980’s during the period of psychological research where it had become less and less tenable to work in the field of theorising homosexuality as a disease (alongside gender atypical behaviour, both of which had for many decades been treated as a form of unfortunate developmental disorder for which a cure must be found).
As Serano notes in her introduction, the typical function of AGP as a pop-psychology diagnosis is to “insinuate that trans women are merely ‘sexually deviant men.’” and as such the published academic material in favour of AGP theory is typically presented as thoroughly-established science.
Serano says that this “has never been widely accepted within sexology and psychology” (SRMv68(4), p90)², but I worry that Serano is, within a transfeminist analysis, not being critical enough in her contrasting of the history of both sexology and psychology, which both have long been criticised as serving an intrinsically pathologising function regarding LGBTIQ bodies and minds.
This sets Serano up for what I feel is a critical flaw in her approach, by leading her to advance “an alternate model that is far more consistent with all the available evidence and contemporary thinking”(ibid).
Julia Serano starts of by retelling the present day orthodox sexological deconstruction of human sexual identity into identity, expression, orientation and sexed physiology, all of these characteristics entirely distinct from and prone to vary independently of each other in any given individual. Perhaps implicit but unspoken in Serano’s account of these characteristics is the polar reference points which are typically used to define the space over which these characteristics vary, between one or another linked ideal type (i.e. man/woman, masculine/feminine, gynophilic/androphilic and male/female). I note here with some delight that this very closely mirrors the collection of characteristics critically described in Fernandez-Carrera and DePalma’s article (p74, ibid) as the “heterosexual matrix” — the combined set of sex/gender/sexuality as surfaces of control through which heteronormative education is instilled in the individual through both institutional and implicit social learning processes.
Serano continues to discuss how a gradual depathologisation process has occurred within sexology, which has gradually conceded that many “patterns of arousal that have historically been categorised as ‘sexual deviations’ or ‘paraphilias’… are not especially rare, nor are they inherently unhealthy” (p90). She also relates that there is an increasing awareness³ among trans health professionals that trans people have a broad diversity of gender expressions, sexual orientations, and sexual fantasies, Just Like Cis People!
“But this was not always the case.”
Serano relates how for most of the twentieth century, this independently variable quadraxial point in space was believed to be naturally fixed to a binary pairing of possibilities, all man-masculine-gynophilic-male or woman-feminine-androphilic-female with anything too far outside those fixed points an aberration. This gives rise first to invert theories and then the idea of the feminised/masculinised brain, but also a reparative theory of transsexuality wherein trans women still occupy a differently legible space, simply accord to the feminine characteristics with the sex-axis flipped, and trans men to the masculine similarly. This figure of the (feminine, female identified) transsexual was distinguished on the basis of gender norms from the “transvestite” or crossdresser who privately wears women’s clothing and may even be aroused while doing so but is otherwise heterosexual and masculine. This co-occurrence of gender-atypical behaviour with sexuality is the root site for Serano’s ideas around “female/feminine embodiment fantasies (FEFs)” (p91), describing the dissent against this classification and the population affected as “non-classical” trans women, contrasting them with the population accepted in the medical literature as “classical” transsexuals.
Serano also discusses the gradual evolution of the AGP theory from Blanchard in 1989 through to contributions by J. Michael Bailey in 2003, both appearing to agree that “classical” transsexuals were in fact homosexuals driven to imitate women in order to find a male partner, and that bisexual/lesbian/asexual trans women are in fact heterosexual men⁴ with an “erotic target location error”, being attracted therefore to themselves as women — the latter is the core definition of AGP, and distinguished from Homosexual Transsexuality (HSTS), both considered to be sexually driven causes for experiences of gender dysphoria.
The account here then goes on to describe the popularisation of AGP related literatures and the plethora of epistemic problems underlying the Blanchard-Bailey model of transsexuality, from the frequent failure of trans women to conform to their hypotheses, to the frequent FEFs reported by “HSTS” subjects, and lack of such reported by many “AGP” coded subjects, the lack of cisgender controls in a pathologising focus on transgender individuals, to Blanchard’s claims that those results that fell outside of his theory were in fact simply lying thus making the theory itself unfalsifiable, and in fact the theory’s initial total erasure of transgender men from the model altogether in order to maintain an artificial neatness to it.
These observations about the theory and evidence base are then born out by attempts at replication and investigation of the causative claims of the Blanchard-Bailey model showing some limited reappearance of initial correlations made by Blanchard but no clearly distinguishing causation as he had claimed.
Serano is absolutely on point with her criticism of the scientific basis, as well as in calling attention to the needlessly stigmatising nature of the attempted investigation of transsexuality in these terms itself. She also addresses the wealth of research since undertaken providing the much needed context of studying the sexualities of cisgender men and women and successive studies finding both same-sex and cross-sex embodiment fantasies exist among many cisgender individuals without any apparent signs of gender dysphoria.
She contrasts the fantasies common among many men of receiving oral sex from a nondescript or faceless partner as “autophallophilia” or a form of “Male Embodiment Fantasy” and pokes at the irony of such fantasies being taken for granted, while for transgender people we often cannot take our embodiments for granted, developing the idea of embodiment fantasies as a coping mechanism for gender dysphoria rather than as a producer of it.
Alongside this, Serano calls attention to the feminist theory of the widely internalised the “male gaze” — a product of the structural power men have in patriarchal society and a need even for women to model this internally. Serano carries on to explore a range of ways in which the male gaze may have shaped the nature of women’s and mens fantasies as self-fantasised objects and subjects of sexuality respectively.
For myself I would like to add here that the entirety of AGP theory itself is steeped in the male gaze, in it’s repeated assertion of male sexuality literally onto trans women’s bodies and minds, and typically against our own accounts of our sexualities, and I wish it had been called out.
Serano’s theorizing about embodiment fantasies follows a range of further research which is argued to track transfeminine gender variance down one of two paths — those who experience a fixed cross-gender identity from early years, vs those who are repressed and eventually pass through a secretive “crossdresser stage”(p97), linking it with related models of crossdresser development.
I would like to raise here, that outside of the current medicopathological view of sexual diversity and as the social gender revolution rolls ever onwards, we’re increasingly seeing a growing cohort of liberated assigned-male individuals not just cross-dressing quite publicly but also undergoing feminisation therapies while retaining their outspokenly firm masculine identities, typically using the term “femboy” or the reclaimed transphobic slur “trap” to describe themselves.
For me it’s quite worth stopping and exploring the ways that in adopting this FEF and thwarted gender identity model explanation of transfeminine crossdressing, transvestism and transsexuality, Serano is taking upon herself the problem of trying to reduce these all down to some common factor which will somehow ‘solve’ the problem of transsexuality — a problematisation of a ubiquitous expression of human sexual/gender diversity which is largely handed down to us by Western, colonial, cisgender sexology’s desire to map out and divide people by gender whether we are interested in it or not. The conventional modern scientific theories of gender identity themselves are typically further explained elsewhere in frequently essentialising means through some sort of neurosexology of the mind. I note with interest the recently renewed demonstration that many attempts to square common essentialist beliefs about the mentality of gender with real world evidence in this particular wasteland of contested evidence is littered with dead theories set against a mosaic of conflicting and contradictory claims of sexual differentiation found in real world brains. I feel it’s really worth embracing that when it comes to attempts to reduce things down to simple factors, we are frequently projecting a desired simple universe onto the chaotic material universe we have ourselves emerged from.
Serano gives a compelling psychological account for how transfeminine experiences of FEFs end up transitioning through a sensationalised “other-bodied” phase towards a resolved self-embodiment which will no doubt help readers have an improved ability to relate or empathise with the awkwardness of how sexuality can relate to transition, and I have no doubt this is providing vital and useful information in an accessible way.
She is equally as compelling in her arguments that AGP theory is itself neither scientific nor rooted in a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand a particular sexual minority (transsexual women).
My concern is that she gives too much ground to the pathologising and norm-presuming gaze of sexology itself which deserves neither our respect nor attempts at repairing it into a better science, and in contrasting of the pseudoscience of AGP with “widely accepted sexology and psychology” she helps to repair and to some extent to cover up and reproduce a system which has long been built on essentialising and normative claims about the beautiful chaos of human sexual diversity.
 Serano mentions
r/GenderCritical, but an even more explicitly relevant and hateful subreddit was
 Some who remember the long slow path this has taken might say a gradual and reluctant acknowledgement.
 It’s worth noting here that Blanchard for many years explicitly held that there was no such thing as bisexuality and any protestation otherwise by bisexuals was lying. This has since been disproven by J. Michael Bailey et al’s work arguably throwing the penile phrenology research that the original refutation of male bisexuality rested on into some question.