Saturday, 21 December 2013

Losing faith in Professor B

My faith in Scarlett Johansson is being tested by her recent fall-out with Oxfam

The question one circles round and round is this: what is the relationship between crossdreaming and transsexualism? Crossdreaming may be a symptom of transsexualism – there’s plenty of evidence of that – but there are also crossdreamers who do not identify as transsexual (I number myself among them). So we probably need to uncouple these two concepts – and rid our minds of the suggestion that one is necessarily the cause of the other – before gingerly putting them back together again.

My point of entry to the crossdreamer debate was reading summaries of Professor Blanchard’s work. I found a couple of ideas there which I grabbed hold of and held on to. One was the image of the ‘nonhomosexual’ male who is sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a woman. The other was the suggestion that this troubling state of mind could arise from an ‘erotic target location error’ in early life. The first seemed to describe me, and the second to explain how I had become what I am. I’ll return to the second in a future post; for the moment, a few words about my evolving view of Blanchard, in whom my early faith is faltering.  

The best critique I’ve read of Blanchard’s work is an article by trans activist Julia Serano.* She kicks off by noting that Blanchard (and others after him) have used the term ‘autogynephilia’ to refer to two significantly different phenomena. First, it’s used descriptively to denote a type or erotic fantasy common to many (but not all) MtF spectrum individuals in which they become aroused by the idea of being or becoming women. Second, the term is used theoretically to describe a ‘paraphilic’ model in which such fantasies arise as a result of a misdirected heterosexual sex drive (the ‘erotic target’ being located within instead of outside the individual). Once established, such fantasies become the primary cause of any gender dysphoria and the desire to physically transition to female. As Serano notes, “conflation between the descriptive and theoretical definitions of autogynephilia has led to a great deal of confusion in the literature on the subject”. She cuts through this by adopting the term “cross-gender arousal” in place of Blanchard’s descriptive use of ‘autogynephilia’, and reserves the term ‘autogynephilia’ for referring to the paraphilic model that Blanchard and others have proposed. I find this eminently sensible.

“Nobody seriously doubts the existence of cross-gender arousal,” Serano goes on. But, as her critique shows, approaches such as his based on crude binary oppositions will never compass the complexities of this issue. Take the matter of sexual orientation. Serano herself is consistently ‘gynephilic’. When she was male-bodied, the outside world would have identified her as ‘heterosexual’, as a married man, but from the off she understood her ‘subconcious sex’ (her term) as female. From that perspective she was a ‘lesbian’ before transition, just as she is a female-bodied lesbian now. This illustrates why dividing transsexuals, as Blanchard does, into ‘homosexual’ and ‘nonhomosexual’ based on their birth sex and then deriving separate aetiologies on that basis, is a bankrupt procedure. His theory also fails to allow for those transsexuals whose sexual orientation changes after transition.

Slowly I came to the belief that the only category to which Blanchard’s thesis might apply is the ‘non-transsexual autogynephile’, the group I felt myself part of.** Only with this group did it seem relevant to categorise their sexual orientation in relation to their birth sex. (Since he is unable to view transwomen as anything but men, Blanchard mistakenly thinks he can apply the same typology of sexual orientation to anyone anywhere on the transsexual spectrum.)

Riffing vaguely on his ideas, I arrived at the notion that my fantasies were contained within an overall heterosexual structure – or perhaps played out on a site of competing heterosexualities. The ‘man’ in me is hetero – he is aroused by the thought and sight of women in the world around him – but his strongest attraction is to an internalised (and probably idealised) woman. This ‘woman’ in me is also hetero: as ‘her’ I’m in fantasy sexual relations with generic, faceless men. The challenge is to turn competition into complementarity: that way lies psychic balance.

Thus the M core can be hetero and the internalised F can be hetero too. What follows is that, unlike M’s hetero desires, which are precisely targeted on F, F’s own imagined hetero desires are much fuzzier in expression – hence the recurrent ‘faceless man’ narrative. It has to be that way, so that F’s ‘desires’ can coexist with M’s without conflict. We may speculate that, in a bisexual, F’s ‘desires’ might fixate on an imagined particular man with a face.

Latterly, I’ve started to question even this legacy of Blanchardism. The subtle philosophers over at Crossdream Life have made me pause at the boundary where ‘non-transsexual’ meets ‘transsexual’ and ask what kind of a frontier it is. Are there border controls? Or is it porous?

If you’re perfectly secure in your belief that your crossdreaming is not a symptom of transsexualism, then, fine and dandy. That point of view – my point of view hitherto – should be respected. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a person test that conviction by experiment. Because, sometimes, their assurance is misplaced. Serano has a useful take on this in her book Whipping Girl. For someone in an uncertain state, she says, hormone treatment resolves the uncertainty by confirming a truth about which they were unsure: “I honestly was not 100 per cent sure that transitioning would ease my gender dissonance until after my first few weeks of being on female hormones. The way they made me feel, and the subsequent changes they brought about in my body, just felt... right.” My guess is that, while the hormones might artificially stimulate transgender feelings, if those feelings weren't “right”, you'd end up with even greater “gender dissonance” than you had at the outset. If your non-TS status is secure, then no amount of oestrogen is going to make you into something you are not.

*‘The case against autogynephilia’, International Journal of Transgenderism, 12 (2010), 176-187 [available on her website at]. See also the chapter ‘Pathological science: debunking sexological and sociological models of transgenderism’ in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007).
**The term is used by Blanchard’s disciple Anne Lawrence in her book Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism (2013). Although she devotes a separate chapter to this group, I can’t for the life of me see how they differ from the ‘transsexual autogynephiles’ who form her main subject. Indeed, the similarities are her stated reason for including them.


  1. Nice and thoughtful. xx

    One thing I oppose is any judgement about/contempt for paraphilia. The target location theory could be extracted from Blanchard's conservative ethics: not 'target location error' but 'target location difference'. The 'how dare he call us paraphiliacs i.e. perverts' line sounds like an acceptance of a general negative judgement upon sexual minorities, with an angry insistence of exclusion from that category.

    I try to be neutral about the cause of crossdreaming. It is ethically valid regardless of its cause, and what the cause is is very hard to fathom.

    Within trans culture the pressure, occasionally deliberate, is to direct you into believing you are more and more trans; a marked contrast to the pressure of culture at large.

    Experimenting with oestrogen might be a good idea if there really are no possible significant negative consequences.

    Debs xx

    1. Thanks, Debs!

      I’m not sure about the ‘target location’ issue. As I say, I may come back to that. I know that Blanchard, with characteristic empire-building zeal, extended the concept to explain a supposedly unrecognised class of ‘paraphilias’ in which men experience erotic desires to impersonate or make their bodies resemble whatever it is they feel attracted towards. But I probably ought to read his original paper(s), rather than rely on second-hand reports.

      I understand why crossdreamers are suspicious of the term ‘paraphilia’ and inclined to read it as a not-so-polite synonym for ‘perversion’. Serano, in her academic article, gives a flavour of the problem:

      “…the theory [of autogynephilia] is extremely pathologizing, especially for those transsexual women who are classified as autogynephiles and, thus, lumped into a psychiatric category (paraphilia) that includes several criminal sexual offences (e.g. paedophilia, frotteurism and exhibitionism) as well as other generally consensual but unnecessarily stigmatized sexual behaviours” (p185).

      Happy New Year! xx

  2. Cheers honey!

    I would say that the attitude in the Serano paragraph is rather similar to the one of transsexuals who disdain all crossdreamers. I think we are being inconsistent and cowardly if we do not express solidarity with, rather than contempt for, 'other generally consensual but unnecessarily stigmatized sexual behaviours'.

    Happy New Year! xx

  3. Hi Dabrela,

    I haven't read Julia Serano, though several people have recommended her work to me.

    I tend to agree with Blanchard's concepts overall. On the other hand, I agree with his critics who say: he hasn't got it all sewn up, and sexual arousal isn't the only reason we crossdress. As you have alluded to (and I mention on my own blog) there are lots of other pleasures too, including access to powerful emotional expressions normally denied us as men.

    Interesting that you should talk of sex with a faceless man. That implies that you are not attracted to men, but attracted to the idea of Dabrela being desired by a man, or sharing pleasure with a man. So far, so Blanchard.

    Please drop me an email from the About Me page on my blog. I have something I would like to talk to you about.