Sunday, 25 May 2014

Orientation

Trisha Paytas: there are some women I don't dream of being

One of Ray Blanchard’s more suggestive ideas is to think of (what he calls) ‘autogynephilia’ as an alternative sexual orientation. This is certainly more satisfactory than characterising it as a ‘paraphilia’. It sits alongside heterosexuality, perhaps as a variant form of it. As I discussed in an earlier post, the erotic target is internal, rather than external as is conventionally the case. Two important qualifications here:

  1. The internal target isn’t a location ‘error’ (that’s judgmental, and it implies that a correction is possible or desirable); rather, it’s a location ‘difference’ or realignment.
  2. This variant heterosexuality can coexist with the conventional form, which is why some crossdreamers successfully combine it with long-term relationships, while others struggle to reconcile the two ‘targets’, internal and external.
What could we call it? Something like ‘crossdreamer-variant heterosexuality’ (CVH)?

It’s a notion that Blanchard himself doesn’t seem to have run with. His disciple Anne Lawrence is one of the few to have picked up the ball. In her 2007 article  ‘Becoming What We Love’, she goes back to Blanchard’s earliest attempts to define ‘autogynephilia’, teasing out his use of phrases like ‘amatory propensity’ and ‘love of oneself as a woman’, to argue that it’s about much more than sexual arousal and can be more akin to romantic love. She also suggests describing it as an ‘erotic-romantic orientation’ rather than a ‘sexual orientation’. I like that article (more than I like her other writings) but it still has a whiff of special pleading about it, a determination to salvage The Theory at all costs.

However, I’m not sure the anti-Blanchardians have got it right either. It’s curious that some of the advanced thinking about this problem seems to be readmitting, as it were by the back door, discredited theories about the origins of homosexuality. For example, the highly-rated (by some) Jaimie Veale leans for support on a curious theory – Bem’s ‘Exotic Becomes Erotic’ developmental theory of sexual orientation. This is Veale’s summary:

Bem’s theory suggests that instead of coding for sexual orientation, biological variables code for childhood temperaments, which determine whether a child will favour the activities and company of peers of the same or opposite sex. This results in children feeling different from children of the sex they do not associate with, and perceiving them as exotic. This in turn generates autonomic arousal to the unfamiliar/exotic peers, which later results in erotic arousal to persons of that sex.

Admittedly, I haven’t read Bem’s original work, but judging by the summary, I cannot remotely relate it to my own experience. The assumption is that children operate in a free social market where they can choose their playmates. If, like me, you have no sisters and were packed off to single-sex schooling from the age of seven to be apprenticed in manhood, then you barely encountered girls of your own age. Yes, they became ‘exotic’ as a result, and that was alluring, but how you responded to the exotic stimulus at puberty would depend on your personality type. An outgoing personality would seek out every opportunity to find girls and date them. The painfully shy type, however strong his attraction to the opposite sex, would retreat into himself, perhaps idealising and internalising the boy-girl relationship in some ‘autogynephilic’ fantasy. And, if sexual orientation were in effect a result of childhood conditioning, then it begs the question whether a homosexual inclination could be undone through re-conditioning – the goal of misguided religious fanatics who offer ‘gay cures’.

If I were born again with the same innate propensity but different childhood experiences, would my crossdreaming take a different form, or even not manifest itself at all? As it is, upbringing, education, family circumstance conspired to leave me free to develop, in my formative years, a kind of autoerotic sexuality that was untempered by encounter or experience with girls of my own age – an orientation to which I may already have been predisposed by antenatal influence. If my childhood and adolescence had been different, who knows how I’d have turned out?

As ever, more questions than answers… (Perhaps this is one for people’s philosopher Trisha Paytas, when she’s solved the problem of whether dogs have brains?)

I see two ways through this thicket. One is to posit that we’re all born with a potential bisexual orientation. The majority of people grow up inclined exclusively to one sex or the other as romantic and sexual partners. A minority fluctuate in their choice of partners – a girlfriend is succeeded by a boyfriend, or vice-versa – giving rise to an impression, in the world’s eyes at least, that their sexuality has ‘changed’, when in fact they are simply living out their bisexuality. The alternative explanation is one I’ve already alluded to on this blog. Is it fanciful to suggest that one’s sexual orientation remains static but one’s gender is fluid? That’s almost how it feels to me. As if I were a bi-gender personality built around a heterosexual armature. When the male persona is dominant (as it has been for much of the last forty years), my attraction is to women; when my female self asserts herself (as she has done vigorously in recent years), her attraction is to men.

References

DJ Bem, ‘Exotic becomes erotic: a developmental theory of sexual orientation’, Psychological Review 103 (1996), 320-335

AA Lawrence, ‘Becoming what we love: autogynephilic transsexualism conceptualized as an expression of romantic love’, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 50 (4), 2007, 506–520

JF Veale, DE Clarke, TC Lomax, ‘The Identity-Defence Model of Gender-Variance Development’, International Journal of Transgenderism 12(3), 2010, 125-138

3 comments:

  1. Hi Dabrela,

    This is (as always) a very interesting and insightful discussion of this topic.

    I think there is considerable manoeuvring on both sides of the debate, between those who want to keep the Blanchard theory (being forced to tweak it a bit to accommodate some things Blanchard didn't mention) and those who want to abandon it (being forced to make some statements which don't really bear scrutiny).

    You also discuss one of the central questions of my life: how much of what I am (as a crossdresser) is innate, and how much is learned? If I were raised in a different way, would my crossdressing manifest differently? Or perhaps not at all?

    Thanks for your own reflections on this question.

    Vivienne.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Vivienne. As I recall from your own blog, your inclination to crossdress dated from before you started primary school. I don’t have any crossgender memories from that far back. With me, it coincided with puberty, which confirms my sense that the motivation is sexual. Yes, it can encompass more than a masturbatory thrill, shading into those ‘romantic’ feelings Anne Lawrence talks about, but I don’t get anywhere with crossdressing if I don’t perceive the clothes as ‘sexy’. It’s striking that crossdressers seem so often to be turned on by the same kind of female attire: that has to be a learned response, doesn’t it? Impractical clothing of a type that hasn’t been part of most women’s day-to-day wardrobe for the last forty years. It’s impossible that a foetus could develop a taste in utero for stockings and suspenders! For myself it was a learned response but not to that sort of stuff. With me, it had to follow fashion. I wanted (and still want) to wear the sexiest option from whatever is currently fashionable for (young) women. Having identified what that is, I automatically fetishize it. If this inclination had manifested earlier, pre-adolescence, I’d be less confident in attributing a sexual motive; I’d suspect a struggle towards gender expression that began before birth and latched onto the available markers of femininity in childhood. Curious that, a hundred years ago, little boys and girls were dressed the same way until the boy was ‘breeched’ – I wonder if that had a different effect on the development of pre-adolescent crossgender sympathies?

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  2. Reading this, the name "Bem" sprang out at me. Sandra Bem is one of my favourite feminists theorists. But, no, you meant her husband Daryl. I don't know his work at all. And now Googling for that I've just discovered that Sandra died earlier this year. Fuck :(

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