Friday, 10 October 2014

A question for Tiresias

Engraving from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii by Johann Ulrich Kraus, c. 1690

If there’s a patron saint of trans folk, it’s the Theban seer Tiresias. According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book III), he once saw two snakes mating, struck them with his staff and was changed into a woman. Seven years later he saw them and hit them again, causing him to revert to man’s shape. Some time after his sex changes he was called upon to settle a dispute between Zeus and Hera on whether men or women get more pleasure from sex, he having experienced both. He declared for women, in a ratio of nine to one. Hera, out of spite, struck him blind but Zeus compensated him with the gift of unerring prophecy.

I have another question for Tiresias.

One argument routinely used to knock down the ‘autogynephilia’ theory (sexual arousal simply to the thought of being a female) is to say that the same, or at least a very similar, phenomenon is observable in natal women. Not, perhaps, that they are aroused by the ‘idea’ of being a woman, since they are already embodied as such, but that their female self-image may contribute to their ability to be aroused. I see the attraction of this notion, because it implies that what the crossdreamer feels is not some weird intra-personal relationship between a desiring ‘male’ and a desired ‘female’ but actually his/her inner trans woman bursting through, and authenticated by virtue of having the same feelings that a cis woman would have.

I’d like to believe this, but I see difficulties. As ever, there’s the balance of nature and nurture to be weighed up. Female bodies are exposed to a unique level of scrutiny in our culture. Despite all the advances of the feminist cause in the last thirty years, women continue to be evaluated on their appearance – and this hard truth is internalised in the course of their upbringing. Some will rail against it; some will turn it to their advantage.  Yes, natal women are aroused by their own image, but how much of that is an innate response comparable to ‘autogynephilia’ and how much the result of a lifetime of conditioning? They are raised with cultural expectations of what is ‘attractive’ in a woman. They put on a ‘sexy’ dress, look in the mirror and think, “Wow, I look hot! If I were a man, I’d fancy me.” They’ve successfully internalised a hetero male’s response – and there’s no denying that the thought of being desired is in itself arousing – but is that the same feeling I have, as a crossdreamer locked in a male body, when I put on a dress, stand in front of a mirror, and say to myself “Yes, not bad – not bad at all”?

Some research has been conducted in this area, but I find it singularly unconvincing. Jaimie Veale and others reported the responses of 127 natal women to a modified version of Blanchard’s ‘Core Autogynephilia Scale’ and found that many natal women endorsed several items from their modified scale. However, their conclusions were sceptical:
…it is unlikely that these biological females [i.e. the survey participants] actually experience sexual attraction to oneself as a woman in the way that Blanchard conceptualized it. However, the scales used in this research were not sufficient for examining this, so further research is needed to confirm it.
A widely quoted study by Charles Moser, an opponent of the ‘autogynephilia’ theory, looked specifically at whether the phenomenon could be said to occur in cis women. His survey scope was far smaller than Veale’s – what kind of scientific study relies on a sample of only 29 people? – but on this slender evidential basis he concludes:
By the common definition of ever having erotic arousal to the thought or image of oneself as a woman, 93% of the respondents would be classified as autogynephilic.  Using a more rigorous definition of “frequent” arousal to multiple items, 28% would be classified as autogynephilic.
However, he makes an important concession:
It is possible that autogynephilia among MTFs and natal women are different phenomena and the present inventories lack the sophistication to distinguish these differences.
Quite so. In a useful critique of Moser, Anne Lawrence points out that a number of the statements put to Moser’s survey group, and the ones most frequently endorsed by participants, are not necessarily testing whether the women were aroused by the ‘thought of themselves as female’. For example, asked whether they had ever been “erotically aroused by dressing in lingerie or sexy attire for a romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner”, they were likely to interpret that as a question about sexual arousal in anticipation of possible interpersonal romantic or sexual interaction. She concludes by proposing an ‘Autogynephilia Scale for Women’ more closely based on Blanchard’s Core Autogynephilia  Scale. It comprises seven questions:

Have you ever become sexually aroused by:

the thought or fact that you have a female body?
the thought or fact that you have female breasts?
the thought or fact that you have female buttocks?
the thought or fact that you have female legs?
the thought or fact that you have female genitals?
the thought or fact that you have a female face?
the thought or fact of simply being a female?    

Lawrence suspects that “the endorsement of such items by natal women would be infrequent”. What do my female-bodied readers say? To critique the critique, one might counter that all Lawrence’s scale is testing is what her mentor Blanchard called ‘anatomic autogynephilia’. He also distinguished a category of ‘behavioural autogynephilia’ – arousal to the act or fantasy of engaging in ‘stereotypically feminine behaviour’ – and, as his patients attested, there is no more ‘stereotypical’ feminine behaviour than engaging in sexual intercourse with a male partner as a woman. This, the stuff of the familiar ‘faceless man’ fantasies of crossdreamers, may correspond to what Moser’s subjects feel as they anticipate a “romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner”.

So are we left with a question that Tiresias alone can answer? “Throbbing between two lives”, as TS Eliot describes him in The Waste Land, he alone knows whether the trans woman’s experience of her sexuality is the same as the cis woman’s. Interestingly, in Ovid the account of the prophet’s sex-change is immediately followed by the stories of Narcissus and Pentheus, both of whose fates he foretold. The narcissist and the self-repressed voyeur. In the past I have recognised myself in both those figures. Now I understand that it is Tiresias who stands behind them, he who has, in Eliot’s words, “foresuffered all | Enacted on this same divan or bed”.


Anne Lawrence, ‘Something resembling autogynephilia in women: comment on Moser (2009)’, Journal of Homosexuality 57 (2010), 1-4

Charles Moser, ‘Autogynephilia in women’, Journal of Homosexuality 56 (2009), 539-547

Jaimie Veale, Dave Clarke, Terri Lomax, ‘Sexuality of male-to-female transsexuals’, Archives of Sexual Behavior 37 (2008), 586-597