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Take it from a transsexual – transwomen are not women

Long-read

Take it from a transsexual – transwomen are not women

‘Autogynephilia’ lies at the heart of male-to-female transition.

Debbie Hayton

Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Science & Tech UK

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What drives a man to want to become a woman? To answer this question, it’s worth looking back to the work of American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard. In the 1980s, while working at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, he developed a somewhat controversial taxonomy of male-to-female transsexualism (1). He described one group simply as ‘homosexual transsexuals’ (HSTS). But it is his second group that interests me personally, because it encompasses my own experience as a male-to-female transsexual. A group needs a name – where would the transgender world be without labels? – and, in 1989, Blanchard coined the term ‘autogynephilia’ (2).

In 2021, Blanchard told me that autogynephilia denotes ‘a natal male’s tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman’. He added that, in the West, ‘the overwhelming majority of adult natal males presenting with gender dysphoria are of the autogynephilic type’.

But what does this mean? How can this bizarre-sounding concept – ‘love of myself as a woman’, as it is sometimes described – cause that insatiable need to pass as a woman?

The answer, I think, lies in human evolution. Like other mammals, humans have evolved preferences and behaviours that have served us well, from finding sweet foods tasty to finding potential mates enticing (3). And just like other animals, male and female humans have experienced sexual competition and selection, which have resulted in the bodies and minds we know today (4).

Overwhelmingly, men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men. But sexual attraction requires potential partners to recognise one another and signal their fitness. Famously, peacock males have spectacular feathers that they use to attract peahens, but peafowl are far from unique. For humans, our attractive features that sexually signal to prospective mates include v-shaped torsos in men and women’s breasts. Human sexual signalling can and does extend far beyond our bodies, of course. We show it in our clothing, hairstyles, make-up, even the way we walk.

It would be a mistake to dismiss all gender norms as arbitrary social conventions, with no intrinsic basis. We are animals, and our evolved instincts protect us, like they protect other species. Nurture will no doubt play its part, but when men and women display such distinct patterns of dress and presentation, we cannot ignore our nature. We are simply displaying our sexually attractive animal selves. But to recognise sexual signalling in humans is like being reminded that we are breathing. We all participate and we are expected to conform. Those of us who are atypical in our signalling are noticed and labelled – ‘queer’, ‘butch’, ‘effeminate’… And now, arguably, ‘trans’.

In life, we are constantly signalling and responding to the signals from other people. After our immediate needs for food, water, clothing and shelter have been addressed, the biological urge to procreate cannot be easily ignored.

All this allows us to make sense of what transgender people are doing, because we can articulate what most other adults are doing. Trans people wish to be perceived as attractive members of the opposite sex. We transition – changing our bodies and faces with surgery and hormones, our clothing and hairstyles, our make-up and adornments, our body hair and our voices, even our names. These are sexual signals. The way we present ourselves and wish to be seen is – as it is for other humans, indeed other animals – deeply and fundamentally connected to our sexuality. Far from a monolithic ‘gender-identity mismatch’ set apart from sexuality, being trans is a basically sexual phenomenon that can have diverse causes, because human sexuality is also diverse.

Within the smorgasbord of human sexual interests lies autogynephilia – that arousal at the thought of oneself as a woman. What if a wire in our brain got crossed, as it were, between our sense of what we seek out in a partner and our sense of how we look to others? Conceivably, this kind of cross-talk would result in a desire to transform ourselves into our ideal partner. But while other men might encourage their female partners to dress in a way they find particularly enticing, autogynephilic men have their own bodies as a canvas. In short, their compulsion to ‘transition’ their bodies is driven by one of the most powerful forces known to man – the male sex drive itself.

Looking back on my own experience, I would go one step further and argue that my sex drive was short-circuited. I was sex-signalling to myself and I became overwhelmed by my need to turn my body into the woman I longed to be.

As with other males, autogynephilic males’ sexual interests are not restricted to a single body. In 1991, Blanchard pointed out that autogynephilia ‘arises in association with normal heterosexuality but also competes with it’ (5). So we marry, and we form enduring relationships with women. It’s just that the ‘other woman’ is hiding in the shadows – out of sight but not out of mind – because the ‘other woman’ is us.

American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard at at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in the late 1990s. Blanchard was head of CAHM from 1996 until 2010.
American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard at at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in the late 1990s. Blanchard was head of CAHM from 1996 until 2010.

While other men might have extramarital affairs in their forties, autogynephilic males transition. The parallels are unmistakable. The same selfish urges overpower the individual and become irresistible. Rightly, we remain responsible for our actions, and the deleterious impact they have on those around us. But the biological impetus can be all-consuming – particularly if we have not the first clue what is actually going on.

It is superficially attractive to tell ourselves – and anyone who will listen – that we are women who have had the misfortune to have been born in the wrong body. According to that well-rehearsed narrative, we then transition to put right what nature got wrong. We are taking desperate measures to become the women that we were supposed to be. It is a false narrative – nobody is born in the wrong body – but it is a fantasy that can hold if nobody thinks about it too hard.

The alternative is much harder to take. We are that other woman, and when we transition we are having an affair with her. It’s no wonder, therefore, that autogynephilia is a topic few transsexuals are prepared to countenance. But it is part of the human condition and, if we hope to understand ourselves, we need to explore our nature with an open mind.

The fantasy of having a female body can be maintained by disguising the male body with female attire. But clothes can only go so far. We are animals, and animals are attracted to bodies because it is bodies that reproduce. If medical and surgical transition is possible, then autogynephilia will drive a demand for it.

The driver is sexual arousal. If it were not for sex, it would make no sense for anyone to transition, and if it was not for sexual arousal it is unlikely that men would find the time, energy or resources to carry it through. Autogynephilic transition cannot be divorced from our sexuality, just as breathing cannot be separated from our need to respire.

Observations of autogynephilic transitions are a remarkable window into the male mind. While normal heterosexual men know what they like to see in a woman, those thoughts can be locked up in their own minds. Not so the autogynephilic man. When we transition, those thoughts are externalised in the changes we make to our bodies, and the way in which we dress them. We can see that in those transition picture books that many male transitioners have shared with the internet. The male erotic attraction to women’s long hair, made-up faces and shapely bodies is undeniable when it’s precisely those attributes that male transitioners adopt.

But what we observe in those picture books is hardly typical of women. The clothing, accessories, hair and make-up accentuate the impression of a female body often far beyond that projected by women. Shortly before I transitioned, my wife, Stephanie, and I attended an event hosted by a trans group. Stephanie was wearing trousers, as were almost all the women in the room. The men who identify as trans, however, were instantly recognisable by their skirts, which were at a length that might have been seen on women several years younger.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Heterosexual relationships involve two people: a male who would often like his partner to wear revealing clothing, and a female who most likely would like to wear something far more comfortable and practical. In the autogynephilic relationship, the male faces no resistance to his desire. This results in the spectacle of adult men prancing around the supermarket in miniskirts and high heels. It is an extreme parody of womanhood, flowing from the minds of the other sex.

All that being said, in many cases, autogynephilia competes with normal heterosexual attraction. That is why autogynephiles often marry and then father children. For those who never transition, autogynephilia can remain hidden away: boxed-up inside the mind, perhaps like some unrequited love.

My hypothesis is that, for autogynephilic transsexals, the target of our sexual interest is ourselves, our own bodies. But the heterosexual mind does not want to see a male body. It wants to see a female body, and female clothing can only go so far to create the illusion of one. Hence, the desire for medical transition. In my own experience, once I knew that I could transition, I needed to transition. The compulsion overwhelmed me, but years passed before I accepted autogynephilia as the explanation.

There was definitely something that compelled me to walk to an operating theatre at Charing Cross Hospital in 2016, and it seemed much bigger than mere sexuality. It had been around since I was three years old, and never left. When friends pushed me on it, I suggested that – as a child – I wanted to be seen as a girl. Then, in midlife, it had fulminated into an urgent need to present as a woman. I was asked why. But I had no answers.

The stumbling block was my understanding of human sexuality. I had always viewed it as an add-on – something that first appeared at puberty and then made regular visitations. I was not in some perpetual state of arousal, so how could that continuous feeling of longing to be female be explained by sexuality?

It took a 2007 essay by Anne A Lawrence, a fellow transsexual, to make me stop and think. In ‘Becoming What We Love’, Lawrence noted that ‘Blanchard’s formulation [of autogynephilia] is rejected by some [male-to-female] transsexuals as inconsistent with their experience’. This, Lawrence argued, stems from ‘the misconception that autogynephilia is a purely erotic phenomenon. Autogynephilia can more accurately be conceptualised as a type of sexual orientation and as a variety of romantic love, involving both erotic and affectional or attachment-based elements.’

This began to make sense. There were parallels with my experience of heterosexual attraction, for example, to Stephanie. The bonds that attach us are far stronger than the fickleness of my sex drive. After 30 years together, I am constantly attracted to her for friendship and companionship, underpinned by a deep affection. Sex was certainly part of the attachment, but our marriage relationship is so much more.

Debbie (then David) Hayton and Stephanie Hayton in the 1980s, shortly after they were married.
Debbie (then David) Hayton and Stephanie Hayton in the 1980s, shortly after they were married.

And so it is with autogynephilia. The analogy with an extramarital affair might help to explain why middle-aged men feel compelled to transition, but it does not convey the intimacy of the relationship. This affair was with myself, the person I had known – literally – for as long as I can remember and whom I knew better than anyone else. Over a decade on from my transition, I am not in a permanent state of arousal. When I get dressed for work, for example, I might wear clothes that are attractive – it’s perfectly normal for human beings to want to look good – but I’m equally concerned that they are comfortable and suitable for my job as a teacher.

Lawrence’s broader view of autogynephilia resonated with me, but it also brought fresh challenges. After all, what man, or indeed transwoman, admits to being in love with themselves? No wonder, perhaps, that Blanchard’s ideas themselves fuel such bitter controversy among trans people and the wider LGBT community.

Indeed, those who promote them have faced suspicion and cancellation. Take American psychologist J Michael Bailey, who discussed autogynephilia in his 2003 book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, and was then subject to a flood of complaints. Ultimately, his employer, Northwestern University, stood by him. But by then, Bailey had resigned as chair of the psychology department.

Bailey’s experience was covered by bioethicist Alice Dreger in her 2015 book, Galileo’s Middle Finger. Dreger observed that ‘Bailey made the mistake of thinking that openly accepting and promoting the truth about people’s identities would be understood as the same as accepting them and helping them’.

To understand the vehemence of the backlash against Bailey’s book, you have to understand one more thing. There’s a critical difference between autogynephilia and most other sexual orientations: most other orientations aren’t erotically disrupted simply by being labelled. When you call a typical gay man homosexual, you’re not disturbing his sexual hopes and desires. By contrast, autogynephilia is perhaps best understood as a love that would really rather we didn’t speak its name. The ultimate eroticism of autogynephilia lies in the idea of really becoming or being a woman.

So, essentially, my autogynephilia fuelled the need to deny my autogynephilia, and the stronger those feelings became, the greater was the need to deny them. The truth was staring me in the face. If I was not autogynephilic, why was I so troubled by the suggestion that I might be?

Fundamentally, there is nothing to be gained by denying the truth of our sexuality. Yet my self-acceptance came slowly.

My transition in 2012 had provided palliative relief from that insatiable urge to present as the other sex, because I was doing it every day. But it never gave me the freedom that I craved. Not only did I need to convince myself that I was a woman, I needed other people to believe it and – if that was not enough – to persuade myself that they really did believe it. Looking back, it was a fool’s game that left me at the mercy of other people’s words, thoughts and feelings.

During 2017 and 2018, I reluctantly started to break the cycle of denial of my autogynephilia. For the first time in my life, I began to understand myself. I really was becoming free. I knew why I had transitioned, and I could explain it. Moreover, I no longer needed the rest of humanity to affirm the fantasy that I was somehow the opposite sex. If other people did not accept that I had changed my body, that was their business.

It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. It took me two more years to admit it to myself and then another year before I managed to articulate it to others, and finally write about it in February 2020.

More years have now passed since the truth dawned, and a question has germinated in my mind. If I had known in 2012 what I know now, would I have transitioned? In short, the answer is no. I turned my life, and my family’s lives, upside down because I thought I was some kind of woman. My mental health had deteriorated alarmingly, and I saw transition as the only possible escape from increasing psychological dysfunction. I knew about autogynephilia – it was discussed, denied and dismissed among trans people – but did not accept it. Had I done so, then the pressing need for transition might have abated. Life would probably have carried on much as it had done for the previous four decades.

The past 10 years would have been simpler – certainly for Stephanie and our children – but, crucially, I would probably never have wrestled with the issues, and understood those inner drivers that had gripped me since early childhood. Self-awareness and self-acceptance would likely still have eluded me.

Maybe I did need to learn the hard way after all.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner. The above is an edited extract from Transsexual Apostate: My Journey Back to Reality (Forum Press, £16.99).

(1) ‘Typology of male-to-female transsexualism’, by Ray Blanchard, Archives of Sexual Behaviour 14/3 (1985), pp 247–61

(2) ‘The classification and labelling of nonhomosexual gender dysphorias’, by Ray Blanchard, Archives of Sexual Behavior 18/4 (1989), pp 315-34

(3) See The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve, by Steve Stewart-Williams, (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

(4) ‘Sexual selection’, by Malte Andersson and Yoh Iwasa, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11/2 (1996), pp 53-8

(5) ‘Clinical observations and systematic studies of autogynephilia’, by Ray Blanchard, Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 17/4 (1991), pp 235-51

Pictures by: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press and Debbie Hayton.

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Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Science & Tech UK

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