Although I’ve been focused on finishing my book, the subject of transgender psychology has lately absorbed a lot of my interest. My fear that I might offend readers and provoke further attacks has stopped me from writing more about it, but I’ve decided to try opening a conversation on the subject by asking questions rather than putting forth definitive theories. In retrospect, I was quite naive in thinking that I could weigh in on this subject based on my limited experience. I knew that transgender politics was a controversial area but I had no idea just how charged and vitriolic it has become. Every time I begin to write, I do a little more research and find myself drawn into the online debates; I’m often shocked by the name-calling, profanity, and abuse that come up when people disagree.The comments I received were mild in comparison!
One of my clients sent me a copy of J. Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would be Queen, a fascinating but in some ways insensitive book about transsexualism. From there, I went on to learn about Ray Blanchard and Anne Lawrence, with whom I’ve corresponded several times. All three are researchers within the area of transsexualism and have worked directly with men and women who identify as trans. Lawrence herself is a male-to-female transsexual who has lived as a woman for many years and counsels those who are contemplating transition. If you’re familiar with these names, you know that these three are hated within the transgender community. I don’t propose to defend or criticize any of them. I only want to discuss a phenomenon I learned about while researching this area. In order to describe a condition he found in many of his subjects, Blanchard coined the term autogynephilia: a male’s sexual arousal at the idea of himself as the opposite sex. Blanchard, Bailey, and Lawrence have all written extensively about this condition.
This term itself is highly controversial and provokes outrage within the transgender community; I don’t propose to go into the arguments pro or con. Instead, I want to puzzle for a moment over this phenomenon. However rare, the condition does exist. Whether or not it fully explains the desire to transition, there are no doubt a number of men who become aroused when they envision themselves as having the anatomy of a woman, particularly breasts and genitals. Google the term and in addition to all the raging controversy, you will find blogs and first-person accounts of men who recognize themselves in this description.
For many of you, this condition may come as a surprise. I was surprised, too, although it stirred memories of Freud’s Schreber case. Many years ago at the beginning of my analytic training, we read this case in seminar. I led discussion that week and put forward a theory that Schreber’s delusion of being slowly transformed into a woman by divine rays embodied a fantasy of becoming himself the object of his desires. Back then, I saw it in terms of object relations theory, with its emphasis upon need and dependency. Schreber, I argued, couldn’t tolerate feelings of desire and longing for the “breast,” to put it in shorthand, and in order to escape from or deny those feelings, he imagined becoming the object of desire himself.
I wonder whether autogynephilia represents a similar dynamic. It strikes me as a kind of narcissism — not in the current DSM sense but in the classically Freudian view of taking oneself as the object of one’s own libido. I’m not asserting this as true but merely wondering aloud. How does it strike you? I asked Lawrence whether autogynephilic MtF transsexuals go on to develop intimate, committed relationships with women following transition, and she told me that most do, but some remain deeply attached to themselves as sexual object. She refers to these MtF transsexuals as “analloerotic” — having little or no sexual interest in other people, which is not the same as being asexual or completely without desire. The sexual desires of these analloerotic transsexuals are restricted to themselves as objects.
In her most recent book, Lawrence describes one MtF transsexual, Ms. Z, who needed to fantasize about herself as female in order to achieve orgasm with her partner. These fantasies required her to psychologically abandon that partner in a way that she, Ms. Z, found distressing. To me, this points to a conflict between human interdependency (“I need and desire you in this moment of intimacy”) versus narcissistic self-absorption (“I search for what I want in my own body”). Does it strike you the same way? The fact that Ms. Z felt that she was abandoning her partner seems crucial: the autogynephilic fantasy interfered with feeling close to her partner. How would you feel if you learned that your partner was fantasizing about his own feminized body while you were having sex? Speaking only for myself, I would find that to be an alienating experience.
Lawrence does not see this as a form of narcissism because, she says, MtF autogynephilic transsexuals are not grandiose or entitled. I think her view here is constrained by a focus on the DSM symptomatolgy of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, rather than understanding narcissism as a continuum (the central position of my new book). Does sexually desiring only oneself reflect a kind of self-inflation and a devaluing of external sexual objects? Isn’t this a kind of narcissism? Narcissus was enthralled by his own reflection, and to this day, we still use the image of a person staring into a mirror in order to symbolize narcissism. How is that different from getting turned on by the idea of yourself instead of by another person?
Just asking. Please feel free to weigh in but let’s confine discussion to this subset of transsexual men, rather than to over-arching generalizations about the diverse transgender community. I will not approve any comments that attack Lawrence, Bailey, or Blanchard since we’re not discussing them but this undoubtedly real phenomenon called autogynephilia.