Whenever radical feminists and trans* activists clash about trans* issues, there’s a major divide on the issue of something called “autogynephilia.”
Autogynephilia is often advanced as one of two forms of transsexuality for men–the other involves a very feminine homosexuality that manifests as transsexuality. I don’t buy into Blanchard’s easy two-part typology. But at the same time, it’s ridiculous for trans* people and their allies to claim that autogynephilia isn’t real.
I know this, because I worked as a phone sex operator for a number of years.
During those years, I only had one woman caller–she wanted to know who her husband had been calling all this time, late at night.
However, I’d also hear another type of call from men who got off on the idea of themselves as women. Sometimes, they’d call already using a falsetto. Other times, they’d want me to suss out what they wanted, because that was part of the fun to them–being identified by a woman as someone who wanted to be feminized.
These callers were among my most lucrative, calling with more frequency and duration than almost any other caller. It’s worth noting that–contrary to Blanchard’s hypothesis–not all of these callers identified as lesbians. Here are some of the things that the callers who wanted to be feminized got off on:
* Being “hypnotized” into believing they were growing breasts–and they always wanted incredibly large ones–and that their penises were shrinking and becoming a fuckable hole.
* Being ordered to go to glory holes and rest stops and public men’s rooms dressed in very frilly women’s clothing, and to offer sexual services to men in those places.
* Telling me about times when they had snuck into women’s spaces, including rest rooms and department store changing rooms, while dressed as women, and had masturbated in those spaces.
* Telling me about times in their childhood when they had worn women’s clothing.
* Having me tell them how to do their makeup or hair (yes, they would masturbate during this).
* Telling me about going to stores selling feminine clothing and/or lingerie, and about shocking the (always female) workers there with their requests.
Whether they were sexually interested in men or women (and why men who are sexually interested in men call female phone sex operators is a whole other story), these autogynephiles had some significant similarities.
One of those similarities is that all of the autogynephiles who contacted me as a phone sex operator–and yes, I realize that makes it a very skewed sample–wanted fantasies involving them fitting into incredibly restrictive feminine beauty paradigms. Many seemed to want to be a Barbie doll type, with incredibly large breasts, long, blonde hair, and tiny pert asses. It’s worth noting that many of these men were in their forties and fifties. You might say, well, but this is fantasy. Lots of people would want to fantasize about looking different in their phone sex fantasies, right? Nope. Dudes on phone sex lines who aren’t autogynephiles tend to give fairly realistic descriptions, and I never heard one want to play at being young and handsome.
They also wanted to have overtly feminine presentations of a kind that required incredible amounts of performance. Makeup, heels, the whole lot–as if these things were a requirement of “true” femaleness.
Another similarity is that they would view women as fuckholes. Really, truly. A huge part of what they fetishized, every single one of these autogynephilic men, is the notion of being a submissive, receptive partner during sex. I never heard someone who wanted to become a woman in their fantasy, then dominate men with their epic new vagina. I never heard someone who wanted to be a woman in their fantasy and then wanted to call the sexual shots in any way. For many autogynephiles, specific feminine trappings were almost totemic in their power to divest them of their masculine power. For one, putting on a pair of suntan pantyhose (has any actual woman with a very light skin tone worn these in twenty years?) was the moment that he adopted his falsetto and, with it, an attitude of receptiveness and “airheadedness” that he apparently viewed as intrinsically female.
In the view of these men, becoming a woman was incredibly sexy. As someone who enjoyed making money, I tried to figure out some of the psychology behind the autogynephile. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about the male gaze.
From the perspective of the gazer, the male gaze can feel lonely. It certainly would be wonderful to be the center of attention, thinks the gazer, who today more than ever does his gazing completely alone, without any social interaction with other people of either sex. All over the internet, men identify with this lonely gaze, giving rise to everything from “pick-up” “artistry” to terms like “forever alone” and “friendzone.” Some of these become men’s rights activists, and believe that the people their gaze is attracted to–beautiful women–have everything they could possibly want. They develop a hatred for the object of their gaze, feeling that the gazed-upon is privileged with a life that, at least, never needs to be lonely.
Other men develop an affinity with the gazed-upon. Many of the trans women I have known who would bristle at any notion that they are autogynephiles, start out as men who consider themselves to be sensitive and have primarily female friends. Over time, their empathy with women friends is compounded by alienation from socialization with other males, who often reject this male because of his perceived non-conformity to male norms (expressed as being a “pussy” or “wimp” or “bitch”–all feminizing terms). They then reject the notion of their own personal masculinity and the gender binary. They can’t, however, let go of the notion that there’s a “gender spectrum” in which some traits are masculine or feminine–that we’re all people and that the notion of gender consists of social roles designed to segregate the sexes.
These beliefs combine and form into the expression of a desire to be a woman, which is essentially retconned into their history from childhood onward. Parts of the person’s childhood in which they breached gender roles are often brought up. What’s not often brought up is the fact that all children breach gender roles–that in fact, children will commit breaches of rules of all sorts, and that this is generally the way that humans learn the rules of their society. It’s not just a few kids who transgress gender roles, not even most. It’s all of them, every single one, and transgression of gender boundaries is necessary because gender roles are bullshit that must be learned, which means rules breaches and corrections are just part of the fun.
Instead of being eroticized and objectified, in this scenario, the trans person is idealizing women in the same way that a white professor of American Indian languages and literature did when she once told my entire class that there were no profane or curse words in any American Indian language because “they don’t think that way.” Women, the gazed-upon, become idealized from their gaze. Left with a piteously deficient model of masculinity and an idealized one of femininity-on-a-pedestal, and with their heterosexual desires still intact, these men become MtFs who identify strongly as lesbians and eroticize lesbian sexuality because they believe it frees them from the power dynamics of heterosexuality while giving them access to spaces free from those “other” kinds of men–spaces where women feel safer and more free about letting themselves talk. The MtF trans* people I have known who fit this dynamic have an almost fetishistic need to talk to women about personal things and to be let into a woman’s inner emotional space, even women they barely know. They take a lot of pride in (and will happily tell you about, ad nauseam) their ability to get into a woman’s psyche and help her solve her problems. They give lots of advice to women.
When someone who idealizes women in this way transitions to living as a woman, they often talk a lot about losing privilege. What they are actually doing is, very often, nothing of the sort. The trans activists who started out as Silicon Valley nerdy “forever alone” types (who comprised a huge number of callers over the years!) were economically and racially privileged men, but when it came to the patriarchy, they were being shit upon by traditional masculinity. Instead, they’re seeking to move up, not down. They want to move into women’s spaces, where their male socialization will make it easier for them to get ahead, be assertive, and be at the top of their social hierarchy with other women talking to them and ensuring that they don’t feel lonely. Instead of hating the gazed-upon, this kind of person decides that the only freedom from the gazer’s existential loneliness is to become the gazed-upon. Once in the territory of the gazed-upon, the person who has been socialized as a gazer can switch at will in their relationships with women, both sexual and otherwise, a privilege not afforded to female born persons.
For these MtF people, the idea that they might have retained some of the trappings of what they were taught as children, that they were treated differently as male children than they would have been as female children, is odious because it represents a challenge to the idea that they have no part in patriarchy. They seem to believe that patriarchy is something you can simply walk away from, and say that you had no part in it, as long as you say the right words about your identity. They don’t necessarily fetishize giant breasts and other similar patriarchal beauty dictates, but they do romanticize and fetishize lesbian relationships and sexuality, and they idealize femininity in general in a way that made me uncomfortable when I heard it during phone sex calls and more uncomfortable now that I am no longer involved in that industry.
It also makes me extremely uncomfortable to hear that there is no “universal experience of girlhood” from MtF people who want to intrude on spaces that have been designated for female people who were socialized as female since birth. There’s also no universal experience of blackness, of disability, of many of the categories in which oppression occurs. For members of other classes, this “universal experience” isn’t required for the members of that group to be able to meet without people who have not experienced oppression in the same context. I’m also incredibly uncomfortable with MtF people who swear up and down that there is simply no such thing as autogynephilia. There is. Blanchard may not have been able to find out about all the types of autogynephiles there are, but men getting off on becoming women is something that happens–constantly, and in a way that is often so compelling that men will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars having their fantasies catered to by a willing woman.
Today, many women in liberal feminist spheres will give that to men wanting to get off on their ability to become the gazed-upon at will, completely free of charge. One of the biggest reasons I am skeptical of the “born this way” school of transgenderism is that I have personally had to listen to hundreds of men who paid me to cater to their extremely sexualized, misogynistic fantasies of what it means to be transformed into a woman. Don’t tell me autogynephilia doesn’t exist, when I made many thousands of dollars by learning enough about it to be able to cater to it in a way that played on the psychology behind it. Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist to make your political point, when I have the reviews from many, many “girls” who were satisfied customers.
The sooner trans* people acknowledge that yes, creepy autogynephiles and people who idealize femininity in ultimately patriarchal ways are in their movement, the sooner it will be easier for radical feminists and trans activists to have a reasonable conversation about the complex conflicts involved in letting trans* women into women’s spaces. Pretending that these people do not exist does a disservice to the women who know that they have been economically, emotionally, socially or physically coerced into helping men live out their fantasy lives as women.