The question “Am I trans or is it just a fetish?” has to be one of the most common questions that is asked by people considering MTF transition. This question shows up over and over again on reddit’s r/asktransgender and other transgender forums. They almost always answer “yes, you are trans” and there is even this handy website to determine whether you are transgender or not. (Always yes!) (EDIT: the website is no longer around)
I think it is very important to deconstruct this question and analyze it as I think it explains some of what is going on around this issue. First, there is an implied hierarchy. One can either be trans or “just” have a fetish. The word “just” implies that this is a lesser state. Also you “are” trans but “have” a fetish. One of these things is an identity, and the other is a stigmatized mental illness. I know I would prefer to be something than to have a mental illness! There is also an implied either/or to the question. One is either trans or just has a fetish, not both. I’m not saying that having a fetish is a mental illness, just that is what is implied by the word.
People with trans identities are definitely stigmatized in many contexts, that is true. However, there are certain subcultures where being trans can be considered positively, perhaps in some queer, academic or liberal contexts. In nearly all contexts being viewed as a woman with an unfortunate issue with a wrongly sexed body, is much less stigmatizing that being viewed as a man with a fetish. This adds to the view that being trans is a more desirable state than “having a fetish”. Even in the fetish/kink community itself cross-dressing is considered one of the lower status kinks to have.
This hierarchy has existed in the trans community in a long time. Kate Bornstein wrote about it the 90s. Post-op transsexuals were at the top of the the hierarchy, followed by pre-op transsexuals, and then transgenderists (which at the time was not an umbrella category but instead was a state intermediate between transsexual and transvestite), followed by transvestites, and then fetishistic cross dressers at the bottom. This hierarchy creates a bias towards identifying as trans vs. “having a fetish”.
A larger problem is that emotionally charged words like “fetish” leads one into the realm of moral reasoning. In moral reasoning, things are good or bad, as opposed to analytical reasoning where things are true or false. Moral reasoning activates tribalism and divides us to moral tribes. When two opposing moral tribes discuss an issue it can be difficult to impossible to find compromise. The discussion of trans issues in an objective way becomes very difficult because there are factors on all sides that throw the discussion into the realm of moral reasoning. On one side there is the use of stigmatizing terms such as “autogynephilia” and “fetish” which are sometimes used by enemies of trans people to shame them. On the other side there is the use of social justice ideology which also throws things into the realm of moral reasoning. Once one side uses moral reasoning, the other side than also veers into moral reasoning and communication stops. Moral reasoning also trumps analytical reasoning which means that analytical reasoning tends to stop when moral reasoning is invoked. A good sign that you are in the realm of moral reasoning is when you believe that the “other side” is 100% wrong about everything, whether this be liberals, conservatives, men, women, trans activists, radical feminists, or who ever else. I recommend reading my favorite social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt if you want to learn more about this issue.
My general view is that you don’t choose to have these thoughts and feelings but do have some ability to choose what to do with them. Some people have more ability to choose than others depending on their particular circumstance, this depends on the intensity of their feelings, the psychological circumstances that surround things, as well as their personal temperament. In many cases the “fetish” will be far less disruptive and be manageable. Transition creates many difficulties as well, and does not cure dysphoria, it only manages it. I think it is better thought of as a chronic condition that can be managed in a variety of ways, and the task is to figure out the best way according to your own circumstances. Also not only is term “fetish” stigmatizing it is incomplete, as there are often deeply meaningful psychological components attached as well and it is not usually just a sex thing.
This phenomena can itself be divided into several different parts some of which have the potential to cause problems others of which do not. Part of it all is simple fantasy. Fantasy itself is not harmful, and also cannot be controlled. We fantasize about what we fantasize about, and lots of people have all kinds of strange and wonderful sexual fantasies. This is just what happens when our modern brains intersect with our primitive sexual instincts. Fantasy itself is never a problem, it is only when it becomes combined with something else that it is a problem. Even for those with particularly unfortunate sexual fantasies that would cause tremendous harm to enact, the fantasy itself doesn’t harm anyone. Also, trying to prevent thoughts doesn’t usually work, and only strengthens them.
One example of when it becomes a problem is if it develops obsessive qualities or becomes compulsive. Another is if impedes the ability to form relationships. Yet another is if it causes one to violate the boundaries of others in some way.
If it is used as a coping mechanism, this can be okay in moderation. However, like most coping mechanisms there is a tendency to escalation and requiring more and more of the “drug” for the same effect.
Also, it can be tied into psychological needs. Sometimes it is tied into an experience of an “inner woman” which some people who experience this phenomena have. Jack Molay writes about this here and here.
I think Jung’s writings on the anima are very relevant here. Jung described working with the anima as important to the psychological growth as those qualities can be integrated and produce growth. The anima can be an important guide. However, Jung simultaneously warns about the phenomena of “anima possession” where a man can become taken over by the inner woman. It was actually reading Jung and his phenomena of anima possession which first knocked loose my transgender identification.
In summary, a “fetish” or cross-dreaming are not lesser states to transgender identity. This idea can lead to preferring transgender identity which could potentially be far more disruptive to one’s life. Also, shame over sexual motivations can specifically lead to the preference for a transgender identity over other possible outcomes. This is a place where trans critics sometimes go wrong, by specifically shaming the sexual aspects of trans identity, they may be creating more of the very phenomena they oppose.