erotic imprinting

A story of desistance

I found this post on reddit from /u/PTthrowaway0 interesting it because it has a lot of parallels to my own feelings growing up, though a different outcome. Note when he says “dsymorphia” I’m not sure he means dysphoria or dysmorphia so I left it as is in the quote.

I am a straight guy and had issues with self confidence and masculinity growing up. Had issues of dsymorphia and gender identity that messed with my head constantly and I instinctively kept quiet. I can confidently say my issues surrounding this have have been a central aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. These started before I had any wider understanding of gender politics as a whole. This got incredibly worse once puberty started, a confusing time for any teenager. I also had minor depression and anxiety that I now link to self confidence and masculinity issues. Then I would feed into each other I’d become depressed and not like myself and wish I was a girl. Then I’d feel bad about myself for thinking this and my self confidence and self development would stay low. Why work on yourself when you don’t feel like the right person sometimes? Anxiety would make life too much at times and sexist elements of escapism would come in. Girls don’t have to worry about people liking them, people take care of you, so much less pressure.

And then boom porn. Puberty made the dsymorphia worse, better suppress sexual energy with obscene amounts of masturbation and porn! Except slowly my preferences changed to highlight dsymorphic thoughts rather than suppress them by just jerking off. The availability of porn and the idea of a community existing , even if I didn’t heavily interact with it was a huge problem it normalized it all. In hindsight I was addicted and the dsymorphia was a huge weight and drain on my life. I never told anyone in my family and only one friend when I was in my late teens. What kept me from going deeper into it was a good home life and amazing friends. Not because they supported me in dealing with it, but because I didn’t let them into it and I had a normal interactions not constantly centered around gender and identity. I lived in a moderately conservative household, I know they would have supported me no matter what I said, but they weren’t gung-ho social progressives. I never really seriously considered myself trans, I understood it was mostly a fetish but when it got bad it bled deeply into how I saw myself, and didn’t like the huge negative impact it had on my confidence. But I had developed a cycle of reinforcing it that I couldn’t break.

An aggravating sidenote is that I understood that this all was unhealthy for me as I lived it. In a short talk with a college therapist I laid out how I understood it was linked to my depressive cycles and I didn’t think it was healthy. Their response was to push acceptance and support groups. My desire to keep it private and me understanding it wasn’t a constant identity but rather insecurity made me not go. Reflecting on this moment makes me so worried that all the professional avenues for support simply make it worse for confused people.

What changed was I went off to college felt like a new person for a while got a girlfriend and it all went to the back of my mind. Amazing freshman year stellar confidence all the issues go to the back of my mind. It was like it was all over, huge weekly impact on my life was lifted from me. But then my relationship started going south in ways that hurt my sexual confidence. Just like that self image deteriorated and escapism came back while I was insecure and I indulged in the cycle again as the relationship died. Breakup happened, which was good, and despite a minor good period of confidence bad-hookups wrecked my sexual confidence again. The whole escapism aspect of it was so key in hindsight, feeling bad at being a guy and that it would be easier being a girl was huge. From bottoming out there I took it upon myself to face my insecurities and understand why I fed them and let them persist.

It took me until I was 21 to finally understand what I was doing to myself. What saved me was realizing that my depressive cycles led me to this escapism and dsymorphia, that I fueled my own dsymorphia with porn that reinforced it, building stable sexual confidence through comfortable confidence boosting hook-ups, and realizing it was a fetish built on insecurity and not an identity. Productive conversations with an amazing therapist that helped me unpack it all really cemented the progress I made. In the end I had to decide to be better. Cutting out behavior that reinforced it while building self confidence through exercise and a healthy relationship has led me to the clearest and happiest era of my life so far.

I found this post interesting because I saw a lot of parallels to my own story. He developed a fantasy that living as girl would be easier because he could escape from the pressures of being a man. This fantasy was connected to his self-confidence. Whether the fantasy is realistic or not, the pressures on young men to perform are very real. His fantasies got stronger during periods he was having difficulty with relationships and life and diminished during periods he was having success. The fantasies became sexualized at puberty, but existed prior to puberty.

However, he found a therapist who helped him to unpack everything, stopped engaging in behavior that reinforced his fantasies, and promoted healthy behavior like exercise and building relationships.

I think this was what I really needed at the time I was struggling with my gender, and I think there are people that could benefit from this approach. This man is still young and what will happen in the future is unknown. I suspect the fantasies might come back again for him, but ideally they can be managed in the same way if that comes up.

Trans or just a fetish?

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!)

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.

For some more related reading I recommend this essay by Ozy “Trans as Choice” and this essay by Angus Grieve-Smith “On the Slippery Slope”

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On AGP

So far on the blog I have not said much about autogynephilia (AGP). AGP is the idea that the root of some MTF transitions is a kind of attraction to oneself as a woman. The desire to actualize this relationship is the root cause of gender transition for those with AGP according to this theory. It is seen as a kind of erotic target location error, where the erotic target is erroneously located in the self rather than the other. It also seen as a kind of sexual orientation towards oneself instead of towards the other. It can co-exist with heterosexuality at the same time and be in competition with it.

AGP is an idea that brings up very strong emotions and is difficult to talk about for that reason. On the one hand people will say that if you talk about AGP you are reducing transsexualism to a sexual fetish, and on the other hand some people will vehemently argue that it does not exist at all. AGP is certainly a topic of great controversy, but there are clearly people who find it personally meaningful. Anne Lawrence has collected many of their narratives in her book It is also clear that not all people on the MTF spectrum experience AGP.

It is clear that this form of transsexualism is not identical to a sexual fetish. It behaves differently than a sexual fetish in several ways. One is that fetishes tend to diminish with age, this form of transsexualism tends to increase in intensity with age. Another is that reducing/eliminating testosterone is one of key treatments for disruptive fetishes. This is something that happens when people transition MTF and it doesn’t usually cause their gender feelings to halt.

In order to help gain insight into this issue it is helpful to look at how sexual attraction and romantic love work in general. It is the product of two distinct brain systems, the lust system and the attachment system. The lust system governs sexual arousal and desire. The attachment system governs the emotional bond that exists with the object of attachment. It is possible to have one system activated and not the other. It is possible to have lust without attachment and attachment without lust. In long-term relationships the attachment may persist even if there aren’t any sexual feelings. Finally it is possible for attachment to exist without there ever being lust involved such as in familial relationships.

This is important because both systems are involved in AGP. This is necessary to explain the phenomena. It is not just a fetish, which would be purely a product of the lust system, but there is an attachment component as well. This is important because the attachment is what explains the ways in which it does not behave like a sexual fetish. The lust component is what I have referred to as erotic imprinting elsewhere. I have not spoken much about the attachment component.

Also, arguing against AGP because it reduces transsexualism to a sexual fetish is arguing against a straw man version of AGP. The proponents of the AGP theory acknowledge the role of a romantic/attachment component as well. Here is an essay from Anne Lawrence that discusses this. Blanchard discusses this in his writing as well.

There are people who just have the lust component with no attachment component. Again, this lives on a spectrum from a mild optional kink to the exclusive way in which someone can get turned on. This is true of all kinks and fetishes. This in and of itself can range from an enjoyable activity to a harmful obsession. In my eyes a kink or fetish is unhealthy if it harms others, prevents healthy relationships, or otherwise interferes with life. It is also important to note that fantasies of becoming a woman are only a subset of the erotic imprinting involved. For example, sissification fantasies are common and people with those fantasies also sometimes develop transgender identities.

One thing that is significant about the attachment system being involved is the attachment system behaves differently than the lust system. Fixed erotic imprinting, particularly in MAAB folks is generally for life, and is triggered by anything that fits its profile. Attachment is to a very small number of specific objects. Most significantly, the attachment system has mechanisms for both creating new attachment relationships and ending attachment relationships. People find new partners and break up with old partners. This means it should be possible to break this attachment to self, even though the erotic imprinting is unchangeable. It is also possible for this attachment to develop over time, which is something we sometimes see when people develop a transgender identity late in life. The problem with attachment to self is that it can interfere with attachment to others and compete with attachment to others. Attachment relationships are among the strongest predictors of health and well-being and are very important. Prioritizing attachment to others over attachment to self is healthy choice, a choice against narcissism.

So, how does this tie into the other concepts I have described. The first is this AGP mechanism only exists in a subset of MTF gender dysphorics and transitioners. It is not required to develop a transgender identity, nor does it automatically lead to a transgender identity. The narrative serves as an explanation for these feelings that avoids shame as sexual motivations are stigmatized. This is part of why some of these erotic imprints lead to a greater possibility of developing a transgender identity, but not a certainty.

Also, if a person develops the kind of attachment to self found in AGP, it is probably serving an important psychological function. That is where other elements such as trauma and gender schemas come into play. It will not be possible to break this attachment relationship as long as the psychological conditions that require it exist. Also genetic or biological factors can come into play as influencing the creation of erotic imprinting, possibly a person’s reaction to sex hormones and ultimately identity as well.

One thing that is clear is that these issues are complex, and go beyond a simple construct of “gender identity”. It is also important to note that the presence or absence of AGP doesn’t make a transgender identity less real Part of the reason that the idea of AGP draws such intense emotional reactions is the idea that transgenderism is somehow fake if AGP is involved, or the false dichotomy that one “has a fetish” or “is really trans”.

Erotic Imprinting – Overview

Erotic imprinting is a key component in transgender identity development. This is also a factor is cross-dressing, cross-dreaming and other cross-gender behavior as well. Unfortunately, psychology currently has no way of changing erotic imprinting. Particularly in natal males, it acquires a fixed character and once that happens it cannot be changed. However, the situation is not completely hopeless. Erotic imprinting can be managed, and sexual behavior is like any behavior it can be conditioned (for good or for ill).

There is a critical period for erotic imprinting. John Money suggested this occurs between ages 5-10, but no one is sure of the exact ages. In particular, we know that younger brains show more plasticity, so the imprint window might still be open in early puberty. Erotic imprinting is similar to other imprinting such as language acquisition, where there is an imprint window. This is why people who learn languages at a young age do not have accents, but those that learn them after the imprint window has closed do.

In particular trauma or any strong events in childhood can override erotic imprinting. This is what John Money referred to as a “vandalized love map” Such overwriting can be total, but is usually only partial. This creates a kind of dual sexuality where a person has a typical sexual imprint (hetero/homo/bisexual) as well as some fetishistic scenarios that turn them on. These dual sexual imprints compete. This if found in many other sexual imprints and is not specific to gender issues. There is also a dynamic competition which is life long. Fortunately, one does have some control in this scenario, and a person’s actions have some say in the relative strengths of these two imprints.

There is good reason to favor the original imprinting. One is that imprinting is like to be more functional in finding relationship partners. The function of sexuality is to connect us to others, and the original sexual imprinting is more likely to succeed at that. It is also more likely to be in harmony with one’s organic sexual needs. Your Brain on Porn suggests a way to determine what your organic needs are in case things are confused.

Also if one’s sexual imprinting has been corrupted through trauma, to allow that side to dominate is to allow the traumatizers to win. There is something empowering in choosing connection. It is also possible to find partners where one can connect to both sides of their sexuality at once, however this can limit one’s choice of partners.

We see this dual sexuality play out all of the time when MTF-spectrum people are struggling with gender. The cross-gender feelings can go away when one finds a new partner and come back after the limerance has passed. They also tend to increase in times of stress. If there is also a negative schema present, the erotic fantasy can act to discharge the tension caused by the schema (schema avoidance). This also strengthens the schema, creating a feedback loop. The fantasy is never enough, and there is risk of escalation.

If one has this dual sexuality, the side one feeds is strengthened. There are two traps in managing erotic imprinting. If one wishes to manage an erotic imprinting they do not wish to enact, it should neither be fed or repressed. Both of these give energy to it. Simple acceptance is best. An example of repression would be to attempt to suppress fantasy or deny it. These thoughts should be accepted with curiosity, as is described here

Neither should this side be fed. Feeding is seeking out ever increasingly intense porn or enacting the fantasies in compulsive ways with others. This will strengthen the fantasies and lead to the dopamine-based escalation we see in all porn addictions. Porn is like alcohol, gambling, or any vice, okay in moderation, but unhealthy if it fits a pattern of escalation. Unfortunately, today’s porn is very powerful and is more like meth than alcohol. Not only can it lead to wasting lots of time, it can shift sexual tastes. This is different than the imprinting I referenced earlier, this is conditioning. Conditioned responses will reverse if porn is stopped, but imprinted responses are permanent.

This is just an overview, and I will discuss more in future articles about methods for managing sexual imprinting.

A three-part model of transgender identity development – Overview

Transgender issues are often framed as a question of essence. Some people have the “trans essence” and need to transition and express their true selves in order to be happy. Other people do not possess this essential nature and therefore it would be wrong for them to transition. Any detranstion is because the person was mistaken about their essence and “wasn’t really trans”. People who come out as trans describe it as “figuring out they were trans”, that they looked into themselves and discovered the trans essence. This framing is dangerous, because it leads people to believe they must transition to be “true to themselves” rather than it being in their best interest. It also leads to some confusion in thinking about these issues.

I frame this issue as three different components that interact with each other. These components are narratives/identity, schemas/trauma and erotic imprinting. Narratives are stories, they are high-level structures in the neo-cortex, and therefore are the most mutable. Schemas are lower-level structures, they contain non-verbal components and are felt viscerally. This makes them more resistant to change. Erotic imprinting has to do with the biological components of gender identity and tends to be the most unchangeable.

Narratives / Identities

Narratives and identities are stories we tell about ourselves and use to explain ourselves to others. These are abstract concepts that by necessity are incomplete. They help us to say, I am like this group and I am not like that group. Narratives are also culturally-specific and cannot be innate.

It is not possible to identify as trans in a culture that does not have a concept of trans identity. It is possible to engage in cross-gender behavior in any culture. Likewise gay identity is recent Western concept, but same-sex attraction and sex have occurred in every culture.

Cultural narratives interact with personal narratives and influence cross-gender expression. Many cultures have cross-gender roles, but only in Western culture is there the idea that one can actually become a member of the other sex. Other cultures with cross-gender roles consider people in those roles as a member of a third category,and their roles often have characteristics of both gender roles.

It is because of this Western conception that being trans in our culture often means attempting to convince people that one is a natal member of the sex associated with their gender identity, rather than merely expressing oneself in ways typical of their gender identity. Further, self-expression and individuality are highly valued in Western culture, and therefore it is considered important that a person be true to themselves and express themselves fully.

The way cultural narratives interact with personal narratives can be seen in recent shifts in queer culture. There has been a large explosion since the mid-2000s of people identifying as FTM or genderqueer identities. This is because the queer cultural narratives have shifted. People who might have identified as a butch lesbian in the 1980s might now identify as trans men in the 2010s. They might have the same feelings, but become exposed to different cultural ideas of what their feelings and experiences mean.

Finally narratives can be arbitrary. Healthy narratives are connected to lower-level functions in the psyche as well as the material world. However this is not required. If the material world is unsafe or harmful in some way, an arbitrary narrative can be a great escape. This process can be clearly seen in some of tumblr queer culture. This is not to say that narratives are unreal, they have tremendous influence. People have died by the millions in fights over which narratives are true, just look at the Crusades.

Trauma / Schemas

The second component of my model is Trauma and Schemas. Unlike narratives which are verbal constructs made up of words, traumatic memories contain pre-verbal components and include feelings and body sensations. Such memories are undigested, and when an event happens that reminds someone of the traumatic memory, they will get triggered, which means it will feel as if the traumatic memory is occurring in the present. These traumatic memories can even be completely disconnected from any verbal components and the person may have no idea what the original event was. A person that is triggered may dissociate, have flashbacks, feel intense body sensations and intense feelings. Once triggered it often takes time to come back as a person cannot simply decide to not be triggered.

Schemas are rigidly held patterns that often originate in childhood. They are formed over time and also have non-verbal components. Schemas tend to act as filters and shift our perception of the world, emphasizing events that fit the schema and discounting events that do not fit the schema.

Az Hakeem, a researcher and psychotherapist that works on trans issues, identified rigid gender schemas as being common among transgender people. Further, he found that transition does nothing to change these schemas.

Common schemas I have seen with trans people, include “Men= bad, Women=good”, “Men = unsafe, Women = safe”, or schemas involving inadequacy as a man for MTFs.

It is important to note that these schemas can be disconnected from the rational mind, and often hold a child’s view of the world. A person can have a quite sophisticated view of gender in their rational mind, and simultaneously be imprinted with one of these rigid schemas. Even if their rational mind disagrees with that imprinting. One of the schemas I had to work through comes from the bullying I suffered as a child which I associated with being male. So I had a schema that being a man in the world was unsafe, while being a woman in the world was safe. Even though this did not make sense to me rationally, certainly as an adult that lived as a woman, it was still a visceral feeling that I had. I simultaneously held the schema that men were evil and did not want to identify with them. Letting go of these two schemas was crucial to my healing.

Schemas and trauma can be worked with through therapy although they are resistant to change.

Erotic Imprinting

The third component is erotic imprinting. This includes biologically hard-wired attractions, primitive sexual instincts, sexual orientation, turn-ons, and how we like to have sex. These operate quite differently in natal males and females, and this component creates the differences we see in MTFs and FTMs. I believe the first two components function similarly, but this component functions differently.

Erotic imprinting is not necessarily genetic, and trauma can play a role in erotic imprinting, however in adulthood it is generally unchangeable, although a lot of research shows that females have more fluidity in this area than males do.

Some of what is called sex dysphoria fits into this category, although trauma and schemas play a role in that as well.

This is just a basic overview of my ideas, I hope to have a series of posts on each of these three components and how they interact. Some of these things are changeable and some are not. Breaking things down can help expand options for people dealing with gender dysphoria. I do believe transition in a valid option, but it is not the only option, and not always the best option.