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!) (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.

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”


The third way of crossdreaming

This post on Reddit’s r/crossdreaming is a perfect example to what I mean by a third way to work with crossdreaming. His account is pasted below:

Ever since fifth grade, I have been fascinated by the thought of what it would be like to be a girl. Though it started out as just a curiosity, eventually this fascination developed into sexual fantasies that I would realize on sites like Fictionmania and others. These fantasies then became very compulsive–I would seek them out not exclusively for pleasurable curiosity, but from a need to escape the dull sameness of life into an idealized feminine persona.
Eventually, I would sometimes feel full-on despair at being male and not female. It’s not that I felt like a woman inside a man’s body–I was and still identify as male–but rather that I felt awful that my fantasies would never be realized, that I would never BE a girl.
I suppose I could have explored the transgender route, but that never appealed to me. Not only does my religious tradition frown on it, but my build is far too masculine for me to ever feel comfortable as a woman.
However, a few years ago–spurred on by my reading of Carl Jung’s psychological theory–I wondered: could there be another way to satisfy this desire without doing it literally? In other words, is there a way I could symbolically enact my fantasies without the pain and effort of transitioning? This seemed to me to be an intriguing possibility, and so I decided to explore it.
The first way this exploration happened was when, two years ago, I decided to experiment with Jung’s technique of “active imagination.” Though there’s probably an official definition for the technique somewhere, for me what it amounted to was to address myself to a personification of a certain emotion or set of behaviors, imagine their response back, and thus create a dialogue. So, I decided to create a fictional persona for all my drives toward “the feminine” or femininity. I called her Victoria, and as I experimented by talking to her with this technique, certain things slowly started to happen. Over time, I began to realize that this technique brought out the best in me–the more I did it, the more aware and conscious I was of my drive toward crossdreaming and the emotions that underlies them. I gained far more inner peace, and as I continue to do active imagination two years later, I can say that it has been the one most significant tool in helping me develop personally, socially, psychologically, and spiritually.
However, I noticed that many of my crossdreaming fantasies were still there. I still felt a compulsive desire to be a woman, and though I was more at peace with those feelings than before, I still felt a degree of dissatisfaction.
It was then that I read a book called The Invisible Partners by Jungian psychologist John Sanford. Though the book says many things about gender and sexuality, one idea resonates with me more than anything else: his claim that, as a rule of thumb, sexual fantasies are a symbolic representation of what a person needs to do to be one whole. I thought about this idea for a while, pondering on what it meant to me. I then realized that most all of my sexual fantasies involved my magically becoming another person, specifically a woman (through a body swap, a magical reality change, or what have you). I thought: “could it be that It really AM supposed to become another person, but not in a literal way?” In other words, I hypothesized that my desire to become a woman was just an imaginatively veiled desire to empathize with a woman, to “step into her shoes.”
So, I tried it out. I read the book about a year ago, and since then I’ve made a concerted effort to be more empathetic and selfless in my interaction with others. In retrospect, I now realize that my efforts to “become” another person through empathy were hugely beneficial–my crossdreaming has become much less prevalent, and I’ve had significantly more cis fantasies. I slowly realized over that time that my mind was protesting my self-involvement in the only way it knew how–the symbolic method commonly expressed in dreams.
Even more recently, I’ve realized that the feminine personification I called Victoria was a face I could give to the part of my mind that wanted me to get out of myself. The emotions and feelings she represented were encouraging me from the very beginning of my active imagination to get out and care about “the other” more than myself, and the book only served as the impetus to let it break the surface.
You might not hold much stock in Jungian psychology, and I’m not asking you to. But the techniques and ideas he parented have drastically changed a troublesome aspect of my mind that neither therapy nor meds were able to do anything with. So if you’re at your wits end with gender dysphoria or compulsive crossdreaming, consider taking your fantasies symbolically. I’m not guaranteeing that these methods will work in your case, but they have in mine, and so I feel obliged to share them here.

The third way is to neither repress the cross-gender self, nor to be controlled by her. Don’t treat her like a boss or an enemy but as a friend. I think also taking psychological constructs symbolically rather than literally can yield new insights.

Integrating the feminine – a non-transgender perspective.

Below is an article from therapist Jim Moyers that illustrates some of the ideas I have been talking about with integration. He describes his relationship with his inner woman and how he was able to heal by befriending her and letting go of his toxic conception of masculinity which did not suit him. This did not manifest as cross-dreaming or any kind of transgender impulse but manifested in a different way. Nevertheless, the way he describes his journey has a lot of parallels to mine. He even invokes the myth of Attis and Cybele which was a myth I resonated with in the past. I have pasted his entire article below.

Impotent Rage & the Myth of Attis

An earlier version of this article was published in the Men’s Journal, Summer 1986 and reprinted in Yevrah Ornstein, editor, From the Hearts of Men (Woodacre, CA: Harmonia Press, 1991).

A number of years ago, in an undergraduate class on Hellenistic religion, I encountered the strange story of Attis. This complex myth, brought from Asia Minor to ancient Rome, exists in several differing, and rather bewildering versions. To simplify it somewhat, Attis was a young man with whom the Great Mother goddess, Cybele, was in love. Ignoring Cybele’s passion for him, Attis attempted to marry a mortal woman. Enraged by the snub, Cybele disrupted the wedding, driving Attis into a mad frenzy in which he castrated himself. His intended bride was killed by Cybele, and Attis bled to death from his castration. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attis for more details.)

While most of my classmates regarded this tale as another bizarre example of ancient mythology, I was fascinated, although not quite sure why. Only later did I realize that the myth of Attis represents a kind of impotent male rage that I knew all too well from first hand experience. I have also come to realize that this kind of blind, destructive rage is involved in many instances of domestic violence.

From early in my life, I had periodic outbursts of uncontrollable anger that seemed to come from someplace outside myself. In a sort of possession state, I would feel as if something that was not me had taken control. Fortunately I never did serious damage during these outbursts, but they would leave me, and anyone who happened to be in the vicinity, shaken and wondering what had happened.

The outbursts continued into adulthood. After my marriage my wife was often the object of my rage. While I normally felt a great deal of love for her, when in one of these states I was aware only of hatred. I several times came close to physically attacking her. Neither she nor I had any idea where this terrible thing came from or what could be done about it. I only knew that I seemed to be incapable of controlling it, and was very ashamed of my inability to do so. If a man was supposed to always be in control of himself, I clearly was failing to live up to expectations.

In my late twenties I began psychotherapy. While I didn’t go into therapy with the conscious intention of dealing with my angry outbursts, they did, of course, come up despite my resistance to talking about them. With my therapist’s support I began to explore what I experienced as a shameful aspect of myself. After much careful and painful examination of these seeming possession states, I came to realize that they were triggered by something, often a critical remark by my wife, that I construed to be some sort of attack on my competency as a man. I would desperately try to defend my image of myself relative to the masculine ideal that I unconsciously believed I should match, denying what I took to be feminine (because it was not part of my idealized masculine image) weakness. But since my wife’s critical observations were generally pretty accurate, refuting them was difficult. Despite my struggle to stay in control of the situation, my sense of powerlessness, and panic, only increased, further threatening the illusion of myself as a strong, competent male, making my attempts to defend that self-image all the more frantic. Unable to either win or give up my defense, I would suddenly find “something else” in control, completely unmanning me.

According to my wife, I would behave “like a hysterical woman” during these episodes. This of course did nothing to booster the masculine self image I was striving to maintain. My refusal to admit the existence of “feminine weakness” in myself paradoxically made me into the embodiment of the very traits I was trying my best to deny. Attis was driven to castrate himself; I was rendered impotent to control anything, especially myself.

My therapist, who had a Jungian orientation, introduced me to the idea of the “anima,” the feminine element within a man’s psyche. Jung’s ideas about masculine and feminine have been challenged as sexist and have been modified as ideas about gender have become less rigid. But I continue to find Jung’s idea that traits associated with the opposite sex tend to be unconscious within an individual’s psyche useful in both my personal experience and my professional work as psychotherapist. Just as with any aspect of one’s self which remains unconscious, when a man refuses to acknowledge his feminine side, it is apt to act as if it were an autonomous entity, taking control of him against his will. The anima-possessed man, according to Jung, behaves like a “second rate woman,” unconsciously acting out the negative characteristics he associates with the feminine from which he seeks to distance himself. So I acted the part of a stereotypical “hysterical woman.” It is interesting to note that the priests of Cybele, who followed Attis’ example of self-castration and dressed as women, were called “counterfeit women.”

In exploring the background for my rage, I realized that the idealized image I had been trying to emulate had little correspondence with who I actually was. My masculine ideal was formed around a childhood image of the rugged frontiersman who was equal to any task, always knew what to do and did it without letting his feelings show. There was no room for “womanly weakness” in such a heroic figure. But I do have many personality traits, which I have come to recognize are actually strengths, that are traditionally thought of as feminine. If I was going to be Davy Crockett (my childhood hero), I certainly couldn’t put up with such “shortcoming” in my masculine persona. In the service of an unrealistic masculine ideal, I tried to deny who I was, only to be reminded of my real identity in a most forceful and unwelcome way.

As I learned to more consciously acknowledge my other, feminine, side, the “anima attacks” became less frequent, eventually virtually disappearing. When I stopped attacking my inner woman as it were, she stopped attacking me. We became partners instead of opponents. Giving up my need to live up to an idealized and unrealistic male image, I actually became more of a real man, in contrast to the illusionary ideal I had been trying to preserve against all evidence to the contrary. I was better able to use both my masculine and feminine sides without being overpowered by either.

Conscious recognition of the feminine is not the same thing as unthinking surrender (as men so often seem to fear) to the power it represents. Attis’ mistake was not one of refusing Cybele’s demands; it was rather a failure to consciously deal with them. The myth seems to indicate that he didn’t say “no.” He just tried to ignore her, with tragic results. If one is to truly become a man, free from unconscious control by the anima, he must make an active decision to face and deal with the demands made on him by the feminine, especially those of the Mother, in both her personal (in the form of his actual mother) and archetypal forms.

All boys first encounter the feminine via their mothers. Attis’ father was unknown to him. This is often the case in myths of the hero (Attis is a type of failed hero). Men tend to form their identity as men more in relation to their mothers than their fathers. In order for a boy to identify himself as male, he must first realize that there are some radical differences between himself and his mother. At the same time, it is often his mother who tells him in so many ways spoken and unspoken what he must do to be her “little man.”

In order to be a “real man” then, a boy must somehow form an identity for himself as someone distinctly different from his mother while at the same time winning her approval by living up to her image of the ideal male, something his father, being only human, may well have failed to do. A mother overly involved with her son may elevate him to a sort of semi-divine status, a danger reflected in myths of the divine son-lover (such as Attis) who never achieves full manhood. Caught between the need to be differentiate themselves from mother while also needing her approval, it is no wonder so many men are confused about their relation to the feminine, both within their own psyches and as represented by the women in their lives.

In the Grimm’s tale of “Iron Hans” (see my “From Wildman to King”) a little boy frees a caged wild man with a key that had been placed for safe keeping under his mother’s pillow. As the fairy tale indicates, the key to unlocking primal male energy often comes through some sort of transgression of the mother’s authority.

It was very important for me to be a “good boy” for my mother. I was told that I should “be like Jesus” (another divine son-lover figure), an impossible ideal if there ever was one. I thought I had escaped this demand when I married someone from a very different religious background with whom I could and did do things my mother’s “good boy” would never do. But at times I still heard my mother’s disapproving voice, often mistakenly thinking it came from my wife.

I discovered that I had never consciously faced and dealt with my mother’s expectations of me. I tried to ignore them as Attis tried to ignore Cybele. But, again like Attis, I found myself overwhelmed and reduced to impotence, helpless before the power of the unacknowledged mother whose voice I continued to hear.

Cybele was the Great Mother goddess, an archetypal, non-human entity. We often make our mothers into goddesses (and goddesses are not always benevolent beings!), giving them an importance and power which does not belong to the human beings they really are. If we are to reclaim the power we have thus given away, we must see through the image of the Great Mother, in both her nurturing and devouring aspects, that we have projected onto our mothers as well as other women in our lives. It is impossible for a mere mortal man to have a sense of his own power if he is in a relationship with a goddess.

As I struggled with my mother issues, much to my surprise I discovered that she was actually quite different from the image I had formed of her. She really did not demand that I remain forever under her power, threatening to withhold her love if I do not do so. She was simply another human being, with good and bad points like all other human beings.

I must admit that I still do not always see it this way, but these days I manage to more often see through my projections than I used to. In the early days of my marriage, I often projected the critical maternal voice, the trigger for my rages, onto my wife. But I also hear that voice less often. Anger I may feel towards her now tends to be more clearly related to what is actually happening between us than with what I used to imagine was happening. As I withdraw my image of the archetypal mother from my real mother, I also withdraw my anima projections from other women in my life. My relationship with my wife, a relation Attis was unable to establish, is more real. In taking back the power I had given up in an unequal relationship with the archetypal Great Mother, I am able to have a fulfilling relationship as a real man with a real woman who is my equal.

© 2008 James Moyers May be reproduced with source credited.

Relaxing gender schemas

In an earlier post I referenced the role of schemas in transgender identity development. As I also referenced earlier, I believe integration is something to be aimed for, which will relax gender dysphoria. As Jung said, when a person disowns part of the self, a compensatory attitude is created in the unconscious. Eventually, if this polarization persists it will get stronger and stronger, and eventually there can be a kind of flip where the unconscious attitude takes over, a process called enantiodromia. I think this phenomena can most clearly be seen in midlife MTF transitioners who often live a very masculine life prior to transition, and then say that they are really women and that the masculine identity was just a lie and a shell and the female self is their true self. Jung also said that midlife is a time when the unlived life comes to the forefront. Sometimes, younger people just skip that part, as I did.

In my eyes, they are partially right and partially wrong. They are right in that the masculine shell is a false self, and is causing pain and suffering that they wish to alleviate. Or it would be more accurate to say it is a partial self, as all false selves are. The false self is nothing but an attempt to express truth in the best way the person can. Unfortunately flipping the polarity is just expressing a different partial self and doesn’t solve the problem. It might make things better. It might also be easier to integrate the masculine aspects into a female identity than the reverse, in essence doing an end run around whatever schema the person has around gender. I know for myself this was true. I could adopt an identity as a somewhat masculine, nerdy woman and be comfortable with that. I was never socialized to not be a nerdy woman, and that was mostly accepted in the social circles that I ran in. However, I was always restless as there was a part of me that knew this was not quite true, no matter how much validation I received. Adopting an identity as a somewhat feminine male on the other hand was completely not okay and terrifying, because I suffered constant violence for that throughout my childhood and it felt primally unsafe.

In more modern psychological terms, this is a rigid gender schema, where the person feels they cannot be themselves and be a certain gender. Bringing the female identity from repression to the center can allow these repressed aspects to now be expressed. That is an attempt to move towards health, but does not relax any rigid gender schema that exists.

In order to relax these schemas, a corrective emotional experience is required (and probably many depending on how entrenched things are). This means a visceral experience of a counter-example. A mere intellectual understanding is not sufficient, although it is a beginning. For me, it was important to find several different positive experiences of men being warm and kind, so that I could be comfortable being a man. Some of these experiences included a boyfriend who was able to accept all of me, a kind male therapist, some male therapist friends and some men in my spiritual practice. Also, it was important to work with the traumatized parts of myself that suffered all of the bullying when I was a child, which seemed at the time only happened to me because I was a boy. This can be slow work, and is best done with another. It is difficult to do this work alone but possible.

One way to begin to counteract this is to create a resource, which is an internalized representation of someone who embodies this counterexample. You can visualize them, think about what they might say in certain situations, and make them into a figure in your psyche. I would often think of what my boyfriend might say or what my therapist would say in a given situation. I have been reading some writings by the Dalai Lama recently, and I think about him too, or the Buddha. They can be real or fictional. I also use my body as a guide and move in the direction of what creates greater peace in my body.

It is possible that you may have distorted schemas about both men and women, in which case repeating this process with women is important too. This is something that I am working on now, as I have found that doing this work on my relationship to masculinity has uncovered a whole another layer of my relationship to femininity, as I want to learn to relate to women in a healthy way as a man.

All parts of the psyche are valid

After this discussion, I was reminded of something very important, which is that all parts of the psyche are valid and contain a good intention, even though the strategy that they use to meet that intention may ultimately prove destructive. The strategy can be destructive because it was generated at an earlier time when the person had less resources, or because it is too extreme or too absolute. Parts lack a holistic perspective and are concerned with what they are concerned with. Often they are concerned with protecting vulnerable parts from pain. Their concern is valid and needs to be integrated with the psyche as a whole.

Jung was one of the first psychological authors to write about parts, which he called complexes. Jack Molay has an excellent series on transgender and Jung here It was indeed my readings of Jung 10 years ago that first knocked loose my transgender identity. I remember reading this quote in particular, that Jack also quotes:

“In homosexuality, the son’s entire heterosexuality is tied to the mother in an unconscious form; in Don Juanism, he unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets. The effects of a mother-complex on the son may be seen in the ideology of the Cybele and Attis type: self-castration, madness and early death.”

I began to wonder if I were taken over by the anima and not in my true self. At that moment I felt my body relax and that I could indeed be a man. However that did not last, as there was too much pain and I could not stay in that place. It was only years later that I was able to stay in that place.

Jung was a product of his time, and he did not separate homosexuality and transgenderism, further he definitely took a stance that all alternative sexualities and gender expression were pathological. Even his own writings were mixed as Jack further quotes:

“The growing youth must be able to free himself from the anima fascination of his mother. There are exceptions, notably artists, where the problem often takes a different turn; also homosexuality, which is usually characterized by identity with the anima. In view of the recognized frequency of this phenomenon, its interpretation as a pathological perversion is very dubious.”

What is important in Jung’s writing is that he details how to relate to these parts of the psyche. Indeed they should not be repressed, they have important things to say. Jung believed that the individuation process involved dialogue and integration with these parts of the psyche. That applies in the transgender case to any kind of cross-gender self. It is not a delusion, but a part of the psyche with valuable resources that has something to contribute.

However, Jung also warned against identifying with an archetype or complex. He warned of the potential of these figures to unseat the ego and rise to the head of consciousness. When this happens it can lead to inflation or other psychological issues. In Jung’s psychology, the ego is the captain of the ship, but is itself a servant of Self.

Self is the part of the psyche that is nonjudgmental, ultimately empty, and full of compassion. This idea also occurs in Buddhist thought. Anyone can have an experience of this state through the practice of mindfulness.

Later parts-based psychologies such as IFS and Voice Dialogue emphasize the importance of being in connection with this Self state in order to promote healing. Frequently we become “blended” with a part and mistake that part for the whole. This is something that is continuously happening and when it does happen we can return to connection to Self. Indeed an important part of my own work as a therapist, is to stay in connection with Self and avoid being flooded by a part so that my agenda does not contaminate the client’s healing.

So in summary, I do believe that cross-gender figures in the psyche are real and valid and have an important contribution to make. Indeed it is that process of dialogue and integration that leads to growth. I do however believe that care should be taken to remain connected to self and not be hijacked by a part. Only through practice can one discern the difference between these states. I know that for me being hijacked by a part feels dissociated and like I am not quite in my body. I also feel uncentered and conflicted.

I do believe it is possible that the road to individuation and growth can lead to transition, if so it should lead to an increase in embodiment, an increase in connection, greater peace, and greater compassion. Transition is often framed as an attempt to become more at home in one’s body, and that is how I thought of it at first. It just never led there for me.