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.