three-part-model

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”.

Third Way – Why I am in neither the AGP camp nor the feminine essence camp

I’ve had a couple of people read my writing and assume that I believe that my MTF transition (and maybe all MTF transitions) are caused by a fetish. This is not what I believe and I am trying to be careful with language to emphasize that point. I don’t believe my female identity was caused by a fetish. Indeed this stuff is complicated, and does not lend to a simple solution.

I think the idea that pre-transition fantasies of being female and transitioning are correlated is non-controversial. People in both camps would agree that this happens. What they argue about is the causality. As the scientific saying goes, correlation is not causation Let A represent the fantasies, and B represent the female identity

One possibility is A causes B.

Theorists such as Ray Blanchard and Anne Lawrence believe that transgender identity (in non-androphilic transsexuals) is caused by a kind of paraphilia (which I refer to as erotic imprinting to be non-stigmatizing). This erotic fantasy is used to allievate anxiety and becomes stronger and stronger, eventually taking over the psyche and creating a compulsion to transition. According to this theory this identity is nothing but the ultimate expression of the fantasy, and involves a kind of self-love or falling in love with an internalized woman. Of course the big trouble with this, is that if it was sexually fueled we would expect the removal of testosterone to eliminate the issue. This clearly doesn’t happen, and Blanchard explains this by saying that the love for the internalized woman remains, even when the sexual feelings are gone.

A second possibility is B causes A.

This is the feminine essence theory which is espoused by queer theorists and many trans women. This states the fantasies are an expression of a repressed feminine identity that is being distorted by the presence of testosterone and converted into erotic fantasies which are the only way she can express herself. Then eventually the person accepts their feminine identity and transitions, and maybe eventually moves to HRT and SRS. The removal of the erotic compulsion when testosterone is eliminated and positive feelings when estrogen is added are seen as evidence of the feminine essence.

However, when looking at a correlation there is a third possibility: C causes A and B. This is what I believe.

In my model C is a combination of trauma and biological factors. I also want to emphasize that when I say trauma plays a role in transgender identity development I am not saying it is the sole cause. Biological factors can play a role as well. Indeed, this multiple causation is the norm in psychology. Through identical twin studies we know conditions as diverse as schizophrenia and homosexuality are neither completely genetic, nor completely environmental. It would actually be surprising if there weren’t multiple causes involved here as well.

In my model A is erotic imprinting, and B are various pre-verbal structures. It wouldn’t be surprising if the structures manifest themselves as feminine figures in the psyche and archetypal themes, as these are pre-verbal constructs and that is how we can interact with them. I will write more on that later.

Healing from Trauma – Overview

In this series I want to talk about some principles of healing from trauma and how it relates to transgender identity. As I said before, I do not think trauma is the whole cause of transgenderism, but it does play a role, and healing from trauma is beneficial whether it be childhood trauma, or trauma associated with transphobia after adopting a transgender identity. There is no question that gender-variant people suffer from a lot of trauma in our society.

I didn’t actually see my female gender identity as something that was problematic until the very end of this 20 year long journey after transition. All I knew was that I had a lot of tension in my body and had difficulty in forming relationships. There was a part of me that knew something was wrong and drove me to all of these different spiritual and psychological practices, including neo-paganism, meditation, 5 rhythms, biodanza and eventually psychotherapy and my own study of psychology.

In any case, healing from trauma is a reward of its own, and can help one make choices about transition that are in one’s best interest rather than coming from a place of wounding.

In my experience healing from trauma will:

  • Reduce the amount and intensity of triggering experiences
  • Allow for more pleasure-based “moving towards” and less pain-based “moving away”. Acting from trauma is always an attempt to move away from aversive experiences rather than move towards nourishing ones. This is one of the reasons I am suspicious of “dysphoria” as a healthy motivation. It seems too often to be a running away from rather than a moving towards. This is an example of applying general psychological principles to transgenderism
  • Create more embodiment, and a greater sense of connection to organic desires.
  • Allow for more flexible, open narratives. This is an example of how trauma interacts with narratives, two parts of the three-part model. Flexible narratives are a sign of psychological health, and rigid narratives are a sign of poor psychological health

Healing from trauma will not:

  • Change erotic imprinting (much). I believe trauma plays a role in erotic imprinting as well, but once the imprinting has happened, healing the trauma won’t heal the imprinting. It might however allow for expanding what one likes, being more connected to the body, and opening repressed behaviors. I managed to repress most of my attraction to women due to trying to fit in with my trans narrative until I connected with my body and discovered that was what my body craved.
  • Change the role of sex-hormones in well-being. A lot of people say they feel better on one hormone than the other. Discovering that I felt so much more functional on testosterone was an important consideration in my retransitioning. However it is important to note that feeling better on one hormone or another is not proof of any essential identity. Also hormones can be like a drug that makes you high, and the short-term psychological effect is not the same as the long-term, necessarily. That is a topic for another post.

Topics I hope to cover in this series include safety, control, titration, mindfulness, embodiment, community & witnessing, coming back from dissociation, and how therapy can help.