Activist Dismisses Transgender Psychology, Insults Gay Psychologist
Dr. Julia Serano is a successful advocate for transgender causes, with a long and storied background in blogging, public speaking, and other forms of advocacy. Yet this prolific activist’s advocacy efforts are not without their flaws. Let us examine a 2015 post from Dr. Serano’s blog.
The essay, entitled “The real ‘autogynephilia deniers’ ”, comes in response to a tweet by psychologist James Cantor which had stated: “Autogynephile-deniers are the anti-vaxxer’s of sexology”. For those not in the know, Dr. Ray Blanchard’s theory of autogynephilia asserts that some instances of “transsexuality” in biological men result from these people’s feelings of (primarily sexual) attraction to the idea of themselves as women. Thus, some instances of “male-to-female transsexuality” result from said attraction, which Blanchard termed “autogynephilia” and which can be seen as a sexual orientation like heterosexuality or homosexuality or as a fetish. Dr. Blanchard explains it in layman’s terms in this interview. In this post, Dr. Serano takes issue with that theory, and lambasts its supporters.
Dr. Serano argues
[…] that in [all] Blanchard’s research studies on the matter, he found a significant number of subjects who defied his two-subtype model and his assumption […] that [autogynephilic feelings] are the […] cause of transsexuality in those who experience them[.] Blanchard dismissed these many exceptions by accusing those research subjects of “misreporting”[.]
Now, the studies do generally show exceptions to Blanchard’s theory, but I would question the decision to home in on the exceptions in these studies. Lawrence (2013) writes that “[s]ubsequent investigations [that is, investigations conducted after Ray Blanchard published his ideas on autogynephilia] have also found the relationship between [male-to-female] transsexual typology to be strong but not perfect” (11–12). So, yes, “a significant number of subjects […] defied” Blanchard’s theory, but most supported it. It is also unclear why it should be unreasonable to suggest that, in the exceptional cases, the respondents misreported their feelings. Sex- and gender-related experiences are a touchy and complicated subject, after all. Respondents may not even fully understand their own experiences (see below).
There is fairly convincing experimental evidence to suggest that respondents generally underreport autogynephilic feelings. According to Lawrence (2013), in a 1986 study conducted by Ray Blanchard and two other researchers, thirty-seven biological males were partitioned into four sections depending on the frequency of sexual excitement during cross-dressing which they reported they had experienced over the preceding year. They then listened to several different stories, and the subjects in each of the sections were more aroused by a story about cross-dressing than by a story which was not erotic and was used for comparison. The people in one of the sections had claimed that they had not been sexually excited by cross-dressing over the past year, and some of them even claimed that this had never happened to them. The findings were interpreted as implying that many male-to-female “transsexuals” are misstating the truth when they claim not to be sexually excited by transvestism (p.12).
Dr. Serano argues that “it is always those transsexuals who are constructed as ‘autogynephiles’ that are accused of […] lying” and complains that the same scrutiny is not given to those who fit the theory, but, shortly afterwards, writes:
I don’t doubt that *some* trans women who have experienced [autogynephilia] deny those experiences[.]
Because of the shameful nature of autogynephilic feelings, it certainly seems likely that they would be underreported rather than overreported, does it not? Note also, again, the great frequency of underreporting of such feelings described above. Also, again, the responses that run counter to Blanchard’s theory are the exception, not the rule.
It is also strawmanning to imply that positing inaccurate responses from test subjects is the same as suggesting that subjects are lying. According to Lawrence (2013),
Blanchard theorized that the misreporting his participants engaged in probably was not intentional, but reflected a genuine lack of awareness of their sexual arousal (12).
In a very ironic passage, Dr. Serano writes:
To believe […] Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory[…], you need to [be stuck] around 2005, when the only scientific literature on this topic [was] by Ray Blanchard[,] Anne Lawrence & J. Michael Bailey[.]
The irony here is that the blog post later includes a list of scientific articles which proponents of the autogynephilia theory supposedly ignore — but several of them are specifically and elaborately addressed in Anne Lawrence’s 2013 book “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies”, which I have already quoted above.
Let us go through the list of articles which Dr. Serano cites, and which the supporters of Blanchard’s notions supposedly ignore. There are eight of them. First, let us deal with the ones which I think can be dismissed out of hand.
The first two are just summaries of existing literature, including some of the articles cited in this same blog post — and one of these summaries is written by Dr. Serano. I think these can be safely ignored. I am not about to let a summary of literature direct me to read another summary of literature. I am here for specific pieces of evidence.
The sixth also seems a stretch. By Dr. Serano’s own admission, this one is “more theoretical paper […] than […] research study”, and not even really about autogynephilia. Something with only an indirect bearing on autogynephilia could only be given secondary consideration in a discussion of autogynephilia.
Finally, the eigth source is, again, an article by Dr. Serano. Not only is this one not peer-reviewed, but it apparently presupposes that Dr. Serano’s views on autogynephilia are correct. I think it can freely be ignored.
Now, let us address the other four articles, which are worth discussing. As it happens, far from ignoring them, Anne Lawrence comments on three of the four in “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies”. The only exception is the fourth, which came out in 2014 — that is, after the book’s publication.
We will look at them in order.
- First, there is “Sexuality of male-to-female transsexuals”, a 2008 paper by Jaimie F. Veale, Dave E. Clarke, and Terri C. Lomax. Dr. Serano claims that, in this study, people who would be classified as autogynephilic under Blanchard’s theory and those who would not were not found to be divided by their sexualities (heterosexual or otherwise). Supposedly, this contradicts a fundamental component of Blanchard’s account. In contrast, Lawrence’s (2013) commentary tells us that Lawrence is unconvinced by the methods that the authors used to separate their human subjects into two groups: although one was supposed to correspond to autogynephilic persons in Blanchard’s theory and the other to those who are, according to that theory, not autogynephilic, both these groups were at least as high in autogynephilia as the human subjects classed as autogynephilic in Blanchard’s research. Because of this failure to separate individuals into the two categories appropriately, Lawrence does not find the study’s conclusions credible (p.27). In fact, Lawrence holds the view that those of the study’s findings which are actually valuable support Blanchard’s theory rather than undermine it. Thus, Dr. Lawrence’s main takeaway from this study seems to have been that it showed an overwhelming prevalence of feelings of autogynephilia among the male-to-female persons studied in it (see ibid.). Dr. Serano further alleges that the study found that numerous biological women examined showed signs of some form of autogynephilia and, therefore, sexual fantasies about oneself as female are not limited to transgendered individuals. Lawrence has a different account of that part of the study to offer, quoting an acknowledgement by the authors of the study in question that what they had observed in those biological women was apparently not autogynephilia as described by Blanchard (ibid.).
- Second, Dr. Serano lists “Autogynephilia in women”, a 2009 study by Charles Moser. We are told by Dr. Serano that the study’s author used a set of questions which was virtually the same as one used by Blanchard himself. Supposedly, he gave these questions to biological women and found that they overwhelmingly met an often-used definition of autogynephilia, and a large minority of them met a stricter one. In all likelihood, Lawrence would maintain that the survey used by Moser was rather too different from Blanchard’s in unfortunate ways. Thus, according to Lawrence (2013), Moser, as well as Veale et al., employed approaches which were gravely inadequate to their tasks. Lawrence makes clear that biological women can find it sexually stimulating to dress suggestively. They can also be sexually excited by the thought of being desired by others. While this is different from having a similar reaction to the thought of being female per se, the studies in question were not set up to distinguish adequately between these two phenomena (p.176). Elsewhere (p.27), Dr. Lawrence quotes Moser, the author of the study in question, as essentially stating that the “autogynephilia” measured in bilogical women in the study could not confidently be assumed to be the same phenomenon as Blanchard’s concept of autogynephilia, something occurring in “transsexual men”.
- Thirdly, there is “A further assessment of Blanchard’s typology of homosexual versus non-homosexual or autogynephilic gender dysphoria”, a 2011 paper by Larry Nuttbrock, Walter Bockting, and others. According to Dr. Serano, this study demonstrated that there were many individuals for whom Blanchard’s theory of two kinds of male-to-female transsexuality did not sufficiently account and race and age were shown to influence the frequency of occurrence of autogynephilic fantasies, which indicated that sociological variables beyond a person’s sexuality determined the presence of such fantasies. Once again, Anne Lawrence has produced a different account of the findings: in this account, the results of the study looked much like those at which Blanchard himself had arrived previously. Dr. Lawrence criticises the scholars behind the study for their choice to focus on supposed conflicts between the outcomes of their study and the theory of autogynephilia, including the supposed significance of the aforementioned demographic variables, which Dr. Lawrence disputes. For a more profound discussion, “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies” recommends a previous exchange of ideas between Dr. Lawrence and the academics who had written the study, which took place through Letters to the Editor (Lawrence 2013: p.28). Something that is ironic is that, elsewhere in the same blog post, Dr. Serano actually criticises Dr. Lawrence for writing numerous Letters to the Editor about findings with which Dr. Lawrence disagrees. This means that, in the same blog post that attacks proponents of Blanchard’s ideas for supposedly ignoring contrary findings, Dr. Serano acknowledges the acknowledgement of those findings by Dr. Lawrence. The contradiction is blatant.
- Fourthly, there is “Evidence Against a Typology: A Taxometric Analysis of the Sexuality of Male-to-Female Transsexuals”, a 2014 study by Jaimie Veale. Naturally, this study is not addressed in “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies” because it was published later. However, Dr. Lawrence has published a response to it as well — in late 2014, in fact, so Dr. Serano should have been aware of it at the time of writing of the blog post which we are picking apart. Dr. Serano alleges: “This study demonstrates that trans women’s sexualities […] fall on a continuum[…] rather than […] falling into distinct categories[…], thus further disproving Blanchard’s two-subtype taxonomy”. This claim does not even have to be refuted at all, since we can read in the abstract to said scientific article that “these results require replication with a more representative sample”. Thus, the grand total of useful evidence wich Dr. Serano is able to marshall against the well-established theory of autogynephilia appears to be equal to one article which states that its own findings “require replication”. Notwithstanding, for good measure, let us remark on this last article as well. The article does largely conform to Dr. Serano’s description, but there is a — rather unmerciful — 2014 critique of it by Dr. Anne Lawrence (Lawrence 2014). Now, Veale did argue back against Lawrence’s criticism in a response published in October 2015 (Veale 2015). However, that was after Dr. Serano’s blog post had been published, so it can hardly have been the reason why the post completely ignores Lawrence’s criticism of the original article. Moreover, Veale (2015) appeared to acknowledge that, if one started from Lawrence’s theoretical perspective and Lawrence’s understanding of what autogynephilia was, Veale’s original article was methodologically flawed (Veale 2015: 1758). This suggests that Veale (2015) could hardly be a refutation of Lawrence’s theoretical position on autogynephilia. Additionally, Veale (2015) did not directly address the concerns raised by Lawrence (2014) about the usefulness of self-reporting for research on the phenomena in question in general (1682). While it is not for a layman like me to decide who is right, Veale or Lawrence, the whole picture is decidedly different from the one painted by Dr. Serano, wherein proponents of Blanchard’s theory have failed to address articles including this one by Veale, and, by implication, Veale’s conclusions are unquestionably true. Let it also be noted that Veale’s rebuttal to Lawrence’s criticism ends with a reiteration of the assertion that more research is needed to expand on the conclusions in Veale’s 2014 study (Veale 2015: 1759). Veale remarked that, due to possible imprecision in the findings produced so far, further studies at a higher level of sophistication “are needed to distinguish if categories exist or not” (ibid.: 1758).
Here approximately ends the discussion of Dr. Serano’s thoughts on the state of the scientific literature, though the blog post continues for a solid while with complaints about proponents of the theory of autogynephilia and the optics it generates for the transgender community. Dr. Serano also offers some distasteful “satire” about how James Cantor, being gay, must actually be “relentlessly driven by all those erotic thoughts and images of himself as being anally penetrated by more aggressive apicalphilic gay men”. This claim is supposed to be equivalent to the theory of autogynephilia. The obvious difference is that the theory of autogynephilia is actually scientifically supported. Also, proponents of the theory of autogynephilia do not, to my knowledge, use such vulgar language in defending it.
During this sarcastic rant, Dr. Serano also misleadingly implies possession of scientific authority on the subject at hand:
And since I have a PhD in *science* (even though I don’t put it in my Twitter handle à la @JamesCantorPhD), what I’m saying must be undeniably true.
The difference is that James Cantor’s PhD is in psychology, i. e., a field directly relevant to autogynephilia, whereas Dr. Serano’s is in biology. Indeed, the hyperlink in the quote above leads to a sort of FAQ about Dr. Serano’s scientific background, which actually clarifies that Dr. Serano “[n]ever stud[ied] gender as a biologist”.
The essay ends with the remark that Dr. Serano will make it impossible for anyone to leave a comment on the blog post. Readers are advised not even to try to do so. What a way to end a blog post complaining about how one’s opponents supposedly ignore evidence and silence dissent.
In summation, the blog post we have examined appears to have been composed in a spirit of arrogance. The author may not use a Twitter handle with “PhD” in it, but nevertheless makes sure to include the fact of the possession of such a degree in the text, even though said degree is irrelevant to the subject at hand, and condescends to people who actually are experts in the relevant academic field, namely psychology, for allegedly failing to acknowledge an array of facts which they — or, at least, Dr. Anne Lawrence — have in fact discussed in great depth, including in writings which the author expressly references. The blog post is a mean-spirited exercise in Gish gallop rather than a good-faith attempt to understand the psychological occurrences which form the basis of Dr. Serano’s extensive career as an activist.
Lawrence, Anne A.. 2013. Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism. New York: Springer.
Lawrence, Anne A.. 2014. “Veale’s (2014) Critique of Blanchard’s Typology Was Invalid.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 43: 1679–1683.
Veale, Jaimie F.. 2014. “Evidence Against a Typology: A Taxometric Analysis of the Sexuality of Male-to-Female Transsexuals.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 43: 1177–1186.
Veale, Jaimie F.. 2015. “The Scales and Sample Were Adequate for the Purpose: Reply to Lawrence’s (2014) Critique of My Taxometric Analysis of the Sexuality of Transsexual Women.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44:1757–1759.