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Autogynephilia and the Sexualization of Shame
On The AGP's Dreadful Plight and Dreadful Triumph
The transgender dogmas being taught to elementary schoolchildren and inscribed into law and policy by most of the governing institutions of the Western world strictly cordon off cross-gendered identification from any association with sexual desire. The dogma holds that each of us has an internal subjective sense of being male, female, both, or neither, that may or may not align with our sexed anatomy. This sense is innate, immutable, knowable only to ourselves, and knowable to others only through our own personal testimony, which is held to be dispositive of the question of who we really are, and indeed have always really been. This “gender identity,” a non-observable disembodied essence within each of us (that in practice is always reducible to our degree of conformity to gendered stereotypes), should in turn dictate which intimate spaces we can access, against whom we compete in athletics, and how we are to be addressed by others, both in our presence and in our absence, as a matter of courtesy and decency, and ultimately — for this is the goal that transgender activists have already obtained in certain jurisdictions and are seeking everywhere — as a matter of law.
The story of how the prohibition on the discussion of autogynephilia — “a male's propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female” — came to be promulgated in the act of enforcing it is told in Alice Dreger’s book-length study of the campaign to destroy the reputation of the Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey. It is perhaps the single most detailed account of an academic cancel culture campaign ever written and an indispensable guide to the ongoing societal coup for which the attack on Bailey was an opening act. I’ve done a previous post on Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and will soon be finishing up a much belated second installment on that essay, supplemented by further posts considering Dreger’s work scrutinizing the new methods of activist capture pioneered by Bailey’s persecutors. By means of this campaign, transgender activists banished the taint of paraphilic sexual obsession that had long been understood to be a primary pathway to cross-sex identification from our popular and scientific understanding of what came to be known as “transgender” identity, thus laying the foundation for a new set of sanitized, quasi-mystical doctrines asserting the inherency of a non-observable “gender identity” residing in each of us to be taught to elementary schoolchildren and enforced by the American civil rights state today.
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But while this strict separation of gender identity from sexual desire is rigidly policed by those pursuing the special right to legal recognition and inclusion into women’s intimate spaces of men who identify as women, one need only do a few cursory Google searches to see the repressed return in vivid profusion on the venue that has served as the primary vector for the spread of transgender identity, the Internet. Of course, this officially disavowed and proscribed universe of porn-sick men driven to cross-sex identification by a sexualized misogyny that they have allowed to swallow them whole never really left. It instead continued its evolution into fantastic, disturbing new shapes in the age of sissy porn, forced feminization fantasy, and now, “trans-maxxing” — the deliberate re-conditioning by an online faction of male incels into transfeminine identification through the use of “sissy hypno” porn to induce what the gender dogmas being taught to elementary schoolchildren and enforced by American institutions, insists, in the face of everything we know about the suggestibility of the human mind, can only be an innate and immutable identity.
The cultural sphere plays host to an array writers, thinkers, and online influencers who openly flout the politically correct strictures of the gender dogma and delight in making explicit references to their autogynephilic urges, some of whom are contained in the photo montage above. They do so while remaining much admired and honored spokespersons for a movement that on the one hand disavows their accounts of their own desires as malicious and destructive slurs on the transgender community while honoring those very accounts confirming these putative slurs as exemplary. The most prominent of these figures, the New York Magazine book critic Andrea Long Chu just won a Pulitzer Prize in the category of literary criticism. Chu is the subject of a long and worthwhile meditation at Tablet Magazine and will be the subject of a future post. The erstwhile Andy Chu sought to live out the tensions and contradictions of the age and has made himself a representative figure through which the zeitgeist is made into self-mortified flesh.
The bizarre epistemological caesura in which the trans-identified autogynephiles collected above operate — saying aloud the very things that sympathetic chroniclers of their condition like Michael Bailey were nearly ruined for saying — is representative of a nether-logic endemic to an ideology with reality denial at its foundation. A movement that is not what it pretends to be representing the interests of people who are not what they seek recognition for being will speak in riddles and paradoxes and punish some ruthlessly for the acts for which others will be richly rewarded. It is this nether-logic — the strange enforced knowing and not-knowing in which its adherents are ensnared, and which they have worked tirelessly (with amazing success) to ensnare the rest of the world.
In the account that follows, by the psychologist and author Joseph Burgo, we move from the mode of Internet anthropology practiced by the chroniclers of trans-maxxing linked above to the more intimate realm of the individual psyche. He provides us with a psychologist’s privileged glimpse into the tortured interior world of those sucked into pornographic obsession and inducing us into an empathetic understanding of the pain and shame at the root of these desires. Burgo, whom I’ll be interviewing soon on a wider range of subjects adjacent to the ones covered here, retains the normative orientation of a therapist working with those ensnared in great pain, helping them to search their feelings and desires for insights that might release them from destructive compulsion and deliver them peace. He is doing so in the face of a powerful movement that would reify and entrench this elaborate complex of distorted neo-misogyny into an identity, informed by values that he knows to be correct in the face of daily confirmation in the clinical settings of what he knows to be true.
By Joseph Burgo
More than once, David told me he felt like a dumpster kid growing up, a piece of garbage, and alien from the other children. He said he’d been brought up by hoarders in a house overflowing with trash. His parents were both alcoholics who never touched each other, people with no ability for genuine human interaction and no idea how to parent. Dad drank endless beers in front of the TV each night, ranting incoherently at the newscasters; Mom drank herself into oblivion. Fresh paint on the outside and a well-tended yard made the family appear respectable, but no one – not a single friend or relative throughout David’s entire childhood – had ever been allowed inside.
As I got to know him better, a fantasy image came to me of his early life: David at 3 or 4 years old, coming to first true awareness and realizing he’d been born into madness, that if he didn’t pay close attention to every last bizarre thing going on around him, catastrophe would ensue. I understood that it hadn’t actually happened that way, not exactly, but it felt intuitively true. When I told David how I imagined it had been for him, he laughed. One of his great strengths is his ability to find humor in even the darkest of situations. “Yeh,” he said, “and when I woke up, the alarm bells were sounding and all the lights flashing, like when a submarine is going down.”
At age 5, he couldn’t fall asleep at night for worrying that hoarded magazines near the radiator would catch fire and burn the house down. He worried that the floorboards beneath the sprung couch would collapse into the basement and take him down with it. He worried that monsters lurked outside the nighttime windows, always. He had no choice but to remain constantly alert and on guard against the ever-present dangers.
David has spent his entire life warding off an ever-present sense of dread by trying to figure everything out – the reasons for this or that, why people behave the ways they do. He feels trapped in a verbally hyperactive brain where there is never silence or peace of mind. During sessions when he voices his thoughts aloud, enacting for me the way he talks to himself, he often reminds me of lonely Gollum from Lord of the Rings, doing the same thing to stave off unbearable loneliness. The precocious “thinking” defense arising at an early age might have saved him from existential terror, but like so many defenses, it eventually began to persecute him.
David also feels that he is “jerry-rigged” – a freakish sort of person whose different parts are paper-clipped and duct-taped together in grotesque ways. He’s afflicted by profound shame, what I refer to as “core shame” – the felt experience that your development went terribly awry, and as a result, there’s something foundationally wrong with you. On an unconscious and sometimes conscious level, David felt ugly; he felt deformed and defective – the dumpster kid, fit only for the refuse pile. He felt essentially unlovable, too repulsive and strange for anyone to care about.
A close observer and mimic of other people and their behaviors, David managed to fit in with pretty much every social group in grade school, though as you might expect, he felt like a fraud. He played sports and appeared to be popular, but he worried that, at any moment, he’d be exposed. He hated his life, despised his parents, and loathed himself.
When he passed into puberty and began to masturbate, David discovered online porn and soon found that videos featuring some kind of degradation aroused him most – not the infliction of bodily pain so much as psychological humiliation. Though he has always been exclusively attracted to women, he found he couldn’t identify with the men in those videos. He felt more akin to the women and hyper-aroused by the idea of being degraded like they were. He eventually progressed to forced feminization videos where a contemptuous, dominant woman would humiliate a man. Force him to walk around on all fours and call him a bitch. Tell him he was a pathetic loser and not a “real man.” Sodomize him with a strap-on dildo.
As an adult, he would dress in women’s clothes to masturbate, and later visit prostitutes who’d help him act out his fantasies of humiliation. Over the years, he has dated lots of women and had many short-term relationships; he was even engaged for a short time, but he could almost never be present during conventional sex. He’d have to bring himself to climax by imagining himself to be the woman, or more often, a degraded man in female garb who was treated like a bitch by a dominatrix.
I don’t know that I can explain exactly how core shame became welded to sexual arousal, but I see it as David’s desperate attempt to transform suffering into some kind of pleasure, to find sexual gratification in the very thing that caused him the most pain.
* * *
Within the professional literature about autogynephilia, the typical case profile boils down to a chronological account of the man’s fetish: when it first appeared (usually during early adolescence), how it evolved over time, how it later influenced his sense of self as well as his sexual relationships, and so on. In her book MEN TRAPPED IN MEN’S BODIES, Anne Lawrence goes so far as to say she deliberately left out all detailed family histories from the data she had collected because they were “peripheral” to the study.
Too often when discussing a sexual fetish, we seem to view it as a thing-in-itself, fully accounted for by naming it … rather than, say, an attempt to resolve intrapsychic conflict, or a defensive formation against unbearable pain and desire. We commonly hear terms like “erotic target location error” that sound scientific and explain precisely nothing. This aligns with an age where psychological meaning has been replaced by symptom checklists, of course, so that being able to identify 5 out 7 DSM symptoms tells you all you need to know.
As I see it, taking oneself as the object of one’s own desire is the epitome of narcissism, but experts in this area don’t understand what I mean. Not true, I’ve been told. Autogynephiles can’t be narcissists because they’re not at all grandiose. Again, I think we can blame the DSM5, this time for its diagnostic criteria defining Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Inflated sense of self-importance: fantasies of unlimited success, excessive need for admiration, and so on. A view of narcissism as a defensive character structure warding off some unconscious and unbearable experience fits neither the zeitgeist nor our medicalized view of mental disorders.
My experience working with a half dozen young men who struggle with autogynephilia has taught me that feelings of defect, damage, and deformity – what I’ve referred to as core shame – play a major role. David’s history illustrates how such a process might unfold. My work with another client (I’ll call him Seth) gave me further insights into the possible roots of autogynephilia.
Seth came to me at the age of 27 after having lived and dressed as a female for several years during his early-20s after which he de-transitioned. Estrogen but no surgeries. His particular autogynephilic fantasy involved himself as a beautiful adolescent girl, perfect and pure. He idealized girls in the early flush of womanhood and found them to be almost unbearably desirable.
Tall and good-looking, Seth comes across as gentle, soft-spoken but not effeminate. He’s attracted exclusively to girls, particularly girls in their teens, but he’s never had sex with anyone, male or female. He was the only child of an unhappy marriage and his parents divorced when he was seven. Since then, his father has remained a remote figure, intervening irregularly over the years. His mother strikes me as struggling with a personality disorder and seems to have become a shut-in as she’s gotten older. Seth rarely mentions her and seems to avoid discussing her in session. He currently lives in a share-house on campus but has no close friends.
In the early months of our work together, Seth often sent me long essays between sessions, music he’d written and recorded, and transcriptions of elaborate dreams. He seemed to feel an ongoing need for me to acknowledge his gifts which are considerable. I believe he found entering into the vulnerable role of patient, especially at the outset, to be an emotional challenge. It often felt as if he were instead relating to me as a colleague or co-therapist – a familiar phenomenon to therapists working with clients who find dependent relationships difficult to bear.
He recalled himself as having been “enchanting” (his word) as a child – precocious, gifted, and joyful, almost as if he existed without reference to his emotionally limited parents and dysfunctional family life. He seemed to view his child self as a kind of prodigy, especially when it came to singing. He told me several times that he has perfect pitch and a beautiful singing voice.
He began one session by telling me that his roommates had invited him to go out to a karaoke bar with a larger group of their friends. This was a fraught situation for Seth. First of all, he worried that they’d invited him only from a sense of obligation and didn’t really want him to come along. More important, he felt immobilized by the fear of singing in front of a group. He’d told me before, and told me again now, that he had an “exquisite” singing voice, far superior to pretty much everyone else he knew, and he always sang aloud at home when alone. And yet the idea of singing in front of others terrified him.
I pointed out the contrast between feeling his voice to be more beautiful than others when alone and in private but being afraid that he’d sound really bad and embarrass himself in public. He seemed a bit confused but politely acknowledged that what I had said might be relevant. I think my interpretation was off, not quite right, and I didn’t appreciate the strength of his reaction to it until I received his email a few days later. This email made it clear he’d been very upset by what I’d said and that he’d been ruminating about it ever since.
He was very polite and acknowledged that he might have misunderstood me, but he wanted to correct something I’d said during our last session. As he recalled it, I’d seemed to make a big point of his wanting to have a better voice than other people, as if he was all about being superior. To the extent that he understood himself (and again he acknowledged that he might be mistaken), he did not wish to feel superior. But what I’d said about a fear of sounding really bad – or ugly, as he recalled it – that felt true. The prospect of singing in a karaoke bar and having people laugh at his voice was unbearable. He repeated once again that he felt confident he had a beautiful voice when he sang alone but lost his confidence in public. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t bring his “true self” to light.
This exchange is central to my understanding of Seth. I believe what I said touched upon his unconscious shame. The fear of being ugly, damaged, or disfigured lay behind the enchanting self-image and he was struggling not to be overwhelmed by it. I found this email poignant because he was so obviously in pain. At the beginning of our next session, we talked about the email and agreed that the important issue was ugliness vs. beauty. The dreaded ugly defective damaged self, concealed behind the idealized, beautiful self-image.
In the ensuing weeks, Seth became more depressed and vulnerable. He appeared to abandon any effort to impress me and spoke more openly of his desolation. Describing himself now as badly addicted to porn, he told me that he’d masturbate for hours at the computer screen on an almost daily basis until he was so sore he couldn’t touch himself. Intense elation fueled by the autogynephilic fantasy gave way to profound despair, a feeling of emptiness, and thoughts of committing suicide. He’d installed porn blockers on his computer but always found ways to evade them.
Early in our work, Seth would occasionally speak of his parents with a sense of grievance, claiming they hadn’t loved him or been affectionate enough, and that their failures were to blame for his difficulties. Now in his deepening depression, he thought there might be something essentially unlovable about him – that the defect was within him and not the fault of his parents. He described himself as a disgusting slab of meat, grotesque and misshapen; no wonder he could never get close to the women he found attractive. He must be repulsive.
I suggested that his desire to transition might have embodied a wish to shed this repulsive self and become the beautiful object of his own desire, what he felt to be unattainable by any realistic means. He agreed, as if he’d always known this to be true. As he became more candid about his porn habits, he acknowledged that these unbearable feelings of desire fueled intense feelings of envy, too, and that his fantasies sometimes evolved into scenarios of bondage and degradation – not of himself but of the young women he desired.
Here we see the unconscious dynamics of autogynephilia. When feeling ugly, damaged, or defective (core shame) becomes unbearable, it gives rise to a narcissistic defense against it. The beautiful, sexually alluring trans-identified self denies and “disproves” the shame left behind – that would be Seth during college after he first transitioned. Once the defense failed, the shame permeated his being, leaving him no means to soothe himself other than compulsive masturbation fantasies.
Men who masturbate for hours in front of their computer screens, night after night, generally evoke distaste rather than sympathy, but I’ve never known anyone lonelier than these young men I currently see in my practice. Rather than thinking of autogynephilia as a fetish, I view it now as a kind of drug, a highly addictive and powerful drug for men in tremendous pain, overwhelmed by shame and self-hatred, fighting desperately to ward it off with no other source of comfort but porn.
* * *
I’ll conclude with a brief description of one more client. Casey is a 17-year-old trans-identified boy who hates himself, hates his looks, and hates his body. He’s often deeply depressed to the point of immobility. Growing up in the age of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, steeped in social justice ideology, Casey has absorbed it all. He believes men are bad. He believes white men are responsible for all the evils in the world. He believes men are violent, often sexually predatory, and that women have good reason to fear them. Due to the size of his body and the depth of his voice, he feels certain that women find him a threat. That’s one conscious part of why he wants to transition – to be around the women he likes without posing a threat to them.
But mostly he hates himself and his big ugly body. He thinks he’s a loser. In the terms I’ve been using, he struggles with profound shame at his core. Though he doesn’t go out in public when dressed en femme, when alone in his room he’ll dress up in female clothes – purchased surreptitiously from thrift shops and carefully hidden from his parents. He might apply some makeup, too, and paint his nails. Dressing this way elevates his mood. Casey believes he looks feminine and pretty when gotten up this way, despite having a very masculine body and prominent square jaw. In session, I can feel his mood lift whenever he talks about dressing up.
It took him many months before he disclosed his most secret anti-depressant. Using his phone, he connects with middle-aged men online via video chat and does what they tell him to do – he puts on clothes as they instruct, applies makeup, exposes the parts of his body they ask to see. The men tell him that he’s pretty and Casey enjoys their admiration. They talk dirty to each other and masturbate together.
Sometimes afterwards, he’s so overcome by shame that he vows never to do it again; but eventually, he finds himself back online, in search of sexual relief from his depression and self-loathing. He believes he’ll be much happier after he transitions. He believes that, once he has at last become a woman, he’ll be released from all that shame and pain and self-loathing.
I’ll end by repeating that last sentence again, because I believe my description of Casey and the relief he longs for applies to so many young men who transition. Casey believes that, once he has at last become a woman, he’ll be released from all that shame and pain and self-loathing.
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