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The 'Science' Behind Autogynephilia

A Critique of
"The Man Who Would Be Queen: The science and psychology of gender bending and transsexualism" by J. Michael Bailey, New York: Joseph Henry Press
This review first published in TransLife International, Number 11, July 2003 It does not discuss the many and complex issues srrounding gender politics and gender identity. It only examines the logic behind his argument

During March, a book was published in America called "The Man Who Would Be Queen" by J. Michael Bailey. It set out to be controversial and succeeded, though the reaction in the American press has been negligible. The book was supposed to be launched in this country during May, and it remains to be seen what the reaction of our press is to it. There have been many long pages of text on the web, from personal attacks on Bailey, to discussions of the academic content of the work, much of it, I believe, misdirected. Among the worries expressed, however, is that it will be used in academic psychology studies. It is interesting that we accept books like "Brain Sex" that we would like to believe, yet reject a book like Bailey's because we don't want to think about it. My belief is, if either book is used in a psychology class, it will be as an example of how not to write science.

Bailey himself admits he is writing about his intuitions, which is another word for guesswork, but by the time the book was published, the publishers had added the word "science" to the subtitle. (See footnote) In order to understand that science we have first to digress into history and find out how science works.

One cannot spend long in the transgendered community without hearing the words 'nature' and 'nurture', a debate that goes back to the Greeks. Aristotle was interested in how we recognise objects. He believed that we build up a mental view of the world by building up associations of ideas from our experiences. For instance, we recognise a dog by having learnt all the features of a dog and how they differ from, say, a cat. The problem is, that there are so many kinds of dogs that not all of them have all features in common. Some have no tails, some do not bark. Even if the dog has only three legs, we recognise it as such. In contrast, therefore, Plato held that we have internal templates by which we perceive some sort of essential "dogness" or "catness". He taught that we have structures and ways of thinking already within us when we are born.

It is an interesting feature of human psychology that our reasoning invariably depends on the tension between two opposing viewpoints. These became known, respectively, as 'associationism' and 'rationalism. These appeared in different ways in succeeding centuries. One reincarnation in the latter part of the 20th- century was 'social learning theory' and 'biological determinism'.

At this point, we divert to a different branch of history. Freud is often called "the father of psychology." He has had a bad press in recent years, yet he was the first cognitive psychologist. If you disregard the most extreme aspects of his theory, he developed a model for understanding the dynamics of the human mind that has not been superseded. The problem was, however, that it was all derived by introspection and the personal accounts of his clients. In the 1930's there was a move to establish psychology as a science, not least to make it respectable as a subject within the Church-dominated universities. It was decreed, therefore, that only those things that could be observed and measured were valid for study. The theories of Freud's psychoanalysis were internal to the mind and therefore not available for measurement.

So began the branch of science known as 'behavioural studies'. The mind became a "black box" with inputs and outputs, observable measurable stimuli that led to observable measurable learned responses. As is common in such reductionist models, behaviourism moved from a position of acknowledging that there were phenomena that were necessarily ignored, to asserting that they did not exist. Moreover, it changed from being a conceptual model to becoming a dogma.

Science, particularly psychology, has never been free of politics. An outcome of behaviourism was social learning theory, which feminists saw as liberating them from previous biological theories that sought (with little evidence) to prove their inferior status. Money's assertion that babies are psychosexually neutral at birth appeared in a political climate that was all too ready to accept it. While others, such as Diamond, insisted that there were still biological biases to overcome, their voices were unheard. The study of one of a pair of twin boys whose penis was destroyed during circumcision, and was reassigned as a girl, should be by now well known to the reader.

From this and other studies, it is increasingly clear that a child is somehow predestined to develop in a, more or less, masculine or feminine way. After decades of argument, I would submit that we still have no real idea of the complexities of development, of which this predestination is a substrate. This is the root of Bailey's belief that people, somehow, carry an "essence" of maleness or femaleness. What it means to me is that we cannot truly predict whether a child will develop as a male or female person. This is particularly so if the child is intersexual, like the baby recently featured in Footballers' Wives on British television. Thus there has recently been a strong reaction against the tendency of clinicians to 'tidy up' babies with ambiguous genitalia, or to artificially assign them to one role or the other.

Bailey, however, combines biological determinism with essentialism, and explicitly rejects 'cultural constructionism'. In other words, what you see is all there is. Concepts such as the 'self', 'identity' and 'gender' are internal to the person, unavailable for measurement or observation, and are therefore irrelevant.

Thus, those born male are gynephilic (sexually attracted to women) and have male behaviours as a consequence, while those born female are androphilic (attracted to men) and consequentially have female behaviours. That androphilic males also exhibit male behaviours creates considerable problems, and that someone may be both androphilic and gynephilic throws the theory into complete disarray. He has, therefore, to prove that gay men are actually not masculine, and he insists that bisexuality does not exist.

He begins by quoting a study by Green, which was described in the latter's book The Sissy Boy Syndrome, which looked at excessively female-behaving boy children, compared to a group of "typically masculine" boys. Green predicted that few of them would become transsexual, most of them growing up as gay men. So far so good. However, the children in his study were a specially selected small group, and therefore not representative of the whole male population, nor were they intended to be.

Bailey and others, therefore, conducted a number of studies that, broadly speaking, asked observers to assess video tapes of various men's speech or body language, and score each for masculinity or femininity. Unlike Green's study, these were drawn at random from the whole male population. The results turned out to correlate with whether the men concerned were heterosexual or gay. There is something of a paradox here. Since gay men are looking for sexual partners among other men, they have to behave in a masculine way even though they are feminine. Presumably if straight men were interested in them, they wouldn't have to bother.

I will leave the gay community to discuss the validity of these ideas. Bailey then turns his attention to transsexuals and transvestites. He introduces a technical sounding procedure called 'lumping and splitting'. Instead of splitting trans people into many disparate groups, he lumps them into two categories, androphilic and gynephilic. The former, he refers to as "homosexual transsexuals" since he sees them as gay men who can't quite make the grade. It doesn't surprise him that men who are androphilic, but exceedingly female-behaving, would want to be women in order to attract straight men. After all, gay men wouldn't be interested in them. Their 'sex change' therefore is a pragmatic decision based on partner likelihood.

But what about the gynephilic group? He then has to show that they are actually male-behaving, and then find an observable behaviour to account for them. Looking more closely at his data, we find that a number of the male-behaving men were, in fact, androphilic. (In fact, even in Green's study, one of the 56 'typically masculine' boys also grew up to be gay.) On the other hand, one of the thirty men who were gynephilic also behaved in markedly female manner. This suggests that there is a spread in the results, where at least some men were more or less female-behaving, but also heterosexual. Might we expect to find some of them were potentially transsexual, given the latter account for less than one in a thousand of the population?

One might expect him to refine the studies above for this sub- group of people. Instead, anecdote takes over, and he visits a transvestite club. Knowledgeable readers will be well aware that people have a range of motivations for cross dressing. Few of those at such meetings consider themselves transsexual, some emphasise the idea of 'men dressing up', and the wives that Bailey interviewed were unlikely to be unbiased correspondents. There is little scientific literature about cross dressing motivation, for transvestites rarely visit clinics nowadays, though Haslam and others have speculated about them in the Beaumont Trusts's booklet Transvestism and Cross Dressing. But then motivations are internal and cannot be recognised by behaviourist theory.

If some gynephilic men behave in a totally male way, how is it that they can say they are feminine - feminine enough in fact to want to be women? What observable behaviour can he find to account for them? He frames his theory on the idea that it arises out of their erotic fantasies, based on the idea, first proposed by his mentor, Blanchard, of autogynephilia.

Blanchard defined it as "a male's propensity to be aroused by the thought of himself as a female," suggesting that, somehow, misdirected gynephilic preference locates the erotic target inside the self rather than on an external woman. Bailey writes "autogynephiles are not women trapped in men's bodies. They are men who desperately want to become women."

Since I don't make a practice of interviewing the people I meet about their sex lives, and as a dispassionate observer, I must take the author at his word and see where it leads me. On the one hand we have the personal accounts of transsexual people, on the other, Bailey and Blanchard, who claim years of clinical experience.

The bottom line is that 'lumping' and splitting' is only a way of categorising entities with features in common and nothing more. Even if it is true that erotic fantasies are associated with gynephilic transsexualism, Bailey offers no actual evidence, but merely an assumption, that they are a cause of it.

It might, therefore, be a consequence, an effect or a symptom of transsexuality. Even if, as Bailey insists, his theory is a necessary part of understanding transsexualism, it is not sufficient.

Footnote: Dr. John Bancroft, then director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, said to Dr. Bailey, "Michael, I have read your book, and I do not think it is science," according to accounts of the meeting. Dr. Bancroft confirmed the comment.
(New York Times)

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Bland. J., (2003 rev 2019) The 'Science' Behind Autogynephilia

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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright of the author. 11.08.03 Last amended 04.01.04, 11.02.04, 27.02.04, 23.03.04 retitled 27.09.04, 31.06.19