Gender dysphoria is not one thing
Dr. J. Michael Bailey, Ph.D and Dr. Ray Blanchard, Ph.D
Michael Bailey is Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. His book The Man Who Would Be Queen provides a readable scientific account of two kinds of gender dysphoria among natal males, and is available as a free download here.
Ray Blanchard received his A.B. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1973. He was the psychologist in the Adult Gender Identity Clinic of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) from 1980–1995 and the Head of CAMH’s Clinical Sexology Services from 1995–2010.
One problem with the current mainstream narrative regarding gender dysphoria is that it makes no distinctions among apparently very different kinds of persons. For example, Bruce Jenner appeared to be a very masculine man, an Olympic athlete who was married to three different women and had six children with them, before becoming Caitlyn Jenner. In contrast, Jazz Jennings, a natal male, was so feminine that she earned a diagnosis of gender identity disorder at the age of four. She is attracted to males. Jenner and Jennings are so different in their presentation and history that it is surprising to us that anyone thinks they have the same condition. Jenner and Jennings are examples of two very different kinds of gender dysphoria that have been scientifically well studied, and have fundamentally different motivations, clinical presentations, and likely causes.
The failure of so many therapists and activists to acknowledge this distinction is disturbing for at least two reasons. First, it suggests they are either ignorant of relevant scientific evidence or are purposefully ignoring it. Second, failure to make scientifically valid and fundamental distinctions among different kinds of gender dysphoric persons can only prevent progress toward finding the best approach to helping each. Measles, influenza, and strep throat are all associated with fever. But if we had merely lumped them together as “fever,” we would not have effective treatments for them.
Types of Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria isn’t common. But there are at least three distinct types of gender dysphoria that, presently, regularly occur in children and adolescents. We summarize these at length here. Two other kinds of gender dysphoria are much less common in these age groups, and so we address them less fully near the end of this essay. The main three types differ in their age of onset (childhood, adolescence, or adulthood), their speed of onset (gradual or sudden), their associated sexual orientations (members of the same sex or the fantasy of belonging to the opposite sex), and their sex ratio (equally or unequally likely in males and females).
The first type—childhood-onset gender dysphoria—definitely occurs in both biological boys and girls. It is highly correlated with homosexuality–the sexual preference for one’s own biological sex–especially in natal males. (Sexual orientation is usually not apparent until a child reaches adolescence or adulthood, however.) This is the type that Jazz Jennings had before her gender transition. The second type—autogynephilic gender dysphoria—occurs only in males. It is associated with a tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as a female. This type of gender dysphoria sometimes starts during adolescence and sometimes during adulthood, and its onset is typically gradual. (Onset may appear sudden to family members, however.) Although Caitlyn Jenner has not discussed her feelings openly, we strongly suspect she is autogynephilic. The third type—rapid-onset gender dysphoria—mostly occurs in adolescent girls. This type is primarily characterized by the age and speed of onset rather than the associated sexual orientation, and it may not be limited to one sex, as the second type is. Our impression is that rapid-onset gender dysphoria is especially common among daughters of parents who read 4thWaveNow as well as those who post on the support board at gendercriticalresources.com.
The first two types (childhood-onset gender dysphoria and autogynephilic gender dysphoria) have been well studied, although autogynephilic gender dysphoria has primarily been studied in adults. The third (rapid-onset gender dysphoria) has only recently been noticed, and it is possible that it didn’t occur much until recently.
How do you know which type of gender dysphoria your child has? If there were clear signs well before puberty that your child was gender dysphoric, s/he has child-onset gender dysphoria. (You would certainly have noticed signs at the time; at the very least you would have coded your child as extremely gender nonconforming.) If your child showed signs of gender dysphoria for the first time during adolescence, s/he has one of the other types. Remember, autogynephilic gender dysphoria occurs only in natal males, and it starts either during adolescence or adulthood. (And to a parent, it usually seems sudden.) We describe the three types more thoroughly below.
Childhood-onset Gender Dysphoria (Boys and Girls)
The most obvious feature that distinguishes childhood-onset gender dysphoria from the other types is early appearance of gender nonconformity. Gender nonconformity is a persistent tendency to behave like the other sex in a variety of ways, including preferences of dress and appearance, play style, playmate preferences, and interests and goals. A very gender nonconforming boy may dress up as a girl, play with dolls, dislike rough play, show indifference to team sports or contact sports, prefer girl playmates, try to be around adult women rather than adult men, and be known by other children as a “sissy” (a term generally used to ridicule and shame feminine boys). A very gender nonconforming girl shows an opposite pattern, with the less derogatory word “tomboy” replacing sissy.
Onset of gender nonconformity is childhood cases is very early, typically about as early as gendered behavior can be noticed.
It is important to understand that not all gender nonconforming children (even very gender nonconforming children) have gender dysphoria. Probably most don’t, in fact. But we know of no cases of childhood-onset gender dysphoria without gender nonconformity.
Gender dysphoria in the childhood cases requires that children are unhappy with their birth sex. Furthermore, they typically yearn to be–or even assert that they are–the other sex.
What do we know about childhood-onset gender dysphoria?
Childhood-onset gender dysphoria has been systematically studied by two high quality international research centers (one in Toronto, which was led by Kenneth Zucker, and one in the Netherlands, which was led by Peggy Cohen-Kettenis). Both centers have assessed and followed representative samples of gender dysphoric children seen at their clinics. Reassuringly, results are fairly similar across the two sites. Furthermore, their results are similar to less representative samples studied earlier in the United States.
The published literature shows that at least in the past, 60-90% of children whose gender dysphoria began before puberty adjusted to their birth sex without requiring gender transition. That may be changing, however, due to changes in clinical practice that encourage gender transition. (See below.)
It is important to realize that childhood-onset gender dysphoria is the only kind of gender dysphoria that has been well-studied in children and adolescents. This means, for example, that the persistence and desistance figures we have provided apply only to that type. We do not know comparable figures about autogynephilic or rapid-onset gender dysphoria. Furthermore, most people, when they think of “transgender children and adolescents” have childhood-onset gender dysphoria in mind. (And they think of happy Jazz more than they think of Jazz’s serious medical surgeries and hormonal treatment for life.) But this association is misleading for all cases of gender dysphoria that are not childhood-onset. Autogynephilic and rapid-onset gender dysphoria have very different causes and presentations than childhood-onset gender dysphoria.
Children with childhood-onset gender dysphoria have a much higher likelihood of non-heterosexual (i.e., homosexual or bisexual) adult outcomes compared with typical children. Childhood-onset gender dysphoric boys who desist usually become nonheterosexual men. A smaller percentage have reported that they are heterosexual at follow up. Those who transition become transwomen attracted to men.
Although most childhood-onset gender dysphoric girls who have been followed identify as heterosexual, those who desist have a much higher rate of nonheterosexuality compared with the general population. Among those who transition, most are attracted to women.
We repeat: there is no evidence that parents can change their children’s eventual sexual orientation, and we don’t think they should try.
Risk Factors for Persistence of Childhood-onset Gender Dysphoria
Which childhood-onset gender dysphoric children will persist, and which will desist? Evidence suggests that we can’t distinguish these two groups with high confidence, although we can distinguish them better than chance.
There is some evidence that the severity of gender dysphoria distinguishes these two groups, although it is far from a perfect predictor. Children who not only say they want to be the other sex but who assert that they are the other sex may be especially likely to persist. The reasons why a child’s expressed belief that s/he is the other sex predicts persistence remain unclear, and this variable does not allow even near-perfect prediction. The idea that it is the essential test of “true trans” is an overstatement.
Other empirically supported risk factors include being of lower socioeconomic status and having autistic traits, both of which predict persistence. Why should these factors matter? Researchers have speculated that socioeconomically disadvantaged families are more likely to have problems that prevent them from providing the consistent supportive social environment that may be most likely to help the gender dysphoric child desist. Autistic traits include perseverative and obsessional thinking, both of which may make desistance more difficult. Furthermore, parents of children with autistic traits may be so concerned about other problems that they are permissive about things likely to foster gender transition.
One powerful predictor of persistence is social transition, or a child’s living as the other sex. Until recently this was practically unheard of. Increasingly, however, it is not only known but encouraged by many gender therapists. (Watch an episode of “I am Jazz.”) In the Netherlands social transition has been common longer than in the United States. A recent study found that social transition was the most powerful predictor of persistence among natal males. That is, gender dysphoric boys allowed to live as girls strongly tended to want to become adult women. (The same trend occurred for natal females, but it was less robust.) This is not surprising. If a gender dysphoric child is allowed to live as the other sex, what will change his/her mind? No one disputes that gender dysphoric children really, really would like to change sex.
What should you do?
The necessary studies have not been conducted to be certain. But based on the overall picture, we suggest:
If you want your childhood-onset gender dysphoric child to desist, and if your child is still well below the age of puberty (which varies, but let’s say, younger than 11 years), you should firmly (but kindly and patiently) insist that your child is a member of his/her birth sex. You should consider finding a therapist if this is difficult for you and your child. You should not allow your child to engage in behaviors such as cross dressing and fantasy play as the other sex. Above all else, you should not let your child socially transition to the other sex.
At the same time, you should recognize that despite your best efforts, your child may ultimately need to transition to be happy. If your child’s gender dysphoria persists well into adolescence (again, the ages vary by child, but let’s say age 14 or so), s/he is much more likely to transition. At that point, in our opinion, parents should consider supporting transition.
Autogynephilic Gender Dysphoria (Adolescent Boys and Men)
From a parent’s perspective, autogynephilic gender dysphoria (which occurs only in natal males) often seems to come out of the blue. This is likely to be true whether the onset is during adolescence or adulthood. A teenage boy may suddenly announce that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body, or that he is transgender, or that he wants gender transition. Typically, this revelation follows his intensive internet research and participation in internet transgender forums. Importantly, the adolescent showed no clear, consistent signs of either gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria during childhood (that is, before puberty).
There is an important distinction between rapid-onset gender dysphoria and autogynephilic gender dysphoria that happens to have an adolescent onset. Rapid-onset gender dysphoria is suddenly acquired, whereas autogynephilic gender dysphoria may be suddenly revealed, after having grown in secret for a number of years. We will talk more about this later.
Where does autogynephilic gender dysphoria come from? We know a lot about the motivation of this kind of gender dysphoria. Most of our knowledge comes from studies of adults born male who transitioned during adulthood. Some of these adults had gender dysphoria during adolescence, but all of them had the root cause of their condition: autogynephilia.
(Warning: Autogynephilia is about sex. We understand that it is awkward and uncomfortable for any parent to consider their children’s sexual fantasies. But you can’t understand your son with this kind of gender dysphoria without doing so.)
Autogynephilia is a male’s sexual arousal by the fantasy of being a woman. That is, autogynephilic males are turned on by thinking about themselves as women, or behaving like women. The typical heterosexual adolescent boy has sexual fantasies about attractive girls or women. The autogynephilic adolescent boy’s may also have such fantasies, but in addition he fantasizes that he is an attractive, sexy woman. The most common behavior associated with autogynephilia during adolescence is fetishistic cross dressing. In this behavior, the adolescent male wears female clothing (typically, lingerie) in private, looks at himself in the mirror, and masturbates. Some autogynephilic males are not only sexually aroused by cross dressing, but also by the idea of having female body parts. These body-related fantasies are especially likely to be associated with gender dysphoria.
It is important to distinguish between autogynephilia and autogynephilic gender dysphoria. Autogynephilia is basically a sexual orientation, and once present does not go away, although its intensity may wax and wane. Autogynephilic gender dysphoria sometimes follows autogynephilia, and is the strong wish to transition from male to female. A male must have autogynephilia to have autogynephilic gender dysphoria, but just because he is autogynephilic doesn’t mean he will be gender dysphoric. Many autogynephilic males live their lives contented to remain male. Furthermore, sometimes autogynephilic gender dysphoria remits so that a male who wanted to change sex no longer does so.
In general, adolescent boys are unlikely to divulge their sexual fantasies to their parents. This is likely especially true of boys with autogynephilia. Furthermore, many boys who engage in cross dressing feel ashamed for doing so. The fact that autogynephilic fantasies and behaviors are largely private is one reason why autogynephilic gender dysphoria usually seems to emerge from nowhere. Another reason is that autogynephilic males are not naturally very feminine. An adolescent boy with autogynephilia does not give off obvious signals of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria.
It is likely that most autogynephilic males do not pursue gender reassignment, but this is difficult to know. (We would need to conduct a representative survey of all persons born male, asking about both autogynephilia and gender transition. This has not been done and won’t be done anytime soon.) Many males with autogynephilia are content to cross dress occasionally. Some get married to women and many also have children. Family formation is no guarantee against later transition, although that may slow it up somewhat. In past decades, when autogynephilic males have transitioned, they have most often done so during the ages 30-50, after having married women and fathered children. It is possible that autogynephilic males have recently been attempting transition at younger ages, including adolescence.
The relationship between autogynephilia and (autogynephilic-type) gender dysphoria is uncertain. One view is that gender dysphoria may arise as a complication of autogynephilia, depending perhaps on chance events or environmental factors. Another view is that autogynephiles who become progressively gender dysphoric were somewhat different from simple autogynephiles from the beginning (for example, more obsessional). Because we do not actually know the causes of autogynephilia, it is quite difficult to sort out these various interpretations at present.
Autogynephilia—the central motivation of autogynephilic gender dysphoria—can be considered an unusual sexual orientation. As with other kinds of male sexual orientation, we do not know how to change it, and we shouldn’t try. The dilemma is how to live with autogynephilia in a way that allows the most happiness. For some with autogynephilia, this will mean staying male. For others, it will mean transitioning to female.
What do we know about autogynephilic gender dysphoria?
Much of what we know about autogynephilic gender dysphoria comes from research conducted on adults. Most of the early research was conducted by the scientist who developed the theory of autogynephilia, Ray Blanchard. This work was subsequently confirmed and extended by other researchers, especially Anne Lawrence, Michael Bailey, and Bailey’s students.
Blanchard’s research identified two distinct subtypes of gender dysphoria among adult male gender patients. One type, which he called “homosexual gender dysphoria” is identical to childhood onset male gender dysphoria. Males with this condition are homosexual, in the sense that they are attracted to other biological males. Blanchard provided persuasive evidence that the other male gender patients were autogynephilic. We currently favor the theory that there are only two well established kinds of gender dysphoria among males, because no convincing evidence for any other types has been offered. This could change–we are committed to a scientific open-mindedness. In particular, it is possible that some cases of adolescent-onset gender dysphoria among males are essentially the same as Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria that occurs among natal females. This will require more research to establish, however.
Autogynephilia is a probably rare, although it is difficult to know for certain. Among males who seek gender transition, however, it is common. In fact, in Western countries in recent years, including the United States, autogynephilia has accounted for at least 75% of cases of male-to-female transsexualism.
Given how important autogynephilia is for understanding gender dysphoria, it may surprise you that you had never heard of it. Autogynephilia remains a largely hidden idea because most people–including journalists, families, and many males with autogynephilia–strongly prefer the standard, though false, narrative: “Transsexualism is about having the mind of one sex in the body of the other sex.” Many people find this narrative both easier to understand and less disturbing than the idea that some males want a sex change because they find that idea strongly erotic.
Although many autogynephilic males find discovery of the idea of autogynephilia to be a positive revelation–autogynephilia has been as puzzling to them as it is to you–some others are enraged at the idea. There are two main reasons why some autogynephilic males are in denial. First, they correctly believe that many people find a sexual explanation of gender dysphoria unappealing–discomfort with sexuality is rampant. Second, they find this explanation of their own feelings less satisfying than the standard “woman trapped in man’s body” explanation. This is because autogynephilia is a male trait, and autogynephilia is about wanting to be female.
It is good to be aware of autogynephilia’s controversial status, because transgender activists are often hostile to the idea. You will not learn more about it from the activists. And if your son has frequented internet discussions, he may also resent the idea. We emphasize that autogynephilia is controversial for social reasons, not for scientific ones. No scientific data have seriously challenged it.
Males with autogynephilia can have a variety of autogynephilic fantasies and interests, from cross dressing to fantasizing about having female bodies to enjoying (for erotic reasons) stereotypical female activities such as knitting to fantasizing about being pregnant or menstruating. One study found that autogynephilic males who fantasize about having female genitalia also tended to be those with the greatest gender dysphoria.
Autogynephilic males sometimes identify as heterosexual (i.e., attracted exclusively to women); sometimes as bisexual (attracted to both men and women), and sometimes as asexual (i.e., attracted to no individuals). Blanchard’s work has shown that autogynephilia can be thought of as a type of male heterosexuality, one that is inwardly directed. Autogynephilia often coexists with outward-directed heterosexuality, and so autogynephilic males usually say they are also attracted to women. Some autogynephilic males enjoy the idea that they are attractive, as women, to other men. They may have sexual fantasies about having sex with men (in the female role); some may even act on these fantasies. This accounts for the bisexual identification among some autogynephilic males. In some others, the intensity of the autogynephilia–which is attraction to an imagined “inner woman”–is so great that there are no erotic feelings left for other people. This accounts for asexual identification. (Asexual autogynephilic males have plenty of sexual fantasies, but these fantasies tend not to involve other people.)
When autogynephilic males receive female hormones as part of their gender transition, they typically experience a noticeable decrease in their sex drive. Some have reported that this has diminished their desire for gender transition as well. Others, however, have reported no change in their desire for transition. (In any case, hormonal therapy is a medical intervention with serious potential side effects, and we do not recommend it as a way to treat gender dysphoria, except in cases in which after very careful consideration, gender transition is pursued.)
Autogynephilia is a paraphilia, meaning an unusual sexual interest nearly exclusively found in males.
We repeat: Autogynephilia is a sexual orientation–to be sure, an unusual orientation that is difficult to understand. There is no evidence that parents can change their children’s sexual orientations. And we don’t think they should try.
What should you do?
Consistent with our values, knowledge, and common sense, we believe that males with autogynephilic gender dysphoria should not pursue gender transition right away, as soon as they first have the idea. Transition ultimately requires serious medical procedures with irreversible consequences. But we are unsure what the right approach to autogynephilic gender dysphoria is. In part, this is because there has been too little outcome research conducted by scientists knowledgeable and open about autogynephilia.
First, we recommend that your son be informed about autogynephilia. The best way to do this is up to you. There is probably no non-awkward way. Consider showing them this blog. People should make important life decisions based upon facts, and for males autogynephilic gender dysphoria, autogynephilia is a fact. The standard “female mind/brain in male body” is a fiction.
Some males become less motivated to pursue gender change when they understand their autogynephilia. However, some do not become less motivated. We know far less about patterns of persistence and desistance of autogynephilic gender dysphoria than we do about childhood onset gender dysphoria.
If an autogynephilic male has become familiar with the scientific evidence, has patiently considered the potential consequences of gender transition over a non-trivial time period, and still wishes to transition, we do not oppose this decision. It is possible that many autogynephilic males are happier after gender transition. But there is no rush for any adolescent to decide.
Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (Mostly Adolescent and Young Adult Females)
Rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) seems to come out of the blue. We think this is because ROGD does come out of the blue. This is not to say that all adolescents with ROGD were happy and mentally healthy before their ROGD began. But importantly, they had no sign of gender dysphoria as young children (before puberty).
The typical case of ROGD involves an adolescent or young adult female whose social world outside the family glorifies transgender phenomena and exaggerates their prevalence. Furthermore, it likely includes a heavy dose of internet involvement. The adolescent female acquires the conviction that she is transgender. (Not uncommonly, others in her peer group acquire the same conviction.) These peer groups encouraged each other to believe that all unhappiness, anxiety, and life problems are likely due to their being transgender, and that gender transition is the only solution. Subsequently, there may be a rush towards gender transition, including hormones. Parental opposition to gender transition often leads to family discord, even estrangement. Suicidal threats are common.*
We believe that ROGD is a socially contagious phenomenon in which a young person–typically a natal female–comes to believe that she has a condition that she does not have. ROGD is not about discovering gender dysphoria that was there all along; rather, it is about falsely coming to believe that one’s problems have been due to gender dysphoria previously hidden (from the self and others). Let us be clear: People with ROGD do have a kind of gender dysphoria, but it is gender dysphoria due to persuasion of those especially vulnerable to a false idea. It is not gender dysphoria due to anything like having the mind/brain of one sex trapped in the body of the other. Those with ROGD do, of course, wish to gender transition, and they often obsess over this prospect.
The subculture that fosters ROGD appears to share aspects with cults. These aspects include expectation of absolute ideological agreement, use of very specific jargon, thinking of the world as “us” versus “them” (even more than typical adolescents do), and encouragement to cut off ties with family and friends who are not “with the program.” It also has uncanny similarities to a very harmful epidemic that occurred a generation ago: the epidemic of false “recovered memories” of childhood sexual abuse and the associated epidemic of multiple personality disorder. We discuss these more below. First, however, we review what little we know about ROGD.
What About Natal Males?
Why do we keep emphasizing natal females versus natal males? There are three reasons. First, the single study that has been conducted on ROGD found substantially higher numbers of females than males (more than 80% female cases). Second, there has been a striking surge in the number of adolescent females identifying as transgender and presenting at gender clinics. Third, there is a different kind of gender dysphoria–Autogynephilic Gender Dysphoria–that likely accounts for most or all of the apparent cases of ROGD in natal males. However, we cannot be completely sure that the smallish number of ROGD cases in natal males are due to autogynephilia. It’s possible, therefore, that what we discuss here applies to some natal males as well.
What Do We Know?
ROGD is such a recent phenomenon that we know little for certain. We have four sources of data. First, an important study of ROGD has been presented by Lisa Littman at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research. (It has not yet been published, but we suspect it will be soon.) This is the only systematic empirical study to date. Second, we have had numerous conversations with mothers of girls with ROGD. Third, we have read several case studies of the phenomenon. Fourth, we have been in touch with clinicians who work (either as therapists or consultants) with children with ROGD, or their families. Fortunately, the sources have provided convergent findings. We are fairly confident about the following generalizations:
The large majority of persons with ROGD are female, and the most typical age of onset ranges from high school to college ages.
Persons with ROGD have a high rate of non-heterosexual identities before the onset of their ROGD.
Signs of extreme social contagion are typical. For example, this includes multiple peer group members who all began to identify as transgender. Sometimes this occurs after school-sponsored transgender educational programs.
Persons with ROGD have high rates of certain psychiatric problems, especially aspects related to borderline personality disorder (e.g., non-suicidal self-harm) and mild forms of autism (that used to be called “Asperger Syndrome).
In general, the mental health and social relationships of children with ROGD get much worse once they adopt transgender identities.
Parents resisting their children’s ROGD are not “transphobic” or socially intolerant. These are parents who, for example, usually approve of gay marriage and equal rights for transgender persons.
Our Current Take on ROGD
Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) occurs when a young person (generally an adolescent female) is persuaded that she is transgender, despite strong evidence that the young person had few or no signs associated with established forms of transgender. How and why does this happen?
Despite the very limited available research to date, we have strong intuitions and hunches about what is going on, based on its similarity to similar phenomena in the past: the recovered memories and multiple personality epidemics. We spend considerable effort in this section both explaining these past epidemics and drawing the parallels to the current one that concerns us now: Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria. We believe that she who forgets (or ignores) the past is doomed to repeat it.
During the 1990s there was an explosion of cases in which women came to believe that they had been sexually molested, usually by their fathers and often repeatedly and brutally. They believed these things even though prior to “recovering” these “memories”–most often during psychotherapy–they did not remember anything like them. They believed in the memories even though the memories were often highly implausible (for example, family members would have noticed). Many women with recovered memories cut off relationships with their families. Some developed symptoms of multiple personality disorder. We know now that the recovered memories were false. And multiple personality disorder doesn’t exist, at least in the way those affected and their therapists believed. We refer to recovered memories and multiple personality disorder, which have similar causes–and also some similar causes to ROGD–as RM/MPD
Here are the main similarities between ROGD and RM/MPD:
Cases consistent with RM/MPD were very rare prior to the 1980s but became an epidemic. The same appears to be happening with ROGD.