by J. Michael Bailey, Ph.D and Ray Blanchard, Ph.D
This is the second in a series of articles authored by Drs. Bailey and Blanchard; see here for their first piece.
Many parents who are part of the 4thWaveNow community have daughters who fit the profile of a sudden onset of gender dysphoria in adolescence. This phenomenon is discussed in detail by the authors after the first two types, in the section “Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (Mostly Adolescent and Young Adult Females).” Some 4thWave parents will also find the section “Two Rarer Types of Gender Dysphoria” of particular interest (near the end of the article).
We recognize that regular readers and members of 4thWaveNow will not agree with all of what Bailey and Blanchard have to say, but as always, if you wish to challenge the authors, your comments will be more likely to be published if they are delivered respectfully.
As their time permits, Drs. Bailey and Blanchard will be available to interact in the comments section of this post.
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.
- Both have primarily affected young females, although RM/MPD began substantially later (on average, age 32) than ROGD (typically during adolescence). (Another destructive epidemic of social contagion–witch accusations in colonial Salem–primarily involved adolescent girls.)
- The explanations of both RM/MPD and ROGD by “true believers” are contradicted by past experience, common sense, and science. Memory and personality integration did not work the way that therapists treating RM/MPD believed they did. For example, children and adults who experienced trauma can’t repress them–they remember them despite their best attempts. And gender dysphoria in natal females does not begin after childhood–unless it is the acquired condition that is ROGD.
- Both show ample evidence of social contagion of false, harmful beliefs. In RM/MPD, the “infection route” usually went from therapists who strongly believed in RM/MPD to their suggestible patients, who acquired a similar belief, applied it to their own lives, and manufactured false and monstrous accusations against previously loved ones. (A harmful result of therapy or medical treatment is called iatrogenic,) In ROGD, the infection route appears to be primarily directly from youngster to youngster. To be sure, therapists get into the act after the person with ROGD acquires the belief that she is transgender, and then they are complicit in tremendous harm. But it seems rarely to occur (yet) for a youngster to be talked into ROGD by a therapist.
- Both are associated with sociopolitical ideologies. (Interestingly, both ideologies still find comfortable homes in Gender Studies programs in many universities.) For RM/MPD, the ideological system was that men’s sexual abuse of children has not only been too common (true), but that it has been rampant, even the rule (false). Couple this ideology with a belief in Freudian theory and methods (like hypnosis), and what could go wrong? Plenty, it turned out. For ROGD, the relevant ideology is less coherent, but includes the seemingly contradictory ideas that gender is “fluid” (here meaning that not everyone fits into a male-female dichotomy); that forcing people into rigid gender categories is a common cause of societal and personal anguish; but that gender transition is an underused way of helping people.
- Both RM/MPD and ROGD are associated with mental health issues, generally, and especially a personality profile consistent with borderline personality disorder (BPD). This is not to say that all persons with either RM/MPD or ROGD have BPD; simply that evidence suggests that it is common in these groups. For example, the high rate of non-suicidal self-injury we have noticed from the aforementioned sources is striking. Such behavior is strongly associated with BPD. (For a discussion of BPD among those with RM/MPD, see this article, pages 510ff.)
- Adopting the belief that one has either RM/MPD or ROGD has been associated with a marked decline in functioning and mental health.
Some of the factors that seem to be common in ROGD–and some that are similar between ROGD and RM/MPD–likely encourage the adoption of false beliefs and identities. These include a fragile sense of self (BPD), attention seeking (BPD), social difficulties (BPD and autistic traits), social malleability (BPD, and adolescence), social pressure (adolescence), and strongly held (if irrational and poorly supported) beliefs that make embracing false conclusions especially likely (sociopolitical indoctrination). Adolescents with an actual history of gender nonconformity, or whose sexual orientations are non-heterosexual, may be especially vulnerable to believing that these are signs they have always been transgender. Adolescents whose lives have not been going well may be especially looking for an explanation and may be especially receptive to drastic change.
Based on the aforementioned data sources with which we are familiar, and on our informed hunches, we suspect that many persons with ROGD were usually troubled before they decided they were gender dysphoric and many will lead somewhat troubled lives even after their ROGD (hopefully) dissipates. Of course, ROGD can only make things worse, both for the affected person and her family.
What to do
Because ROGD is such a recent phenomenon, there is very little guidance about helping affected persons. Lisa Marchiano has written two excellent essays abounding with good sense, and we recommend starting with those.
Second, set aside, for now, rapid-onset gender dysphoria. Identify your child’s problems that existed before ROGD and that may have contributed to it. Attending to these problems will be useful for everybody, and perhaps your child will even agree.
Third, with respect to ROGD, do what you can to delay any consideration of gender transition. Of the different kinds of gender dysphoria, ROGD is the type for which gender transition is least justifiable and least researched. Remember, ROGD is based on a false belief acquired through social means. None of the aforementioned factors that have caused your child to embrace this false belief will be corrected by allowing her to transition.
Two Rarer Types of Gender Dysphoria
For the sake of completeness, we include two other kinds of gender dysphoria. We suspect that both are rare, even among persons with gender dysphoria. One of us (Blanchard) has seen cases of the first type, autohomoerotic gender dysphoria, which appears to be an erotically motivated gender dysphoria. In this case, sexually mature natal females (i.e., not biologically still children) become sexually preoccupied with the idea of becoming a gay man and interacting with other gay men. Neither of us has seen someone clearly fitting the second type, gender dysphoria resulting from psychosis. (Our inclusion of this type was motivated in large part by the argument of Dr. Anne Lawrence, an important scholar we both respect.) In this type, a person (either male or female by birth) acquires the delusion that s/he is the other sex, because s/he is suffering from gross thinking deficiencies.
Superficially, both of these conditions have some similarities to some other kinds of gender dysphoria. For example, a female with rapid onset gender dysphoria may be sexually attracted to males and thus strive to become a gay man, similar to autohomoerotic gender dysphoria. The important difference is that the female with rapid onset gender dysphoria is not primarily motivated by an erotic desire to be a gay man. Instead, having the prospect of having sex with gay men is a by-product of her condition, not the main point of it. The female with rapid onset gender dysphoria acquires it via social contagion, broadly speaking (i.e., including cultural signals that gender dysphoria is in some crucial ways desirable). With respect to the other rare subtype, we have both known gender dysphoric persons with psychosis. However, in these cases, the psychosis was not the cause of the gender dysphoria. It was simply an additional problem that the gender dysphoric person had. In the case of gender dysphoria resulting from psychosis, the belief that one is transgender (or the other sex) is clearly a delusion resulting from disordered thinking–and not, for example, from social contagion or autogynephilia.
Autohomoerotic Gender Dysphoria
This rare type of gender dysphoria is limited to females. Published cases have consisted of women whose gender dysphoria began in late adolescence or adulthood. (It is conceivable that it might begin earlier in some cases.) It occurs in (heterosexual) females who are sexually attracted to men, but who wish to undergo sex reassignment so that they can have “homosexual” relations with other men. These females appear to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of themselves as gay men. We have created the label autohomoerotic gender dysphoria to denote this sexual orientation. There are little systematic data on this type of gender dysphoria, although clinical mentions of heterosexual women with strong masculine traits, who say that they feel as if they were homosexual men, and who feel strongly attracted to effeminate men go back over 100 years.
It is well documented that at least a few autohomoerotic gender dysphorics have undergone surgical sex reassignment and were satisfied with their decision to do so. There is no compelling reason to question such self-reports of postoperative satisfaction, although current surgical techniques do not produce fully convincing or functional artificial penises, and it is difficult to imagine that autohomoerotics find it easy to attract gay male partners who can overlook this.
This type of gender dysphoria does not appear to be the female counterpart of autogynephilic gender dysphoria, although the differences might appear subtle. Autogynephilic (male) gender dysphorics are attracted to the idea of having a woman’s body; autohomoerotic (female) gender dysphorics are attracted to the idea of participating in gay male sex. For autogynephiles, becoming a lesbian woman is a secondary goal—the logical consequence of being attracted to women and wanting to become a woman. For autohomoerotics, becoming a gay man appears to be the primary goal or very close to it.
The few available case reports suggest that autohomoerotic gender dysphoria may have ideational or behavioral antecedents in childhood. However, these females are not as conspicuously masculine as girls with (pre-homosexual) Childhood Onset Gender Dysphoria. For this reason, and because it is rare to start with, it is unlikely that many parents will detect this syndrome in daughters. It is conceivable, however, that when they occur, cases of autohomoerotic gender dysphoria may be perceived by others as Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. This is not because their gender dysphoria arose suddenly, but rather because their early, atypical erotic fantasies were invisible to their parents.
Gender Dysphoria Caused by Psychotic Delusions
The idea that gender dysphoria can sometimes reflect psychotic delusions is certainly plausible. Delusions in schizophrenia, for example, are often bizarre but compelling to the person who has them. Unfortunately, neither of us (Ray Blanchard or Michael Bailey) has had direct contact with a person clearly meeting this profile, and so we have less confidence in this gender dysphoria category than in the others. Our lack of direct familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean that much. Even if gender dysphoria due to psychosis were fairly common (compared with other forms of gender dysphoria), we wouldn’t have expected to come across it. Persons with severe mental illness have generally been treated for their mental illness and not for gender dysphoria. Until recently, clinics treating persons with gender dysphoria would have screened out patients with severe mental illness, because of concerns that their diagnosis and treatment might be compromised. But we are hesitant to embrace this kind of gender dysphoria as “definitely existing,” because we worry that psychiatrists who have claimed to see it may have been insufficiently trained to notice other kinds of gender dysphoria, such as autogynephilia. Thus, they may have concluded that psychosis caused the gender dysphoria, when in fact, psychosis may have simply occurred with autogynephilia within the same person. One of us (Bailey) has recently been in touch with a mother of a young man who appears to have the profile we would expect for gender dysphoria due to psychotic delusions, and there was no evidence that this young man was autogynephilic. Still, we are least sure about the existence–much less the prevalence–of this kind of gender dysphoria.
Not Just One Type of Gender Dysphoria: Some Implications
It should be clear by now that “gender dysphoria” is not a precise enough term. Parents of gender dysphoric children should know which type of gender dysphoria their child has. To do so it is necessary to learn about all three of the most common types. That is, in order to understand why one’s child is Type X, it is necessary to know why s/he is not Type Y or Type Z. This is not simply academic. There are essential differences between the different types of gender dysphoria.
If knowledge is power, then lack of knowledge is malpractice. The ignorance of some leading gender clinicians regarding all scientific aspects of gender dysphoria is scandalous. To do better, they should start here. We recommend against hiring gender clinicians who are hostile to our typology. Ideally, they would agree with it.
Knowing there are very distinct kinds of gender dysphoria also raises questions–and concerns–about transgender persons of one type using their own experiences to make recommendations for children/adolescents of other types. Nothing in Caitlyn Jenner’s experience allows her to understand what it was like to be Jazz Jennings–and vice versa. Yet a number of vocal transgender activists who have histories typical of autogynephilic gender dysphorics do not hesitate to pressure parents, legislators, and clinicians for acquiescence, laws, and therapies that do not distinguish among types of gender dysphoric children. Moreover, they not infrequently claim inside knowledge based on their own experiences. Yet their experiences are irrelevant to the two types of gender dysphoria that they don’t have. And even with respect to autogynephilia, these transgender activists are nearly all in denial. This means that their public recollections of their experiences are either distorted or outright lies. A notable exception is Dr. Anne Lawrence, who has become an important researcher of gender dysphoria, and who has been honest and open about her autogynephilia. Dr. Lawrence has taken the time to learn the scientific literature regarding different types of gender dysphoria and does not insist that her personal experiences apply to non-autogynephilic gender dysphorics. The biggest victims in the attempts by autogynephiles-in-denial to steer the narrative towards sameness are, in fact, other persons with autogynephilia. These include honest autogynephiles, who frequently contact us but are fearful of public attacks by those in denial. Most relevant to this blog as potential victims are autogynephilic youngsters, who are at risk of being swayed toward decisions they would not otherwise make, on the basis of inaccurate fantasies embraced by those who cannot face the truth of their own condition.
To us, the most tragic group, along with their families, includes those who have acquired rapid-onset gender dysphoria. That condition appears to be the tragic interaction of the current transgender zeitgeist (“It’s everywhere, and it’s great!”) and social media with the vulnerability of troubled adolescents, especially adolescent girls. They are at risk for unnecessary, disfiguring, and unhealthy medical interventions.
*Note. Suicide is tragic and awful, and because of this, we recommend taking seriously your child’s suicidal ideas, threats, and gestures. We have written elsewhere about the risk of suicide among gender dysphoric persons, and we think that this risk is elevated compared with non-gender-dysphoric persons, but still unlikely.