Holding the Line on Autogynephilia: Where Does Compassion End and Condemnation Begin?
The AGP in denial is a type of Vindictive Narcissist who should be called out, shamed, and condemned. But we also need to understand what drives them.
In my most recent essay for this Substack, I focused on the psychological factors driving autogynephilia as I’ve come to understand them through research and my psychotherapy practice. I described clients who acknowledge that they have a problem and grapple with it through our work together.
In this follow-up essay, I’ll talk about men afflicted with the very same issues but who are in denial about it, men who would never consider psychotherapy because they don’t acknowledge having a psychological/emotional disorder rather than a gender identity. This group of men includes trans rights activists (TRAs) who heckle Kellie-Jay Kean at her rallies; trans-identified males who seek entry into women’s shelters, public bathrooms, and department store changing rooms; biological males who participate in female sports; and men who believe themselves to be women and who exploit the court system to persecute their ex-wives.
Think of two alcoholics, one who acknowledges his struggles and regularly attends AA meetings, and another who turns surly if you suggest he might have a drinking problem. Because the first one admits that he’s an alcoholic and seeks help, you’re likely to feel compassion for him. The second one lives in denial and will find a way to attack your character should you say he drinks more than is good for him; it’s unlikely he’ll evoke a sympathetic response.
When I promoted my essay on 𝕏, I received many angry comments insisting it was wrong to feel any compassion for autogynephiles, even the ones in my practice who come to me for help. To choose but one example: “It is indefensible. I have zero sympathy for these men. It is clear child abuse. And no one around them should be making excuses or enabling their behaviour. Disgust is a useful human emotion. It alerts us to perverted behaviour.” She could not have read my lengthy essay and concluded that I was “making excuses or enabling their behaviour.”
But I completely understand how she feels. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent many hours interviewing transwidows, watching their videos on YouTube, and reading their accounts on websites such as www.transwidowsvoices.org. The behavior of the men they describe, their ex-husbands and former partners, is truly monstrous. Nothing I heard or read surprised me, not because of my psychotherapy work with autogynephilic men but because of my clinical experience and the research I’ve done on pathological narcissists.
For more than a decade, my work has focused on the link between shame and narcissism. I’ve written many blog posts describing that link and expanded upon it in two books. Listening to those harrowing accounts from transwidows reminded me of stories I used to hear from divorced women who contacted me through my website—women whose ex-husbands gaslit them, tried to destroy their careers and family relationships, financially abandoned them, and then exploited the court system to persecute them. The stories are virtually identical.
In short, I consider the AGP in denial to be a type of Vindictive Narcissist, as described in Chapter 9 of my book The Narcissist You Know. I make this statement without reservation. I believe society should call them out, shame and condemn them, full stop. But I also think we need to understand what drives them, and why they so often commit the heinous acts they do. Understanding the forces behind their behavior and the typical defense mechanisms they rely upon will help us to withstand their vindictive assaults on our own sense of self.
Throughout my work, I describe narcissism as a defense against an unbearable experience of being damaged or defective, rooted in early childhood trauma and attachment failures. I refer to such an experience as core shame. The primary defense against awareness of this internal disaster is to take flight from it into an idealized false self, one designed to “disprove” all that damage. This defense occurs unconsciously; it’s not a deliberate or premeditated choice.
Whenever this idealized self-image is challenged—say, if you criticize him or catch him in a lie–the narcissist feels threatened by the return of core shame and will rely on characteristic defenses to ward it off. He will deny all fault and blame you for his own shortcomings. He will treat you with contempt and savage your character to invalidate your perceptions. If envy is very strong (when you embody the very qualities he wants for himself), he will mock, belittle, and try to destroy you psychologically. The most seriously ill narcissists resort to physical violence.
Unifying all these defensive maneuvers is the projection onto you of the unconscious shame he can’t bear to feel. Rather than feeling damaged and defective himself, he tries to make you feel like a loser, a crazy person, a worthless piece of shit. If your very existence threatens his idealized self-image, or his self-serving revision of the past, he may take steps to discredit you in the eyes of others. He will attempt to sabotage your friendships and family relations, alienate you from your children, and have you terminated from your place of employment.
I described Vindictive Narcissists in a book published nearly 10 years ago, long before I entered the gender wars and began working with trans-identified teens and adult detransitioners. That description feels 100% accurate in connection with the typical TRA today, and with the men who transitioned late in life and went on to persecute their ex-wives. I can state with confidence that the AGPs who insist transwomen are women and show up to disrupt Let Women Speak events are Vindictive Narcissists in flight from core shame. I will also say that I have no sympathy for such men even though I do understand what drives them.
I have no trouble drawing a bright line: if you’re a biological male who insists he’s a woman and who harasses other people for disagreeing with you, I’ll condemn you and your actions. I certainly won’t use your preferred pronouns. And while I don’t support instituting legal dress codes, I’m in favor of deploying shame to discourage anti-social behavior that violates public norms. The right to individual self-expression isn’t absolute and must be balanced against the widely held values and sensibilities of other people. Public shaming defends those values against transgressive and harmful behavior.
More challenging for me are people like self-avowed autogynephile Debbie Hayton, whose autobiography was released on February 8. Since “Debbie” is Hayton’s legal first name, it seems appropriate to use it. But what about pronouns? I admit that I’ve struggled with this issue. One part of me believes I should stick to the truth, plain and simple, and defer to biological reality: because it’s impossible to change one’s sex, I should employ he/his pronouns when referring to every single trans-identified male including Debbie Hayton.
On the other hand, Hayton remains married, hasn’t neglected all family obligations, and bears no resemblance to the Vindictive Narcissists I’ve described in this essay. Hayton acknowledges being a biological male and rejects gender ideology. As far as I can tell, Hayton means no harm to anyone. For those reasons, another part of me considers it empathic and courteous to use she/her pronouns. Hayton has obviously suffered for decades because of struggles with autogynephilia, and presenting as a woman must afford some peace of mind.
And given that Hayton’s wife Stephanie uses those very pronouns, couldn’t I bend my rules and do the same? When it comes to the transsexuals I personally know, I make this exception because I don’t want to hurt them if I can help it. I’m not fully satisfied with this choice, and I don’t claim it’s the correct one.
Before his exit from 𝕏 last week, author and media commentator Andrew Doyle articulated a similar view after he was criticized for referring to Hayton, a biological male, as “she”; a vicious dogpile ensued as enraged gender critical feminists brutally denounced and insulted him. He subsequently wrote about this experience for Unherd, explaining why he decided to deactivate his 𝕏 account, at least temporarily.
In that essay, Doyle highlights a parallel between tactics employed by both his critics and by TRAs when someone dissents from gender ideology. Within the gender critical movement, he writes, there’s “a small but intimidating minority who maintain that any slight point of disagreement is a form of heresy, that language has the capacity to shape reality, and that those found guilty of wrongspeak ought to be publicly shamed and alienated. Remind you of anyone?”
Although the observation is accurate, I also understand the impulse to draw bright intractable lines. For decades now, the votaries of gender ideology have been violating one boundary after another, weaponizing their status as supposed victims and preying upon the tolerance displayed by our liberal society. Kellie-Jay Keen pungently articulated this perspective last week on 𝕏: Hayton “embodies all of the insidious trans cult boundary erasing abusive shit that slimed its way into our schools, institutions and language.”
From that point of view, it makes sense to take an unequivocal position: biological sex is real, binary, and immutable, and under no circumstances will we pretend otherwise. AGPs pose a threat to women and to children, and for that reason, we will give them no quarter, not even the supposedly “good” ones. If we do, they’ll only take advantage of us. It’s an entirely defensible position and I largely support holding the line on biological reality. I even understand the impulse to mock TRAs (those Vindictive Narcissists) who have relentlessly persecuted and disparaged women for daring to oppose them.
Such mockery will likely dehumanize the individual by turning him into a caricature, an all-black villain without nuance who embodies everything you despise. I don’t say that as a criticism. For many combatants, sacrificing a single man’s individual identity to fight trans rights activism makes sense when it furthers your cause. Given how aggressively and contemptuously women have been asked to respect the “inner truth” of trans-identified men and told to feel empathy for transgressors regardless of their own feelings, a refusal to feel any compassion is a natural kind of defiance.
I will speak the truth because it matters deeply, and I don’t in the least care how you feel about it.
While I sympathize, I can’t go quite that far myself, at least not when it comes to AGPs like Hayton, and even though I’ve now decided to use male pronouns after listening to his new audiobook and re-watching his interview with Andrew Doyle. Gender critical feminists consider him a villain, while I see man lost in his belief that he “routinely passes” for a woman, and unaware of the problematic nature of his views. I see him as self-deceived rather than malicious.
For most of Transsexual Apostate, Hayton adheres to the reality of biological sex and repeatedly admits that he was born and remains a man. Troubles arise in Chapter 5, Perception and Reality, when he points out that human beings rely on instincts evolved over millennia to perceive who is male and who female. True enough. But then he argues that our perceptions of sex matter more than the biological reality, grounding his argument in a discussion of Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).
Because biological males with CAIS lack receptors for testosterone and other masculinizing androgens, their bodies develop a typical female external phenotype despite their XY chromosomes. As a result, other people will perceive them as women; it makes no sense to call them men, says Hayton, even if it happens to be an accurate description on a biological level. By analogy, it makes no sense to call a female-presenting transsexual like him a “man” when other people routinely perceive him as a woman.
This line of argument has a few problems. To begin with, biological men suffering from CAIS don’t undergo elective surgeries or purposefully adapt their appearance to impersonate women; it just happens. A MtF transsexual, by contrast, is engaged in a non-stop attempt to convince himself and other people that he’s a woman. He undergoes facial feminization surgery, for example, so other people will be unable to “perceive” the size of his jaw or forehead and thereby intuit his sex. He takes cross-sex hormones to make himself appear and sound less masculine, which will confound sex-detecting instincts in the rest of us. An accident of nature which can’t be helped is entirely different from active deception.
And you can see where that line of thinking could easily go: if perceived sex is what it’s all about, then there’s a strong argument in favor of puberty blockers for minor children and early intervention with cross-sex hormones.
A murkier problem is Hayton’s statement that people routinely perceive him as a woman. He says he’s regularly surprised that people don’t “clock” him as a male given his height and broad shoulders, but he doesn’t understand that strangers are most likely being kind: they instantly perceive, given the amount of time and effort he puts into passing, that he desperately wants to be taken for a woman. People with no stake in the gender wars won’t wish to cause needless pain; they will therefore be kind and treat him the way he so obviously wants to be treated. For obvious reasons, some readers may understandably bristle at the word kind and deny him their sympathy.
While I do have a stake in the gender wars, I don’t view Hayton as a symbol for the entire trans movement, a bad man intent on invading female spaces with nefarious intent. I see him as a troubled autogynephile who self-soothes via the belief that he actually passes. Despite his insistence upon the reality of biological sex, he seems to think that if other people perceive him as a woman, then he might as well be one for all intents and purposes. I disagree but nonetheless feel compassion for him. I can also understand that some combatants in this space see him in a very different light, are intensely hostile toward him as a stand-in for abusive TRAs and prefer to call him names. I can accept that position provided it stops short of gratuitous cruelty.
As for me, I’ll continue to view my clients who struggle with autogynephilia as people and not perverts. I won’t vilify men like Debbie Hayton who admit to their condition, and I have no trouble distinguishing them from TRAs persecuting women who dissent. To my mind, the line between compassion and condemnation is a bright and obvious one, easy for me to define.
Feel free to disagree with me about where I’ve drawn it.
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