A short while ago, at the monthly Clare Project Posh Nosh in Brighton in fact, the subject of autogynephilia came up. Views differed on what it was, although the basic idea of having an erotic regard for one's own appearance was generally agreed on. But it seemed a technical issue, something only weird psychologists obsessed about, specifically Dr Ray Blanchard in America. The discussion didn't go very far, chiefly because it wasn't a topic that had much to do with the day-to-day business of living a trans life in a south coast city; and because it was in any case thought to be an unproven theory that applied mainly to a minority of pre-op MTF transsexuals or crossdressers.
However, I had noticed the occasional distressed post on Angels and Roses, on the lines of 'Am I an Autogynephiliac?' Posts from apparently quite ordinary people. For them it was clearly a great worry. As if getting turned on by your appearance was wrong, a sin, something that would stigmatise you, something to be ashamed of.
For myself, I'd known of the word 'autogynephilia' for a long time, and recalled encountering it right at the start of my transition, before I even took any active steps. I think it was on a forum. The message I took on board was that autogynephilia meant obsessive self-love to the point of orgasm, and then way beyond. Something more than just finding oneself very sexy when dressed up, wigged, and smothered in makeup. Something more serious than doing an imaginary strip tease in front of a mirror, followed by a jolly good wank. Something that kept on nagging at you once the clothes, wig and makeup had been packed away for a future session. An incurable type of compulsion. A disturbing fetishism. Certainly something to keep quiet about when seeing the doctor at the gender clinic, in case your transition got sidetracked. I got the drift.
But what is autogynephilia actually supposed to be? I looked it up. As expected, Wikipedia has a decent article (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanchard%27s_transsexualism_typology), and for a thorough examination of the subject and the controversy that surrounds it, Andrea James' Transsexual Roadmap article seems hard to beat (see http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/autogynephilia.html). I also looked at what Gires had to say about gynephilia in natal women (see http://www.gires.org.uk/autogynephilia.php, and noted the link to a digest of a paper by Dr Charles Moser at http://home.netcom.com/~docx2/AGF.htm). Jack Molay's blog The Autogynephilia Portal also seems to be useful, offering yet another angle on the subject (see http://autogynephilia.blogspot.co.uk/).
Any post-op transsexual should feel qualified by nature to have an insight into the whole matter. In other words, one such can say to any researcher or enquirer: ask me, and you'll get information from the horse's mouth, first-hand stuff.
So here's my take. Let's imagine I'm in the London rooms of an eminent phychologist, on the couch, while he takes notes.
Psychologist: Have you ever felt aroused by your own appearance?
Lucy: Yes, of course.
Psychologist: Why 'of course'?
Lucy: Because I think it's natural to feel a response when you see something exciting and stimulating. It could be a picture, something on TV, a person in the street, or your own reflection in a mirror. If a sexual trigger is there, your response will be triggered.
Pychologist: Do you always need to respond? Can't you control the impulse?
Lucy: If the trigger is powerful, it's hard not to respond. It then becomes a choice between stifling the response, and giving it expression. If you're on your own, in private, and there's no reason to curb the response, it seems perverse not to enjoy the sensation nature offers and see where it may go. Why would you, for example, deny yourself the full pleasure of eating a delicious-looking meal? What indeed is the essential difference between various kinds of sensation? You can get turned on by all kinds of things: food, sex, exciting sports, thunderous applause, by creating something breathtakingly beautiful, or (let's be frank) by killing and destroying things - the horrible depravity of orgies. On a trivial level, you may crave a naughty buttered biscuit: will you resist the temptation to scoff one? What really will be bad about it, if you give in? So you do. In company you usually manage to curb impulses, good manners and social conventions providing a stalwart counter-influence; but left to yourself, the impulse may be so overwhelming that you go ahead and take the sensation promised. If you are obeying the automatic electro-chemical signal in your body that says to you, do this, it will give you pleasure, and it won't harm yourself, and nobody else is involved or affected by whatever it is, then where exactly is the badness?
Psychologist: You don't see any constraints? Moral or religious injunctions not to do something, for example?
Lucy: No. I simply think that I have this body, these natural ways to enjoy it, and that's the end of the matter really. Of course, my lifelong social conditioning has implanted artificial notions that make me wonder what people might think if they caught me doing this or that. And lots of things don't appeal to me, for reasons I can't fathom, but it probably also has something to do with my upbringing, what my parents thought, what my peers and partners considered right and proper. You can't escape your past that easily!
Psychologist: And these things do restrain you, because you feel guilt, or at least they make you feel you are doing something to be ashamed of?
Lucy: Yes. Even though I honestly can't see the real problem. I still feel guilt, and have to consciously set it aside.
Psychologist: Let's be specific. Do you ever get sexually aroused by your own reflection?
Lucy: If I'm honest, yes.
Psychologist: When did this become an intense sensation?
Lucy: Oh, once the hormones had got me in their grip, and my skin became smooth and soft, and the fat-distribution gave me much more of a woman's shape, and my face changed. Electrolysis helped hugely. These were changes that I saw, and responded to, even when I first woke up in the morning, hair tousled and no makeup. I saw myself in a raw state, and still found the sight amazing. It's even more true nowadays.
Psychologist: You mean 'nowadays when I'm post-op'? Do you get aroused at the sight of your female genitalia?
Lucy: Ah, that's not what actually makes me feel sexy. I'm not saying that I don't look at that zone - it's impossible not to look, and why would you avert your eyes? But I feel sexy - post-op - because of the knowledge that my body is 'authentic'. It's a mental thing. The surgical alterations have made me feel different. I walk differently, and I'm much lighter on my feet. And my posture has improved. I definitely walk taller, literally. All this reinforces the perfectly real sensation of being a graceful floating female, and not a clumsy clumping male. Slinky cat versus blundering bulldog. But the social consequences are just as important. With a woman's shape, a woman's voice, and a woman's behaviour, I socialise in a completely female way, and that has remoulded my self-perception. To the extent that it's easy to imagine the thrill of being chatted up and seduced. And that kind of fantasy is what I have in mind when I have got myself ready to go out, and I consider my reflection, and think, 'you don't look bad, not at all'. Even though I'm not looking for love, and will be an my guard against advances, and I'm quite aware that, in any case, only old codgers will give me a second glance.
Psychologist: Your reflection doesn't make you abandon the evening for a session of masturbation in front of the mirror?
Lucy: No way. I want to see my friends, and have a nice drink, or a meal, or both. With plenty of talk, plenty of laughter. That's all much more satisfying.
Psychologist: So your social life is more important to you than sex?
Lucy: It is.
And I think we'll leave the discussion there. As you can see, my own take is that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the natural sensations your body can give you. Our eyes and brains can't help responding to trigger sights that set internal processes in motion. I say, let them have expression, but subject to some considerations. For example, I draw the line very sharply at harming other people. And at self-harming, whether it's too much drinking, smoking, drugs or frank torture. Without exceptions, we surely owe it to others to protect their mental and physical welfare by being much more than just discreet: we must be adult and responsible in the widest and finest senses. It's a compulsory and universal duty of care, in fact.
If the only sex available is masturbation in private, then I'd say go for it without guilt. The same if duff at handling relationships, or if needing a way of having sex without the risk of infections and diseases.
Above all, I don't think anyone should regard themselves as a depraved fetishist if they find their own appearance sexy. It's good to have high self-esteem. It's an essential part of a great evening out. But it's bad if that self-esteem develops into the kind of self-obsessed narcissism that takes over one's life, and makes it impossible to give proper care and attention to other people, because the world has narrowed down to just one's pretty face. Now that is something to be concerned about.