Autogynephilia is one of range of conditions caused by an error in the location of the erotic target, also known as an ETLE.
As a result of this ETLE, a conflict of self-ideation occurs, in which the subject progressively begins to identify as the ETLE and not as the original host. While this process is going on, self-ideation, either as host or ETLE is weak and variable. Freud’s concepts of Id, Ego and Superego are useful here.
Instead, therefore of looking at the well-known paraphilic qualities of Autogynephilia, we should look at the nature of self-ideation and how it becomes, in some individuals, vulnerable to this sort of attack.
Normally in a heterosexual male, the erotic target will be feminine. This will be projected outward onto persons outside the self. When a person who matches the erotic target is encountered, that person may become the object of sexual desire. This is a normal location of the erotic target. Where an Erotic Target Location Error is present, however, the subject’s self may become implicated, to a greater or lesser degree, as the target. One condition provoked by this is Autogynephilia, though there are others.
While everything we think we see, feel and hear is actually a construction that our minds create from sensory input, people are usually quite good at establishing what is happening uniquely within the mind (fantasies etc) and what is happening outside it (real life).
Most of us have a strong awareness of whom we are; we might say that our self-ideation is stable. You might hear older people saying they don’t feel different, in their sixties, to how they felt when they were children and that is true. It was at that time that their idea of self became crystallised and they became the person they remain.
In nearly all cases, absent severe trauma either psychological or physical, we are indeed that same person. Of course, we will have developed and we will have learned; but we remain the same self. The human condition is one of constantly changing and yet remaining the same; as the French say, plus ca change, plus ca reste pareil.
As a result we have a pretty strong grasp of what is internal, the self, and what is external, the other. One thing that art does, especially narrative forms like literature, theatre and cinema, is to temporarily change the boundaries of self such that the other can become a part of it.
Horror fiction is particularly adept at this. We know we are reading a book or watching a film but we can still be badly frightened; the other – as described in whatever we are reading or watching, has actually entered the fortress of self.
Something similar occurs in religious ecstasy. In this, the numinous being, which is outside the self, moves into it. Indeed, shamans and others deliberately cultivate a mental state where they are open to this effect and here, reading Carlos Castaneda’s work is fascinating.
Castaneda used peyote to confuse his self-ideation and loosen the bonds of self. Can a man jump seven miles into the air? Of course not, but if self-ideation is slack enough, he might really believe such a thing happened.
In another case, perhaps less dramatic, fighter pilots and motorcyclists talk about becoming ‘one with the machine’ and they mean this in a literal sense, such that the borders of self – the rider or pilot – and other – the machine – become blurred. This is stimulating for them and as a motorcyclist myself I can attest to its strength.
So while we are usually well aware of the boundaries of self, under certain circumstances we can ignore this and allow them to be distorted. Perhaps unfortunately, in this context, sex is a far more powerful reward system than almost any other.
Let’s consider now what might happen if the boundary between self and other, which is, remember, the basis of self-ideation, were to be blurred by some mechanism not under our control. Interestingly we do have some evidence on this.
During the 1950s and 60s, the CIA in the USA started conducting experiments into Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD. Known colloquially as ‘acid’ this had powerful effects, including hallucinations, interfering with temporal and spatial understanding, euphoria and others. From our perspective the most interesting was its ability to interfere with self-ideation – and that was what interested the CIA too.
Sidney Gottlieb: destroying self-ideation
The programme, called MK-ULTRA, was run by a chemist called Sidney Gottlieb. This has been called ‘the most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.’ According to Stephen Kinzer, a journalist who researched this, Gottlieb was looking for ways to ‘blast away the existing mind…(and) insert a new mind into that resulting void.’
In other words, he sought to destroy people’s existing self-ideation and replace it with a new one.
Gottlieb’s experiments, which included other gruesome techniques like electro-shock therapy, eventually convinced his masters that mind control did not work and he moved on to other areas, like designing ‘poisons and high-tech gadgets for spies to use.’ Q but not quite so nice.
During the 60s and into the 70s, many people experimented with LSD in an uncontrolled manner, primarily seeking either a ‘high’ or some sort of transcendental experience. Many described, rather as Castaneda did, extremely colourful ‘out of body’ experiences.
While the popular media made much of these, LSD was never either a bane nor a universal panacea. It was just a high. But I noticed that I was never able to have the experiences that others claimed to have had and I wondered why.
The answer may be that I have strong self-ideation. Those who had the most graphical experiences were always those who were much less grounded and in fact, some went on to have severe psychotic episodes — which were quite predictable.
Naturally this was blamed on the LSD, but I can’t help but wonder if the real issue was that they had weak self-ideation from the start, which was manifest in their psychedelic fantasies and later came to affect their normal life. Perhaps this was accelerated by the drug use, but I doubt if by much.
Freud: Id, Ego, Superego
Freud thought that the self was made of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego. The Id was the first to be established, present from birth and perhaps before. It operates on what he called the ‘pleasure principle’. It constantly seeks pleasure and avoids pain. The ego forms a little later, from the Id and its function is to restrain the latter, such that its demands become acceptable to those around the person. It operates on the ‘reason principle’.
The Superego develops even later and is a system of applied regulation that takes into account what we have been taught is acceptable. We might look at the Ego and Superego as defining our ‘moral compass’. They regulate our behaviour and the demands of the Id, firstly in an interpersonal way and then in a terms of the broader society.
There seems to be a connection between a strong Ego and Superego and strong self-ideation. They don’t appear to be the same thing, but they do appear to operate in tandem.
Those with weak Ego/Superego may be prone to addictive behaviour, for example. Their Id is more powerful than the Ego/Superego can restrain. This can lead both to great success in life but also to complete disaster. The point is that it’s not under control.
This appears to relate to the LSD experience. Those who indulged heavily and who were the most likely to report spectacular experiences, tended to be hedonistic, prone to addiction and completely unconcerned about legality or indeed, morality. ‘Anything goes’ was a watchword for good reasons.
The Self is not formed by the Id alone but by the relationship between Id, Ego and Superego. That is why we really become aware of ourselves as ourselves only in later childhood. By this time, according to Freud, the Id remains dynamic but it is under the control of the Ego and the Superego. These crystallise into the person we know ourselves as.
Self-ideation then is not just the awareness of self and other but of the intrinsic nature of self. We know whom we are, when our self-ideation is strong and so we can predict our reactions to specific phenomena. We do not surprise ourselves very often.
Primary Process Thinking
Freud may assist us further through his idea of primary process thinking. In this, the Id forms a mental image of the desired object which then replaces it, temporarily at least.
A primary process is used instead of acting on dangerous or unacceptable urges. The Id forms a substitute for a desired object or urge in order to diffuse tension and anxiety. This image can take the form of a dream, hallucination, fantasy or delusion.1
It can also use, by the same logic, the experience of reading fiction, watching films and so on and even to experiencing real danger but in a controlled manner, such as bungy-jumping. All of these exhibit Primary Process.
Most of us are adept at separating these Primary Process experiences from our quotidian lives and understanding of reality. But this depends on a firm self-ideation. Where that is weak, there is a risk that a Primary Process might break through the barriers we set about it. As in Stevenson’s interpretation, Dr Jekyll might actually become Mr Hyde.
There is a distinct possibility that the formation of the ETLE is an example of Primary Process. Subjects recreate within themselves a facsimile of that which they most desire outside themselves, but for some reason cannot have. But here, instead of the Primary Process being a temporary mechanism to defuse an immediate urge, it becomes a vicious cycle, constantly becoming stronger — because it is being rewarded.
This might be achieved through masturbation, self-pedication, crossdressing and so on. As these rewards were provided, the ETLE would become stronger until, like Mr Hyde, it breaks out of the prison created for it by the Ego and becomes a real Self of its own.
Clearly, the rewards which most tangibly realise the ETLE, such as cross-dressing, are much more powerful than purely internal ones, like imagining oneself as the Erotic Target – cross-dreaming. But the latter often proceeds to the former.
Self-ideation in ‘hypermasculine’ male homosexuality
For this to happen, however, self-ideation must be weakened and I believe that this is where investigation into Autogynephilia and other conditions that involve an ETLE, like ‘hypermasculine’ male homosexuality, must begin. What is the trauma that caused the normal control, by the Ego, of the Id’s urges to be rendered ineffective?
In hypermasc homosexuality we can trace this largely to peer pressure and sex-shaming, where Sexually Inverted males who express their natural femininity are mocked and excluded. This is traumatic and leads them to form an ETLE on a hypermasculine man, which they then attempt to realise.
Looking at Autogynephilic men we should ask the same question. There is a subset of these males who never go through adult male socialisation. Instead they proceed directly from onset to presentation and may transition by their late teens. They are often highly successful as women.
The classic Western form is not like that. Here, males are fully socialised as adult men, may be married and have children, good careers and so on. What makes a man like that throw it all away?
Many such men claim to have been affected since their teenage years and this might be true; but that does not answer the question. Why, after thirty or forty years of coping, of the Ego managing the Id’s demands, would that suddenly break down?
The answer can only be that some other influence has come to bear on the individual and this has compromised his Ego’s ability to maintain control over the Id.
In other words, something must have happened to disturb a settled self-ideation, which had been dealing with the issue successfully, such that it no longer can. In my next article in this series I will explore some possible triggers.