If you’ve ever browsed any major Internet porn site, you’ve undoubtedly encountered a search term for a person with a body type that would not have existed until recently: A typical-looking woman with a penis. (The terms used on the porn sites would likely include “shemale,” “chicks with dicks,” or “tranny”. While some trans women use these terms to identify themselves and/or find them unproblematic, many trans people consider them hurtful, insulting, and dehumanizing, due to their frequent linkage to anti-trans violence, discrimination, and objectification. So please don’t use them outside of an educational context. Use “trans” instead.)
While people born with typically male genitals who grew up to identify as women (and vice versa) have existed probably for as long as the human species has been around, only modern medical and surgical advances have made it possible for these people to physically alter their bodies to convincingly look like the gender they identify with. And, if someone doesn’t go “all the way” in making that physical transition (due to personal preferences, financial limitations, or social pressures), modern medicine has also made it possible for some bodies to maintain a mix of typically female and typically male sexual characteristics. (The technical term for this particular body type is gynandromorph, literally meaning a body with both female and male characteristics.)
As the popularity of “shemale” porn testifies, many people, non-transgender men in particular, are intensely attracted to this particular type of body. Given the historical novelty of this body type, this type of attraction (termed gynandromorphilia) poses a bit of an evolutionary mystery. Why are some men attracted to these types of trans women? Remember, these so-called gynandromorphiles (GAMPs) are not necessarily attracted to trans women in general (whose bodies may range from completely male-typical to completely female-typical), but specifically to trans women with penises. So are they kinda gay, or at least bisexual?
That is a question tackled in a new study just published in Psychological Medicine – the first published research to empirically study this particular sexual preference. To find out how GAMP men might differ from other, non-GAMP men, psychologist Kevin Hsu and colleagues at Northwestern University recruited 24 GAMP men, 21 straight men, and 21 gay men (in their early to mid-thirties) using the good-old Craigslist and brought them into the lab. There, they hooked the men up to a penile strain gauge that would measure their genital and subjective sexual arousal patterns while watching porn featuring either men only, women only, or trans women with penises. The researchers also asked the three groups about their sexual orientation (placement on the Kinsey scale) and sexual interest in themselves as women (an attraction known as autogynephilia, more on that below).
The graphs below illustrate the sexual arousal patterns (both genital and subjective) of the three groups of men to the different types of porn. As you may expect, men who identified as straight (red line) were highly aroused to female-female porn, not at all aroused to male-male porn, and somewhat aroused to trans female (GAM) porn. Gay men (blue line) showed the opposite pattern: No arousal to female porn, high arousal to male porn, and slight arousal to trans female porn. What about GAMP men (green line)? Their arousal patterns were more similar to straight men than to gay men, showing very strong arousal to female porn and little arousal to male porn, but with the addition of very strong arousal to trans female porn.
How about GAMPs self-reported sexual orientation? When asked to identify themselves as straight, bi, or gay, 58% of the GAMPs identified as straight, while the remaining 42% identified as bisexual; not a single one identified as gay. When they were asked to place themselves on the Kinsey scale (which only assesses attraction to men versus women, not allowing for attraction to trans people), indicated that this bisexuality was not particularly pronounced? On this scale ranging from 0 (completely heterosexual) to 6 (completely homosexual), GAMPs reported an average of 1.2, placing them squarely in the “mostly hetero” category. By comparison, the straight-identified men averaged 0.1 (pretty darn straight) and the gay-identified men averaged 5.4 (between “mostly gay” and “gay”). So again, GAMPs were much closer to straight men than gay men in this regard; in fact, over 70% placed themselves as Kinsey 0s or 1s.
Past sexual behavior told a similar, but slightly more bisexual, story. As the graph below indicates, GAMP men had similar numbers of female partners as straight men (and many more than gay men), but also more male partners (46% of GAMPs but 0% of straight men had at least one male partner), although not as many as gay men did. Unsurprisingly, GAMPs also had more trans female partners than either gays or straights.
Finally, the researchers wanted to know whether GAMP men’s attraction to trans women with penises could be traced back to an unusual sexual interest known as autogynephilia, or the eroticization of self as a woman (assessed by questions such as “Have you ever become sexually aroused while picturing yourself having a nude female body or with certain features of the nude female form?’ and ‘Have you ever become sexually aroused by the thought of being a woman?”). While most GAMP men did not report any autogynephilia, 42% of them affirmatively answered at least one of the eight questions. This was in stark contrast to both gay men, none of whom reported any autogynephilia, and straight men, 12% of whom reported some autogynephilia.
Interestingly, bisexual-identified GAMP men were significantly more autogynephilic than heterosexual-identified GAMP men. Bisexuality among GAMP men, then, appears to be associated not with sexual arousal to men, but rather with autogynephilia. However, GAMP men’s scores on the autogynephilia scale were unrelated to either genital or subjective seuxla arousal: GAMP men’s higher attraction to trans female vs. female stimuli compared to heterosexual men was a result of their GAMP nature, not their higher autogynephilia.
Overall, these findings suggest that, contrary to popular (and often prejudiced) notions of sexuality, GAMP men are decidedly not gay. Whatever attraction they have to the male form is limited to the penis possessed by trans women, not by men. Their sexual arousal patterns, sexual identity, and sexual experiences regarding men and women place them closer to heterosexual men than gay men, with some of them being almost indistinguishable from straight men and some showing various levels of bisexuality. But they are not purely heterosexual or purely bisexual either: Their increased and strong interest in trans women with penises makes them kind of like heterosexual-plus (or bisexual-plus).
Of course, no study is perfect. This study had a relatively small sample size, did not recruit any bisexual men, nor did it explore women who may be attracted to this particular type of trans female body. Hopefully, future research will fill these gaps and help us learn more about this fascinating phenomenon.