Monday, 11 August 2014

Blame it on the net?

Eugenie Bouchard: used to playing at the net

I've been trying to decide why my intimations of transgenderism have become so strong in mid-life.

Yes, there are biographical markers. With certain family obligations reduced, I had still to be a consistent male in the workplace several days a week. But for the rest of the time I could be whoever I wanted. ‘Autogynephilia’ doesn’t intrude when I’m perforce in male mode, but in leisure hours it floods in, as if to fill up a vacuum.

I think it possible that transgender inclinations could develop in mid-life in the form of a later-flowering preference. But I’ve no idea how one would recognise that among the myriad influences at play in the unfurling of personality.

When I review where I am now, I can’t unpick what is the result of a conscious decision and what the result of removing a repression. Both mechanisms seem to be engaged. Just as I can’t define the boundary between nature and nurture, so I can’t decide how much of what I feel is inborn and how much the product of circumstance. But in my story I discern three ‘turns’ where thresholds were approached or crossed.

I don’t recall any crossgender imagining as a child, nor did I evidence any in my behaviour. My interests were typically boyish until I hit adolescence, when I turned away from the very practical hobbies I’d had before – making things or taking them apart – to the more cerebral and artistic interests I’ve retained to this day. That was also the point where I first experimented with crossdressing – my ‘first turn’ if you will – but half-heartedly, with my mother’s clothes when she was out, just to see what they felt like.

The second turn, in my early thirties, was more deliberate. I’d had a series of unsatisfactory quasi-romances. Either I had a ‘crush’ on a girl who didn’t reciprocate, or (on one occasion, at least) a girl had been potty about me but I hadn’t found her attractive and couldn’t in any case understand what she saw in me. Unable to find my ‘ideal’ out there, I moulded ‘her’ from my own materials within, like some erotic golem. I invested in an entire female wardrobe, strutted in front of the mirror, photographed myself. I’d found a new ‘hobby’, in its way as practical as building model aeroplanes or dismantling radio sets. Out of my dissatisfaction I’d made a haven of self-sufficiency.

I begin to suspect that the key development may not be turning 50 or hitting some kind of ‘midlife crisis’, it’s outside myself – technological advance. In a word, the internet.

Around 2007 I got broadband at home and started to explore all this online porn that I’d heard so much about. (Only legal, adult material, I hasten to add.) Much of it didn’t – and doesn’t – interest me, but I strongly suspect it precipitated my third and latest ‘turn’. Did it change me, or did it allow the return of the repressed? We know that porn rewires the brain.* But it’s equally possible that in learning to overcome inhibition in viewing porn and habituating myself to looking at things I previously would have recoiled from, I also uncorked the genie of transsexuality which I had repressed. Because I realised, when I looked at all these naked female bodies on screen (more than I’d ever seen in my life before), that I was envying, even identifying with them, rather than dreaming of penetrating them.

Armed with this new perception, I then started attempts to ‘feminise’ my own body. I tried herbal supplements and liked the results. It became self-perpetuating. Although I couldn’t imagine full-scale ‘transition’, I had no wish to revert to my unsuccessful all-male body.

All this I carried over into my masturbation in the form of a movie in my head: it contained all the things I liked or had learned to like in the clips I’d watched, and it functioned as storyboard for a fantasy in which I was a sexually active young woman who had incorporated these porn ‘moves’ into her lovemaking – not so much because she enjoyed them herself but because she liked to please a man and she liked men to think she was ‘hot’. Just as interesting as the physical effects (of phytoestrogens or whatever) were the mental ones. When masturbating, I found that, as well as the pleasure of arousal, I was getting this intense mental image, downloaded without doubt from the ‘movie in my head’, of my ‘own’ female genitalia being penetrated. As if the mind were rebooting to expect a different anatomy.

Some of what I’m describing was a willed outcome, some the unlooked-for result of contingent circumstance, and some must be innate content bubbling to the surface of consciousness after years underground.

The pundits may shake their heads at the idea but I find it plausible that ‘crossdreaming’ could be a manifestation of a misdirected erotic impulse, even if, in the majority of cases, it signals the return of the repressed. Here, pornography use provides us with an analogy. As I say, there’s accumulating evidence that porn rewires our brains. The more often you watch porn and enjoy the dopamine hit it delivers, the more the activity and the sensation become entwined in your brain. A teenage boy raised on a diet of porn can’t get the same high when he’s in bed with a real girl that he gets from watching sex on screen. In the same way, I suspect that in adolescence, at a plastic period of brain development, my neural circuitry wired itself to prefer the girl inside my head over the one out there in the real world. In terms of my adult relationships, that’s a misdirection of the arousal pathways which has caused me grief over the years.

Of course, we mustn’t overlook the upside of the Net. I’m now happy to be part of an online community where, as ‘Dabrela’, I can project myself, join discussions with like-minded people, even (should the mood take me, which it hasn’t as yet) go dating. Also, through the Web I’ve found case histories, a terminology, a language in which to discuss a condition for which I didn’t even have a name before I ventured into cyberspace.

So, in summary, there’s a coming together of several things that wouldn’t have come together in the pre-internet era. The question is: has the internet facilitated my self-realisation or is it a chorus of siren voices luring me away from ‘normality’?

And if the brain is as malleable as my experience suggests, is it possible that this same cocktail (ideas and images from the internet combining with mind-altering herbs) could ‘produce’ transsexualism, or a simulation of it, even in middle life, in someone who wasn’t born with the transsexual condition?

*Nisha Lilia Diu, ‘How porn is rewiring our brains’, Daily Telegraph, 15 November 2013