Life Among the Orchids, with Jessie Mannisto

A chat about super-stimulability, positive disintegration, gender identity — and nerds

  
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A Thousand Paper Cuts, with Maria

A chat about transgenderism, trauma and hope

  
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The Quirk Stack

When neuro-divergence starts to pile up

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip (above), has advanced a theory to account for the success of his creation: the talent stack. The idea behind the talent stack is that you don’t have to be excellent at one thing if you’re pretty good — or good enough — at a multitude of things. Here’s Adams describing his own talent stack:

Well, if you take me as the perfect example of this: I’m a poor artist — certainly in the beginning — I’ve kind of through brute force brought myself up to mediocre. I’ve never taken a writing class, but I can write. I’m okay. You put me in a room of writers, I’m not gonna be the best one. If I have a party at my house, I’m not the funniest person in the room. But I’m a little bit funny; I can write a little bit; I can draw a little bit. You put those three together and you have Dilbert, and it’s a fairly powerful force. Add on top of that that I have an MBA. I have business experience. All of that works in. So I’ve got a bunch of fairly average talents that only the sum of them makes them valuable.

(It’s a theory that Adams also advances to account for the electoral success of President Donald Trump in 2016, helpfully shared by CNN here:

Readers’ approval will vary, according to political bias.)

In her brilliantly gentle — yet apparently provocative — piece You’re Not Trans, You’re Just Weird, my friend Donna advances the idea that her son’s trans identity is his way of coping with being different. This sense of being an outlier, she argues, seems to run in the family:

By third grade, we realized you were different, but we still didn’t realize you were weird. Truthfully, we’re used to people like you. Our family is full of engineers, artists, musicians, computer programmers, and a lot of “free-thinkers.” Family gatherings always have chess, political debates, and quartets around the piano. That’s just us.

Donna’s experience is not unique. Among many parents of gender-questioning boys, there is a deep conviction that transition is a misplaced attempt to process the feeling of being a stranger, looking in on the rest of society. And in many of these families, unusual ways of seeing the world do seem to be inherited traits. Parents speak of their sons as being ‘just like my dad’ or ‘exactly like my sister’ — often with frustration, more often with affection. Whether it’s black and white thinking, a tendency to obsess, a fixation with rules, or the stark alternation between hyper-focus and absent-mindedness, neuro-divergence — or perhaps what we used to call plain old eccentricity — is a recurring theme.

This is not a new thought in gender critical circles. Many parents are extremely frustrated at the inability — or unwillingness — of autism associations to discuss the eyebrow-raisingly high levels of ASD diagnoses among trans-identifying kids. School counsellors seem paralysed by the very idea that such children might be mistaking one thing (neuro-divergence) for another (being a member of the opposite sex). Counsellors wind up siloing expert diagnoses as irrelevant, even though the kids in front of them are inescapably different from their peers in so many ways which go far beyond gender presentation.

In the clandestine parent support community which has sprung up in response to the surge in trans-identification, parents like Donna gather data in informal surveys, measuring the incidence of autism, ADHD, OCD and other conditions which single their children out. But no one condition prevails. Autism spectrum traits are common, yet not universal; obsessive thinking and hyper-focus dominate, but are more prevalent in some kids than in others. The one word which crops up again and again is quirky: a useful descriptor, but hardly a diagnosis. And parents do seek out a diagnosis, not least because it might provide a means of having their concerns heard out.

In my ongoing Quillette series, where I narrate the experiences of parents who feel sidelined and attacked, I advance the notion of hyper-ruminative transgenderism — a term which the wonderful Stella O’Malley and I came up with to describe precisely this kind of trans-identification. The notion is fairly simple: transgender identities can emerge from excessive rumination over discomfort, trauma or the feeling of being at odds with the world.

For males, this might (or might not) be seen to take on Ray Blanchard’s dichotomy: that male-to-female transgenderism can be accounted for by autogynaephilia on the one hand, or a particular form of homosexuality on the other. Personally, I am minded to believe that the autogynaephilia vs. homosexuality analysis is failing to account for the new, teenage-onset surge in transition. But it is possible to disagree with me on this point, and still concede that hyper-rumination is overlooked by specialists, to the detriment of the young people who suffer from it. It may prove useful to parents — and perhaps to detransitioners — to have a term which pegs this particular phenomenon, and gives a more honest account of the role of rumination and fixation in the establishment of a new sexual persona.

So perhaps the kids experiencing this hyper-ruminative form of transgenderism have a quirk stack. Like the talent stack, the sum of small factors may prove at least as powerful as one large factor alone. They’re not necessarily autistic, but may have autistic traits. They may not have an ADD or ADHD diagnosis, but there are shades of hyper-focus and excitability which colour their behaviour. You wouldn’t call them obsessive-compulsive per se — but catch them on the wrong day and they’re certainly obsessing about something.

As someone who has a great deal of empathy for these young men — and who would have misplaced his own trauma-driven pubescent dysphoria into a transgender identity — I suspect I have my own quirk stack. I’m certainly not autistic, but I do measure as having mildly autistic traits. I wouldn’t say I am obsessive-compulsive, but you can turn me into a crumpled wreck with a loudly ticking clock. And my own dysphoric feelings, which rendered me unable to look in a mirror for years (bonus: I can shave in the bathtub), were definitely exacerbated by a hyper-rumination which I wouldn’t have suffered were it not for my mismatched developmental pathway. At 14, I was going on 24 in academic terms, but going on 9 in pretty much every other way that counted.

If Scott Adams is to be believed, stacking minor advantage on minor advantage builds a tower of talent so impressive that it can get you into the White House. So maybe it’s time for teachers, school counsellors, therapists and clinicians to recognize that quirks, like talents, can also stack up. Neuro-divergence — if properly understood and properly channelled — can be as much of a strength as a weakness. But it doesn’t just have to be one diagnosis or another. It’s time our quirky characters got intersectional.

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No, Male ROGD Isn’t All AGP

A Rejoinder

This listicle serves as a rejoinder to those who think I’m underestimating the importance of AGP (autogynaephilia) among young men with ROGD (rapid onset gender dysphoria). Like everything else I do, it’s nothing more than where I’ve got to; it’s a work in progress.

The internet has fundamentally altered us, and that’s not just to do with porn

We are dealing with a new species of young person. There is now a generation of people who treat their bodies as meat vehicles; their public images as fungible avatars. This goes way beyond sex, and everyone knows it. The social network is a key component here: new forms of establishing and nurturing relationships take place in this highly abstracted virtual world, leading to a sense of disembodiment and placelessness which is by no means confined to the realm of masturbation. 

Yes, superfast streaming of porn is having a profound effect on the male (and female) brain; but the internet is not just a collection of porn, and removing porn from the equation would hardly return us to the 1980s. Everything is different, now. The ROGD cohort is not just different sexually: it’s different socially, philosophically, politically and cognitively. Transposing arguments from the last century ain’t gonna cut it.

The parents I’ve spoken to aren’t from Little House on the Prairie

These parents are mainly Gen Xers. They know what porn is. A lot of their husbands use(d) it. They don’t reach for the smelling salts at the mere mention of Pornhub; they aren’t ignorant of the corrosive effects of sexual imagery. They also know what AGP is — in fact, they are, on average, rather well read on the subject. Many of them have done hours of research into Blanchard’s work, and recognize the usefulness of AGP as a diagnosis if and when it is appropriate. In fact, one woman told me she’d actually rather her son were a porn addicted AGP, because then she’d know what she was dealing with. Unawareness of AGP is not the issue, here.

And at least two of the dads in this group are tech specialists. I don’t mean that they’ve worked out that there’s this mystical thing called an IP address; I mean that they work in tech, in highly expert roles. They know everything their kids are doing on their digital devices. And while others are much less technologically competent, and have learnt the inadequacy of parental controls the hard way, you would be hard pressed to find a parent who is blind to the dangers of teen technology use among the people whom I interviewed.

You don’t know these kids better than their parents do

These people know their own children. They can pinpoint when the social awkwardness started. Their e-snooping skills are beyond compare: trust me, I’ve watched them going through these kids’ phones. When they read about AGP, many of them simply cannot connect the phenomenon to their own sons — not because of pride, or denial, but because the profile just doesn’t fit. The proof of this is clear: in the parent group I have become a part of, there are at least two parents who do believe that their sons have AGP, and discuss the ways in which their boys are thus outliers within the group. The parents I know speak openly about these AGP boys as somewhat different from the average son in the group, and are able to pinpoint why — particularly when it comes to clothing, dating and sexual behaviour. 

Do not assume that you know who these parents are. You haven’t met them. I have. Sorry to put this bluntly, but it makes you as bad as the gender-affirming therapists. You’re telling parents that you know what their kids are doing better than they do. So now they’ve got two groups of people diagnosing from a distance, knowing little to nothing about the lads in question as individuals.

You may be engaging in essentialism, which is how we got here in the first place

The whole pickle we’re in comes from essentialism. ‘I am trans’ is advanced as an immutable internal state; a property of the spirit. This is what has led to the threat to women’s sports and spaces. This is what has led to the pronoun fascism. But all too often, AGP is weaponized as a different sort of essentialism: the implication is that a young man, once he has experienced AGP, is forever that. He is to be written off. Yet young people go through all sorts of funny sexual phases, and frequently move out of those phases, especially under good therapeutic guidance. This desperate need to arrive at a clean taxonomy is, in its own way, as weirdly obsessed with categories as the TRAs are. It’s possible to have AGP tendencies, and then to rid oneself of them. It’s possible for them to remain private. It’s possible to be ‘a little bit AGP,’ and then get over it. Male transgenderism isn’t a highway to Yaniv-ery, with no exit ramps.

In my Quillette series, I advance the notion that we are dealing with ‘hyper-ruminative transgenderism’, a term Stella O’Malley and I coined together. This notion of hyper-rumination unites ASD traits, OCD, ADD, ADHD with the notion of the HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). It deliberately intends to add nuance to the Blanchard dichotomy, such that this hyper-ruminative behaviour type can overlap with homosexuality and fetishization, or stand alone. Good research seeks to describe reality as accurately as possible, with all its shades and subtleties. On O’Malley’s part, years of therapeutic practice have led her to the conclusion that this addition to the dichotomy is worthwhile. Dismiss that at your peril. 

You’re playing into the narcissism of the older AGPs

I am not trying to represent the entirety of male transgenderism; I am trying to represent a group of parents, which is ultimately self-selecting company. Yet with every instalment of my Quillette series, I get at least one email from a middle-aged guy telling me that I’m naïvely failing to grasp the significance of AGP. Those who provide that comment seem incapable of understanding that there may yet be more to come, both in the Quillette series and in my future work. So why the insistence that AGP be front and centre, and now, now, now? Is it not possible that AGP is a key component in male transgenderism, but not with regard to the majority of the young people I am researching?

This kneejerk assumption that researchers like me just aren’t getting the importance of AGP not only speaks to a sort of impatience (of which I am fundamentally suspicious), but plays into the narcissism of older AGPs. Some of the emails I get seem to come from men who are desperate to see their own problems reflected back at them. ‘These boys are just like me, and you’re not seeing it,’ they say. Well, if I were a middle-aged AGP who had allowed his fetish to railroad his life, I’d want to think that, too. How depressing a thought: that a younger man could get through this kind of crisis unscarred, when I didn’t. After all, misery loves company.

For every email I get like this, I get three or four saying, ‘yes! This is how I felt — and it wasn’t sexual at all!’ This would seem to suggest that researchers like me, and therapists like Stella, are identifying something which is real, and that our observations are useful. But funnily enough, these correspondents are keen not to superimpose their experiences onto others. Unlike the AGPs, they write things like ‘I can only speak for myself.’ Odd, then, that some of the radical feminists who correctly note the narcissism of the AGP seem unable to see this same narcissism at play. My AGP emailers think everything’s about them. My other emailers, who can strongly identify with my stance, think the opposite. Coincidence?

This isn’t happening in Uruguay

Uruguay — to pick but one example — is an advanced country, and rather socially liberal with regard to human sexuality. It also has many of the problems one would associate with WEIRD countries; many of its citizens struggle with alcoholism, for example. But Uruguay is hardly languishing in a dial-up, pre-porn era. If we are to believe that the new cohort of ROGD boys are all AGPs, and that this is caused by pornography, why is this phenomenon absent in a country like Uruguay? Are its societal values that different, in our globalized, pornified world?

AGP is a factor in ROGD transgenderism. Unfortunately, some of these young men will struggle with it for decades; even more unfortunately, some may grow up to pose a threat to women, much to their parents’ horror. Sexual immaturity can function as a prelude to AGP — again, a fact known to these parents. But it can be something else, as it was for me, and for some men who grow up to be neither homosexual nor AGP. Web MD-style diagnosis of ubiquitous AGP is too easy an answer. It captures few of the differences between these young men. It provides no analysis of the unique position of the English-speaking countries in relation to male transgenderism.

I would argue that the English-speaking world is spiritually dissolving, and some of these young men are bearing the brunt of that dissolution. But this isn’t just about sex. Something else is going on.

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