Sensuous in Satin

Reflections on Transgender life

Empathy and the woman inside

Posted by Adrian • Tuesday, August 20. 2013 • Category: Being transgender
What defines being a woman It is commonplace in the transgender community to hear the assertion: “I am a woman inside”. This claim increasingly attracts my curiosity, to the extent that I frequently challenge people to explain what exactly they mean by “a woman”. It is a tricky question, I’m sure there isn’t a right answer, but the responses I get are illuminating. At a recent restaurant night I found myself talking with a genetic female friend about the issue of "being a woman". Or more specifically what we might mean when we say "We want to be a woman" or "We feel we are a woman". I suspected that what many of us think of as being a woman, isn't what defines how women think of themselves. The lady I was talking with paused and then said with some conviction that to her, being a woman meant being sensitive to needs and feelings of others. So let's run for while with that definition of "being a woman" and see where it takes us. Being sensitive the needs and feelings of others does imply a heightened awareness - an awareness that is often referred to as empathy. According to Wikipedia empathy is
"the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another being."

Empathy and the real woman If it is indeed true that “thinking like a woman" requires empathy, then does that make empathy an essential characteristic of females? Many people perceive that there is a considerable difference between males and females in this regard. Frans de Waal discussed this issue in his book The Age of Empathy and concluded that:

...it's true that at birth girl babies look longer at faces than boy babies. Growing up, girls are more prosocial than boys, better readers of emotional expressions, more attuned to voices, more remorseful after having hurt someone, and better at taking another's perspective. Boys are less attentive to the feelings of others, more action- and object-oriented, rougher in their play, and less inclined to social fantasy games.

Actually it turns out that the issue of gender differences in empathy is quite controversial. And as is frequently the case there are academic studies that point either way. I wonder if the confusing results arise in part from the researchers focussing on the physical sex of their subjects rather than their inner gender! With a lack of consensus perhaps it is safest to assume that empathy isn’t necessarily a particular and exclusive strength of genetic females. But also acknowledge that thinking, and therefore by extension behaving, like a woman, might rest on a heightened awareness of the needs and feelings of others. Empathy in the Transgender Community Let’s now turn to look at our own transgender community – a community where many of us seek to express ourselves in varying degrees as women. With such a wide diversity across the gender spectrum it is neither necessary nor valid to assume that everyone internally needs a strong sense of empathy. But amongst those who seek to be accepted as women in society, it may be an important factor in determining outcomes. So I was curious to explore the extent to which our feminine gender expression is based on a foundation of empathy. Along with our quest to express greater femininity do we display or develop more empathy? Empathy, like our true gender identity, is hidden inside our brains. It isn’t something that lends itself to any deterministic physical measurement. So to look for empathy we can only observe the consequent changes in behaviour. To find out the prevalence of empathy in the transgender community we could ask people to evaluate themselves using whatever crude tools are available. Looking on the internet I found surveys to evaluate Empathy Quotient such as http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/EmpathyQuotient/EmpathyQuotient.aspx The necessary selection of “gender” at the start of this questionnaire is somewhat troubling. If a ‘Scientific’ evaluation requires such information, then it probably isn’t going to produce reliable results in our community! And asking an individual to assess their empathy, after empathy has been identified as a desirable characteristic, is going to produce somewhat questionable results. So I turned to looking at behaviours I could passively observe, behaviours that could point to the prevalence of empathy. Empathy on-line A year or so ago I started by looking in the TgR online forums. Communication through email and forums encourages emotional detachment, which in turn often leads to hostile and insulting interactions (flaming). I was curious to see how people behaved when they engaged in emotive discussions. Without the key empathy drivers of facial contact and body language was there any evidence of sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others? I looked to see how often people were remorseful after having obviously hurt or offended someone through what they said in the TgR forums. Obviously I couldn’t tell if there had been a private exchange of emails – all I could look for was a follow-up posting expressing empathy for the feelings of others. I was surprised to find that a search for the use of the word "sorry" in such a context yielded just 80 posts out of over 14,000. And of those, only 7 could be generously construed as expressing remorse about the effects of some prior posting. Of course it could be that no one hurts or offends anyone in our forums - but I know that is far from the case. And maybe it is only my generation who use the word “sorry” to express remorse. But such an infrequent use doesn't point to a lot empathy in the online community. Empathy in real life A key aspect of empathy is taking another's perspective - being able to feel yourself in "someone else’s shoes". So when we meet socially, empathy might manifest itself in sympathetic behaviour towards others. I watched how we interact socially, but what I became aware of was in fact the opposite; I observed that sometimes transgender people completely ignore the needs of others when meeting in a social context. After my thoughts were reinforced by some ‘complaints’ from partners I wrote a post titled “Did I tell you about ME”. In the article I commented on this apparent lack of empathy:

Well imagine you sit down next to a total stranger in a restaurant and are looking forward to having a pleasant evening's conversation. But instead all the stranger can talk about is themselves! They provide you with an unwanted and unsolicited description of their life, possibly their medical history, and even details of surgery. Worse still, at every attempt to change the subject to something of mutual interest they keep returning to their pet subject - "Me".

Our own experiences are of course incredibly important ... to us. But with a strong sense of empathy surely we might be expected to sense that the interest was not shared. Empathy in relationships There is a more important behaviour that can be observed – more life changing than sitting down to dinner next to someone who bores you to tears. It is the way we sometimes relate to our partners. The tensions that gender diversity introduces into established relationships have been widely discussed. Many look for a robust response from partners whilst acknowledging the likely outcome is separation. Continuing and building on an established relationship is frequently seen as requiring “compromise”, and often this is mentioned in a negative way. Compromise is, in part, seen as “not being true to oneself”. If true femininity rests on being sensitive to needs and feelings of others, surely it would also manifest itself as putting the needs and feelings of others above one’s one. Perhaps compromising to respect the emotional needs of a partner could actually reflect a more feminine way of thinking. Elusive Empathy So, where ever I looked, I found examples of behaviours that were inconsistent with a heightened awareness of the needs and feelings of others. And the more I looked, the more I could identify in myself the very seeds of what I was seeing in others. In general, and allowing for exceptions that you could drive a cart and horse through, I saw the most disturbing lack of empathetic behaviour in those who considered themselves to be most “woman” inside. Nothing I have written would on its own stand up to the test of scientific scrutiny. But I found no compelling evidence that, as we seek to express more of the “woman inside”, we all also consistently develop a stronger sense of empathy. Which leads me to a final and probably highly controversial thought? What if the opposite was true? Wikipedia goes on to say that the opposite of empathy (atypical empathy) is exhibited in a number of personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder. Atypical empathy is characterised by

"a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others"


Could it be that the psychological challenges of being gender diverse drive some of us in the direction of narcissistic behaviour. And in doing so, make it harder for us to achieve our desired goal of thinking, feeling and most importantly behaving like a woman. Even if this is not the case, it is a possibility that I think we should all be aware of.



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