Turning victims into folk devils

The plight of the “transwidows” scorned for telling the unfashionable truth about their abusive autogynephile husbands

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Jennifer Kimmel didn’t want to think ever again about what had happened to her — she certainly had no plans to tell her story to a journalist. The abuse she suffered was severe; Jennifer was imprisoned for two years and sexually tortured by her ex-husband. After fleeing the relationship, all the mother of three wanted was to settle down in her adopted home of Ireland and recover in peace. But when she turned to a domestic abuse group for support, Jennifer was told that it was she who needed to change her behaviour. 

Now, Jennifer wants to speak out to help other women and to expose a dangerous community of men who hide behind a myth of victimhood. “When I’ve told my story before it’s been dismissed as being about ‘a classic abusive man.’ And in some ways that’s true, but he wasn’t just an abusive man. He was an autogynephile — that’s to say a man who gets sexually aroused at the thought of himself as a woman.”

Meaning literally “love of oneself as a woman”, autogynephilia (AGP) is a fetish that can manifest as everything from occasionally wearing women’s underwear to seeking full cosmetic “sex reassignment” surgery. It is estimated that around 3 per cent of men in Western countries may experience autogynephilia, though the numbers seem to be rising.

Her husband said that acting out his fetish was therapeutic, and it was her duty to help 

Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl, is one of many transgender activists who deny the existence of AGP, arguing that the condition has been concocted to reduce “trans women to their presumed sexual behaviours and motivations”. Summarising the controversy over AGP, medical historian Alice Dreger wrote in her 2015 book Galileo’s Middle Finger that, “the ultimate eroticism of autogynephilia lies in the idea of really becoming or being a woman, not in being a natal male who desires to be a woman.” This, she posits, is why AGP is “a love that would really rather we didn’t speak its name”.

But increasingly, women who have been in relationships with men who believe themselves “women on the inside” are making their voices heard. They have formed a community of “transwidows” who are beginning to challenge the popular media narrative of transgender people as hapless victims. 

Not all the partners of transwidows are AGPs. Some are deeply closeted gay men who feel more comfortable being seen as women, others are lesbians who want to become transmen. But whatever the motivation, the women they leave behind are a much-maligned group. Those who refuse to become props in their partners’ identities are shamed and their stories rarely heard. 

Jennifer was 24 when she met the man she was to marry and have three children with. He was twelve years older than her and “had a gift for telling stories.”

“I was smitten. We spent almost every day together after we met. He had a lilting Irish accent, flowing, long white hair and sparkling blue eyes. We both liked to think of ourselves as anti-establishment, as outsiders. We would go camping under the stars and would talk about everything into the early hours.”

Before Jennifer realised, he had moved in. Slowly at first, the relationship began to change. “When he walked into the room with pigtails and a breezy, wee dress I was shocked. But he told me a story that really touched me — he talked about the tough childhood he’d had and his depression. He told me that his cross-dressing habit started as a child when he ran away from home and found comfort in wearing his auntie’s underwear. I’d always prided myself on being open-minded and accepting, so I tried to be understanding and not to judge him. I was already deeply in love.”

Early on in his relationship with Jennifer, he went to therapy for depression where he was told AGP was “harmless escapism”. He told Jennifer this, and she began to believe “acting out his fetish was therapeutic for him, and it was my duty to help him heal”.

Herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Jennifer opened up about her own experiences and feelings. When she told him that she thought she was bisexual, he used it against her. She explains that soon he began to demand they had sex when he was in his “woman” clothes and persona. Jennifer “didn’t like it and told him so.”

“But he began to mess with my mind. He would say ‘I thought you said you were bisexual. I’m a lesbian because I’m a woman inside so — why wouldn’t you sleep with me as a woman? I’m a woman too, and you’re hurting me.’ I didn’t want to be cruel to this person I was already in love with. He often told me I was snotty or closed-minded and I began to doubt myself.”

“The smell of his silicone sex toys mixed with amyl nitrite fumes made me gag. But if I showed my disgust he would get angry and accuse me of being judgemental. He would tell me that just because I was born into a female body did not mean I was a better woman than him.”

“I told him that the sex he wanted frightened and hurt me. He didn’t care, he said my complaining was manipulative and selfish and that I was trying to stifle his womanhood.”

“It all happened slowly, and it was confusing. I thought I was ‘the strong one’ and that I should help my husband. And I still loved him, he could make me laugh until I was insensible. He would lay off when I expressed concern, or when I said I would end the relationship. But then he would start again and push it further.”

“The next time he would show up he would be wearing fishnets or whatever, things that I find offensively unattractive. He would pressure me into sex, but I wouldn’t want to be intimate with anyone dressed like that.”

To the outside world her husband was an ordinary guy; a contractor in the building trade who would go out for beers on Friday with the lads. But to Jennifer, he was becoming a controlling, sexual sadist. She put some money aside and made a plan to leave, reasoning, “I just didn’t want to be with him as a man or a woman. I didn’t like the way he thought a woman should be.”

But when she told her ex-husband she was leaving, he claimed to be suicidal, telling Jennifer she was the only person with whom he could be his true, authentic “woman” self. Jennifer was wracked with guilt. She began to hope that the relationship might change. It did, after Jennifer realised she was pregnant.

“As soon as the baby began to show he told me I was revolting to look at. He’d shudder if he caught a glimpse of my bare body. But at least I had a short break from him demanding sex.”

“After I’d given birth to our first child, he would tell me how fat I was. He said I’d ‘let myself go’ and would delight in taking my clothes from before I was pregnant to wear them. He would tell me ‘you’ll never get into them again, I might as well have them — don’t be jealous.’ I was so ground down — by that point I had forgotten what a healthy relationship was.”

“I had two more kids and became more involved with them and less with him. I made another plan to leave. But he immediately went back to the suicide threats. He told me that we had to think of the kids. He said, ‘We could take them home to Ireland, they’ll have a better life, it’s so much safer. Please give me a chance, I’ve only acted like this because I’m depressed. Things will be better in Ireland.’”

Squeezing doubts to the back of her mind, Jennifer agreed, and after ten years living together in the United States the couple moved to Ireland to start a new life. It was there that the relationship took a darker turn.

“We lived outside town in a house with no footpath — it wasn’t safe to walk along the road with the kids to get help. I don’t know whether to say I was a hostage, but I was stuck with him as I don’t drive. I could possibly have flagged someone down, but what would I have told them?”

Her husband had given up work, and Jennifer was caring for the children full-time. “In the US we didn’t spend much time as a couple — now piecing things together, I suspect he paid prostitutes to act out his fantasies. But when we got to Ireland everything was focused on me. That’s the only explanation I can think of. I just can’t believe that he planned for ten years to take me home and make me a prisoner.”

“I could feel the atmosphere change, I had no recourse and we both knew I was trapped. He used to spend all day looking at porn, and at night he would want to act it out. I learned to dread the evenings, carrying a knot of fear in my stomach.”

“At home in the US I had my family; three sisters, two brothers and scores of nephews and nieces to hang out with. But in Ireland I had no one. He would tell me that I was ‘in his territory now.’”

“He became obsessively jealous and I wasn’t allowed to meet anyone. The only time I was permitted to leave the house was when he’d occasionally take me to the pub. He would make me get dressed three different times until I met with his approval. I think now he would take me to the pub because he liked to watch other people look at me — he got off on that. He would then take me home and torment me.”

“He wouldn’t speak to me, he wouldn’t take me into town to get groceries, he wouldn’t even heat the house, unless I agreed to recreate the pornographic fantasies he’d seen online. I had no money, no friends, no way of getting out and three little kids to care for. I had no choice, but the demands became more and more frequent — every night.”

“I would dress the kids up in layers of clothes and put them in the same bed to protect them from the cold. Their room became my sanctuary, I would read them Harry Potter and lose myself in the stories. I would go to the bathroom and think ‘he must’ve got bored and given up by now.’ But he was always up there, waiting.”

As Jennifer’s life became more restricted, her husband delighted in pushing boundaries. Jennifer found it increasingly difficult to shield the children from his sexual fantasies.

“He would say perverted, creepy things in his mewling victim-woman voice. I was terrified that the kids would hear, but I wonder if that was part of it for him. He started wearing my dressing gown in the daytime with the kids around, underneath were his ‘woman clothes’. Truth is, I can never be sure what the kids picked up.”

“The pornography he watched got more and more disturbing. He would always want me to watch it too — so I could see what I was supposed to do. He liked to see women unconscious, waking up and being raped. I don’t know how they were unconscious, but that was his favourite. Afterwards I would have to pretend to rape him, and then he’d switch it around for the finale and do it to me. He’d ignore my protestations.”

“He had a network of people like himself and they’d chat online and share pornography. One night he had some footage that he wanted to show me. I looked at the screen and saw an unconscious woman being dragged by one leg through deep snow. At one point her head bumped. A sick feeling came over me, and I said to him ‘is that woman dead?’ In response he said, ‘I dunno, it doesn’t matter.’”

“What happened to that woman still haunts me today, I can’t stop worrying about her. I don’t know if that’s what he regularly looked at when I wasn’t there. I try not to think that, because I have three kids with that guy. But that’s what women are to AGP men like my ex: disposable sex toys.”

Jennifer was approaching her 40th birthday when she was thrown a lifeline. “He was friends with a couple and the woman said ‘we’ve got to take Jenny out for her birthday’. He didn’t want to look like a bad husband in front of his friends, so he reluctantly agreed. When I was out, an Irish woman of around my own age saw me, and she could see how worn-out and sad I was. She sat next to me and gave me her number, she said I should call her if I was lonely and wanted a cuppa.” 

“She came over a few times, he was raging. She said to me — ‘Jenny, you don’t have to live like this — it isn’t acceptable.’ Obviously, she had no idea about the sexual torture every night, she just saw how controlling he was. After a while I told her a bit. She put me in touch with a women’s charity, and they sent a therapist to my GP and got me and the kids out.”

When Jennifer left, her husband once again immediately threatened suicide. When this didn’t work, he and his brother embarked on a sustained campaign of harassment.

“He put it out around the town that I’d left him because I wanted to ‘whore around’. People didn’t know me, and I didn’t know what people thought and he played on that. I felt anxious and afraid all the time.”

“He and his brother kept threatening to take the kids away. They said they were going to get me deported back to America. I couldn’t sleep, I was terrified and kept getting flashbacks of the abuse. When I went to get psychiatric help, I was warned off. The clinician I spoke to advised me that as there might be a custody dispute and any record of mental illness could be used to say I was an unfit mother.”

“Eventually he said that if I signed a ‘no fault divorce’, which is something that’s possible in America, and if I signed everything over to him, he’d leave me alone. He didn’t even leave it 24 hours before he started hounding me again. I was a mess.”

“When the divorce came through, he would come and take the kids to the shop occasionally, I think to show the town what a ‘wronged man’ he was. But that was it. He didn’t contribute to support the kids at all — I made sure they didn’t go without, but we were living on welfare.”

“They are not victims. Why can’t people see that claims of victimhood are part of the fetish”

Two years ago, Jennifer’s ex-husband left Ireland to live in the Philippines. He is now living with a girlfriend who is less than half his age, a woman he claims to have “rescued” from poverty. Jennifer doesn’t know whether he now wears his “woman costume” full time and he has only occasional contact with their children. Before leaving Ireland, Jennifer’s ex-husband told their then 15-year-old daughter that he had made the decision to move to a place untainted by feminism, a country “where women still know how to behave”.

When Jennifer escaped the relationship nearly a decade ago, she was supported by feminist charities who offered women-only services, allowing her the space to heal. But she has now lost faith in the organisations which once supported her: “Today, men like my ex-husband would be welcomed with open arms by the leading women’s groups in Ireland, provided he turned up in his woman costume. In fact, he would probably be seen as especially vulnerable and in need of extra support. He’d love that.”

“I’ve heard from other transwidows that not agreeing to call their partners by female names or pronouns is now considered a form of domestic abuse. To compare that to what so many of their partners endure — it’s obscene.”

In 2015 Jennifer went to her local women’s group for support; shy and nervous, she immediately found herself taken under another woman’s wing. But as conversation flowed, Jennifer dared to suggest that transwomen are male, and that some have a sexual motive for identifying as female. She was told that she was a bigot, that she needed to educate herself and to be quiet. 

Having spent years building up the courage to speak out, she was devastated. She decided to never again open up about what had happened to her. “I know that women think they’re being kind and inclusive; but these males are not victims. These men thrive on breaking boundaries, and what better way than to be accepted into a group of women and to listen to them talk about their trauma. Why can’t people see that claims of victimhood are part of the fetish?”.

Whether through ignorance or concerns about funding, the class of professional feminists who now run women’s services choose to ignore the existence of AGP. In Ireland, a system of gender self-identification has been introduced which allows legal sex change without any diagnosis of gender dysphoria or safeguards. This is chilling to Jennifer.

“AGP arousal comes from control, from the power to dictate what a woman is. And today these men have won. It is now considered hateful and transphobic to even refer to women as ‘adult human females.’”

The harassment J.K. Rowling received when she deviated from the “trans women are women” line is what finally prompted Jennifer to speak out. Reading Harry Potter stories to her kids allowed her a moment of escape, and on learning that the author was a victim of domestic abuse Jennifer felt a sense of solidarity. But when she defended Rowling, Jennifer lost most of her friends and was even scolded by her own children. 

Since “coming out” about her experience at the hands of an AGP man, Jennifer has been contacted by scores of women through social media and word of mouth. She knows that there are many victims who feel unable to speak out about the abuse they have suffered, taking on shame that rightfully ought to be carried by their tormentors.

“It’s embarrassing and it’s humiliating, and I think that’s another thing that guys like this do. They know that we’re not going to want to tell people the details. I am sure he counted on me being too ashamed to tell anyone about what he was doing to me.”

The stories of transwidows such as Jennifer have been buried; their suffering is an unfashionable reminder of an inconvenient truth. Those who question the idea that people can change sex have become folk devils, legitimate targets of abuse and scorn. As Jennifer reflects bitterly, “it feels like society is picking up from where my ex left off.”

For more information please see transwidowsvoices.org

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover