social contagion

Discussion of the rise in transition rates being potentially caused by social contagion (usually discussed as spreading through social media) often neglects to address what has rendered so many young people vulnerable to it. When transition possibly caused by social contagion is brought up without explicitly acknowledging that only certain individuals are likely to be susceptible to seek transition after online exposure to trans community, I feel like the uninitiated are likely to assume this is some kind of fad, like when everybody in 6th grade made a Club Penguin account. It’s not.

Yeah, I read a lot of before I came out, and I’m not going to say that kind of thing had no impact on me. Still, I really doubt I would have given much of a shit (or spent so much time on those sites) if it weren’t for the people on that blog looking more like me than anyone at my school, if it weren’t for them describing their dysphoria in language that very much resonated with me, if I hadn’t been looking for some kind of “out” all my life, etc etc.

We all have different stories about how we got here, but none of them (that I’ve heard, at least) are actually as simple as “I saw it on the internet”, even if immersing ourselves in internet subcultures that glorify transition was one factor. This implication is alienating as hell to people who never had their emotional problems validated until they described them using the language of transition.

Behavioral contagion is a result of the reduction of fear or restraints – aspects of a group or situation which prevent certain behaviors from being performed.[2] Restraints are typically group-derived, meaning that the “observer”, the individual wishing to perform a certain behavior, is constrained by the fear of rejection by the group, who would view this behavior as a “lack of impulse control”.[2]

An individual (the “observer”) wants to perform some behavior, but that behavior would violate the unspoken and accepted rules of the group or situation they are in; these rules are the restraints preventing the observer from performing that action. Once the restraints are broken or reduced the observer is then “free” to perform the behavior his- or herself; this is achieved by the “intervention” of the model. The model is another individual, in the same group or situation as the observer, who performs the behavior which the observer wished to perform.[2] Stephenson and Fielding (1971) describe this effect as “[Once] one member of a gathering has performed a commonly desired action, the payoffs for similar action or nonaction are materially altered. … [The] initiator, by his action, establishes an inequitable advantage over the other members of the gathering which they may proceed to nullify by following his example. ”[1]

This rings true for me. When I first learned transition existed, when I was around 13, I was really intrigued, but never considered it as a possibility for myself- the cost was too high. These were people I only saw on daytime talk shows when I stayed home sick, getting called really horrible names and treated as spectacles. Over the next few years, as I gradually learned more about transition and got to know more individuals who were transitioning online, I felt less and less like transitioning would make me a freak or totally alone. By the time I was around 16, the cost/benefit equation had shifted considerably in my eyes, enough for me to start pursuing transition.
In a way, it’s a good thing that I didn’t judge myself as harshly for having a drive to transition. I don’t think people who want to transition, or who do transition, should feel like they’re disgusting freaks for it, the way I used to. And of course, not transitioning alone wouldn’t have resolved any of the trauma or pervasive lifelong gendered rejection that made me want to escape femaleness. It’s not like I would be totally fine if I had just managed to avoid one maladaptive coping mechanism. Given that no healthier options were made accessible to me, I was going to keep trying self-preservation strategies with high costs, transition or no transition. I might have had more serious alcohol issues, thrown myself into casual sex, whatever. Something was gonna have to give.

So… social contagion, as it’s generally understood (to my knowledge; I’m no expert) doesn’t create new aspirations out of thin air. It reduces inhibitions that prevent someone from doing something they kinda wanted to do in the first place, or would once somebody else told them about it. If your kid asked for hormones after spending 3 days straight on FTM Youtube, bad news- blaming the internet is an overly simplistic explanation that erases the complexity of their inner life. Succeeding in blocking them from transition alone will not resolve any of the underlying feelings that motivated them to seek it.

The way this model of social contagion can apply to maladaptive coping mechanisms is really striking. At my middle school, a ton of the girls (me included) started cutting one after another. Were we cutting to be cool? Was it the same as the way those fucking save the boobies bracelets spread? No. All of us were still humiliated if anyone saw our cuts, even other girls who were cutting. It felt like shit. It definitely did not help us when people talked about how all the girls were cutting lately as if it was like any other trend. We all had our own reasons for doing it.

When I went to my little sister’s graduation from a fancy charter school this year, I was really surprised that so many of her classmates were trans. I was the only person who transitioned at my high school several years ago, and I went on independent study to do it. Almost nobody even knew why I wasn’t in class anymore. So why are there so many trans teenagers at this school? Are my sister’s classmates “faking it”? I doubt it. The most likely explanation to me seems like, since the social costs are lower, the strategy of transitioning to cope with certain feelings is being used more widely.

Nobody goes through all this trouble just because they saw it online, at least nobody I know, and an awful lot of women in my life have sought transition at one time or another. Everyone has their own reasons. For me, some of the big ones were gendered rejection, sexual trauma, difficult dynamics at home, being entirely isolated from lesbian (especially butch lesbian) role models and community, seeing boys with similarly ADD-looking issues treated with much more understanding than I ever was, stuff like that. I needed help finding a healthy lesbian community, resources for coping with being female and ADD, and support learning to live with sexual trauma. Just locking up my laptop wouldn’t have helped me get those needs met. All it would have done is change the direction of my self-destructive shitspiral- for a while, at least.

Basically, I would like to see more care taken in these discussions.


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