Vivienne Marcus, a New Zealander, bills herself as an intellectual crossdresser who has an unusual ability to make sense of cross-dressing. She has evaluated her views on crossdressing and expresses them quite eloquently in her blog BlueStockingBlue; after all, it’s not easy to reconcile the dichotomy between the sense that cross-dressing is a bit weird when you love the sensual pleasures of soft fabrics, perfumes, and cosmetics. There is much to be said for her views which you can read below.
We are all the same
First, we are all the same (provided we are talking here about men who wear women’s clothing). Regardless of whether you call our behaviour crossdressing, transvestic fetishism, crossplaying, or whatever, just about everyone who comes to this site (and just about everyone mentioned on here) has the same inner motivations, which arose, at least in the first instance, for sexual arousal. (I am a “lumper”, not a “splitter”).
For some of us, those motivations are so strong that they overthrow us; for others, they are less strong and can be managed more easily. But all of us, all the time, feel the same desires and tendencies. For some of us, the fiery sexual component has mellowed into a gentler gratification which may not even involve arousal, but for some of us, it’s still all about the orgasms.
For all of us, I feel sure, there is no other activity which provides the same relief and pleasure.
Alongside the assertion that we are all the same, but independent from it, is my deeply-held belief that no group is somehow more proper, more meritorious, more deserving of sympathy or recognition, than any other. I believe (and have repeatedly stated) that we have more that unites us than divides us, and that we ought to be generally respectful and courteous to one another at all times.
Crossdressing as an addiction
The concept of addiction is an attractive one for some commentators. Certainly crossdressing behaviour can have features resembling addiction, in that crossdressing desires are sometimes unrelenting and all-consuming. The person would rather be free of those desires, and they cause tremendous self-loathing. And the framework of addiction offers the prospect of rehabilitation, and eventually cure.
But for many common addictions (tobacco, alcohol, drugs, gambling) the initial activity is unpleasant. I still think smoking is loathsome, and I remember drinking my first beer, and hating it. I had to work at it to tolerate it, then enjoy it (which I now do). I have no desire whatever to take drugs, or to gamble (I don’t even play the Lottery). On the other hand, I was drawn to crossdressing from my earliest memories, certainly before starting primary school, and the very first activities were pleasurable from the very outset. So I don’t consider crossdressing to be an addiction in the same mold as those other things. However, it can certainly become one, if allowed to get out of control.
The morality of cross-dressing
The act of a man wearing women’s clothing or cosmetics is morally neutral. I don’t consider it intrinsically harmful in any way. In particular, I reject claims that there is somehow a biblical or Christian prohibition against cross-dressing.
But cross-dressing can be tremendously damaging and harmful. The reason is that many crossdressers seem to pursue crossdressing excessively, and it takes away time and money and other resources which could be better spent looking after a family, or a spouse, or a job. When cross-dressing reaches the stage where it prevents someone being able to live a normal life, it’s too much.
I frequently use the analogy of golf. Like cross-dressing, golf is morally neutral. A couple of rounds a week is fine, but there are some guys who want to play golf all the time; they spend excessively on memberships and green fees, and on the latest clubs and equipment, and their wife might be called a “golf widow”. For those guys, golf is interfering with their ability to lead a normal life and has become excessive. But that doesn’t make golf itself intrinsically immoral.
Who is in charge
Without doubt, I wish I could be free of my cross-dressing desires. They have caused me a considerable amount of personal unhappiness, self-loathing, and marital strife. I am not a “happy crossdresser”. It seems I have two choices: either cross-dressing is in charge of me, or I am in charge of cross-dressing. It’s clear for me which of us needs to be in charge.
Deciding that involves making an active choice about the priorities in my life. My marriage is more important to me than my cross-dressing. My children are more important to me than my cross-dressing. My career is more important to me than my cross-dressing. On the other hand, setting aside cross-dressing permanently costs too much in terms of mental and emotional effort: I become moody and tense all the time, and am no fun at all to be around. I know that my cross-dressing feelings won’t go away, no matter how long I desist.
So what I am seeking is a middle ground: to permit just enough cross-dressing to assuage my yearnings, but not to pursue it to such an extent that it interferes with my normal life. You might well point out (and I would agree with you) that I am seeking to have my cake and eat it too; that such a balance won’t be easily struck. But that’s what I am aiming for.
Nobody can sum up my feelings better than old Polonius: This above all: to thine ownself be true.
Autogynephilia (or autogynaephilia if you speak British) is the word coined by the sexologist Ray Blanchard to describe “a man’s paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman”. Initially I resisted this description of myself, but after coming across Cloudy’s blog On the Science of Changing Sex, I accept it as the only theory which fits all the facts and behavior as I observe them, in myself and others.
The reason this troubles me is that I had considered that cross-dressing was not a sexual thing for me; instead, it seems mostly to be about emotional expression and sensual pleasure these days. However, Blanchard’s theory is that it has its roots in sexual arousal, and, though it makes me very uncomfortable to admit it, this is absolutely true for me. On the other hand, although the root of autogynephilia is sexual, sexual gratification isn’t (by any means) the only reward which it provides, and emotional and sensual pleasures are comfortably within its purview.
Autogynephilia is also (I believe) the reason that late-transitioning transsexuals desire to change sex, although in most cases by the time transitioning occurs the sexual aspect to it has mellowed into a sensation of comfort or belonging in the female role.
Cross-dressing is common
If you look at my post here, you can see fairly reliable figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics about the prevalence of homosexuality in the population. I had previously read a figure of about 1% of males being cross-dressers. A more recent figure from Anne Lawrence says that “up to 3% of men in Western countries may experience autogynephilia”. I suspect this might be a bit of an overestimate; one swallow does not a summer make, and I suspect that regular, frequent cross-dressers are fewer. We are probably on a continuum of frequency or intensity of cross-dressing expression, which makes drawing any line pretty arbitrary. (Are you autogynephilic if you dress once a week? Once a month? Once a year? Or are you autogynephilic if you don’t dress at all, but are troubled by daily thoughts about it? How do you decide? I touch on these difficulties in my linked blog post).
What Anne Lawrence also says (and I am sure she is right) is that the number of people who change sex from male to female is rising sharply. Lawrence suggests that this increase is largely accounted for by late-onset transitioners, who previously would have been denied sex-reassignment surgery.
In any case, there are a lot of us out there.
Crossdressing is lifelong and incurable
I believe cross-dressing is innate to me. Cross-dressing desires have been present from my very earliest memories. Though they have faded from time to time, they have never completely gone away. I do not believe that they ever will. I do not believe that someone can be “cured” of cross-dressing in any meaningful way; not any more than one can be “cured” of homosexuality.
One one occasion I met an older cross-dresser, who told me that in his youth he had been subjected to electric aversion therapy as a means of attempting to cure his cross-dressing. He pretended he was cured just long enough to escape the treatment, before returning to cross-dressing, which he had pursued for the rest of his life. It had cost him his marriage, and he seemed deeply unhappy, even though he was dressed at a social gathering. And no amount of military discipline could permanently make a man out of Jan Hamilton.
There is a small amount of evidence that anti-androgens (such as spironolactone) can have some effect at suppressing cross-dressing tendencies. However, since the hormonal balance of the human body is akin to an orchestra, to meddle with it carelessly is likely to cause far-reaching and potentially permanent side-effects. I therefore don’t recommend anyone to take any hormonal medication without thorough discussion with their doctor first.
Crossdressing tends to be progressive as one gets older; a clear and detailed description of how crossdressing manifests in each decade of life is given in Helen Boyd’s wonderful book (which I wholly recommend to everyone) My Husband Betty.
Putting crossdressing aside
Many of my correspondents, and some of the other bloggers I link to, are people who have chosen to set cross-dressing aside from their lives. Their motivations vary, from religious or spiritual reasons, through to repugnance at cross-dressing, through to a desire to retake control of their lives.
I want to be clear that I wish these individuals nothing but success. I think I have quite a lot in common with many of them (and you know who you are!), and the reason for this is that I share with them a determination that cross-dressing will not overwhelm me, and a strong moral sense which keeps me away from the less savoury behaviour of some of my fellow cross-dressers.
I don’t think that cross-dressing can be put aside permanently without considerable effort. It’s sort of like being on a diet. At first, it’s OK to go without chocolate and pizza and the other things you enjoy, but after a while you come to miss them more and more. No matter which way you dress your salad or your rice crackers, you can’t make them delicious or satisfying. And then you find that you are using up all your patience and your energy resisting the urge to have a slice of pizza, and you are moody and tense all the time. You may even accept that chocolate and pizza make you overweight, and all those vegetables are highly nutritious and doing wonders for your digestion (and all that is indisputably true). But still, nothing hits the spot like a fresh hot pizza dripping with melted cheese.
It can be done; some people can manage it for ever, but it costs. I believe people who say they have successfully given up cross-dressing and no longer feel the urge to do it are lying to themselves and everyone else; just as I believe people who say they prefer salad instead of pizza are lying to themselves (and everyone else too). You can deliberately choose the salad for all sorts of reasons, and I wish you nothing but the very best of luck, but to insist you don’t like pizza any more makes me highly doubtful.
Intersex and transgender
Intersex isn’t the same as transgender because sex isn’t the same as gender. Sex is a biological distinction (chromosomes, hormones and physical characteristics). Gender is a social distinction (roles and behavior). And to add a third term, sexuality is about who you want to go to bed with. Usually they coincide pretty neatly, but not always.
It’s absolutely true that sex is not black and white, and neither is gender nor sexuality. Intersex people cannot reliably be assigned to either female or male; some of them have unusual chromosome patterns (karyotypes, such as XXY), and some of them have other syndromes which cause them to develop features of both male and female anatomy. Almost all of them are assigned at birth in to one or other sex, and raised accordingly. I believe that’s because parents want their kids to be spared the agony of growing up different. On the other hand, some intersex people, when they become adults, are very uncomfortable with the sex they were assigned to.
I think some transgendered people do probably identify with intersex people (without knowing the science well enough) and use the existence of intersex people to justify their views, beliefs, behavior, whatever. I can also understand how transgendered people might be slightly envious of intersex people (you might wish you were a man with breasts or a woman with a penis) and why intersex people might be uncomfortable with that.
I think what makes some intersex people uncomfortable about themselves is not the same as what makes transgendered people uncomfortable about themselves. I think most members of both groups are uncomfortable about themselves; I know I am. However, I flatter myself that I do understand the science as well as just about anyone.
I imagine a transgendered person saying to an intersex person: “See, I am just like you: neither male nor female.” I imagine the intersex person replying “You’re nothing like me. You started off as one, and now you want to be the other. Whereas I started off somewhere in the middle.”
As a lumper, I say to both: I understand that you both have different feelings and different biology. But, seen from the outside, you are both people who don’t neatly fit into the categories of male and female. Therefore, perhaps you have quite a lot in common after all (rejection, loneliness, doubt), even if you got there by different routes.
Crossdressing and LGBT
And that brings me on to LGBT. The whole notion of LGBT is exactly this: an attempt to lump together people whose behavior and predilections don’t quite fit with the “mainstream”. Before I started this blog, I had joined a closed internet forum for LGBT academics. I had thought that I would have something in common with them. I was, at the time, desperate to open a dialogue with like-minded individuals, but found (almost) nobody like me there. Though I posted about my own thoughts and fears and concerns, all I seemed to get was a polite concern; nobody (and we are talking about gay and lesbian academics) seemed to feel I had much in common with them. I had hoped to strike a chord, but failed.
As it happens, this blog has done quite well, and I have all but given up visiting that forum. But in the months when I lurked, I realized indeed that I had little in common with the regular posters. I dutifully tried to pitch into some of the conversations, and was treated politely and with tolerance, but without ever developing a sensation of feeling I belonged. And I never felt like attending any of the social gatherings which were held quite regularly. It seemed to me that all I had in common with them was my sense of isolation and self-loathing.
I think, though, for the “general public” (if indeed there are any left when you subtract all the trannies and queers and gays and whatnot), cross-dressers are considered to be lumped in with homosexuals. How often have you heard an accusation that because a man wants to wear a frock, he must be gay? And how often have you heard cross-dressers insist and demand that they are not gay? Where men are concerned, I think most gay men are attracted to masculine men, not feminine men. So cross-dressing isn’t an especially effective way to find oneself a gay male partner; Jaye Davidson said something of this kind, and I guess he would know better than most.
Crossdressing isn’t an expression of inner femininity
I’ve left this until the end because I think it is one of the most controversial, and counter-intuitive things which I have discovered. It bears repeating. Men don’t cross-dress because they are innately feminine. Crossdressers don’t want to be like women; they want to be like men think women are. It’s true that many crossdressers (and here I include myself) didn’t behave like typical boys when younger, and were aware something about them made them different from others, but they didn’t actually consider themselves to be girls.
Instead, crossdressers are attracted to women (remember: crossdressers are not gay). It’s just, for crossdressers, the attraction to women extends to themselves as a woman (the technical term for this is an erotic target location error). In other words, cross-dressing is an expression of heterosexual desire, turned inwards. Anne Lawrence puts it more prosaically, and I refer you to her whole article here:
Thinking about autogynephilic MtF… as men who “love women and want to become what they love” offers a more accurate and more richly informative model for clinicians.
In other words, autogynephilia isn’t just a sexual fetish, and to dismiss it as such angers nearly everyone, who insist there is a lot more to it (I know I think so). But it can be conceptualized as a whole suite of romantic or attractive feelings, directed towards oneself as a woman, even though most of us are also capable of directing these feelings outward to a female partner. I suppose that makes me feel a little better about the label of autogynephilia applied to me: it isn’t just about the sex thing.
I personally believe that the reason some male crossdressers seek out sex with other male crossdressers, is that the sex partner each is attracted to is not the other one, but themselves in the female role, doing things which they consider it erotic for women to do. Add to that the sexual overlay that many men consider it erotic for two “women” to have sex together, and you have a powerful mix indeed. And indeed, each participant will tell you he is quite sure he isn’t doing it because he is gay. See here for Helen Boyd’s comment.
I also believe that many crossdressers are more sexually attracted to the woman they see in the mirror than with the woman they may be married to, and Helen Boyd offers plenty in support of this assertion too.
My final piece of evidence in support of this assertion is mentioned above: if you want to suppress crossdressing desires, you don’t take more androgens (which, you might think, would make you more “manly”). Instead you take anti-androgens, which suppress male sexual appetite and behaviour. Why does that work? Because crossdressing isn’t driven by femininity, but by masculinity.
Note from Tasi: As profound as Vivienne’s views are, we all modify are opinions over time based on new evidence or experiences. Sometimes it’s just a different way of asking a question. So when I challenged Vivienne on a position she took on why men crossdress, this was her response:
“What causes people to be crossdressers is a powerful question, and not an easy one to answer. I have been thinking for my whole life: why do I do this? It’s irrational. It’s frowned upon. It accomplishes nothing. And yet, nothing quite hits the spot like it.
The best answer I can give you is that it is multifactorial. I think there are innate tendencies which we are born with, and some of that can be explicable by the way our brains develop, and perhaps even the hormonal environment we are exposed to in the womb. I think there are cultural factors, which is the way we are raised and the environment we are exposed to, and the experiences we have. Not only was I a sensitive boy, but I have a partially-disabled sister, who seemed to get all the attention and love when I was very small. Meanwhile I was told to be the “big brave soldier” while she got all the cuddles, all the rewards, and was sheltered from the slings and arrows by our overprotective parents. I understand why they behaved like this, but I believe what they did was to teach me, very firmly, that if you want cuddles and pampering, you need to be a girl; meanwhile being a boy means rough and tumble, getting dirty, and getting hurt.
I think therefore it is different in each case. I believe that most of us don’t choose to be like this; we only choose how to express it (or suppress it). I believe that some of us are affected only mildly; others are so affected that they must brave any amount of societal disapproval and personal agony to pursue it. I believe it cannot be “cured”. I believe it will never “go away”.
It is quite possible that, raised in a different environment, I would not have become a crossdresser; alternatively I could have expressed myself very differently.
I don’t know if that answers your question. It’s as close as I can come to a reasonably sensible answer to a question I have been puzzling over (and continue to puzzle over) for my whole life!”