What about crossdressing?

Yes, what about it? ☺

Sorry… I’ll try to be serious from now on.

Crossdressing (also called transvestism) has an ambivalent relationship to transsexualism. The two concepts are very different from each other, but share some similarities. They should not be confused.

First example – the guy

Let me give an example of two very different crossdressers. One might be a man, with a male body and gender identity. He lives happily in a male gender role, is masculine and maybe even has a dominant personality. He has a strong sex drive, and enjoys his sexuality. The only thing that is not typically male about him is that he has a sexual interest in women’s clothing. That means sometimes when he’s sexually excited or wants to get sexually excited, he puts on women’s clothes. That is part of his sexuality, he enjoys that greatly. Wearing female clothes excites him; it is very closely related to his sexuality. Sometimes, such a person feels bad or dirty after such a sexual act and tries to not to think about their fetish anymore. When the sexual kick is gone, the interest in female clothes disappears. Others cope with this interest differently, and accept it as part of their sex life. There are a number of theories why some men develop such a sexual interest in female clothing. I don’t really know, but maybe the fantasy of weak, of being submissive, of not having to be in charge and being taken care of by another plays a role. In addition, there might be some feeling of kinkiness, of doing something wrong, the underlying fear of being found out, might all add to the thrill. There might be similarities to other fetishes, such as sadomasochism, bondage and discipline, or if the fascination is primarily on the clothes, to fetishes based on objects, such as shoes.

That’s a little weird… is that right?

Okay, before I get tons of criticism about this – I just tried to give an example of one extreme of crossdressers, a very male, sexually charged person. This is not how all crossdressers are. Please read on for more explanation. But first, please understand that I do not imply any value judgements with this example. Probably the most important yardstick for me when it comes to judging whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, is the good old Golden Rule, or in short, the question of whether anybody gets harmed. That is not the case with crossdressing; it is usually done in private, alone or with consenting adults. I have absolutely no problem with that, if it makes people happy, then I’m happy. That tolerance is a completely separate issue and has absolutely nothing to do with understanding it, empathising with it or liking it; it is for me a vital part of personal freedom and human dignity. One simply should not tell people how to live their life in private. I really can’t see moral issues attached to this behaviour. Besides, the guy in the example has not chosen to be a testosterone-charged male or has carefully selected his interest in female clothing – that’s just how he is. But even if it was different, if he had actually made the conscious decision to choose crossdressing as a hobby or part of his sexual acts, why should anybody have a problem with that? Different people enjoy sex in different ways, that is very human and it would be boring if it wasn’t so.

Second example – the girl

So, now to my second example: This person is a male-to-female transsexual. She has a male body, but a female gender identity. She still lives in the male gender role, but suffers from gender dysphoria, a feeling of depression and anxiety caused by her gender conflict. She might be shy, has low self-esteem and is insecure about herself and her place in the world. She knows she is really female inside, and abhors all things male. She strongly dislikes her male body and hates to wear male clothing. They feel like a lie to her, a terrible costume she is forced into and make her unhappy. At home, she has a selection of female clothes. When she puts them on, it makes her feel comfortable. It relieves a little bit of her gender issue; the clothes feel simply right and normal. She can be herself wearing them and she derives some normality from them. For now, she isn’t hiding, lying and wearing hated clothes that are a symbol and constant reminder of her dilemma. She feels well and normal, like other people can all day. This is a relief for her. As with regards to her sexuality, maybe she hates her body so much that she doesn’t want sexual acts anyway.

Comparing the two examples

Okay, so now we have two very, very different examples: Sexually excited macho man and shy, anxious, asexual transsexual girl. One wears female clothes to get a sexual kick, one because it’s normal and right for her. You can easily see how different these two situations are – and yet, the behaviour might seem similar to an outsider. After all, both are seen as guys who dress in women’s clothes – crossdressers.

Please understand that these two examples were deliberately extreme, maybe two opposite ends of a continuous spectrum. But I hope they illustrate the differences well.[1] Crossdressers can be a very heterogenic group, and crossdressing can be done for a variety of reasons. It also depends on the point of view. The transsexual girl from my example actually feels she is forced into crossdressing by society, when she has to live in her disliked male gender role. Wearing female clothes is just normal to her, it’s not crossdressing. But if you don’t know she is transsexual, or define crossdressing simply as wearing the clothes of the gender opposite to your gender role, then you will think she is crossdressing when wearing female clothes.

You can now see why there might be some tension between transsexuals and crossdressers. One group is sexually charged and out for a sexual kick, the other group has an entirely different motivation. One group is male, the other one is female. Many transsexuals do not like being lumped in together with crossdressers and hate the assumption that what they do has a sexual reason.

But in reality, things are hardly ever polar. Behaviours and motives overlap, and it can be hard to categorise things clearly.[2] For an outsider, it might be impossible.

Oh, but one thing should be clear – if a transsexual woman has transitioned and lives in her female gender role, then she is not clearly not crossdressing. To call that crossdressing would be offensive.

So, to sum it up – crossdressers are usually males who dress as females occasionally by habit or compulsion. They are usually happy with their male gender role and do not wish to switch to living in a female gender role. Male-to-female transsexuals desire to live in the gender role opposite to their gender assigned at birth, and dress in female clothes to relieve their gender conflict. It looks like crossdressing, but it isn’t.

About myself

Oh, maybe a little bit about myself... when I had to put on a male suit, I sometimes got a gagging reflex. It was violent and sudden, and felt like I had to throw up. I couldn’t suppress it. Sounds odd? Yes. I know. I wish it wasn’t true. But it is.

When I wore male shoes and looked down at myself, it sometimes threw me into depression. Those shoes were the symbol for my predicament, for the cage I was living in, for lying to others, for everything I hate, for ugliness, repression and unhappiness. I know that also sounds odd and extreme, but gender dysphoria is. You really need to experience it. On second thought, better not. ☺

Putting women’s clothing on for me simply means I feel right. I’m not being reminded about being different anymore, gender dysphoria moves in the background. I can be myself. It’s really, really wonderful. Have you ever thought about how wonderful it is to wear the clothes you want to wear? And that not all people can do that?

Why doesn’t one hear much about crossdressing women?

That’s a good question… I’m not an expert on crossdressing, but I can think of two answers: First, sexual fetishes are usually associated with the male sex hormone, testosterone. Fetishes and other paraphilias (sexual deviations) are in some cases even treated with anti-androgens, hormones that reduce the effects or level of testosterone in the body. With less testosterone, fetishes weaken or even disappear. Women have naturally less testosterone than men, so that’s probably one reason why they are less prone to fetishistic behaviour.

Secondly, women in Western societies have many fewer social and cultural restrictions about the clothes they wear. Women can easily wear male clothing without stigma, so maybe female crossdressers blend in, they are not seen as abnormal and don’t think of their own behaviour as that unusual. This means that there is little excitement, kinkiness, feeling of doing something forbidden or fear of getting discovered. That might also reduce the motivation.

Our society is really very, very sexist. Think about this example – a girl in a pair of Dr. Marten’s boots… she might have an image of being independent, tough, practical, strong, alternative, cool, sexy. Now think about a boy wearing ballerinas in public. Um, unthinkable. That boy needs help, he has some serious issues. Right? That’s how sexist we are, most or all of us, even if we don’t want to be.

More proof of our sexist cultural standards when it comes to clothing, if needed, are the security controls at airports. These gates, often manned by stern-looking men and women (I’m scared of them… I know they are there for my own safety, and am grateful for that, but I’m still scared when passing security… I know I’m silly ☺) also serve as fashion police. A woman can pass through security wearing any kind of boots, shoes, platform sandals, with or without painted toenails, with tights, socks or barefoot. Imagine a guy wearing tights or female footwear – what will happen to him? He’ll be publically searched, with little regards for his privacy. If he’s travelling with work colleagues, that could end his career. Same goes for wearing a bra. I have no idea why most guys seem to accept all that, why they allow this limitation of their freedom by social norms. It puzzles me and upsets me.

So, maybe the double standards of our society go a little way to explain why there are few female crossdressers.

And the medical or psychological view?

Oh, and then there are psychologists, I nearly forgot. For some reason, many think of crossdressers as being sick. They included two categories of crossdressing in the “International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems”, short ICD (the current version is ICD-10).[3] Crossdressing is lumped in under mental and behavioural disorders, and you will find it right there, together with schizophrenia and paedophilia. Code F64.1 is “Dual-role transvestism” and code F65.1 is “Fetishistic transvestism”. A dual-role transvestite is apparently someone who enjoys wearing the clothes of both sexes, but does not get sexually aroused by it nor wants to change their physical sex. Apparently, such a person is sick. Hello? Violating some cultural norms is a disorder?[4] A fetishistic transvestite apparently gets sexually aroused, but takes his female clothes off right after orgasm. So, there you are.

I have no idea why some people think they have to pathologise such a harmless behaviour like crossdressing. Who came up with the idea these people have a mental disorder? What’s wrong with them? If something doesn’t fit into my little world, it must be sick. Lovely.

One can only hope crossdressing will be removed from future versions of the ICD. Some advanced countries, like Sweden, do not use the classifications for transvestism because their National Board of Health and Welfare has decided that crossdressing is a harmless part of the normal human spectrum, and needs neither treatment nor categorising as an illness. Go, Sweden!

But some people seem to have a very different view and want to modify the current classification so that it’s applicable to men only and related to transsexualism.[5] Go, sexism! Make sure all these crossdressers know they are mentally sick, abnormal and need treatment. After all, theirs is such a horrible crime. I mean, wearing female clothes? That person must be sick!

I am simply dumbfounded by such opinions, they leave me without words.

I’m sure eventually crossdressing will go the way that homosexuality, masturbation and other lovely pathologies such as nymphomania have gone. All of these things were once seen as disorders by psychologists, stigmatised and “sufferers” were subjected to stupid, unnecessary and completely pointless treatments, which always failed. Luckily, things are better now, and we can accept a little more diversity. All of these “disorders” have disappeared from medical classifications. The same will happen with crossdressing eventually.

If I was more cynical, I’d point out that psychologists have a commercial interest in labelling people as “sick”. But I won’t. Oh, and what I also shouldn’t mention is that viewing other people as sick makes you feel good about yourself. I mean, you are normal, at least, you have just confirmed it yourself with making up all these categories of being disordered. And with a little goodwill from a good, normal person such as yourself, maybe you can help these poor sick souls. Then you will feel even better about yourself and the power you have. Okay, that was mean, I admit it – sorry. ☺

Viewed from the other side, maybe some people who have difficulties accepting that they are different and have socially stigmatised likes and dislikes, find comfort in thinking they have a mental disorder. Maybe they feel this frees them of responsibilities or explains why they are the way they are. Maybe they think this entitles them to support and empathy? Maybe they should grow up a little and accept themselves for what they are? Just my guessing, of course.

Sorry for this opinionated view. But I really can’t see why crossdressers should be classified as mentally disordered, why they would require treatment and why we should see their behaviour as pathological. Please don’t get me wrong – if crossdressing becomes such an obsession that it negatively interferes with life, that it harms the crossdresser or others, then surely help is needed. But the same is true for just about everything; obsession with work or chocolate can be harmful, too.[6]

How many people are crossdressers?

As usual with issues that carry a social stigma or are related to sexuality, it’s difficult to get reliable figures. Most estimates seem to be between 1 % to 5 % of the male population.[7] Again, motivations for these people can be very different. Their numbers seem much higher than estimates for transsexuals – I think few crossdressers experience strong gender dysphoria. Lynn Conway estimates that percentage to be 10 % to 20 % of crossdressers.[8]

These are some of my thoughts… again, I’m not an expert in crossdressing, and this is written from a transsexual point of view. I hope the article makes it clear why crossdressers are included in the umbrella term of transgender, but not part of the more narrowly defined transsexual group. Oh, and you probably noticed I’m against the pathologising (to characterise something as a disease) of crossdressing.☺


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[1] Both examples are based on people I know well.

[2] Naturally, and to complicate matters more, a crossdresser can be a transsexual in hiding. What I mean by that is that such a person might not be fully aware of her gender dysphoria or not willing to admit to it and comes out later as a transsexual. That makes categories even more fluid.

[3] See http://apps.who.int/classifications/apps/icd/icd10online/ (downloaded in 2009).

[4] I once went to a wedding where the groom had chosen his best female friend as one of his four best men. To fit in, she wore the same clothes the three male best men wore. The definition for “dual-role transvestism” is so very broad, one could actually argue (without bending words too much) that the groom’s best friend fit that definition, is thus mentally disordered and probably needs psychological treatment. Psychological science at its best. ☺

[5] Sorry for the strong words; this really upsets me. One example of this is Anne Lawrence http://www.annelawrence.com/twr/ETLEs_and_the_DSM-V.html (downloaded in 2009). She seeks to modify the manual of US-American Psychiatrists, called DSM, to include her version of crossdressing. She apparently believes all fetishistic crossdressers have a mental disorder that makes them love themselves as a woman, and that this can or will lead to transsexualism. Talk about generalisation and stigmatisation.

[6] If you browse the ICD-10 a little more, it gets more surreal. Things like fire-setting (F63.1) and stealing (F63.2) are there too – but narrowed down to “pathological fire-setting” and “pathological stealing”. That means a little fire-setting or a little stealing is okay, it’s only considered a mental disorder when a person does it at abnormal levels. Compare this with the definitions for crossdressing. Apparently, some psychologists think some stealing and fire-setting is normal, but if you start to crossdress, the fun is over. In that case, you are clearly mentally disordered. Would you trust people who make such value judgements with your mental health or important decisions about your life?
I assume those definitions were written by different working groups, and it’s easy to see where the more discerning scientists were at work. I don’t necessarily think a complete removal of crossdressing from the ICD is needed, but to limit it to pathological levels of crossdressing seems like common sense.

[7] See Lynn Conway’s article “How Frequently Does Transsexualism Occur?” from 2001–2002 (http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TSprevalence.html – downloaded in 2009) and the June 2009 report “Gender variance in the UK:” by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (http://www.gires.org.uk/assets/Medpro-Assets/GenderVarianceUK-report.pdf – downloaded on 2009). Both quote several sources on the issue.

[8] See Lynn Conway’s data at http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TSprevalence.html (downloaded in 2009).