Myth: Men Who Cross Dress Are Gay

Today’s myth-busting session is men who are turned on by dressing in women’s clothing are usually gay. That’s our myth. Now, people who dress in the clothing of the other sex, usually with a component of sexual arousal, are labeled transvestites. Now the word transvestite comes from Latin, and trans means across, or cross, and vest means clothing. So it means wearing the clothing across the other sex. Now, many men who do this prefer to dress fully as a woman in private, or in clubs, and some enjoy going out in public to try and “pass” as women, sometimes for a short period of time, or sometimes for longer periods of time. Some just like to wear a particular female garment, like a pair of underpants or a bra, and they’ll do it just for sexual activity, or they may wear it underneath their male garments during the day. Sexual activity can occur while they are dressed, and/or it can be used later in fantasy during sexual activity, either alone or with a partner. So they can dress, have arousal during the time that they’re dressed – whether at a club or alone in a special apartment they have, or alone in the house – and then they will take that experience, turn it into a fantasy, and use it during the time that they’re having sexual activity with a partner, or at another time when they’re masturbating. Now although in the past it was believed that transvestism only occurred in males, it appears that there are some women who also derive sexual arousal from men’s clothing, although, however, they appear to be a smaller number than men. But we really don’t know the answer to that question.

Now, men cross-dress for a number of reasons. First of all, there are female impersonators, and those are men that dress as women, often as part of their employment. Many movie stars have won enormous acclaim for their roles as female impersonators: for instance, Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire, and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the musicians hiding out from the mob in Some Like It Hot, and Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, just to name a few of them. And there have been a lot of new ones recently. Some rockers cross-dress as part of their performances, or even full-time, like Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, or Madonna. And let’s not forget the millions of ordinary men who cross-dress every year for Halloween or Mardi Gras – that’s one of the favorite things to do – or any time there’s a costume party, sometimes under the slightest excuse. Now another kind of cross-dresser is a “drag queen.” And it’s a term that’s used for gay men who dress up as women, sometimes for entertainment purposes, sometimes for seductive purposes, often in a very theatrical or extreme kind of caricatured way of attired.

Then there are transsexuals. Transsexuals are those people, both male and female, who feel that they have been born in the wrong body – that is, in the body of the wrong sex. And they often spend several years cross-dressing before living their lives full-time as a person of the other sex from the one in which they were born. They will have hormonal treatments, and some of them will have surgical treatments to change their body into that of the other sex, in order to match their internal sense of who they are, that is, their correct sex and gender.

We know that cross-dressers can be fully or predominantly heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual in their sexual orientation. So cross-dressers come in all those varieties. However, if we limit the definition to those who are aroused by wearing the clothing of the other sex, then the data appear to strongly support that the majority of those who cross-dress, and who are aroused by cross-dressing, and who are male, are heterosexual. Let’s look at the data, and then discuss the second question – which I think is a very important one, at least to me – whether cross-dressing should necessarily be viewed as pathological; that is, as an illness or as a psychological problem.

The first study I want to talk to you about was done in Sweden in 2005, and it’s a very important one because it asks the question, what’s the prevalence of this behavior in the general population. And there really have been very few studies, and it’s very hard to study something like this, because you have to look at a large group of people that you haven’t picked because they have any particular concerns, problems, ways of doing things, and then see if you can find out, out of that whole group, whether anybody in that group chooses to do some particular thing (or not chooses, but must, is obliged to do it).

This is a sample of 2450 18-60 year old males and females, and they were studied for a number of purposes. They were a random sample of the population in Sweden. They were asked many questions, but one of the questions they were asked was about whether they obtained sexual arousal from cross-dressing. And cross-dressing was defined as “sexual arousal from wearing clothes of the other sex.” That was what they were asked. And 2.8% of the men, and 0.4% of the women, reported at least one episode of a transvestic experience; that is, that when they were cross-dressed, they felt aroused. Now this included both individuals whose orientation was heterosexual, bisexual, or gay – I shouldn’t say both, all three of these orientations. This, again, is a very important finding, because studies of a population where the individuals were unselected are very rare, when you can get them to answer questions about their sexuality. In all the other studies that I’m going to tell you about today, the subjects belonged to some kind of transvestite club, or they subscribed to a transvestite magazine, or they had some relationship to a community through which they heard about the research that was going on. So there’s no real way to estimate from these other studies how many transvestites there might be in the population at large, or how many people might be cross-dressing in the general population. So this study was very important.

Now another large study that was published in 1997 will give us some more information on transvestism. And this one included 1023 men who were self-identified – that is, they identified themselves – as periodic cross-dressers. And they were age 20 to 80 years old. They were volunteers, and they were found through clubs, conventions – because transvestites have conventions too – and magazines for cross-dressers. They came from nearly all sections of the United States, but urban dwellers were overrepresented, so more of them came from urban places than from rural places. Transsexuals were not included in this study – remember, transsexuals are people who believe that they’ve been born in the body of the wrong sex, by how they feel. The social and economic characteristics of the men were really very unremarkable. Let me tell you about their religious affiliation, so you’ll get some idea of who these people really were. 38% of them were Protestant, 24% of them were Catholic, 3% were Jewish, 25% were other religions, and 10% said they were agnostic or atheist. How about their education? 65% of them had educations beyond a college degree, so clearly the people who belong to these clubs and so forth, and are interacting with these other transvestite people in groups, tend to be highly educated. But their professions ranged from unskilled to professional, so there was a range, obviously. What was their marital status? 60% were married at the time that they were in the study. 23% were separated, divorced, or widowed – so that comes up to 83% had been married at some time in their lives – and 17% had never been married. What was their parental status? Well, 69% of them had fathered children. But do remember that 10% were under 30 years old, so they may not have yet tried to have children – 30 is not old to not yet be a father nowadays, and another 33% were under 40. And again, a lot of people are having their children between 30 and 40, so we don’t know how many, at the end, might actually become fathers. What were their own personal family backgrounds, in terms of their upbringing? 76% were raised by both parents to the age of 18. That’s pretty good when we know that the divorce statistics are so high in the United States. And 76% of them said that their fathers provided a good masculine image. And these questions were asked because, of course, when people find out that somebody does something like cross-dress, or that they may fall in love with somebody of the same sex, often their first thought is “oh, it must be something that went on in the family – there must have been something ‘unusual’ or out of sorts with their family.” But this did not seem to be the case with these men. And what about their sexual orientation? Again, the question that we’re asking in this myth-busting session here. Well, 87% of these men identified themselves as heterosexual, 7% as bisexual, and 1% as homosexual. Now remember how they were found. 5% identified as asexual or unsure of what they were. 29% of them, however, reported that they had had some same-sex sexual experiences in their lives. But remember that in large studies, or studies in large groups of “unpicked” men, unselected men at the beginning, there are a number of these studies that have found that up to 1/3 of men have had at least one same-sex experience in their life. And so it’s not really way out of the normal range of what happens, and it depends on how the question was asked, and it’s not quite clear in this study whether it was “ever in your life” or “as an adult.” 74% of them judged their interest in women to be average or above average – so when asked about how do you think you rate, in terms of your interest in women, compared to the other men around you, 74% (just about three-quarters) said that their interest in women was average or above average.

Now what about their history of cross-dressing? When did it begin? Well, 66% reported that they began cross-dressing before the age of 10. And 29% began between the ages of 10 and 20. Only 5% began cross-dressing after the age of 20. Now the men were asked to describe their sexual response to their cross-dressing. Only 9% reported that cross-dressing never caused genital sexual excitement. And another 12% said it happened only rarely. That leaves 79% who found it arousing at least some of the time. When asked about their preference for their masculine or feminine selves or persona – and for a lot of men who cross-dress, when they get all dressed in their feminine attire, they have a kind of self that they are, or persona that they feel when they’re dressed that way, and that persona has a name, and sometimes has a biography, and it’s a role-playing thing. So they were asked about how they felt about that persona, that self, and which person of themselves did they like better – the one that was the feminine one, or the one that was the masculine one? 60% reported that they preferred both of them equally – their male self and their dressed female self. 11% said they preferred their masculine self to their feminine self, and 28% said they preferred their feminine self to their masculine self. That’s interesting, and it would be interesting to have more research on that.

Now, as an aside to this, in a 1979 study which was conducted on a group of male transvestites age 21 to 69 – 21 of whom, by the way, were either married or living with a female partner – researchers investigated male hormone levels. They’re really not male – I know we’ve talked about this before, but they’re really not male hormone levels, it’s the androgen level that’s higher in men than in women, called testosterone. And they investigated penile responses of these men to female and male moving pictures, nude moving pictures, and self-ratings of orientation on the Kinsey scale. And this is what they found. The testosterone levels were completely within normal range, so they were just like males who don’t cross-dress, their penile responses to both male and female nude moving pictures indicated a greater heterosexual than homosexual interest, and 81% rated themselves as exclusively or nearly exclusively heterosexual, while 19% labeled themselves as bisexual. So that’s just another piece of data.

Now, another study, back to 1997, which included 372 men, that were gathered from various places – that is, clubs and magazines and so forth. This primarily focused on the question of sexual orientation. The current sexual orientation of this sample was 67.5% heterosexual, 10.6% bisexual, 2.4% homosexual, and 19.6% reported that “sex is not a part of my life right now.” So that sexuality, at least with another person, was not part of their life right now. The age at initiation of cross-dressing in this group, the median age that the men began cross-dressing, was eight and a half years old, and 32% started before they were six. So just like in that other sample, many of them began very early in their lives – pre-pubertal, that is, before puberty. In this study, the investigators asked what the men feared would happen to them if they got caught cross-dressing as children. Very interesting question. 47% of them feared being rejected, and that certainly makes sense, I think. 25% feared being labeled a “sissy” or “gay.” 23% feared being labeled “crazy” or mentally ill. So you can see how this would be something you would carry around with you, all of these fears, that would be very affecting to your life as a child. And 5% were afraid of being labeled “sinful.” That was far fewer than I would have expected.

So what was the motivation for cross-dressing? That’s also an interesting thing. Besides the arousal, which of course you’ll see is one of the major reasons, but it’s not the only reason. And there are several studies that have asked men who cross-dressed about their motivation for wearing women’s clothing. The four basic motivations were, number one was sexual arousal. Number two was relaxation. It seems that a lot of the men report feeling relaxed and comfortable, and relieved of masculine demands when they’re in female clothing, female attire. So it’s very interesting, that by putting on female attire, somehow they can “take off” what they feel are the heavy demands of being a man in our culture. Interesting. The third is roleplaying. Many of these men report that there is a sense of satisfaction and achievement in being able to “pass” as a woman. There’s something about being able to be a woman, to be able to sort of fool the world, in a sense, and to go out into the world, or even just in a club, to somehow be a woman for a little while, and that you can do that, that is satisfying – dramatic maybe. And the fourth is adornment. And that is, that they report that the drabness and monotony of most men’s clothing is very much contrasted by the beautiful colors and the soft fabrics that women can wear. And they feel beautiful when they’re in women’s clothing, and they appreciate the beauty, and the feel and so forth of women’s clothing – they enjoy that. And so many transvestites enjoy the sense of feeling beautiful, which they don’t feel in men’s clothing. And if you look back historically, in many periods of Western history, and also in Eastern cultures, men wore as beautiful or more beautiful clothing than women did! Silks and colors and feathers – just take a look back at our history. And yet in the last century or so, men have worn the most drab, ordinary, itchy clothing. So there’s something to that – maybe that wasn’t necessary for men when they could wear very beautiful clothes. I don’t know. So, let’s conclude this to say, at least from these studies, that it appears that most men who cross-dress, particularly those who achieve sexual pleasure from wearing women’s clothing, are essentially heterosexual – the majority.

But there are other categories of individuals who wear the clothing of the other sex for various reasons, for short periods of time, or all the time, for reasons related to their identity, or their erotic feelings, or only for their professions. These individuals may be aroused by their own sex, by the other sex, by both sexes, or just by themselves.

Now, what about the women who live with these cross-dressing heterosexual men. Who are they? Well, there have been some studies about the wives, and some studies from the men who have reported about their wives. In one large study of men, the men reported that 83% of their wives were aware of their cross-dressing, and 32% of these wives knew about the cross-dressing before the marriage. So about two-thirds didn’t know about the cross-dressing before the marriage, and then found out later – the majority of them. The men reported that 28% of their wives were completely accepting of their cross-dressing, and even assisted them in buying clothes and applying makeup. 47% of the wives, they felt, were ambivalent, and 19% were antagonistic about it. And of course, I’m sure the antagonistic ones didn’t know about it before the marriage took place.

Now in another study, and this is perhaps the largest study of the women themselves, who were in committed or exclusive relationships with a heterosexual cross-dressing male. And by the way, these women were all recruited from non-clinical settings, so these are not women who came in, either by themselves or with their husbands, for therapy. They were from these conventions or clubs where you could meet the women. There were 106 women in this group that were studies, and they came from 25 states and one came from Canada. The women were age 19 to 69, with an average age of 40. They were 97% Caucasian, and they were 3% Hispanic. The women’s religious affiliations were 70% Protestant or Catholic, and 26% listed no religious affiliation. Now, one question we asked is did they know, before they got into this relationship, before the relationship was really committed, did they know that their husband has this transvestite activity. 40% reported that they knew about their partner’s cross-dressing. So it’s like the other study – a few more, a little larger percentage. 40% knew before they got committed in their relationship that their husband did have transvestic interests, and was involved in transvestite behavior. How long was the average relationship? In this group, it was 13 years. The average woman knew about the transvestic relationship for 8.9 years within that relationship. Now again, remember that 40% of them knew before the relationship was committed. 94% reported that their partner had cross-dressed in their presence. So the vast majority had seen their husband dressed in women’s clothing. And for 50% of the women, this happened at a frequency of once a week or more. So it wasn’t that it happened once and that was it, they were horrified and ran away. This happened, for half of them, it happened once a week or more. 48% of the women said that their partner had cross-dressed for at least once sexual encounter during their relationship. So not only had they seen them, not only did it happen more than once a week for half of them, but it had also happened within a sexual context for almost half of them.

Now, how did the women react to seeing their partners cross-dressed? Some of the women reported being turned on, at least occasionally, by seeing their partners cross-dress. So it wasn’t just that it was OK with the majority of them, but some of them actually found it stimulating. Of the women who had seen their partners cross-dress, 45% subjectively felt, however, that their husbands spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror while cross-dressed. And this is really part of the whole experience for these men, because it’s not just feeling the clothes, it’s seeing themselves in this other persona, and the way that they do it is by looking at themselves in the clothing, and seeing themselves as this other person or as this part of themselves. So it’s not really vanity, in the sense that it would be for somebody that’s dressed as themselves, or as their normal self, but that’s part of the experience and part of the turn-on, seeing yourself in the clothing. All in all, when the characteristics of the women who were married or in committed relationships with these transvestic men, were compared with women in the general population, these women were not significantly different from American women, except that they were less likely to have children, as a group, than American women of similar age. 17% of the women indicated that their partners had had one or more extramarital encounters that were known to them. So these men, some of them – 17% of them, which is again close to what the research is telling us is average for American men in general – had had at least one extramarital affair. With regard to acceptance of their partner’s cross-dressing, 32% had seriously considered, at one time or another, either divorce or separation from their partner, based wholly or substantially on his cross-dressing behavior. So not because of some other thing, which obviously any marriage could have. But 32% had seriously considered it. Of course, they hadn’t done it – at least not yet!

Now I want to address the question, is transvestism a mental illness? Should we consider it a disease, a problem, something that somebody, because they do it, should go to therapy? Should we understand it as that? Or is it just another variation of sexual expression? And that’s a serious question. I don’t know that I can answer it entirely, but I’m going to give you my opinion, and you’re going to have to come to your own opinion about it.

The Diagnostic Manual, which is the manual that is used by psychiatrists and psychologists to make their diagnoses and plan their treatment plans for patients, uses the following criteria – that I’m going to read to you – for the disorder that it calls “transvestic fetishism.” It has two important parts. The first part says that, over a period of at least six months, in a heterosexual male, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving cross-dressing. So that’s the first part. And the second part is the fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The second part is very important – how does the activity make the person feel? And does it interfere with the person’s life in general? We can certainly say that dressing up does no one any harm, except if it’s kept as a secret from one’s partner, and then her trust is lost through the revelation or the finding out. Or, if the behavior becomes so obsessive and involves so much time and so much resources – let’s say you’re spending all your money on buying pocketbooks and high heels and women’s dresses – that it interferes with other important aspects of your life, like your relationships or your family or your career. Then it’s a problem. I think we have to ask ourselves, when does labeling a behavior help, and when does it hurt? If a person is suffering, and goes for professional assistance, then a label may very well help the professional to diagnose a problem and to create a treatment plan, and also to tell a person “you’re not alone, there are other people who are like you – this many other people are like you” or “I treat this many people who are like you, and we help this many people who are like you, so we can deal with this.” But if an individual is not having difficulties, then a label can introduce problems. Think about the reaction to calling a child “active” or “hyperactive.” Or calling somebody “compassionate” or “codependent.” Or saying someone is “passionate, with a strong libido” or that he or she is a “sex addict.” Very different – it makes me feel funny when I say it. Labeling somebody with a label that has an excess negative meaning can have a profound effect on how that person views him or herself from that moment forward. Just think of what it feels like in the schoolyard if somebody calls you a name. I know that they say “stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” – but names can harm you. They can make you feel very bad, unless you have a very strong sense of who you are, and a lot of us don’t have such a strong sense of who we are. It’s hard to have such a strong sense. So names and labels, and especially if a professional labels you, can not only foster shame and guilt, but can lead to what we call self-fulfilling prophecies, that result in an increase or an intensification of negative aspects of the behavior that may not have been a problem before the labeling took place. And the self-fulfilling prophecy is when, by understanding and thinking that you are something, or something’s true about you, you then make it happen. Perhaps if a person who’s cross-dressing does not experience problems, is having a healthy relationship, and a full life, we should see this behavior as a variant and not as a mental disorder or pathological state. At least this is something that we should all think about, both professionals and the rest of us that are out there.

So I leave you with this question – when is it a good thing to label, and when is it not a helpful thing to label? And I guess you have to decide how you feel about many sexual behaviors, and how we, as a culture, and as individuals, think about them and the people who are using them as ways to find pleasure and arousal. Bye for now.

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