Cross-Dressing: What Is It?

Literally, cross-dressing means any member of one assigned gender wearing some or all of the clothes that are normally considered to be more appropriate to the opposite assigned gender, but that appears to be too simplistic to be useful as a definition of the practice.

A more popular definition is to apply the word cross-dresser to any genetic male or female who adopts the clothing of the opposite genetic sex from time to time in order to fulfill some psychological need(s) of their own, but that also lacks sufficient precision to be very useful.

That great bastion of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Edition, 1989), is both simplistic and condemnatory simultaneously, since it defines cross-dressing, which it refers to as ‘transvestism’, as:

    “The action of dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex; the condition of having an abnormal desire to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex.(emboldening added)

A further complication is introduced by the fact that many people - including some professional commentators and authorities - treat the descriptor cross-dresser as a synonym for the word transvestite (first coined from the Latin in 1910 by Hirschfeld in his book The Transvestites: An Investigation of the Erotic Desire to Cross Dress, and literally meaning ‘wearing clothing normally attributed to the opposite sex’), as if they think that the latter is simply a more formal version of the former. Strictly speaking that is not the case, as much of the professional literature tries to make a distinction between the two words, in that it ascribes a sexual or erotic component to transvestism, which they do not ascribe to cross-dressing per se, and also that transvestites are  allegedly troubled by their cross-dressing whilst cross-dressers are not. For my part, however, and like Kinsey before me, I will make no distinction between the words cross-dresser and transvestite, nor of any of their diminutives or variants; as far as I am concerned, they are all validly interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other.

Incidentally, Hischfeld was apparently a cross-dresser himself and he argued that transvestites were not fetishists, but were overcome with a:-

     "feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being . . . when in the clothing of the other sex."

There is a further confusion regarding the sexual orientation of cross-dressers which is shared by many lay persons and clinicians alike. As Buckner says in his paper The Transvestic Career Path:-

    “Conventional psychoanalytic opinion assigns the [a]etiology of transvestism to latent homosexuality, an incorrect view in the opinion of many students of transvestism.” (see also here)

Buckner’s point is emphasised by Sarah Clayton in her paper Gender Issues And Cross-Dressing In The Long Eighteeth Century (2002) as she dismisses the claims in the professional literature that cross-dressing is de facto a mental illness and a pathology. Clayton is quite specific on these points, and the following quote leaves one in no doubt  that she has concluded that cross-dressing has been twisted, both in the popular and the professional mind, to represent something that it is not:-

    “The point is, this kind of mindset [i.e. that cross-dressers lack male virility and even worse, are closet homosexual]. still exists today. People find it utterly baffling to learn that many cross-dressers are heterosexual and do not cross dress because they are some kind of gay ‘weirdo’. It is of emphatic importance that the subject of cross-dressing is further explored and explained, because the vast majority of people still automatically assume that a cross-dresser must be homosexual and suffering from some kind of mental illness with no rational reasoning for their behaviour.”

In the same paper, Clayton also suggests reasons why society is so concerned about male-to-female cross-dressing. In part, it is because it undermines the status quo wherein the male role is regarded automatically as superior to that of the female, but also because:-

    …the idea of a man dressing as a woman creates a greater sense of external anxiety than the idea of a female taking on masculine roles. It illustrates what can only be defined as a ubiquitous anti-feminist sentiment which has tainted our perceptions of gender roles, both in the eighteenth century, and now…Gender ambiguity was not and still is not acceptable.”

Nevertheless, the condemnatory tone introduced in the OED definition is amplified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV-Text Revised (2000) of the American Psychiatric Association which refers to cross-dressing as “transvestic fetishism”, though it does make it clear that the diagnosis applies to:

    heterosexual males who have sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors (sic) involving cross-dressing (wearing female clothing). To be considered diagnosable, the fantasies, urges, or behaviors (sic) must cause significant distress in the individual or be disruptive to his or her everyday functioning. (emboldening added)

The DSM-IV-TR also categorises cross-dressing or “transvestic fetishism” as a paraphilia”, i.e. it classifies it as a member of a group of sexual disorders with certain common features, namely that they involve:

    distressing and repetitive sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors (sic). These fantasies, urges, or behaviors (sic) must occur for a significant period of time and must interfere with either satisfactory sexual relations or everyday functioning if the diagnosis is to be made. There is also a sense of distress within these individuals. In other words, they typically recognize the symptoms as negatively impacting their life but feel as if they are unable to control them.(emboldening added)

The astute reader will not be surprised to learn that no specific definition of distress or disruption to everyday functioning is is given in the “transvestic fetishism” diagnosis. The DSM-IV-TR does not acknowledge the existence of healthy, well-adjusted male-identified heterosexual cross-dressers, i.e., they are ego-syntonic, or attempt to differentiate them from cross-dressers who are ego-dystonic, or distressed per se by their condition. These distinctions are left to the interpretation of the clinician. Tolerant clinicians may infer that transgender identity or expression is not inherently impairing, but that societal intolerance and prejudice are to blame for the distress and internalised shame that transpeople often suffer, whereas intolerant clinicians are free to infer the opposite, namely that cross-gender identity or expression by definition constitutes impairment, regardless of the individual's happiness or well-being. Therefore, the “transvestic fetishism” diagnosis is not limited to ego-dystonic subjects, and it makes no distinction between legitimate clinical distress and that caused by prejudice and discrimination.

Readers who are amused by the bizarre will not be surprised to learn that  the clinical significance criterion for five other so-called “paraphilias”, namely “exhibitionism”,  “froteurism”, “paedophilia”, “sexual sadism” and “voyeurism”, in the DSM-IV-TR (p. 574) were revised with more precise wording to limit the inappropriate diagnosis of ego-syntonic subjects not engaged in harmful behaviour or marked interpersonal difficulty. Apparently the American Psychiatric Association felt that these activities did not merit the extreme stigmatisation they reserved for cross-dressers, or gender non-conforming males, providing that those who indulged in exhibitionism, froteurism, paedophilia, sexual sadism and voyeurism, respectively, were ego-syntonic.

Anyone who does not notice the marked lack of consistency in the foregoing two paragraphs is suffering from a ratiocination deficit and will find the comments on my Parallels & Similarities page equally unfathomable..

For those who are interested in works of fiction, the DSM-IV-TR is quoted in greater detail here on my References page.

On the face of it, therefore, a male-to-female cross-dresser who is not caused “significant distress” by his dressing, nor has his “everyday functioning” disrupted by it, does not fall within the foregoing diagnosis. Neither is he suffering from a paraphilia, unless the dressing interferes with his “satisfactory sexual relations” or he “recognize[s] the symptoms as negatively impacting [his] life but feel[s] as if [he is] unable to control them.”

However, it is interesting to compare the DSM-IV-TR with that other standard diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases-10 (1994) of the World Health Organization, since the latter refers to cross-dressing as “dual-role transvestism” and lists it under “Gender identity disorders”. The ICD-10 then defines it as:

     The wearing of clothes of the opposite sex for part of the individual’s existence in order to enjoy the temporary experience of membership of the opposite sex, but without any desire for a more permanent sex change or associated surgical reassignment, and without sexual excitement accompanying the cross-dressing. (emboldening added)

Astute readers will note immediately from the above that there is nothing in the ICD-10 definition that has the negative import of the definition in the DSM-IV-TR. Furthermore, whilst the DSM-IV-TR stresses the sexual nature of cross-dressing and the significant distress and/or disruption caused by it, the ICD-10 makes no such references, which is particularly relevant to those many cross-dressers who maintain that:-

    (a) they are not sexually aroused by cross-dressing,

    (b) that they are not distressed by it, and

    (c) that it does not negatively impact on their lives in any way.

Naturally, these sort of cross-dressers do not normally come into contact with psychoanalysts who, by the very nature of their profession, deal almost if not exclusively with cross-dressers who do have a psychological problem of some kind.

Admittedly there are those who consider that it is not correct to compare the DSM-IV-TR with the ICD-10 and among them is the British Government, who have gone on record  when discussing the rights of cross-dressers in relation to the latest Mental Health Bill:-

    ...the ICD-10 is not an authoritative text on what constitutes a mental disorder...”

However, whilst the the British Government and many professionals in the psychiatric profession consider that the DSM-IV-TR is  the definitive authority on the diagnosis of mental disorders - because it is revised regularly,  purports to be factually correct and claims that it is “supported by an extensive empirical foundation”(p. xxiii) - it is not a universal view by any means as there is actually no objective support in the professional literature for the claim made in the DSM-IV-TR that unusual and strong sexual interests, i.e. paraphilias, stem from psychopathology, or that they constitute a form of psychopathology per se.

In other words, apart from historical precedent and social constructs, there is no valid reason why strong sexual interests, unusual or otherwise, be diagnosed as mental disorders, nor that cross-dressing be categorised as a ‘sexual disorder’ per se. Those readers who doubt the foregoing statement should recollect that in its earlier editions the DSM classified homosexuality as a mental disorder too - a view which subsequently fell into total disrepute amongst everyone apart from the ignorant and certain fundamentalist religious preachers in the USA to this day.

Not that the authors of the DSM have ever been troubled by the inconsitencies or inconvenient facts when it comes to producing their magnum opus, nor have they let these interfere with their claim that their manual is  factually correct and “supported by an extensive empirical foundation”. Which begs the question: “Why  is the psychiatric profession so unwilling, apparently, to apply consistency to its diagnoses and to apply its diagnoses consistently?” Readers who want to know the answer to that question might find a visit to my  Parallels & Similarities page interesting.

It is also a fact that recent research by Brown et al., entitled Personality Characteristics and Sexual Functioning of 188 Cross-Dressing Men, published in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders (184, pps 265-273), does not support the claim made in the DSM-IV-TR that cross-dressing is a mental disorder. Their paper concludes that:

    “Cross-dressers...are virtually indistinguishable from non-cross-dressers. (emboldening added)

Given the confusion over the exact meaning of the descriptors cross-dresser and a transvestite, the disparity between definitions given for each of them, and whether it is correct to regard the practice as a ‘mental or sexual disorder’ at all, one is left pondering which definition is the most appropriate to describe the act of cross-dressing, as the only thing all these definitions have in common is the fact that they all refer to a member of one assigned gender wearing, at some time or another, clothes normally attributed to the other.

Perhaps, therefore, we should be looking beyond whether words like eroticism, sexual interest, distress and mental or sexual disorder should be part of the definition of cross-dressing at all, particularly as these words are heavily overburdened with the condemnatory and censorious overtones of a more puritan, more rigid, more taboo-ridden and less-forgiving past. After all, in my lifetime, women who wore trousers were viewed with disapprobation, disdain, hostility and censure by the majority of society, yet nowadays it is a commonplace to see women in attire that was once the exclusive apparel of men, and no-one sees that there is anything wrong with that cross-dressing, or suggests that the majority of women who now wear trousers, jeans, or slacks are anything but normally functioning and decent human beings in all respects.

Why then should male-to-female cross-dressers be viewed any differently?

Am I just being naive or disingenuous in posing the foregoing question?

If anyone thinks so, then perhaps they will care to explain why, for example, a  Scotsman in his national dress should not be described as a cross-dresser for wearing a skirt, despite the fact that his kilt and frilly lace jabot have been suitably ‘masculinised’ - whatever that word is supposed to mean. After all, a skirt, by whatever alternative word one uses to describe it, is normally attributed to the female sex.  Therefore, the fact that a Scotsman calls his  skirt a kilt is irrelevant, as is the fact that it may have  been subtly adapted to make the apparel more acceptable to:

    (a) the man who has appropriated it, and

    (b) to those who will see him wearing it.

Neither of the foregoing factors changes the fact that a kilt is no less a skirt and that, generally, it is considered  abnormal for a man to wear one in most Western societies.

Incidentally, not all of the world’s major languages make this artificial distinction between the word kilt and skirt. In French, for example, a Scotsman’s national dress is called une jupe, and is exactly the same word that is applied to a woman’s skirt; note also that the word is always ascribed the feminine gender because all skirts are considered to be exclusively feminine apparel, whether worn by a man or a woman. Furthermore, the kilt is not the only example of men wearing the equivalent of a woman’s skirt, dress, or robe, as the  many other examples from around the world testify, such as the dhoti, sarong, kimono, cheongsam, or even the ecclesiastical robes in the finest of satins and lace much beloved by religious clerics of various denominations.

All of which suggests that cross-dressing can fairly be defined as  no more than someone dressing in clothing which society at large considers inappropriate for that person’s assigned gender, irrespective of whether there is an erotic component or not and regardless of  whether the cross-dresser is distressed by the experience.

In other words, what constitutes cross-dressing is primarily a social construct; one which changes over time and differs between societies as to which items of clothing are proscribed or forbidden.

But why society should feel that dressing in what it perceives to be sexually inappropriate clothing is unacceptable or taboo is another issue entirely and one which is explored on the Taboos page.

Now that the practice of cross-dressing has been defined, at least as far as I’m concerned, perhaps it is time to turn to the theories which attempt to explain why people do it, and some of the most prominent of those are described on the Theories page.

 Anyone who wants quick, superficial answers to their questions should check-out my FAQ page first, though I recommend that they make the effort to read my more detailed information pages.