Cross Dressing: A HypothesisbyDa_Vida©
First as a young adult and then as a psychologist, I read extensively in an attempt to find an explanation for my cross dressing behavior. Several psychological hypotheses have been proposed in the literature but I did not find any of them to be compelling.
While I don't think it is an explanation for cross-dressing, one hypothesis that resonated somewhat with me was what is called petticoating or pinaforing. Petticoating is feminizing (cross dressing) males as a method of discipline and control. The basic hypothesis is that petticoating was used as a maternal discipline technique or punishment that relied on eliciting humiliation and submission to discipline a boy. This experience it is proposed leads to the boy becoming a cross dresser. The woman petticoating a boy calls him her sissy boy, which through association becomes a verbal trigger for the same feelings of humiliation and submission aroused through the actual petticoating. This hypothesis in another permutation substitutes an older sister or other female relative such as an aunt for the mother. A final permutation proposes a role for the practice in older males in which the petticoating is applied by a girlfriend, spouse or even a relative stranger such as a neighbor.
I don't think that this hypothesis accounts for cross-dressing as a behavioral phenomenon. I don't believe that I was subjected to petticoating as a young child and don't have any recollection of it, if it occurred. However, I found that the basic thrust of the practice has some appeal because a male is required to cross dresses by someone else and thereby does not have to accept responsibility for the behavior or feel guilt for engaging in it. This is no doubt one reason that the idea enjoys some popularity among a segment of cross dressers. Feelings of guilt about cross-dressing are probably common and have always been a source of conflict for me, which I think accounts for why the idea of petticoating resonates with me rather than because it elicits suppressed memories.
Without any direct evidence to support the idea, I have concluded that there must be a biological basis for the behavior. First, the initial signs of the phenomenon usually appear at a young age. Second, it seems to always have a compulsive like hold on the individual exhibiting it. Third, it is a phenomenon that has appeared throughout recorded history. Finally, it can be found in many different cultures. Therefore, it seems likely that there is some sort of biological process driving the behavior.
I found no evidence that it is heritable and thus the basis must not be genetic, unless epigenetic. In the latter case, gene expression could be altered by pre-partum or possibly post-partum events that are not in themselves heritable but affect gene expression. It is well established that things like stressful events whether from internal or external sources, at critical times, can affect fetal development by affecting the biochemical environment in which development is taking place. Unusual changes in hormones can affect masculinization or feminization of the fetal nervous system of either sex. Such an event might well have behavioral affects. This is more likely to happen to males because the female is the core biological unit of the species and is more biologically robust than are males and thus less vulnerable to biological insult.
The gender continuum from feminine to masculine is broad and only overlaps with the biological continuum from female to male in part. Men who are drawn to cross dress, I think are closer to the feminine end of the gender continuum and the female end of the biological continuum than are typical men. Even in cases of "feminized males" there will be a continuum of variation as evidenced in the range of expression seen in such men. This can be as mild as a preference for certain "feminine touches in dress" to the extreme of desiring physical transformation as in transsexuals. I think that biologically female children are sensitized to orient on female models in their environment during development just as we are all sensitized to orient on spoken language.
Women adopt by imitation and instruction the social conventions of time and place related to the expression of femininity (e.g., nurturance, beauty, sex appeal). These conventions can encompass a variety of practices such as choice of clothing, cosmetics, various types of adornment and behaviors. These conventions are intended to enhance a woman's femininity and draw a gender contrast with the opposite sex. A biological male who is sensitized toward the feminine end of the continuum will tend to be drawn, to some extent, to orienting on and imitating the same social conventions referred to above to express that feminine tendency. Thus, I think this is a possible source of the compulsion found in some men to cross dress.
It is sometimes observed of cross dressers that their tastes run to the extreme or the ultra feminine, which may be a factor in the depreciating characterization of femmophile males by society. I think this often observed over-the-top behavior in cross dressers is overcompensation related to an attempt to mask their essential maleness, limited opportunities to express the feminine aspect of their identity and the usually limited development of the feminine aspect of their identity or some combination or all three. As a result, women are often critical of attempts to imitate them that appear to border on caricature and men see cross dressing as a threat to traditional gender behavior and thereby to the basis for their own gender identity.
Understandably, most women put more emphasis on comfort and utility in dress than on trying to exaggerate their feminine appearance. After all, unlike many cross dressers, they are at liberty to emphasize their feminine appearance whenever they want and as a result of learning history usually do so with style rather than flamboyance. In fact, full-time cross dressers who adopt a female life style are concerned with "passing" and adopt modes of dress and behavior that facilitates blending into the general female population unnoticed. There is even a subculture of serious part-time cross dressers who work at learning to develop a "passable" presentation through support groups that often includes wives or girlfriends. Thus, the flamboyant or ultra feminine style is not characteristic of all or even most cross dressers. If one is going to cross dress in public the surest way to avoid ridicule is to go unnoticed.
There is one major conundrum in all this. If the compulsion to cross dress is rooted in a biologically based push toward developing a feminine identity, why is it so erotic and sexually arousing that it often leads to masturbation? Most if not all women recognize the erotic potential that female clothing holds for men and some are very adept at employing their style of dress to arouse men, which must carry with it some degree of satisfaction. I doubt, however, that this satisfaction reaches the level of erotic arousal that many cross-dressing men get from wearing womens' clothing. Perhaps the sexual arousal experienced by cross dressers is due to a novelty effect or the stimulation that comes from doing something that is "forbidden' by conventional mores. Another possibility is that expression of the feminine component in the personality sexually arouses the male component in the personality leading to mono-sexual behavior (sex with oneself), especially in the absence of other outlets. In the case of the first two possibilities one would expect that if done regularly over a period of time an individual would become habituated to it and it would no longer be especially arousing. In the latter case, one would expect that if and when other directed outlets for sexual expression become available at least some of the self-directed behavior would be redirected.
One especially positive outcome of my own cross dressing is that I think it has honed my empathetic abilities. The attempt to understand the feminine component in my own personality through attempts to put myself in the role of or "walk in the shoes" of women has improved my skill at perspective taking. For example, if I see a woman or an image of a woman, I can easily view that woman as "like me," in relation to the feminine component in my personality, and in my imagination project my consciousness on to her, which produces a strong sense of identification. On the other hand, I can just as easily view that woman as "sexual other" meaning I can look at her as being a female in contrasts to my sense of myself as male. I often find myself switching perspectives several times in relation to the same person or image in a given circumstance.
The development of perspective taking and the role switching experiences that I have engaged in I believe have a neural basis. In recent years scientists have discovered a unique neuron called a mirror neuron. Apparently, these neurons are important to all types of learning and involve the neuron encoding visual representations of observed behavior and inferring the "mind" behind the behavior. The encoded images, thoughts and feelings can then be used as models to guide one's own efforts at behavioral replication. Replication is usually first done on a cognitive level and becomes a mental rehearsal for refining the performance before live practice. I think that mirror neurons have played an important role in activities related to my identities. The existence of these specialized neurons don't explain why I was motivated to focus on certain types of behavior to "mirror" but they do provide a mechanism for the apparent ability that I seemed to have developed for perspective taking.
I think that everyone could benefit from the type of perspective taking that I have attempted. Unfortunately, most people would find this kind of activity too threatening and well beyond the boundaries of what is psychologically acceptable for one's socially assigned gender role.