November 6, 2010

The Vernon Coleman study of Crossdressers

In 1995 the author and crossdresser Vernon Coleman made a survey of crossdressers.

The European Medical Journal Special Monograph On Transvestism/Crossdressing was based on questionnaires which were completed by 414 British males during July and August 1995 and on written communications from over 600 other British males during the same period.

Coleman belong to the crossdressers who think there is no connection between crossdressing and transsexualism. I think there is such a connection, although I understand his point about there being a big difference between the crossdresser who has no wish to become a woman for real, and the transsexuals who are driven by a gender identity dysphoria.

Coleman also denies the existence of crossdressers assigned female at birth. I know they exist.

His results are very interesting, though, and seems to confirm findings made by others.

I include some of the results below. The complete report, with Coleman's comments and quotes from crossdressers can be found over at his site.

How old were you when you began wearing womens clothes?

The average age at which males in this survey started dressing in womens' clothes was 13. The youngest respondent reported that he had started crossdressing at the age of 4. The oldest was 70 when he started dressing as a woman.

This confirms that the myth that the urge cannot "awaken" before puberty is exactly that: a myth.

Why do you do it?

Note: Respondents were invited to tick as many options as they liked.

a) Because I like the feeling of women’s clothes: 321 (77%)
b) Because it gives me a sexual kick: 244 (59%)
c) Because it helps me relax and deal with stress: 202 (48%)
d) Because I want to be like a woman: 262 (63%)

"Surprisingly, perhaps," Coleman says, "the most common reason given for cross dressing was the feeling of wearing women’s clothes."

The question is, of course: What does that mean? Is it the sensual feeling associated with the feminine, or is it just a practical way of avoiding an itch? The fact that close to 60 percent get a sexual kick out of this, seems to confirm the idea that sex is an important part of the motivation. This is why Ray Blanchard ends up reducing "autogynephilia" (the love of oneself as a woman) to a sexual perversion.

Coleman makes a very important point, however, by pointing out that there is more to this than sexual desire:

"A man who is under constant pressure to achieve, to perform and to make money may find that he can escape from those pressures most effectively by slipping on silky, feminine clothes. He can change his personality and his perception of society's expectations of him within seconds."

I see that a lot of people talk about "male privileges" when discussing transgender issues. For men caught in the web of gender stereotypes (the man being responsible, strong, untouchable, "uncryable") the "female privileges" give room for emotional relief.

"By dressing as women they can liberate their feminine, gentle side - and (temporarily at least) escape from their aggressive, ambitious, demanding masculine selves," Coleman says.

In Christian and Muslim cultures there is a tendency of keeping this "clean" longing for emotional relief from the "tainted" urge for sexual relief. I believe this division is artificial. Still, it is clear that crossdressing is much more than a "sexual fetish" for these men. It is also a way of expressing a feminine identity and to deal with stress.

If you had the opportunity would you have a sex change operation?

94 respondents (23%) answered 'yes'
320 respondents (77%) answered 'no'

Coleman argues that crossdressers are different from transsexuals:

"Many lay people who come into contact with transvestites confuse cross dressing with transsexualism. Wives, girlfriends, employers, workmates and friends often suspect that transvestism is merely a stepping stone on a longer journey; a half way house on the way to transsexualism. This mistaken view is also common among many professionals (doctors, psychologists and social workers) who assume that transvestites and transsexuals are merely variations on the same theme. Some psychiatrists regard transvestites as gender dysphorics but on the evidence obtained by this study I would regard that as a misnomer. Some transvestites would like to become transsexuals but most transvestites (over three quarters according to this survey) have no doubts about their gender and are perfectly happy about their crossdressing. "

I think Coleman is mixing etiology (the cause of both phenomena) with the expression of that etiology. The idea of there being several types of transgendered people (inincludingrossdressers and transsexuals) is based on the understanding that they have a common -- or related -- cause. The fact that as many as 23 percent want a sex reassignment operation points in that direction. Many MTF transwomen have started out as crossdressers.

But Coleman is of course right in insisting that most crossdressers do not want to transition. They want to remain men, while exploring their femininity through crossdressing.

Has being a transvestite ever lost you a job or a relationship?

66 respondents (16%) answered 'yes'
348 respondents (84%) answered 'no'

Coleman adds:

"At first sight the low percentage of crossdressers answering `yes' to this question seems surprising. It is clear, however, (particularly from the response to Question No 13: Do you live in fear of people finding out that you are a transvestite?) [69% said `yes' 31% said `no'] that a very large number of transvestites are extremely secretive about their crossdressing. These transvestites clearly believe that they would lose jobs or relationships if their secret became common knowledge. Most transvestites would probably prefer to be open about what they do. The secrecy tends to add to the guilt they feel. Many transvestites are also aware that it would be much better to tell their loved ones than to have them find out by accident."

The stigma attached to crossdressing makes this much harder than it need to.

Another important point, that Coleman does not make, is that the fear associated with crossdressing, is a strong indication of this not being a voluntary urge, something the crossdressers decide to do just for the thrill of it. The risk is too high for this to be the case. This points in the direction of this being some kind of inborn trait.

If you go out crossdressed, in your opinion, how many of the people who see you are convinced that you are a woman?

82 respondents (20%) reported that they never went out crossdressed
125 respondents (30%) reported that no one who saw them would be convinced that they were women
95 respondents (23%) reported that a few of those who saw them would be convinced that they were women
87 respondents (21%) reported that most of those who saw them would be convinced that they were women
23 respondents (6%) reported that all of those who saw them would be convinced that they were women

These numbers show that the men have a pretty realistic understanding of how they appear. They still crossdress, and the fantasy of being a woman brings emotional relief all the same.

Those who believe they could pass, are not necessarily lying. If they are a bit feminine looking at the outset, they may be able to get away with it.

Have you ever had sex with another man?

82 respondents (20%) said 'yes'
332 respondents (80%) said 'no'

Coleman adds:

"The incidence of any homosexual experience among transvestites (1 in 5) is slightly lower than the incidence of any homosexual experience among non transvestite heterosexuals (usually regarded as 1 in 3). Most of those transvestites who admitted to having had sex with another man said that their homosexual experiences were isolated. The incidence of genuine homosexuality and bisexuality among transvestites is considerably less than 1 in 5 and probably close to the normal figure for non transvestite males of between 5% and 10%."

Coleman draws our attention to a very important fact. A significant proportion of heterosexual cismen do report having sexual experiences with other men. I would guess that this proportion would be even higher in cultures where being the active part in a homoerotic relationship is not considered gay or effeminate, and therefore OK. In other words: Our strict division into homosexual and heterosexual is misleading.

If we are anything like our closest relative in the animal kingdom, the bonobos, you may even postulate that bisexual behavior is the default, and that heterosexual relationships is just one of many natural variations.

I believe we need to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced view of sexual orientation. Being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual is not one simple, unified, permanent and stable trait that is valid for all sides of life. This is especially true for crossdreamers, as they may distinguish between:
  1. Sexual practice (some of them report having had sex with men, even if they fall in love with women)
  2. Sexual attraction (some of them report being attracted to the male physique at the same time as they are attracted to women)
  3. Romantic attraction (some are sexually attracted to men, but fall in love with women)
  4. Sexual fantasy (some report having fantasies about having sex with men, even if they are not attracted to them)
  5. Sexual identity (some consider themselves homosexual or bisexual, but their interpretations of these words may vary)
  6. Gender identity (most of them identify as men, some as women and some as something in between)
  7. Gender expression (when crossdressing these male bodied person express their own understanding of femininity, when they are not they express their idea of maculinity)

Have you ever had sex with a woman while you've been dressed as a woman?

228 respondents (55%) answered 'yes'
186 respondents (45%) answered 'no'

This response shows that a surprisingly large percentage of crossdressers are able to integrate their crossdressing into their sex lives.

Coleman adds:

"The number of transvestites who have made love to their wives or girlfriends while crossdressed will probably surprise many - particularly those who, quite wrongly, assume that transvestites are gay."

308 respondents (74%) answered 'yes' to the question "Does your partner know of your transvestism?" 106 respondents ( 26%) answered 'no'

When asked whether their partner approve of their crossdressing 177 respondents (43%) answered 'yes', while 237 respondents (57%) answered 'no'. Although a surprisingly large percentage of female partners accept this part of their man, it is also clear that many of them just tolerate it.

That being said, as many as 153 respondents (37%) answered 'yes' to the question of their partner helping them choose clothes, make up etc.

The good new is that it may be possible to establish stable relationships where the partner accept the crossdreamer's inner woman.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!