December 20, 2010

The cause of crossdreaming - an alternative model

I spend a lot of time presenting research on gender and sex in this blog, and some of it get pretty heavy. So, this time I have decided to write a popular presentation of what I believe crossdreaming is, without footnotes and Latin terms. You can find the references elsewhere on this blog.

I have previously compared the birth of a personality, gender orientation included, as a remix of humanity.

There are literally millions of variables that make up a human being: natural, psychological and cultural. Each and one of us is the end result of a particular mix of such traits.

Most of these traits are not gender orientated. And if you really look at the men and women you know, you will soon see that they do not adhere to the stereotypes of the movies and the adverts.

There are strong, aggressive, and power hungry women who run for public office. There was a time when they would be called "mannish", but not anymore.

There are shy kind, and compassionate men who love to play with their children. There was a time when a man would be found effeminate if he pushed the baby stroller. Now modern women find this a requirement in their partner. The Norwegian company Stokke and others now deliver a "masculine" stroller. Being compassionate has become a manly thing in my corner of the world.

It may be that there are some statistical differences as regards behavior between the sexes on an aggregate level, but it is weak and nothing like the one you see when it comes to -- let's say -- height and body mass.

In spite of this, there are times when even the diverse cultural language of the modern world is not flexible enough. There are men who find that they feel much more like women, and women who identify with men.

These are the transgender people, from crossdreamers who fantasize about having the body of the other sex to transsexuals who decide to step over the dividing line and become the one they are inside.

Two explanations

There could be at least two reasons for this:

The first one is that there is some kind of critical mass. In a male bodied person this point is reached when the number and intensity of his typical "feminine" traits reaches a critical mass, and he is no longer a man, but she is a woman. Some may live close to this tipping point. They are neither men nor women, or rather: they are a little bit of both.

The second one presumes that there is only one (or at least a limited number of factors) that determine gender identity. If this is the case it does not matter if a male bodied person has a large number of "feminine" traits. If the core trait that determines gender identity says "man", he will identify as a man.

I'll come back to what I believe is the case at the end of this article.

The one armed bandit

Allow me to simplify thing a bit to make this clearer.

Imagine a Las Vegas slot machine with a million wheels, one for each trait. Imagine conception as pulling the lever, and the resulting position of the wheels as a picture of your personality.

In the real world things are a little bit more complex. Some wheels are more likely to give a specific result than others. The position of the wheels may change throughout life as a result of external influences, but this picture should give you a rough idea of where I am heading.

Now, let's take away all those wheels that are not relevant to the formation of biological sex and gender identity.

Among those who believe men and women fall into two distinct compartments, the the perfect combination of symbols for a man would be the one to the right.

I guess we are talking about G.I. Joe here, the exact opposite of the hyper-feminine Barbie.

Barbie would be all pink Venus signs.

Now, how many real life Barbies do you know? Really...

No, I guessed as much. There can not be more than a Barbie per thousand women around, probably less. (Fortunately)

The fact is that in the real world we all come out with a mix of "masculine" and "feminine" traits.

The slot model

For the sake of simplicity I am going to reduce the number of gender relevant variables to seven. In the real world I would guess there are thousands, many of them overlapping, but this is for illustrative purposes.

Note that many of these traits are the end result of a large number of variables. The Human Genome Project has shown that we have far too few genes to couple traits like these to individual genes. The traits are the end result of a complex interaction between genes, proteins, hormones and more.

The fact is that factors in the surrounding environment man turn genes on and off. We now also know that you may inherit gene switch changes from your parents (epigenetics). Biology, psychology, society and the surrounding environment is constantly interacting in all directions.

The sex of the body

The first four variables (or slot "wheels") in my model are basic and instinctual. By this I mean that they are clearly determined by your biological make-up. You do not chose them. They chose you.
The first variable is the sex of the body. For most people this will be XX female or XY male.

This variable determines if your sex organs point outwards or inwards, whether your voice will drop when you hit puberty, or -- alternatively. whether your chest will start to swell. You know the drill.

I have used the traditional Venus and Mars symbols to represent the body sex.

Internal body image

The next variable is what I call internal body image.

For most the internal body image is in harmony with the physical body, but for some there is a disharmony. Crossdreamers dream about having the body of the opposite sex.

Transsexuals report that they found their original bodies alien or even abhorrent. After transitioning they find peace. The harmony seems to been restored.

What this internal body image is or what causes it is a mystery. I will come back to some scientific as well as philosophical studies of what it can be.

It helps to keep in mind that no one experiences a perfect match between the real physical body of a person and his and her idea of what that body looks like. Some think of themselves as slim and shapely, even if they are -- in fact -- overweight. Anorexia and phantom limbs among amputees show that the brain may be tricked -- or trick itself -- into making a bad judgment call regarding the state of affairs.

Regardless of what causes the internal opposite sex body image of crossdreamers and transsexuals, it is an observable fact, and anyone who is struggling with this part of the transgender condition can tell you that it is very real, indeed. The fact that it seems to be permanent (it does not disappear with age) leads me to believe it is inborn.

I have selected a couple of traditionally colored symbols to depict the internal body image.

(The fact that the restroom symbol for a woman is a figure wearing a skirt deserves a blog post in itself. I admit it makes it less than a perfect symbol for the female body image, but what can I say?)

The copulation instinct

The third variable I call the copulation instinct.

This is the biological urge to be the pitcher or the catcher, the top or the bottom, when having intercourse.

I have used two triangles to symbolize this instinct. The one pointing upwards represent the one penetrating; the one pointing downwards the one being penetrated.

Most people seem to prefer one or the other. However, there is also a significant number of men and women, gay and straight, who enjoy both variants.

Some argue that this is not instinctual, but a learned trait caused by social conditioning. I doubt that, as crossdreamers often long to take the traditional part of the opposite sex during intercourse. I find it hard to believe that their parents and play mates conditioned them to do so.


Sexual orientation

The next instinctual variable is sexual orientation.

Most people feel attracted to one or the other sex, while some are bisexual. Religious and political systems have for millennia tried to shoehorn human sexuality into the box of pure heterosexuality, but it is clear that Nature does not care.

A gynehilic (woman-loving) orientation is symbolized with a pink heart with an F (for Female). An androphilic (man-loving) orientation is represented by a dark heart with an M (for Male).

Some report attraction to both sexes. They are bisexual. In that case the wheel stops between the two symbols.

I should add that having only one wheel for sexual orientation is an oversimplification. In fact, it may be misleading and culturally determined.

In some cultures gay vs. straight is not determined on the basis of the body type you are attracted to, but on the basis of the copulation instinct (see above). A man is gay if he is willing to be penetrated anally, but straight if he takes the active role when having sex with a man.

Even in Western cultures there may will often be a difference between sexual practice, sexual attraction, gender expression and sexual identity ("I am gay"). For the sake of simplicity, however, I will stick to the standard model here.

Personality

In addition to these more instinctual variables, I have also included three personality variables.

The fact is that I could have included hundreds of them. I could also have defined the ones I have included differently, as I do not believe they are the end result of one gene or one section of the brain.

They are all the complex result of the combination of a large number of variables of which we know little or nothing.

The three I have included have been selected because they so often are associated with stereotypical gender traits. Statistically speaking -- on a very aggregated level -- I suppose you could say that there may be a gender specific distribution, but when it comes to real life and the people we meet from day to day, these traits are found in both genders.

The fact that they are associated with gender roles is important, however, because it makes life harder for a person who has many psychological traits that are culturally associated with the opposite sex. The more traits of this kind you have, the harder it is to live in harmony with your inner self.

It also seems to me that the narratives of many transgender persons are colored by these traits. For instance: If a male to female transgender person is introvert and non-aggressive, this person may interpret this as a result of his/her transgender condition, even if there are a large number of women that are both outgoing and aggressive.

Level of aggressiveness

Traditionally men are considered more violent than women, and as regards physical violence this is thought to be caused by testosterone. Men have more testosterone than women. Men are more likely to use violence to "solve problems", and because of this they are more likely to end up in prison.

Women have also testosterone, however, and can become very angry, indeed. They may also become violent, although they are more likely to make use of psychological violence. I believe the main reason for this is muscle strength and body mass. It easier for a man to get away with physical violence.

In my figures I have used the carnivore to symbolize anger and agressiveness, the herbivore to symbolize a more non-aggressive approach to life. And before you accuse me of gender stereotyping: The dog in this picture is one mean and aggressive bitch -- not a male!

Aggressiveness and the conciliatory approach are not good or bad in and for themeselves. They are just different.

Analytic vs. emphatic

Traditionally men have been considered analytic, while women are believed to excel in empathy. That is: the two genders are believed to understand the world in different ways. If you go to a man with a problem he will try to find a solution, a woman will hold your hand and let you cry.

Again, men and women make use of both approaches, and there are women that are more analytically oriented than most men. I have know a lot of empathic wise men.

In short: I believe the differences we see are caused by nurture and not by nature. This means that these traits are not truly masculine vs. feminine. That being said: the fact that culture expects women to be empathic and men to be analytic may become a problem for those who fall in the opposite slot.

The heart represents empathy, the brain analytical ablity.

Introvert vs. extrovert

Men are supposed to be outgoing as this is associated with strength and aggressiveness. In modern western cultures, to be feminine is to be shy and submissive.

This has not always been the case. Before the 19th century, women were thought to be extrovert, sexually aggressive and emotionally unstable. (Read Shakespeare if you do not believe me!) The man was supposed to be calm and restrained.

I have made two smileys to symbolize the extrovert and the introvert.


The Perfect Male

If you ask moder evolutionary psychologist or biologist whether they believe all men only display "masculine" traits, they would say no. Underpinning their theory, however, is the assumption that they "ought to" do so, and that they will do so in time, as natural selection has taken its course.

(It is interesting to note that few of the male researchers preaching this gospel look much like an alpha male themselves.)

When asked, more normal people will tell you that they appreciate the fact that Uncle Simon is gentle as a lamb and that his wife Berlinda is one tough lady. "She is the one with the trousers in that family!" Still, they do not deny Berlinda her feminity, nor do they call Simon a woman.

Still, there are limits to their tolerance, and if Simon crosses that line he will soon find himself called a womanish sissy or something worse. If she becomes to bossy, some may start questioning Berlinda's femininity. When that happens people fall back on a more stereotypical view of sex and gender.

It turns out that we believe that the perfect male should look something like this after all: (click on images to enlarge!)


The perfect male has a male body, a male body image, a mounting copulation instinct, he likes women, and he is strong and aggressive, analytical and extrovert.



And when we fall back on the stereotypes we soon find that Berlinda should not look like a lumber jack, she should have a female body image, she should long to submit to male knight, and she is -- of course -- loving, shy and demure, like Femina below:



In the real world, of course, women come in all sizes and shapes, like Amanda below. She may be a "normal" ciswoman, but she know how to bite back, and is as good in math as she is in Medieval love poetry:



But what happens if the slot machine brings up some unusual signs on the left hand side of the window pane?

Here is Brian, a male to female crossdreamer. His body is unmistakenly male, but he does not recognize it when he looks in the mirror. In fact, he feels alienated from it. "Inside" he feels like a woman, and he can easily imagine himself having breasts and a vagina.

That is not all, even if he falls in love with women, his copulation institinct is receptive. He wants to be the catcher, and not the pitcher. Given that he non-aggressive, empathic and love shy by nature, he find it very hard to live up to the expectations of others. In fact, he constantly beats up himself for not being a "real man", and he find the idea of dating women very intimidating.

As a psychological personality profile goes, Brian is as feminine as Femina above. Indeed, as time go by he may come to the conclusion that he is a woman.



Greg also has a woman's body image, but when it comes to sex he swings both ways. When he is in love with a woman, and she is in a romantic mood, he loves being her knight, actively seducing her. His non-agressive personality makes him a gentle lover, but he willingly takes the active part when making love to her.

Still, as a bisexual he loves giving in to a strong man. Then he is the bottom, enjoying the pleasure of letting go.



I belive there are as many female to male crossdreamers as there are male-bodied ones. Below are the signs of Naomi. She hates the role society has given her. At an early age she switched her Barbie doll for a Bowie knife. Her parents accepted her as a tomboy, believe that she would grow out of her boisterous manners. She did not.

When she is having sex with her boy friend she is on top, penetrating him anally with a strap-on. Having found his feminine side, he does not seem to mind.



Miranda is in many ways similar to Naomi. But while many suspects Naomi for being a lesbian (which she is not), Miranda is a butch. She loves to seduce feminine women, making them beg for some rough and tumble sex. Miranda feels like a man and may become one one day.



According to the stereotypes all lesbian women should be "diesel dykes" like Miranda. You know, the type with a short crew cut, a muscular body and a manly manner.

Nature does not care much about our stereotypes, however, and the wheels of nature may give you a large number of combinations. There are all kinds of lesbian personality types, from Miranda at the one end to Phoebe at the other.

Phoebe feels as feminine as any heterosexual woman. Her copulation instinct is receptive and she loves women. She may make Miranda believe that she has found a submissive girlie, playing the role to perfection. She is a modern woman, though, and Miranda should better know the difference between role playing and real life.


Critical mass or essential factor

Let me get back to my two hypotheses: The first one is that there is some kind of tipping point. In a male bodied person this point is reached when the number and intensity of his typical "feminine" traits reaches a critical mass, and he is no longer a man, but she is a woman.

The second one presumes that there is only one (or at least a limited number of factors) that determine gender identity. If this is the case it does not matter if a male bodied person has a large number of "feminine" traits. If the core trait that determines gender identity says "man", he will identify as a man.

I must admit that I previously believed in the critical mass theory, mainly because I found the gender stereotypes reflected in crossdreamer fantasies and forum and blog comments. So many crossdreamers dream of being "feminine", in the sense of dressing up and behaving in a stereotypical feminine way.

Male lesbians

In some cases I think the critical mass theory makes sense. This especially applies to Dr. Gilmartin's love shy "male lesbians".

These are men that feel a complete alienation towards traditional male traits like aggressiveness, or typical male activities like violent sports. They are extremely introvert and value stereotypical female practices, as they believe these to be more in harmony with their own personality. They are probably right about that.

But even if they identify with what is considered feminine values, few of them think of themselves as women. Nor does the idea of having a woman's body lead to sexual arousal. Most of them are not crossdreamers or transsexuals. Nor are most of the so-called metrosexuals found in the celebrity magazines.

Non-feminine crossdreamers

Furthermore, I have found too many crossdreamers who do not fit the critical mass model. Many male to female crossdreamers are indeed love shy loners with a longing for submission. This could partly be a reflection of their individual personality, but it could also be a kind of hyper-correction to friends and familiy members who demand of them a kind of behavior that is not naturally theirs.

During my reading of recent research in evolutionary biology, sexology and psychiatry I have seen that the evidence for there being a strong biological basis for the behavioral dichotomy between the sexes is very weak indeed. At best we are talking about weak statistical effects on an aggregate level. Personality traits like intuition, sensitivity, empathy, analytical ability, three dimensional orientation and so on and so forth are in no way gender specific. They are shared by both genders.

It does not matter if a woman have "masculine interests", a great analytical capability and a strong, powerful personality. She will still, more likely than not, have a feminine gender identity and internal body image. She identifies as a woman. In fact, she does not even think about this. She takes her womanhood for granted.

At the same time, a male to female crossdreamer may appear masculine, he may have "masculine" interests and personality traits and still have a female gender identity.

It seems to me that the traditional tale of the hyper feminine classic transsexual is no more than a child of the sexist attitudes of the psychiatrists of the 1960's, or of the stereotypical expectations of contemporary men and women. They expect a transwoman to behave in a certain way, and the transwomen do their best to comply.

(That does not mean that there are no transwomen who naturally deliver the culturally expected feminine looks, manners, interests and behaviors. The point is that they do not have to.)

All of this leads me to the conclusion that there must indeed be one (or a few) factors that are necessary for a man or a woman to start dreaming about being the other sex in the transgender sense.
The fact that there seems to be a continuum between the male and the female is therefore not due to different mixes of male and female traits. It is rather caused by the fact that these essential traits may vary in intensity. Alternatively: it could be that they are not strictly binary. There a women, men and the gender queer.

It seems to me that the most essential trait is what I have called the body image. Some has an internal body image that is not in harmony with the real body, or they may have an internal body image that represents a mix of the male and the female.

Later on I'll come back with a post where I explore the concept of an internal body image, look at what scientists and philosophers have to say about it and to what extent it is possible to prove its existence.

Barbie as a soldier from Flickr.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!