June 8, 2012

Some Thoughts on Cross Dressing

Today I have the pleasure of presenting an essay written by Davida, a fellow male to female crossdreamer.  I think this essay presents a very useful approach towards developing an understanding of what crossdressing and crossdreaming is about.

There are a lot of crossdreamers and crossdressers out there that work hard on finding a narrative that makes sense for people like us. If you have done research of a similar kind, do not hesistate to contact me.


Some Thoughts on Cross Dressing

By David/Davida

As a young adult and as a student of behavior, I read extensively in an attempt to find an explanation for my cross dressing behavior. Several psychological hypotheses were 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 dress 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 often been a source of conflict for me, which I think accounts for why the idea of petticoating resonated with me at one time rather than because it elicited 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.

Gender continuum

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 female and male children are sensitized to orient respectively on female or male 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.


Speaking politely, some males with a feminine orientation are what some have called femmophiles or lovers of things feminine. In the vernacular language of everyday discourse femmophile males who express themselves publicly, especially in very noticeable ways, are usually depreciatingly referred to as girlie boys, sissy boys or worse.

This can go beyond pejorative labeling and include bullying and physical abuse. All no doubt in an effort to exert social control over the behavior and bring it back into line with conventional expectations. Expectations arising from the patriarchal organization of society. 

Patriarchy is a social system that is male-centered and depends on male power and control. A system where being masculine is defined in terms of the dominance relations between men any male that willingly goes over to the other "side" is a threat to the system because he is breaking ranks with the fraternity on which male social power depends. 

F2M crossdressers

On the other hand, a female with a masculine orientation is usually viewed as less threatening. This from a male perspective is perfectly understandable given a male-centered social organization that controls virtually every aspect of life and is rooted in male domination. 

While such a "pretender" may be sanctioned, the force of the sanctions are likely to be milder than in the male case.

Ultra feminine

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 femmophiles.

I think this often observed over-the-top behavior in cross dressers is compensatory behavior related to an attempt to mask their essential maleness, limited opportunities to express the feminine aspect of their identity, the secondary nature of this aspect of their identity that has as a result been crudely developed or some combination or all three. 

Women are often critical of crude attempts to imitate them that appear to border on caricature but should recognize that in most cases it is not intended as a put down.

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.

Sexual arousal

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 for many cross dressers 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 women’s 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 empathetic, other-directed outlets for sexual expression become available at least some of the self-directed behavior would be redirected.


Finally, I suspect that many cross dressers have had the experience of imagining sex with a male partner when in their feminine persona. After all, the most essential defining characteristic of being male or female ultimately comes down to sex.

I suppose that one could use this to make a case for cross dressers essentially being bi-sexual in nature. This bisexuality for some is predominantly male focused, i.e., the homosexual cross dresser and for others predominantly female focused, i.e., the heterosexual cross dresser.

Personal Reflections

In spite of my experiences in cross-dressing and trying to empathetically mirror the female “mind,” I did realize that I was physically a male and could only truly experience life as a male no matter how hard I tried to project myself into a different way of experiencing the world.

My biological identity is male and my gender identity appears to be split into two components. The primary component in this split personality is my public face known as David. The secondary component I think of as Davida.

Thus, I have tried to live, at least, my public life as a male, while privately experiencing a secondary feminine component as a subordinate part of my over all identity. How much development of this secondary component might be possible given a supportive environment is unclear but certainly more expression of it is possible.

The partitioning of my gender identity has contributed to people perceiving me as emotionally aloof or reserved. This is a necessary consequence of trying to keep one’s psyche compartmentalized.

Women are generally thought to be more emotional than men and my emotional reserve I suspect is attributed to my being a man, i.e., it is sort of expected. I therefore find it ironic that I score higher on the emotionality dimension of a well-known personality test than the average woman.

My emotionality does breakout of its restraints at times and usually in an explosive manner. This explosiveness may simply be release of pent up feelings or it may just be my natural temperament. What I have described has been at times a stressful way to live but to me it has seemed unavoidable.

Walled off

I have a core of experiences, emotions and thoughts that are walled off and have a separate and private existence relative to the rest of my personality and life. The private personality component (Davida) focuses on things primarily associated with femininity such as nurturance, affection, love, emotionality, expressiveness, etc.

The public personality component (David) focuses on things primarily associated with masculinity such as aggressiveness, achievement, competitiveness, physical sexuality, emotional restraint, etc. This is not to say these characteristics don’t cross gender lines but when one’s gender identity is ambiguous expression of gender linked characteristics becomes problematic. Thus, assignment of personality aspects to compartments is necessary for separation and thus leads to an imbalance in expressed characteristics because one component will dominate.

The need to keep these various personality aspects compartmentalized has resulted in sort of hyper-vigilance or constant monitoring of my own thoughts, feelings and actions. One is always anxious about slips that might expose the contents of the guarded compartment. Any sign that such a slip has occurred can result in a tightening up of the psychological barriers walling off the two components.

Reduction in this tension and some integration of the components would, it seems to me, to be psychologically healthy.

Women' rights

There are positive outcomes from my experience as a femmophile. I have been more sensitive than most men to issues related to women’s rights. I was an early supporter, beginning in my college days, of the feminists’ push for equal rights.

It also helped me be comfortable working in a field in which women are in the majority and where at times my supervisor was female, which I know is a problems for some men. I had a few male students who left the field because they were uncomfortable with being outnumbered by women. I think it has made me more tolerant than most people of all sorts of differences in others.

I also think I have some understanding of how people in all kinds of “out groups” feel. I even think I have some understanding of how someone with a multiple personality disorder must experience his or her world.

Emphatic abilities

One especially positive outcome of my alternate identity is that I think it 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 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.

Neural basis

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 actually 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.

Rapport with other groups

My efforts at perspective taking and development of my skills at “mirroring” have possibly produced benefits in other areas of my life. When I was in the service, the officer that I worked for remarked on several occasions that he didn’t understand how I was able to achieve the level of rapport with the black sailors that I did. I think it was probably a positive spin off from my efforts at perspective taking. Certainly, it was not from any intentional effort to achieve rapport. Perhaps, it was simply that they sensed from the way I interacted with them that at some level “I got it.”

Recently, I showed a poem that I wrote, many years ago, about slavery, America and the civil rights movement to an African American friend. She said that she was amazed by the poem because she would not have thought it possible for a white American to write it. In fact, she said had she seen it without knowing who had written it she would have been certain that a black poet had written it. I took this as evidence that I had some measure of success in my attempt to gain a limited empathetic understanding of the perspective of many black Americans.


There have been other aspects of my life that I also believe have benefited from my earlier exercises in attempting to take the perspective of women. For example, I think it has made me a better lover. I also think it made me a better administrator, especially in a department in which the majority of the faculty were women. Thus, I suppose some good has come from the compulsion.

.I have never had the courage to publically cross dress and would not want most people to be aware of my hobby. In part this is simply due to a belief that most people I know have no need to know. Telling them would unnecessarily put stress on the relationship. A few others have a need to know, especially my wife who is the only person I have ever told and she has known for most of our life together.

The best description of how I felt as I contemplated telling my wife about my alternate identity can be captured by a paraphrase of a George Kelly (personality theorist) quote:

“To make the leap, one must do more than disclose oneself; one must risk a certain amount of confusion. Then, as soon as one does catch a glimpse of a different kind of life, one needs to find some way of overcoming the paralyzing moment of threat, for this is the instant when one wonders who one really is -- whether one is who one just was or is who one is about to become.”


  1. I want to add an autogynephilic perspective. There are many heterosexual men who cannot get the object of their sexual desire. Consequently, many create femininity by themselves for themselves.

    I suppose this is an explanation for my occasional cross-dressing. Women, or the surface they present, i.e. mainly the fashion they display, has been captivating me since I was sexually mature (ca. at age 11). I was and am especially fascinated by the latest fashion and only by those clothes which are visible in public. (I am indifferent towards female underwear and all the "sissy style" intended to humiliate men. But I find accessories, e.g. handbags, arousing.) Since I am love-shy (or male lesbian) I never had any relationship with a woman. Over the years I realized that I wouldn't get magically found by the woman of my dreams. At the same time, my desire did not decrease. A few years ago, I bought my first piece of female clothing. When I touched it and put it on, I literally got in contact with the sexy women I see in the streets every day. I felt like these women feel when they are wearing their sexy clothes. I was at the height of excitement and arousal, I was one of those women who I desire. I reached the woman of my dreams by creating her in myself.

    This fetishism developed, I bought some more clothes and dressed more often. I got more and more fascinated by the female in men, by shemales, ladyboys, etc. Now I have the fantasy to become a shemale (not female!) myself.

  2. @Mitchell

    Reading all this science and posts about us being narcissists and autoerotic, comments like yours come as a breath of fresh air.

    I am certain you are right: Many, if not most, crossdreamers dream of being validated as a woman by someone else, in the same way most women do.

    Women do not primarily dress up to find a man with good genes that give them the fittest offspring (which seems to be the sociobiological mantra), but to be validated as a female member of society. This is also why women will dress up even when they have a party for girls only.

  3. Mitchell,

    As you probably recall, in my reflections, I said that I compartmentalize my psychological life into masculine and feminine boxes. The primary box is the masculine compartment and it is the one that I present to the world day-in and day-out. I cross dress not for validation but for release. Cross dressing for me is a key that unlocks the secondary compartment and allows it some freedom of expression. An opportunity, if you will, to allow my inner life full expression in my outer life. Thus, the CD isn't just about clothes but about allowing expression of suppressed aspects of my personality. I do not as a general rule ever transition into the public arena though there are some cross dressing "fraternities" (or should I say sororities?) that afford opportunities for monthly excursions for members. Fortunately, I have that option since live near a large city where one of these organizations exists.

    I am fortunate that I have a wife who is perfectly fine with both aspects of my inner life being expressed in our private life and I am sure that I get some sense of validation through that acceptance. I don't seek any wider validation in part because I don't feel any need to have external validation of my inner life. I am a private person and always have been.

    The most notable time in my life when I struggled with my identity began at puberty and lasted through my teens. During this time I was very conflicted and often questioned my sanity. I felt like I had been cursed and sought some way of lifting the curse. Then I had an unrelated personal event that taught me that the only thing that really mattered was my own conception of myself. From that point on I cultivated a strong sense of myself recognizing that "self" for me comprised multiple aspects some of which were OK publicly and some which were better kept private. I short, sharing my private life is done strictly on a need to know basis. Otherwise, it isn't anyone else's concern.

    The reason that some aspects of one's self should be kept private is because various components of society suppress and punish various expressions of personal predilections. Cross dressing is one of those expressions but there are others. In the environment that I live in it is better to keep the spiritual and political views that I hold private as well. In those cases there are possibilities for public expression and I make use of those at times, but I would not be public with them in places like the university I am associated with nor would I be public with them in the neighborhood where I live.

    I think that one should to the extent possible find ways to integrate the various aspects of one's identity and give it expression. I have done more of that as I've become less vulnerable to external pressures that might have deterred me in the past. My best advice is find a way to be comfortable with yourself and who you are and don't get caught up in all of the pathologizing that goes on around CD or other expressions of TG. If it exists it is natural no matter who disagrees or how many people disagree. If it doesn't harm anyone it is not only natural but should be a human right.

    Hopefully, this quickly drafted message is cohesive enough to make sense


  4. Jack,
    It seems to me that there is one thing that is certain and that is male and female sexes evolved and exist for one reason and that is sexual reproduction. It also seems obvious to me that at root this is biological though it can and most probably does have secondary and tertiary effects that may not be directly biological. The latter can and no doubt are influenced by socio-cultural factors. Even so, their foundation is in the basic biological distinction necessary for sexual reproduction.

    If one has a mixed sexual identity that is rooted in biological factors, the underlying biological purpose of those identities will be present. I can easily understand why a male with a mixed sexual identity might suppress or deny a component of female sexuality in his identity. However, I would suggest that whether it is suppressed/denied or not it is there. If on the other hand, mixed gender identities are rooted in socio-cultural/psychological factors and not in biology then it probably would be possible to have a mixed gender identity without female sexuality being a component of that identity. I just have no idea how it would ever come about.

    On the question of why women dress as they do, I would argue how women dress is largely socio-cultural in nature. I would still argue that feminine identity or sense of being female is biological and that this sense of self orients a woman (or TG males) toward the cultural expectations and models available for expressing that sense of self. Thus, female children, especially but also adults, learn how to express their feminine identity from context. Given this it is very unlikely that a group of women would eschew their learned style of dress simply because there are no men likely to be present. It is probably also true that women (and men) are judged by their peers on social conformity to cultural expectations about dress as well as many other things. Thus, a woman going to an all female gathering will have some degree of interest in demonstrating that she is a socially proper person that should be accepted by the group. This, however, doesn't suggest to me that there is no essential connection between biology and dress in such a situation.

  5. Great article.

    Do not agree with:
    "the most essential defining characteristic of being male or female ultimately comes down to sex."
    Would you be a CD if you had the fashions from 500 years ago or modern central Africa? There are civilization and society aspects that define the genders that are more powerful than the biology that occurred a million years ago. Particularly the essentials with which we daily interact.

    "The partitioning of my gender identity has contributed to people perceiving me as emotionally aloof or reserved. This is a necessary consequence of trying to keep one’s psyche compartmentalized."
    You make compartmentalization sound atypical. It is the statistical "norm" because it is required by belief in the organized religions, at least the Abrahamics (whose adherents typically believe in science and fact until a topic or subject veers into their religion compartment, then they will vehemently defend their belief in the supernatural sans any evidence, defend intolerance, equivocate, etc.). So I'm thinking your aloofness trait may have another source (albeit maybe related).

  6. I have received the following response from David/a:


    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post. I am pleased that you liked it.

    Your quote from my post, "the most essential defining characteristic of being male or female ultimately comes down to sex." What else could it come down to? Of course, I use sex in its fullest biological sense not merely as a reference to a physical act. I judge this position to be consistent with both evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. I have posted other material related to this issue on this site.

    You ask, "Would you be a CD if you had the fashions from 500 years ago or modern central Africa?" Yes, simply because TG is certainly not a choice for me though I can choose to CD or not. The simple fact is the TG phenomenon and CD, as an expression of TG, have been around throughout history and cultures.

    I dare say most people don't compartmentalize gender identities within themselves. As for religion, I see little if any necessary connection between the process of psychological compartmentalization and religion though clearly many people compartmentalize their religious and secular perspectives. I would also note that by definition religion is based on belief/faith not on fact/evidence.

    I think the perception of "aloofness" in myself by others in is simply a by-product of maintaining and switching between personae that have fairly rigid boundaries. However, by temperament I do lean toward the introversion end of the introversion/extroversion dimension and that may have as much or more to do with the perception as compartmentalization.

    In the end, I would simply say that all personal reality, being phenomenological in nature, is inaccessible to anyone but the individual experiencing it. My reality is not yours nor yours mine. Regards.



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