Transvestism, most commonly referred to as “cross-dressing,” refers to the act of experiencing sexual arousal from wearing clothes typically associated with the opposite gender. For example, a man may become sexually aroused by wearing a bra and skirt while a woman may become aroused by wearing a jockstrap. Cross-dressing is typically a brief, private activity. Transvestites rarely go outside dressed up, a behavior commonly referred to as going out “in drag”.1
General transvestism or cross-dressing is different from transvestic fetishism. Transvestic fetishism is when cross-dressing becomes a person’s only source of arousal. Transvestism is also different from transgenderism, which is when individuals feel that their sexual anatomy does not match their gender identity. Transgender people dress as the opposite gender as a lifestyle because they view themselves as trapped in the wrong body and identify with the opposite gender. Many cross-dressers identify themselves as heterosexual; therefore, cross-dressing is not necessarily a homosexual act.2
Subcategories of Transvestism
Transvestites may not have a more specific label for themselves, or may choose not to label themselves at all; however, some transvestites identify with one of three common subgroups: nuclear transvestism, marginal transvestism, and fetishistic transsexualism.2, 3
“Nuclear transvestism” is defined by people who cross-dress, but make no bodily changes to feminize or masculinize themselves. “Marginal” transvestites choose to cross-dress, but also desire or have bodily alterations to become more like the other gender, such as implants or hormone therapy. The third category, “fetishistic transsexualism,” is similar to being transgender, however, a person in this group is sexually aroused by seeing themself as the other gender in addition to identifying as the other gender. Note that nuclear transvestism is far more common than marginal transvestism and fetishistic transsexualism.3
Reasons for Cross-Dressing
Transvestism can be appealing for several different reasons. Some transvestites enjoy the feeling of violating a taboo that is associated with wearing the other sex’s clothing. Some people view cross-dressing as a fun version of role-playing. Others may enjoy escaping the gender roles imposed on them by society. Still, others cross-dress out of curiosity of knowing what it is like to be the opposite gender. There can be an unlimited amount of other reasons why people might choose to wear the other gender’s clothing.1, 2
Males are more likely than females to cross-dress for sexual arousal. Men are more likely to have sexual fetishes in general because men, on average, have more erotic sexual experiences when they are younger. These provide more opportunities for them to be conditioned and learn what arouses them sexually. This means they are more likely to respond to visual images and tactile stimuli (such as wearing women’s clothing) in a sexual way. Men also have more practical opportunities to cross-dress because there are many more garments exclusively labeled female, such as skirts, thong underwear, dresses, bras, high heels, etc. Women seem to cross-dress less frequently than males. This may be because women in Western societies are socially permitted to wear men’s clothing. Sociologists argue that this can either take away the thrill of cross-dressing or make cross-dressing less noticeable.1
Individuals vary in the extent to which they cross-dress. Some men may try on their partner’s skirt or bra once or twice for fun and would not label themselves as transvestites. Some men regularly incorporate wearing women’s clothing into masturbation or sexual activity. Frequent cross-dressers may have a different name for their alter-gendered ego.1 Some transvestites even take hormone treatments or get breast implants to make their bodies look more feminine for when they are dressing up, although this is an extreme and is infrequent.2 Transvestites that alter their bodies vary from transgendered people in that they do not want to be the opposite gender, but rather that they enjoy certain aspects of that gender. The transvestites do not feel trapped in the wrong body and still identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.2
People who participate in drag vary in their reasoning for dressing up as the other gender. Generally, drag queens have an internal sense of being male that does not change when performing in drag, while some see their performances as an outlet for a feminine portion of their gender identity.4 Many drag queens report feelings of arousal while performing in drag, but this is more rooted in a flirtatious energy with the audience than it is a direct result of cross-dressing alone. Many see it as an artistic outlet above all else, but some also see drag as a way to explore their identity.4
Fears and Treatment
It can be very difficult for a transvestite to open up to a partner or friend and explain their sexual activity.1 Many transvestites are happily married or partnered to people who understand and accept their behaviors, but for others, the fear of judgement can lead them to hide this part of themselves, or even try to change it.2 Some transvestites feel guilty and uncomfortable for their behavior and may try and seek treatment to “cure” themselves.1, 2
Those who seek treatment for their cross-dressing behaviors are usually ashamed of their desires. Treatment history shows, however, that trying to eliminate cross-dressing is almost always unsuccessful and leaves the patient feeling isolated.2 Recent studies find that the best method of treatment involves approaching the patient’s cross-dressing behavior without judgement and encouraging them to embrace that part of themselves. A key aspect of this technique is to compromise the desire to cross-dress with social restrictions. As an example, a person may be advised to cross-dress in their home or at a club, but not at a job interview.5
An important part of supporting someone having a hard time coming to terms with their desire to cross-dress is to remind them that cross-dressing is not abnormal. A more considerate approach is making the distinction between what is “normal” and what is “conventional.” Therefore, a transvestite is a normal person with an unconventional habit.1, 5 This line of thinking prevents dehumanization of people like transvestites, whose behavior fall outside of social expectations.
There are numerous support groups designed to help transvestites, their partners, and sometimes their families. These groups can create a sense of community and unity for transvestites as well as foster an attitude of understanding and acceptance.
Transvestism is a broad category, and the line between gender expression and means of arousal is often blurred, if at all existent. No matter the reason, cross-dressing can be a way to explore one’s sense of self and expand the social restrictions put on identity. With greater representation of unconventional gender expression in recent years, conversations about transvestism, fetishistic or otherwise, are likely to become more understood and accepted simply as a different way of expressing oneself.
- Bloom, Amy. “Normal : transsexual CEOs, cross-dressing cops, and hermaphrodites with attitude.” Ed. 1. Random House: New York, 2002.
- Docter, R. F., & Prince, V. (1997). Transvestism: A survey of 1032 cross-dressers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26(6), 589-605.
- Buhrich, Neil. McConaghy, Neil. “Three Clinically Discrete Categories of Fetishistic Transvestism.” 01 March 1979. Vol. 8, no. 2.
- Levitt, Heidi M. Surace, Francisco I. Wheeler, Emily E. Maki, Erik. Alcantara, Darcy. Cadet, Melanie. Cullipher, Steven. Desai, Sheila. Sada, Gabriel Garza. Hite, John. Kosterina, Elena. Krill, Sarah. Lui, Charles. Manove, Emily. Martin, Ryan J. Ngai, Courtney. “Drag Gender: Experiences of Gender for Gay and Queer Men who Perform Drag.” Sex Roles. Vol. 78. No. 5. 01 March 2018. P. 367-384.
- Gallo, Mona. “Treating Transvestism: A Counselor’s Look at Diagnosing and Treatment of Cross-Dressers.” April 2016. The Family Journal. p. 195-199.
Last Updated: 27 October 2018.