Few activities seem to attract more venom and contempt than crossdressing.
One newspaper writer who found out that her ex-husband was a crossdresser described him as a `pervert’ and dumped a pile of her own old clothes on his mother’s doorstep to make her point.
What inspires this level of anger among so many women? Fear, I suppose. But fear of what? Fear of the competition for the underwear drawer? Fear that he might be gay? Fear that he’ll stretch everything and ruin her tights? Fear that the neighbours will find out?
Dressing up in the sort of clothes usually worn by women is one of the most harmless activities imaginable and yet it is also one of the most socially misunderstood.
Lots of men dress up – as freemasons, soldiers or special constables – and transvestism is just a fun variation on the dressing up theme but our society has developed in such a way that what we choose to wear does, to a very large extent, define what we are, who we are and what others think of us.
The judge wears a gown and a wig. The priest wears a gown. The bishop wears a particularly fine gown. Kings wear robes and crowns. Hotel porters, car park attendants, railway staff, airline stewardesses and people in a thousand other different types of employment wear clothes that help identify them. Plumbers wear overalls. Doctors wear white coats. Nurses wear uniforms.
As our society becomes more and more complex so the uniforms become increasingly important. We define people by whether they have `white collar’ or `blue collar’ jobs.
Men who crossdress are throwing an enormous spanner into the works of this finely balanced piece of social machinery. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that crossdressing produces so much confusion, bewilderment and resentment and so many pejorative remarks.
Despite the popularity of transvestism hardly anything is known about this `hobby’ – other than the fact that a lot of men do it. (Lots of women crossdress too but transvestism among women is socially accepted. Millions of women regularly wear trousers and suits.).
The idea of men in clothes usually worn by women may sound like a joke. But it isn’t. Putting on female clothes is, for thousands of men, the best way to deal with stress and escape from the responsibilities of being a man. `If I didn’t crossdress,’ one man told me, `I’d be dead. I had high blood pressure which pills couldn’t control. Wearing feminine clothing brought my blood pressure under control.’
Precise figures are difficult to obtain but my research shows that in an average week 100,000 in every 1,000,000 men dress – for some of the time – in something soft, silky or frilly. Often they just wear a camisole and panties underneath their male clothes.
Most crossdressers live in constant fear of being found out. Around a quarter of male transvestites have never dared share their secret with their wives. That means that around the world millions of women are married to transvestites – and don’t know it. In every million women there will be around 25,000 who are unknowingly married to (or living with) transvestites.
Transvestism crosses all social and professional barriers. Your best friend, your golf partner, your doctor, your boss or your husband could be a secret transvestite. The chances are high that someone you know well is a crossdresser.
Here are some facts I uncovered in a survey of 1014 British transvestites: (It is, I think, the biggest ever survey of crossdressers.)
* Well over three quarters of all transvestites regularly wear the sort of underwear worn by women under their male clothing. Many of the rest would do so if they weren’t frightened of being found out by wives.
* Less than half of all transvestites go out of their homes fully dressed as women and most of these are honest enough to admit that they don’t fool anyone. But for most this isn’t important. They want to dress in the sort of clothes worn by women – not become women.
* Transvestism must be one of the most harmless hobbies. And yet nearly three quarters of male transvestites admit that they live in constant fear of being found out by prejudiced relatives, neighbours or employers. One man who wrote to me to help with my survey drove to a nearby town to post his anonymous letter. Many say they don’t understand why women can wear male clothing – but men can’t wear female clothes.
* Some wives are scornful and dismissive. Others are patronising and refuse to try and understand. Time and time again I have read pitiful letters from transvestites whose wives `allow’ them to dress for one hour a week – as long as they do it in secret.
* Three quarters of all transvestites’ partners know that the man in their lives dress in women’s clothing. But a quarter of partners do not know.
* There is good reason for the secrecy since most wives or girlfriends who know about their partner’s cross dressing disapprove. They miss a lot of fun by being so selfish, narrow minded and disapproving.
* Happily, just over a third of wives and girlfriends actively help their men dress as women by helping with make up and clothes. Many women admit they get a sexual turn on from seeing their male partner in silky, feminine clothes. It is common for transvestites whose partners do approve to have sex while dressed as a woman.
* The vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual.
* The average transvestite spends 12 hours a week dressed as a woman – but would like to spend 70 hours a week (rather more than half the `waking’ week) dressed in feminine clothes.
* A growing number of men have discovered that putting on stockings and a frock is the quickest way to escape from the stressful responsibilities of being a man. I have little doubt that more men would live longer if transvestism was more widely accepted.
I believe that transvestism is one of the least harmful of all hobbies and one that no man should feel ashamed of. It is, I believe, a perfectly acceptable way for any man to escape from the day to day stresses of being a man in a stressful world. It’s fun and clearly gives a lot of men a great deal of pleasure and it is difficult to think of any activity which is less likely to do harm to anyone.
Men who dress in womens’ clothes bring out a normal, healthy part of their own femininity, broaden their outlook on life and enjoy a temporary respite from the responsibilities and demands of being male.
I’m always sad to read of the number of women who do not accept their husband’s crossdressing. Time after time I have opened letters from men whose wives have treated them horrendously badly.
I think it is appalling that any woman should have the nerve to say to her partner: `Oh, well if you must then I suppose you must – but you can only do it for an hour a week and you must make sure that the curtains are drawn and that I’m well out of the house and by the way I don’t want to see any sign of your silly women’s clothing and so on when I get back.’
No woman would, I hope, dare say anything like this to a man who took up golf or model making.
I think it is sad that transvestism should be regarded as so much more horrendous than anything else – though I believe that deep seated and completely false prejudices are probably at the root of it all.
Many women probably assume that most transvestites are either homosexual or else candidates for sex change surgery.
But, on the whole, there is a huge difference between transvestites and transsexuals. Transsexuals are like golfers – they lose their balls. Transvestites are keen to keep theirs.
My survey has made it absolutely clear that the vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual and happy to be men. (Curiously, crossdressing is so misunderstood and commonly reviled that some women would doubtless prefer it if they found out that their husband was gay or wanted to change sex.)
The full results of my survey into crossdressing appear in my book `Men in Dresses’ which appears in full on this website.
Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004