SM and TransGender Issues

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September 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I recently got a little trashed by some of my friends, apparently for calling someone a transvestite when he – or she? – was actually transsexual. Can you help me sort out the differences? And while you're at it, sometimes I see men in women's clothes and women in men's clothes at the play parties I attend, and I don't think I understand the relationship between SM and cross-dressing. Can you explain it?

<A> In some senses it's no surprise if you're confused. What Ariadne Kane has called the gender "paraculture" has been out of the closet only for a short while, and its language is so much in flux that even people who are in those communities find their terminology changing periodically. But there is a real difference between a transvestite and a transsexual, and while there is some overlap between some forms of transgender expression and some SM interests, the connection is by no means the usual order of business.

Although sexual sadism, sexual masochism, and fetishistic transvestism are all classified as paraphilias by the American Psychiatric Association, that medical marriage of definitions tells only part of the story. For example, as there are important differences among whipping, interrogation, and slave training scenes, so there are important differences between the consensual sorts of erotic activities I think of as SM and the behaviors that sometimes look similar but are generally nonconsensual and frequently violent, which I am prone to think of as abuse. So also, though in still other ways, there are substantial differences among the reasons people may cross-dress.

Thanks in part to a loosely organized national effort a couple of years ago by some psychotherapists involved with what was known as the "DSM Project," the latest (fourth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders distinguishes between consensual erotic play and emotional disturbances that are expressed through sexuality. It is the first time a major group of mental health professionals has made such a distinction since the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing originally defined sadism, masochism, cross-dressing, homosexuality, and masturbation as sexual psychopathologies late in the 19th century.

But until recently the gender communities have been somewhat more closeted and less organized than the leather communities, so in the civilian world the process of understanding behaviors that cross gender lines has not yet progressed as far as the process of understanding consensual SM behaviors. The confusion that results from lumping a number of distinct activities together because they can be perceived to have a common denominator still prevails when outsiders consider the cross-gender worlds.

Other than those people who want or need to dress in the clothes of the complementary sex for non-gender related reasons, like the person who's going to a Hallowe'en or other costume party, the man who's an actor in a cross-dressed role, the woman who just wants to have fun trying something different, or the person who's on an undercover mission as a Mrs. Tootsie Doubtfire sort of spy, some of the most common reasons people cross-dress – and I don't suggest this brief list is exhaustive – include:

I'll elaborate on these distinctions in a few paragraphs. First I note that, wholly apart from the specific concerns of people who cross-dress, the society we have made has some issues of its own with cross-gender presentations. Like the issues our society has with SM and, arguably, with human sexuality itself, these concerns do not belong to the people who wear clothes of the complementary sex whether they cross-dress (cross-dressers or transvestites), cross-live (transgenderists), or confirm the genders they feel themselves to be by changing the outward manifestations of their sexes (transsexuals). But societal fears and prejudices can themselves become problems for people who cross gender lines, as periodic bashings and murders of cross-dressed and transgendered people demonstrate.

I don't know of any formal studies that speak directly to your question, but as a therapist working in both the leather and the gender communities I've far more often met people for whom SM and cross-dressing have nothing at all to do with one another than those for whom they are connected. On the other hand, a certain amount of SM activity does show up in cross-dressing fantasy literature and play as Petticoat Punishment, for example, just as a certain amount of cross-dressing shows up in some SM fantasy literature and play, for instance as maid training. The simple fact that these fantasies are interconnected on more than just the odd occasion demonstrates that some sort of relationship between the behaviors does exist sometimes, and the fact that the person cross-dressed in both sorts of situations is generally the bottom and generally a male who is feminized (though these days she might be a butch woman) seems suggestive to me: I'll offer my supposition about this association in a moment.

First, though, because this is an SM publication, not a gender publication, it may be useful if I lay out in the most general terms some of the many ways and reasons people cross-dress. Then we can see where SM might meet cross-dressing in some people's lives.

The behavior of cross-dressing is really a broad spectrum experience whose patterns include a great deal of overlap and many variations. In thinking about this spectrum it is important to remember that gender identity is not the same thing as sexual orientation: gender identity is an individual's perception that he or she is a woman or a man; sexual orientation defines the sex or sexes of the persons to whom an individual is attracted: if like to like, then homosexual; if complementary, heterosexual; if both, bisexual; if neither, asexual; if sex, gender, and more are functionally irrelevant, then pansexual. According to Virginia Prince, the grande dame of the heterosexual male transvestite community, sex is what's between the legs, gender is what's between the ears.

Some people cross-dress for different reasons at different times, some cross-dress for multiple reasons at once, and some people have fairly specific reasons to cross-dress. Among these last, most fall into one of four broad categories:

* fetishistic transvestite

* self-identified cross-dresser

* self-identified transsexual

* transvestite with transsexual fantasies.

According to information available as of 1996 – things may change in the future, or new information may come to light – fetishistic transvestites are usually heterosexual and usually male, but not always. Depending on the individual and the occasion he may only wear an isolated piece of clothing, such as a pair of panties or a garter belt, or he may be fully cross-dressed. He ordinarily derives erotic gratification from cross-dressing, especially during the first years of his experience, but as with drag queens and female impersonators it is gender presentation, not gender identity, the fetishistic transvestite crosses, and his activity usually does not reflect unhappiness about being a man (or a woman if the cross-dresser is female). In therapist lingo he is not "gender dysphoric." Perhaps because they are already in a fetish world, fetishistic transvestites are the most likely of all people who cross gender lines to combine cross-dressing with SM.

Self-identified cross-dressers are also more likely to be male than female according to most studies, but I think this is a study bias: female cross-dressers usually pass more easily than their male counterparts, and until recently they were less likely to show up in therapists' offices. Self-identified cross-dressers are more likely to be heterosexual than homosexual, at least among males, but the statistics seem simply to mirror the general population: about one in ten self-identified cross-dressers appears to be gay. Male or female, gay, straight, or bi, the behavior of self-identified cross-dressers is in any case neither fetishistic nor erotic. Instead, it seems to be a form of self-expression, and a way for some people to balance the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities and to incorporate the balance into their everyday lives, especially in their intimate relationships.

Although the DSM-IV puts the ratio at about 3:1 male-bodied people to female-bodied people, most contemporary research suggests that self-identified transsexuals are as likely to be biologically male as female; they are more likely to identify as het than gay, or as gay than bi, though they may have tried almost any sort of sexuality in an attempt to figure themselves out as they grew up. As I suggested earlier, however, since they are certain they are cross-gendered, transsexual people dressed in the clothes of the sex they feel themselves to be are unlikely to see themselves as cross-dressed no matter what their bodies look like.

Transvestites with transsexual fantasies may dress for erotic gratification as well as for relaxation and to express the cross-gendered parts of their personalities. This combination of motives can lead them to feel confused, but their considerable interest in the specifically sexual aspects of crossing gender lines, and the erotic gratification they seek from doing so, often indicates the fetishistic nature of their cross-dressing, and saves them from pursuing a painful, expensive, and – for them – probably inappropriate transsexual journey. In one sense their transsexual fantasies constitute a sort of fetish and, like other fetishists, they are relatively more likely than other people who cross gender lines to combine cross-dressing with SM.

Finally, some overlap between gender issues and SM play is simply human and not specifically gender-based: given a certain number of people some percent will have gender issues, and some percent will have SM interests.Within two such groups some will overlap.

I said a few paragraphs back that I found it suggestive that when someone is cross-dressed in an SM scene that person is often (not always) the bottom and is often (not always) feminized in some way. The cross-dressed tops I've seen in SM scenes have more often (not always) tended to be masculinized.

What my observation suggests to me, I hasten to note, is just that: a suggestion. I certainly know people in the place where SM and gender exploration overlap for whom it is not true. So: from my observation I can't help suspecting that at its best the relationship between SM and cross-dressing you ask about has to do with a desire on the parts of those who combine the behaviors – male and female, top and bottom, trans- and not transgendered – to soften and relax the great hard shell most males are taught to develop in industrial cultures, while at its worst the relationship between SM and cross-dressing is about the derogation of women, females, and the feminine aspects of us all. The question you did not ask, then, I now ask you: what is the relationship between SM and cross-dressing for you?

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