Girly road trip 5: Getting old rocks!

Now that more of us are getting fully vaccinated, the small pocket of the world I’m living in is opening up a bit more (at least, In July 2021; nothing is guaranteed these days!). For the first time in far, far too long, I’ve been on a road trip with friends.

Everyone I know has had their own heavy shit to deal with, on top of living through a pandemic: jobs; income; living situation; giving or receiving care; bereavement. It’s been constant disruption and ongoing feeling of impermanence about everything. (I went through a lot of disruption a couple of years back; in some ways, it helped prepare me emotionally for life in the age of Covid.)

So when I had the chance to go on a fossil-hunting girly road trip, you’re damn right I took it!

Why yes, my pasty arms and legs *did* get burnt to fuck.

We went to Eyemouth to potter about the beach and cliffs and have a picnic in the sun and try to ignore the noise of young families playing on the sand (because nothing wrecks a day out like the sound of small children enjoying themselves, am I right? No? Just me? Okay then, moving on…).

I wasn’t sure what my fossil-hunting outfit should be, so I raided my wardrobe’s recesses for stuff I haven’t worn much (but can still fit into), which had a summery, casual vibe. My pallid legs are a goddamn battlefield of ingrown hairs, but there wasn’t much I could do about that.

Getting my rocks off…

Eyemouth is next door to St Abbs (where I visited on a girly road trip before). It’s pretty small: an old fishing village with a harbour, an abandoned fort, and a museum. It can make for a pleasant place to stop by and take in the views from the clifftops.

Every time I go somewhere with a cannon I must mount it suggestively IT IS THE LAW

Further back up the coast, at Barns Ness lighthouse by Dunbar, is a geologist’s wonderland of ancient rocks, layered and eroded by time. These rocks were last on the surface about 300-350 million years ago (give or take, but what’s a few million years between friends?). My travelling companions knew what to look for and pointed out the fossils that could be found here.

Forget trilobites and ammonites; forget mundane Tyrannosaur footprints or Liopleurodon bones – this is the opening of the gates to Carboniferous Park! [cue John Williams music] What you can find here are trace fossils – the remnants of trails made by tiny slithering things in ancient mud. And maybe imprints left behind by shells. But you know what, sod it: I found my own fossils and had a great day out with friends.

Eat your heart out, Laura Dern…

Catching up with people again after we’d all been frozen in social carbonite during lockdown was a funny experience: we’d all grown a bit older, but the time apart hadn’t changed the friendships and we had a great time catching up.

In 2021, I think I’m less bothered about things than I used to be. Maybe it’s an age thing; maybe it’s a result of the times we’re living through.

I’ve started growing my hair out (complete with funky grey streaks, like I’m about to fight in the Thunderdome). Partly because I’ve never had long hair and I want to see what it’s like (before it inevitably thins out and leaves my scalp looking like a cue ball); but also because just as I’m getting older, so’s my Twist stuff. The wig is starting to come apart a little bit more each time I take it out (I’ve had it since 2009!), and it might not be too long before I have to go out in Twist mode with my natural hair (I’m gonna dye that sucker; don’t expect to see Twist as a little old lady with grey hair any time soon!).

My workmates on video meetings have seen me grow my hair through various stages:

  • rakish “Harrison Ford circa 1980”
  • Frodo Baggins
  • washed-up 1970s rock singer
  • currently at Will Turner in Pirates of the Carribean length (“Ugh! Ponytail!”)
  • give it a few months and it’ll be interchangeable between boy mode and girl mode
  • if I get to 1980s-hair-metal-band length, I will have acheived my final form and will sing the song that ends the world (which could be any song, given my singing voice…)

Video meetings are also great because during the heatwave I’ve been able to work in my baking hot room in a skirt and nobody’s been any the wiser (or, in colder months, sporty leggings and pink hoodie). I don’t think I’d’ve had the confidence to do any of that when I was younger. I guess age helps me adopt a more laid-back attitude – a better perspective on what matters, what doesn’t, and when to just go with your sense of whimsy.

I’m slowly and steadily shedding my lockdown flab. I’m fully vaccinated. I’m making plans to go on more day trips and picnics with people. I have a garden with a firepit, and I’ve had friends around for food, drink, and toasted marshmallows. Everyone who’s important in my life is still in it. I’m going to carry on switching into ‘Twist mode’. Looking at what I’ve got, instead of what I might be missing, I can’t complain!

Where things go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’ve got a pretty decent starting point. I’m a 44-year-old guy and I reckon I’m having the bestest midlife crisis ever.

As David Bowie put it:
“Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”

“The sun has got his hat on…” (I take my hat off to him.)

Because SIWOTI

You can be almost certain that someone will never change their mind because of a comment posted on social media. Does that mean we should never try?

When you get so accustomed to particular arguments and evidence, it can be something of a shock to encounter people who’ve clearly never heard them before, and have gone through life assuming that what they learnt at the age of 11 (simplified and summarised, if not superseded by now) must always be true.

What do you do when Someone Is Wrong On The Internet?

I had that experience on social media, and ended up regurgitating pretty much all of the sciencey posts I’ve done on this blog (with a couple of choice quotes I found elsewhere; unfortunately I can’t recall the original source).

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

“TL;DR version: sex, sexuality and gender aren’t ‘either/or’ concepts. If a person doesn’t fit into the way you think about the world, maybe *just maybe* the problem isn’t with that person?

The TL bit:

CHROMOSOMES
yes, there’s XX and XY, but there are other variants like XXY or XO (Klinefelter’s Syndrome or Turner’s syndrome); intersex people exist (and since 2003 are starting to be recognised on some nations’ passports, such as Germany in 2013).
– So I wouldn’t go about saying “XX or XY! Boy or a girl! End of story! Science!” because that’s not what the science says; things are more complex than that:

You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice – effing – versa.

SEXUALITY
Sure, most people identify as heterosexual, but homo-, bi-, and asexual people exist too. Whether or not people come out as such depends on how tolerant their society is; if it’s against the law or punishable by death, then they’ll obviously not want to say. Check Wikipedia to see how wildly the statistics vary between Brazil and Iran (for example).

Adler (1991) and Byne et al (2001) found a cluster of nerves in the hypothalamus was largest in straight men, smaller in gay men and slightly smaller in women (this develops before birth).
Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexuality. Bailey & Zucker (1995) say 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming.)
– So nature, not nurture, determines one’s sexual orientation – and it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition – people can be more hetero-, or more homo-sexual (think of it as a range), or simply not interested (asexual; maybe 1% of people will identify as such).

BRAINS
Joel et al (2015) did 1400 MRI scans of brains; there are some sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour. We have unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females, some in males, and some common in both. Regardless of whether nature or nurture causes sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour, human brains cannot be categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) showed that the interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH) in the brain is:

  • larger and more elongated in men and more spherical in women.
  • Male-to-female transexuals have a similar INAH to women, as do castrated males – so is the size of the INAH determined by testosterone? (But: study criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)

– So, there’s a bit of the brain that might well tell you what gender you are?

Swaab (2005) found sex differences in your body develop early in pregnancy (the first few months), but sexual differentiation of the brain occurs later in the second half of pregnancy and might be modified after birth by culture. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who are ‘otherwise male’.

  • So your body’s sex and your brain’s ‘gender’ can be different?
  • So can we really divide people into two genders? Not if we use biology, it seems!

On television, Secrets of the Sexes (BBC, 2005) said that men and women don’t always fit neatly into their respective groups. A University of Cambridge around that time study found that 17% of men have a ‘female’ empathising brain and 17% of women have a ‘male’ systemising brain. We aren’t ‘Male OR Female’; these are just end points on a range.
Hell, you can test yourself and find out where you belong on the range at this BBC website.

CULTURE
Why do we find it hard to accept there are more than two genders? Other cultures recognise three, four, or even five (such as Kathoey in Thailand, or Hijras in India, or ‘two-spirit’ people among some of the first nations of North America. Greeks accepted other sexualities, Romans accepted transgender folk. What changed?
Not wishing to upset anyone’s sensibilites, I’d just simply suggest that when the Romans adopted a variant of bronze-age desert mythology as their state religion, that’s when it started to get really difficult for women and transgender folk. This idea mutated and spread around the world for the next few centuries; almost all of us have grown up indoctrinated by aspects of it.

Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI, 1974) lists 20 ‘male’, 20 ‘female’ and 20 ‘neutral’ traits (eg: males are assertive, ambitious, swear a lot, etc, while females are meek, peacable, don’t swear… you get the idea). But by 1998, Holt & Ellis found recorded differences between men and women have decreased since the 1970s – men are less ‘manly’, women more ‘manly’ (but on average, men are still more impulsive)… at least in the west.

CONCLUSIONS?
Costandi (2013) found Sex is determined by genes; Gender is determined by culture/upbringing.
Elliott (2013) found male and female brains have far more similarities than differences; gender differences come from culture/ upbringing.

Just because we’ve been brought up to believe something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, or that we have to keep believing it. In the 21st century, bearded women win Eurovision, men can get pregnant.

Intersex people exist. Trans people exist. So do men and women. Denying any of these things will weaken whatever argument you want to make about sex and gender.

Before anyone says “But it doesn’t happen in nature!” – well, actually it does, from lesbian hedgehogs to cross-dressing cuttlefish:

…you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others)…

That’s it; I’m done. I’ve laid as much science on here as I dare to, given that nobody’s ever had their mind changed by a Facebook comment. But I just *had* to get this out because SIWOTI.”

Peace, out.

How to use your looks for mind control

Winners wear red (this may depend on what counts as a 'win')...

Winners wear red (this may depend on what counts as a ‘win’)…

I’ve often pointed out that if our clothing has an effect on other people, that’s their problem, not ours. I suppose it’s time to science this matter: how can our clothes affect other people?

There are a few brave souls out there who’ve experimented with changing their look and documenting reactions for our edification: for example, trying out goth, vintage and natural looks; or varying levels of makeup on a dating website. While these articles are often quite entertaining and insightful, they suffer from the problem “N=1”; they’re just one-off stories and it’s probably a bad idea to generalise from them, no matter how much we might want to agree with them. The same goes for the ‘common-sense’ ideas about the messages other people pick up in our clothes. As a general rule of thumb, common sense ain’t so common (or sensible, for that matter).

There are a couple of findings I kinda liked:

1) Winners wear red

In a study of Olympic combat events (Hill & Barton, 2005), ž55% of bouts won by competitors in red. Okay, but maybe those competitors just happened to be better fighters? Another study of Taekwondo bouts (Hagemann et al, 2008) used clips of matches in which the competitors wore blue or red. These clips were shown to ž42 referees who would award points. Sneakily, the same clips were shown again, but with the colours digitally swapped over. It turned out that on average, fighters in red were awarded 13% more points than those in blue.

So, it looks like there’s some evidence that the colour of our clothes can affect how other people react to us. Just bear in mind that these studies were in a purely sporting context, and there’s nothing to suggest whether these are innate or biological reactions, or based on cultural cues. And there’s more to winning than simply wearing red (just ask Charlie Sheen).

2) Sexiness is distracting for about half of us

žA study on decision-making and bargaining (Wilson & Daly, 2004) presented (presumably heterosexual) male and female participants with pictures of attractive or plain people of the opposite sex and asked them to rate their attractiveness. Then they would take part in a exercise in which they’d have to divide up sums of money and judge whether to take a small, immediate reward or a larger reward later.

Women will not be attracted my men's attempts to be sexy.

Women will not be distracted by men’s attempts to be sexy.

They found that, generally speaking, women weren’t really affected by the pictures of attractive men and didn’t make poorer choices. However, pictures of attractive women made men perform worse (compared with neutral pictures). The effect is more pronounced in men with higher testosterone levels.

Sexiness makes men stupid. Science says so. So there!

Sexiness makes men stupid. Science says so. So there!

Conclusion?

Even if the way we look affects other people (and remember, these can be very subtle effects in very specific situations), I don’t think this is any reason to dictate what we can wear.  I don’t think any of this has any impact on the principle that if someone else is distracted or made uncomfortable by what they see, that’s their problem not ours…

 

…do you need a reason?!

Back onto the couch for more psychology...

Back onto the couch for more psychology…

“I think we’re getting into a weird area here.”
~ Bill Murray, Tootsie

If you’re a guy with an urge to wear girly clothes, you might want to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it.  This can really help put things in perspective. Not comfortable being seen as male? Doing it for a laugh? Sexual thrills? Or just because the clothes look cool? Will you do go out in public, or keep it private? It’s worth thinking about these things before you get hung up on practicalities.

All sorts of things compel us to choose the clothes we do. Having addressed some of the external (legal, social and cultural) aspects, it’s time to look at the internal (psychological) ones. I did address this in one of my first blog posts here, but I think it’s worth expanding upon.

The 1993 CIA report mentioned in that post made heavy use of the pioneering work of Virginia Prince and Peter Bentler from the 1960s and 1970s. While you might reasonably ask if decades-old studies are still valid, a more recent follow-up (Docter and Prince, 1997) found similar results. A bigger concern is the fact that many respondents to their surveys came from support communities; a self-selecting sample which would skew the results.

Cross-dressing, for whatever reason, is not a sign of mental illness. The threats to mental wellbeing come instead from the ignorance and prejudice of other people. žAccording to Prince & Bentler, 76% have never sought a psychiatric consultation for any reason, but the Docter & Prince study said 45% have.

The latter study also found:

  • 11% of crossdressers prefer their ‘masculine identity’
  • 28% prefer their ‘feminine identity’
  • 60% prefer both equally
  • 1% …either a rounding error, or they’ve got no idea what they prefer?

Prince identified three core reasons for cross-dressing, characterised as ‘drag queens’, ‘transexuals’ and ‘femmiphiles‘.

‘Drag Queens’

Drag may or may not have come from an acronym of ‘DRess As a Girl’, and while the term usually refers to performers dressing up in a feminine way (whether exaggerated or not) for entertainment, Prince referred specifically to homosexual men who dress up as women, either for entertainment, or to discreetly pick up men for sex in places where overt homosexuality is not tolerated.

‘Transsexuals’

Whether a cross-dresser considers themselves ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ can involve a whole host of factors, including but not limited to: feeling that the sex of their body doesn’t match the sex of their brain; being happy with their body but wanting to interact with the world in the manner their culture associates with the opposite gender; wanting to blend elements of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ presentation; not feeling that binary definitions of sex or gender are appropriate to them; and so on.

Prince found the most important factors in a long-term, stable, cross-dressing lifestyle are:

  • (i) cross-gender identity,
  • (ii) commitment to live entirely as a woman,
  • (iii) taking steps toward body feminization,
  • (iv) low sexual arousal to cross-dressing.

Neither age nor experience as a cross-dresser correlated with cross-gender identity.

‘Femmiphiles’

This is Prince’s term for a ‘lover of the feminine’, representing the 87% of cross-dressers who are heterosexual males who like to dress up from time to time. Even within this group, there can be a number of reasons for it, but the definition applies only to those who are interested in the ‘feminine gender role’ and not ‘her sexual activity’.

Among the potential reasons for ‘femmiphilic’ cross-dressing are:

  • the desire to acquire an aesthetic standard of beauty unavailable as a man;
  • for a greater variety of clothing choices; and
  • not having to live up to expected patterns of masculine behaviour all the time.

Another reason: sex

It would be short-sighted not to acknowledge one of our biggest primal urges. With respect to cross-dressing, there are two major sexual reasons for it:

  • A paraphilia is where the clothes themselves are the focus of a sexual fetish. Certain costumes, specific items of clothing (lingerie, shoes), styles or fabrics can be sexually arousing; this assumes that the clothing is more arousing than the person wearing it.
  • Autogynephilia is where the idea of ‘being a woman’ is a turn on. I’m not sure if it involves seeing women as sex objects, but rather reflects a desire to experience sex acts as a woman.

(NB: It’s a really bad idea to label sexual fantasies as ‘unusual’ or ‘deviant‘.)

Nature or nurture?

As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning a little curiosity. A report from 2002 noted that a 72-year-old man was treated with the drug selegiline, and he developed a frequent impulse to wear women’s clothing. He didn’t act on this impulse until his wife died over a year later, and went on to cross-dress about once per week. He stated he had never thought of cross-dressing previously. When the selegiline was stopped, so did his urge to wear women’s clothing.

As the report says,

A biologic basis for transvestism, and paraphilias in general, is not known. Rare clues emerge from cases similar to this one.

psychology, innit?

From the earliest posts, this blog has looked at the psychology of cross-dressing…

Fringe theories

Once again, I’ve been involved with the annual Skeptics on the Fringe, introducing some interesting and intelligent speakers in their areas of study or interest. Two in particular relate to issues I’ve blogged about (or will blog about in more depth).

The first was Nathan Gale, a law graduate who works for the Scottish Transgender Alliance. Nathan’s talk addressed the idea of the ‘gender binary‘ which still prevails, taking care to dismantle the notions of sex, gender and gender roles that most people still cling to.

Although awareness of trans issues is growing, there remains a lot of confusion about it, and it’s not as simple as one person wanting to change their body from one sex to another. Nathan made the point that hardly anyone benefits from perpetuation of the ‘binary’, and was optimistic that the time was right to get society at large to embrace the idea that sex and gender isn’t clear cut.

I’d like to think that Nathan will get to see these changes in people’s understanding, but I’m not sure it’ll happen quickly. This month’s news also saw British boxing promoter Kellie Maloney ‘come out’ as a woman (under duress), but there are still columnists who insist that they are a better judge of what makes a man or woman than she is – that you have to have been regarded by others as female since birth. It’s true that the media has a rather sordid history (particularly in the tabloid press) of the way trans issues and people have been treated.

In the middle of the run of shows, I introduced Dr Kate Cross (who, like me, has probably performed more improv comedy than is advisable; but I felt comfortable enough to turn the humour up to eleven on stage). Kate’s area of research was in sex differences; are men and women really so different? If so, how?

The answer to a lot of these questions turned out to be “it depends“. For a whole bunch of traits, the overall averages may be slightly different, but when you look at the Bell Curves there are huge overlaps between men and women. (Generally speaking, men are slightly more impulsive than women; I couldn’t possibly comment.)

If anything, the recorded personality differences have been decreasing over time, so in effect, we’re all becoming more similar. (Again, I couldn’t possibly comment…)

Relating all this to cross-dressing…

So men and women are slowly becoming more alike (in personality and activities), and trans issues are oh-so-slowly becoming more mainstream? This takes me back to a question I was asked after Nathan’s talk. If it was acceptable for men to wear skirts and dresses – if everyone did it – would I still feel the same compulsion to cross-dress?

Bloody hell, I have no idea.

My first reaction was “probably not”, but now I’m not so sure. I first felt the inclination when I was six, but I have no idea what brought it on – all I knew was that I probably shouldn’t let anyone know about it. (There’s an argument to be made that part of the allure of cross-dressing – for some people – is precisely because it has to be kept secret, like other fun activities that society has yet to come to terms with.)

And I’m confident my legs look better in tights and a skirt than they do bare under shorts – that they seem better suited to ‘feminine’ rather than ‘masculine’ presentation. I think it would be great if men could get away with brighter, bolder, more colourful designs that women do (and I’d dearly love to ditch wearing ties to the office and save them for moments when I wanted to wear them).

Another thing to consider is that if men and women all dressed alike, ‘cross-dressing’ wouldn’t actually be ‘cross-dressing’ any more.

Emcee and mistress of fun...

Emcee and mistress of fun…