I don’t have a body; I am a body.
– Christopher Hitchens

You might like to believe otherwise, but all the evidence says we are no more and no less than physical beings. Our thoughts, feelings, and memories are nothing more (and yet so much more) than a few millilitres of chemicals squirting around our brains.

We have no control over this. What we are conscious of is the result of chemical activity that took place just a tiny fraction of a second earlier. The way I like to describe it, we don’t have free will, but our brains might.

This is some heavy shit to be throwing down, Twist; what does this have to do with crossdressing?! I hear you cry.

Well, a fellow blogger recently drew my attention to a report of opponents of sexual reassignment surgery cherry-picking data to suit their prejudices and declare that more research was needed […to support their opinions]. (I paraphrase in my own way, of course!)

Among the problems in the report (and whatever you do, do not read the comments at the end) was a conflation of sexuality and sexual identity. These are, of course, separate issues – but we can find some interesting brain stuff where they’re concerned.

It’s time to say hello to your hypothalamus.

Bailey & Zucker (1995) found 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming) – is this because of the way they are, or the way they were brought up?

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 straight women (and this develops before birth). So it seems one’s sexuality is determined by brain development before we’re born.

Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexual identity or orientation.

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). It’s not a matter of whether one prefers men or women or isn’t interested, but how much one prefers men or women or isn’t interested.

Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation.
It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment.
Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice, though sexual behaviour clearly is.

– Royal College of Psychiatrists

Sex in the brain
To be clear: yes, there are size differences between the average male and female brains:

So when they ask “Are men and women’s brains different?”, you can unhesitatingly say, “yes”. And when they ask “And what does that mean for differences in how they think” you can say “Ah, now that’s a different issue”.

Joel et al (2015) conducted 1400 MRI scans of brains; and sure, 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’.
(This has provoked some debate in letters to PNAS.)

Returning to the hypothalamus, Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) looked at the ‘interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus’ (INAH for short; it’s a bit in the middle at the back of the hypothalamus). They found the following:

  • it’s 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;
  • could the size of the INAH determined by testosterone?
  • (But their study has been criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)

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

Swaab (2007) 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. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who would otherwise be ‘male’ (for example).

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

I don’t think anyone wanting to alter their appearance to match their gender should be seen as suffering from body dysmorphia. Being trans is the result of natural development processes in the womb, not anxiety.

Anxiety might come from lack of acceptance by others, though – but that’s something imposed from without, not something that comes from within. As the tragic case of David Reimer demonstrates, if you force someone to accept a sexual identity they do not have, it cannot end well.

If any part of your body knows what your identity is – well, it’s the brain!

*No, I’m not a neuroscientist, merely a geek and a nerd. This isn’t a complete and comprehensive run-down of brain research and sexuality and sexual identity, but is the best summary I can squeeze into less than a thousand words…



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!


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.


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.


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…

Facing a torn-out page?

UPDATE (2 October 2014): it would appear that Facebook has belatedly realised that they need to rethink their approach to ‘fake names’ and how to deal with reports they receive about them. I’m leaving this article un-edited, because the points made about psychology and social media still stand. The first part will remain, like a fusty little time-capsule of old news (maybe).

This month’s entry will probably go out of date very quickly, but here goes anyway… one of the stories of September 2014 was the news that drag queens are getting kicked off Facebook, unless they change their accounts to their real names (and/or prove what their real name is). This is a problem, and not just for cross-dressing entertainers.

Mark Zuckerberg simply does not get it, and he’s rich enough not to give two shits about you, either. He does not understand that the world is not a safe and happy enough place for his utopian vision where nobody requires privacy any more:

“You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”
He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

It must be great being able to make such simplistic, black-and-white moral judgements without being called on your bullshit (I can see the appeal of founding a religion). He has no need to understand how harmful this attitude is. He’s never faced -or never felt like he’s faced- a situation where he might want to be a little circumspect. Tragically, many other people do.

Click to see larger version.

Instead of these evil, nasty, treacherous, lying, fake names which the saintly, integrity-loving Facebook absolutely loathes, there are other options:

“…we hope that they will decide to confirm their real name, change their name to their real name, or convert their profile to a Page.”

Well, that makes sense in the context of drag queens, doesn’t it? If they violated Facebook’s terms, shouldn’t they play by the rules if they want to stay?

Facebook pages can be created for a limited number of categories: businesses or places; companies, organisations or institutions; brands or products; artists, bands and public figures; entertainment shows; or causes and communities. In theory, if drag queens want to communicate, they can set up a commercial page to promote themselves (cha-ching! for Facebook, no doubt). Of course, if you are a private individual -a quiet cross-dresser, say- who just wants to use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, then none of these categories apply.

The thing is, although Facebook has this policy against fake names, they do not enforce it. For them to delete your profile, someone has to flag your name as fake. And apparently, that’s precisely what someone has done, for pretty much no reason at all, other than some complete prick deciding to troll drag queens.

So, it looks like the rest of us need not worry… for now. The trouble we feared isn’t going to erupt, and the damage is limited to a very specific group. But even so, as RuPaul says,

“…it’s bad policy when Facebook strips the rights of creative individuals who have blossomed into something even more fabulous than the name their mama gave them.”

Here I speak brainily about social media...

Here I speak brainily about social media…

In December 2013 I gave a talk to Edinburgh Skeptics about social media. In it, I related the study which described how

  • žAge, gender, occupation, education level, and even personality can be predicted from people’s website browsing logs
  • žPersonality can be predicted based on the contents of personal websites, music collections, Facebook or Twitter data (number of friends or the density of friendship networks or language used by their users)
  • žLocation within a friendship network at Facebook was shown to be predictive of sexual orientation.

To quote the study’s authors:

“…companies, governments, or even one’s Facebook friends could …infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share. Importantly, given the ever-increasing amount of digital traces people leave behind, it becomes difficult for individuals to control which of their attributes are being revealed.”

Facebook wants to collect all this information about you so it can help advertisers target adverts better. You have to be absolutely clear on this: you are not Facebook’s ‘user’, you are not its ‘customer’. You are the product Facebook sells to advertisers. Facebook can make or change the rules at whim and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Don’t like it? Too bad. Facebook has no obligation to keep you happy, beyond financial self-interest. (UPDATE 27th January 2015: you can find out precisely which of your data Facebook share here.)

If I had to close my alter-ego’s Facebook account, it would cause a great deal of hassle setting up a new account and recontacting my friends list, but that would be about the extent of the damage. For others, more dependent on Facebook for communication, community or support, it might be far, far worse. To suggest that people set up alternate social media outlets for themselves may not help matters. Social media is now so pervasive, I doubt there are any simple, or even good-enough answers.

As has been noted elsewhere, your identity encompasses far more than the name you were born with.


Trapped in cyberspace: sweet TRONsvestite?

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…