Sunday, 17 April 2011

It's not about sex; it's about gender.

How many cross-dressers have said those words? I've said them myself – and meant them. Meanwhile, significant others and the rest of the world look on, see us getting off, and think "yeah, right". But cross-dressers are not wrong and are not lying. It's just that the language we're all (CDs, SOs, everyone) using is inadequate.

Rather than "sex" and "gender", the crucial (and missing) word, I think, is sexuality. By sexuality I don't mean who you're attracted to (whether you're straight, gay, bi, or whatever); nor what turns you on as part of a sexual encounter (morphology, nakedness, latex, whipped cream, baked beans). These may be part of someone's sexuality, but they don't encompass it. Instead, I'm talking about another aspect: how you feel about yourself, your body, your desire; how you see yourself as a sexual being; and how you express it all.

For male cross-dressers that aspect might be exemplified along these lines: wanting to be the pretty woman in the room, the confident and sexy woman, the one that turns heads, the revamped Olivia Newton-John in Grease (never mind how implausible that thought); to feel that particular female sexual energy, not in a sexual act, but within oneself, as bliss.

To a certain extent a male cross-dresser can do that on his own. He can get dressed up, stand in front of a mirror, give himself the thumbs up (in female Fonz style), turn his own head (a good dose of self-deception is quite helpful there). Hence also, I'd guess, the practice by some CDs (not me in this case) of posting provocative photos online: so as to be the sexy woman in the virtual room, turning the virtual heads, responding flirtatiously to salacious (but anonymous) comments.

Of course, when a man's sexual feelings are heightened he may want to do something about it – and for a man by himself (with or without computer interaction) there is an obvious solution. But that, I think, is a consequence of his feelings, not the impetus for them. To put it more bluntly: he's not dressing in order to jerk off; he jerks off because his sexual feelings have been so amplified that he wants or needs to, and because he can. At the start he very likely had no such intentions at all; he just wanted to get dressed up.

So why wear women's clothes? After all, any man can dress to feel good about himself: perhaps powerfully masculine in a smart suit or uniform; cool and confident in t-shirt, jeans and a leather jacket (the Fonz proper); even sexy and gorgeous (handsome) for a night out. Yes, but those feelings are rather different from the ones we're after. I'd also suggest that they're not even male as such, but butch – the adjunct of femme – which brings me back to my blog theme.

Notice my use of the words "female" and "woman" in the third and fourth paragraphs above. That was deliberate; I wanted to put things in more familiar (for cross-dressers) and universal terms. But I'll say again now that "female" and "woman" seem inappropriate; that these are femme (not female) feelings; this particular sexual energy belongs to femmes (not women in general); that it's the femme who turns heads in this particular way.

In the end, for me, it probably is about sex after all, because it's about sexuality. But it's about gender too, because this facet of sexuality is inseparable from gender expression. And the taxonomy that connects these aspects of sex and gender in the most apposite way in this precise context is — wait for it — femme.

(This stuff becomes so much easier when you think about it in femme/butch terms and put woman/man to one side.)


  1. This is part of CD/TV thinking about sex/gender that gets a bit twisted (from my perspective). You only *think* that a woman's "sexual energy" is different from a man's. But *I* think you're wrong. You don't see men as having sexual energy BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT ATTRACTED TO THEM. But for those of us who ARE attracted to them, they DO have the ability to turn heads and inspire lust. You only seem to focus on women as people who inspire lust and men as people who do the lusting. And you only notice men's reactions to women (including your own), but not women's reactions to men (you assume we don't have such reactions). But that is incredibly stereotypic thinking about gender. And a very (heterosexual) male perspective on things to boot!


  2. Hi again Apple.

    Actually, no, I'm not thinking or saying that at all. I agree that men have sexual energy and can inspire lust. As to whether that energy is different from (or the same as) a woman's, I think that all depends – on the man and the woman.

    Firstly, please forget my use of "woman" and "female" in those paragraphs. I deliberately expressed myself in a stereotypical way because I wanted to give those statements the chance to resonate with other cross-dressers, and female terminology is our traditional language in talking about these matters. The final sentence would read better as: "to feel that particular sexual energy, not in a sexual act, but within oneself, as bliss"; i.e. without the word "female" inserted. Or, even better, with "female" replaced by "femme" – but then a lot of cross-dressers probably wouldn't know what I meant. And even if they did, the resonance would still probably be lost; i.e. they might understand what I meant intellectually, but they wouldn't feel it personally.

    As to whether that energy is specifically female, the whole point of my blog is that it's not (as I reiterated further down in the piece). So, yes, men do have sexual energy, men can turn heads and inspire lust (in heterosexual women, gay men, or whoever). But whether a particular man's sexual energy is the same as the one I'm describing, I think that depends on whether that man is femme. Sexual energy isn't the same for all men, nor for all women, even though heterosexual culture mostly tries to pretend it is.

    Further to that: if you're saying that sexual energy is the same for everyone (male or female or whoever) then I strongly disagree. Butch and femme are quite different energies. The lesbian paradigm shows us this precisely. (And there are many other sexual energies beyond just those.) In fact the paradigm shows us more: that regarding these differing sexual energies as specifically male and female makes no sense, because in the lesbian case there are no men there at all.

    Anyway, to return to the original post: No, I wasn't focusing on women as the only people who inspire lust or who have sexual energy. I was focusing on a particular type of sexual energy, one relevant to CDs. Culturally this energy is – these feelings are – regarded as female (which is why I used that language), but I think that's wrong. It's not female, it's femme. And it's femme irrespective of sex or gender.

    I hope that clarifies things a bit more.

    Jon :)

  3. Hi Jon. I guess I don't understand what "sexual energy" means (or rather, what YOU mean by it).

    To my mind, we simply think that those people who we happen to find attractive have "sexual energy". I really don't think there is a "femme" energy that is distinct from a "butch" (?) energy. It is just that people who find those who look/dress like "femmes" to be attractive will SAY there is a femme energy (when all they really are using to evaluate said energy is the appearance/clothing of the person). I'm not sure I'm explaining myself well!

    On the whole, I'm not someone who buys into new-age stuff like "energy" anyway. So is there another term we can use that would better capture what you mean?


  4. Hmmm... it's difficult to think of another term; maybe "dynamic", "presence", "resonance", "force". At least "force" has parallels with "force of personality" (though that's not quite the same thing). I dunno; "energy" says it for me really – and not in the new-age sense either ;)

    For the rest, you're explaining yourself just fine :). But I'm not sure how to reply except to assert that I think such difference does exist (for some people). Is it facile just to say that people are different?

    Perhaps lesbian literature is the best place to investigate this. I think lesbian writers are way ahead of us here; i.e. in describing sexual difference without regard for binary sex (naturally so, since there's only one intrinsic sex involved). Obviously heterosexual culture recognizes difference too, but it insists that this difference correlates with binary sex, which is both simplistic and useless from my point of view. I'm more interested in discounting sex (and hence morphology) as the criterion for difference, and looking instead at how people are different. Butch/femme is one aspect of this (and the one most pertinent to me). I'm sure there are many more.

    As to books: if you've not read these already you might try The Persistent Desire (ed. Joan Nestle) or Stone Butch Blues (by Leslie Feinberg). The reviews in the (Amazon) links give a good summary of what each book is about (in particular "A courageous exploration of Gender" for SBB). But note that these books don't offer a direct explanation of anything, since they're primarily fiction; although TPD contains some essays as well, and SBB is at least partly autobiographical.

  5. Hi! This is Shae, Kit's partner from CDManifesto. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this article and your butch/femme theory.

    1. Hi Shae. Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words :)

      Yes, I think butch/femme is very useful in theorizing this combination of gender and sexuality, independent of binary sex. (If you're interested in how I got here, there's this post.) But my understanding evolved (developed) over many years (and much reading) and I don't think a lot of people in my community really get what I'm talking about. And why should they anyway? We all reach our own understanding of these extremely personal matters and of ourselves. I like where Kit is going in his/her blog and have added it to my blogroll.

      Jonathan x