One again, no single theory explains all of crossdressing. Even within the same person, many different factors operate. It's good to consider many different theories, as each contains a kernel of truth. A theory is not a fact. It is just an idea. Its main value is to help make sense of ones own, unique experience by giving new concepts and perspectives.
This short page outlines the "sexual inversion hypothesis" as it may relate to crossdressing. I really encourage you to keep an open mind as you read this. Some, maybe even most, of the details may be off--but the essential concept of inversion does merit consideration.
Please do not be put off by "psychoanalytic" terms here. They are no more are used in an introductory psychology course. I am hardly a "dyed-in-the-wool" Freudian. I freely borrow and adapt whatever psychoanalytic concepts work for me. The word "inversion" itself is unimportant--it is not meant in a pejorative sense. One could as easily speak of sexual "displacement" or "diversion".
For engineer or hard-science types why may read this-- I think like you. Once one gets past the jargon, many psychoanalytic concepts can be formulated in computer science terms. At issue is the self-emergence of a data-processing system, the human brain. Principles such as sensitivity to initial learning, defense mechanisms, and repression are easily understood in machine learning and artificial intelligence terms.
Freud used the inversion hypothesis to explain male homosexuality. His argument is complex (some might even call it convoluted), as it associates male homosexuality with a strong maternal attachment. Inversion seems far more relevant to crossdressing than to homosexuality (see Refs. 2 and 3). In fact, it would not surprise me if the term "inversion" was originally applied to explain male effeminacy and Freud merely adopted (and expanded) it.
With respect to crossdressing, the idea is that the sexual feelings a male would ordinarily direct towards women, are, in the crossdresser, diverted. They become instead directed towards female clothing, or towards the crossdresser himself as an imagined female.
Sexual feelings must be understood to encompass a variety of distinct sensations and emotions, including:
In the "normal" male, these sensations and feelings are elicited in various phases of courtship and mating with a female, and to some degree also in other relationships with women.
Inversion implies that for some reason, the normal process is not followed, such that the man chooses to experience some or all of these types of pleasurable feelings by himself.
As evidence that something like this is going on, consider the prominence that mirrors have in the life of the crossdresser. Indeed, one wonders whether, if there were no mirrors or cameras, there would even be crossdressing.
The crossdresser sees in the mirror a reasonable facsimile of a woman. Many of the same cues that a man finds sexually attractive in a woman are in that image--the clothes, makeup, hair, nuances of expression, etc. It seems fairly clear that a crossdresser obtains sexual enjoyment (by the broad definition of 'sexual' above) from his own image.
The basic concept of inversion is thus simple enough--the man chooses to display the attractive features of women, and to enjoy those, rather than to enjoy these features as present in an actual women.
What might cause this to happen for some males and not others? We can distinguish three broad classes of things that might promote inversion.
The first class are things that make a given boy's sexual feelings stronger than others, such that he must resort to unusual activities to satisfy them.
Some males may have a genetic tendency such that they have more interest in sexual feelings. There's not much to say about this really, except to note it as a possibility.
Availability and closeness to mother
One of the few firm statistical findings in the area is that first sons (i.e., first born children, first male child, or only child) are over-represented among crossdressers. It is easy to imagine mothers showing a lot of affection to first sons. Her first children are perhaps a source of greater enjoyment. A girl could potentially be viewed as a competitor to the mother, but not so with the male. So the first son may, as an infant, may receive some of the mother's closest emotional involvement. It is easy to imagine a boy infant, experiencing this loving maternal contact, developing a strong impression of the mother, and women generally, as nice things--an idea that femininity is pleasurable.
(As an aside, the interest of many crossdressers in fantasy themes like domination by a strong woman and infantilization supports the idea of maternal relationship in the genesis of crossdressing.)
The second class of things that might promote inversion are obstacles towards the usual pattern of a man seeking to gratify his sexual feelings with women. This class includes a rather long list of things. Some are:
We begin by supposing (and it isn't far-fetched) that a boy's initial object for his developing sexual feelings (again, defined in a very broad way) is his mother. The boy may fear that this will make his father jealous and angry. If so, the boy would tend to avoid making his mother the object of the feelings. A compromise, which gratifies the feelings, while avoiding the anxiety, is to focus them instead on female clothing, or on himself as a female.
The incest taboo
A perhaps more basic problem is a boy's own reluctance to admit that his mother is an object of such feelings. Clearly such quasi-incestuous feelings are socially disapproved of. But it may go deeper than that. As incest is genetically unfavorable, perhaps nature has endowed humans with a basic, instinctive aversion to it. Once again attraction to female clothing, crossdressing, or feminine identification allows the boy to gratify the feelings, but in a way that avoids the superego and the incest taboo.
Ambivalence of mother
A mother may give mixed emotional messages. She may alternate between love and indifference. Also, she may be very nice while the son is a helpless infant, but have more negative feelings once his male behavior develops.
Once the boy is "hooked" on her expressions of positive feelings it may be hard for him to deal with their absence. He may miss the tender, affectionate touches of the mother. If she becomes cold, indifferent, or hostile, the boy may learn to meet his emotional cravings on his own. He may literally "become the mother" in order to gain the same soothing feelings associated with his earlier, happier interactions with her. This would help explain the almost universal association of crossdressing with anxiety-reduction and soothing feelings.
Ambivalence towards women
For many reasons, the boy may also harbor negative feelings towards the mother or other women. This may make him reluntant to accept women as the object of his sexual feelings. He may resent the fact that he is attracted to someone he feels is untrustworthy, threatening, or bad in some way. Or, if he feels the mother is overcontrolling, he may be especially cautious of his sexual feelings, which tend to increase the potential power of women over him.
Feelings of unlovability
As a child the crossdresser may have developed the idea that he is not attractive to women, lowering his expectation of success in fulfilling sexual desires with women.
The third class of things that may promote crossdressing are circumstances that may make it easier for the boy to discover crossdressing as a way to gratify his sexual feelings. Clearly the presence of many women in the household--sisters, aunts--will stimulate his curiosity about feminine things. Availability of female clothing will likely increase the probability of crossdressing experiments. And, of course, any experience in which sisters or other women playfully crossdress the boy may leave a lasting impression.
In this category we might also place genetic tendencies that predispose the male to respond to the factors listed above by crossdressing.
So there are variety of factors, many combinations of which could produce inversion and crossdressing. Once the crossdressing is established, of course, it is on its own trajectory--it develops and becomes ingrained with continued practice.
A main implication is that crossdressing of this kind is not an ideal state (note: all comments here only apply to inversion-caused crossdressing). It is a misdirection of sexual energies from their original purpose. It might be too strong to call it "pathological." But the theory does imply that crossdressing impairs self-actualization. Crossdressing risks violating the organic integrity of the male. It affects the unity of his essence. Part of him is still committed to women and to finding higher levels of fulfillment through his love of women. But the crossdressing diverts energy from this. By not adequately investing his sexual urges in women, his relationships with women potentially do not become as deep and fulfilling as they might otherwise become.
Like all neurotic or defensive behavior, there is an inherent paradox with such crossdressing. It is a "good" strategy short-term, but not long-term. For any given day or week, crossdressing provides pleasure and escape from anxiety. But what are the consequences, what opportunities lost by following the strategy for 10 years, 20 years or more?
The crossdresser basically experiences a highly refined version of infantile sexuality. It is highly fantasy laden, and extremely narcissistic. Some would argue that the very purpose of erotic pleasure is to tie us more deeply to other people. Yet in the crossdresser the pursuit of sexual pleasure tends to have the opposite effect of driving him away from people and into himself.
Psychoanalysis distinguishes between "phallic love" and "genital love." Phallic love is narcissistic and overly concerned with ones own pleasure. In contrast is the more mature genital love, which combines the self pleasure with the deeper emotional connection and commitment to another. Phallic love deals with fantasy, whereas genital love is involved in reality. Crossdressing, then, seems more associated with the former.
If the theory is correct, what does it suggest for how the adult crossdresser should approach crossdressing?
The main implication is that he should revisit the psychological compromise that crossdressing represents. As a child, he made what amounts to a cost-benefit comparison, and selected the course which seemed to maximize self-interest. The problem is that this decision was based on false perceptions and generalizations from inadequate data. Now, as an adult, the crossdresser needs to re-assess things, and form a new cost-benefit analysis. Presumably he will see that his interests are maximized by re-investing his sexual energies more fully in women.
Here we confront that peculiar characteristic of human nature--that (1) ones behavior, outlook, and indeed, ones thoughts are strongly affected by unconscious issues, yet (2) because we understand this, we can apply our conscious mind and reason to correct mistakes of unconscious thinking.
Another implication is that psychotherapy may benefit such a crossdresser. For partial discussion of this subject, see the essay: Crossdressing is Not "Incurable" .
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1. Freud, S., "Three essays on the theory of sexuality" in
Strachey, J. (ed.) The complete
psychological works of Freud (Vol. 7),
2. Hekma, Gert. " 'A
female soul in a male body': Sexual inversion as gender inversion in
Nineteenth-Century sexology" in Herdt, Gilbert (ed.) Third sex, third
3. Rosario II,