We all know (or at least read about) on how hard it is to get rid of physical addictions. Psychological ones are even harder. When both are combined together, however, the task of getting rid of them seems to be almost impossible.
I’ve often returned to the topic of addiction. It’s easy for me, since I’m a nicotine addict to a high degree, and a cocoa addict to a lesser one (yes, really). Both are physical addictions, in the sense that there is an addictive substance in them which triggers certain brain processes. Smoking, however, goes one step further: it’s also a psychological addiction, which incorporates things like body language, gestures, a certain social stance (because it’s viewed as something ‘almost illegal’ and certainly unpleasant for most people).
Smoking (unlike chocolate) is also one of those addictions that is very hard to understand by non-smokers. Burning tobacco releases a stench that is almost unbearable for anyone smelling it for the first time. Inhaling it means literally ‘swallowing smoke’ – deliberately so. Our bodies are conditioned to cough in presence of smoke, triggering a reflex that saves our lives in the case of a fire – getting rid of all those particles in suspension and avoiding them to get stuck in the lungs. Smokers, by contrast, have to learn how to overcome the ‘gag reflex’ – ‘going against nature’, so to speak – in order to enjoy their smoking.
Anyone actually tasting their first cigarette just to see what it’s all about will be incredibly disappointed. Tobacco smoke tastes incredibly bitter – at the level of beer at least, but probably even more so. As kids, we learn to avoid bitter things and prefer sweet ones; it’s only in our adult lives that we begin to understand that you cannot spend a whole afternoon eating/drinking sweet things (it quickly becomes nauseating), but you can certainly do that with bitter things. That’s why beer, wine, cured cheese and many other such products are bitter: it means you can eat/drink them a lot, unlike sweets. That’s also one of the many reasons that cocoa addicts also prefer the most bitter chocolate they can get, instead of the wishy-washy taste of the extra-sugary milky chocolate. Yuck!
There is much more that tobacco smoking provokes that is not easily understandable. Getting the ‘right’ amount of smoke each time requires a little practice. Almost everybody will get it wrong the first time – meaning too much smoke, and that, of course, will leave your lungs burning and triggering the cough reflex. But also ‘too much smoke’ means too much nicotine. Nicotine is highly toxic, and relatively low doses are a lethal poison, so after the coughing fit, the next thing you’ll feel is nausea and a headache. And, of course, if you don’t watch it, you’ll also get your fingers burned in the process – and perhaps your clothes as well, as you drop the burning cylinder after a coughing and vomiting fit.
And then, of course, come all the health issues related to smoking. Short-term, it means coughing much more (the lungs will compensate by producing large amount of mucus to deal with the insane amount of smoke particles one is constantly inhaling) and shortness of breath. Blood pressure will rise. Your tongue will feel like sandpaper every morning. The common cold will take longer to heal. And, long-term, you’ll die either of lung cancer or any of many possible cardiovascular diseases.
When you put it that way, it’s almost astonishing to think that around one in every five human beings actually smokes. There are more smokers in the world than inhabitants of China or India; or, if you prefer, more smokers than Muslims or Christians in the world.
Why did such a filthy, unhealthy habit become so popular?
The problem when evaluating addiction is that there is a rigid barrier between the addicts and the non-addicts. Addicts, of course, even if they are aware of the disadvantages, they will only focus on the advantages; by contrast, non-addicts are unable to see any advantage whatsoever. Ex-addicts will quickly switch sides and look back at all the disadvantages, and forget about the reasons that turned them into addicts. It’s hard to be objective and impartial in such cases.
I’m obviously biased. What I can say is that smokers, after the first ‘shock’, learn to smoke properly, and that means that the subtle taste of tobacco is not going to be absorbed by the lungs, where we don’t have any taste buds. The taste lingers on the tongue, and you don’t need to take in huge amounts of smoke to taste it. There is also no point to inhale the smoke into the lungs to get the taste.
Smokers, however, are not addicted to the taste, but to nicotine. Because one third of our nervous system operates on naturally created by-products of nicotine (yes, your body produces nicotine derivatives – in fact, without those, we wouldn’t have a working nervous system), nicotine acts very quickly on the brain. On average, it takes 7 to 8 seconds for nicotine to produce an effect since the moment it gets absorbed. And the micrometrical quantities of nicotine present in tobacco are enough to trigger the effects. Again, nicotine gets best absorbed in the mouth as well, mostly through the mucous membranes either on the gums or inside the nose. The lungs can absorb nicotine too, though, and that’s why some smokers prefer to deeply inhale the smoke inside the lungs.
The ‘effect’ is hard to describe to a non-smoker, but it’s analogous to swallowing a bit of coffee. It triggers a certain enhanced state of alertness, although for many it’s also soothing (I suspect that the soothing effect mostly comes from rising levels of nicotine in the brain for an addict, and not necessarily because nicotine, by itself, is a calming/soothing agent). Recent smokers will describe the feeling as a ‘buzz’, a mild headache, or a certain amount of light-headedness – not exactly like being drunk (it’s a much lighter effect than that) but something not very different. Veteran smokers will probably not feel anything except the soothing effect. And that’s because, as said, our organism naturally reacts or responds to nicotine. Once we start flooding the organism with nicotine, though, the body will react by creating more and more nicotine receptors. That means you’ll need to constantly keep the nicotine levels in the body at a certain threshold, or else the body will ‘complain’ – it will demand the extra nicotine to keep those receptors happy.
This is, roughly speaking, what causes the addiction: the body has developed extra receptors for nicotine and now requires those to be ‘filled’ with an increased amount of nicotine. The main reason why smoking is so hard to break is because those receptors don’t disappear easily. At the beginning, one will need to overcome the body’s desire to keep the receptors filled with nicotine, and refuse to grant them their wish. This, of course, is very painful (psychologically speaking) – perhaps at the same level as starving yourself to death – and therefore not easy to do. Eventually the extra nicotine receptors will deteriorate and get absorbed by the body, and that means the body will not ‘demand’ any extra nicotine. But until that happens, a relapse is very frequent.
Now this is not an article about nicotine addiction, but about crossdressing!
The problem is that we have a lot of information about how addictions work, how they affect people, and how they can be ‘treated’ – either through counseling, or, in some cases, using replacement drugs. But although crossdressing also has a good share of research – mostly from sociological, anthropological and psychological points of view – it lags behind the research on addiction. For obvious reasons: addicted people are a large percentage of the human population, while crossdressers are a tiny minority.
I’ve started this article claiming that there are two types of addiction, psychological and physical. Personally I don’t believe it’s that simple: I don’t think that there are addictions that are purely psychological or purely physical. It’s always a mix of both. For instance, many people may claim that they are smoking addicts for ‘purely psychological reasons’ but they’re deliberately forgetting the complex process which I’ve attempted to describe above – at the low level of the body processes, it’s clear that there is something physical going on there. Conversely, some kinds of addictions which are typically described as ‘physical’ (say, painkillers) are also maintained because they feel good – or, at least, their absence causes pain or suffering. As a good Buddhist, I’m strongly persuaded to understand that mind and body are interdependent – there are no such things as ‘disembodied minds’, and there are no ‘mindless bodies’ either. Rather, we have mindless living things – plants being the best example – but we cannot attribute volition to them, and thus we mind correctly infer they have no minds at all. By contrast, a common fruit fly searching for some sugary content may have a very tiny, simple mind, but it certainly shows some signs of volition; it doesn’t fly randomly and just drops on a fruit by mere chance, but, rather, it works towards a goal or purpose. Minds need bodies to work. That’s how it is.
Therefore, when claiming that crossdressing is a purely psychological thing, I must raise an eyebrow and express my doubts. Even without entering the complex reasoning around gender identity and gender expression, it’s clear that crossdressers feel good about crossdressing. Feeling good, however, is not merely an abstract notion (like maths) that happen in the realm of those high-level cognitive faculties we have. Rather, it’s strongly related to chemicals released in the brain which make us ‘feel good’. So the act of crossdressing has a physical implication (serotonin and adrenalin release, for instance), which, in turn, also affects the mind.
Obviously I’m talking about recurring crossdressing, and not an occasional session of crossdressing that might be experimented in a lab – dressing a lab researcher with clothes of the opposite gender and asking them what they feel. They might feel nothing at all, or perhaps just a bit of embarrassment. I’m not talking about experiments in a lab, but rather what turns someone to recurring episodes of crossdressing, no matter what the reasons or what the frequency of the crossdressing sessions might be.
While it’s easier to explain crossdressing for clearly transgendered people, it’s also obvious that not everybody who crossdresses label themselves as ‘transgendered’ – they might, in fact, have absolutely no issues with their assigned gender. Fetishists, for instance, very rarely have doubts about their gender identity. Nevertheless, they feel the compulsion, the urge to crossdress. Why?
Clearly, ‘crossdressing’ cannot be merely a issue of ‘gender expression’ – or, more precisely, it can be for some, but not for all crossdressers. Instead, I suggest that the act of crossdressing triggers ‘happy chemicals’ in the brain for all crossdressers, and it’s the resulting feeling that comes from those ‘happy chemicals’ that makes people crossdress over and over again.
This is not very hard to envision. Because crossdressing is negatively seen by our society (even though things are changing…), there is the desire to do something forbidden, against the rules, in secret. Stepping outside established norms somehow triggers an adrenaline rush. While I’m no expert in evolutionary biology, I think that such a reaction is well within the expectations for the human species. We’re a gregarious species, and that means we need rules of behaviour. Stepping ‘outside’ such rules, for the first homo erectus (or whoever our most ancient predecessor might have been), should trigger feelings of anxiety – the fear of getting outcast from the protection of the group. Such triggers must have been developed evolutionarily. So we must somehow reinforce our connections and bondage with our peers – clan or tribe members, society at large in our times – which will trigger a ‘feel good’ response, as the body reinforces the notion that for our survival we must be surrounded by other humans for protection. But to acquire that protection, we need to adapt the group’s rules. One thing that I have begun to read recently is Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension. Among other very thought-provoking ideas, Hall suggests that every species has a certain need of privacy and establishes a radius of ‘personal space’ around them; if that ‘personal space’ is somehow ‘invaded’, we trigger a fear/fight response (through an adrenaline rush). Humans, to be able to live in very closely-knitted groups (and, later, on large-scale societies and civilisations in huge cities), had to evolutionarily adapt to ‘dampen down’ those feelings, allow strangers to intrude in our personal space, and, by contrast, learn to ‘fear’ isolation or exclusion from groups.
I think that this is what happens when people crossdress: because we’re conditioned to accept the rules of a heteronormative, cisgendered society, everything we do to step outside those society rules will trigger in us a ‘fear’ reaction. The fear, in this case, is of being rejected and excluded from society. Fear is physiologically connected to an adrenaline rush, so that’s what happens when we crossdress – we are aware that somehow we’re ‘breaking society’s rules’ and our evolutionarily conditioned behaviour triggers a ‘fear/anxiety’ response through flooding the brain with adrenaline.
Now, adrenaline addiction is a well-understood phenomenon – we all know how people literally risk their lives with extreme sports in order to feel that adrenaline rush. But even at a smaller scale, we all enjoy a bit of adrenaline every now and then, when riding a roller-coaster, for instance. There is a difference between ‘enjoying a bit of adrenaline’ and ‘becoming addicted to adrenaline’, though. Such relationships are quite well explored in the literature, and it’s quite clear that people can become addicted to adrenaline.
I’ve explained on previous articles how certain chemicals actually alter the way the brain works. Certain classes of drugs become addictive because people literally want their brain to work differently – alcohol addiction being easily the simplest and most widespread example. Adrenaline most certainly changes the way the brain works: it reacts quicker (even though it might make worse decisions), it is in a state of enhanced alertness, all senses are heightened, there is a strong focus on what one’s doing (and thinking, and feeling), and, of course, there is an enhanced muscular response. We also feel less pain and discomfort (that’s why we can hurt ourselves during an adrenaline rush and not really worry much about how bad it is). Such a state of mind, giving access to experiences and sensations that are otherwise not possible with a brain in its ‘normal’ state, can become addictive (even though most people won’t get addicted to adrenaline, many will). Therefore, an ‘adrenaline junkie’ will require constantly putting themselves in dangerous situations to feel the rush.
The adrenaline rush does not last forever. Because it consumes precious resources at an astonishing rate (e.g. esugar stored at the cellular level), it lasts only for a comparatively short period (which varies from person to person, and depends on the trigger). That means, like with any other kind of chemical addiction, you need to wait for adrenaline to be flushed out of the system, then start feeling the craving for adrenaline again, and that means you need to put yourself in a situation that ‘triggers’ the adrenaline rush once more.
This is what explains why radical sports are usually attempted in steps, from the least dangerous to the more dangerous; or why on an amusement park you have different kinds of rides – triggering different levels of adrenaline response – until you are presented with the Mega Super Duper Ultimate Rolle Coaster – guaranteed to wet yourself (btw, muscular relaxation of the bladder and the bowels is also a byproduct of the adrenaline rush).
We humans, however, are also rational animals (well, most of us are. Most of the time, at least). There are limits to how much we put ourselves into danger in order to trigger the adrenaline rush. Riding a roller coaster or even parachuting is relatively safe. Jumping off a cliff into the sea, hundreds of metres below, is not. While fans of radical sports would certainly have no problem with parachuting, they would drive a line at jumping off cliffs. We know such a dive is fatal – at least, to most of us.
This means that there is a ‘comfort zone’ even when deliberately triggering the adrenaline rush by stepping out of our ‘usual’ comfort zone. This might sound paradoxical, but it isn’t. In a sense, it’s pushing our limits, see how far we can go – one very human trait. Smokers, to achieve their pleasure from nicotine, are willing to overstep nature’s gag reflex and learn to inhale smoke, which is something we evolved to avoid at all costs. Adrenaline addicts know how far they can go, well beyond a regular person’s comfort zone, in order to feel the rush – but also know where to stop (some sadly don’t – and immediately become ex-addicts 😛 ).
Reckless driving, betting on casinos, cheating on your spouse… all those activities also trigger adrenaline rushes. In this case, it’s not (directly) our lives that are at stake (except for reckless driving, of course), but more the ‘excitement’ from ‘bending rules’. There is not only a certain ecstasy from ‘doing something forbidden’ (or out of the mainstream concept of ‘ordinary’), but the adrenaline rush which comes from ‘stepping outside the group’s norms’. If you read Hall’s seminal work, he liberally quotes from lots of biologists that have established how individuals in gregarious species feel the stress when abandoning the group or somehow violating one of its rules – even in the animal kingdom, there are rules to follow, there is a hierarchy of importance among group members, and adequate behaviour for each member, according to their place in the hierarchy. Individual animals stepping outside those groups feel ‘uncomfortable’, or stressed out, or irritated, or simply feel fear. This is evolution’s response to balance collaboration versus competition: stress, often with adrenaline rushes, ‘push’ individuals to leave behind their more aggressive/individualistic tendencies and drive them towards group collaboration (and submission to one’s role inside society).
Not all primates are gregarious – and most definitely most mammals aren’t, either – but it’s clear that we descend from those who established groups for their mutual, evolutionary advantage. As a consequence, it’s to be expected that humans, just like other gregarious species, feel the ‘need’ to belong to the group, and are ‘afraid’ of being left alone. This is, after all, the foundations upon which we create our very complex rules for society: we encourage fellow humans to follow the rules to ‘feel good’ and our laws punish those that disregard those rules – which triggers in us an adrenal response, i.e. we feel the fear of discovery, the fear of others noticing that we’re breaking the group’s rules. In other words, we feel guilty.
Religious leaders and philosophers love to eternally discuss if humankind has innate concepts for ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – an issue that will probably never be settled. Interestingly enough, Buddhist philosophy looks far much deeper. It shows that we wish to avoid all forms of suffering, and that suffering, by itself, is not our ‘normal’ state of being. A typical example: we feel terrible during an illness, but that feeling is not ‘normal’. We’re naturally aware that not being ill is ‘normal’, while illness is, by itself, an ‘unnatural’ state which we reject. Going further, Buddhists claim that when we’re actively helping someone to achieve their ends, we usually ‘feel good’ (almost everybody working as a volunteer for any sort of charity will describe that feeling; but the same happens when students doing their teamwork finally finish their assignment, or a team at a company delivers a finished product or service to a client); while we ‘feel bad’ somehow (we get embarrassed, blush, feel guilty, have ‘troubles with our conscience’, and so forth) when acting against the interests of others. This is obviously not universal, of course, and will naturally depend on the person, the context of the action, the time, the intention, and so forth. But, in general, it’s safe to assume that we have biological feedback mechanisms that tell us when something is ‘ok’ and is supposed to make us ‘feel good’; when something is somehow ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmful’ and we ‘feel fear’; or something is ‘not appropriate’ and we ‘feel bad’. Emotions such as these are strongly tied to our biology; that’s one of the reason so many people resort to all sorts of drugs to change their emotions in order to feel differently (be those legal drugs — like anxiolytics and antidepressants, for instance — or illegal ones).
But there is a twist with crossdressing. Somehow, the biological feedback mechanism that tries to keep our behaviour conditioned towards the ‘mainstream behaviour’ (i.e. behaving like society allegedly expects us to behave) is ‘broken’: we ‘feel good’ by stepping outside the norm, and the inability to crossdress — for whatever reason — makes us ‘feel bad’ (we crave for the ‘feel good’ emotion from crossdressing). As we will shortly see, there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with this, but it has some consequences. However, crossdressing is by no means the only case where the biological feedback mechanisms get ‘twisted’.
Let’s consider smoking once more. Before the 1970s, and at least from the 1840s onwards, smoking was not only socially acceptable, but ‘expected’, first for men, and starting with the 1940s or so, it became acceptable for women as well. Because there was no social stigma associated with smoking (as opposed to drinking in that time period, for instance), smokers would not ‘feel bad’ about picking up the habit: it was something perfectly acceptable in society. Not everybody smoked, of course, but it was an accepted habit, like so many others — nowadays, for example, becoming a sports fan (and engaging in ‘unnatural behaviour’ like dressing up in our club’s colours and acting like children) is socially perfectly acceptable, even though not everybody is a sports fan.
Then the huge frauds perpetuated by the tobacco industry started to be revealed from the 1970s onwards, and society changed: suddenly, something that was perfectly acceptable and tolerated became obnoxious, and, as a consequence, seriously limited; towards the end of the 20th century, increasing anger against smokers — now a minority — went through the phases of moral condemnation, verbal bullying, and in some few cases even physical violence. Smokers became a discriminated minority (perhaps one of the few minorities which are ‘allowed’ to be discriminated against; smokers get no ‘special rights’ as a minority, only duties and rules, while still suffering from moral discrimination, exclusion and ostracism). As society’s rules changed towards smoking — from a habit it became an addiction — the biological feedback mechanisms became adjusted to the new rules: now, instead of indifference, smokers have to face ‘guilt’, ’embarrassment’, and similar ‘feel bad’ emotions, when they pick up the habit or when they actually try to smoke somewhere in public. Again, in this case there is also a twist: a lot of smokers, especially younger ones, turn the act of smoking into a form of ‘defiance’ against the established norms of society: in this scenario, they actually ‘feel good’ for breaking the rules, or, more precisely, for breaking the expectations on how they are supposed to behave according to the rules. I have no scientific data to support this claim, but I believe that the rise of smoking in young people — despite all campaigns against smoking and far better information about the serious health implications of smoking — has a lot to do about ‘rebelling against the status quo‘, while in the 1940s or 1950s it would be merely a socially acceptable habit, just like drinking coffee is today, and no ‘rebellion’ was intended, rather the contrary, picking up smoking would just be strengthening the bonds with society.
When we come back to crossdressing, therefore, we see a similar mechanism happening: while the heteronormative cisgender society imposes upon us a relatively strict separation between genders (and these days this is more true for males than for females), any behaviour outside the norm is expected to provoke those ‘feel bad’ emotions that prevent that behaviour to emerge or to continue. In fact, the majority of people will never feel the ‘urge’ to dress in the clothes of the opposite gender: such a behaviour will provoke embarrassment, blushing, and so forth, which are supposed to be ‘normal’ reactions for engaging in behaviour outside the mainstream. Crossdressers, however, even being aware that they are ‘breaking the norms’, still engage in crossdressing, and, instead of ‘feeling bad’ about it, they ‘feel good’ (to the point of feeling ecstatic, or, in the case of some fetishes, crossdressing induces sexual arousal, either through the clothes by themselves, or by ‘acting’ the opposite gender role). Again, the biological feedback mechanism is inverted for crossdressers — just like it is inverted for smokers as well, and for a large array of so-called ‘undesirable behaviour’ that certain classes of people nevertheless engage in.
But how accurate is the comparison?
I would say that it is only externally accurate, and, therefore, very incomplete and, worse than that, it might induce in some kinds of errors — several of which might actually be serious enough. So on this second part of my article I’ll try to debunk myself 🙂
So a very short recap on the point made so far: emotions are tied to biological functions, most of which are very complex and not completely understood. In some cases, we can trigger certain emotions by adding certain drugs to the bloodstream, and this makes us engage in certain behaviour which might be or not socially acceptable (consider the case of drinking alcohol before driving, for example). In other cases, it’s the behaviour itself that induces our bodies to produce certain chemicals which activate those emotions (example: adrenaline junkies). And, finally, society itself — through a long evolutionary process which resulted in homo sapiens to become a gregarious species, by carefully balancing biological feedback we get from cooperation versus competition — also induces certain emotions, making us feel good/bad/indifferent towards the rules that are ‘imposed’ by society.
Addiction, in this scenario, would be the continuous engagement in one of two scenarios: either to a drug or substance that triggers a certain release of chemicals that produce desirable emotions which we crave (psychologically and/or physically — I argue that both occur at some degree); or to a certain behaviour that triggers certain releases of chemicals (i.e. an indirect process). While we can argue that some sorts of addictions are ‘harder’ to break that others, it’s important to understand that there are two aspects of the addiction, one related to behaviour, the other to chemical release of certain substances in our body (either artificially — through a drug — or naturally, by ‘pushing’ our organism to produce those substances through a certain behaviour). I also argue that it’s not very easy to separate both. We might naively label ‘smoking’ as a ‘drug addiction’ (the intake of nicotine produces physical changes in the brain) while ‘parachuting’ would be a ‘behaviour addiction’ (because it triggers ‘fear’, which is produced by adrenaline in our brain); however, ‘smoking’ is not only about the nicotine itself, like anyone who has tried to give up smoking using nicotine patches has quickly found out. It’s about the gestures; it’s about the social interaction with other smokers. A good reason why e-cigarettes are so successful is that they keep the social interaction and the gestures, while allowing a reduction of nicotine intake towards zero (eventually; this depends from person to person, of course).
Addiction is not so easy to relate to the social aspects at the ‘drug level’. But it’s easy to see that certain behaviours which run against society’s norms, because they trigger the opposite effect that we were evolutionarily conditioned to feel (i.e. ‘feeling good’ if we behave according to society’s norms; ‘feeling bad’ when we step outside them), can also become addictive. But here we need to be a bit more precise, and I think that this is the reason why crossdressing is not really an addiction, as I hope to explain later on.
We have no choice, due to our genetic heritage and evolutionary conditioning, to get a biological feedback when we behave according to society’s norms. What I mean with that is that it’s expected that we ‘feel good’ about following society’s norms. In that regard, it would be ‘wrong’ to consider the continuous ‘feel good’ encouragement to follow those norms as a form of ‘addiction’. It simply is how we were conditioned by evolution to be a gregarious species: we naturally ‘feel good’ to be part of a larger community. Seeking subcultures among those 7 billion humans, towards which we develop a certain affinity, and increases our well-being (we ‘feel better’ if we’re surrounded by people sharing our own interests), cannot accurately be described as an ‘addiction’ even though it might share some of its characteristics.
Now back to crossdressing. Unfortunately, ‘crossdressing’ is a way too vague word to describe a lot of different behaviours, motivations, and associated personality profiles. Common to them all, of course, is a certain desire to ‘feel good’. So we can establish that, at least, crossdressing is an activity which will drive the biological feedback mechanisms (serotonin release, for instance) to make us ‘feel good’. Because crossdressing is socially not acceptable, this ‘feeling good’ must, by force, go against our evolutionarily conditioned mechanisms: we are supposed to ‘feel bad’ about anything that goes ‘against the rules’ of the heteronormative cisgender society where we live.
But this clearly doesn’t happen — rather, the reverse happens. Why?
Now there is at least one class of crossdressers that have a reasonable explanation: those that are crossdreamers, or, if you prefer, people questioning their gender identity in some aspect of their personalities. For those people, crossdressing is a manifestation or expression of that aspect of that personality. While this doesn’t explain everything (for instance, it leaves out those who crossdress for other purposes than expressing their personalities), it provides at least a partial explanation. Let’s consider the case of MtF crossdressers. In our societies, which are still male-dominated, it is expected that women dress well, that they feel sexy, and we consider it perfectly natural and acceptable that women engage in behaviour where they express their desire to look great (according to society’s norms), ‘show off’ their figures, and behave in a way where they ‘feel good’ in engaging in that kind of public presentation of their so-called female attributes (which do not merely include the physical body, of course, but all sorts of accessories and fashion implements that are associated with ‘femininity’).
Feminists, of course, will question the real reasons behind such social conventions, and probably emphasize that ‘clothes don’t make the woman’, in which they are absolutely right; they will also point out that the more machist a society is, the more women are expected to ‘dress up’ and look gorgeous. There are certainly a lot of cases where this is true. In my own country, Portugal, a relatively large proportion of the population comes from other Portuguese-speaking countries, in particular Brazil and some African countries — but a huge proportion also comes from Eastern Europe. All those countries — as opposed to, say, most of Western Europe — are traditionally very machist societies, even more so than Portugal (which, being traditionally a conservative country, also tends to be male-dominated, even though this is rapidly changing due to the rise of women with higher education than men, and replacing them on almost all jobs traditionally reserved for men, i.e. doctors, lawyers, judges, and so forth). What we can observe here is that all those women coming from male-dominated societies tend to place an unusually high regard on their appearance, compared to Portuguese women. Such a connection is well-established (the more male-dominated the society is, the more women improve their appearance) and often used by feminists to point out that women ought to ‘dress up’ for themselves, not to ‘please’ the males.
Naturally enough, a mixed society, where people come from different backgrounds, tend to exchange cultures — at least on those mixed societies with relatively open minds. I could give a lot of examples on how Portuguese culture was contaminated in the past 500 years by the frequent contact with people around the world, and how, in return, those people were contaminated with Portuguese culture. Food is a good example, and would definitely deserve a whole book to describe it 🙂 I will stick mostly to one aspect, though: female attire and appearance in the past decade or two.
Traditionally, Portuguese women would not care overmuch about their appearance. Makeup would almost be banned, or reserved only for older ladies. Hair styling would be conservative or very simple (just let it grow…) and colouring would only be used to hide white hairs. Attire would favour simple cuts, boring colours, and modesty — the point was never to ‘stand out’. In the 1980s, of course, all women cut their hair short and wore jeans and a T-shirt, favouring exactly the same kind of clothes worn as men — it was the age when ‘unisex’ shops started to appear all over the place, including ‘unisex hair salons’.
With the immigration from hundreds of thousand of women from male-dominated cultures, things started to change. Salons opened all over the place, and manicure prices dropped down to almost ridiculous levels: these days, for the price of a tiny bottle of high-quality nail polish, you can get your nails painted instead. This happened mostly for the benefit for those immigrants who were used to salons being universally available and having very low prices. The same, of course, happened to apparel: choices diversified, colours bloomed, and prices went lower, first thanks to cheap Chinese imports, later as national clothes manufacturers also adopted more colourful styles and tried to match the Chinese in price while keeping the quality at high standards. Shoes, which were boring and uninspiring — there are still lots of traditional shoe shops carrying those styles for older women — became bold and sexy, and as a consequence, there was a revolution in the shoe manufacturing industry: Portugal’s shoes are the second most desirable in the world (just slightly below Italian shoes, but if the trend continues, Italy will need to fight hard to keep the Portuguese at bay, since the difference was already minimal in 2014) and the most expensive. Ironically, although we seem to be flooded with cheap Chinese shoes — often costing as little as €5 the pair — in terms of export value, we sell more to China than we import from them (of course we sell comparatively much fewer shoes than we import them, but it’s the price that matters in this case — our shoes are expensive luxury items, Chinese shoes are cheap imitations with very low quality). Portuguese manufacturers started to compete in the very crowded market of nail polish and cosmetics — something that would be unheard of a few decades ago, since we simply didn’t have a large enough market to make local production of cosmetics cost-effective. Now we do, just for the internal market. And I claim that all this economic revolution around beauty products, including apparel, shoes, accessories, and of course salons, spas, massage parlours and so forth, came from the contact with those immigrant women demanding such products and services that were available at a low price on their countries of origin.
This completely changed the attitude of Portuguese women towards their appearance. Suddenly they realized that if all those immigrants could look sexy and feel great about their appearance, Portuguese women ought to be allowed to do the same. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect at the beginning was painting nails — two decades ago, only very elderly ladies would paint their nails. Today, it’s rare to see any woman that doesn’t at least use some transparent nail polish on their nails. But Portuguese women also started to dress in more sexy styles, especially when going out.
This was not one-sided — immigrant women also learned something from Portuguese women, of course. They tended to ‘overdo’ the sexy styles and wear ‘slutty’ styles instead. There is a fine dividing line between both, of course. But the truth is that they also learned to look sexy without being slutty. It is very easy to figure out who has recently immigrated to Portugal — they will stand out in their slutty outfits with mismatched colours and styles. After a year, however, it’s impossible to figure out any difference (by merely looking at their attire and presentation), until they open their mouths and speak. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, and I’m only sorry not to be a sociologist to be able to fully research all this!
Let’s close this topic here 🙂 My point is just that in this decade, women in my country also learned to ‘feel good’ by ‘dressing up’, in total contrast with what happened during the 1980s. ‘Dressing up’ for special occasions — and not only for a wedding, but simply to go out with friends for dinner or a drink — became socially acceptable and universally embraced by women of all ages. So, again, society’s rules changed to accommodate for that — women really ‘feel good’ when dressing up, thanks to that biological feedback mechanism that makes everything socially acceptable to push those ‘feel good’ chemicals through our bloodstreams.
Now, on those crossdressers for which crossdressing is an expression of their gender identity, we can fully understand the mechanism at work here: because such individuals are identifying with the female gender, they ‘feel good’ when conforming to the norms of society that establish how females are supposed to behave in that society. And ‘dressing up’, for them, becomes merely a form of social conditioning that triggers the ‘feel good’ mechanisms. By contrast, ‘dressing up as boys’ is meaningless for those individuals — since their identification is with the female gender and its presentation and expression in public. We see no contradiction here, and, in fact, such ‘urges’ to crossdress, for those individuals, is nothing more than the normal biological feedback mechanism that makes individuals ‘conform’ with the rules of society.
Notice that, although such individuals, having been born with XY chromosomes and assigned the gender ‘male’ at birth, would be considered ‘gender variant’ by everybody else, this is not how they see the world. What they see is that they identify with the female gender, and, as such, the compulsion that society places on females to ‘dress up’ is felt by them with the same intensity. Perhaps even more so, since they are supposed not to express themselves as female. Nevertheless, the compulsion is there. In that scenario, crossdressing is most definitely not like an ‘addiction’, but rather a way the ‘inner female’ reacts to society’s norms.
With gender-fluid individuals we might argue similarly: whenever they feel ‘female’ or ‘male’, they also feel the social compulsion from society to dress and present themselves as the gender they are currently identifying with. Again, such ‘compulsion’ or ‘urge’ is supposed to be ‘normal’, in the sense that all individuals inside a society feel them. The difference with gender-fluid individuals is that they might switch quite often from one gender ‘compulsion’ to the other, and, accordingly, change their gendered presentation.
I am aware of a serious flaw in my argumentation: it leaves both agendered or non-binary-gendered individuals out of the picture (where does their motivation/’compulsion’ come from? Definitely not from society, which is bi-gendered, with clearly defined roles and presentations for each gender), but, more importantly, it doesn’t explain crossdressing as a simple fetish.
For the latter, I can only offer as an explanation the same kind of argument that smokers use to ‘feel good’ in spite of being aware of breaking the norms: there is an inversion of the ‘feel good/bad’ mechanism at work. In other words, a fetishist crossdresser who identifies with the male gender ought not to feel any ‘compulsion’ from society to dress according to a gender with which they do not identify with. Instead, they are driven by the desire to break the rules, and it is that desire that triggers an adrenaline release, among other chemicals, which ‘compels’ the crossdresser to wear clothes (and often present themselves) as a gender they do not really identify with. Unfortunately, my theory does not catch those cases — except to label them as ‘addictive behaviour’. It would be wrong, however, to label all fetishists as ‘addicts’: while they share some characteristics with addicts, the naked truth is that almost everybody has fantasies and fetishes (at least, behavioural fetishes), and such fantasies and fetishes are not only normal, but some even argue that the absence of such fantasies/fetishes are signs that something is wrong with their sexuality.
I would therefore argue that there is an implicit drive by society to press individuals towards sexual fantasies and/or fetishes — since such behaviour is the norm, not the exception — although I cannot fully explain such fantasies/fetishes merely on an evolutionary basis. One might conjecture that those who are able to be more creative in their fantasies/fetishes somehow have acquired a reproductive advantage — especially if such fantasies/fetishes drive them to seek more partners and lead to a higher increase of offspring — but such conjecture would require a much more deeper analysis. On the Web I have not encountered (so far) any published research that link fetishism to increased offspring. If such a correlation can be scientifically proved, then I would argue that fetishism became a means to confer an advantage in reproduction, and, as such, it would be natural to assume that we humans somehow need ‘fetishes’ to enhance our sexual lives and seek more partners in order to generate more children — which would be consistent with the evolutionary approach to the issue — and, as such, it would also be ‘normal’ for our human bodies to respond with ‘feel good’ chemicals when we engage in fetishism.
Therefore, to explain fetishistic crossdressing, we would not need to delve deep into the issue. All sorts of fetishism, under that hypothesis, would be ‘encouraged’ through the normal biological feedback mechanisms. Crossdressing as a fetish would not be different from any other kind of fetish. The ‘feel good’ mechanism present in crossdressing, in those scenarios, would be far more important than the ‘feel bad’ mechanism coming from ‘breaking society’s norms’ with a presentation of the opposite gender. In fact, since the fetish would be directly linked to reproduction, one would naturally assume that, evolutionarily speaking, the urge/drive towards a fetish would be much stronger than the urge/drive to conform to society’s norms: reproduction, for a living organism, is more important than cooperation within a gregarious species to provide for safety, for example. I believe such arguments to be very sound.
Unfortunately this area of research has not been addressed before (or at least I couldn’t find anything about it), so the conjecture remains merely an interesting hypothesis, without any way to directly prove or disprove it. Nevertheless I think we have some hints that this might, indeed, be the case. For once, the vast majority of crossdressers — when we sum up all their possible reasons for crossdressing — are fetishists, either attracted to the clothing itself, or to the notion of presenting themselves as women (either by themselves or even in public). A lot of those fetishists also seek partners that enjoy the fetish in others, and that leads to increased sexual contacts. Merely based on those numbers, I believe, once more, that we can argue that there is a good reason to think that fetishism might be an evolutionary mechanism to drive people to more sexual contacts (and therefore to more potential offspring). If that weren’t the case, we would see far fewer crossdressing fetishists.
Another argument might also sustain this thesis, even though it’s not as strong. Almost all fetishist crossdressers I know are bi-gendered, in the sense that they believe that humans come in two distinct and separate genders. Even those who only do ‘partial crossdressing’ and focus their fetish on a limited number of women’s apparel — say, panties, bras, hosiery — and only wear those items and nothing else, are acknowledging that those are ‘gendered objects’ in our society, and their fetish implies that such items are meant to be worn by the ‘opposite gender’. They are aware that the trigger for their pleasure comes from the notion of wearing clothes that are appropriate for the opposite gender than the one they identify with. Of course, some fetishists progress towards completing their self-image as a woman, fully dressing and behaving as women, even in public, and even affirming that they feel like women (and wish to have sex ‘as women do’) while crossdressed — even if they admit, both to others and themselves, that they fully identify with the male gender when they are not crossdressed. They are clearly ‘gendered’.
However, one should point out that MtF fetishist crossdressers engaging in sex with males does little to lead to reproduction — which would contradict the hypothesis that fetishism is a means to increase reproduction!
I think that the difficulty here is that fetishism, in general, is a vast area with very different behaviours. Object fetishism, taken to the extreme, does not lead to increased sexual activity. A typical example given in the literature are males with a high heel fetish. As the example explains, it’s no problem having that fetish and ask the girlfriend to wear heels while doing sex. It becomes a problem when one says to the girlfriend to leave the heels in the room but go away. Sexology experts tend to label the first kind of behaviour as perfectly normal — even desired — while the second kind is definitely a paraphilia. We can see here a means to refine our definitions a bit further: we might be evolutionarily conditioned towards embracing fetishism to increase sexual activity and make it even more pleasurable, but once fetishim reaches the point where the sexual activity by itself is not important any more, and merely the object of the fetish is enough to produce sexual satisfaction (in isolation, or at least without sexual contact with a partner), then doctors classify that as ‘aberrant behaviour’ or a ‘disorder’.
In our community, such simple classifications are very often met with raised eyebrows. One might safely argued that not everything is evolutionarily conditioned, and, therefore, labeling fetishim as merely ‘a means to increase reproductive success’ is too simple an explanation. I would therefore be more careful and argue instead that the drive to fetishism may be evolutionarily explained — that means that somehow our brains are ‘wired’ to imagine sexual fantasies, which is ‘good’, evolutionarily speaking — but because humans are such complex living beings, we tend to use several of our inherited traits (i.e. those that we acquired via evolution towards a specific goal) for completely different purposes.
Such an argument is actually very old. A typical example of this scenario is reading. We were not evolutionarily conditioned to read and write — in terms of evolution, we just ‘discovered’ writing some 5,200 years ago or so, and general literacy in most countries is just a reality in the past few decades, so clearly we cannot be ‘evolutionarily conditioned’ to write. Instead, certain structures in our eyes and brain, namely pattern-matching and edge recognition, used both to pick berries from the ground and detect where predators lurk, were re-used to allow us to read and write. We are aware of many such ‘adaptation’ mechanisms where we can trace the original mechanisms to evolutionary traits for a specific purpose, but that we currently use for completely different purposes.
One might argue that fetishism could be one of those mechanisms. We might have been evolutionarily conditioned to ‘dream about sex’, in the sense of having fantasies, and those ‘sex dreamers’ would be driven to more frequent sexual contacts, which would lead to more offspring. Such a mechanism is plausible under the laws of evolution. Later, as our societies became more complex, we might have used those mechanisms for the purposes of generating pleasure without a direct connection to reproduction. In other words, the ‘wiring’ in the brain that produces ‘sex dreams’ — which become fantasies that we wish to enact — has been ‘diverted’ instead to the purpose of generating pleasure (orgasmic pleasure), even though actual reproduction would be absent. This would be another conjecture requiring scientific proof, of course, but I think it might be arguable that this is the case as well.
So, to wrap it up and conclude…
My initial hypothesis was based on the established facts that emotions are triggered by biological mechanisms, and vice-versa: through chemicals we can artificially induce emotions. Because humans are a gregarious species, we developed mechanisms that make us ‘feel good’ when we ‘belong’ to a group, and that means feeling a ‘rewarding mechanism’ (which is pleasurable) when we get accepted by the group. Such ‘rewarding mechanisms’ happen when we conform to a specific group’s rules and norms. Therefore, when we act towards increasing that ‘rewarding mechanism’, we are not engaging in an ‘addiction’, even if several of the underlying mechanisms are similar.
So my argument here is that everything we do that rewards us in terms of getting accepted by society is not an addiction, but merely an evolutionarily conditioned mechanism common to all gregarious species. If we humans were not a gregarious species, then it’s arguable that we wouldn’t ‘feel good’ by living within a group, but, instead, the presence of other humans would trigger in us the ‘fear/flight’ mechanism (usually driven by an adrenaline rush in other species).
‘Addictions’, in this scenario, can be explained as an inversion of the mechanism that ‘pushes’ or ‘compels’ us to become ‘part of the group’. It relies on the triggering of certain emotions through chemicals — either naturally produced or artificially ingested/injected — which are not necessarily conforming to society’s norms. Of course, as society changes its rules, some things which were addictions become ‘normal behaviour’ (i.e. part of the rules that make up society), and vice-versa. Typical examples is drinking coffee or eating chocolate, both of which are addictive, but which are socially accepted, therefore the ‘feel good’ mechanism is triggered for both consuming those substances and belonging to the group by exhibiting society-conforming behaviours. Smoking is a good example of one addiction which was socially accepted until the 1970s but socially rejected after that (there are, of course, many more examples).
So-called ‘addictions’, a word which has a negative connotation, tend not to fulfill any purpose except giving pleasure to the individual; when such an addiction is actually harmful to others in the group/society, then we develop ‘feel bad’ mechanisms for those addictions (addictions which do not severely harm others might simply be ‘neutral’ — again, drinking coffee and eating chocolate might be good examples of ‘neutral’ addictions). So as we can see, the word ‘addiction’ requires two components to be classified as such: first, it needs to either trigger emotions through artificially ingested/injected substances or naturally produce those substances through certain activities (like in adrenaline rushes experienced by practicing extreme sports); and secondly, such activities must somehow be ‘rejected’ by society. While the first case is biologically determined — i.e. only some substances will work; only some situations will trigger natural production of certain chemicals — the second case is clearly socially determined. In other words, we are evolutionarily conditioned to react to ‘feel good’/’feel bad’ mechanisms, seeking the former and avoiding the latter; but we are adaptative towards the actual behaviour that triggers those mechanisms, and this varies according to the society, the time, the place, our own age, and so forth.
Using those hypothesis, however, we need to immediately exclude some forms of crossdressing as ‘addictions’. When someone identifies (even if just at a lesser degree, and without exhibiting any symptoms of distress associated with dysphoria) with a gender opposite to the one they have been assigned at birth, and dress/behave accordingly, they are acting within the context of the rules of society. In other words, if I ‘feel’ female, and dress as a female, then I’m just doing what is expected of females: I dress like them, I behave like they do. Naturally enough, our biological conditioning will ‘urge’ us to conform to society’s rules regarding the gender we identify with. One might therefore argue that the stronger we identify with a specific gender, the stronger are the ‘urges’ that compel us to dress and behave (and even change our bodies) to conform with that gender. Such a response is conditioned evolutionarily, and we can do little about it. But it is not the same mechanism as an addiction. We just feel the urge to be accepted in society as a member of the gender we identify with, and all our biological mechanisms are pushing us towards that goal.
Fetishist crossdressing, at first, seems to elude the above hypothesis, and a lack of information and documentation on the subject makes my argument much weaker in that case. Because fetishist crossdressing is far more frequent (by several orders of magnitude) than other forms of crossdressing, we need to figure out a reason and a mechanism to explain it. I propose to explain fetishism in general as an ‘adaptation’ of a mechanism which leads to more sexual contact (and with higher pleasure), increasing the chances of offspring, and therefore evolutionarily favoured: dreaming about sex, or, more precisely, sexual fantasies, which are ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and it’s expected that we all have them. Some of those ‘fantasies’ are transmigrated into fetishes, using the same brain processes. If that assumption is correct, we would have explained the mechanism, in evolutionary terms, why fetishes might ‘run against society’ but nevertheless trigger the ‘feel good’ emotions, because reproduction — one of the drives of evolution — ranks higher (in terms of natural selection) than cooperation within the group for a gregarious species. Because fetishes can pretty much be about everything, there is no problem in ‘fitting’ fetishist crossdressing in this mechanism. It also explains why fetishist crossdressing is far more common than non-fetishist crossdressing: fetishes, after all, are supposed to be part of our evolutionary heritage; while misalignments between the gender one identifies with and the physical body one is born with are not necessarily an expected, or desired, evolutionary outcome, but rather alternative manifestations of our biological makeup that are outside the norm.
In either case, I feel reasonably confident to reject the assumption that ‘crossdressing is an addiction’. Even if it shares some aspects of addiction (namely, the triggering of emotional states through chemical releases of adrenaline and serotonin in our bloodstream), there is a different, plausible explanation for its functioning. And we also have a last proof that crossdressing cannot be a special type of addiction: while all sorts of addictions can be cured — through therapy and sometimes chemical substitution of the addictive substance — crossdressing cannot. This points to a different quality of crossdressing, which cannot be put in the same bag as ‘addictions’.
And to finish the article, I have to humbly admit that I have no researched evidence to sustain my hypothesis. At best, the explanation of how crossdressing works at the emotional and biological level, both in its fetish and non-fetish varieties, remains a conjecture — so far I haven’t found anyone actively researching the subject and publishing any studies on it. On the other hand, the hypothesis is easily verifiable and/or falsifiable (a requirement for science!) — for example, asking the question: ‘do fetishists have increased sexual contacts compared to non-fetishists?’ — and maybe some day one sociology or anthropology student might read these lines and suggest their supervisor to study this subject better.