Every year on Halloween, thousands of people around the world descend upon movie theaters to catch midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film tells the story of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist and self-described “sweet transvestite” from the planet Transsexual. Throughout the film, Frank dresses as a woman and sleeps with anything (human, alien, or creature) that moves.
The film is definitely an experience, to say the least. However, as a psychologist, I can’t help but wonder what kind of impressions this movie leaves on audiences when it comes to the subject of cross-dressing. Do viewers walk away thinking transvestites and transsexuals are one and the same? Do they think transvestites are willing to have sex with anyone, regardless of gender? These are some of the most common questions people have asked me on this subject, so let’s try and clear them up once and for all.
First and foremost, transvestites and transsexuals could not be more different. A transvestite is someone who engages in cross-dressing for purposes of sexual arousal, but does not truly wish to change his or her gender.1 In other words, transvestites dress as members of the opposite sex simply because it turns them on. Some dress up entirely as the opposite gender, while others wear only a single piece of the other sex’s clothing (e.g., a male transvestite might wear just panties or a bra). You can think of transvestism as a type of fetish where a certain object or action is necessary in order to “give yourself over to absolute pleasure” (if I may borrow a line from Rocky Horror).
In comparison, transsexuals do not cross-dress because they get a kick out of it—rather, they do so because they genuinely want to change their gender identity. Transsexuals experience what is known as gender dysphoria, which means they feel as though they are trapped in the body of the wrong sex.2 It is for this reason that transsexuals sometimes undergo sexual reassignment surgery in order to change their body’s appearance to be consistent with their desired gender (case in point: Dancing with the Stars contestant Chaz Bono). If I may borrow one more line from Rocky Horror, Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s advice to a transsexual would probably be: “Don’t dream it, be it.”
What about the characteristics of your average transvestite? If you’re like most people, you would probably guess that the majority of transvestites are men—and you’d be right. Transvestism is a far more common experience among men than it is among women. You would probably also guess that most transvestites are gay, or at the very least, bisexual—but you would be very, very wrong in this case! In fact, most transvestites are heterosexual, married men.3 And if I can dispel yet one more common stereotype for you, most of these guys hide their transvestic desires from the rest of the world. The majority of transvestites engage in this behavior in private and do not cross-dress when they go to work or to the bar. This tends to be a private, momentary activity that is accompanied by almost immediate sexual gratification. In fact, transvestites are often so secretive about their behaviors that they do not even let their romantic partners know about them.
With that said, feel free to enjoy that late-night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see below), but keep in mind that most of what this film has to say about human sexuality is a matter of science fiction.
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1Langstrom, N., & Zucker, K. (2005). Transvestic fetishism in the general population: Prevalence and correlates. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 31, 87-95.
2Cole, C., O’Boyle, M., Emory, L., & Meyer, W. (1997). Comorbidity of gender dysphoria and other major psychiatric diagnoses. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 13-26.
3Doctor, R., & Prince, V. (1997). Transvestism: A survey of 1,032 cross-dressers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 589-605.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller’s research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.
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Transvestite may have been an appropriate term back when the film was made, but it isn't anymore. The term has become associated with oppression, whereas cross dressing hasn't. I appreciate the discussion about the difference between gender identity and gender expression, since people do get it confused so often! But I would have appreciated it more had it used the language of the community that is used today.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller says
"Transvestite" is a scientific and clinical term that refers to people who cross dress for purposes of sexual arousal. There are some people who find the term offensive and others who don't (just as some gay and lesbian people find the term "queer" offensive but others don't). My use of the term was not intended to offend anyone–just to describe a specific behavior in the scientific terms that are currently in use today. There's a big discrepancy between scientific terminology and the terms people use to identify themselves and I think people should be free to adopt the labels they feel most comfortable with. Again, I meant no offense, and I appreciate you raising the point about how this term is perceived within the cross-dressing community.