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Aetiology of transvestic fetishism

Aetiology of transvestic fetishism

Biological factors

There are surprisingly few studies of a biological cause of transvestism – and most are case studies rather than formal scientifi c studies. One such case, reported by Riley, involved a 72-year-old man who was treated with a drug known as selegiline, an MAOI  which, among other actions, increases serotonin and dopamine activity. Following this treatment, the man developed a frequent impulse to wear women’s clothing – despite never having had this desire previously. The drug was withdrawn, and his urge to wear women’s clothing stopped. This remains one of the very few studies of biological mechanisms.

Parental relationships

Various, often contradictory, family theories of transvestism have been proposed. Newcomb found that transvestite men were more likely than other heterosexual men to characterize their parents as less sex-typed and more sex-reversed in terms of dependence and affi liation. This suggested some form of modelling process may be involved. However, men who become transvestites tend to adopt typical masculine roles as a young child, countering this type of theory. A second theory has suggested that the principal maternal infl uence in transvestism is one of hostility and anger towards males. Zucker and Bradley  noted evidence that boys who develop transvestism have higher separation rates from their mothers than is the norm, suggesting this refl ected their mothers’ aggressive attitudes towards men, and that transvestites are avoiding this hostility by dressing as women.

Behavioural models One school of thought suggests that transvestism results from being cross-dressed during childhood, particularly by mothers or other female fi gures, as a form of punishment – a process known as ‘petticoat punishment’. A number of case examples have been published, although it is not clear why an adult should choose to adopt a behaviour used to punish them as a child as a sexual fetish. Stoller argued that this may represent a form of mastery over the punishment. However, a number of clinicians have claimed that incidences of forced cross-dressing are rare, and that it is usually the child who initiates such behaviour. More conventional reinforcement models  suggest that if a child is exposed to women’s clothing and enjoys the feel of them or masturbates while wearing them, this may establish a reinforcement process that results in the continuation of this behaviour.

Psychoanalytic models Ovesey and Person  suggested that the psychoanalytic processe s that lead to transvestism occur after an individual has consolidated their sense of maleness. Their mother is typically warm and supportive, their father distant and threatening, even verbally or physically abusive. As a result, the mother turns towards her son for gratifi cation not forthcoming from her marriage. She is seductive towards the boy, but at the same time encourages his cross-dressing either overtly or covertly. In doing so, she is thought to be gratifying herself sexually, but repressing her real (sexual) interest by denying his masculinity. The child is gratifi ed by her intimacy, but also feels guilty. He assumes that his mother wishes to dress him as a girl in order to placate his father. The intimacy of his mother and the perceived rivalry of his father prevent a successful resolution of the oedipal complex. After childhood, the individual seeks to preserve the mother as a dependence object, and is attracted to women like his mother who will accept or even encourage cross-dressing. Adult transvestites resort to cross-dressing under periods of stress and wear female underclothing as a protective device. Female clothes provide protection in three ways:

they symbolize the mother and perpetuate dependence and continued need for her protection they symbolize auto-castration, a token submission to male competitors, which wards of their retaliation they disguise masculinity to disarm rivals.

The clothes conceal the penis, the symbol of masculine power, and deny hostile intent. They allow the individual to avoid detection by their rivals, which not only allays anxiety, but even confers on the individual an infl ated sense of masculinity. Ovesey and Person went so far to suggest that ‘the transvestite is Superman in drag!’

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