“Have you ever noticed how oddly keen some men are to get into a frock?”
Nope. Up until a few years ago, I wasn’t aware of ever having personally known any man who was keen to get into a frock. The only transvestite – assuming that’s what he was – I ever recall noticing in real life was improbably tall and scary-looking, as he wandered around the ladieswear department of the large store where I worked over Christmas as a 16-year-old.
His was the image that sprung to mind when, years later as a volunteer on a suicide helpline, I took the occasional call from men wanting to talk about cross-dressing. While many callers to the helpline talked of situations I could understand and empathise with – love unrequited, bereavement, loneliness, anxiety, depression – the cross-dressers seemed to inhabit a different world, one about which I knew nothing and cared even less. A small minority of this minority were men who were distressed and ashamed and only indulged themselves behind closed doors. Being kind, empathic, socially liberal and non-judgmental about what consenting adults did in their private lives, I couldn’t understand what their problem was. Relax. If you’re not upsetting anyone else, just do what floats your boat and get on with life. I never said this out loud because I sensed it wasn’t what they wanted to hear and, anyway, I wasn’t there to give advice but to be a listening ear. The ones who clearly got sexual gratification from talking about their fetish to an unknown woman over the phone – and they were the vast majority of this particular group – were dealt with the same as any other “sex caller” and got short shrift.
In spite of that experience, the question about whether I’d noticed men being keen to cross-dress, asked on the back of this booklet by Sophie Atherton, seemed strange. Why would I know anyone like that?
My feelings after reading through the six very short stories told by Sophie – all of them true and drawn from her own life – were a mixture of relief that this wasn’t yet another thing I’d had to deal with in my own youth (or since), a sense of vicarious violation, anger on behalf of all the women who have been affected by this most self-indulgent of proclivities and yet further disappointment in mankind.
These men are people’s sons, brothers, partners and friends. Why wouldn’t I know someone like that? If I do, I’m probably one of the last people on earth they’d want to discover their fetish and I’m not sorry about that. Due to the onslaught against women’s rights and the disregard for our need for privacy, dignity and safety by those who’ve taken their fetish to the extreme and now claim to actually be women – and particularly by the bullying and attempts to silence those of us saying, “No, thank you” – I am less inclined to be kind and non-judgmental. My empathy these days is reserved for the women in these men’s lives, for the distress caused to them.
Told in a manner that is simple, unadorned and direct, Sophie’s anecdotes bring those feelings to life. I won’t go into detail about any of the situations described but they are all extremely engaging and relatable – they could happen to any of us and I don’t need to have gone through similar to understand exactly how she felt in the moment and how the other women she writes about felt. While gender-identity ideologues have taken advantage of women’s vulnerabilities and compassion to divide us, anecdotes such as these speak to a commonality of female experience of being used by ordinary, unremarkable men. While reading them I was able to forget how divided we are. Having finished reading, my incomprehension of women who are unable to recognise the abuse inherent in the act of treating womanhood as a costume and performance was greater than ever.
The bigger question asked on the back of the booklet – Why shouldn’t a man wear a dress if he wants to? – is one that gets right to the heart of why this is a difficult issue for feminists and progressives. I often say people should be free to express themselves as they like as long as they hurt no one else. But what is ‘hurt’? Does being made to feel mortified and belittled, even if unintentionally, count? If so-called “misgendering” is violence and abuse, where does demanding a man’s wife go along with his LARPing as a woman sit on that scale? To what extent should his right to free expression be allowed to impinge on women’s boundaries?
Don’t get me wrong. I still don’t care if men want to wear dresses. I applaud gender nonconformity and I don’t care what consenting adults do behind closed doors. I do care that women are asked, expected and forced to tolerate, participate in and defend an activity that makes them uncomfortable, ashamed and grossed out.
Every one of Sophie’s stories raised the question in my mind of what I would have done at that age, in that circumstance? What would I do now that I’m older and wiser? What advice should I give to a young girl, should she find herself in any such situation? And why the hell should we have to even think about this stuff?
It is a sign of the dark times we live in that I feel the need to applaud Sophie Atherton for her courage in telling these stories publicly and under her own name. She deserves to sell many copies and I hope she does. You can order it here.