Writer and broadcaster

“I told my husband he couldn’t cross dress anymore. Now he avoids sex.” Published in The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I am 44 and have been married for 12 years. We have a daughter and my husband is a devoted father. A few months after we met, he told me he liked wearing women’s clothes when he had sex.

I hadn’t come across this before, and, as I remember it, he reassured me that this was a preference only on occasion. Although alarm bells rang, I was in love and thought we could overcome any problems. My husband was sent to boarding school at the age of six, which has affected him so that he is almost completely unable to talk about his emotions. I thought I could help him and that everything would work out in the end.

After we were married he started demanding that he wear these clothes every time we had sex, and I felt he didn’t listen when I said it was too much for me. I recognised during this time that he also had issues with sex (lack of confidence), and after much persuasion from me we went for counselling. Unfortunately, we both felt the counsellor didn’t “get” us as a couple so it didn’t help. I felt my husband was so fixated on wearing women’s clothes that it affected our sex life and I began avoiding sex. After a while, I told him I could not continue and he would have to make a choice – the clothes or me.

He chose me in the end. Since I told him that I could not tolerate him wearing these clothes in my presence (I have made it clear he is free to wear them when he is on his own), I feel he has been angry with me and avoids sex.

I don’t understand the significance of these clothes for him. In most other respects, we get on well. He is very kind and considerate, but we don’t have any kind of sex life now and I don’t know if I can be celibate for the rest of my life. 

How can we ever resolve this? I feel I have a right to refuse to be involved in an activity that I hate. If wearing these clothes is so important to him, I feel he needs to recognise this and be true to himself, even if it means our relationship is over.

Anon, via email 

A few years ago, I researched cross-dressing for a book. I spoke, in the strictest confidence, to men who cross-dressed. All were heterosexual and married. All loved their wives very much. But the wearing of women’s clothing brought them what I can only describe as comfort.

On your behalf, I spoke to Margaret Ramage, chair of UKCP’s sexual and relationship psychotherapy college. She explains that not all cross-dressers are the same: some do it to relax, to express a part of their personality, some because they want to change gender. For some it is arousing. “The desire to cross-dress becomes more compelling when a person is under stress or is frustrated,” she says.

Ramage points out that you both went into the marriage with unrealistic expectations. You thought love would conquer all; your husband said his cross-dressing was no big deal. Ultimately, says Ramage, this has become “a power struggle about who wins. You have both got to the defensive position.”

You have also both become polarised: your husband’s insistence that he has to cross-dress, yours that you want nothing to do with it. And, of course, you don’t have to be involved in any activity you hate.

Ramage also says that if your husband is “out of touch with his emotional feelings, he would not necessarily be aware when he is stressed, upset or frustrated, but would just feel an urgent need to cross-dress. This might overcome the constraints of kindness and consideration that he usually shows.”

All is not lost: there seem to be good things about your marriage. But you do need to get counselling (the UKCP: psychotherapy.org.uk) from someone who understands cross-dressing, and you need to ask about this before you go. Ramage thinks this is vital because it is seen as such a taboo subject – the last thing you need is a counsellor who doesn’t get it.

In the meantime, do look at beaumontsociety.org.uk. I know this is a scary subject for you, but I think if you try to read up on it, it will become less so and then you can decide what to do out of a place of education, not fear.

This column was first published in The Guardian Family section.