We Found Women’s Clothes and Makeup in Our Adult Son’s Room

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Reader’s Question

My 26-year-old son lives at home, and my husband and I noticed he has a box of women’s clothes and makeup in his room (we think he is buying these things online). He does not have a girlfriend nor does he bring anyone home. He dated in high school, and now just goes to work and comes home. We are not sure how to talk to him about this. Or if we should even approach him about what we found.

Psychologist’s Reply

If we assume that these items were not purchased for a woman, and that he is not holding them for someone else, two possibilities jump to the fore. One is that your son finds wearing women’s items, or dressing as a woman, to be erotically charged. The clinical term is transvestic fetishism, although people in the general culture often refer to these men simply as transvestites.

Note that men who experience transvestic fetishism typically identify strongly as male and are masculine in how they appear to others. In other words, this isn’t an issue of gender identity. These are masculine men who are comfortable being male; they simply become sexually aroused by wearing women’s clothing or makeup (each man has his own preferences, so we can’t generalize about what particular aspects of female attire are arousing).

No one knows for sure how or why transvestic fetishism develops (the same is true for any fetish or unusual attraction). The assumption is that the individual had an erotic experience with women’s items during late childhood or early adolescence, and the connection between those women’s items and sexual arousal continued to be reinforced through subsequent masturbation and repetition of the behavior.

The other explanation for the women’s items has to do with gender identity. In particular, perhaps your son experiences some internal discomfort with being identified as male. That is not to say that he has come to the conclusion that he feels more female than male; perhaps he is experimenting as a means to sorting out his feelings and sense of identity.

Either possibility entails very sensitive issues and stigmatized behavior. Perhaps the first question for you and your husband to discuss is what would be the purpose of confronting your son? If it would be to scold him or try to talk him out of deviant behavior, the result would likely be to alienate your son, with no change in behavior or internal struggles. If the reason for confrontation is to offer nonjudgmental support, then perhaps the potential benefits might outweigh the initial costs.

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The obvious potential problem with bringing up the issue is that it will rupture trust your son has in you and your husband (for being in his presumably private space). So, if the two of you decide to broach the issue, I recommend focusing on your shared desire to understand and support him, and hope that this aspect of the message mutes his likely upset over realizing that his parents now know this stigmatized aspect of his life. His immediate reaction may be to deny and withdraw, in which case the only thing you can do is to offer nonjudgmental support and then back off, hoping he makes the next move toward the two of you.

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