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Who wears the panties in the family

My husband of five months is a wonderful man, but he does something kind of different I wanted your advice on: He sometimes likes to wear my panties. He swears he's not gay; he just says they feel really good on his skin, and wearing them makes him feel closer to me. It's OK with me; I just find it a little odd, and hope he's never in an accident and has to explain why he's wearing panties. Is this just a phase? Am I crazy for being OK with it? Wondering Wife

There's a U.S. senator who can't speak publicly unless he's wearing pantyhose. He was a patient of Dr. William Stayton, a psychologist and leading expert on cross-dressing. "Underneath his blue suit and tie, he wore pantyhose and a bra and women's underwear," Stayton told me in a recent interview. "He was always worried somebody would lift his pant leg and see his pantyhose. But it was the only way he could calmly speak before the Senate."

So, one man's Prozac is another man's pantyhose. So what? My boyfriend compared the senator's cross-dressing to his own penchant for hats. "When I wear my Henschel High Roller, I have a totally different outlook. You swagger a bit, you just know you're cool. I take the hat off, and I'm just another guy."

Nobody worries about a man in a hat unless they're in a bank and the hat happens to be a ski mask. And how about all those female executives who "dress for success" in male business drag? Maybe because we identify femininity with weakness, but value masculine strength and power, nobody looks squinty-eyed at a woman in pinstripes or gives a second thought to women like me, who've been donning Calvin Klein boxer briefs for years.

No, I haven't been wearing them on the senatorial sly, under my clothes. They're the workout shorts I march around in at the gym. And don't forget that sexy staple of chick flicks, the "morning after" shot of the woman drinking coffee while wearing the man's big white shirt as a nightie. Of course, aside from specialty e-tailers, nobody would dream of selling men day-of-the-week undies in hibiscus pink or making movies where Keanu, Matthew or Will walks out in the woman's lavender teddy and matching Marabou Mules.

As your husband keeps insisting, just because a guy comes out of the closet in the wife's panties, it doesn't mean he's gay. While the public face of cross-dressing is flaming drag queens like RuPaul, most cross-dressers are straight. In a 1997 survey of cross-dressers by R.F. Docter and Virginia Prince, 87 percent said they were heterosexual. Stayton estimates the number to be "at least 95 percent." Not only that, 60 percent of Docter and Prince's respondents were married; 69 percent had kids. In an earlier study by Prince, 19 percent reported playing high school or college football. At least one married cross-dresser played professional basketball. That, of course, would be Dennis Rodman, who goes through more false eyelashes and feather boas than the chorus line at the Tropicana.

Cross-dressers like your husband typically spend much of their week looking like the average Joe, not the not-so-average Jacqueline. Most enjoy being men, and have no interest in a sex change. Stayton says they're often in very male-oriented occupations like fireman, trucker or high-powered businessman. They just have a feminine side they need to express to feel whole.

For some, this starts as early as age 5, and no, it's not a phase, although they may do it more or less at different times in their lives. Some find it erotic, especially at first, but many, like the senator, simply find it a pretty way to relieve tension. (Think of it as a frilly alternative to yoga or the after-work martini.)

Of course, a husband's cross-dressing tends to have a less-than-soothing effect on a wife, especially if she comes home expecting her husband and walks in on some poorly assembled June Cleaver. If she can't get over the betrayal, or just plain can't deal, it's probably the end of the marriage. She'll blame her husband, but Stayton points to society's "awfulizing" of cross-dressing, causing the cross-dresser to feel guilt and shame for expressing the full range of himself as a person and leading to secrecy and the issues that ensue.

In your case, unless it unhinges your husband's life if he quits his job and stays home admiring himself in the mirror in bouffant wigs what's the problem? Sure, there could come a day when he starts stretching out your angora sweaters, or worse yet, over-plucking his brows. Until then, whatever floats your boat, or makes your skirt fly up. Or your husband's. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, No. 280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com).

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