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30 April 2024

Pierre Vacher (1892-1990) doctor and sexologist

Vachet was raised in Givry, Saône-et-Loire, and qualified as Docteur en médecine, Paris, 1915. He later became the Director of the École de psychologie and editor of La Revue de psychologie appliquée.

Vachet and the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld were both active nudists and had first met when German and French nudist groups had joint meetings. It is most likely that it was from Vachet that Hirschfeld learned of the French practice of permissions de travestissement, which dates from November 1800 and continued through into the 20th century - and was also introduced to the French word travestissement which he rendered in German as Transvestismus, and travesti/e which he rendered as Transvestit(in).

In 1927 it was proposed to create a French section of the World League for Sexual Reform. The French branch was called Comité Pro Amore—Ligue de la Régénération Humaine, and was initially under Vachet.

In 1931 Vachet translated and likely edited (for there is no German original) an anthology of writings by Hirschfeld with a few by Felix Abraham, which we have already considered.

Two years later Vachet published Psychologie du Vice : Les Travestis.

Despite the suggestion of the title that Psychologie du Vice would be a series, no other books were published under that rubric.


The page after the title page tells us: “Eight copies of this work were issued on pure wire velin lafuma, numbered pure wire velin 1 to 5 and i to iii; and sixteen copies on satined outhenin-chalender alfa, numbered alfa 1 to 10 and i to vi.”


“FOR a long time I have been proposing to publish a series of studies on the Psychology of Vice. Some of my previous works have already dealt with general insights into sexual life and its anomalies. Today I would like to use the material of my clinical observations in more fragmentary and detailed studies. The transvestites will inaugurate the gallery of obsessed and maniacal vice. 

The term ‘vice’, which in its vulgar use fits very well with the system of sexual anomalies, belongs both to the vocabulary of the moralist and to that of the doctor, the former judging and condemning according to social values, the latter limiting himself to explaining by the causes. Freudianism must be given credit for having stripped sexual immorality of that sacrilegious character which still inspired the best alienists of the last century, who had to deal with this subject, with the virtuous accents of bourgeois indignation.

In fact, it is not easy to determine where vice begins and ends, because the distinction between the normal and the abnormal, the natural and the artificial, cannot be a sufficient touchstone for human behaviour.

The origin of perversions is not always easy to determine. Obscure physiological actions may play a part, as in the tendency of the individual to play the role of the opposite sex, or to choose the object of his desire in the same sex as his own. Deficiencies or excesses of glandular secretions may lead to an insufficient differentiation of the morphological characters and instincts of a given sex. But it is in the imagination of the individual that the main source of these vices is to be found, in the attribution of the power of sexual excitation to objects, situations, behaviours, more or less artificially associated with the satisfaction of desire.”


This is an extended (48 page) case study of one of Vachet’s patients, a 28-year-old with anxiety and despair. A university graduate with a male body and a job that required a male uniform, Pierrette’s one aspiration was to be free to live as female when not at work, and she knew of the sex-change operations that had already been done in Berlin and Vienna and wished for the same in France. Vachet sent for the parents, explained that the condition was harmless, and that their son’s depression and despair could be relieved. They agreed that he should have his own flat. 

“What strikes you first of all about Pierrette's mentality is the contrast between the embarrassment, the inhibition, the anxiety he feels under the male costume and the freedom, the euphoria, the ‘nerve’ that the wearing of female clothing assures him.” 

The operations were not available in France (although this was a couple of years after a Danish artist resident in Paris, Lili Elvenes, had gone to Dresden for such surgery). 

Pierrette was not gynephilic, nor would she consider sex with a man until she had the operation. She had first dressed as a girl for a party when 14, followed by parts in amateur theatre. From age 18 Pierrette explored costume balls and what other opportunities there were to present as female. In 1932 she approached Dr Vachet, although with a major caveat: 

“I have not come to ask you to ‘cure’ me but to help me. To accept the slightest attempt at healing, i.e. to return to my male nature, would be a crime against myself, a mortal sin. I feel like a woman before God, a woman in my soul, and this feeling is infinitely stronger than any reasoning.”

Part Two

This contains three chapters, on D’Éon, de Choisy and Victor Barker.  The first two, D’Eon and de Choisy have been retold many times, and Vachet’s retellings contain anecdotes that later and better researched accounts have debunked. Vachet writing in 1933 mainly summarises Barker’s sensational trial in 1929, with only a passing mention of the British Fascist Party (actually the splinter group, the National Fascisti), and of course nothing about what happened in later years.

Part Three: nature and psychology of transvestites

“Transvestism is one of the most curious sexual anomalies to study, and also the most difficult to explain. It seems that the same explanation is not valid for all cases, that the wearing of the garment of the other sex has different causes according to the individuals, that it constitutes a symptom whose value is essentially variable. I will try to untangle this skein as best I can.”

  1. “pseudo transvestites, those whose disguise is only a means of concealment or masquerade”. Some of these are criminal. Vachet gives an example: “It was a wartime deserter who had found it convenient, in order to escape danger, to pass himself off as killed in action and to lead a life under the guise of the female sex which he knew would never be exposed to the danger of the review boards”. The facts are slightly off but this could be Paul Grappe. For some of these, “it is linked to that well-known mentality which we call mythomania. These are individuals who are more or less unbalanced, fundamentally vain, always on the lookout for anything that might make them interesting, essentially fabulists, inventors of stories.” As an example of this Vacher suggests D’Éon.
  2. Homosexual transvestites. “In this case the justification of the instinct of transvestism is confused with that of the tendencies which push them to sexual passivity. But it is very remarkable that even in common homosexuality the taste for transvestism can be discerned as a mobile element, alien in its essence to pure homosexuality. There are homosexuals who enjoy transvestism, there are other homosexuals to whom transvestism is more or less indifferent. When the latter take on the clothing of the opposite sex, it is rather as an accessory.” Vachet gives a seven-page account (p147 – 153) of a gay female impersonator/trans woman whom he refers to as “comtesse de B…” who would seem to be Pauline Bergolet also known as Arthur W. and “la comtesse” although he does not mention her 1874 autobiography The Secret Confessions of a Parisian: The Countess, 1850-1871, which was published in 1895.

Vachet then discusses male-dressing lesbians. Some wear “mixed clothing”, for example “a short skirt and a male-cut blouse. The blouse has the characteristics of a man's shirt and is completed with a collar and tie”. He does not mention that this had been the height of fashion in the 1920s, nor does he name Radclyffe Hall as its most famous exemplar.

There are others who completely dress, work and marry as men. He gives a two-page account (p155-6) of “X …” who did so. Only once did X agree to marry a man – that lasted eight weeks.

Vachet then mentions cases from the newspapers or found in the book by Havelock Ellis: John Coulter, Murray Hall, “Catherine Coome”.

Vachet adds a footnote to this section: “Another Hirschfeld statistic on gay men's occupations is of interest in a transvestism study. Half of the male comedians who imitate women, and half of the women who play male comedians on stage are homosexuals and lesbians.”

  1. Fetish. Vachet gives several examples from Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll of persons (all male) who are sexually aroused by certain items of clothing. “But transvestism can be just a special form of fetishism. For example, a man will dress as a woman in order to put on women's clothes in a more intimate relationship with his own body; to create the illusion of having a woman at hand, to draw his pleasure from a woman by drawing it from himself.”

“Hirschfeld tried to differentiate the transvestism of the fetishists from that of the automonosexuals, the latter being essentially individuals who find in themselves the object of their sexual desires, who like to contemplate themselves clothed or unclothed in mirrors (narcissism) and are therefore often inclined to transvestism and adorn themselves.”

  1. Heterosexual transvestites. Vachet gives several anecdotes about men whose affairs or marriages with women are complicated by their cross-dressing.
  2. False heterosexual transvestites: “transvestites who have married in some way by mistake, believing themselves capable of normal intercourse, or more often believing that they have found in marriage a remedy for a mania which may be bothering them in some way. These people usually divorce promptly and do not repeat the experience.” He also gives an example from Hirschfeld of a shoemaker who had married believing that this would cure his tendency. After 35 years and two adult daughters, at the age of 62, he felt that he must live full-time as female. This quickly led to divorce.
  3. Masochistic transvestites. These particularly like corsets, and as tight as possible. Vachet groups these with metatropists – role reversal, a feminine man with a masculine woman – regarding attraction to “strong, imposing women, especially authoritative ones” as a form of masochism. He also mentions cases of ‘involuntary suicide’ where either the corset was too tight or by autoerotic asphyxiation. 
  4. Pure forms of transvestism. [This resembles what was later called transsexuality]. “The wearing of the garment is only one element of a very curious overall psychological attitude. The subject feels completely alienated from his true sex. He experiences feelings, even sensations, peculiar to the other sex. He is not necessarily attracted to homosexuality; often he even abhors it. The case of Pierrette, which we reported at the beginning of this book, illustrates this anomaly perfectly.” (p182)

“Very often the transvestite begins by indulging in his mania in the secrecy of the flat, in the evening after work. Then, little by little, the idea imposes itself on him to go out in transvestism, to mingle under his disguise with public life. The transvestite does work corresponding to the sex he would like to have. The male transvestite does housework, cleans the flat, shops, cooks, sews, washes, mends clothes and even makes clothes for his transvestism. He embroiders, makes cushions and doilies. He likes music, has delicate tastes, abstains from smoking and drinking. On the contrary, the transvestite woman disdains housework, is fond of good food, drinks dry and smokes a lot, especially cigars and pipes. Housework is a real pleasure for the male transvestite, so he makes the most industrious and devoted servant. Hirschfeld states that in his Institute he frequently employed transvestites as housekeepers.” (p183)

He then gives some examples of trans men (women soldiers as Vachet calls them). Marie-Antoinette Lix/Michaël le Sombro who rallied the Polish troops in the 1863 rising against Russia. (p185-6); Antonio de Erauso, a nun who became a soldier in South America (p187-9).

He then gives a 20-page account (p191-210) of the doctor patient of Krafft-Ebing, actually Case 129, who married and had children, never transitioned but “observed in myself since my complete effeminacy” including “periodicity of monthly disorders” and “constant sensation of being a woman from head to foot”. This is followed by a 5-page account (p210-15), Krafft-Ebing’s Case 130, of a masculine woman, a tomboy who married at age 21, but remained indifferent to men. She submitted to marital duties and bore six children. At age 36, she suffered stroke and had to stay in bed for two years. Afterwards she found disgust in the femaleness of her body and her life, and her features became masculine, and finally she grew a beard.

  1. “Advanced transvestites always push to the extreme their desire to assimilate to the opposite sex. They regularly ask the doctor to remove the specific organs of their sex and, if possible, to create more or less approximate organs for the opposite sex. Women ask for the removal of their breasts and even more so for the suppression of the female function par excellence of menstruation; they want their ovaries removed or at least suppressed by radiotherapy. Men ask for castration, or the removal of the penis; often even the creation of an artificial vagina among the partitions of the perineum. Such operations have been performed in Germany, particularly at the Institute for Sexual Sciences which Magnus Hirschfeld founded in Berlin and which was recently destroyed from top to bottom under the impulse of Hitler's moralism and anti-Semitism. Hirschfeld repeatedly tried to justify his interventions by citing cases of suicide of transvestites who had been denied this sex change. Here are two observations, one relating to a man, the other to a woman, who underwent operations of this kind. These were homosexual transvestites.”

Vachet then tells two success stories (p216-9), those of Hirshfeld’s patient who worked as a maid in his Institute, Dorchen Richter, and of Gerd Katter, then only 23, but who had already obtained a double mastectomy and a Transvestitenschein.


Vachet sums up (p223-232):

“Transvestism can be dissociated from other sexual anomalies, that it can even occur in its pure state outside of any erotic preoccupation in individuals who are above all concerned with leading a public life in the clothing and with the occupations of the other sex. What then is at the root of this singular anomaly? The various explanations that have been given by authors can be roughly reduced to two modalities.”

  1. “For some, Hirschfeld for example, the transvestite obeys a physiological determinism. He is a "constitutional". In favour of this explanation is the precocity of these manifestations. Also, in many cases, the transvestite presents some morphological characteristics which deviate from the template of his sex: proportions of the larynx and voice, skin texture, hair system, gracility or coarseness of the forms. It cannot be denied that in certain cases the transvestite represents an intermediate morphological type.”
  2. “… according to Havelock-Ellis, the transvestite is basically a heterosexual preoccupied with the desire for complete assimilation to the sex he loves and envies. For this explanation to be valid, the subject must manifest in some way his attraction to the opposite sex.”

“I think that the factors of transvestism are not simple. Various determinisms can interfere. A glandular physiological determinism is admissible in certain cases; but in other cases, psycho-pathological mechanisms must be considered.”

Vachet died at the age of 98.

*not the film director


From a modern perspective this is an awkward text. Sometimes Vachet is helpful and supportive. At other times he repeats transphobic assumptions. His typology is not precise. In “7. Pure forms of transvestism” he appears to be giving examples of persons who would be regarded as transsexual if alive in later generations, including some who transitioned without the aid of 20th century science. But then he gives the two case studies from Krafft-Ebing of persons who made no attempt to live in their preferred gender.

I could not find any information about what happened to Pierrette after 1933.

Vachet gives no citations at all, and no bibliography.

I obtained the book via Abe Books.

Psychologie du Vice : Les Travestis was published 1 January 1934, which is why I refer to it as being written in 1933.

Vachet mentions the issuing of Transvestitenscheinen in Germany but surprising does not mention that France had been issuing permissions de travestissement since 1800, 110 years earlier.

  • Pierre Vachet (ed). Perversions sexuelles, d’après l’enseignement du docteur Magnus Hirschfeld, par son premier assistant le docteur Félix Abraham. Paris: François Aldor, 1931.
  • Pierre Vachet. Psychologie du Vice : Les Travestis. Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1934.
  • Sylvie Chaperon. “The Revival of Sexuality Studies in France in the Late 1950s”. in Gert Hekma & Alain Giami (eds). Sexual Revolutions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 142
  • Gonzague de Larocque-Latour. “Girl or Boy? The French Birth of the Word Sexologie (1901-1912)”. In Alain Giami & Sharman Levinson (eds). Histories of Sexology: Between Science and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021: 200.


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