Sunday, August 01, 2010

Taking An Assumption Out Of Radical Feminism's Arsenal

Over at "Miss Andrea"'s blog Feminazi, we find the following gem of absolutism:

Lisentia, the thing I would like transfolk to prove is the actual existence of gender and that gender is always matched with biological sex. It’s already clear that transfolk do feel like X, but the real question is does X exist.

The underlying assumption in Miss Andrea's argument is that gender is fundamentally a social construct and it has no roots beyond socialization and physical sex.

Unfortunately for most radical feminists this has already been demonstrated to be false - they just aren't always aware of it.

Back in the 1960s, Dr. John Money was exploring some of the key aspects of gender that, if they held true, would validate a lot of radical feminism's denial of gender beyond being a social and sexual construct.

If the notion of gender was in fact primarily a social construct, then one might have expected a very different outcome for David Reimer - who was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision.

Psychological support for the reassignment and surgery was provided by John Money, who continued to see Reimer annually for about ten years for consultations and to assess the outcome. This reassignment was considered an especially valid test case of the social learning concept of gender identity for two reasons. First, Reimer had a twin brother, Brian Reimer, who made an ideal control since the two not only shared genes and family environments, but they had shared the intrauterine environment as well. Second, this was reputed to be the first reassignment and reconstruction performed on a male infant who had no abnormality of prenatal or early postnatal sexual differentiation.

Now, if the radical feminist theory of gender as a social/sexual construct was true, one might expect Brenda Reimer to grow up as a fairly normal female socially and integrate into that role in society.

It didn't work out that way...

Reimer's later account, written two decades later with John Colapinto, described how, contrary to Money's reports, when living as Brenda, Reimer did not identify as a girl. He was ostracized and bullied by peers, and neither frilly dresses (which he was forced to wear during frigid Calgary winters) nor female hormones made him feel female. By the age of 13, Reimer was experiencing suicidal depression, and told his parents he would commit suicide if they made him see John Money again. In 1980, Reimer's parents told him the truth about his gender reassignment, following advice from Reimer's endocrinologist and psychiatrist. At 14, Reimer decided to assume a male gender identity, calling himself David. By 1997, Reimer had undergone treatment to reverse the reassignment, including testosterone injections, a double mastectomy, and two phalloplasty operations. He also married a woman and became a stepfather to her three children.

Now, it's important to recognize that David Reimer was not, per se, transsexual. Had he been raised into the male role from day one, I'm certain that he would have been perfectly comfortable in his birth gender.

However, from a transsexual perspective, Reimer's story is important because it raises significant questions about the 'gender as construct' argument.

First, Reimer starts from a known physiological state. This is significant because it rules out arguments related to a variety of intersex conditions that have been identified to date.

Second, from a socialization perspective, we have a clear example of someone who is raised as female but is known to have an otherwise male-normal genotype. Reimer's phenotype was nominally female, but not completely so.

Yet, at the end of the day, we have David Reimer expressing a variation on the classic transsexual narrative of feeling like 'being in the wrong body' - and eventually undertaking a gender transition to resolve it.

If the hypothesis of gender being rooted firmly in socialization were in fact valid, one would expect that a case like David Reimer's would have had a significantly different outcome.

Similarly, one would expect that transsexualism would be all but nonexistent. After all, if gender is primarily rooted in socialization, would it not be reasonable to expect that transsexuals would adapt to, and identify as members of, the gender roles that they grow up in? Yet, we find that so many describe their pre-transition lives as living behind a mask or fa├žade.

What can we conclude from this? First, I think it is quite reasonable to assert that there is much more to gender than can reasonably be assigned to either social or physical dimensions. I argue that in order to adequately explain the disjoin that Dr. Money's work reveals, one currently has to turn to inferential reasoning.

It may be tempting to discount the Reimer case as an aberration (and from certain perspectives, it may well be), but it represents an interesting validation of so many aspects of the transsexual narrative from a non-transsexual no less that doing so would be to ignore the exception that calls into question an assumed generalization.


Marlene said...

What's sad about David and Brian's experience is the fact they *both* ended up completing suicide!

Right around the death of Dr. Money, another of his abuses of the boys was revealed: he *forced* Brian and Bruce to have sex play together in another vain attempt to force "Brenda" into a female identity! No *wonder* both boys were so screwed up!

MgS said...


There's much that was wrong with Dr. Money's assumptions and approach. The Reimers were unfortunate in becoming the Dr. Money's 'guinea pigs' in an experiment that lacked adequate controls and oversight.

The one thing that he unwittingly demonstrated was the falsehood of the 'gender as social construct' hypothesis.

There is clearly more to the picture than either the physical or social dimensions can adequately explain.