The Shaky Evidence of Gender Theory

Stacy McCain could be a accused of being a “feminism bore”, as often he seems to write about little else. But feminism, especially of the radical variety, merits the response. Today McCain takes a long look at Kate Millet, author of the 1970 radfem tome Sexual Politics. His main point, about Millet’s mental health and unhappiness, is of a piece with things he’s written before, but I’m more interested in the bad evidence for Gender Theory that Millet used.

The crux of gender feminism  is that there are no men and women, only “men” and “women” – social constructs that can and should be done away with in the interests of true equality. But upon what evidence does that claim rest? According to McCain, precious little, at least insofar as Sexual Politics is concerned:

Scientific advances have been quite unfortunate for Millett’s claim that “there is no differentiation between the sexes at birth,” in part because her citation for that claim is dependent on one of the greatest frauds in scientific history. On pages 30-31, she excerpts a quotation from a 1965 article “Psychosexual Differentation,” from a book entitled Sex Research, New Developments; in her bibliography, Millett references a 1957 book, The Psychologic Study of Man. The author of both of these works? Johns Hopkins University psychologist Dr. John Money, whose botched attempt to turn a boy into a girl (the notorious “John/Joan” experiment) failed spectacularly, ultimately resulting in the suicide of Dr. Money’s pathetic human guinea pig, David Reimer.

Dr. Money’s unethical (and perhaps criminal) methods of attempting to psychologically “condition” Reimer to be a girl were never successful; “Brenda” Reimer aggressively rejected the female identity that Dr. Money tried to impose. Yet Dr. Money, having trumpeted the “John/Joan” case as proof of his theories in the 1970s, misrepresented the case in his academic publications and in popular media. It took many years before another scientist, curious to know how Dr. Money’s patient had adjusted to adult womanhood, discovered the shocking truth behind Dr. Money’s fraudulent “research.” As a teenager, “Brenda” Reimer had decisively rejected “her” female identity, and sought treatment to become the man “she” had been born to be. David Reimer married a woman and, despite the loss of functional genitalia — castrated in infancy as part of Dr. Money’s “treatment” — he was by the 1990s an otherwise normal (that is, masculine) young man, albeit suffering from depression that finally resulted in his 2004 suicide.

This is startling, and not just because you find yourself wondering “Who the hell authorized the castration of an infant boy?” But because you would like to assume that basic ethics would prevented someone from making use of such experiments. But apparently one would be wrong.

Concurrently, Millet dismisses contrary evidence without having done the reading:

Millett, whose claim to expertise was . . . well, what? She got her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota and got a postgraduate degree in literature at Oxford University, then went to Japan where she taught English and married an avant-garde sculptor.
Here she was in 1970, however, presuming to accuse Dr. Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology, of misrepresenting the research of zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1973. If Tiger was guilty of misrepresenting Lorenz’s work, you might think that Lorenz himself would have made the accusation, which he never did. Anyone interested in the subject may consult Konrad Lorenz’s 1966 book On Aggression and Lionel Tiger’s 1968 book Men in Groups and decide for themselves whether the two authors were in accord.

Of course the answer to this is that science is a patriarchal construct. Which is a rhetorically effective device, as all the devices employed by conspiracy theorists and totalitarians tend to be.

Now, I’m betting that evidence for gender-theory – the nurture side of the equation, as it were – is more pronounced today than it was in 1970. But so is the counter-evidence. There’s more than enough scientific data on how boys and girls behave differently from birth to at least seriously question the notion that gender is a social construct. That there are divergences in gender behavior among men and women, no one denies. That there are social aspects to gender, no one denies. But the assumption that the cart is pushing the horse has never made sense to me.

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