[NOTE: This post was written in September 2013, 6 months before Let Toys Be Toys launched their Let Books Be Books campaign, which is why it contains no references to it.]
I’m aware that some people think that by acknowledging certain reading tastes as boy-typical and girl-typical I am at odds with campaigns seeking to challenge harmful gender stereotyping such as Let Toys Be Toys.
The principles of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign are outlined in this statement on the home page of their web site.
Let Toys Be Toys is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.
Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.
I wholeheartedly subscribe to these principles, which ought to apply to books as much as toys. Marketing or packaging a book or a toy as “for girls” or “for boys” reinforces stereotypes in a way that can limit the development of a child of either sex. As an author, I want the books I’ve written to be bought and read by as wide an audience as possible and, quite apart from the stereotyping issue, deterring half that audience by telling them that this book is not for them makes little sense from a business perspective.
What I can’t subscribe to is the dogmatic belief, often held by supporters of campaigns such as this, that sex differences in children’s preferences are entirely determined by environment and upbringing and that nature plays no role whatsoever. Far from promoting equality, I think that this belief is actually hindering the closure of gender gaps in children’s abilities, including literacy.
I’ve described this belief as 'dogmatic' as, in my experience, people that hold it are far more likely to attack the evidence against it than they are to examine the evidence for. Indeed I suspect that some of them may not even be aware of the dubious nature of this evidence, so I’d like to highlight the case study that was the most instrumental in establishing this belief.
In 1965 a Canadian woman, Janet Reimer, gave birth to identical twin sons, Bruce and Brian. A year later, Bruce Riemer lost his entire penis in a botched circumcision. Desperate to give their child as normal a life as possible, Janet and her husband Ron followed the advice of psychologist John Money and began raising their son as girl. Money persuaded the Reimers that gender identity could be determined by upbringing alone and that if Bruce believed he was female and was raised as a girl he could have a relatively normal life as a woman. So the child’s testes were removed and a vagina was formed and Bruce became Brenda. Money explained that for the gender reassignment to be effective, Brenda must never learn of her birth sex and the Riemers agreed to keep this secret from both their children and everyone they interacted with.
|Left: Psychologist John Money’s case study of John/Joan appeared to present unassailable proof that gender identity was determined by upbringing alone. Right: David Reimer the subject of the John/Joan study.|
Over the following years Money monitored the development of both Brenda and her brother Brian. The fact that Brian was Brenda’s identical twin, a genetic clone, made the case ideal for study, providing Money with a “matched control” that he could use for comparison. In 1972 Money documented the case in a book called Man Woman, Boy Girl. Changing Brian/Brenda’s name to John/Joan to maintain her anonymity, Money reported that the gender reassignment as an unqualified success. He claimed that as a result of being brought up as girl, Brenda had developed girl-typical tastes and contrasted her interest in "dolls, a doll house and a doll carriage" with her brother’s interest in "cars and gas pumps and tools”. A second book, Sexual Signatures, followed in 1975 in which Money claimed that Brenda’s case was “dramatic proof that the gender-identity option is open at birth for normal infants”.
The following excerpt is taken from John Colapinto’s 1997 Rolling Stone article The True Story of John/Joan
“That the twins were reported to have grown into happy, well-adjusted children of opposite sex seemed unassailable proof of the primacy of rearing over biology in the differentiation of the sexes and was the basis for the rewriting of textbooks in a wide range of medical disciplines. Most seriously, the case set a precedent for sex reassignment as the standard treatment for thousands of newborns with similarly injured, or irregular, genitals. It also became a touchstone for the feminist movement in the 1970s, when it was cited as living proof that the gender gap is purely a result of cultural conditioning, not biology. For Dr. John Money, the medical psychologist who was the architect of the experiment, this case was to be the most publicly celebrated triumph of a 40-year career that recently earned him the accolade "one of the greatest sex researchers of the century."The John/Joan case continued to be presented as unassailable proof that gender identity is simply a result of cultural conditioning for over 25 years, by which time the idea had become widely accepted by both scientists and the general public.
However not everyone had accepted it. Biologist Milton Diamond had always maintained that gender identity had a biological component and had remained sceptical of Money’s theories. He’d been trying to track down the Reimer family for many years and in 1997 he finally succeeded. He didn’t succeed in finding Brenda Reimer — because Brenda had undergone surgery to revert to her original sex and was now living as David, quite unaware of how influential his case had become. The account that David Reimer and his family gave of Brenda’s childhood contrasted starkly with the one that Money had published. Throughout her childhood Brenda had rejected the girls' toys she was encouraged to play with and the girls' clothing she was expected to wear in favour of masculine alternatives. "I could see that Brenda wasn't happy as a girl," Janet recalled. "She was very rebellious. She was very masculine, and I could not persuade her to do anything feminine”. Her brother Brian recalled that when Brenda was 6 or 7 years old, her ambition was to be “a garbage man”.
Both twins regarded their sessions with John Money as unpleasant ordeals and described how the avuncular front Money presented to their parents disappeared once the psychologist had the twins on their own. During the sessions Money made the twins rehearse sexual acts with each other as he believed this was needed to establish a “healthy adult gender identity”. At age 8 Brenda began to resist the regular visits to Money’s clinic. By 13 Brenda was suffering from suicidal depression and told her parents she would kill herself if she was made to see Money again, at which point the family broke contact with the psychologist. A year later, Brenda’s parents decided to ignore Money’s instructions and told Brenda the truth about her birth gender. She immediately assumed a male identity and began calling herself David. By the time Milton Diamond found him in 1997, David had undergone surgery to reverse his gender reassignment, had married a woman and was a stepfather to three children. David Reimer subsequently committed suicide in 2004.
The realisation that Money had misrepresented the John/Joan case to support his theories sent shockwaves across the scientific and medical community. One unfortunate consequence of the acceptance of Money’s theories was that gender reassignment had become common practice for boys born with malformed or missing genitals. I outlined urologists William Reiner and John Gearheart’s follow-up study of a group of children with one such condition, cloacal exstrophy, on page 9 of my essay Nature and Nurture. Money and his supporters dismissed the failure of David Reimer’s reassignment on the grounds that Reimer had been almost 22 months old when the initial reassignment surgery had taken place, allowing a male gender identity to become imprinted on him prior to reassignment. However thirteen of the fourteen gender-reassigned children in Reiner and Gearheart’s study underwent surgery within two weeks of birth. The study was already underway before Money’s theories had been discredited and, following Money’s methodology, all fourteen children were being raised as girls. Despite Money’s claims, the study showed that all fourteen children grew up, like David Reimer, displaying male-typical preferences and behaviour. As a result of this and other studies, gender reassignment is now only used on infants in exceptional circumstances.
Despite the complete discrediting of the John/Joan studies and the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for gender identity, the belief that nurture alone is responsible seems to have become an article of faith for many people including some psychologists such as Cordelia Fine. Fine’s book Delusions of Gender does a great job of outlining the evidence for the influence of nurture, but presents a deeply prejudiced assessment of the evidence for nature, with Fine attempting to debunk each and every study as she goes. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that while this book was warmly received by reviewers in the mainstream media, it had a cooler reception from her fellow scientists some of whom have commented that Fine’s “critiques of the science are as weak and unfounded as she accuses the science to be”. According to Fine, the field of gender identity is full of scientists misrepresenting evidence in order to support their theories, but her book conveniently neglects to mention John Money, the field’s most notorious offender in this respect. Fine also has a convenient habit of omitting some of the most compelling evidence contradicting her beliefs — my 2012 edition of Delusions of Gender does not contain a single reference to the studies of cloacal exstrophy.
How does this affect the gender gap in children’s literacy?
The problem with believing that reading tastes are entirely determined by upbringing is that it gives people an excuse to dismiss the need for gender-balanced gatekeeping. The argument goes something like this: It doesn't matter if it’s overwhelmingly one sex deciding what is suitable and appealing for picture books — if we raise both sexes in the same way, they'll develop the same tastes. Then they’ll find the same books equally appealing and the literacy gender gap will disappear.
I hope I’ve shown in this post that, while such an approach might take us some of the way, it won’t enable us to close the gender gap. To do that we need to accept that nature also plays a part in determining children’s preferences. We need to recognise that some preferences are sex-typical.
The critical thing is to produce more picture books that include the types of boy-friendly content that are relatively abundant in films, TV and video games. Doing so would not reinforce sexual stereotypes providing such books were not marketed as being “for boys only”. Children are quite capable of deciding what sort of content they like for themselves.
This 2004 BBC Horizon documentary tells the story of the John/Joan study and includes interviews with David Reimer and his family.