Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

01 December, 2006

Genes, Gender, and Sexuality

I learned a bit about genetics earlier this week when I watched a TV show and then started reading a book.

The first thing I did was to cozy up to my television and watch the BBC Horizon program "Ghost in Your Genes". The show dealt with epigenetics which is the study of heritable changes that are not caused by a change in your DNA sequence. It began with a profile of Marcus Pembrey, who was a clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He noted that both Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome are both produced when a bit of a person's genetic sequence on chromosome 15 is missing. The kicker is that, whether you get one or the other depends on whether it was your father or your mother than gave you the mutation. He wrote a paper on his epigenetic ideas in the mid-90s but it wasn't taken very seriously and just drifted into obscurity. Then there was Professor Wolf Reik who manipulated the embryos of mice to turn particular genes on or off and found that these genes remained in the same state in future generations. There was also Rachel Yehuda who studied the effects of stress on a group of women who were pregnant and inside or near the WTC on 9/11. She found the stress effects seemed to be passed down from mother to child but only in those women who were in their third trimester.

The program then went back to Pembrey who, in 2000, received an interesting email out of the blue. Swedish researcher Lars Olov Bygren found the article and contacted Pembrey. Bygren was studying the parish records of a small, remote town in northern Sweden called Överkalix. The records not only registered births and deaths but also detailed the harvests going back generations. The upshot of their work combing through these records was that they found that the experiences of people who suffered through a famine affected their grandchildren's life expectancy.

It ended with this sense of Pembrey having been vindicated. It gave viewers the sense that there was little dispute about epigenetics and that we're about to undergo a paradigm shift now because of the discovery. I really wish that it had talked more about the controversy. What do the naysayers have to say? And by what mechanisms do scientists think this works? I'm no biologist so they'd have to dumb it down for this layman but I'd have loved to hear about some of the proposed ways these changes are made.

My other encounter with genes came in the form of As Nature Made Him. It tells the story of David Riemer, who, in a Tiresias-like tale, was born as a boy but made into a girl only to become a boy again. David was born Bruce, 12 minutes ahead of his twin, Brian. When they were about 7 months old, their mother, Janet, noticed that they were having trouble urinating. A visit to the doctor revealed that they had phimosis, a condition in which the end of the foreskin narrows. This was easily cured by circumcision. And so the procedure was scheduled for 27 April 1966. None of the usual attending physicians was available so a general practitioner performed the surgery. Instead of using a scalpel, the doctor used a cautery machine. The details differ by account but, in the end, Bruce's penis was badly burned. It looked like a "little piece of charcoal" and eventually "baby Bruce's penis dried and broke away in pieces".

I just shuddered reading those words. And I felt so horrible for him. I mean, our genitalia are such an integral part of who we are and how we perceive ourselves. I'm reminded of another documentary I watched recently called Sex, Lies and Secrecy: Dissecting Hysterectomy. It argued that tens of thousands of hysterectomies are performed in North America every year. And 78% of them involve castrating the women, i.e. – removing their ovaries. There were some testimonies by women who had been castrated that were just heart-wrenching. While, say, excessive menstrual bleeding, might have gone away, so did a part of them. They talked about how different they felt afterwards. Their vivaciousness disappeared, they felt asexual, and their sense of being a woman or being feminine was gone. I can imagine that losing one's penis would have a similar effect. (Though certainly not the same as the penis is not a gonad but still....)

Bruce's story takes a tangent to Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins. A psychologist keenly interested in the effects of having ambiguous genitalia, he established the clinic at Johns Hopkins for transsexual surgery. The book portrays Money at first as a being rather eccentric and a very vocal proponent of sexual curiosity and exploration. He has written about various sexual fetishes in an effort to destigmatize and decriminalize them. But in the early 1980s, he made some positive comments about mutual relationships between men and boys as young as 10. In my mind, Money quickly went from someone whom I thought of admiringly to someone who held views that I found bordered on reprehensible, if not actually going over that line.

Money was very headstrong and did not suffer fools gladly. He was convinced that gender was imposed by environment and not via our genes. Money was a towering figure in the field and his word was essentially gospel. But not everyone agreed. In 1965, a graduate student in Kansas named Milton Diamond published an article in the Quarterly Review of Biology challenging Money's assertions. Fatefully, he wrote, "To support [such a] theory, we have been presented with no instance of a normal individual appearing as an unequivocal male and being reared successfully as a female." About a year and a half later, Bruce's mother would write Dr. Money asking for his help.

And so Bruce became Brenda. In 1972, Money published (with Anne Ehrhardt) Man & Woman, Boy & Girl in which he described the sex change procedure done on Bruce and declared it a total success which supported his theories. But, in reality, things were not completely as he described. Brenda was more than a tomboy – she acted completely like a boy. She urinated while standing up she played with toys traditionally associated with boys, she acted aggressively, and eschewed all things feminine. Mickey Diamond kept debating with Money and they even got into an altercation at a symposium on gender identity. Money stood up and yelled across the room, "Mickey Diamond, I hate your fucking guts!" They started arguing and some fists were thrown. Remember that next time you want to argue with a psychologist.

Money would see Brenda and Brian once a year – a check-up for Brenda, if you will. Disturbingly, he would eventually broach the subject of sex with them. Money thought that children should understand the differences between men & women at an early age as this led to them to a healthy understanding of their own genders. Money would ask the children whether they ever thought about sex, for instance. He would also show them pornography. This led to him asking Brian and Brenda to take off their clothes and inspect each other's genitals and having them "play at thrusting movements and copulation". Brian said that Money took at least one photograph of them engaging in faux copulation. The children's parent had no idea what was going on in these "therapy" sessions.

And that's as far as I've gotten. I do know a bit of what happens next, namely, that Brenda grows up and decides to become male again, becoming David. And I suspect it's going to be quite a tale. Money has apparently never commented on the book publicly so the picture drawn of him here is necessarily one-sided. This aside, As Nature Made Him is extremely interesting and gives the reader a lot of food for thought. Just as I'm no biologist, I'm no psychologist. But I am definitely of the view that gender has a significant genetic component. It was an interesting night of TV watching and reading. I learn how environment can turn genes on or off and that these states can be passed down generations. Then I learn that there are some things that environment just can't change. Genetics is absolutely fascinating. Despite having mapped the human genome, it seems like the only thing we got out of it is a clearer picture of our ignorance.

While Dr. Money comes off as being unorthodox, to say the least, in the book so far, I found that some of his notions brought up important issues. For instance, I agree wholeheartedly with his desire to destigmatize fetishes. That a good and healthy sexuality can go beyond heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position should be considered a self-evident truth here in the 21st century. But what about sexuality more generally?

I am again reminded of the documentary on hysterectomy. It was argued that Canadians and Americans have the notion that, when a woman undergoes menopause, she is automatically disinterested in sex and that her generative organs become superfluous. This stands in contrast to our views on men's sexuality. We men are supposed to never lose interest in sex. It should go without saying that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But what about children? I have not read any of Dr. Money's books so I'm going just from what I've read about him so far. Still, it seems obvious that he sees children as sexual creatures whereas society at large does not. In fact, we try to hide sex and sexuality from our kids. They're "too young", after all, right? I'm not going to condone children being forced to inspect one another's genitals but Dr. Money is surely right that kids are not devoid of sexuality, however nascent it may be. Money is quoted in the book as saying something like, "Boys whip out their penises all the time to see who can pee the furthest" and he's right. When we're a few years old, we are no longer allowed to run around naked and we are told that the bits between our legs are naughty. Kids aren't stupid, they may not know all the details of the plumbing but they know there's something interesting to be had down there. It becomes I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours.

So how should we teach kids about sex and sexuality? I'm not sure. I do know that this abstinence education is bullshit. And mostly religious bullshit at that. Even if these programs were not filled with lies about the efficacy rate of condoms and such, they'd still be bullshit. Just because a Christ supposedly didn’t have sex doesn't mean that it is dirty or should be a source of shame. There's got to be a way to relay a positive, honest message to kids about sex that will actually be helpful to them. Some way that isn't purely clinical and that doesn't just make sex out to be a world of diseases and unwanted pregnancies either. You've got to give an account of the plumbing, yes, and you've got to describe the possible bad consequences. But you must also teach that there are some potentially wonderful consequences as well.
|| Palmer, 8:17 PM


What is your opinion of the common practice of routine infant circumcision in the US? Has it changed since reading this book?
Anonymous Colin, at 5:06 PM  
I think it's stupid. Just religious BS. I've thought this way for a while so having read the book didn't change my mind.
Blogger Palmer, at 7:15 PM  
When did your opinion change? Are you circumcised yourself? If so, when did you first realize it had been done?
Anonymous Colin, at 7:38 PM  
I don't think there was ever a time when my opinion changed from good to bad. It was more seeing that it isn't normal. I am circumcised and honestly don't recall when I realized that I was so.

When you grow up circumcised, you assume that's how all penises are. I think that in my case there was a period of time between understanding that I had a bit missing down there and associating it with religion and thusly negative feelings.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:44 AM  

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