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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


Neurohormonal Wars, Part 2

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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In the face of such contradictions, Jordan-Young notes that some BOT researchers over the years have quietly changed their definitions of what is "natural." For example, the BOT view of "natural" female sexuality originally excluded things like masturbation, erotic dreams, and initiating sex, all of which were regarded as quintessentially masculine. These days BOT researchers treat all of them as "natural" for both sexes. But they did not make this shift because they suddenly admitted that cultural forces (for example, the second wave of feminism) might be stronger than they previously thought. Instead, they underplayed the changes they'd made to accommodate those very same cultural forces while continuing to embrace a biologically essentialist paradigm. The result is that current definitions of female sexuality are treated as equivalent to past ones for purposes of supporting the theory, when in fact they're like apples and oranges. It's like trying to establish a smoking-cancer link by measuring throat cancer rates for a couple of decades, then deciding to switch to lung cancer without acknowledging the switch or explaining why it was made. This is not the stuff of which successful lawsuits are made.

The second exception is that though CAH women don't engage in homosexual behavior more than other women, they are less likely to marry or express interest in men, and somewhat more likely to have same-sex erotic fantasies. BOT researchers take this to indicate that excessive testosterone has masculinized CAH girls' brains and hence their sexual preferences. But here we run into a vexing methodological confound. Most CAH girls who have been surgically "corrected" (as most now are) have very stressful medical histories. Surgeries often extend beyond infancy, followed by uncomfortable mechanical therapies to keep the reconstructed vagina open. Moreover, surgery can lead to reduced sensitivity as a result of clitoral reduction. If you add to this the fact that CAH girls are often recruited to be in research studies where their vaginas and genitals are frequently examined (and sometimes photographed) by male researchers, then you hardly need to invoke high testosterone levels to explain their relative lack of interest in men and marriage, or their occasional fantasies that they might be better off with another woman. Unfortunately, BOT researchers have shown little interest in doing well-designed studies to assess and then control for the psychological effects of such experiences.

Now You See It, Now You Don't: Enter the Social Psychologists

Jordan-Young's book is wide-ranging in its criticisms of the BOT paradigm, but the examples I've cited should be enough to show that she has done her homework. In the meantime, social psychologist Cordelia Fine (with her book Delusions of Gender) and neuroscientist Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) have weighed in on the debate. These scholars focus less on BOT research that has been done with sexual minorities—such as intersex persons—and more on the claims made for males and females in general. If boys are more likely to be systematizers and girls to be empathizers, should you send your child to a single-sex school that takes these differences into account? If women's and men's brains are wired for complementary skills and interests, should we stop worrying that there aren't more tenured women scientists at Harvard? If your preschool son is slow to develop language skills, should you chalk it up to his masculine brain and let him wait a year longer than his sister to start kindergarten? If your teenage daughter struggles with algebra, are you doing her feminine brain a favor by letting her drop the class? Brain organization theorists (and many of their popularizers) often say yes to such questions, though sometimes, Fine notes, with a show of pained reluctance to demonstrate how objective they are.

If you're wondering where the second wave of feminism has disappeared in all this, Fine suggests that a covert anti-feminist backlash is at work. This is partly why she coins the term "neurosexism" as part of her book's subtitle: a new form of sexism that recasts what used to be enforced "duties" as simply natural (and therefore uncoerced) "preferences." So if, after decades spent dismantling gender discrimination, few women still choose to be engineers and few men choose to be kindergarten teachers, the fact that each of these jobs is skewed toward one sex (as well as being very unequally compensated) is said to reflect no injustice at all. Fine calls this "Gender Equality 2.0." It is "a revised version of equality in which men and women are not equal, but equally free to express their essentially different natures."

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