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Heather Looy

How Not to Do a Sex Change

Often I have heard older students say that while they used to believe gender differences in personality and behavior were learned, and raised their children exactly alike, "he is still a 'typical' boy and she a 'typical' girl." This usually generates vigorous, affirmative nods. What, my students ask, possesses scholars to argue that gender differences are largely learned when it is obvious that they are inborn?

In fact there is evidence aplenty for the role of social context and interactions in shaping gender identities and roles, but the "ace up the sleeve" for social constructionists was a virtually perfect "experiment of nature." Identical twin boys were undergoing a routine circumcision when the penis of one was accidentally cauterized. The parents and a specialist decided on a sex reassignment. It was the ultimate test: two genetically identical children, one raised as a boy, the other as a girl. Success would confirm that gender identity and role are learned. For 13 years, the supervising specialist reported the reassignment a stunning success.

Social scientists know better than to build entire theories on a single case study, but this one was compelling. It confirmed evidence from numerous less well-controlled studies and led to the conclusion that gender identity is entirely learned. There was only one problem: The reassignment was not ultimately successful. At the age of 14, "Joan" insisted on reversing the procedure, and lives today as a man, married to a woman, father to three adopted children. What had happened?

An investigative report of the case by the BBC, and the publication of an article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 1982, revealed that not only had "Joan" reverted to "John" at age 14, she had never fully adopted a female gender identity and role. She spent her childhood in confusion, rebellion, and misery until the revelation of her reassignment led almost immediately to her decision to become a man.

While this news should have shaken the scientific ...

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