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David Reimer and the case for innate gender identity

(72 Posts)
NotTerfNorCis Mon 20-Apr-20 15:32:42

I'm sure most people here will know the case of David Reimer. An American boy who suffered a botched circumcision, he was brought up 'as a girl' but became extremely unhappy and reverted to being known as male at the age of fifteen.

It's worth noting that both David and his twin brother Brian were traumatised by the sexually abusive practices of their psychologist, John Money. David and Brian both committed suicide as adults. The damage here went well beyond one boy being raised in a feminine gender role.

However, TRAs are pushing this as proof that gender identity is innate - that David knew he was male even when everyone was telling him he was female.

It seems that David began to suspect he was male between the ages of nine and eleven. Some thoughts:

1) If gender identity was innate, wouldn't David have had suspicions much earlier in life?

2) At nine, he would have had more idea about male and female anatomy. He would probably have noticed that although he didn't have conventional male anatomy, he didn't have female genitalia either.

3) He had an identical twin who was male. If looking at his twin was like looking in a mirror (save for the clothes and hair), he must have realised how 'boy-like' he appeared.

4) By nine, certainly by 11, he may have been noticeably taller and stronger than the average girl. Certainly, he wasn't at all feminine in his mannerisms. His classmates bullied him, calling him 'cave woman'.

5) Although his parents tried to raise him as female, they were religious traditionalists and would have had deeply ingrained ideas about gender. They had after all been forced into this rather than choosing it. Studies have shown that parents unconsciously raise children according to gender stereotypes even if they don't mean to - sometimes, even if they're fighting against it. So they put David in a dress and gave him a girl's name, but in their hearts they knew he was male. They may have treated him more like a boy in some respects, like encouraging him to take risks and play rough, while failing to compliment him on being pretty, passive, caring and vulnerable. That means David would have developed more 'boylike' behaviours.

What do you think? Do David's suspicions about being male prove innate gender identity? Or was it simply a reflection of the fact that he was male?

OP’s posts: |
JellySlice Mon 20-Apr-20 15:38:47

If anything, it demonstrates that gender identity is a load of bilge. The boy remained a boy, no matter what was done to his body or to his mind.

Gender identity is simply which societal stereotypes a person feels comfortable conforming to.

Just as woman = adult female human, boy = juvenile male human.

SirVixofVixHall Mon 20-Apr-20 15:40:56

Agree with jelly. He knew what sex he was, and sex can’t change.

nauticant Mon 20-Apr-20 16:08:13

If you read the account given by David Reimer you'll see that this "awareness of his real gender identity" came from a number of sources.

Unlike any child outside his family he was dragged off to Baltimore from time to time to be handed over to a very creepy man Reimer was afraid of who would engage him in sickening ways that Reimer knew were wrong and would later come to see had been sexually abusive. The creepy abusive man even turned up at Reimer's home when Reimer has stated that he no longer wanted to be handed over to him.

Reimer was aware that he looked nothing like girls he was lumped in with and was "dubbed Cave-woman and Sasquatch and was openly told, "You're a boy.""

And then all of the rest of the bizarre world that Reimer was forced to live in and was aware was not right.

nauticant Mon 20-Apr-20 16:11:06

David Reimer didn't become aware of his innate gender identity. He became aware that everyone around him seemed to be involved in lying to him and were either abusing him or facilitating his abuse. He was being gaslighted in a terrible way, the damage caused by which he ultimately couldn't escape.

RumbaswithPumbaas Mon 20-Apr-20 16:13:48

The way I understand it is that the genetic/hormonal effects of biological sex (xx/xy) begin in the womb soon after conception, the result being external genitalia beginning to develop, but it affects brain development and other organs too.

Although these signals may be mixed in DSD patients and it may be impossible to tell from external genitalia what gender those particular individuals will eventually feel/choose, in cases like David/John where they were a full genetic and phenotypical male, it’s not a surprise that they weren’t deceived by genital surgery/female socialisation when every cell in their body said they were male.

It’s too big a leap in my mind to use this as evidence that someone who is biologically one sex from conception can have an innate ‘gender’ matching the opposite sex.

I do wonder if there is still a lack of information about the effects of other external factors on fetal development - hormones/plastics/chemicals in drinking water for example, which have been linked to reduced fertility and altered brain development in some populations, might disrupt the sex/gender element of brain development? It seems like many things can affect fetal development from a tiny amount of alcohol to maternal stress.

It’s also interesting that in recent times the massive upswing in people transitioning have been teenage women and middle aged men, which doesn’t fully fit with the ‘wrong body from early childhood’ experience either.

So after rambling on a bit, I think the honest answer is that without further studies (which may be impossible/unethical to do), it’s impossible (and dangerous) to interpret these cases in any way relating to transgenderism.

I think the most important lesson from these cases is that human lives should never be treated as experiments and that there is an inherent danger in extrapolating ‘evidence’ from one situation to a different one and using that to direct life changing medical decisions.

TabbyTurmoil Mon 20-Apr-20 16:22:22

I was taught about David Reimer twice in the mid - late 90s. At A level Psychology, we learned that he was happy in a female social role - nurture prevailed.
At degree, we learned he had returned to a male social role but there was strong emphasis on the factors mentioned by PP and his case wasn't considered persuasive of the existence of gender identity. As an identical twin, it would never have been possible to keep his secret from him or his schoolmates. Our lecturer also stressed the human ability to judge sex from a range of cues like gait. I wonder how that bit gets taught now.

This was all while Reimer was alive and although he had clearly been horribly bullied and was very unhappy living as a female, we didn't yet know the extent of the abuse he had endured.

Goosefoot Mon 20-Apr-20 16:26:12

I'd step away from the term gender identity for a moment - it's too loaded.

Did he have an awareness of his maleness that wasn't socially created or simply reasoned out seems to be the question. I would say that the article in question is suggesting that to some extent he did, though whether or not that is a correct interpretation on the part of the author, or of the people involved in the family, is another story.

I don't think it follows that having that would mean he'd have a clearer idea that he was really a boy at a young age or anything like that. People can become confuse about a lot of things when the social messages they get are opposed to what is actually the case.

My personal view is that you can't really separate this into physical reality vs social construct. There is a capacity to develop a sense of identity which is related to our consciousness, that is itself a biologically based capacity. It's influenced by our experience of our physical bodies including organs, hormones, etc, and also shaped socially and culturally and in relation to others around us, and their bodies and personalities etc.

NotTerfNorCis Mon 20-Apr-20 16:54:40

Our lecturer also stressed the human ability to judge sex from a range of cues like gait.

It does seem that there are sex-specific ways of moving, although whether they come naturally from the brain and body or from socialisation is another point. This is why trans people either have to learn the gestures of the opposite sex, or they tend to over-exaggerate. Some of it will be down to socialisation - boys taught to be bold, loud risk-takers, girls encouraged to be more passive and to worry about their looks. It's bound to be reflected in their posture and mannerisms.

Another thing linking mind to biological sex is hormones. Trans people tend to report that taking opposite sex hormones affects their emotional state. If true, that means they weren't really experiencing how it felt to be the other sex before they took the hormones. That's less of a factor in David Reimer's case because he was a child.

And like nauticant said, in David's case there was the involvement of a very creepy man. He got David to play the 'woman's role' in quasi-sexual games as a little boy. That could have made the whole idea of being female repulsive to him. In fact abuse is sometimes at the root of teenage girls identifying as boys.

OP’s posts: |
RuffleCrow Mon 20-Apr-20 17:00:16

He was male (sex) and he knew he was.

Genderwang isn't in any way relevant.

R0wantrees Mon 20-Apr-20 17:01:16

Our lecturer also stressed the human ability to judge sex from a range of cues like gait.

Dr Katie Alcock (Developmental Psychology Lancaster)

18/12/19 'But HOW CAN YOU TELL'
(extract)
The barrister went on to ask how Maya could tell that someone is male or female without having been present at that person’s birth. Happily the rest of us live in the real world where it is pretty easy to work out whether someone is male or female: and no, it doesn’t depend on whether they have highlighted cheekbones and manicured fingernails.
So, how do we tell whether someone is male or female? Well, we are very good at it and — like a lot of human cognitive skills — we base it on a number of cues (pieces of information). In fact, we’re very good at it from the time we are tiny babies.
One of the best ways to tell a male body from a female body is gait — how you walk. You don’t need a whole body in front of you, or even the outline of a body, to tell male from female bodies. A nice little point light display will do the trick. Adults and babies aged 4 months or older can tell male from female in this type of video (first image shows a still, second is a video like the ones used in this type of experiment).

Next up, we can tell the difference between male and female faces. Just as with gait, both infants and adults can do this.
For babies, we usually work out what they can distinguish by finding out what they prefer to look at and what they prefer to look at when we’ve bored them into submission which is technically known as “habituation”. If a baby sees something that looks the same to them, after a while, they will stop looking (I imagine them saying “OK, stop now, I’ve seen that, show me something NEW and EXCITING). This means if we switch in a new picture or sound and they now pay attention, we usually decide they can tell the difference between the old (BORED NOW MUMMY) picture or sound and the new (WOW THAT’S EXCITING) picture or sound. But babies also like to look at some things more than others. Babies who spend more time with Mum or a female caregiver can tell the difference between male and female, and prefer female. But babies who spend more time with Dad or a male caregiver can also tell the difference, but prefer male.
For adults, there seems to be a “prototypical male” and “prototypical female” face and we seem to use a variety of features to distinguish: feature size and shape but also the distance and configuration of facial features." (continues)
medium.com/*@katieja*/but-how-can-you-tell-7901324d0919

TabbyTurmoil Mon 20-Apr-20 17:06:59

Yes, the point light studies came up. I dont know, but believe there are physical differences underlying it (pelvis width, length of levers, knee anatomy) as well as some degree of socialisation.

NotTerfNorCis Mon 20-Apr-20 19:15:19

So in sum, David Reimer knew he was a boy because he was physically male - and it was just as obvious to the other kids as it was to him, if not more so.

OP’s posts: |
Goosefoot Mon 20-Apr-20 19:35:22

The article spent a lot of time talking about things like interests, feminine vs masculine interests, and so on. So I don't think you can conclude that is what the article is saying.

Melroses Mon 20-Apr-20 20:54:32

It does seem that there are sex-specific ways of moving, although whether they come naturally from the brain and body or from socialisation is another point. This is why trans people either have to learn the gestures of the opposite sex, or they tend to over-exaggerate.

I know from family experience, and also from twins research, that a lot more is inherited in respect of mannerisms and temperament than has been previously thought. In my family, there was someone who died when his daughters were too young to remember him and he had no other family. Surprisingly, his grandsons turned out to carry many of his ways of moving, looking, and mannerisms which were very noticeable to the older family members who had known him as a child.
Having to learn how to move sounds very contrived, and it will no doubt vanish when the person returns to normal mode for whatever reason.

SirVixofVixHall Mon 20-Apr-20 21:38:12

I know a young (trans identifying) male. I remember watching him flick his hair in very forced looking way while chatting, then later I saw him walk alone down the street. He jumped on and off a wall, and then sort of loped along. It was so very obviously a young man, semi darkness, virtually a silhouette, but unmistakable.

TheProdigalKittensReturn Mon 20-Apr-20 23:48:29

I'd say Reimer's story tells us that there is no sense of gender identity that's separate from the body. The boy remained a boy and grew up to be a man, and experienced the fact that the people he ought to have been able to trust were lying to him as deeply traumatic.

(It also shows that the doctors most deeply invested in this whole issue have always been unethical people with a god complex.)

Candpeel Tue 21-Apr-20 02:08:57

Yes he is male and his brain new he was male - he had an internal sense of his own sex.

It is clear that people have this otherwise how would sexual orientation work? If you are both straight or gay you are attracted to the opposite sex or the same sex - so clearly you have m internal sense of your own sex

Nameofchanges Tue 21-Apr-20 05:03:48

What does internal sense of your own sex mean?

People know what sex they are just as they know what height they are or how many legs they have.

David Reimer’s life was one of horrific abuse and experimentation. It seems like an ongoing invasion of privacy and dignity that it is talked about or taught at all.

PlanDeRaccordement Tue 21-Apr-20 05:18:01

David Reiner is not proof of innate gender identity, he is actually proof that your sex cannot be changed. That even a child mutilated and brainwashed from birth will figure out what sex they really are. His story and untimely death by suicide is really a cautionary tale for what is being done to children all over. Children being told they are trans because they don’t act like a boy/girl is expected by society to act and therefore are coerced into puberty blockers and mutilating surgery to “switch sex” so their body conforms to their behaviour. This irreparably harms their sense of self worth and sense of belonging in the world because it increases their risk of suicide almost twenty-fold.

RomeoLikedCapuletGirls Tue 21-Apr-20 05:35:15

I agree with Reiner in that he was not trans but cis. He identified with the body that he was born into. He was just lied to about which body that was.

Surely the objection that feminism has towards trans activism isn’t so much that the idea of gender identity doesn’t exist but that it is applied too liberally, resulting in many people transitioning when they shouldn’t.

RomeoLikedCapuletGirls Tue 21-Apr-20 05:36:34

Sorry, that was meant to read “I agree with PlandeRaccordement in that Reiner was not trans.

InfiniteSheldon Tue 21-Apr-20 05:38:30

Please don't use cis it's offensive in every single way it is used in these discussions

RomeoLikedCapuletGirls Tue 21-Apr-20 05:59:39

Hey Sheldon. Sorry but I thought it was offensive when it was used to prefix women when no prefix is needed. In this instance I’m using it to describe a man who knew he was a man because he was biologically a man. What word would you use to convey that?

SonEtLumiere Tue 21-Apr-20 06:27:33

I would use either not Trans or “cis” or even what trans activists would call cis.

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