In the world of radical identity politics, two groups with very different philosophies have been ignoring science in the name of advancing equality: gender feminists and transgender activists.
Gender feminists — who are distinct from traditional equity feminists — refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain, and instead promote the idea that sex differences are caused by a socialization process that begins at birth. Gender, according to them, is a construct; we are born as blank slates and it is parents and society at large that produce the differences we see between women and men in adulthood.
The idea that our brains are identical sounds lovely, but the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Many studies, for instance, have documented the masculinizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain. And a recent study in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports showed that testosterone exposure alters the programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth and sex differences.
Gender feminists often point to a single study, published in 2015, which claimed it isn’t possible to tell apart male and female brains. But when a group of researchers reanalyzed the underlying data, they found that brains could be correctly identified as female or male with 69% to 77% accuracy. In another study, published in 2016, researchers used a larger sample in conjunction with higher-resolution neuroimaging and were able to successfully classify a brain by its sex 93% of the time.
Even if male and female brains were identical structurally, this would fail to say anything about differences in brain functionality. Indeed, studies have shown sex differences across a wide variety of cognitive domains, including verbal fluency (the ability to generate many different words starting with a given letter) and mental rotation (the ability to rotate three-dimensional shapes in the mind). In one study using functional MRI, women outperformed men on the former, while men outperformed women on the latter.
In my experience, proponents touting the “blank slate” view are willing to agree, in private conversations, that neurological sex differences do exist, but they fear that acknowledging as much publicly will justify female oppression. This is backward. As it stands, female-typical traits are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect. This is the real issue the movement fails to address: Nobody wants to be female-typical, not even women.
Distortion of science hinders progress. When gender feminists start refuting basic biology, people stop listening, and the larger point about equality is lost.
Unlike gender feminists, transgender activists firmly believe that gender is a biological, rather than social, reality — but of course they don’t believe that it’s necessarily tied to sex at birth. They also believe that gender identity is quite stable early on, warranting a transition not only for transgender adults, but also young children who say they were born in the wrong body.
From a scientific perspective, they’re partially right: Gender identity is fixed, but only in adults; the same can’t be said for children, whose gender identity is flexible and doesn’t become stable until puberty.
Currently available research literature — including four studies published in the last nine years — suggests that 61% to 88% of gender dysphoric children will desist and grow up to be gay adults. (Or, in my case, a straight adult). They won’t continue to identify as the opposite sex in adulthood. In one study of 139 gender dysphoric boys, 122 (88%) of the boys desisted.
While transitioning can be beneficial for transgender adults, it therefore doesn’t make sense to treat trans children in the same way.
Nevertheless, transgender activists and their allies have branded desistance as a “myth,” and those who suggest otherwise are called bigots or, dismissively, trolls. It’s not hard to understand why. The idea that some gender dysphoric people may grow up to be comfortable in their birth sex is interpreted as a threat to the community. Acknowledging that reality may seem like a slippery slope to denying the need for gender reassignment surgery even in adults.
But ignoring the science around desistance has serious consequences; it means some transgender children will needlessly undergo biomedical interventions, such as hormone treatments. Even detransitioning from a purely social transition can be a difficult process for a child. In one 2011 study of 25 gender dysphoric children, 11 desisted. Of the desisters, two had socially transitioned and regretted it. They struggled to return to their birth sex in part because of fear of teasing from their classmates, and they did not dare to make the change until they enrolled in high school.
Both the gender feminist and transgender movements are operating with good intentions — namely, the desire to obtain the dignity women and transgender people rightly deserve. But it’s never a good idea to dismiss scientific nuances in the name of a compelling argument or an honorable cause. We must allow science to speak for itself.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh
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