Lise Eliot’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” is the most cited work among those arguing against “gender essentialism”, or at least that’s my impression. The most telling argument in favor of gender essentialism is the outcomes of children like David Reimer aka “John/Joan” raised as female after having their genitals removed at a young age. I had heard that Eliot addresses the Reimer case, but hadn’t really investigated further. It turns out the section of her book dealing with it is available through Google Books. Eliot finds the case problematic as illustration of a general principle because the surgery that completely removed his testicles took place too late at twenty-two months (although his parents had already started raising him as a girl at seventeen months), and he had an indentical twin brother raised together with him. To me having an identical twin raised by the same parents but treated as a boy is great for illustrative purposes (and Dr. John Money who publicized David as “Joan” agreed). And if we’re just focused on psychological effects, the age seems reasonable to me in finding the effects of parents raising their child to be a girl*. Admittedly, I am nothing like an expert, David & his brother just didn’t seem to have any conscious memory of him previously being a boy.
The best piece of evidence Eliot has to counter the Reimer case is another (unnamed in her book) case reported in 1998 of a boy who also lost his penis in a botched circumcision and was surgically reassigned at seven months. This one continued to identify as a normal woman. I find her citation of a 2005 review by Heinz Meyer-Bahlburg (finding that only seventeen of seventy-seven boys raised as girls for a variety of reasons reverted to females) less persuasive, because as she notes only a minority were cases of “penile ablution”, with most being intersex. This is important, because Money critic Milton Diamond (cited in Colapinto’s linked article above) had started out complaining that all the “successful” cases cited by the Money camp thus suffered a “genetic or hormonal imbalance in the womb”. Since Diamond’s focus was on pre-natal hormonal exposure, his theory would then be falsifiable with an experiment varying the age of post-natal reassignment, even if the change was purely “biological” rather than psychological.
*Interestingly, Eliot’s footnote states that none of the genetic boys raised as males later reverted to female. Her recommendation if you have an intersex child is to raise them as male “if the urogenital system can be adequately reconstructed through surgery”.
I don’t write this to attack Eliot, I find it commendable that she not only addressed Reimer but pointed out the problem with using reassigned intersex children rather than those purely biologically male/female. She is also no strawman (straw-woman?) who claims babies start out identical. Instead the title of her book refers to the small differences at early ages becoming magnified later on. This in itself doesn’t mean much to me because the heritability of many traits increase with age (and puberty obviously plays a role in gender differentiation over time). Judith Harris pointed out in “The Nurture Assumption” that many correlations based on parental treatment are misleading because parents treat children differently as a result of the child’s (heritable) traits. This is just what Eliot believes, although actually untangling the treatment effect of such a feedback loop sounds tricky to me. Unfortunately we don’t allow scientists to give children to robots to raise, completely unaware of the child’s actual gender. It would make for a great sitcom.