BBC’s “Transgender Kids, Who Knows Best?” p4: Dirty Sexy Brains

This series on BBC’s “Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?” is co-authored by HJ Hornbeck and Siobhan O’Leary. It attempts to fact-check and explore the many claims of the documentary concerning gender variant youth. You can follow the rest of the series here:

  1. Part One: You got Autism in my Gender Dysphoria!
  2. Part Two: Say it with me now…
  3. Part Three: My old friend, eighty percent
  4. Part Four: Dirty Sexy Brains

In North America, one of our pet obsessions is dividing everything up according to sex. Gendered toys, gendered clothes, gendered bathrooms, even gendered jobs. And yet if you follow those links, you’ll find these divisions were always in flux: gender-neutral toys used to be common yet are increasingly rare; dresses were gender-neutral, and colours weren’t gendered until roughly World War I; there were no public women’s washrooms in the US until the 1880’s, because women weren’t allowed in public; and computer science flipped from being women’s work to men’s work in the span of a few decades, leading to increased salaries and prestige.

This extends all the way down to our organs.

A Little Bit of History Goes A Long Way

Thomas Laqueur claims that the ancients thought that there was only one sex, human.[1] Any differences were due to how the fetus developed; Aristotle thought the critical element was heat, and if you didn’t get enough your penis didn’t pop out. Laqueur’s theory has been questioned as too simplistic by others, though, who point to strains of biological essentialism in ancient texts.[2]

What isn’t under question is an assumption of body plasticity. Ambroise Pare, a 16th century surgeon, duly notes the case of a woman who jumped over a ditch and popped out a penis on landing. Hippocrates in the 4th century BCE records two women who stopped menstruating; in due course, they grew body hair plus a beard, spoke in a deep voice, and died. The ancients thought bodies could change, that the sexes were fluid.

That changed with the scientific revolution. Some people don’t realize the French revolution was more than just opposed to a monarchy, it also took aim at the supremacy that religion held over our knowledge. Very few have heard of the short-lived Cult of Reason, where hundreds of thousands took over churches and preached a new gospel: logic and reason. The invention of a new “objective” measurement system carried the same torch, that objective truths could be learned by carefully measuring the universe instead of reading old texts.

This included the human body. Anatomists overturned ancient wisdom over sexual plasticity, and relentlessly pursued a search for difference.

About twelve years ago, for my own instruction, I began to collect definite data concerning the constitutional differences between men and women. I was moved to do this because I realised that such differences lie at the root of many social questions in which I took great interest, and I knew of no full and unprejudiced statement of the precise facts.

So began the first scientific review of sex differences, published by Havelock Ellis in 1894.[3] It reflects the contemporary emphasis on the physical form, discussing everything from height to hemoglobin. At long last, we had incontestable proof of a sex binary.

Well no, actually. If you wish to be objective, you must be willing to face a challenge. This opened the door for others to push back on any claims of sexual difference, and still others to explore potential differences that hadn’t even been considered. A new type of argument arrived, one that conceded sex differences but embraced gender similarities nearly a century before the term “gender” was a gleam in John Money’s eye.

What is meant by the glib assertion, that woman is the equal of man? Is she equal in size? No. In physical strength? No. In intellect? Yes, replies the advocate ; and if she received the same training as man, she would demonstrate her intellectual equality and her moral superiority to her masculine tyrant.[4]

Bodily differences were abandoned as a battleground and the brain became the new contested area. The assumption of a sexual binary was cemented in as a consequence, helped along by the discovery of hormones and chromosomes.

The ancient idea that the female is essentially an undeveloped male seems to be finally disproved by the fact that it requires more determiners—usually one more chromosome, or a larger sex chromosome—to produce a female than a male. When the additional sex chromosome was first discovered the assumption was that it determined maleness, doubtless because of the idea that the male was a more highly developed type.[5]

That last paragraph comes courtesy Helen Woolley. She spent a decade and PhD considering sex differences, culminating in a 1914 review of the field. Hers is just one of eight reviews that I’ve either read or skimmed[6][7][8][9][10][11][12]. When you read that many, covering a wide range of time, you see that in general,

  1. Everyone complains about how much research there is into gender, either hinting or explicitly stating that it’s overblown.
  2. Everyone decries the huge number of myths present in society and/or the scientific literature.
  3. No one mental attribute seems to favor men or women over time.

To quote myself on that latter point:

Woolley found girls were better at language, Terman found no difference, Maccoby found they were better, Hyde and others found they weren’t. Woolley found no difference in math ability, Terman and Maccoby found a difference in higher abilities, Hyde would flip between a difference due to higher education [1990], no difference at all, then a difference due to high school.

What It Takes To Be Innate

At one time, men and boys were considered better at “spatial skills,” a broad category which included physical reasoning and visual puzzles. When scientists began using meta-analysis to look for signal in the statistical noise, all gender differences in spatial skills disappeared… except for one subset, mental rotation.[13] This lead to a flurry of studies on mental rotation and a strong bias in the spatial skills literature, to the point that some studies treated “mental rotation” and “spatial skill” as synonyms.[14] Still, it is rare to find a study that doesn’t find a gender difference in mental rotation. Does that make it innate? I suppose you could call a behavior innate to human beings if you can demonstrate

  1. All human beings exhibit this behavior to some degree, and
  2. This behavior can either be traced directly to genetic or chemical causes, or all forms of social influence have been eliminated as a primary cause.

Sequencing the human genome may be old hat, but we still have very little idea how that genome is expressed in practise. Hell, we can’t even agree on how much “junk DNA” there is. Even a physical attribute as simple as height has a maddeningly complex causal chain behind it. While that first bullet point may seem infinitely easier to satisfy,

Experimental findings from several disciplines indicate considerable variation among human populations in diverse domains, such as visual perception, analytic reasoning, fairness, cooperation, memory and the heritability of IQ. This is in line with what anthropologists have long suggested: that people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies — and particularly American undergraduates — are some of the most psychologically unusual people on Earth.

So the fact that the vast majority of studies use WEIRD participants presents a challenge to the understanding of human psychology and behaviour. A 2008 survey of the top psychology journals found that 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries — which house just 12% of the world’s population.[15]

So declaring a behavior to be innate is nigh impossible. Even mental rotation, one of the most reliable psychological differences we’ve found, may be completely explained by myths passed around by society.

Taken together, the data suggest that individual differences in beliefs and in motivational aspects are able to affect [Mental Rotation] performance and the generally observed gender differences. …

This effect shows that, regardless of gender, a subject increases performance when gender superiority is stressed and reduces it when opposite gender superiority is suggested by instructions. Because it is a common belief that men are better than women in spatial ability (Devlin, 2001), this result is of particular interest.[16]

This has mind-bending consequences. We know that roughly half of us have smaller brains on average than the other half.[17] On average, half of us have more neurons than the other half, and thus more processing units we can string together.[18] This should lead to a difference when we average together cognitive tests for each group.

And yet (emphasis mine),

Averaged overall effect sizes based on samples of the general population indicated that females outperformed males by only a negligible amount. An examination of age trends indicated that girls showed a slight superiority in computation in elementary school and middle school. There were no gender differences in problem solving in elementary or middle school; differences favoring men emerged in high school and college. Gender differences were smallest and actually favored females in samples of the general population, grew larger with increasingly selective samples, and were largest for highly selected samples and samples of highly precocious persons. The magnitude of the gender difference has declined over the years. Gender differences in mathematics performance are small. [19]

It’s bad enough that the scientific consensus on gender difference is an unequivocal shrug, but it’s even worse when demonstrable physiological differences fail to translate into behavioral differences, even when we have a plausible mechanism! This casts major doubt on all those neuroscience studies which show a physiological difference in the brain; you also need to show a causal chain from the physical to the behavioural, and you need to show there is no other secondary cause which could explain the behaviour as good or better. No neuroscience paper I’ve read has even attempted these tasks.

It’s also downright devastating when many non-scientists detect strong and obvious gender differences, yet the more carefully-calibrated detection methods available to science fail to come up with anything solid. Real effects shouldn’t go away when you use more precise tools, that only happens with myths. As Shiv has shown in part three, even scientists can fall prey to their biases and warp the scientific record.

The majority of claimed gender difference must be mythical. Maybe there’s some small difference hiding in there, but it’s beyond what science can verify at the moment and even if were verified it must be small enough that only epidemiologists and policy wonks should care. Human brains do not have an innate gender, and I’m in good company on that assertion. So it’s silly to propose they do.

[46:06] NARRATOR: So, could someone be born with a brain that is somehow that is somehow a different gender from their biological sex?

GINA RIPPON: Well if you look at the brains of newborn babies, you could not tell that the child that contained that brain was male or female. So we don’t have a brain that is born either male or female. …

[46:50] GINA RIPPON: I think the transgender movement is reinforcing gender stereotypes because one of the things that transitioning people say is that they feel like they’ve been born in the wrong box and that therefore they need to change from one to the other. But nobody seems to challenge the concept that, actually, there’s something wrong with having boxes. There are all sorts of other factors that you should be thinking about before you jump to the conclusion – which is rather an 18th century conclusion – that men and women have different brains.

Grasping At Straws

Uuuhhh, this is awkward. Did I just disprove the existence of trans* people, or at least put myself at odds with the beliefs of most trans* people?

Yeah no. In the 1990’s, trans* people started engaging in academic discussions about themselves and their experiences.

… the wrong-body model fails to secure the validity of trans claims to belong in a particular sex. This is particularly bad for the model, since this is precisely what it purports to secure. Consider the multiplicity of features relevant to sex determination: chromosomes, genitalia, gonads, hormone levels, reproductive capacity, and so forth. In order to say that a transsexual (after genital reconstruction surgery) has undergone a “sex change,” we must discount other features, including chromosomes, and select genitalia as definitive. But consider a person who has an XY karyotype and is morphologically female (due to complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). It’s not clear whether this person is male or female. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a factual basis on which to arbitrate the question. But postoperative transsexuality seems exactly analogous. [19]

The result was a new way of thinking about what it means to be trans*. “A man/woman trapped in a woman/man’s body” was viewed as antiquated, the imposition of a society that could only think in terms of binary sex. It originally became popular via Harry Benjamin’s 1966 “The Transsexual Phenomena,” which gave scientific validation to trans* people’s experiences but at a cost.

Benjamin’s model supposed there were only two sexes and that the only alternative to remaining an unhappy camper in the original gender role was to work hard to conform to the other. That is, one “changed sex,” going from male to female, or from female to male. The model didn’t question the society which created such restrictive gender roles or examine the possibility of living somewhere outside those roles. Those who didn’t fit the model— those who weren’t interested in going from one polar extreme to the other, were defined as nontranssexual; they were presumed to be crossdressers, although many of them were profoundly gender dysphoric. Transsexualism itself was a liminal state, a transitory phase, a necessary evil which had to be negotiated (as rapidly as possible) on one’s way to becoming a “normal” man or “normal” woman.[20]

The new consensus viewed being trans* as similar to being xenomeliac.

“I can feel exactly the line where my leg should end and my stump should begin. Sometimes this line hurts or feels numb.” (an individual with amputation desire; Blom et al., 2012, p. 2)

“I feel myself complete without my left leg … I’m over-complete with it” (individual with amputation desire; First, 2005, p. 922)

“I feel the stump ends in my thighs and a strong ‘desire’ (I don’t have the right word for it) to live with two thigh stumps.” (man with amputation desire; Kasten and Spithaler, 2009, p. 24)

“I was eager for people to watch me, to see that my legs couldn’t move. […] I was full of emotion. I felt whole for the first time in my life.” (48-year-old woman with desire for paraplegia describing her feelings while pretending to be paralyzed and wheel-chair bound; Bruno, 1997; p. 247)

“With BIID, the numbness goes beyond the legs. It seeps into my emotions… […] I wandered in [to] through a link and I never left … it’s making the numbness feel not so shameful.” (man with xenomelia; Davis, 2012; p. 611) [21]

While xenomeliac people who desire amputation grab the headlines, a significant number are content to merely simulate missing a limb. There’s a definite spectrum here, and it parallels the experiences of trans* people.

“I wake up in the morning and run my hands over my body. It never feels exactly the way it should. Looking in the mirror, on the days I’m brave enough to do it, can shatter my exquisitely constructed sense of myself.

“My clothes are never, ever right. Showering is the most jarring part of my day — when I soap my thighs and chest and do my damnedest to hold on to the mental picture I have of who I really am and not the baggy, chubby, soft version of myself I feel under the running water.”

“When I think of my chest as it currently is, I feel incredibly awkward. It’s almost as if I have these water balloons stuck on me and I can’t take them off. I hope someday I can resolve that…but until then, it is a thing I find myself occasionally struggling with.”

“These are some drawings that I did around the year or so that I was deciding on, preparing for, and recovering from top surgery. I identify as non-binary and genderqueer, so for me, deciding on a medical intervention for my dysphoria did not feel as simple as the most common narratives you hear for trans people — ‘the body I was born to have’ or ‘the way I see myself inside’ or anything like that. I don’t feel that there is a ‘right’ way for any body to be, and I value the ways that bodies are queer, unreadable, and unruly.”

This emphasis on parts, instead of abstract categories like “man” or “woman,” is on firmer ground. Not only does the existence of other types of body dysmorphia make gender-related dysphoria more plausible, multiple studies going back to the 1970’s have used body-image questionnaires to assess how trans* people feel.[22] These show a fairly strong correlation with body image, one that usually improves after surgery.[23] This thinking has also lead to more subtle and nuanced theories of gender dysphoria.

This new theory of trans* experience coincided with a new theory of sex. To propose there were only two sexes was to assert there is a clear dividing line between them. As I’ve hinted at multiple times, no such dividing line exists: genitalia are more diverse than most people realize, and fail to account for people who change, lose, or even lack them; chromosomes don’t fall into a binary and don’t conform to external secondary sex indicators; there are multiple sex-linked genes, not one, and the majority are not on the “sex chromosomes;” and invoking hormones ignores that we all posses the same hormones and makes it possible to swap sexes at will.

Most people respond to these exceptions by asserting a three-sex theory (with the third being “defective” “doesn’t fit my model”) but pretending it’s only got two categories. Some instead propose a spectrum,[24] while others abandon the idea of sexing human beings.[25] There is no consensus replacement for the two-sex model, but a growing number of academics and educated people are abandoning it anyway.

Having said all that, trans* people are not a monolith. Some would probably think my analogy to xenomelia is false. Some, perhaps even the majority do embrace the “wrong body” theory. This might be because they’ve drunk in too many of society’s myths around sex and gender, or have to conform to the model to get treatment for dysphoria.

The Benjamin model of transsexualism held supreme until the early 1990s. It was questioned on a number of fronts— by psychiatrists like Charles Socarides (1969), who argued bitterly that the proper way to treat a mental illness was by curing it, not giving in to it; by feminists, who found it patriarchal and anti-woman (see especially Raymond, 1979), and perhaps most notably by Sandy Stone, whose essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” questioned the accuracy of the clinical literature which stereotyped transsexuals. Stone pointed out that because clinicians were looking for “true transsexuals” who fit narrow diagnostic criteria, transsexuals learned to lie to their doctors, telling them whatever was necessary in order to qualify for medical treatment. Often, transsexuals internalized these “rules,” making them part of their self-definition. Transsexuals, Stone argued, worked hard to fit the description of what they were supposed to be— by following a transsexual script, if you will (see also Bolin, 1988).[20]

They might also have stumbled on a genuine sexing within the human brain, one that’s too weak for science to reliably detect. I’m not holding my breath on that one, but may the best evidence win.

And wherever that evidence lands, the lack of a sexed brain does not refute the existence of trans* people. Nor can it negate their experience.

I know Shiv has already linked to it, but I strongly suggest you read Cristan Williams’ series on “Disco Sexology,” her term for the dated ideology that Dr. Zucker and others peddle, and Zinnia Jones has covered this as well. And of course, Shiv’s got an excellent back catalog on the subject.


[1] Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

[2] King, Helen. The one-sex body on trial: the classical and early modern evidence. Routledge, 2016.

[3] Ellis, Havelock. Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters. Walter Scott Publishing Company, 1894.

[4] Allan, J. McGrigor. “On the real differences in the minds of men and women.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 7 (1869): cxcv-ccxix.

[5] Woolley, Helen Thompson. “The Psychology of Sex.” Psychological Bulletin 11, no. 10 (October 1914): 353–79.

[6] Goodenough, Florence L. “The consistency of sex differences in mental traits at various ages.” Psychological Review 34.6 (1927): 440.

[7] Lehman, Harvey C., and Paul A. Witty. “Sex-differences: some sources of confusion and error.” The American Journal of Psychology 42.1 (1930): 140-147.

[8] Terman, Lewis M., et al. “Psychological sex differences.” (1946).

[9] Maccoby, Eleanor E., and Roy G. D’Andrade. The development of sex differences. Vol. 5. Stanford University Press, 1966.

[10]  Maccoby, Eleanor E., and Carol Nagy Jacklin. The psychology of sex differences. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1974.

[11] Hyde, Janet S. “How large are cognitive gender differences? A meta-analysis using! w² and d..” American Psychologist 36.8 (1981): 892.

[12] Hyde, Janet Shibley. “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60, no. 6 (2005): 581–92. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581.

[13] Linn, Marcia C., and Anne C. Petersen. “Emergence and Characterization of Sex Differences in Spatial Ability: A Meta-Analysis.” Child Development 56, no. 6 (December 1985): 1479. doi:10.2307/1130467.

[14] Quaiser-Pohl, Claudia, and Wolfgang Lehmann. “Girls’ Spatial Abilities: Charting the Contributions of Experiences and Attitudes in Different Academic Groups.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 72, no. 2 (2002): 245–260.

[15] Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “Most people are not WEIRD.” Nature 466.7302 (2010): 29-29.

[16] Moè, Angelica, and Francesca Pazzaglia. “Following the Instructions!” Learning and Individual Differences 16, no. 4 (January 2006): 369–77. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2007.01.002.

[17] Peters, Michael. “Sex differences in human brain size and the general meaning of differences in brain size.” Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie 45.4 (1991): 507.

[18] Rabinowicz, Theodore, et al. “Gender differences in the human cerebral cortex: more neurons in males; more processes in females.” Journal of Child Neurology 14.2 (1999): 98-107.

[19] Hyde, Janet S., Elizabeth Fennema, and Susan J. Lamon. “Gender differences in mathematics performance: a meta-analysis.” (1990): 139.

[20] Denny, Dallas. “The Transsexual Script (1998).” Shiv also deserves credit for making the same point in private correspondence.

[21] Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Trapped in the wrong theory: Rethinking trans oppression and resistance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39.2 (2014): 383-406.

[22] Brugger, Peter, Bigna Lenggenhager, and Melita J. Giummarra. “Xenomelia: a social neuroscience view of altered bodily self-consciousness.” Frontiers in psychology 4 (2013): 204.

[23] Lindgren, Thomas W., and Ira B. Pauly. “A body image scale for evaluating transsexuals.” Archives of sexual behavior 4.6 (1975): 639-656.

[24] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex redefined.” Nature 518.7539 (2015): 288.

[25] Devor, Holly. How Many Sexes?: How Many Genders?-When Two are Not Enough. 1996.

[26] Kraemer, Bernd, et al. “Body image and transsexualism.” Psychopathology 41.2 (2007): 96-100.