In psychological circles there is a case made famous by a psychologist by the name of John Money, who dedicated his life to the study of sexuality. This case is so well-known, that undergraduate psychology students are as familiar with it as they are with the Stanford Prison experiment. Before the year 2000, it was simply known as the "twin's case" or the "John/Joan case." Nowadays, the psychological community uses the name of the little boy who was anonymously famous, written about, and studied extensively for almost 20 years: David Reimer. In a deeply heartbreaking and shocking work of nonfiction, John Colapinto retraces the steps that David Reimer took as a baby boy, to a sex-assigned girl, and back to manhood.
Although David Reimer was born a healthy and anatomically correct boy, an accident during babyhood put him in a special category with other numerous cases that involves a very complex condition called "disorder of sex development" or previously called "intersex." (Berenbaum, 2006). Essentially, due to the presence (or lack of) certain sex hormones during a fetus' development, a child can be born "intersexed," with a mix of female and male genitalia; it can be a biological girl has more male looking organs, a biological boy has more female looking parts, or the biological gender can be ambiguous with a mix of both (Crooks, & Baur, 2008). From the mid 1960s until the early 2000s, sex reassignment surgery was the definitive answer for children who were born with a sexual development disorder, in which a "sex" was decided upon, and the surgery followed (Colapinto, 2000).
The obvious problem with this "solution," is that when these children were old enough to start cultivating a gender identity, they often felt that their bodies didn't match what their parents and surgeons had chosen for them (Colapinto, 2000). The important difference between sex and gender is that 'sex" involves the biological male or femaleness of a person (i.e. please check male or female), and gender refers to the "psychological and sociocultural characteristics associated with our sex," (Crooks, & Baur, 2008) (i.e. A masculine person or feminine person). Further still, there is one's "gender identity," which in each person there is a subjective sense of being male or female, and usually starts to develop around the age of two to three years old (Oltmanns, & Emery, 2010). In Colapinto's book, he outlines how such a sex reassignment surgery can deeply scar the life of a child, whose "choice" is essentially taken away from them, and may have to spend their lives undoing the damage inflicted.
The "John/Joan" Case
The background of the twin's case in the mid 1960s involves a botched circumcision on baby Bruce (now called David), which irreparably damaged his penis with a soldering instrument, and eventually made it fall off completely. In the year or so after the event happened, David's parents, Janet and Ron, searched in vain for some answers as to what to do for their son. It seemed their only two options was to wait for David to grow up a little and then subject him to a series of painful surgeries to reconstruct a penile-type organ which would only serve as a place for urine to come out; or, take a drastic leap of faith and send David to the Johns Hopkins hospital to see the famous sex psychologist John Money and have sex reassignment surgery performed. Janet and Ron spent several days deciding on the best course of action and eventually decided to turn baby Bruce (David) into Brenda.
Colapinto's book laboriously takes the reader through each painful surgery, conversation, therapy session, and inner dialogue of what David Reimer and his family felt throughout his life as these events unfolded. In several interviews and tapes with author Colapinto, Reimer says that he always knew something was wrong, and that he didn't feel like he was supposed to be a girl, but felt that he was a boy, despite his parents, teachers and therapists trying to convince him otherwise. In an interview that Colapinto conducted with one of David's therapists, Dr. Janice Ingimundson, she says, "[of David's thoughts on his gender] if I admit that I'm a boy, then I have to admit that there's something wrong with me anatomically. And if I admit that there's something wrong with me anatomically, what happened?" In more interviews with David, he recalls being jealous that his brother, Brian, was allowed to play with toys for boys like cars, guns, tools, and building sets. David never wanted to play with dolls, never wanted to wear dresses or look pretty, or even wanted to play with girls. He got upset when his father let Brian play with his shaving kit, but not David. To David, his peers, teachers and therapists, it was pretty obvious that he was a boy, and that the "sex reassignment" was in essence, a failure.
Even at four years old, gender was defined for David, not by toys, things, or clothes, but that David, "…thought I was very similar to my brother. It's not so much me being a guy, it's more that we were brothers. It didn't matter that I was in a dress." Up to the point of fourteen years of age, David struggled to come to terms with his body and gender identity, consistently feeling that his parents and therapists were "not telling him something." He tried several times to fit in as a female at school and other functions, by wearing female clothing, trying to do his makeup and please his mother with domestic duties; mostly to stop the bullying and harassment at school, and also to try and make his home life less awkward. Finally, in March of 1980, when David was fifteen years old, his father Ron took him out for an ice cream after a particularly grueling doctor's visit in which David refused to let his doctor examine him, and told David the truth of what happened when he was a baby.
Reportedly, David felt relief at the news, knowing that all these years he was not crazy or lying, that he was a boy, he felt like a boy, and it was right and okay. David made the immediate decision to revert back to his birth sex, and even "came out" as a boy at a family wedding two months later sporting a sharp suit. It would be several years before David would have any semblance of feeling like a "normal male," and at least three surgeries to correct what had been done to him, but Colapinto's book makes it clear that David was happier as a man than he ever was as a girl.
Gender Identity & Nature vs. Nurture
Insofar as sexual and identity disorders have been examined and studied, psychologists know more than they did when David Reimer was born. But, as long as people have studied the mind and its motives, the argument about nature vs. nurture will always be at odds with one another. Over the last ten years or so, psychologists have agreed that it can never be one or the other, but both nature and nurture work together to form the identity of an individual. Gender identity is formed in two ways: the first being in the womb involving sex hormones (mentioned previously), which effect the biological chromosomes of a person, and the second being social-learning, which involves the "social and cultural models of gender that we are exposed to during our early development." (Crooks, & Baur, 2008). According to Berenbaum, there have been three core principles at the heart of treatment for children with sexual development disorder; the first being that gender identity is a result of how a person is raised (social-learning theory), the second being that normal-gender genitalia is necessary for a person to develop a healthy gender identity, and the third is that a firm "gender identity is established at age 2."
This social-learning theory was the cornerstone for John Money and his colleagues' research and subsequent articles, experiments and surgeries that resulted in many children being sexually reassigned (Crooks, Baur, 2008). Money relied heavily on the assumption that because children glean information about what it means to be a boy or girl from their parents, relatives and other adults, that it would make sense that any child could be "gender reared" as something different if need be, such as in the cases of intersexed children (Zucker, 1999).
However, when information began to come to light about other cases like David Reimer's, where the gender had been chosen for them, and they later reverted back to their birth gender, or had severe psychological damage as a result of the surgeries and the truth, the social-learning model was no longer touted as the correct way to handle these cases. Yes, it is true that children garner quite a lot of information about gender from adults and the world around them, but it does not mean that they…