Borderline Cases

Anne Fausto-Sterling's books are informative and fascinating.  She writes in an exploratory, non-dogmatic way that I really appreciate.  She is hard to pin down and I (often) like authors who are hard to pin down. But one argument she seems to make in her books does not convince me much -- the argument that sex must be socially constructed, based on there being intersex individuals who wind up "assigned" to a sex in a social fashion.

About 1.7% of people are born with some sort of an intersex condition, she says.   In these cases, decisions have to be made about whether the child will be brought up male, female, both, or neither.  These decisions are typically made in light of cultural understandings of what is important in males and females.  Therefore...what?  Therefore, all sex categorizations are "socially constructed"?   

Surely that doesn't follow.  Why shouldn't we simply construe intersex individuals as borderline cases?  There are clear male babies and clear female babies, and there are also individuals who fall in between.  This is so in all sorts of other domains.  There are clear chairs and clear couches, but also pieces of furniture that fall in between.  There are clear trees and clear bushes, but plants that fall in between.  Borderline cases can just remain borderline, unless there's some particular reason to categorize them.  Maybe the furniture store has a chair room and a couch room, so we simply must put a chair/couch in one or the other.  If we do that on some basis, such as which room has more space available, we don't have to think that has any general relevance to what makes chairs chairs or couches couches. Likewise, even if the sexes of intersex people are "socially constructed," if doesn't follow the sexes of clear cases are socially constructed. 

And then, should we even embrace the social construction of sex in the intermediate cases? If you take "social construction" very literally, it seems to suggest we leave it up to society--the community, the state, the doctors, the family.  If the community says it takes a penis to be classed with males, then so be it. If the community says it takes two X chromosomes to be classed with females, then so be it.  But that's a terrible way to "assign" sexes to intersex babies.   Fausto-Sterling actually advocates intersex children being tentatively (and non-surgically) assigned to a sex but later making their own choices based on how they see themselves.  These kids will come to see themselves as male or female in a cultural context, so there is a social element there, but the child's self-perceptions have an internal component too, as I think she recognizes.  If the child's eventual self-perceptions are given lots of weight, the sex classification of intersex children is at most partly "socially constructed."

As the chair/couch example shows, self-perception could be relevant to categorizing intersex people, but not relevant to clear-case males being male and clear-case females being female.  The way borderline cases are dealt with does not necessarily have anything to do with how clear cases are classified.  But perhaps that's merely a logical point:  in principle, self-perception doesn't have to be relevant to clear males being male or clear females being female.  But you might think it is relevant, even if it doesn't have to be.  Clear males can come to have a sense of being female and clear females a sense of being male.  If we do respect these self-perceptions for intersex individuals, then maybe self-perceptions should also take precedence when sorting supposedly clear cases into male and female categories. All maleness and femaleness would be defined in terms of self-perceptions, as opposed to self-perception entering the picture when other criteria aren't decisive.

That would be a win for the psychological nature of sex, not the social construction of sex.  And it certainly would be a hard thing to embrace. It makes sense to think a truly intersex child has no sex until self-perceptions emerge, but some kids are born with a definite sex.  Coming to see yourself as having a sex different from your natal sex is difficult for transgender kids precisely because there is (usually) a natal sex.

In any event, I really don't see at all how intersex children provide much support for the claim that all sex classifications are socially constructed.  That seems to be the idea in Fausto-Sterling's work (again, she is hard to pin down), and she's had a lot of influence.  But I don't see how this reasoning is supposed to work.


Knowing Your Gender

I just raced through John Colapinto's fascinating book As Nature Made Him and now I'm reading Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body, so my head is filled with intersex states and genital accidents. But also with some curious questions about how we know our own gender.  Colapinto's book is about David Reimer, a man who started life as one of identical twin boys and then lost his penis in a botched circumcision.  John Money, the famed sexologist at Johns Hopkins University, convinced Reimer's parents to have him reassigned as a female.  His testicles were removed, and over the next 12 years Reimer's parents dressed him like a girl and demanded feminine behavior.  Throughout her childhood "Brenda" was unhappy and rebellious, constantly insisting "she" was a boy, not a girl.   When Money tells her it's time for vaginoplasty when she's about 12, she won't submit.  When she's 14 her history is finally revealed to her and Brenda reverts to her natal gender (with many surgeries required), becoming David Reimer. 

One way to read this history is to say David Reimer "knew he was a boy" all along.  It's a little odd to put it that way, because for him to know it, it's got to be a fact (assuming we can only know what is true).   Is there really a fact of the matter about what gender a person is, independent of their choices and perceptions? But setting that aside, what I find intriguing is how we know our own gender.  How does it work? What is it like? One possibility is that we know it introspectively.  We peer inward and there it is--we sense boyness or girlness directly. So "Brenda" knew she was really a boy by finding boyness within her consciousness. 

Another possibility is that we know our own traits, both physical and mental, more or less directly, and then we draw conclusions about our gender using a learned "theory" of gender.  Brenda observed that she was feisty and aggressive, loved all the same activities her twin brother did, felt attracted to girls, but on the other hand, lacked a penis.  Reasoning from that set of facts, plus her understanding of gender, she was confused, yet often inferred that she was really a boy. 

Do we apprehend gender itself, or just traits from which we infer our gender, using learned premises like"boys have penises" and "girls like to play with dolls" and "boys like to fight"?   If you know about your own gender in the second way, then you can be wrong about it.  Can you be?  No answers today...just some interesting questions.


Had to take down a post

I had to take down the recent post "Campus Rape Statistics" because certain links in it were creating strange problems in other posts--a sentence linking to another website kept floating on top of other posts.  After an hour of trying to fix the problem I gave up!  Sorry, especially to those who left comments.


Mixed Gender Birds

Goodbye vaccination, for a while, hello gender.  With the vaccination chapter of my parenthood book 90% finished, I'm going back to the gender chapter.  First, more reading.

From reading social constructionist writing on gender, I've gotten the impression that Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, is seen by feminists as an idiot.  Based on a quick perusal, he doesn't seem to be a total idiot.  He wants parents to anticipate gender differences, not reinforce them ... or so it seems.  Maybe it will turn out that he's not an idiot at all.

He does say "for starters" too much. And there's a funny argument about a bird on pg. 13.  "Research in laboratory animals, for starters, has demonstrated large, innate, genetically determined sex differences in the brain."   Given the sweeping scope of the claim, it's odd for the first item of support to be one bird.  UCLA scientists found this bird. (Where? When? Are there others?  Who knows?)  The bird was a "lateral gynandromorphic hermaphrodite."  Wow.  Male on one side, female on the other.  On the left, an ovary, on the right, a testicle.  On the left, female plumage, on the right, male plumage.

Here's where it gets funny, if you like black humor.  So they killed the bird.  Or as he puts it, "Now let's take a look at this bird's brain."   Right, they had this amazing bird, and they chopped off its head to get a look at its brain.  Okaaay....what did they find out?  The male and female sides of the brain contain "intrinsically different" brain tissue.  The image in the book certainly shows that it looks different--

So how is it different?  I guess this book isn't oriented to people capable of asking such a penetrating question. 

Brief aside:  When I searched online for the image in the book, I found it in an article by Sax, but found a second image as well (both are from a Nature article).   I wonder why he put just the image on the left in his book, not the image on the right.  (Translation:  I don't wonder.)

Anyhow, did the UCLA scientists actually slay the only lateral gynandromorphic bird who ever lived?  No thanks to Sax, I now know the answer is "no"-- these birds show up here and there.  In fact, a nice article about these birds is at Jerry Coyne's website.  Here's a picture Coyne got from a reader.

Cardinals make the best lateral gynandromorphic birds!

I'll probably have another report or two from Sax's book. One last quick grumble.  What's with the gender quiz at the back?  Does Sax really think it's indicative of innate femininity that I know what an endive is?  I confess that I do, but I'm pretty sure I learned my vegetables types.  Males, I think, could manage this. I bet many foodie males even know there are two sorts of endive, the one on top being especially delicious.

Liberal Idiocy?

Samantha Bee, of the Daily Show, was apparently wrong when she said anti-vaxxers tend to be liberals (this is via commenter Scu).  They come more from crunchier parts of the country, but they appear to be crunchy-cons as often as crunchy-libs, according to Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.  This graph (based on research done by Dan Kahan) shows what people of different political persuasions regard as risky.  All find vaccination about equally risky.

The Daily Show segment was still terrific.  Here it is again:


Where the Vaccine Refuseniks Are

Samantha Bee had a fantastic segment on vaccine refuseniks last night, charging that these people come out of the left, not the right, and they tend to be highly educated and well-to-do. (Video at the bottom of this post.)

Looking at vaccination statistics of late, I've been noticing much the same thing.  My very own state of Texas is more enlightened than the great state of California when it comes to childhood immunization.  More kids in Texas kindergartens (public plus private) are vaccinated than kids in California kindergartens.
2011/212 Texas Kindergarten Annual Report

2012/13 California Kindergarten Annual Report

Another surprising thing is that the strictest vaccination requirements are found in two very conservative states.  West Virginia and Mississippi don't allow exemptions for any reason, religion or personal. 

(click to enlarge)
Texas allows exemption for any reason, lumping together all motivations under "conscientious exemption," but very few people take the conscientious exemption, as the immunization statistics show.  The number has doubled in the last few years, and the conscientious exempters are more numerous than medical exempters, but they are still very few. 

Yes, when people don't vaccinate, there is more vaccine-preventable disease.  
Take it away, Samantha Bee (I can't seem to embed)!


The Misogyny Debate

Frank Bruni is really, really brilliant today. 
WE no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets.
Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth — the knowable, verifiable truth — is left in the dust.
I hope I am not guilty as charged.  I don't have an agenda or a use for the Santa Barbara tragedy ... as far as I know. I wrote the post below yesterday. Maybe, after reading Bruni, I would have thought "enough already" and dropped the subject. Maybe I'm thinking about the feminist debate about Rodger so much because it's just too painful to think about the parents mourning their children.  That's too close to home for someone soon to send children off to college.  So--mea culpa, but I hate to throw out this post after putting together all the data.


Salon editor Joan Walsh observes, "The widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging."  So now it's all settled--the guy was a misogynist pig, done!

And here's a line of argument I've seen over and over again, in various quarters.  When racists attack people, we blame racism.  When homophobes attack people we blame homophobia.  Why is it that we can't just go ahead and blame misogyny, in this case?  We must be willing to give a free pass to misogynists!  The horror!

But no.  I'm reluctant to accept Walsh's diagnosis because misogyny comes into the picture very late in Rodger's manifesto, when all the antecedents of his rampage have already been festering for 10 years.  The antecedents are hatred, resentment, misery, loneliness, a sense of unfairness, rage (what you might call being "emotionally disturbed" as opposed to "mentally ill"--we don't know yet about the latter).  Until late in his short life, his hatred doesn't take a specifically misogynistic form.

Of course, not every feeling of hatred for girls or women is misogyny, if you use the term correctly.  Misogyny is not just hatred of women.  If you hate popular boys and attractive girls, the second half of your hatred doesn't add up to misogyny; the first half isn't misandry.  Misogynists both hate girls or women and hate them for particular sorts of biased, gender-related reasons.  They hate then because of actual or perceived feminine traits toward which they feel antipathy.  For example, a misogynist might hate women for being dirty (menstruation!) or for perceived inferiority (dumb, emotional!).  If you hate girls for not liking you, that's not misogyny any more than hating boys for not liking you is misandry.

What I'm going to show is that misogyny makes a very late appearance in the manifesto, after dozens of expressions of revolting but non-misogynistic hatred.

Age 11 (p. 28) - hatred toward other boys

Age 11 (p. 31) - hatred toward cool kids

Age 11 (p. 32) - hatred toward girls

Age 12 (p. 38) - hatred toward boys

Age 13 (p. 42) - hatred toward girls

 Age 14 (p. 45) - hatred toward peers who bully him

 Age 14 (p. 46) - hatred toward peers who bully him


Age 14 (p. 47) - hatred toward boys

Age 15 (p. 48) - hatred toward boys and girls

Age 16 (p. 53) - hatred toward boys

Age 17 (p. 56) - hatred toward boys; hatred toward people who have sex
 Age 17 (p. 57) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 65) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 65) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 70) - hatred toward couples

 Age 19 (p. 72) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 75) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 80) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 81) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 82) - hatred toward boys and women
 Age 19 (p. 83) - hatred toward everyone
 Age 19 (p. 84) - hatred toward boys, couples, girls

Now we come to misogyny. He starts expressing antipathy toward women for perceived traits. 
Age 19 (p. 84) - misogynistic hatred toward women

But mostly the rest of the manifesto contains the same sorts of thoughts and feelings as before.

Age 19 (p. 87) - hatred toward couples
Now the first acts of violence take place. They are directed at a couple, not only at a woman. 

Age 19 (p. 87) - hatred toward couples

The rest of the manifesto mostly contains the sort of hateful talk that's predominated so far, not the explicit misogyny on p. 84.  He starts to plan for the "Day of Retribution" and buys himself guns.  Close to the end, there are a few more misogynistic fulminations, alongside plans to flay people, chop their heads off, and so on.

Age 21 (p. 111) - misogynistic hatred of women

 Age 22 (p. 136) - misogynistic hatred of women


Even though the misogynistic passages are a small minority of the hateful passages, you could say they are critical. You could say that if it weren't for Rodger's theories about female inferiority, he wouldn't have come up with his plan for the Day of Retribution.  Or he wouldn't have carried them out. That's not out of the question, I guess.

But if you read this manifesto, what seems much more overwhelming is the overall pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, craving for status, humiliation, despair, etc.  So it is baffling to me that we've settled on misogyny as key to understanding why this happened.

Maybe the focus on misogyny is helpful, in so far as there are other misogynists out there rallying at websites.  We ought to be on the alert for them.  We should be concerned about what they have done or may do to women. Obviously we should condemn misogyny and recognize it's not such a rare thing. But the one who went on the rampage is this one man, who left a very extensive record of his state of mind. What's in that record is mostly other things, not misogyny.  Shouldn't we pay attention?


But then what Bruni said. I think he's right and so I'm going to stop writing about this subject!