On Androgens And Tomboys

The great Maccoby-Jacklin meta-study of 1974 found only four universal sex differences in children: girls were more verbal, less visual-spatial, less mathematical, and less aggressive. Other differences were left open or explicitly dismissed as mythical. The meta-study has, however, been criticised for debunking some real sex differences on the peculiar grounds that they are differences of kind rather than degree. One might be forgiven for thinking that qualitative differences of behaviour were at least as interesting as quantitative differences in ability.

There is a famous case, beloved by those who want all gender to result from socialisation, of a boy who was accidentally castrated and then reared as a girl, while his identical-twin brother was being reared as a male. The mother did her utmost to feminise the former with ribbons and bows, but her strategy was ultimately rather unsuccessful in its own terms; for the girl ended up as a tomboy who wanted to be a mechanic. The outcome you will not hear about from the socialisation school, only the attempt.

There are rather more cases of early exposure of a genetic female to androgens via a congenital adrenal disorder called CAH. As regards behaviour, the disorder – or possibly the treatment for it – reliably produces “tomboys”, though within the normal female range. The same applies to certain medications given in the 1950s to prevent miscarriage. In neither case did these girls turn out lesbian: they became heterosexual women with “masculine” hobbies and interests.

Where children are born with ambiguous genitalia and a decision is made to reassign their gender after the age of two, the results are generally unhappy adults. For it appears that socio-sexual identity is in fact fixed by that age. This does not speak, of course, to individuals who of their own will seek gender reassignment surgery in adulthood. The implication may be that one should operate on people immediately after birth, or else when they are old enough to give informed consent, but not in between.

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  1. Written by urban
    on March 6, 2011 at 16:23

    “girls were more verbal, less visual-spatial, less mathematical, and less aggressive.”

    The problem I always have with these “universal” differences between the sexes is that they are best represented by venn diagrams with a great deal of overlap. Is an autistic girl more verbal than the outgoing boy next door? Am I more visual-spatial than say, a great sculptor such as Magdalena Abakanovich? The answer to all such questions is obviously, “Of course not!”. Anyone who doubts that there are aggressive girls and shy boys needs help.

    My ex-wife was a mathematical genius whereas I struggle with anything above the basics. And I am probably more verbal than she, (certainly more articulate), and she more visual that I, (a brilliant painter as is her sister). Now I don’t think for a New York second that any of that makes her less of a woman nor I less of a man, nor that there was any category confusion in our marriage.

    Real people are simply more complex than that and these divergent gender characteristics start to look a lot less universal against a backdrop of actual experience in the world with a large and diverse group of people.

    That’s a beef with studies such as the one you cite, or more specifically with the odd conclusions people draw from such studies, Hugo, not with your post. There are a lot more cases such as you mention where the parents and doctors deciding a child’s sex has disastrous consequences for that child.

    A few years ago a man whose penis had accidentally been mutilated shortly after birth and had been assigned female gender in reconstruction, wrote a book about his experiences and went on the talk show circuit. His take: Nazi medical experiments conducted in the service of crackpot theories of leading academics who should be in prison and yet still hold prestigious positions. The falsifying outcomes, such as his mess of a life, get swept under the rug. Then he committed suicide, explicitly because he could not bounce back and salvage a life worth living after what had been done to him.

    One day a doctor died while performing surgery and showed up at the pearly gates still in his scrubs. St. Pete takes one look at him and says, “Hold it right there, buster. We have a very strict dress code in heaven: no blue jeans, no open toed shoes, and no surgical scrubs.

    The doctor removes his clothing and enters heaven. He’s not there but a couple minutes when he sees someone run across the clouds wearing scrubs, so he goes back to the pearly gates. “Yo, Pete. I thought you said that there was a very strict dress code here in heaven. I just saw somebody wearing scrubs.”

    “Oh, that’s God.” St Peter replied. “He likes to play doctor.”

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on March 6, 2011 at 23:14

    I thought it too obvious to be worth stating that Maccoby-Jacklin were talking averages. For the record, I am also articulate, mathematically illiterate and unable to parallel-park, but it doesn’t occur to me to challenge the meta-study on that basis. There’s room for me in the average.

    The aspect of this that interests me most is that most people assume symmetrical Gauss curves of distributions for both sexes, maybe with the one displaced sideways to indicate an evenly-spread difference in skills. But it’s not like that. Male mathematical ability, for example, is a broad and asymmetrical curve, so that almost all the genius mathematicians are men, and so are the more numerous mathematical dunces like us, whereas the women fall more in between the extremes. So you can have gender averages too close to call, but lots of male wunderkinds and few female. That what was how Larry Summers got into trouble with the thought-police ignoramuses a couple of years ago. I think I read this in a female scientist, by the way.

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