Brain Sex – Please Don’t

One of the issues that cropped up during this week’s insane event schedule is the issue of brain sex and the idea that being trans has been proved to be “real” because trans women have been found to have “female brains”. I do a lot of trans awareness training these days, and I never use arguments of this sort. I would be grateful if you could avoid them too.

At first sight it might seem that such ideas are helpful to the trans cause. Certainly you will see them bandied about by some trans activists on social media (I’m looking at you, India). I can totally understand the desire that trans people have to get some scientific justification for the way that they feel. I know that when I was first struggling with my identity I would have done anything for some sort of medical proof that I wasn’t crazy. I was devastated when I had a chromosome test and it came back as standard male. However, with time and experience I have come to understand that only four things are necessary to establish that being trans is a real thing:

  1. The fact that many people have lived trans lives many different countries at many different times throughout the history of mankind;
  2. The extreme distress experienced by trans people who cannot transition;
  3. The abject failure of attempts to use psychiatric techniques such as aversion therapy to cure people of being trans; and
  4. The thousands upon thousands of trans people living happy and fulfilled lives post-transition.

Brain sex arguments, on the other hand, are problematic in a number of ways. To start with, I have yet to see any study that I would be happy standing up and defending in front of a class as a cast iron proof. Proving science is (by design) very difficult. It is much easier, and much more effective, to use science to disprove the muddle-headed ideas about gender that are common in the media. We can provide circumstantial evidence of brain differences, but there is a lot of work to be done in accounting for sample sizes, possible other causes, and so on. To get a really solid proof we’d either have to do experiments on embryos, or do brain surgery on adult trans people, both of which have extreme ethical problems.

On the practical side, any attempt to bring brain sex into the discussion will immediately result in push-back from feminists, and with good reason. Ideas about differences between “male” and “female” brains have long been used as a justification for claiming that men are intellectually and morally superior to women. Personally I would be terrified of having to argue against Cordelia Fine because she’s ruthlessly effective at debunking this sort of thing. Also trans people have enough trouble with feminism as it is. The courses I run generally get very good feedback. Where I do get negative responses it is often from people who claim that I am “anti-feminist”, even when I had said in class that I’m a member for the Women’s Equality Party. Talking about brain sex would mean a whole lot more people would react negatively to my classes.

What I do say in classes is that the biology of gender is really, really complicated. It isn’t a simple matter of XX or XY chromosomes. All sorts of things go into the mix. And because that’s true, any brain sex studies that do turn up real evidence can only be a part of the story. They cannot, by themselves, explain everything about trans people. The suggested biological explanations I have seen for trans people only work for trans women, or only for trans women and trans men. All of them fall apart when faced by the existence of non-binary people.

The trouble with scientific “proofs” of why people are trans is that they will probably only cover a portion of the trans community. This can easily lead to new false binaries. Trans people’s identities will come to be judged on the basis of whether they have a particular medical condition, even if that condition only explains a small proportion of actual trans symptoms. Non-binary people in particular are concerned that medical tests for being trans would result in their being denied treatment. And of course this all feeds into the nonsense about who is a “true trans” and who isn’t.

Finally the idea that you can find evidence of someone’s trans nature in their brain is leading to people advocating brain surgery as a “cure” for being trans. People pushing this line will argue that because chromosomes cannot be changed (they are in every cell of the body) then trans people’s brains “must” be changed to “fix the problem”. I’m sure you can imagine how scary that is for trans people.

So please, let’s stay away from brain sex arguments. They are not needed, and they get us into all sorts of problems.

2 thoughts on “Brain Sex – Please Don’t

  1. People in general don’t seem to understand how very very complicated living thing are, including humans. At the moment brain scanning to identify pretty much anything is rather like personalised medicine based on genetics, there is a lot of hype but the sample sizes in all of the studies I have seen are tiny and except in a few really extreme cases are just not good enough to show us anything except possibly the direction further study might take. And when we do get some useful results I suspect they will be to put us in large groups that say – respond to paracetamol very well, well, ok, a little or not at all. Useful for identifying which drugs you should start a patient with a particular disease on rather than just running down the list from cheapest to most expensive, but nothing like the kind of personalised medicine people think of when genes are being used to type them.

    When you come to the brain it is just as complicated, to start with I don’t think we have any agreement on what mental traits make anyone definitively female or male, by our current definitions and those definitions have changed over my lifetime, let alone the centuries. And even if we could be sure of our definition what are you going to do with the people in the middle who don’t have enough traits to meet your definition but identity as a particular sex? Tell them they can only have x% transition because their brain is only x% male/female? The idea that things ought to be simple binaries is what gets us into this and the political mess we are in both here and the US, reality not only includes all shades of grey from black to white, but all the ‘grey with a hint of x colour’s too not to mention all the different blacks- as any artist will tell you there is no true black in paints, just blue black or red black or yellow blacketc. We need to get away from simplistic definitions that end up pushing too many of us into extreme positions which don’t help us or society.

    Oops, that turned into a political rant, but I do see the problems as similar and the personal is very obviously political 🙂

  2. Well, I think we’ll never stop looking for the reasons or meanings until we understand them so such studies will happen and will have headlines. But we are a long way away from understanding enough about the body or the brain to be able to explain what is going on. There are so many variables and so much we don’t even begin to comprehend. I think we will always ask but we are possibly centuries away from an answer – if there is one. After all why would the child of two artists become an dentist?

    And as for fixing people – you would be as well trying to fix people for having red hair or being left handed or being good at languages or physics.

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