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"As Nature Made Him?" Are you sure?

jmorgant's picture

Note: S. Yaeger, I wrote this post before I read yours, but I think it relates in many ways to your question about the assertion that intersex people should not be used in the nature/nurture debate.


Both assigned readings for this week (Spanier and Horowitz and Jordan Young) reference the case of David Reimer, who lost his penis in a botched circumcision as an infant, later received sex reassignment surgery. His parents raised him as a girl, giving him estrogen injections and forcing him to imitate stereotypically female behaviors despite his resistance and unhappiness. The book written about this period of his life, “As Nature Made Him,” was one that I was thinking about on Tuesday night during our conversations about sex, gender and sexuality. (I highly recommend this book for everyone in this class! A review of it by Natalie Angier for the NYTimes written in 2000 can be found here). Despite the way he was raised, by late adolescence David identified as a heterosexual male, eventually undergoing a double mastectomy and marrying a woman (he sadly committed suicide in 2004).

Although I had originally reflected on this case because of the questions it raises about male/female – heterosexual/homosexual differences (namely, whether they are primarily social or biological), I now have a different interpretation. After reading “As Nature Made Him” several years ago, I concluded that David’s case supported the view that there are immutable biological differences between males and females that cannot be modified through “nurture.” I now question my initial tendency to draw broad conclusions from a single case. If David had instead identified as a female, would there instead have resulted a flurry of scholastic activity supporting the “nurture” argument? I think that people naturally draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence, since we can only truly know what we have seen, experienced, or been taught. It’s important, however, to take case studies as just that – single cases; one’s individual experience or the results of one particular study. David’s case illustrates the need for doctors and parents to very carefully consider the implications of their decisions regarding child rearing, and, as my group concluded in class, to allow children to make their own decisions whenever possible. It’s human to look for what we already know reflected in other contexts. However, I also think that we must refrain from acting on our instincts and drawing far-reaching conclusions from our limited knowledge. As Spanier and Horowitz and Jordan Young have illustrated, when one initiates an investigation with preexisting preconceptions, the results are similarly biased.