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What evidence is there for the idea that human sexuality is fluid?

What evidence is there for the idea that human sexuality is fluid?

So when in 1966, John Money, a psychologist and sexologist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, advised the anxious parents of David Reimer that their accidentally castrated little boy could be successfully raised as a girl, his prescription for the boys ‘gender reassignment’ was a logical extension of the prevailing orthodoxy. David had been left without a penis after a botched circumcision at six months old. Money saw him as a toddler, nearly a year later, and recommended that David have his testicles removed and be given appropriate hormone treatment at puberty so that he could grow up as a happy if infertile girl, rather than a traumatised boy without a penis.  David was renamed Brenda, and treated as a girl from then on.  Since few 14 month infants have any conscious idea of gender roles, it was expected that the treatment would be largely successful.  And Money wrote a number of subsequent papers on the ‘John/Joan case’, claiming that this was indeed the outcome – that Brenda had developed in to a happy and relatively normal girl.

We now know that sadly this wasn’t true – despite generations of social science students having being taught the opposite.  In 1997, Milton Diamond, another sexologist, published a book about the case – explicitly refuting Money’s claims.  Brenda had not been a model of compliant femininity at all. S/he never identified as a normal girl and his behaviour and self concept were predominantly masculine – despite social and parental labelling as a girl.  By the age of 13 his sex and gender roles were so misaligned that his parents decided to tell him the tragic truth about his accident and subsequent upbringing, and David reclaimed his masculinity, having surgery to remove his breasts, treatment with male hormones and several surgical attempts to reconstruct his penis through phalloplasty.  Money’s celebrated experimental success was revealed as an utter failure..

The intellectual climate has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, perhaps partly as a consequence of the overwhelming successes of both feminism and the gay civil rights movement.  It no longer seems so necessary to assert that women and men are exactly the same in order to demand equal treatment in social, political and economic life – nor does the idea that sexuality is essentially a matter of free choice seem to have the same kind of purchase.  But it is also the case that scientific and intellectual discussions have undergone a huge shift – which brings us to our final thinker in this introduction – the cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist, Dr Steven Pinker.

Pinker’s work is salient for therapists because, like us, he is focussed on the relationships between language and the self.   Pinker follows Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most important linguistic researcher of the last fifty years, whose work is concerned with identifying the ‘deep structures’ that underscore all human languages.  Prior to Chomsky, scientific understanding of language generally assumed that vocabulary and syntax were generally acquired through a process of conditioning, by which particular sounds become associated with specific objects through repetition.  Language was to be conceptualised as ‘linguistic behaviour’ and understood as a kind of reflex, a matter of stimulus and response.  Once it was recognised that other great apes didn’t have the same kinds of vocal chords as human beings – and therefore couldn’t be expected to actually verbalise no matter how much conditioning they were subjected to, scientists made a number of now famous attempts to teach chimps sign language.  ‘Washo’ and ‘Nim Chimpsky’ were the names of chimps raised from infancy as if they were were non verbal human babies and encouraged to develop sign language – using a mixture of visual symbols, tokens and bodily gestures. The recent documentary, Project Nim, provides a fascinating account of this work.

Whilst it was possible to teach chimps quite an extensive vocabulary, enabling simple conversations to be held with Washo and Nim, the overall results were disappointing.  Try as hard as they can, non human apes don’t seem to be able to acquire any idea of grammar.  A chimp can’t make the kind of distinctions that we expect of an normal human three year old – between statements like ‘Washo want apple’ and ‘Apple want Washo’.  In Chomsky’s terms they lack a cognitive capacity for deep structure – and it is this which ultimately marks us out from them, rather than differences in the structure of our vocal chords and voice boxes.  The human brain comes equipped with an innate ‘language acquisition device’ – or what Pinker calls a ‘language instinct’, so that whilst the particular language we speak is a matter of nurture, the fact that we can articulate and understand  language in general is a part of our nature – of what it means to be a human being.

This is a long way from the blank slate idea that, as we have seen, underlay much of the common sense assumptions of most social scientists and psychologists in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Much more of the way that we think and behave is part of our nature – conferred by our genes through the complex process of evolution – than has been often been recognised.  And this is extremely significant for therapists.  Take for example, the explanation and treatment of autistic spectrum ‘disorders’.

In the 1950’s, the influential psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argued that autism was caused by deficiencies in parenting practices.  The ‘refridgerator mother’, cold and unable to bond and interact with the young infant, was held responsible for the subsequent development of the autistic personality, locked out of human contact and unable to empathise or form meaningful attachments.  Therapeutic work focussed on attempting to repair and compensate for this early emotional damage – and was generally without much success.

Without intending any harm, this perspective did tremendous damage.  It made mothers feel terribly guilty and inadequate, and it precluded people with autism, which we now recognise to be an inherited learning and communication disability, to make improvements in their social functioning and therefore live richer and more worthwhile lives.

Similar criticisms can be made of the countless and almost entirely fruitless attempts to modify the sexual orientation of homosexuals through aversion or reparative therapy.  Rather than helping people accept and integrate their divergent sexual orientations, and educating the wider public to have a greater tolerance and understanding of sexual minorities, therapists added to the suffering of their clients by making them feel guilty and hopeless as well as lesbian or gay.

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