AVfM Classics: Male/female discrepancies in transsexualism

While transsexualism has been and remains a poorly-understood condition, certain consistent aspects have been outlined by experiment and observational evidence. One of these aspects is the discrepancy between the sexes, which several, mostly European studies have shown is quite wide, with around three times as many male-to-female as female-to-male transsexuals. But, what are the reasons for this discrepancy? To examine that, we must first examine the phenomenon of transsexualism itself.

Many would suggest that the cause of transsexualism is inherent and genetic. They point to differences in the brain structures of transsexuals, prior to any treatment with hormones or surgery, as evidence of these inherent differences. Transsexual brains appear to be more like those of the sex they identify with, rather than those of the sex they are associated with by virtue of their chromosomes, hormones, and primary and secondary sex characteristics.

These studies are problematic, however, since they tend to feature incredibly small sample sizes that make any statistical conclusions suspect. Further, even if we accept discrepancies in the brains of transsexuals as an assumption, this is a far cry from establishing that these differences are inherent. Indeed, there is strong evidence that human brains are extremely malleable, up to and throughout adulthood. Brains can quickly and dramatically rewire themselves in response to the right stimuli. Of course, this capacity is even greater in childhood.

Humans are tremendously intelligent and adaptable creatures. We are born with few instinctual behaviors, but the capacity to learn  a tremendous number. And our first type of learning is imitation. Before we understand any language, before we even have a concept of self as separate from the other, we imitate. We are vastly impressionable. While it seems true that we have some aspects of personality that are set from the start, would it not be very strange to label any one aspect of personality, or even array of personality traits, as inherently “masculine” or “feminine”?

Certainly, some are more typical of one sex or another, but the fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as “what it’s like” to be a man or woman. If one is a man or woman, they have a sense of that contribution to their experiences, but that cannot be said to be a typical experience of being a man or woman. Each person’s experience is unique; this is even more true when taking into account people throughout history and in other cultures today.

There do not appear to be any hormonal or other consistent physical differences between transsexual individuals and others of their born sexes beyond those in the brain. Many transsexuals report having the initial inklings of their transsexual feelings arise very young, and while these assertions can easily be questioned in individual cases, there is no reason to doubt that, for many, this is the case. Certainly, some modern cases of apparent early childhood transsexualism have received a fair amount of media coverage.

But, given that the inherent, prenatal explanations for transsexualism are highly questionable, what other explanations are there, and why might these lead to the discrepancy between male and female rates of transsexualism? This area is fraught with difficulty. Few modern studies seek any explanation beyond the genetic and inherent. Indeed, modern research almost seems to put the cart before the horse, seeking reasons to validate the assertions of identity politics it takes as a given. Still, by using information from related fields of study, one can begin to build a case for an altogether different and quite environmental explanation.

That a parent’s own sexual identity affects how he or she deals with children has been shown in studies, as have differences in how parents treat children according to the child’s sex. Indeed, this is even the case when parents are unaware of the differences in their actions and reactions towards their children. These sex-based differences in approach are present from a very young age, and are shown to have profound effects on children.

But how might these effects lead to transsexualism? Children begin forming ideas of gender roles very early, and these ideas are simplistic, exaggerated, and extremely rigid, to the point of outright cognitive dissonance when their stereotypes are not adhered to. Children seek to understand their social environment and their place in it. It is important to realize that children have no deep, abstract understanding of gender roles. If a five-year-old boy identifies as a girl, it is not because of some deep-seated existential angst or abstract understanding of his own sex and gender, but because he associates more with certain simplistic and rigid stereotypes assigned to girls.

And why would a young boy associate more with the stereotypes assigned to girls? Well, one good reason would be because he wants to, because he regards his stereotypes of women as superior. For instance, in a feminist household, expressions of masculinity may be viewed with derision, or, when there is a father present, as a source of shame. Even without such associations, however, a child often just spends more time with his or her mother. While it does not occur until after a large proportion of gender ideas are formed, school also exposes children, primarily, to female role models. Not to mention the fact that many behaviors typical of boys are frowned upon and even drugged out of them in modern school environments.

And where do boys find themselves today? Today, women can be anything they want. Women can be action heroes, happy homemakers, corporate executives, and powerful politicians. There are two categories of fashion, fashion for everyone and fashion for women only. Women are the ones seen as beautiful and glamorous. Women are kind, gentle, empathetic, and allowed to freely express emotion. With the traditional strengths of men now seen as irrelevant or even negative, why wouldn’t a boy rather be a girl? Is this not as good an explanation as any for the discrepancies between MtF and FtM transsexualism?

It is simply implausible that a child that associates with the opposite sex label has any real understanding of what that means, but unfortunately, such associations often stick. Further, this gender dysphoria is extremely harmful, frequently leading to severe depression and high suicide and poverty rates for transsexuals. As one might expect, researchers believe that male-to-female transsexuals are the hardest-hit by these problems.

There are several reasons for this, from the far greater shame associated with men breaking gender roles than women, to the simple fact that, after puberty, MtF transsexuals have a much harder time passing as women, due to body size, facial and body hair, and other secondary sex characteristics, than FtM transsexuals have passing as men. Neoteny is relatively easy to overcome with hormone therapies. There may be other reasons, such as different social pressures that tend to lead to each type of transsexualism, but these are poorly studied.

These arguments, while highly speculative, do raise important questions for how we approach raising boys in a changed culture. If, indeed, the way the sexes are treated by parents, teachers, media, and the rest of society leads to gender dysphoria and its often dire consequences, we must renew our efforts to define a new and modern role for boys, or to seek to end these gender stereotypes altogether. The rigidly controlled idea of what passes for masculine in our culture does a disservice to boys and men alike. Until boys are able to associate positive roles and freedom with their sex, it should be no surprise that a greater proportion of them wind up rejecting it, much to their own detriment.

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