takedown thursday: the supremacy of sex hormones

Monkeys: the best way to study gendered behaviour in humans! (Picture of this lovely white-faced saki monkey courtesy of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory)
Monkeys: the best way to study gendered behaviour in humans! (Picture of this lovely white-faced saki monkey courtesy of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory)

Oh dear. Over at the Irish Times, William Reville has written a very enlightened article about how letting kids play with whatever toys they want is social conditioning and the equality “agenda” and sex hormones and some other stuff. Honestly, it’s all a bit disjointed. In any case, I’m supposed to be in bed, but as soon as I read this, I got a rage headache and I felt in my bones that the only way to make it go away was a healthy dose of snark. And then I realised, that yes, yes, it is time.

It is time for another Takedown Thursday.

Attention male readers. How would you like it if Michael Noonan introduced a tax on men in reparation for the violence that men have visited on society over the ages?

Well, such a law was proposed by a radical feminist/green lobby in Sweden, where they take gender equality seriously. Unfortunately, I think they are getting it very wrong.

Attention all readers. Just in case you were wondering, this proposed law has fuck diddly squat to do with the rest of the article. However, it was important to shoehorn it in there because feminists (and also environmentalists?) are evil and probably involved somehow.

This law was never close to being enacted,


but Sweden is making progress with gender-equality in other areas, as reported by Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic in December. For example, Swedish toy company catalogues must show images of boys playing with dolls and girls with guns, and vice versa, and in 2012 the Swedes introduced the genderless pronoun “hen” instead of “han” (he) and “hon” (she).

That all sounds fairly reasonable, right? I mean, when I was six years-old I was officially the biggest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan on the planet, but I also had an impressive My Little Pony collection. Gender-neutral marketing of toys is surely better than the bombardment of BLUE VS. PINK, GUNS VS. DOLLS, TRUCKS VS. TOY KITCHENS that children are currently subjected to from birth. Right?


Wrong, according to Prof Reville!

In Stockholm, a state-sponsored preschool Egalia tries to obliterate the male/female distinction among children. The children are not called boys and girls, but friends, and stories like two male giraffes parenting abandoned crocodile eggs have replaced classic fairy tales such as Cinderella. The Swedish Green party want Egalia to become the norm.

That’s right, everyone. All versions of Cinderella have been officially banned in Swedish schools. Instead, children are being exposed to whimsical animal narratives about non-traditional family structures which very likely reflect their own circumstances, especially since same-sex marriage has been legal in Sweden since 2009. Will the children languish without their classic fairytales about women achieving security and status through marrying successful men? Only time will tell.

Also, real talk, did anyone ever actually “learn” Cinderella in school? Disney taught me that shit.

Males and females are different and behave differently from an early age. Sex stereotyped play is a persistent difference – boys generally prefer rough-and-tumble play and girls prefer nurturing play. This also holds across species; monkeys behave similarly.


Seriously though, if one more scientist cites monkey behaviour as a good basis for how humans should treat each other, I’m going to become a creationist.

Biology plays a major role in determining male and female patterns of behaviour. Sex hormones come in two varieties, male and female. Males are predominantly exposed to male sex hormones in the womb and throughout life, and females to female sex hormones. These hormones condition play behaviour.

This is hard and fast science, my friends. I heard that these male and female hormones actually have names, but maybe the Professor was worried that we’d already be too confused by the highly technical language.

Also, as my geneticist sister just pointed out, what happens to non-identical male and female twins in the womb?

Female monkeys exposed prenatally to male sex hormones later prefer male rough-and-tumble play. The human genetic disease congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) exposes the female foetus to unusually large amounts of male sex hormone and toy-preference studies have shown that girls with CAH prefer to play with cars than with dolls.

And now Sweden has very thoughtfully pioneered an environment where little girls with CAH (and also little girls who just… you know… like cars) can play with the toy vehicle of their choice uninhibited by social pressure to conform to typical female behaviour. Hooray! Right?

Few deny that biology plays a major role in determining gender-specific play. However, those who make proposals such as described for Sweden argue that “we should not accept biology as destiny” and parents/teachers should oppose certain biologically inbuilt tendencies with social conditioning, just as we do in medicine by vaccination or medications.

If anything, gender-neutral environments would do away with social conditioning and let biology take its natural course. Seriously Professor, if biology is such a huge factor in gender-based behaviour, why are you so worried? Surely in a gender-neutral environment, all those aforementioned sex hormones will kick in and boys will continue wrestling in the mud and girls will continue playing with dolls who poop themselves (fun!) and everyone will be happy?

This view suggests we should treat gender-based behaviour in children as a disease in need of a cure. Such pursuit of gender neutrality would eliminate variety, generally seen as a valuable asset in the biological world and a vital basic element contributing to normal human interrelations.

Lol, sorry Professor. You can’t argue that gender is not a social construct, and then go on to argue that gender-neutral “social conditioning” could potentially eliminate gender distinctions. BECAUSE THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Also, I love “normal human interrelations”, just dropped in there, minding its own business. I will leave speculation as to what the Professor considers “normal” entirely up to the reader.

There is no credible evidence that normal gender-based play behaviour causes any harm.

No, but when companies start exploiting gender stereotypes to sell toys, they start enforcing the idea that girls should really only be concerned with babies, cooking and learning how to put on make-up from a very young age. Also, that boys are naturally inclined towards violence and aggression, and boys who deviate by pursuing gentler activities deserve to be systematically shamed and bullied. But that’s probably just my crazy feminist agenda showing.

Hoff Sommers quotes psychological evidence that normal boys’ rough-and-tumble play is not aggression but makes the boys happy, is a vital part of social development, and improves their writing skills, imagination and speech. Studies have also shown that the more civilised play of girls contains fantasies just as exciting and intense as boys’ fantasies.

LOL. “Girls also probably have fun, but who knows.” This whole paragraph is just ridiculous and I refuse to address it.

The push in Sweden to eliminate gendered behaviour in children is based on the ideological notion that gender is mostly socially constructed.

No. No no no. No one is trying to eliminate gendered behaviour. Rather, Sweden is trying to avoid labeling specific activities and toys as “male” or “female” so children don’t feel pressured into rigid gender roles at a young age. Which, once again, shouldn’t change anything according to Reville BECAUSE SEX HORMONES CONQUER ALL.

Seriously, this article makes it sounds like Swedish feminists are physically yanking dolls away from weeping little girls and then forcing boys to play tea party with them.

There is undoubtedly a social element to gender,

“But for the purposes of this poorly-constructed argument, I am going to ignore it. Unless it suits me.”

but the evidence for a strong biological basis is undeniable and it cannot be healthy to frustrate strong biological tendencies. You can change gendered play in children by social conditioning but it bounces back when there is any slackening off in the conditioning.

I really enjoy the way that Reville thinks creating a gender-neutral environment where kids can play with whatever toys they want is evil social conditioning, but decorating a baby girl’s room entirely in pink and giving her dolls to play with before she can even construct full sentences? That’s totally not social conditioning at all, that’s just sex hormones!

One is reminded of the 1967 case of David Reimer from Canada (reported as the John/Joan case).

Really? Is “one” reminded of this very specific case you cherry-picked because it serves your point?

Reimer lost his penis in a circumcision accident.

To compensate, he was clinically castrated and treated with female hormones, and was raised as a girl, on the ideological assumption that gender is socially constructed.

But Reimer always identified as a boy and became a tragically unhappy adolescent. The case is recounted in the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (New York, Harper Collins, 2000).

There you have it: one sad case of a boy being castrated under dubious circumstances in the 1960s and developing gender dysmorphia as a result. Therefore, gender-neutral environments are bad and evil. QED, my friends. QED.

The preponderance of scientific (biological and psychological) evidence indicates that the social gender engineering proposed in Sweden is wrong. Male and female are different but equal and the equality agenda is damaged rather than served by trying to eliminate difference.

OH EQUAL BUT DIFFERENT. Here I was, thinking I was actually going to get through a whole article about gender essentialism without my favourite phrase cropping up, but there it is, thrown in like an obvious piece of common sense that requires no further explanation!

Also, pro-equality people (which is surely everyone, no?), I don’t know if you got the memo, but we’re doing equality wrong! A whole “preponderance” of – barely cited, but no doubt overwhelming – evidence suggests this. Unfortunately, Reville has does not feel the need to go into the details of how we are damaging our “agenda”, but I suspect his preferred course of action would be to do absolutely nothing because things are just fine the way they are. Even though a gender-neutral environment (with humans, not monkeys, I know it can get confusing!) is the perfect place to test the absolute supremacy of the sex hormones and settle the question once and for all!

Just to make it clear, and to round this up, I do not believe that gender is entirely a social construct and I do not deny that biology plays a role in the formation of gender identity. I believe that gender identify is created by the interaction of a complex set of biological, social and environmental factors, and that it is almost impossible to predict how it will manifest in an individual as a result.

But the point Professor Reville misses is that the factors determining gender identity and gender-based behaviour do not actually matter when it comes to equality. Evolutionary psychologists will argue themselves blue telling you that women should stay in the home because women secretly really want to stay in the home because cavewomen stayed in the cave and cleaned all day and got the little cavechildren ready to greet their caveman father when he came home from a long day in the office of hunting and gathering. And that’s fine. Maybe 90% of women really do want to stay in the home, in which case, that’s what they should do. BUT, that doesn’t mean the (entirely proverbial) 10% of women who want to get out and earn their own income should not be allowed or encouraged to do just that. Moreover, we should have social and legal mechanisms in place to make sure those women can do that to the same extent as men, because that’s what equality is.

Same goes for little boys and girls and their toys. Maybe 9 out of 10 girls are biologically disposed to have an unwavering love of the Bratz franchise. Fine. (Well no, not fine, I hate Bratz, but whatever.) That 10th little girl who wants to pretend to be a solider all day should get to do just that, and she should get to do it in a world that doesn’t make her feel weird or wrong or excluded for liking what she likes. Same goes for little boys who want to play with dolls or dress up. That’s the kind of world the equality “agenda” wants. And at the core of this awful article, Professor Reville is arguing for the opposite. He fails spectacularly to make the argument that social factors do not influence gender. But what he does make blindingly clear that he only thinks the social factors that influence gender are a bad thing when they are non-traditional and he personally does not approve of them.

This post originally appeared on my old blog, death of the new gods, and has been backdated to reflect this.

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