The Sexes: Biological Imperatives

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In October 1963, a young rural couple took their identical twin boys to a physician to be circumcised. During the first operation, performed with an electric cauterizing needle, a surge of current burned off the baby's penis. Desperate for a way to cope with this tragedy, the parents took the advice of sex experts: "Bring the baby up as a girl." The experiment has apparently succeeded. Aided by plastic surgery and reared as a daughter, the once normal baby boy has grown into a nine-year-old child who is psychologically, at least, a girl.

This dramatic case, cited by Medical Psychologist John Money last week at the Washington meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, provides strong support for a major contention of women's liberationists: that conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered. It also casts doubt on the theory that major sexual differences, psychological as well as anatomical, are immutably set by the genes at conception. In fact, says Money, there are only four imperative differences: women menstruate, gestate and lactate; men impregnate. Many scientists believe that crucial psychological imperatives follow from these biological facts, limiting the flexibility of sexual roles. Money, however, is convinced that almost all differences are culturally determined and therefore optional. The Johns Hopkins psychologist further spells out his views on sex-role learning in a book published last week. Its title: Man & Woman, Boy & Girl (Johns Hopkins; $12.50).

In the normal process of sexual differentiation, Money explains, if the genes order the gonads to become testes and to produce androgen, the embryo develops as a boy; otherwise it becomes a girl. Androgen not only shapes the external genitals but also "programs" parts of the brain, so that some types of behavior may come more naturally to one sex than to the other. For instance, both men and women can mother children—the necessary circuits are there in every brain—but the "threshold" for releasing this behavior is higher in males than in females. The same phenomenon is demonstrated by laboratory animals. If a mature female rat is put into a cage with newborn rats, she begins mothering them at once. In a similar situation, a male rat does nothing at first, but after a few days he too begins to display maternal behavior.

Chain. Money nonetheless believes that hormones secreted before and after birth have less effect on brain and behavior in human beings than the "sex assignment" that takes place at birth with the announcement: "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" This exultant cry tells everyone how to treat the newborn baby, and sets off a chain of events, beginning with the choice of a male or female name, that largely determines whether the child will behave in traditionally masculine or feminine ways.

Money's evidence for this familiar thesis comes largely from cases in which accidents before or after birth made it impossible to raise children according to their genetically determined sex. In each of his examples, youngsters learned to feel, look and act like members of the opposite sex.

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