booknotes: brain storm

This past week I devoured a book Hanna found for me on the new books wall at the library: Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, by Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist currently teaching at Barnard College. The book is a systematic survey and assessment of the quality of the scientific research that has been used over the past fifty years in support of the theory that male and female brains are innately different because of different patterns of hormone exposure during gestation.

While the research in this area is inconsistent at best, and methodologically flawed at worse, the idea of sex-typed "brain organization" which pre-disposes men and women to gendered "masculine" and "feminine" behaviors has become widely popularized common sense knowledge, justifying everything from the intrusive medical treatment and scrutiny of gender- and sex-variant people to the dismissal of concerns about social structures that may support gender inequality (if men are "naturally" more interested in careers, and women are "naturally" more interested in caring for children, then no amount of social policy -- the argument goes -- will alter this predisposition).

Jordan-Young's goal in Brain Storm is not to argue against the scientific exploration of sex and gender development, but rather to suggest that the science we currently rely upon to support the assertions of sex difference are problematic.  She argues that an "epistemology of ignorance" characterizes the work of scientists who do research on brain organization. That is, these scientists purposefully ignore (because they assume it is irrelevant) any potential sociocultural explanations for the gendered behavior of their subjects, attributing the differences they do discover on atypical, early hormone exposure rather than on the complicated interaction between "nature" and culture. They assume this sociocultural evidence is irrelevant because they expect to find sex-typed differences, and expect those differences to be explained by early physiological sex-differentiation. They have closed the door on alternate (and ultimately, at least according to the strength of available evidence, more compelling) explanations.

This book is far too dense to adequately condense its major ideas into one short booknote; I encourage all of you interested in this area of research to read the whole book, since Jordan-Young's explanations of how these scientific studies have been generated are really useful as a window into understanding how to better interpret research findings. Regardless of your philosophical position on the physiological origins of sex and gender variety, Brain Storm will help you become a better consumer of the evidence out there that is currently used to support that network of ideas.

To give you a flavor for the type of material covered in Brain Storm, here are a few excerpts.

From "Chapter Six: Masculine and Feminine Sexuality", which explores how researchers have defined "masculine" and "feminine" sexuality in their research and findings.  Jordan-Young points out that during the 1950s-1970s, when brain organization theory was taking hold in the scientific community, immense changes took place in the cultural perception of what "masculine" and "feminine" sexuality looked like, and how it "naturally" expressed itself.  The scientific literature, however, largely ignores these historical shifts, treating these categories as uncomplicated notions that do not need to be explicitly defined.
Surprisingly, against this backdrop of change [the sexual revolution], most brain organization researchers have used the common term feminine sexuality through more than four decades as though it is absolutely self-evident and unproblematic. But the ground has been shifting under their feet. While ideas and practices associated with "normal" sexuality changed in the broader world during those decades, the transformation of masculine and feminine sexuality was just as dramatic [yet unacknowledged] in the studies that are intended to determine how male and female sexual natures develop.

In brief, from the late 1960s until around 1980, brain organization researchers relied on a model of human sexuality that sharply divided masculine and feminine sexual natures ... Things began to change in the early 1980s. In the most general way, scientists continued to assert that early exposure to "masculinizing" hormones make sexual development either more masculine or less feminine, and their preoccupation with sexual orientation intensified. But a closer look at the specific behaviors coded as masculine or feminine in the later studies shows some surprising and very important differences from the first period. In particular, masturbation, genital arousal, and sex with multiple partners came to be understood as "commonsense" features of feminine sexuality, even though these had earlier been read as clear signs of masculinization (pp. 113-114).
In "Chapter Seven: Sexual Orienteering," Jordan-Young tackles the jaw-droppingly simplistic approach brain organization researchers continue to take toward sexual orientation, despite increasing acknowledgment across a wide range of scholarly fields that sexual identity and orientation highly subjective, often subject to change over time, and are inextricably wrapped up in both "nature" and culture.
To Dr. A and Dr. N, who are among the mos influential scientists in the world studying biological influence on human sexuality, subjects who gave equivocal or contradictory answers to questions about sexual orientation are either being obstructive or confused. Ironically, Dr. A's admonition to "listen to the subject" ends up being qualified by "if they're consistent." Dr. A doesn't consider the possibility that subjects' hedging and ambiguity reflect meaningful complexity -- that the phenomenon of sexual orientation is complex and sometimes ambiguous. Instead, he thinks of sexual orientation as a simple categorical trait -- the objections of modern intellectuals and old cranks like Alfred Kinsey not withstanding, you can sort people into discrete types. In this view, subjects who don't fit the profile are simply lying, or perhaps more charitably, self-deluded.

While other scientists vigorously debate what sexual orientation is and how best to measure it, brain organization researchers almost never address the fundamental questions involved. The majority of studies linking early hormone exposures with human sexuality have focused primarily or exclusively on sexual orientation -- yet most brain organization studies that are "about" sexual orientation have not defined sexual orientation at all, or have used vague and contradictory definitions that often do not agree with the measures scientists have used (p. 145-146).
It was particularly revelatory for me to realize the (obvious once you're looking for it) point that the most basic ways of sorting groups of people according to orientation can matter, both when it comes to grouping people for the purposes of research and for the purposes of understanding populations in more cultural/social frameworks.

For example, does your definition group people according to the gender of the people whom they are attracted to (men or women)? Or does your definition arrange people according to whether their attractions are same-sex or opposite sex? Both of these definitions, obviously, beg the question of what to do with people who do not fit a binary schema -- but for the moment let's pause here.

If you arrange people on a heterosexual/homosexual schema, you're grouping them by same-sex vs. other-sex attractions. That is, gay and lesbian people will be in one group, straight women and men in the other. And research designed to explain these categories would look for sameness within the groups and difference between them. You would presume that straight men and women had certain markers of sameness, while queer folks had similar profiles.

Most brain organization research uses the heterosexual/homosexual schema when it comes to structuring their research populations (i.e. they have a "straight" population and a "gay/lesbian" population, and yet their research questions and theories actually follow the people-attracted-to-men vs. people-attracted-to-women model. They assume that individuals who are attracted to men (gay men, straight women) will have markers of sameness, and individuals who are attracted to women (straight men, lesbians) will have markers of sameness -- and that these two groups, when compared, will show patterns of difference.

The distinctions seem slight at first, but actually matter a great deal when it comes to structuring a research study or understanding how we make sense of the world, about what we expect of certain groups of people, and what assumptions those expectations rest upon.

The most painful sections of the book to read, at least for me, were the sections that dealt directly with research around intersex conditions, most prominently girls and women with CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia). Since brain organization researchers are interested in the effect of hormones on brain development, they have obviously sought out populations known to have had atypical hormone exposure. They then study these individuals for "signs" of sex/gender/sexuality atypicality -- "atypical" usually meaning, as the above excerpts show, "contrary to researchers' culturally-shaped assumptions about gendered behavior." In "Chapter Nine: Taking Context Seriously," Jordan-Young uses the example of CAH studies to show how the tunnel vision approach of brain organization researchers has led them to ignore powerful evidence that sociocultural context matters when it comes to sex and gender identity. Not necessarily to the exclusion of hormonal or other "natural" influences, but in ways that simply should not be ignored by scientists who are attempting to test their hypothesis.

No brain organization research, for example, takes into account the fact that the sexual feelings and activities, the self-identity of their CAH subjects is inevitably influenced by the fact that these girls and women are subject to intense scrutiny and intervention -- both social and medical -- from birth into adulthood. They are expected to behave atypically, and monitored rigorously and anxiously by parents and medical professionals in hopes they will be "normal." Their bodies are often treated to invasive "normalizing" surgeries and examined regularly. They are asked to perform certain sexual acts, such as masturbation, under supervision, and until very recently little or no thought was given to the actual quality of their sexual experiences and feelings about their own bodies and sexuality -- all that mattered was intervening in their lives in the hope that they could be shepherded toward "normal" sex/gender/sexual identities (read: straight person presenting and identifying as female).

To me, this sort of anxiety surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as the simplistic notion that male/female heterosexual = best possible outcome for all people is just incredibly sad. It's a very sad testament to the lack of imagination among medical professionals and the general populace that human variation is not only okay, but might actually be the best possible outcome.

I don't really have any concluding thoughts about this book other than that it's definitely a keeper, and I urge you all to at least be aware of its existence in the world, should you find yourself in need of a comprehensive survey of brain organization research. It also has an extensive bibliography that can point you in all sorts of branching directions ... next up on my list, for example, is Katrina Karkazis' 2008 book Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience.

Happy reading!

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