01 July 2009


A Swedish couple has made a decision to keep their child's gender a secret.

What a charming idea!

I thought we were moving toward a more complex notion of gender by acknowledging that there are inherent differences between the sexes.

So many parents start off with the good intention not to define their children by their gender. And then, you have children, and if you are paying any attention, all your preconceived notions of gender neutrality go out the window. You can dress your girl in blue, and your boy in pink, but biology, is, to an undeniable extent, destiny.

Boys are, in fact, different than girls. Boys spend a lot more time with their hands in their pants. In a boy's hands, everything becomes a vehicle, or a weapon. Girls are more interested in dolls, and nurturing. They can, by and large, sit still for longer periods of time, while boys crave movement.

There are many exceptions to these generalizations, but they are not coincidences. There is a reason why we have two genders. Men and women have different strengths, and we complement each other. It is not a happy accident that you need one of each to make a baby. Girls are genetically programmed to be mothers. This is not to say that women are obligated to bear children; simply, that we are built for it.

The notion of gender neutrality is a myth, and to deny this does no child a service. An child is not the correct forum for conducting a radical social experiment. This Swedish couple is on the fast track to fucking up a human being, and for that, they should be ashamed.


  1. Actually, a claim that the differences you cite are due to genetics is dubious, at best.

    When anyone bothers to actually engage in some scientific study, what they generally find is that the claimed differences (e.g. "girls talk more") are just not true. See Amanda Schaffer's excellent series on the science of sex difference. (One of my degrees is in cognitive science. I've read some papers on neurological difference -- or, more accurately, the lack thereof -- across the sexes.)

    And more to the point, even if you DID find a difference, how would you KNOW if it was genetic? How many kids do you know who were raised free of influences that would tend to inculcate performance of expected gender roles? No matter how well-meaning a parent is, it's very likely that they will pass on such expectations, and even if they don't, relatives, peers, and random people at the grocery store will say and do things towards a kid that are determined by their expectations about the gender associated with the perceived sex. (This is why people get so upset when somebody mis-identifies the sex of their kid. ZOMG, somebody might encourage my little boy to behave like a girl! Or vice versa.)

    Such stereotyping is pernicious. They result in poor communication between people who believe themselves more different than they actually are. They drive talented people away from "wrong-gendered" fields that they might excel at, and serve as justifications for institutional discrimination. (Famously, when top orchestras switched to blind auditions -- having a screen between judges and applicants -- the acceptance rates for women went from miniscule, to parity with men, immediately.)

    I'm all for identifying REAL differences that depend on genetics, so we can better understand ourselves, get more personalized medical care, and so on. But "MY kids acted like stereotypical boys/girls! so gender difference must be real!" is unserious, in such a discussion. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

    Both I and my fiancee are poor fits for our respective gender stereotypes. (I did martial arts, but I also did ballet, love to cook, am the neat/clean/organized member of our duo, and am generally more emotionally sensitive than she is; she likes to play with cars and build stuff so much that she got a Master's in Mechanical Engineering.) So I take this issue kind of personally. I keep waiting for people who claim "but there's a difference!" to actually offer DATA to back their claims.

  2. Auros,

    I read your comments, and the links you supplied, with great interest. By using the most simplistic stereotypical examples, I opened myself up to criticism such as yours. Stereotypes can be pernicious, but they exist because somewhere along the way there was an element of truth to them. Human beings can, and do, judge books by their covers all the time, and this is not always a bad thing, so long as we are prepared to adjust our preconceived notions when presented with convincing evidence to the contrary. I could give you thousands of examples of ways in which everyone in my family, myself included, defy sexual sexual stereotypes every day.

    Nonetheless, my larger point still stands. Because we are social creatures, it is impossible to separate gender from a social context. Gender is as much a biological as a social construct. There are obvious physical, and biological differences between men and women. We have different sex organs, and our hormonal cocktail is different. In the presence of these obvious physical differences, the burden of proof is on those who claim there is no difference. Whether you like it or not, a great bulk of the evidence in this arena is by necessity anecdotal. The articles you point to seem to say that while there is evidence of social bias with regards to gender stereotypes, the evidence is inconclusive. We just don't know, and in fact, we will never know for certain, how much of gender is due to social versus biological factors. I am not trying to suggest that anecdotal evidence is an acceptable substitute for data, simply that at a certain point, we have to be comfortable with uncertainty.

    The study you site in Science News belies this fallacy, by drawing the conclusion: "In studies where gender norms are removed, researchers demonstrated how important gender roles and social context were in determining a person's actions." Biological and social factors cannot easily be teased apart. We cannot raise human beings in a vacuum. It would be like raising a plant in the dark and expecting it to thrive. There is no ethical way, that I know of, to test this hypothesis, and I doubt there is any scientific body that would approve such an experiment. Could you, in good conscience, ever subject your own child to such an experiment? What would you propose the Swedish parents tell their child when secondary sex characteristics emerge? Should they neuter the child so as not to have to deal with this inevitable development?

    I would also suggest to you that parents get upset when people misidentify their child's sex not because we are upset that, God forbid, girls were to behave like boys or vice versa, but rather, because gender is central to one's identity. An infant, lacking the self-awareness to construct their own identity, of biological necessity must rely on their parents to begin the process of constructing identity until they are old enough to do so on their own.

    Finally, I ask, what is wrong with acknowledging that there are differences between men and women? Men and women are the same, and we are different. It is as simple, and as complicated as that. In light of this, gender equality, not gender neutrality, should be our goal.

  3. I do not believe that the Swedish couple in question is attempting to raise their child to be sexless or androgynous. They are merely refusing to allow other people to behave toward their child in a manner determined by gender. They're saying, "Treat Pop as a human being first -- not as a boy or a girl." From reading their statements online, I'm sure that when the kid starts being obviously male or female, they're not going to insist that s/he hide it. They simply want hir to have a chance to make hir own choices, rather than having gender thrust upon hir from before s/he's even able to speak.

    Lastly, I would categorically deny that "gender is central to one's identity." Maybe it is central to your identity, and to that of most folks you know. Certainly we are instructed by our culture that it should be important. I frankly couldn't care less about it. I think it's a particularly dysfunctional part of our culture, and, as I said, does a lot of damage to a lot of people. Saying that the goal is "gender equality" rather than "gender neutrality" strikes me as being just as misguided as "separate but equal". Both differences are physical -- different races have "obvious physical differences" in terms of skin color, facial structure, etc. Both are genetically determined. And for both, there is essentially no evidence that the genetic differences translate into psychological differences -- if any psychological differences exist at all (and the evidence frequently belies conventional wisdom saying there is), it is hard to claim that it does not result from indoctrination rather than innate inclination.

    I brought up this story with my fiancée last night, and her response was horror at the name Pop. As she put it, "But there are so many nice gender-ambiguous names!"

  4. Oh, and BTW, I just went back and looked at the context of the quote you pulled out of the Science Daily article. It says:

    [G]ender differences seem to depend on the context they were measured in, said Hyde. In studies where gender norms are removed, researchers demonstrated how important gender roles and social context were in determining a person's actions. In one study where participants in the experimental group were told that they were not identified as male or female nor wore any identification, neither sex conformed to a stereotyped image when given the opportunity to act aggressively. They did the opposite to what was expected.

    End quote.

    The point is that gendered behavior was elicited from those who were reminded of their membership in a gendered group. The subjects who were explicitly divided into a male and female group behaved the way men and women are expected to behave. Those who were explicitly told gender didn't matter actually went in the opposite direction. One might speculate that they were "overcompensating," taking an opportunity to exercise parts of their personality that are normally repressed to meet the demands of a gendered culture.