Friday, December 09, 2016

Social Experiment

I've noticed that whenever parents talk about raising children in an LGTB-friendly environment, they are accused of doing a 'social experiment' on their children.

So what, exactly, is a 'social experiment'?

An experiment, in scientific research, is when you randomly assign subjects to experience one or more experimental conditions or a control condition, and assess how that affects an outcome variable. For example, if you have a bunch of depressed rats, and you feed half of them Prozac-laced water and the other half get ordinary sugar water, and then assess how hard they are willing to fight to escape a water trap, that's an experiment. Or if you get a bunch of cancer patients, and half of them get the currently accepted standard treatment, and the other half get standard treatment along with an additional experimental chemo drug, and then you look at the rates of remission and death in both groups, that's another experiment.

By that definition, parents who decide to keep their baby's gender a secret until she can tell others herself are certainly not doing any sort of experiment. They're not randomly assigning some kids to be raised genderless and others to be raised with assumed gender based on their genitalia. They're trying this with only one child, and the choice of the child is far from random.

But research studies sometimes do a similar thing. These aren't experiments, technically, but rather case reports in which they tried something new. Sometimes, these studies lead to experiments.

But is it a bad thing to experiment, or to do an untested treatment, on children?

Not necessarily. A researcher typically submits their design for ethical approval, and the ethics review board carefully considers whether the benefits of gaining the information, and the potential benefits to the participants, outweigh the potential harm. In addition, if there is potential harm, they have to provide a good argument for why they can't study the same question with a less risky procedure.

Some experiments wouldn't pass that test - Little Albert, the baby that Watson trained to fear white furry animals would be harmed if the experiment worked (which it did), and that harm was greater than the benefit of a study showing phobias can be trained. Plus, they could have trained him to fear something that is actually dangerous instead, or possibly even trained a different emotional response. They could also have trained an animal instead of a child. (Unfortunately for animal rights activists, the rules of avoiding harm are much less stringent on animal subjects.)

Others have. One of the most dramatic examples I know of, a study with a profound lasting effect on children's lives, passed this test. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project randomly assigned a bunch of children in a Romanian orphanage to care as usual or foster care. Years later, these children show profound differences due to the differing care they received.

How did an experiment comparing institutional care (widely accepted to be extremely harmful to children) to foster care pass ethical approval? It did so for one simple reason - for these children, the institutional care was what they'd have gotten if the researchers weren't involved. The care as usual group weren't harmed by the researchers, they were just not helped as much as the foster care group was. (In fact, they did derive some benefit from the study, because the research data led the Romanian government to found their own foster care system, which most of the care as usual group ended up living in.)

Let's bring this back to parents. Parents don't have to pass ethics reviews while raising their children. If they do a truly terrible job, they might get reported to child protective services, but the standards are and should be much less stringent for apprehending a child than for disallowing an experiment. As long as the harm the parent is doing is less than the harm that apprehending them would do, CPS shouldn't apprehend the child. (They usually follow this rule, though they do make mistakes sometimes.)

But most caring parents consider their options carefully and search their heart before choosing a certain parenting strategy, especially an unconventional one.

It's important to note that the conventional parenting strategy isn't necessarily ideal. Individuals who identify as transgender have a significantly elevated risk of suicide, in addition to elevated rates of depression and anxiety. In contrast, transgender children who have socially transitioned have nearly normal rates of depression and anxiety. This suggests that for children who turn out to be transgender, treating them as the gender assigned at birth poses a risk of serious harm.

Even for cisgender children, gender stereotyping causes subtler harms. Girls are less likely to aspire to STEM fields, especially in high schools that have sex-segregated extracurricular activities. Girls with eating disorders are more likely to strongly adhere to the feminine gender role, suggesting that trying to be feminine can contribute to the development of this psychiatric condition.

For men, strong adherence to the male gender role increases risk of depression while decreasing willingness to seek help for depression, and increases risk of successful suicide. Men also have shorter lifespans on average, not because of biological differences but because they take poorer care of their own health. For example, men are less likely to use sunscreen than women are, increasing risk of melanoma.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Gender role socialization has been linked to harm for both cisgender and transgender individuals. This research strongly suggests that attempts to limit the extent to which your child is subjected to gender role socialization is likely to improve outcomes, regardless of your child's gender and biological sex.

Of course, nothing is without risk. Which raises the question - what are the risks of gender-neutral parenting? Note that there are three distinct kinds of gender-neutral parenting: parents who initially show gendered parenting but respond to a gender nonconforming or transgender child's needs by relaxing gender roles substantially; parents who openly assign an assumed gender based on biological sex but refuse to let that gender limit their child's options; and parents who go even further and keep their child's biological sex private while using gender-neutral pronouns and a gender-neutral name.

A very common criticism is the concern that gender-neutral parenting, of either variety, could confuse the child and alter their gender identity, making them more likely to be transgender. This is based on a theory of gender that was popular in the 1960s, suggesting that gender is determined by socialization. Based on this theory, David Reimer, who suffered an accident while being circumcised as an infant, was surgically reassigned to female at 22 months and raised as female.

As many of you probably already know, that experiment was a callosal failure. David Reimer eventually transitioned back to male, as well as experiencing suicidal depression. He died of suicide at the age of 38.

It's important to note that David and his twin brother were also victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of the psychologist who recommended David's gender reassignment, and both no doubt had trauma symptoms as a result. But since there is no real evidence to link sexual abuse with gender identity, the most likely explanation for David identifying as male is that the experiment was unsuccessful. Instead of successfully socializing him into a female gender identity, the experiment led to David Reimer experiencing an upbringing inconsistent with his gender identity, which as described above has been linked to a significantly elevated risk of psychiatric problems.

And David's case isn't the only piece of evidence that gender identity isn't determined by gender socialization. Intersex individuals' gender identity isn't strongly predicted by the sex they were raised by and is more closely linked to their androgen profile during critical periods in development. Like David Reimer, the majority of individuals with a typical male androgen profile but with atypical genital appearance identify as male, regardless of sex of rearing. Individuals with intermediate androgen levels have a great deal of variety in gender identity, and XY individuals with complete androgen insensitivity almost always identify as female. In addition, there is no clear evidence to link transgender identity with parenting style, and many transgender people come from families which actively discouraged cross-gender behavior.

If surgically altering a boy to appear female and raising him in a female gender role generally fails to make him identify as female, it's not very plausible to expect that allowing him to choose activities regardless of gender, or even referring to him by gender neutral pronouns, would have any impact on his gender identity.

A second criticism is the concern that the child may be bullied. This is a more realistic concern, as children with gender nonconforming behavior are significantly more likely to be bullied - especially if they are perceived as male. No studies have assessed the likelihood of bullying for a child who is living in a gender-neutral role, with unknown biological sex, but it's reasonable to suppose that bullying could occur in those cases as well.

It's important to note, firstly, that proponents of gender-neutral parenting frequently put a great deal of effort into preventing gender role bullying. Storm and their older siblings are being homeschooled. Parents of gender nonconforming children often reach out to teachers and classmates to help them understand and be respectful of their children. And parents also frequently seek out schools and communities that support their values.

But more importantly, bullying is fundamentally a problem with the bullies, not the victims. It's unjust to bully a child for gender nonconforming behavior, just as it's unjust to bully a child for their culture and religious affiliation. I don't believe that a Muslim parent should feel obligated to avoid passing her beliefs on to her children, simply because being Muslim could make them a target of bullying.

In addition, it's not clear if the increased risk of bullying even outweighs the benefits of being free from gender role restrictions. Most gender nonconforming children aren't being bullied, after all. Clearly, it doesn't outweigh the benefits to transgender children, since transgender children fare much better when they are living as their gender identity, regardless of whether their peers are aware that they are transgender. But what about cisgender children?

Firstly, cisgender children receiving the 'openly gendered but not restricted' style of gender-neutral parenting can easily choose to conform to gender roles in certain situations while acting more nonconforming in other settings. It's not an ideal solution, certainly, but it works for some children. And these children can still benefit from knowing there are alternatives to the roles they adopt in certain contexts.

Secondly, many people who have been bullied overcome the effects once they leave school, especially if they have social support. Not all bullied children are friendless. Gender nonconforming children in particular often are bullied by their own gender while having plenty of opposite-gender friends. This is a very different situation than the child who is completely ostracized and friendless. And even in that situation, parental support makes a tremendous difference.

Overall, while bullying is a concern and something that should be addressed, it shouldn't stop parents from raising children in the manner that they feel is in the child's best interests.

The last criticism is levelled specifically at families in the news, and argues that the children may suffer negative consequences of being the center of media attention. But this is not something that applies to most gender-neutral parenting. Very few parents find themselves the center of media attention, even if their parenting style is unconventional. Even in the approach of keeping a child's biological gender private is something that other parents have done without the media attention that Storm's family has received.

So, is gender-neutral parenting a social experiment on children? Well, sort of. But that doesn't make it wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Another brilliant discussion Ettina - thank you!