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Dr John Money and the sinister origins of gender ideology

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Dr John Money and the sinister origins of gender ideology

How a cruel, amoral experiment helped birth today's trans movement.

Lauren Smith

Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Science & Tech World

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We are all too familiar today with the basics of trans ideology. That biological sex does not determine one’s ‘gender identity’. That someone born biologically male can become female. And that we need to affirm a person’s ‘gender identity’, even if that person is a small child. What few perhaps realise is that the intellectual origins of so much of trans ideology can be traced back to the work of one man – sexologist and psychologist Dr John Money (1921-2006).

New Zealand-born Money was a pioneer in his field of sexuality and gender. In 1955, he was the first person to use the word ‘gender’ as opposed to ‘sex’ to draw a distinction between the biological attributes and the behavioural characteristics that differentiate males from females. He subsequently popularised terms like ‘gender identity’ and even founded the world’s first gender-identity clinic at John Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US in 1966, specialising in the psychological and medical treatment of transgender patients. Above all, Money pushed the view, so central to today’s trans movement, that though we may be born with biologically determined sex characteristics, they do not determine whether we are male or female. Without Money, it’s unlikely that trans ideology, especially the phenomenon of ‘trans kids’, would exist today in the way that it does.

Not everything Money believed about gender has been absorbed by the trans movement. He believed, for instance, that when children are around two years old they pass through a ‘gender-identity gate’, which locks in their gender for the rest of their lives. Few trans activists would make such a claim today. But the central idea that Money first developed is still upheld by trans activists today – namely, that being male or female is not biologically determined. This is the idea that drives trans ideology, and the notion of trans kids, today. It means that someone can be born with male genitalia, but they can still ‘become’ female.

So why is Money rarely mentioned by those promoting trans ideology today? You won’t find him cited in Stonewall educational guides. You won’t see him quoted in any Mermaids documents. And you won’t hear the #BeKind brigade paying tribute to him. The reason for this is simple enough: John Money’s work was creepy, cruel and amoral – and left a trail of misery, pain and suicide in its wake.

The tragedy of David Reimer

Money’s views on sex and gender were initially developed through experimentation on intersex babies – infants born with neither definitively male nor female sex characteristics. In Money’s view, the best way to treat these babies was to use hormones and surgeries to ‘stream’ them into one gender from as early an age as possible. The sex organs the children were born with ultimately did not matter – the most important thing was that they were raised wholly and exclusively as that chosen gender. Money’s recommendations and methods had a profound influence on the treatment of intersex children and were widely accepted until relatively recently.

According to an essay in Salon, however, intersex children were not Money’s main concern. He was more interested in the gender-identity development of children with normal sex characteristics. He wanted to apply his theory about the malleability of gender to all children. The problem, of course, was proving this hypothesis.

It would be impossible for Money to test his theory on ‘normal’ infants. What mother would allow her healthy baby to be ‘streamed’ into the opposite gender, undergo countless surgeries and intensive therapy sessions, all for something that might not even work? But then, as a 1997 Rolling Stone essay recounts, David Reimer fell into his hands.

David Reimer as 'Brenda' aged 10, and while living as a male at 18.
David Reimer as 'Brenda' aged 10, and while living as a male at 18.

When he was born in 1965, David Reimer was a perfectly healthy baby boy. Known then as Bruce, he was one half of an identical pair of twins born to Janet and Ron Reimer, a working-class couple from Winnipeg, Canada. Eight months after his birth, however, he was the victim of a tragic accident – one that would set in motion one of the cruellest medical experiments in recent history.

The Reimer twins were born with normal male genitalia. But when the twins were seven months old, their mother noticed that both of them were having trouble urinating. A doctor diagnosed them both with phimosis, a relatively common condition that can be easily fixed by circumcision. It should have been a routine operation.

Early one morning, while the twins were undergoing surgery, Janet and Ron received a phone call. Something had gone wrong. Either through malpractice or error, Reimer had suffered severe injuries to his penis.

Doctors were unable to perform a reconstruction. And so, in the words of a psychiatrist consulting with his parents at the time, Reimer would be ‘unable to consummate marriage or have normal heterosexual relations; he will have to recognise that he is incomplete, physically defective, and that he must live apart’.

Reimer’s parents were distraught. They visited countless specialists in the hope of finding some alternative, but the answer was always the same. There was nothing to be done. That was until one evening in December 1966, when Janet and Ron Reimer were watching television. They caught a programme in which a charismatic doctor was detailing his pioneering work at the John Hopkins gender-identity clinic in Baltimore. Dr John Money even claimed that a man could be transformed into a woman.

Convinced by Money’s confidence and having nowhere else to turn, the Reimers reached out to him. They quickly received a response. They thought they had at last found someone who might be able to help their son. And Money had at last found his ideal test subjects.

The Reimer boys were identical twins and, unlike the intersex children Money had previously been working with, both were born with definitively male sex characteristics. This meant that in Brian, David’s brother, Money had the perfect point of comparison, or ‘control’. This was a chance for Money to test his hypothesis that all babies were born gender-neutral and could be streamed into a chosen gender.

By the time the Reimers made their first trip to see Money in 1967, he had earned himself a reputation as the US’s leading expert on gender disorders. Janet and Ron trusted him. It was unclear how much they truly understood about the procedure, and whether they knew how experimental it was. They just thought that Money was offering their son the chance to have a normal life – albeit as a girl.

Janet and Ron were still hesitant. But Money was persistent. He urged them to allow Reimer to undergo an operation to remove his testicles and construct a vagina as soon as possible – before the ‘gender-identity gate’ was closed forever. He also proposed that, when Reimer turned 11 or 12, he could be given female hormones. According to Rolling Stone, Money hounded Reimer’s parents, impressing on them the need to make a decision about the surgery before it was too late. And so, against the advice of other doctors, they agreed to allow the then 22-month-old Reimer to undergo clinical castration and the construction of female genitalia.

So began a lifetime of suffering and trauma.

As per Money’s instructions, Reimer’s parents raised him under the pretence that he had been born a girl. Now renamed Brenda, Reimer was put in dresses and offered dolls houses and a sewing machine to play with. No one outside of the immediate family knew about Reimer’s complicated medical situation – even his twin brother was led to believe that Reimer had been a little girl all along.

Despite his parents’ best efforts, Reimer always felt that something was wrong. Speaking in interviews later in life, he explained how both he and his brother sensed there was something out of the ordinary about him. He rejected his mother’s offers to put on makeup with her and he tore at the lacy clothes she dressed him in. Around age 11, he described to a psychologist that he had an intense fear that ‘something [had] been done to [his] genital organs’.

At school, Reimer exhibited tomboyish behaviour and was teased by his classmates. Even his teachers did not fully accept him.

Worse still were the yearly visits to see Money in Baltimore. According to Rolling Stone, both he and his brother, Brian, were subjected to gruelling ‘counselling’ sessions, during which Money would probe the twins about their sexual development. From around the age of six, they were questioned by Money on their sexual desires and preferences, and were shown naked pictures of other children and of adults having sex. He asked them to strip off their clothes and inspect each other’s genitals, sometimes with as many as five or six other colleagues observing. Sometimes, Money would take pictures. Most perverse of all, Money would often ask the young twins to ‘play at thrusting movements and copulation’, pretending to have sex in various positions while he watched them. When the twins refused to do as he said, he would reportedly become irate and scream at them until they complied.

As Reimer told one interviewer, both he and his brother grew to dread these annual visits – even more so as Reimer approached the age of eight. This was when Money began to broach the subject of further surgery, in order to finish the internal construction of Reimer’s vagina, which at that time was purely cosmetic. For Money, this was of the utmost importance – he did not believe that a psychological sex change could be completed without physically changing the appearance of the genitals. For Reimer, this was what he had begun to dread most of all. His aversion to surgery came partially from an intense fear of hospitals and needles, but also from the sense that this would ‘trap’ him into a gender in which he felt increasingly alien.

Trans-rights activists protest in New York City, 23 February 2017.
Trans-rights activists protest in New York City, 23 February 2017.

In 1972, when Reimer was seven, Money published his first findings from the so-called ‘twins case’. It was portrayed as a resounding success. In Man and Woman, Boy and Girl, Money and his co-author, Dr Anke Ehrhardt, described how remarkably feminine Reimer had turned out, illustrating their ‘success’ with cherry-picked anecdotes from Reimer’s exasperated, but always hopeful, parents. They said that Reimer enjoyed playing with his dolls and doll house, especially in contrast to his brother’s love for cars and tools.

The media were soon championing Money’s work. In 1973, the New York Times Book Review described Man and Woman, Boy and Girl as ‘the most important volume in the social sciences to appear since the Kinsey reports’ and billed it as having finally solved the age-old question of nature vs nurture – landing firmly on the side of nurture. For Money, the case became the foundation upon which many of his future writings were based. It helped to legitimise the practice of sex-reassignment surgery for children across the world.

The twins themselves were considerably less happy. As Reimer grew older and began to approach puberty, his intense alienation from his own body only became more unbearable. According to Money himself, the mere mention of undergoing hormone treatments or surgery to David was enough to result in a ‘panic so intense that it’s impossible to broach any conversation on such matters without the child fleeing the room, screaming’. But for Money, there was no going back. The onset of puberty made it necessary to give Reimer female hormones as soon as possible.

Reimer’s doctors, psychologists and parents all managed to coax him into taking oestrogen by the time he was 12. But the crucial operation was still a source of great conflict between Reimer and the adults in his life. In one incident in 1976, Money attempted to have a transsexual adult, who had undergone similar procedures, talk to Reimer to ease his fears. This culminated in Reimer running to the top of the clinic building and threatening to kill himself if he was made to see Money again. That would be the last time Reimer went to Baltimore. Money visited Reimer’s parents once more at their home in 1979. The twins attempted to hide in the basement for the duration of Money’s stay. After this, Reimer never saw Money again.

With Money’s influence removed from Reimer’s life, the adults around him began to lose faith in the transitioning process. And Reimer had more freedom to live how he wanted. At age 14, he stopped living as a girl entirely. One by one, the medical team that had tried to implement Money’s treatment plan gave up on the idea of subjecting David to any more surgeries. Later, they had doubts about continuing to keep up the ruse at all.

In March 1980, Reimer’s father picked him up from his weekly psychiatrist appointment, drove him to get ice cream, and told him everything. By his 16th birthday, Reimer had changed his name from Brenda to David, was taking male hormones and had had his breasts surgically removed. He also underwent an operation to construct crude, non-functioning male genitalia.

Learning the truth about his sex did not ease Reimer’s suffering. He tried to kill himself twice before the age of 21 – on one occasion, his parents doubted whether they should try to save him. ‘That kid has done nothing but suffer all his life’, his mother recalled thinking at the time.

Things began to look up for Reimer when, in 1990, he got married and adopted his wife’s three children. For a while, he even settled down into some semblance of a normal life. It was during this period that the true nature of Money’s experimentation on him became public. Milton Diamond, a fellow sexologist and academic rival of Money, had long believed that the experiment on Reimer was fundamentally flawed. He managed to track down Keith Sigmundson, who had previously overseen Reimer’s psychiatric treatment, and together the two of them decided to set the record straight about Money’s findings.

Compiling interviews with Reimer, his wife and his mother, Diamond and Sigmundson’s paper was published in 1997 and proved incredibly controversial within the scientific community. But it did convince a large number of paediatricians that Money’s hypothesis about the gender neutrality of babies had been flawed, and that his recommendation for the treatment of intersex children had, in many cases, caused more harm than good.

The acknowledgement that Money’s hypothesis was incorrect came too late for Reimer – the damage had already been done. As Slate recounts, after his brother overdosed on antidepressants in 2002 and his wife asked for a divorce, Reimer ended his own life in 2004. He was 38 years old.

Lessons not learned

John Money’s experiment was misdirected and cruel. In attempting to demonstrate that biological sex has no bearing on whether one is female or male he only succeeded in proving the opposite. That gender is not fluid. That it cannot be shaped at will through medical interventions and hormone treatment.

There’s little doubt today that Money’s experiment was a callous failure. The lives of Reimer, his brother and his parents were sacrificed at the altar of an early form of gender ideology. Yet, even now, too many have failed to learn the lessons of this tragedy. Institutions, from schools to healthcare, still happily promote the ideas of gender identity and genderfluidity. Many politicians still treat trans ideology as if it is a ‘progressive’ cause that only uncaring bigots would oppose. And children are still being used by gender ideologues as fodder for trans experimentation.

Yes, the Tavistock gender-identity clinic in the UK may be due to close over safety fears. But the idea that one can ‘be born in the wrong body’, that one’s maleness or femaleness has no relationship to one’s biological sex, is still being regularly promoted to children from a worryingly young age. Moreover, trans activists want to make it even easier for people to change gender. And the younger they are, it seems, the better.

No doubt many who uncritically embrace the tenets of gender ideology are entirely ignorant of its intellectual origins. They probably have no idea that it was Dr John Money who trailblazed the idea of the ‘trans child’. And they clearly have little inkling of the devastating impact Money’s ideas had on a young family all those years ago.

What happened to David Reimer was a tragedy for him and his family. Not learning from it would be a tragedy for all of us.

Lauren Smith is an editorial assistant at spiked.

Main picture by: YouTube.

Second picture by: YouTube.

Third picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Science & Tech World

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