On the Science of Changing Sex

Nature vs. Nurture

Posted in Science Criticism, Transsexual Theory by Kay Brown on May 22, 2016

critical-thinkingGiven the ongoing “culture war” regarding sexual orientation, wherein some elements of society wish to portray homosexuality as “sinful”, “mental illness”, or both it is no surprise that the question of etiology of homosexuality, and indeed of any sexual orientation, has become a political, as well as scientific question.  Into this fray has come some of the best and brightest of the sexologists who are exploring the science.  I know that some transsexuals and transgendered folk won’t like to read the name of the lead author, but in science, it is not important who says something, but what the evidence says.  The lead author is J. Michael Bailey.  Yes, that Prof. Bailey.

Bailey is joined by Lisa Diamond, Paul Vassey, Marc Breedlove, Eric Vilain, and Mark Epprecht in a masterful compliation and exposition on the current science of sexual orientation.  The paper also covers evidence concerning androphilic MTF transgender people and covers some remarkable conjectures regarding the role of culture, nurture if you will, regarding the difference between MTF transkids and conventional gay men.  Fortunately, the paper is NOT behind a paywall, so my reader may follow the link provided in the reference section to read it for oneself, which I highly recommend.

The paper lays out powerful evidence that shows that indeed “nature” has a very strong role to play in the development of sexual orientation.  But as the authors point out, this does NOT mean that morally or politically such evidence, or indeed proof, has any bearing on how society should treat non-heterosexual people,

Ongoing political controversies around the world exemplify a long-standing and widespread preoccupation with the acceptability of homosexuality. Nonheterosexual people have seen dramatic surges both in their rights and in positive public opinion in many Western countries. In contrast, in much of Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Oceania, and parts of Asia, homosexual behavior remains illegal and severely punishable, with some countries retaining the death penalty for it. Political controversies about sexual orientation have often overlapped with scientific controversies. That is, participants on both sides of the sociopolitical debates have tended to believe that scientific findings—and scientific truths—about sexual orientation matter a great deal in making political decisions. The most contentious scientific issues have concerned the causes of sexual orientation—that is, why are some people heterosexual, others bisexual, and others homosexual? The actual relevance of these issues to social, political, and ethical decisions is often poorly justified, however.  … No causal theory of sexual orientation has yet gained widespread support. The most scientifically plausible causal hypotheses are difficult to test. However, there is considerably more evidence supporting nonsocial causes of sexual orientation than social causes. This evidence includes the cross-culturally robust finding that adult homosexuality is strongly related to childhood gender nonconformity; moderate genetic influences demonstrated in well-sampled twin studies; the cross-culturally robust fraternal-birth-order effect on male sexual orientation; and the finding that when infant boys are surgically and socially “changed” into girls, their eventual sexual orientation is unchanged (i.e., they remain sexually attracted to females). In contrast, evidence for the most commonly hypothesized social causes of homosexuality—sexual recruitment by homosexual adults, patterns of disordered parenting, or the influence of homosexual parents—is generally weak in magnitude and distorted by numerous confounding factors.

fafafine

Fa’afafine dancing

Setting aside the issues of policy and etiology, there are still some important issues regarding cultural factors influencing expression of androphilia in males because one of the models of why non-heterosexual orientations may persist is that of kin selection, in which the gender atypicality of androphilic males is evolutionarily selected for and maintained in the population because androphilic males help their near relatives raise their children, thereby increasing the chances of their own genes, shared with those close relatives, to perpetuate.  In this model, gender atypical androphilic males are in effect, an evolutionarily ‘fit’ alternative ‘morph’; far from being a “mistake of nature”, they are in a very real sense, a “third sex” involved in reproduction by proxy through childcare.

Consistent with the predictions of the Kin Selection Hypothesis (KSH), research conducted in Samoa on transgender androphilic males (fa’afafine) has repeatedly demonstrated that they show elevated avuncular (uncle-like) tendencies compared to Samoan women and gynephilic men. (This is measured via a 9-item scale measuring willingness to care for, and to give resources to, nieces and nephews. Furthermore, this finding does not appear to reflect a general tendency to help others, but a specific preference for kin. In contrast, research on cisgender androphilic males in Western populations and non-Western industrialized cultures has garnered virtually no support for the KSH. It is possible that elevated avuncularity is not expressed unless male androphilia takes on the transgender form. More research is needed to ascertain whether other populations of transgender male androphiles exhibit elevated kin-directed altruism or not.  …  Societies in which transgender male androphilia predominates exhibit a significantly greater presence of human ancestral sociocultural conditions compared to societies in which the cisgender form predominates. This suggests that the transgender form of male androphilia was likely the ancestral form. As such, transgender male androphilia likely represents the best model for testing evolutionary hypotheses, given that more derived forms of this trait may reflect recent cultural/historical influences that might obscure the outcome of evolutionary processes. Consequently, the most promising results from tests of both the KSH and SAGH are from studies of Samoan fa’afafine. The evidence would be much stronger if other populations of transgender androphilic males showed similar effects.

Let’s think about this a moment.  If the Western form, conventional gay men, don’t show an interest in their kin, is that because their homophobic siblings won’t let them, or because trying to be gender typical (straight acting) includes disavowing any interests in what would be considered womanly interest in young children?  I know its only anecdotal, but my reader may wish to check out my own history of a very strong interest in children.  Also note that my siblings have forbidden me from having anything to do with their children, due to extreme religious notions and transphobia.  (Note to researchers: Can we please use the more gender identity respectful term materteral if we are speaking of transgendered MTF folk here?)

Here is where things get really interesting.  The authors conjecture here that cultural factors influence the form that male androphilia takes depends upon the culture that androphilic males find themselves in,

Same-sex sexuality between adults typically takes one of two cross-culturally recurrent forms, which are related to gender-role enactment and gender identity. These two forms are cisgender and transgender male androphilia and female gynephilia.

Cisgender male androphiles and female gynephiles occupy the gender role typical of their sex and identify as “men” and “women,” respectively. This is the form of homosexuality that is nearly universal in the contemporary West. In contrast, transgender male androphiles and female gynephiles do not occupy the gender role typical of their sex. Not only do they behave in a highly gender-atypical manner, but they often identify, and are identified by others, as neither “men” nor “women,” but rather, as a member of some alternative gender category. Contemporary examples of transgender male androphiles include the kathoey of Thailand, the xanith of Oman, the muxes of Mexico, and the fa’afafine of Samoa. Some contemporary examples of transgender female gynephiles include the tombois of Sumatra and the mahu of Tahiti.

In some cultures, transgender male androphilia and female gynephilia are linked to particular institutionalized labor practices, which often involve specialized religious activities. This type of transgender male androphilia has been referred to as “profession defined”. For example, on the Indian subcontinent, transgender male androphiles known as hijra bestow blessings from Hindu gods and goddesses for luck and fertility at weddings and at the births of male babies. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, transgender androphilic males known as bissu are shamans who bless people for good health and successful journeys and who play important ritual roles in weddings. These institutionalized religious roles sometimes carry with them the expectation of asceticism, but often this ideal is not realized. In general, same-sex-attracted individuals self-select to fill these roles, probably because they are recognized as socially acceptable niches.

Third Gender

Young Hijra

Here I have to interject a note of caution, nay, derision.  There is a tendency for Western sociologists to romantasize the social status of transgender people.  For example, the hijra are NOT welcome guests at wedding and births.  They come uninvited.  I’ve had a number of occasions to speak at length, careful not to ‘out’ myself, with Hindu expat colleagues from India.  Universally, when speaking of hijra, the tone is one of revulsion and hatred.  The hijra are not revered co-religionists, but feared and dispised “vermin”.  The “blessings” being bestowed are the obverse of a coin, the reverse of which is the obviation of the threat that the children of the marriage or newborn will be “cursed”… the superstitious Hindus believe that the hijra have the power to curse the future childen of a bride or a newborn to become hijra, the lowest of the low, so they pay the unwelcome hijra “guests” money to ensure that they leave without cursing their children.  The hijra also beg on the streets, with the understood threat that if they are not given money, they will lift their skirts to the horror of the onlooking men, to show the scars of their very crude “castration” while being cursed.  From other lengthy conversations I’ve had with an Amercan transsexual who lived for a time among the hijra in India, I learned that many hijra suppliment their begging with prostitution.  Thus, the hijra have wrested for themselves a social position of begging and prostitution… a social position not too much different than poor street transkids in the Western nations.

But, to continue,

Cisgender male androphiles and female gynephiles behave in a relatively gender-typical manner when compared with their transgender counterparts. However, they are relatively gender-atypical when compared to gynephilic cisgender men and androphilic cisgender women. Thus, regardless of the form they take, male androphilia and female gynephilia are associated with gender-atypicality. However, the strength of this association varies with the manner in which same-sex sexuality is publicly expressed.

Both the cisgender and transgender forms of same-sex sexuality may occur within a given culture, but typically one or the other predominates. For example, the cisgender form tends to be much more common in many Western cultures. In contrast, the transgender form appears to be more common in many non-Western cultures. In places where the two forms coexist, their members often consider each other to be part of the same subculture. Margaret Mead observed a meeting in which an Omaha minquga (i.e., a transgender male androphile) and a Japanese homosexual man (i.e., a cisgender male androphile) who visited her field site in 1961 instantly recognized each other. Within an hour of the Japanese man’s arrival, the sole minquga in the tribe turned up and tried to make contact with him. Similarly, sociologist Fredrick Whitam noted that, in São Paulo, travesti (transgender male androphiles) are an especially conspicuous presence in gay clubs and are treated with a high degree of respect.

In contemporary Western cultures, cisgender male androphiles typically engage in sexual interactions with each other; the same is true of cisgender female gynephiles. That is, in the West, homosexual relationships are typically between two homosexual individuals. Such individuals comprise the Western gay and lesbian communities. This type of same-sex sexual relationship has been referred to as “egalitarian” and is characterized by partners who are not markedly different in age or gender-related characteristics. Within such relationships, partners tend not to adopt special social roles, and they treat each other as equals. In contrast, this pattern appears to be relatively uncommon in non-Western cultures and has emerged only recently in certain non-Western urban centers.

Although transgender male androphiles are same-sex attracted, they rarely, if ever, engage in sexual activity with each other; the same is true of transgender female gynephiles. Rather, these individuals engage in sexual activity with same-sex cisgender partners who self-identify, and are identified by others, as “men” or “women.” For example, in Samoa, very feminine natal males called fa’afafine (which means “in the manner of women”) have sex with masculine Samoan men. The fa’afafine would be aghast at the idea of having sex with one another.

Little research has focused on the cisgender sexual partners of same-sex-attracted transgender males and females. Blackwood noted that, in Sumatra, the cisgender female partners (femmes) of tombois “assert an uncomplicated attraction to men, [but] position themselves (if temporarily) under the label ‘lesbi’”—a derivative of “lesbian.” This suggests an episodic pattern of bisexual attraction on the part of femmes. In many cultures, same-sex sexual interactions between transgender and cisgender persons are not considered “homosexual” because they are understood to be hetero-gendered. In other words, if a cisgender androphilic male and a transgender androphilic male engage in sex, the former individual is often understood to be “the male partner” in the interaction, whereas the latter individual is often understood to be “the female partner.” Accordingly, the interaction is understood as male-female rather than male-male. The degree to which cisgender individuals who have sex with transgender persons of their same biological sex (i.e., men who have sex with female-appearing men and women who have sex with male-appearing women) are perceived as different from those whose sexual behavior is only with the other sex (i.e., conventional heterosexuals) remains an open question.

OK, there is one person who has conducted at least limited research on transgendered male androphiles and their non-trans male romantic partners, Dr. Richard Green.  As I explored in another essay, at least in the United States, they are conventionally heterosexual.  I can’t speak for the partners of fa’afafine in Samoa, but I got the impression from reading about them that they too find conventionally heterosexual partners.

For the sake of a thought experiment, let us conceed for the moment that the form that male androphilia takes depends on the culture that they find themselves.  (This will not be a popular notion among either Western Gay men nor autogynephiles who would otherwise wish to identify as androphilic transwomen.)  Let us further assume that the Kinship Selection Hypothesis is correct.  This would support not only the notion that androphilic males are a special morph, but that of neccessity, the transgender form is the evolutionarily selected form.  In which case, transkids are not “failed gay men”… but Western Gay Men are “failed transkids” !!!  This also reads upon efforts to “help” gender atypical children to be “more gender fluid”, less gender atypical, less.. well… less likely to be transgender, is in fact an attempt to fight an evolutionarilty selected and natural role, and as such is a “crime against nature”.

I would be tempted to close this with “just say’n”, but I’ve always found that expression to be irratating.

Further Reading:

Essay on the male romantic partners of transwomen

Essay on evidence that MTF transkids and gay men have the same etiology

References:

Bailey, et al., “Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science”, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, doi: 10.1177/1529100616637616

Vanderlaan, et al., “Elevated Kin-Directed Altruism Emerges in Childhood and Is Linked to Feminine Gender Expression in Samoan Fa’afafine: A Retrospective Study” Archives of Sexual Behavior
DOI: 10.1007/s10508-016-0884-2

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