When David Reimer was born in 1965, he looked exactly like his identical twin brother, Brian — until his circumcision was botched at birth, and his entire penis had to be amputated. Dr. John Money, a sexologist at Johns Hopkins known for conducting audacious human experiments, heard of the mishap and jetted in. With David now neither anatomically male nor female (and his identical twin providing the perfect control group), Money saw an opportunity to prove his theory that gender was entirely a cultural construct. He convinced David’s parents to give him sex-reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl named Brenda. In the following years, under Dr. Money’s supervision, Brenda appeared to take to femininity naturally, completely unaware he’d ever been male.
Money instantly became famous for proving that gender was merely a state of mind. The number of sex-change surgeries skyrocketed, and feminists trumpeted the experiment as proof that women were equal to men. But as she got older, Brenda was plagued with confusion. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but she knew she felt like a boy. By age fourteen, her voice was deepening and her features were becoming masculine. She related to boys as friends and felt sexually attracted to girls. But Dr. Money had stopped following her development. Brenda grew up and fell out of the public eye, the widespread belief that gender was non-biological firmly in place.
That belief might still be gospel today if not for a scientist in Hawaii named Dr. Milton Diamond, who had been following what became known as the “John/Joan experiment” since Dr. Money announced it. Suspicious of its merits, Diamond tracked down the now-adult Brenda in the mid-’90s. After studying and interviewing her extensively, he concluded that she was essentially a man trapped in a woman’s body. Diamond published a paper in 1997 exposing the experiment as a failure and a hoax. Dr. Money was accused of a cover-up, and the takedown rocked the medical world. The New York Times, which twenty-four years earlier had called Money’s experiment the most important leap forward in sexology since the Kinsey Report, ran a page-one reversal declaring that Brenda’s life a woman was based on “the force of
allegory.” After learning about her past, Brenda had a second sex-change operation and changed her name to John. He married and lived quietly as a man again for several years, but committed suicide in 2004. Dr. Money, who continued to experiment and publish as a sexologist for years, died last July, one day shy of his eighty-fifth birthday.
Diamond, 72, continues to work in the field, conducting new and groundbreaking studies. His latest project has taken him to Japan and Croatia, where he’s been studying the effects of porn on sexual violence and aggression. His findings seem to deflate the theory that porn leads to an increase in sex crimes. He spoke to Nerve from his home in Hawaii about those studies, and his legacy as a debunker of myths. — Jocelyn Guest
Everyone knows you for your role in exposing the John/Joan experiment as a failure. It’s been almost ten years since you did that.
It has been a long time. With that case, it was so sad to see a young man manipulated like that. In that kind of situation, you find something out and want to set it right.
Do people come to you now asking for help regarding sex changes?
Yeah, of course, all the time. They come for advice and for guidance. I really believe that counseling is a big part of any sex-reassignment process.
What kind of counseling?
Every patient is required to undergo two years of psychiatric counseling. I always tell my patients, “Okay, if you want to be a man, do it. Try it out. Dress as a man when you go to work, when you go to school and get on the bus.” Some people won’t do it, and you know they’re not serious about it.
In addition to debunking a study that the feminist movement had embraced, you’ve also had public spats with people like Germaine Greer. Do you always find yourself butting heads with feminists?
The feminists who have criticized my work just don’t understand what I do. Judith Butler and others were all very supportive of John Money because he was saying what they wanted to hear. He was saying that, if you start early enough, a boy can be socialized as a girl. But he wasn’t accounting for pre- and perinatal hormones, which predispose babies to act characteristically male or female. It isn’t just about giving them a pink or blue blanket.
I don’t think that everyone is the same. These feminists who criticize me think I’m saying everyone is hard-wired to be one way or another. That’s not what I’m saying. I just believe you can’t rely on how you raise a child to determine whether he’s a boy or a girl. If there are two people training together for an event, for the same amount of time and the same routine, the man would probably win. It’s just the physical nature of things.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Of course! I have six daughters and a wife. How could I not be?
Let’s talk about your porn studies in Japan and Croatia.
We studied the frequency of sex crimes after there was a loosening of laws about pornography. In Japan there are zero restrictions. A kid can pick up a comic book with explicit S&M scenes on every page. People always point a finger at porn for promoting sexual violence, but that just isn’t the case. Some crimes actually went down when porn laws were relaxed.
What about the studies surprised you?
In Japan, we thought the increased availability of porn would negatively affect younger rapists. Just the opposite was true though. Rape isn’t a solely sexual act, and porn can even help people deal with their urges.
Is there good porn and bad porn?
Not at all. Having different kinds of porn is just like giving someone a choice of different breakfast cereals in the morning. People watch porn for different reasons because different things are pleasurable to them.
These days you write a lot about the importance of sex ed and how ridiculous George Bush is for pushing abstinence-only programs. Did you have any sex education?
I’m a very old man. They didn’t teach us that in those days.
What did you do then?
Do you mean how did I learn how to screw? [laughs] We just sort of figured it out. If you wanted to find out about sex, you went to a prostitute or to your friends, and of course, most of your friends didn’t know any more than you did. The problem with today’s education is very simple in my mind. The Bush administration is making it illegal to teach anything but abstinence in the classroom. That’s as ridiculous as teaching someone to drive without telling them where the brake is.
Because what happened with David Reimer still occurs — often at the suggestion of the doctor — what do you think it will take to keep doctors from telling parents to hide the sex of their children?
The law. It has to be the law. Until there is legislation protecting newborn children with ambiguous genitalia, doctors will continue to compromise the health of these children. These parents are scared of disappointing the child’s grandparents or being embarrassed in front of the nanny, but they’re doing serious damage to their children. They will never be able to experience orgasm, never be able to fully live their lives. n°
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