Brain Sex?

Brain Sex? brain-sex-skull-300x211
Pic: Rod Fleming

Brain Sex? What is that? Some sort of cyber-intercourse?

No. ‘Brain sex’ is how many transsexual activists explain how their condition came about. They specifically say that, ‘Transsexualism occurs when an individual of one sex has certain sex-related structures in the brain that are typical of the opposite sex.’

In other words, according to this notion, ‘brain sex’ is a physical condition and not a psychological one. Putting that more technically, what is being claimed is that transsexualism is caused by a form of intersexuality that is localised in the brain. This is ‘brain sex’. However, physical heteromorphism of this type should be observable. So is it?

Intersex- what is it?

To understand that you need to know a little bit more about what intersex is. In this, individuals of one chromosomal karotype –XX or XY — may be born with sex-related structures typical of the other. In a condition called Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the individual, as birth, looks like a perfectly normal girl child.

She grows up to appear to be a typical, healthy women. Then, when she is unable to get pregnant, testing is done and at this point it is discovered that she is actually XY — she has male-typical chromosomes. What has happened is that her body is insensitive to the masculinising effects of testosterone.

There are many intersex conditions, like Partial Androgen Insensitivity, for example. There’s Klinefelter’s Syndrome, where the individual has three sex chromosomes, XXY, ‘mosaic’ (XYXY), congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) and a host of others.

While these intersex conditions are relatively rare, there are still a large number of people with them. They are found all over the world in all populations. In some cases, their genitalia differ greatly from the ‘normative’ and this led, in the past, to many unnecessary surgical interventions to ‘correct’ it. (Thankfully this is much less the case now, but if you have a child you think might be intersex, then please find out as much as you can before agreeing to surgeries.)

Most importantly, perhaps, we can directly observe the effects of these conditions, although in some, like CAIS, this might not be at all obvious till much later in life.

Trapped in the wrong body?

Transsexual activists, through the brain sex hypothesis, are suggesting that something similar causes transsexualism, but the site of the heteromorphism is in the brain.

This has been linked to another idea popular with some transsexuals and many transgender people, that they are ‘trapped in’ the wrong body. ‘Look,’ they say (if they are male-to-female) ‘I may have a man’s body but I have a woman’s brain.’

They are claiming that transsexualism is caused by a physical condition. Specifically, a brain-restricted form of intersex.

It’s not clear when exactly this claim was first made, but it was certainly current by the 1980s.

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Ray Blanchard
Ray Blanchard.

During that decade, a young scientist called Ray Blanchard was working at the Clarke Institute in Toronto, Canada. One of his roles was to provide letters of recommendation, for individuals seeking Genital Reconstruction Surgery (GRS) or a ‘sex change’.*

At that time, it had been broadly assumed that ‘True’ transsexuals were very like extremely feminine homosexual men. They were certainly physically attractive and very ‘passable’ as women. They tended to present while they were very young, often in their teens. But their most noticeable characteristic was a powerful sexual desire for men.

Blanchard had no difficulty with this group, but he soon realised he was seeing another group too. These were older, very masculine, didn’t look or act like women at all and — critically — were not primarily attracted to men.

However, they were in distress . So Blanchard began to develop an explanation that would allow him, ethically, to give them a letter of recommendation for GRS.

This difference had previously been noted by researchers and the types had been classified as ‘True’ and ‘Pseudo’ transsexual. In most cases ‘Pseudo’ transsexuals were refused recommendation for GRS, because they were considered to be fetishistic transvestites.

Blanchard’s Typology.

Blanchard is a realist and he was not interested in the kind of pejorative thinking that would deny these people relief form their distress. So he carried our systematic statistical surveys over a period of years.

This allowed him to show that the ‘Pseudo’ transsexuals were actually exhibiting a condition he called ‘autogynephilia’ (AGP). This he described as ‘a man’s propensity to aroused by the thought of himself as a woman’.

The old ‘True’ classification he renamed ‘HomoSexual TransSexual (HSTS) and the old ‘Pseudo’ transsexual as AGP. The result was Blanchard’s Typology. Now, both types could legitimately be recommended for surgery.

Brain Sex? brain-sex-skull-300x211
HSTS transsexual. No facial surgery, just hormones and a boob job. Is anybody seriously going to confuse her with a man?

Unfortunately, rather than being thankful for this intervention, the proponents of the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis were upset. They attacked Blanchard for calling HSTS ‘homosexual’. That was a ridiculous attack; they were males who were attracted to other males. However, they were not gay men, they were transsexuals. Hence, HSTS. (All the HSTS I have explained this to, have agreed that it is accurate; and in any case, this is science, not some touchy-feely humanities woo. There is such a thing as objective reality and taxonomy matters.)

Misreading Blanchard, and misleading the world.

However, in a blatant misreading of Blanchard, they also attacked him

Brain Sex? brain-sex-skull-300x211
A typical Western AGP. ‘Andrea’ James is a ruthless bully who threatens and intimidates people who disagree with her. This is she after countless thousands of dollars’ worth of cosmetic surgery. Would anyone seriously confuse her with a woman?

for saying that AGPs were just closet fetishists who put on women’s clothes to masturbate.

In fact,  Blanchard defined three discrete orientations within AGP (bisexual, analloerotic or asexual, and gynephilic, attracted to women.) He also defined several different forms that AGP could take. So it’s a very broad description and the only thing that holds it together is the core notion of being stimulated by the idea of being a woman.

This cuts right across the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis, because this claims that inside their brains, these individuals are actually women.

Before we look at neurology, which is clearly the only science that might resolve this, we have to know a few things about the brain. It is the most adaptive organ in the body. Just thinking about something changes it. The brain makes new connections all the time, in response to new thoughts and things learned. It’s changing as we change.

For example, musicians have measurably different brains from non-musicians. But do their brains make them musicians or does being a musician change their brains?

Nature and nurture.

This is sometimes, colloquially, called the ‘nature-nurture debate’. More scientifically, the idea that certain brains lead to certain behaviours is called ‘biological determinism’. It is a very contentious proposition, to put it mildly.

What that means is that even if we were able to show that there were differences in brain morphology between transsexuals and other males, we could not just assume — as the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis does — that this makes them transsexual.

Establishing this would be next to impossible. Since changes in brain connections happen hand in hand with behavioural changes, we would have to test a random sample of children. We would have to note whether they had these heteromorphisms, then observe them and see if they became transsexual, later. And all the while we would have to control for and exclude any influence that the experimental procedure itself might cause.

Good luck with designing that experiment and getting permission and funding to do it.

Brain sex in inividuals.

Blanchard, aware of this, suggested that when it became possible to observe inside the brains of transsexuals, his HSTS type would be found to have brains more like women’s, whereas the AGPs would have men’s brains. Bear that in mind.

The ‘brain sex’ hypothesis got a major boost in 1996 when Zhou et al published results of autopsies on the brains of 6 MtF transsexuals. These were not controlled for HSTS/AGP. Zhou found heteromorphism in the BST corpus, which is a part of the amygdala, below the cerebrum.

‘Lo!’ claimed the ‘brain sex’ apologists, ‘We are vindicated! Transsexuals have women’s brains.’

They then argued that since the amygdala forms early in the embryo, this must be a precursor to transsexualism.

The problems were manifold. Firstly, just because an area of the brain forms early, does not mean it can’t change later.  The BSTc is particularly subject to change under the stimulus of sex hormones. Six subjects is not enough to ‘prove’ anything; it’s an observation, that’s all. The notion of causation was moot and to be fair, Zhou never claimed that the BSTc anomaly ’caused ‘ transsexualism. Others did that, for political reasons.

Unfortunately, these obvious problems didn’t stop the ‘brain sex’ enthusiasts from seizing on Zhou and putting it centre-stage. They even got the legendary Bob Sapolsky, he of the huge beard, to go along with this.

MRI Testing.

However, as so often in science, it was to be overturned. In the first decade of the 20th century, MRI testing became cheap enough that it could  be used for projects like this. In 2010 two teams set out to see if they could find out a bit more. Both these teams were experienced in using MRI testing in areas of sexuality, with proven track records.

One team, (Rametti et al) screened out AGPs using the Blanchard instrument, and the other (Savic and Arver) screened out HSTS. So Rametti only scanned HSTS and Savic and Arver only scanned AGPs. These were large-scale studies with many controls were built in. They were conducted on individuals who had not yet commenced hormone treatment.

The results were compelling, as was repeated in Guillamon et al’s review paper, published this month.

Rametti found that HSTS have brains shifted toward the typical for women on ‘all tested parameters’. Savic and Arver found that AGP brains are ‘no different’ from men’s.

This suggests two things.

As Guillamon put it, this, along with a welter of neurological evidence from other brains scans and autopsies, suggests two things. The first is that there is evidence for a localised form of brain intersexuality, but only in HSTS and not in AGPs. Secondly, Blanchard was right: there are two distinct forms of MtF transsexualism — but only one of them has what might be called ‘brain sex’.

So where does that leave the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis? Well, in the first place, none of the testing, or Guillamon’s review, establishes causation. Brains are as likely to have been changed by behaviour as the other way around. As well as this, the principal advocates of the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis are identifiable as AGP. They have no such brain intersexuality, either as a result of their transsexualism or as a stimulus for it. They just have men’s brains.

So, maybe HSTS is caused by a form of brain intersexuality, or maybe being HSTS changes your brain; but if you’re AGP, it doesn’t matter, because you have a standard man’s brain anyway.

Oh what a surprise.

The principal arguments of AGPs, which they have ruthlessly pushed, consistently bullying and ‘no-platforming’ anyone who dared challenge them with science, have been shot to tatters.

There are indeed two types of MtF transsexual; and only one of them has a brain like a woman’s. That type is not the AGP. As far as they are concerned the ‘brain sex’ hypothesis — and they are the ones who have been pushing it — is dead in the water.

*The term ‘sex change’ is misleading. The surgery is purely cosmetic. The subject’s sex does not change in anyway. Strictly, the genitalia are reconstructed to look like those of a person of the opposite sex — sometimes very convincingly. Hence ‘GRS’.

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Copyright 2016 Rod Fleming’s World

2 thoughts on “Brain Sex?”

  1. Hi Ray

    I like reading your articles on transsexual and transgender, some of your points I agree with and some I do not agree with. That does not mean to say that either of us are right or wrong.

    However, your latest writing “Brain Sex” has me in a quandary and the question I now ask myself is “Am I AGP or HSTS?”.

    Kind regards

    Emily Wells

    1. Hi Emily,

      Well the first thing to say is that neither term is pejorative and both models are equally legitimate. If I occasionally come across as tough on AGPs it’s because they have attacked me in the past and I take issue with some of their claims, not with their right to express their identifications as women.

      I don’t have a copy of the full Blanchard instrument and in any case it’s designed to be used by a clinician in interview so it’s not ideal for self testing. However, Prof Bailey did a ‘short form’, so what I’ll do is incorporate that into a new post and then you can read that and test yourself.

      In terms of my own research I have found the model in Asia to be quite different from that in the West. HSTS there tend to report their early emotional feelings as ‘having crushes on men’ whereas the AGPs usually describe ‘feeling that I was a girl’ or ‘feeling different’. AGPs there appear in their early teens similarly to HSTS; the classic Western age divide does not really exist. AGPs of the Western model do occur — middle aged, married, etc etc, but they are pretty rare. I am really hoping to do more intense controlled research in Asia because I think it may help younger Western transgender and transsexual people, for whom the Blanchard is perhaps culturally less helpful.

      Nice to talk to you and thank you for the support.

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