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Genderless, or Clueless? May 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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First of all, Hi everybody—sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. Just finishing the stacks of papers to be graded, and other work to be completed before the summer—it’s been a busy semester. Good classes, good discussions, but very little energy left over for blogging. I have, however, been tweeting! You can find my tweets under “@Socalethicsprof.”

Next, the story: I read it this morning, and it has been poking at me ever since: A family in Toronto has made a decision which seems to me right out of the Seventies (yes, I remember them well): they are raising their third baby without telling anyone his/her gender.

“When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’” says Witterick, bouncing Storm, dressed in a red-fleece jumper, on her lap at the kitchen table.

“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

When Storm was born, the couple sent an email to friends and family: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

It seems to me that the parents are trying to do two different things, and they aren’t necessarily compatible: For one thing, they’re trying to educate the world about its knee-jerk ways of gender assumptions. Well, that’s been attempted since the 1960s, and while it is a noble thought—and I’ve done my share of attempting to Educate the World over the years, giving my cousins’ and friends’ babies stuffed toys and farm animal figures instead of dolls and toy trucks, and choosing green and yellow baby clothes instead of pinks and blues—you’re up against 100,000 years of Homo Sapiens stereotypes. And it is somewhat naive of the parents to think they can put a dent in hardwired human nature. However, things have changed since the mid-20th century, and gender roles have become more flexible, due to new ideals and a willingness to be nonconformist. But the other side to their project seems to me far less noble, and mostly self-serving: They are trying to force Storm into a mold that they consider politically preferable: a world where gender roles are a matter of choice. They’re waiting to see what kind of person s/he will choose to be—but after the sad case of David Reimer in the 1990s and other failed attempts at enforcing the psychosexual neutrality theory, haven’t we all had to realize that a fair amount of sexual identity is hardwired? In other words, Storm will discover who s/he is, not choose it, and no amount of societal pressure from people making assumptions about her/his gender is going to make a bit of difference. I’m afraid the only thing the parents will accomplish is turning their child into a social experiment. In a way all of us, as children, have of course been social experiments, and most of us have turned out fairly well-functioning, but part of being a child is being allowed to feel safe, and to belong. Children are hungry for rules and predictability, and little Storm is being set up so s/he will be the oddball of whatever community s/he will be a part of. Choice is great, but not until one is mature enough to know what one is choosing.

A psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made, has some good comments to the story:

Ehrensaft believes there is something innate about gender, and points to the ’70s, when parents experimented by giving dolls to boys and trucks to girls.

“It only worked up to a certain extent. Some girls never played with the trucks, some boys weren’t interested in ballet … It was a humbling experiment for us because we learned we don’t have the control that we thought we did.”

But she worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.

“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them.”

Ehrensaft gets the “What the heck?!” reaction people may have when they hear about Storm. “I think it probably makes people feel played with to have that information withheld from them.”

As Socrates would say, a well-balanced person is not just someone who understands himself or herself, but who also is a well-adjusted citizen. You can’t become a well-adjusted citizen in a world where other people think you’re trying to fool them…



1. Raphael Neves - May 26, 2011

I totally agree with you. Thanks for the post.

Best regards from Brazil,

2. Paul J. Moloney - June 5, 2011

It does seem that being a well-adjusted citizen follows upon being a well-balanced person, if one’s social life follows upon their personal life. If one is trying to fool others, they cannot be thought to be well-balanced, because they do not have the proper balance between themselves and others. Being well-balanced here would mean keeping a sense of equality between ourselves and others; we do not want to have a undue sense of superiority or inferiority in relation to others. In trying to deceive others we have a undue sense of superiority. One does not generate friendship among their fellow citizens by considering themselves superior to them.

The best form of citizenship is more a matter of friendship than a matter of following rules and regulations. If law is based on friendship then it is utterly impossible to outlaw friendship, considering friendship is the cause of law. If there were no friendship there would be no law. To outlaw friendship would be to outlaw law.

Laws generally penalize behavior that is destructive of friendship, at least civil friendship. Behavior that is offensive to friendship, such as stealing and murder, is outlawed. Still, some people seem to be expert at following rules and regulations, appearing as good citizens, while being unjust to as many people as possible.

Also, if friendship is based on understanding oneself, as friends are those who have a mutual understanding of each other because they understand themselves, then good citizenship is also based on self-understanding.

If a bias is a form of weakness then one might be prone to being ashamed of admitting their bias, if weakness is something of which to be ashamed. I will admit to a bias, though, even if it may give others superiority over me, at least in regards to philosophy. When it comes to philosophy, I would be as Greek as possible and then English.

Speaking of the English, I understand that San Diego now has a direct flight to London, the city which may or may not be the informal capital of philosophy. For some reason I think I would rather do philosophy with the English from San Diego.

3. forrest noble - June 12, 2011

This decision by the parents to conduct this social experiment on their child has a good chance of future regret. I hope the child will be told its own sex by the parents and since children cannot be made silent, the child’s sex will soon be known. If not, often just the child’s features within a year of two, give a strong clue as to its sex.

At between 2-4 years old most children show a inclination of likes and dislikes based upon their sex which seems to be internally driven based upon my experience. If the child itself is clueless about the normal gender choices then the parents may be setting it up to be a social misfit. I hope one of these parents did not want a child of the opposite sex and is intentionally setting up the child for homosexuality which based upon my readings, is often a more difficult life for the individual.

4. Hanna Henry Phil 108 - December 8, 2011

The idea of raising a child without the social norms of a certain gender seems to be a reasonable approach. However, not informing the gender of your own child can lead to many negative outcomes. As mentioned in the blog, it is more of a social experiment rather than a free lifestyle. Storm will eventually see the social roles of his or her gender and either resent his parents for it, fall into homosexuality, or simply just be a free minded person. Personally, i believe your attempts such as giving farm animals rather than dolls and trucks is a wonderful way of educating the world about gender roles. On the other hand you mentioned that “you’re up against 100,000 years of Homo Sapiens stereotypes”. I agree that no matter how you raise your child, society will always continue the stereotypes. Overall, I support contributing to the avoidance of gender assumption. Ignoring gender all in all however, is just unfair.

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