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Unformatted text preview: s of sex disposed of them
as quickly and as easily as it had blinded other human eyes.
Sex in the Genes
By the twentieth century, geneticists stepped forward to offer their help.
It seemed to many that here, at last, was the answer—a candle to crack A Brief History of Sex 29 the dark. Karyotyping is an assessment of all of a person’s chromosomes,
a measure of each of the wormy curls that wrap themselves inside the
nucleus of every one of our cells.
A karyotype requires only a few cells and the force to drive these
cells into a state called “metaphase,” where all the chromosomes become
visible. A simple black and white photograph records everything for
analysis. After that, all that is needed is a pair of sharp scissors and a
person of great patience to cut out each of the little squiggles from the
chromosomal picture and match them up with one another.
Usually, each of us has a total of forty-six chromosomes: twentytwo matched pairs, and two sex chromosomes that may or may not
be matched. According to karyotypers, boys are 46,XY and girls are
46,XX—meaning “normal” girls have forty-six chromosomes including
two X chromosomes, and “normal” boys have forty-six chromosomes
including one X and one Y chromosome.
At first karyotyping seemed to have finally laid all ambiguity to
rest. But pretty quickly we discovered that whole classes of people have
more or fewer than forty-six chromosomes, often including unusual
numbers of sex chromosomes. Even the geneticists had to admit that
their central dogma, at least in its simplest form, had flaws. At the very
least, though, it still seemed the basic tenet was true. It might be that a
few folks had abnormal numbers of chromosomes, but if you had the
requisite number plus an X and a Y you grew up to be a man. And if
you had a set of forty-six that included two X chromosomes, you grew
up to be a woman.
But even as karyotyping took hold in the late 1950s, both old and
new studies came to light that cast some doubt on the absolutism of the
genetics of sex. The first of these was a rediscovered study from 1945
that examined the lives of eighty-four hermaphrodites. These researchers concluded that “the hermaphrodite assumes a heterosexual libido
and sex role that accords primarily with his or her masculine or physical upbringing,” not his or her chromosomes.21 A slight tremor rippled
the ground beneath the geneticists’ feet.
The second was a study of intersex patients conducted in 1955 at
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.22 This classic study 30 Between XX and XY further supported the earlier findings that “the gender assignment in
infancy will be the one the patient stays with into adulthood, regardless
of the standard biological indicators of sex.” This meant that, to these
researchers, it appeared that people tended to end up being what other
people told them to be, not what their chromosomes predicted they
should be. That fractured a lot of paradigms about childhood development.
The group at Johns Hopkins, as well as many others, dropped the
“true sex” policy (such as XX or XY) and adopted the “optimal gender”
policy for assigning sex to sexually ambiguous children.23 According to
this policy, proposed by Dr. John Money and his colleagues at Johns
Hopkins, “the assignment or reassignment of gender should be based
on the expected optimal outcome in terms of psychosexual, reproductive, and overall psychologic/psychiatric functioning.”24 Translated,
that meant that it was up to the pediatricians, endocrinologists, plastic
surgeons, and parents—not chromosomes, gonads, or the vagaries of
biology—to determine the sex of the child. Furthermore, this protocol
suggested surgery as early as possible to quickly unify physical appearance and the gender expectations of all involved. Though many of these
ideas have since been discredited, they took hold like grappling hooks
in the medical community of the time.
If a baby’s sex wasn’t obvious, as soon as possible those involved
told the parents (if they wished to involve the parents at all) what sex
would be best for their child. Then all moved quickly to create a physical reality for the child that is consistent with the chosen gender. The
nature of sex had lost its prominence; in its place, the “optimal gender”
policy raised up the force of nurture—the reality of sex by reason and
design, sex by environment.
To this point, no one had considered the child’s nervous system to
be of any consequence in human sexual development. In infants especially, the mind and brain were thought to be of no consequence, but
that perception was about to change. At the time, most people thought
that at birth, and for the first few years afterward, the child was a blank
slate. Masculine or feminine characteristics and perceptions could be
pushed in either direction simply by manipulating the social, biologi- A Brief History of Sex 31 cal, and psychological fabric of a child’s life. Like a neuter ball of clay,
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