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Gayspotting, ‘Gaydar’ & the Gaga Doctrine

Mark Simpson feels the gay bumps and lumps that betray the ‘gay brain’

Everyone loves Spotting The Gay. It’s a fun game the whole family can play.

Scientists seem to love it too. There have been a number of studies in the last decade or so that claim to demonstrate that ‘gaydar’ – the name implying microwave-accuracy we like to give to gut-instinct gayspotting – exists.

Though the results are not exactly stunning: only a bit better than chance, even after excluding bisexuality and pretending the world is neatly and helpfully divided half and half into heteros and homos. 10% more than chance is certainly ‘statistically significant’ in a laboratory, but not really the kind of accuracy you would trust to land your jumbo jet.

In fact, a series of intriguing recent studies by William Cox and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have suggested that even that accuracy, modest as it is, has been massively overestimated because a major flaw in the mathematics of previous research. Given the low incidence of homosexuality in the general population, 60% accuracy in the laboratory where subjects are 50% gay/straight translates into 93% inaccuracy in a real world in which 95% of the population are straight.

You really wouldn’t want ‘gaydar’ anywhere near Air Traffic Control.

Moreover, their research claims to debunk the whole concept of gaydar as nothing more than a legitimising myth for stereotyping. They argue that stereotyping is not, in general, an accurate way to judge sexuality and showed the more you validate the stereotyping the more people jump to conclusions.

Participants in one of their studies were asked to judge whether men were gay or straight based on whether they had interests that related to gay stereotypes, like fashion, shopping or theatre. Others had interests related to straight stereotypes, like sports, hunting or cars. Those who were told gaydar is real stereotyped much more than the control group and participants stereotyped much less when they had been told that gaydar is just another term for stereotyping.

I’d add here that in a sense inaccuracy is the point of ‘gaydar’. The ‘false positives’ are what it’s really targeting – it’s a system of surveillance. Gay stereotypes, particularly in regard to male homosexuality, are not so much aimed at gays, as at men in general – gayspotting is actually about spotting and discouraging male gender non-conformity. That 60% ‘accuracy’ claimed in previous studies means that for every 100 people, there will be 38 straight men incorrectly labelled gay, but only three gay people correctly labelled. Result!

Cox et al conducted another, slightly hair-raising experiment to show how stereotypes work. They had participants administer electric shocks to a male subject in the other room: ‘Participants learned only one thing about this other person, either that he was gay or simply liked shopping.’

Prejudiced people tended to refrain from shocking the man who was confirmed as gay, but delivered extremely high levels of shocks to the man who liked shopping. The researchers conclude that this experiment shows how stereotyping can give people opportunities to express prejudices without fear of reprisal. You can imagine them explaining: But, but… I didn’t electrocute The Gay!.

I would go further. I would say that it indicates how non-gay men who like things that are ‘gay’ are nowadays frequently safer targets for prejudice than (out) gay men – and as I say, homophobia, while particularly bad of course for gay men, is mostly about controlling the behaviour of non-homo men, of which there are a much larger number. So Cox et al’s shocking experiment was in effect a study in (American) metrophobia – I’m gonna fry that metrosexual faggot!

It’s not just straight people who like stereotypes, however. Gays can be even keener on gayspotting, and even more convinced of their unerring accuracy. Especially if the subject is hot or famous. And if they’re both then, my dear, there’s no question. Sometimes it almost looks like a re-enactment of their own childhood – though this time around they’re the ones shouting GAY!! (See much of Perez Hilton’s career.) Though in tests, les-gays, for all their skill at reading ‘gayness’ are only marginally better than straight people at gayspotting. Which is to say, only slightly less rubbish.

I know my gaydar’s rubbish – and I’m always the last to know. But even that knowledge doesn’t stop me from making snap judgements about strangers that are: a) entirely subjective, and b) really none of my fucking business. I can’t help but wonder if the fascination with spotting something is directly related to one’s actual incompetence. After all, if you were any good you would probably get bored with the game very quickly indeed.

And people are anything but bored with gaydar. My good chum Martin Karaffa first drew my attention to the flurry of publicity surrounding the recent paper, ‘Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces’ (Yilun Wang, Michal Kosinski). The attention the paper received was not surprising, bringing together as it did dating profiles, Artificial Intelligence and ‘gaydar’. COOL!

‘AI Can Tell If You’re Gay From a Photo, And It’s Terrifying’, screamed one typical headline.  Typically false, that is. AI can’t tell from a photo whether you’re gay or not, and the authors of the paper don’t really claim to have achieved that. Additionally – and I know this will come as a terrible disappointment to many – they are very sceptical about the very concept of ‘gaydar’ as most people understand it, and in fact provide further evidence of its rather severe wonkiness (more on that later).

For their study they seem to have harvested profile photos of (white) men and women from an (unnamed) dating website, labelled them ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ according to the gender of the partner they said they were looking for, and then taught a computer to Spot The Gay – or rather, choose from pairs of photos of men or women where one was ‘gay’ and one was ‘straight’, which one was more likely to be ‘gay’. (I’m using scare quotes here because by the authors’ own admission, they themselves assigned the sexuality of the people in those photos – and, naturally, excluded bisexuality as a category.)

Under these carefully controlled conditions the AI guessed right 81% of the time for men and 71% of the time for women. Which sounds impressive, and is certainly significantly better than previous human judges studies, but it’s important however to remember again that the starting point for each pair of photos is 50% – the probability of guessing correctly by chance.

Some have critiqued the reporting of the paper and the paper itself  – particularly the way it seems to resurrect the once-fashionable 19th Century pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology, where an individual’s character is supposedly ‘written’ into someone’s appearance – the size of their nose, the bumps on their head.  The equally old-fashioned (but recently re-fashioned) biological theory it calls on, in this case the theory that homosexuality is the result of endrocrinal abnormalities in the womb, has also been questioned.

According to prenatal hormonal theory (PHT), gay men are gay because they didn’t get enough testosterone in utero and are thus ‘feminine’ or improperly masculinised. Lesbians are lesbian because they got too much and have thus been butched. In a sense, homosexuality doesn’t really exist – just hormonally-confused heterosexuality: masculine goes for feminine and that universally. (Though it seems to me this theory fails to account for how gay men can be attracted to other gay men – who would have to have the same ‘feminine’ orientation, psychology and appearance and thus be doubly or triply unsuitable love-objects.)

The paper’s authors Wang & Kosinski describe PHT as ‘widely-accepted’, which seems like something of an overstatement. Besides, the most recent PHT study rather embarrassingly failed to find that gay men were exposed to less testosterone than straight men – falling back on speculation that gay men might be ‘less sensitive’ to testosterone. (It did claim to find however that lesbians were exposed to more testosterone than straight women.)

What Wang & Kosinski say they did for their study was train their AI to look for ‘feminine’ features and behaviours in men and ‘masculine’ features and behaviours in women. Hence their claim that their findings help confirm the PHT theory of sexual orientation – and obviously they believe that this is a ‘good thing’.

Our results provide strong support for the [prenatal hormone theory], which argues that same-gender sexual orientation stems from the underexposure of male fetuses and overexposure of female fetuses to prenatal androgens responsible for the sexual differentiation of faces, preferences, and behavior

As a lay person it appears to me that for a number of reasons they’re wrong to claim confirmation of PHT, but were absolutely right to imagine they would be thanked for this claim in an era when essentialist ideas about sexuality are in vogue – as much as, paradoxically, essentialist ideas about gender are not. You can apparently choose your gender now, but your sexuality absolutely has to choose you.

So Kosinski himself, responding to criticisms of his study from GLAAD and others who described it as ‘junk science’ claimed it supported LGBT rights:

“It’s a great argument against all of those religious groups and other demagogues who say, ‘Why don’t you just change or just conform?’ You can’t stop, because you’re born this way,”

And he has a point, though perhaps not the one he thought he was making. In the US, where this study was conducted and where the culture wars rage (and thanks largely to social media are increasingly being exported to the UK, whether we want them or not) the God/Darwin made me this way tendency – what we might call the Gaga Doctrine – has dominated liberal and ‘progressive’ discourse for some time. Largely because it seems to represent an irrefutable and ‘immutable’ answer to the religious right moralism of ‘it’s a choice!’

But in addition to being, as Kosinski’s deployment of the argument demonstrates, not actually very progressive (‘I can’t help myself!’) but rather a reaction to reactionary ideas, this determinist approach is anyway very likely also doomed to failure. Establishing a predisposition for same sexiness – the most you could reasonably hope for, and even then not in all cases – is not enough for the Gaga Doctrine. Because with predisposition, as the word suggests, experience is decisive. The whole point of being ‘born that way’ is to get rid of all of that messy stuff called ‘life’.

And Kosinski isn’t the one resurrecting dodgy physiognomy, it’s already been galvanised Dr Frankenstein style – by ‘progressive’ scientists who want to in effect Spot The Gay in the womb in order to prove that homosexuality is congenital – a ‘third sex’. Often scientists who are themselves gay and on a quest to prove they were ‘born that way’, baby. (Kosinski has just had more publicity than most – and possibly been more clumsy than most; and since he is not gay himself is easier to attack.)

So tenuous claims about gay hair whorls, gay drivers, gay index fingers, gay genes and gay brains are to be welcomed because they reveal God’s amniotic plan for sodomy – a kind of gay creationism. Likewise ‘gaydar’ studies that ‘out’ the inborn gay essence in gay faces. Hence the public support for the study provided by a prominent gay scientist, fervent believer in ‘gay brains’ and author of a book called ‘Born Gay’.

To a non-believer like me – it offends my amour propre to think my sexuality is in effect nothing to do with me – probably the most interesting aspect of the ‘AI gaydar’ study is that it goes out of its way to point out how poor actual humans are at gayspotting, despite the allegedly decisive effect of that allegedly faulty amniotic fluid. In other words, the AI gaydar study torpedoes gaydar as it is understood by pretty much everyone.

They point out that the ‘gender atypical’ nature of gay men and lesbian faces they claim to have shown are only an average aggregation of ‘subtle’ differences – and not applicable to all gay men and lesbians. Most relevantly, and most disappointingly for many, they state: ‘Our results in no way indicate that sexual orientation can be determined from faces by humans.’

They even ran their own large human judges study – asking men and women from the US to choose between two photos of two men (and two women), one gay/lesbian and one straight – selecting the one more likely to be gay/lesbian. 50,000 pairs were used for each gender. They achieved an accuracy of 61% for men and 54% for women – ‘comparable with the accuracy obtained in the previous studies, which range from approximately 55 to 65%’.

They conclude that this ‘confirms that humans are rather inaccurate when distinguishing between facial images of gay and homosexual [sic] individuals.’

Regarding their own AI study, which of course had significantly better results, they allow this criticism:

‘It is possible, however, that facial images posted on a dating website are particularly revealing of sexual orientation. Perhaps the users selected the photos that their desired partners might find the most appealing.’

No shit, Sherlock.

In fact, part of the reason why they ran the human judges study was to try and prove that there was nothing especially ‘revealing’ about those pics – the fact that the human viewers scored similar (poor) rates to earlier studies demonstrates this, they believe.

Along with many other critics, I’m not so sure. Photos posted for a same-sex date/hook-up on a (presumably mostly hetero) dating site are almost by definition presenting you in a certain way, even if the human eye wasn’t (consciously) picking it up. Otherwise, why post them? They are self-selected photos uploaded by self-selecting homos: out enough to put their faces on a dating website, and one used by mostly straight people. And also by ‘gaydar’ researchers who may or may not have been breaching the dating site’s confidentiality rules.

It does seem to be the case however that the AI here successfully picked up what the human eye didn’t. Though exactly what the AI was doing seems to be a bit of a mystery, as apparently is the case with AI and algorithms generally. What’s evident though is that the data processed was not just ‘fixed’ or inborn facial features, as much as these can anyway be reliably measured from self-posted photos on a dating website, but also what the report calls ‘expressions’ and ‘grooming styles’. (Interestingly, Cox’s studies debunking gaydar – strangely unmentioned in this paper – found that ‘gaydar’ was largely an artefact of the happenstance that gay and lesbian self-selected photos tended to be of better quality than ones used by heteros: once this was eliminated there was no ‘gaydar’ effect.)

The authors cover themselves here however by claiming that they weighted facial features more heavily (something currently impossible for anyone else to verify), and postulating that anyway the ‘gender atypical’ expressions and grooming of their ‘gay’ subjects was probably also down to the fact they weren’t exposed to enough/too much testosterone in utero. Gay grooming is, in other words, also a product of faulty prenatal grooming. PHT theory is almost womb-like in its all-enveloping-ness.

In a statement that for me draws perhaps the biggest question mark over their whole study they also claim that they found that gay men were less likely to have facial hair than straight men. And again wonder whether this might be down to, you guessed it, insufficient pre-natal man-horms.

I don’t know about you, but now I really want to know now what this dating site was where they found all these clean-shaven horny gay men. For the last decade or so – and long before straight men started growing beards en masse, following in fact gay men’s example – it has been practically impossible for a gay man to get laid in metropolitan areas without face-fur.

They also offer this ‘revealing’ nugget about baseball caps:

‘consistent with the association between baseball caps and masculinity in American culture…, heterosexual men and lesbians tended to wear baseball caps (see the shadow on their foreheads)’

So now we know their AI was definitely measuring things that are not ‘inborn’. No one is delivered wearing a New York Yankees cap – not even a lesbian positively marinated in amniotic androgens.

It may be true that out gay men generally don’t seem to be terribly fond of wearing baseball caps – especially when trying to get laid on a straight dating site. But perhaps this has less to do with any underexposure to testosterone than an overexposure to fashion sense.

What Exactly Was Heterosexuality?

This classic Gay Liberation poster from 1975 by Alan Wakeman mocking mid-century heterosexist platitudes remains very funny indeed. It’s also still perhaps the best response to those – straight and gay – still seeking to find the ’cause’ of homosexuality.

Though obviously the ‘Cultural Deprivation’ balloon at the bottom is no longer true:

‘Heterosexual men… think themselves “ugly”, beauty being ascribed only to women. Many psychic disorders stem from this self-rejection.’

Three decades on, male heterosexuality has been pretty much phased out and replaced by metrosexuality – spectacularly abolishing the sexual division of looking and loveliness. Men nowadays clearly think themselves irresistible, thank you very much.

In fact, if it was drawn today this chart would be titled: ‘What Exactly Was Heterosexuality?’

The revolutionary, universal promise of Gay Liberation has been realised – at least in the bathroom and bedroom. By non-gay men as much if not more than gay ones.

Traditional Masculinity Has a Stroke – ‘Burly Rugby Player’ Transforms Into ‘Gay Hairdresser’

My friend Michelle, formerly the male stripper known as ‘Stud-U-Like’, alerted me to this ‘freaky’ tale of transformation reported in this week’s freaky Daily Mail with this priceless headline:

Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident… wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser

It then teases us with a couple of ‘shocking’ bullet-pointed facts

Chris Birch loses eight stone and transforms himself from skinhead to ‘preened man’

Gives up job in bank and retrains as a hairdresser

 

Cutting to the chase:

Mr Birch recalled: ‘I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I immediately felt different.

“I wasn’t interested in women any more. I was definitely gay. I had never been attracted to a man before – I’d never even had any gay friends.

‘But I didn’t care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings.’

Before the accident Mr Birch, of Ystrad Mynach, South Wales, had spent his weekends watching sport and drinking with his mates.

But he said: ‘Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.

‘I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out. I went from a 19-stone skinhead to an 11-stone preened man.

‘People I used to know barely recognised me and with my new look I became even more confident.’

The copy and a supportive quote from a neuroscientist seems to suggest only two explanations: ‘he was gay all along but didn’t know it before the stroke’; or ‘his stroke made him gay and good with colours’.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that there are more than two possible explanations here.

Maybe Mr Birch was just fed up with being the big Welsh boyo everyone wanted him to be and when it almost killed him he decided: ‘Sod THAT for a game of soldiers! Life’s too short. I’m gonna be a FLAMER!!’

Maybe Mr Birch simply resolved, albeit unconsciously, to be about Mr Birch from now on, not what his family, friends and fiancée expected of him. Maybe he chose to reject heterosexuality because it made too many demands on him. And what better way to escape its demands in a small Welsh town by waking up from a near death experience as the only gay in the village?

Being a bloke’s bloke isn’t always as much fun as it looks. And being honest, it usually doesn’t look that much fun anyway. You don’t have to be a ‘secret gay’ to find it miserable and oppressive. And more often than not you’ll be punished if you try to escape. Look at what happened to Shane Warne, whose own transformation from beer-bellied Aussie stereotype to flaming metrosexual has been regularly pilloried in the papers, including the one in which this latest sporting transformation story appeared.

Though of course nowadays it’s sometimes possible to be a rugby-playing Welshman and something of a flamer too. Maybe Mr Birch should have taken a leaf out of fellow Welshman Gavin Henson’s bachelor book and continued playing with odd-shaped balls but as a ‘preened’ rugby player. But then again, perhaps he didn’t have the legs for it.

And as for Mr Birch’s new-found interest in chaps. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think it very surprising when males find other males sexually interesting. Or something that needs to be explained by a stroke. At least not the kind the Daily Mail reports.

There is though yet another possible explanation for all this. That this story is complete twaddle. It did after all appear in the Daily Mail. And the writer is the same one who reported pretty much every important fact about this infamous ‘gay orgy in the bushes’ story incorrectly, apparently pandering to the imagined Daily Mail reader’s worst fantasies.

Also, the stroke that ‘turned him gay’ (instantly, apparently), happened in 2005. Why wait six years to tell the national press? Especially if you told your parents and fiancée when you came round in the hospital.

And I seem to recall that when I first read this story about Mr Birch online yesterday it mentioned that he and his fiancé/girlfriend were ‘taking a break’ before the accident. The piece was ‘updated’ today and this detail is nowhere to be found.

And then we have the banner headline which talks about a ‘freak gym accident’ causing his injuries but the copy talks instead about ‘him attempting a backflip in front of friends on a field when he fell down a grass bank, breaking his neck and suffering the stroke.’ Or the way the ‘before’ picture appears to have been manipulated/squashed to make him look burlier.

But my favourite dodgy passage is this one:

‘He was taken to hospital where his fiancée and family spent days waiting anxiously at his bedside before he delivered the shocking news.’

What? More shocking than breaking his neck, suffering a stroke and nearly dying?

UPDATE 18/04/12

Last night BBC3 aired ‘I Woke Up Gay’, a documentary about Mr Birch. It was an hour long, but apart from some local Welsh colour, some more snaps of Birch pre-stroke when he was straight and very chunky (“Oh! That’s AWFUL!!'” was today’s slimline Birch’s horrified response to them) and more close-ups of Birch’s remarkable hairdo, which looks like a badly ironed dead badger, the doc didn’t really add anything to the Mail’s story. Or really clarify the ‘confusions’. (Birch says he ‘can’t remember’ much of his pre-stroke past.)

It did however leave you feeling that the whole thing wasn’t just cooked up by the Mail, and that Mr Birch seems to believe his own story. Or perhaps needs to believe it. Though it’s still not entirely clear when exactly he decided on it. His family were notable by their absence in the doc – apparently he has become estranged from most of the people he used to know before the stroke.

I don’t wish to suggest as many have done that Birch is ‘lying’, or was a ‘closet queen’ before the stroke. Or that he’s simply attention-seeking (though he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it). I do think though that he may be deceiving himself – but then, we all do that. To some extent probably most coming out stories are fictional if necessary narratives. What’s interesting is not what his story says not about dubious ‘brain science’ but about how difficult it can still be for some to accept themselves in places like the Valleys as gay, or just not a boozy rugger bugger.

In that kind of situation a stroke might even be a stroke of luck. At least in the sense of giving you a chance to reinvent yourself.

The ‘highlight’ of the doc was when Birch travels up to London to see the Wizard of Oz – or rather, a highly controversial scientist called Quazi Rahman who believes that gay men’s brains are innately different to straight men’s (this in turn is based on dubious assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are increasingly being questioned). The narrator told us that Rahman has tested “hundreds of lesbian, gay and straight volunteers” (no bisexuals, note – and for the purposes of this entire documentary they simply don’t exist) and “can tell if a person was born gay or straight, despite their current lifestyle”.

In other words, Rahman is God.

The narration continues, cheerfully telling us:

“Though controversial, some scientists believe that our genes and hormones may determine sexuality before birth and personality traits too. These traits can be tested and this means that Dr Rahman can work out whether or not a person was truly born gay.”

Truly born gay.

In other words, Rahman is even bigger than God. He’s Jeremy Kyle.

(Note how BBC3 throws in a reluctant ‘controversial’ at the beginning of the first sentence but by the end of the second, knowing most BBC3 viewers have already long forgotten it, seems to be expressing nothing short of a divine revelation.)

So it was touching to see two people who both fervently believe in ‘gay brains’ come together – but unfortunately for Birch, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Rahman talks to Birch about testing him to find out “how gay your brain is” (no, really, that’s actually what he says), but was clearly disappointed with his own results, which showed that half Birch’s responses fell within the ‘normal range’ for a gay man and the other half within the ‘normal range’ of a straight man. Whatever that means.

Birch though is delighted with the results because he sees it as an endorsement of his narrative of the stroke ‘turning his brain gay’. But Rahman seems set against the idea, despite his mixed findings. Perhaps this is because for the gay neuroscientist (who is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’) the whole point of ‘gay brains’ seems to be that you’re born with them, rather than being something you can acquire, even by accident. Like I said, everyone has their own necessary coming out fiction.

Birch’s boyfriend, who accompanied him to the Gay Brain Detector’s lab, seemed to be the only one who had his head screwed on. He was gently sceptical of his partner’s belief that the stroke made him gay, but was patiently sympathetic to the psychology of it. “He’s based his whole life on the stroke making him gay,” he said whilst Birch’s brain was being ‘tested’ for ‘gayness’.

“If he wasn’t, it would almost be like having to start from scratch again.”

Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism

What are little boys made of?
“Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of!”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!”

This popular kids nursery-rhyme, and the popular notion that men and women are different species from entirely different worlds, may have to be re-written in the light of recent findings.

Several books recently have taken a scalpel to ‘neurosexism’, or rather the neuroscience of ‘innate’ and ‘inborn’ – or ‘hardwired’– differences between men and women. It seems that most of what we have been told about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains over the last few decades is, to use a highly technical term, bollocks.

It turns out there is little or no sound scientific evidence for the sweeping claims that have been made about sexed brains – even if they make for easy headlines for copy-editors and provide endless material for lazy stand-up comics. In fact, the very notion of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is misleading. Shockingly, it turns out that the human race, in all its billions and billions, doesn’t actually resolve itself into just two kinds of people. One made of snips and snails and the other made of sugar and spice. One from Mars, the other from Venus.

Yes, there are some differences between adult male and female brains, but these are not, it seems, so much inborn in the way we think of anatomical sexual difference as being inborn – there’s little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Instead they’re the result of our highly ‘plastic’ brains adapting to the culture and expectations they are born into. Learning the syntax of sex and gender.

Having read one of the most publicised books, Dr Lise Eliot’s (ironically titled) Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I can report I thoroughly enjoyed the way she methodically dices and slices the mounds and mounds of dodgy neuroscience papers that have gone before her, like some kind of white-coated Ellen Ripley figure. It’s always a thrill to see scientific scepticism in action – especially in a particularly egotistical field such as neuroscience that seemingly just can’t resist making several whopping great tendentious claims before lunchtime. Neuroscientists sometimes come across like a real-life Pinky and The Brain, but more ridiculous.

Eliot’s argument is that small physical and temperamental differences between the sexes at birth are exaggerated by cultural attitudes – and by bad science based on cultural attitudes, providing a depressing feedback loop. She certainly makes a forceful case for it, showing how so much of the data in this area has been cherry-picked or unreasonably extrapolated from studies on rats. Essentially, for the vast majority of children, how they are raised and educated and the cultural expectations they are born into are of much greater importance for their psychological development than the amount of testosterone they were or were not exposed to in the womb.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that while she might be characterised by some (though not as far as I’m aware by herself) as a ‘feminist scientist’, if only because she’s female and a scientist and taking on gender stereotyping, she’s not so much riding to the rescue here of girls, as boys.

The biggest losers as a result of latter-day ‘neurosexism’ aren’t the girls who are discouraged from being physically adventurous by their over-protective mothers, or tacitly persuaded that maths isn’t for them, but the boys who are talked to less than girls, left on their own longer and not expected to be interested in books. We can glean an idea of who is really losing out in the figures which show that boys are falling further and further behind girls at every level of education. It’s not so much that education has been ‘feminised’ as some would have it, it’s that education has been branded ‘not for boys’ by bad science and even worse popularisations of it.

The notion/prejudice that girls are ‘hardwired’ for communication and boys’ for aggression is doubtless very unfair indeed to girls – but it’s downright abusive for boys. Our assumptions that boys as a ‘species’ are ‘naturally’ much less empathetic than girls, less social, less literate, less sensitive – less ‘human’ in other words – are a self-fulfilling prophecy/nightmare.  Snips and snails…. Boys are, in effect, being ‘hardwired’ into failure by adult prejudice – and scientific hogwash.

Neuroscience has ended up saying some very strange, very damaging things about boys. Leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he’s the cousin of the other one) actually argues that autism is ‘an extreme form of maleness’, caused by exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone. Put another way, he’s in effect arguing that ‘normal’ maleness is a mild form of autism (rather like most of the novels of Nick Hornby). Dr Eliot does a particularly nifty job of dispatching this argument, concluding that far from being some kind of excess of maleness, we still just don’t know what causes autism.

But my favourite part of the book was this anecdote, used to illustrate how five-year-olds tend to define and enforce gender in a manner entirely consistent with the ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ nursery rhyme:

Psychologist Sandra Bem cites a perfect example of such gender-defining stereotypes in the experience of her own son, Jeremy. She and her husband had gone to great lengths to raise their two children in a gender-neutral way, so when Jeremy announced one day that he wanted to wear hair slides to nursery school, she simply put them in his hair and let him go.  Expecting him to be teased, she was surprised that he said nothing about it when he came home that day. Later, however, she learned from his teacher that Jeremy had indeed been hounded by on boy, who kept asserting that Jeremy must be a girl “because only girls wear hair slides.”

“No,” Professor Bem’s well-taught son had countered, going on to insist that he was indeed a boy because he had “ a penis and testicles.”  To prove the point, Jeremy even pulled down his trousers.

But the other boy was not persuaded and replied: “Everyone has a penis; only girls wear hair slides.”

Given what Dr Eliot reports here about many of her colleague’s work, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ‘only girls wear hair slides’ bossy little boy is going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.

Pinky and the Brain – Intro Theme (closed captions)

Born Gay or Knitted That Way?

Great piece by the brilliant Irish columnist Dermod Moore in Dublin’s Hot Press about the BBC John Barrowman doc about the ’causes’ of his homosexuality called The Making of Me – or rather, The Making of MEEEEE!.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch the doc myself which I’ve had on HDD for months because a) I’ve seen enough Barrowman to last me a lifetime, and b) I’ve written plenty on this subject already.

Though maybe I would have watched it if the doc had been about what makes Barrowman such an annoyingly ubiquitous musical theatre queen.

Which reminds me of my favourite Two Ronnies joke:

Big Ron: ‘My mother made me a homosexual.’

Little Ron: ‘Really?  If I gave her the pattern would she knit me one too?’

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