So seeing as we…

28 Apr

So seeing as we’ve been doing it in developmental I thought I’d blog on the hugely controversial case of David Reimer. This study isn’t as well known by none psychology people as say Zimbardo and Milgram. However I would put it on the same kind of shock level as both of these studies.

First off what was the study?  David (as he chose to later name himself) was born a boy but due to a botched circumcision spent the first 14 years of his life being brought up a girl. The man behind this idea? John Money. He was an expert in gender reassignments and confused at what to do with their son David’s parents asked him for help. His suggestion was, as said before, to fully castrate David and raise him as a girl. This provided an answer to the David’s parents but also a perfect opportunity for Money, the only catch was that David could never be told of his true sex. David was on one a set of identical twins. Money had created the opportunity to compare a set of twins of now different gender, he could now see if his theory was correct. David and his brother Brian were interviewed and followed throughout their childhood and for a while it seemed as if Money’s theory had been correct. However this was completely not the case. Brenda (David’s name when he was a girl) did not feel like a girl, she enjoyed to play games stereotypically that which a boy would play and hated to wear girly clothes. Money however did not want this and so set about to psychologically cement the idea that Brenda was a girl in her head. This led to some alleged behaviour that if happened is extremely unethical. Long story short. Brenda was pushed to the point where she threatened suicide if she ever had to see Money again and faced with this her parents decided to tell her the truth. This led to Brenda adopting her original gender, having reconstructive surgery and calling herself David.

Ok so ethically this study pretty much breaks every guideline in the book. The study itself started off entirely wrong. Money being the researcher and man behind the idea should have really had someone present that could monitor David to keep an eye on his emotional well-being. Psychologists have to protect participants in their studies and Money failed to this he was too involved with the theory he was trying to support to be able to maintain the objectivity needed to protect David. This is evidently shown in the allegations that David and his twin made that they were forced to act out sexual positions with each other as part of cementing the idea that David was a girl in his head. This is made even more important when the strain that such a thing put on the Reimer family is thought about; though it may not be the sole cause it could be argued that the experiment was a leading factor in the deaths of both David and his twin Brian. However some argue that because we discovered so much from the experiment about gender then the ends justify the means. The majority of what we learnt is that gender is definitely a case of nature and that gender cannot be nurtured. However what does this say about those that feel they have been born the wrong gender? The nature argument says if you are born a boy then that’s what you are but for those that are born boys but feel like they are a girl on the inside then where do they fall in the debate? And what can we take from Money’s study in relation to this? It could be argued that had the same experiment happened in today’s society then the results may have been different. Gender roles in the 60s were far more defined and separate from each other than they are now. David was forced not only into another gender but into the extreme of that gender, it may be that had he been brought up as a girl in the 20th century that he would never have felt so out of place. As in today’s society it is totally acceptable for girls to wear boyish clothes and to play with boys toys openly. He would just be labelled a tom boy and would have been readily accepted as such. However had the botched circumcision happened today hat with the advances in plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery there would have been other options for the Reimer family in comparison to when it actually happened when they had few options.

In conclusion no matter how ground breaking the findings of the David Reimer case the simple truth is that the study destroyed a family and ended in complete tragedy. This is a perfect case for me as to why the ethical guidelines are just so important, for me the end certainly do NOT justify the mean!


3 Responses to “So seeing as we…”

  1. psue76 May 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    I think this confirms the idea that researchers should not take an active role in interviewing their participants as with this case, there was an extreme researcher bias. Money failed to acknowledge that Brenda was not the typical girl he had wanted her to be, therefore at any chance she showed femininity, he focused on that rather than the underlying truth that Brenda was uncomfortable being a girl. Therefore in this study, Money should have had another psychologist who did not know the study (blind effect) interview Brenda and decide from the observations whether they thought Brenda showed more masculine or feminine traits. This decision would be more credible as there would be no real risk of observer bias, in particular researcher bias, and perhaps would be more ethical, as Money continued to push Brenda into thinking she was a girl causing emotional harm to the participant.
    Imperato-McGinley et al (1979) found that males who had female genitals who were raised as girls decided at the ages of 17-18 to change back to males. The study examined 38 cases where during or after puberty, the participants decided to adopt the male-gender roles and appeared to change their identity. The cause for this is said to be that in-utero they were exposed to testosterone (males have more testosterone than females do), and as a result, suggests that testosterone dominates gender-identity over the upbringing. This suggests that our identity is determined by our nature rather than how we are nurtured and that Money’s theory would be incorrect.

    Imperato-McGinley. J., Peterson. R. E., Gautier. T., & Sturla. E. (1979). Androgens and the Evolution of Male-Gender Identity among Male Pseudohermaphrodites with 5α-Reductase Deficiency. (Abstract). The new england journal of medicine, 300, 1233-1237. Retrieved from

  2. dunekahnshillan May 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    A main critique of the study I find is that of Money’s belief that we are born gender neutral. Whilst we are born without any innate knowledge of our gender (mainly because we are born without any real knowledge at all except for our basic needs), we are born with male/female differences. From hormones released into our systems when we are in the uterus to the fact that we are born with different genitals. Whilst Money may not have known about hormones in the uterus, the fact that all males act one way and tend to have similar behaviours and the same for girls, this would have been indicative that something has brought us up like this and that it must be universal to our gender. Money assumed at the beginning of his study that only one factor could ever influence our gender and ignored other ideas on the subject. If other researchers from different schools of thought had gone over his idea for the study, it might have been stopped, avoiding the horrific events of David’s life.

  3. WeeklyPsychRamblings May 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    This is a really interesting blog in terms of subjects that don’t come up very much, even in the subject of psychology. Obviously, as you said, from any readers point of view, this was an unethical study that no matter the findings, should have been avoided in order to make David and his twins life as normal as possible. The main issue that seems to have lead to David being raised as a girl first off, is the way that Money consideres the issue of gender. The fact that he consideres gender to be something that is not in our genes, rather that we are gender neutral. As different changes to the body happen in puberty, as well as different sexual desires for the opposite sex for around 90% of the population, Money should have had some sense of how being raised as a girl when David was, infact born a boy, should have caused him to have second thoughts about putting his ideology into practise with a human baby. Although the subject is indeed interesting, there is not amount of knowledge that we could gain about the matter that justifies the way that David, and in some ways his twin was treated and justifies Moneys actions.

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