The boy with no penis: David Reimer & the question of what is innate

Carrie-Anne is a thirtysomething historical novelist, historian, and lover of many things from bygone eras (except for the sexism, racism, and homophobia). She can be found at Welcome to My Magick Theatre, where she primarily blogs about writing, historical topics, names, silent and early sound cinema, and classic rock and pop; and at Onomastics Outside the Box, where she blogs about names and naming-related issues. Her only child, a 17-year-old spider plant named Kalanit, has thankfully never had any issues with her gender identity!

Carrie-Anne can be found on Twitter @Anyechka and is available to interact in the comments section of this post. Her previous article for 4thWaveNow was “Transing the Dead: The erasure of gender-defiant role models from history.”

by Carrie-Anne Brownian

Though many people today have wholeheartedly accepted the theory claiming “gender identity” is innate, such an idea developed very recently in the grand span of human history. The word “gender” itself also only came to be used in reference to the state of being male or female (or some new-fangled “identity” such as “agender” or “femme demiboy”) very recently. A predominant reason for this sharp shift in language is the work of Dr. John Money (8 July 1921–7 July 2006). But before I embark on a discussion of the most infamous exemplar of Money’s legacy—the case of David Reimer–some etymological explanations are in order.

The word “gender” entered the English language in the year 1300, by way of the Old French gendre and genre, meaning “kind, species; character.” In English, the word had almost the exact same meaning, “kind, class, sort, a class or kind of persons or things sharing certain traits.” The Old French word in turn comes from the Latin genus (genitive form generis), “race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species.” Its ultimate etymological root is the Proto–Indo–European *gene- (give birth, beget). Other words formed from this ancient root related to familial and tribal groups, as well as procreation.

Though “gender” is attested as referring to biological sex in English as early as the 15th century, this wasn’t the most common usage of the word. Even the Victorians, cast in the modern imagination as extremely prudish, and, well—Victorian–used the word “sex” when referring to the state of being female or male. It was only in the last few decades of the 20th century, after the word “sex” came to be the common parlance to refer to sexual relations, that the switch began. (On an interesting side note, the phrase “making love,” now seen as a softer, romantic way to refer to sexual relations, only referred to sweet-talking or other attempted wooing until the earlier decades of the 20th century.)

Instead, the word “gender” was by and large used to refer to grammar. Though English isn’t a particularly gendered language, many other languages are. Nouns, adjectives, definite articles, and pronouns are all feminine, masculine, or neuter. Some words in some languages will always maintain their grammatical gender, while others are modified based upon whether, for example, a cat, teacher, or baby is female or male. Not just the nouns and pronouns themselves, but also the accompanying adjectives and definite articles, are subsequently gendered to agree with the main object. Some languages, most famously many of the Slavic languages, gender surnames and patronymics based upon the sex of the bearer. Grammatical gender also includes verb forms. The example most readers will probably be familiar with is the French née/né (she was born/he was born), used to refer to a birth name.

All this changed with the appearance of Dr. John Money in the mid-20th century.


John Money

John Money was born in Morrinsville, New Zealand, to an English mother and Australian father.  He had quite a dysfunctional childhood.

Money was raised in a very strict, religious home, where anything related to sex was repressed and portrayed as dirty and sinful.  From his first day of school at age five, he was marked by bullies not only as someone who didn’t fight back, but who took shelter in the girls’ play-shed.  Later in life, he wrote about his father “with barely controlled venom,” describing him as an extremely cruel man who shot birds in his fruit garden and administered a brutal, abusive whipping and interrogation to his son on account of a broken window.  At age eight, his father died, and he wasn’t told for three days [Colapinto, John, As Nature Made Him:  The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl, 2000; also see Colapinto, John, “The True Story of John/Joan,” Rolling Stone, 11 December 1997, pgs. 54–97)].

After his father’s death, Money was raised in a house full of women, whom he believed despised all things male and viewed him as wearing “the mark of man’s vile sexuality” (i.e., the penis and testes).  In the 1997 anthology How I Got into Sex, in an essay entitled “Serendipities on the Sexological Pathway to Research in Gender Identity and Sex Reassignment,” Money described how this led him to reject the role of “man of the household,” and “wondered if the world might really be a better place for women if not only farm animals but human males also were gelded at birth.”  (This is also related in Colapinto’s book.)

After graduating from high school early, he attended Victoria University in Wellington. In 1944, he earned a double master’s in philosophy/psychology and education, as well as a teaching certificate. Because New Zealand didn’t grant doctorates in psychology in that era, Money immigrated to North America in 1947.

Money worked at the Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh for awhile, and was later accepted into Harvard’s PhD program in the Department of Social Relations. In 1952, he earned his doctorate, with a thesis entitled “Hermaphroditism: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Human Paradox.”

During the 1950s, Money began studying intersex people, who were then referred to as hermaphrodites. Most famously, in a 1955 paper, he expounded upon six variables which he believed defined biological sex. Though all these variables are identical in the average person (as all are either male or female), things aren’t so cut and dried with the intersex.

Money identified these variables as:

  1. Assigned sex and sex of rearing.
  2. External genital morphology.
  3. Internal reproductive structures.
  4. Hormonal and secondary sex characteristics.
  5. Gonadal sex.
  6. Chromosomal sex.

He also added a seventh factor applying to people for whom there were mismatched combinations and permutations of the above-mentioned six factors: Gender role and orientation as male or female, which he posited were established while growing up [Money, John; Hampson, Joan G.; Hampson, John, “An Examination of Some Basic Sexual Concepts: The Evidence of Human Hermaphroditism,” Oct. 1955].

Money defined “gender role” as:

[A]ll those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to sexuality in the sense of eroticism. Gender role is appraised in relation to the following: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry. [Ibid.]

As compared to the earlier definition of gender as referring to the state of being female or male (usually in a grammatical sense), Money expanded it to refer to personality, self-definition, behavior, social role, and cultural role. He believed gender is something one learns, irrespective of reproductive biology. Money further distinguished between “gender identity” (the internal experience of one’s sex) and “gender role” (social expectations of female and male behavior).

Money’s research on the intersex led him to researching transsexualism. From 1964–67, he was part of a research team led by famous sexologist and endocrinologist Dr. Harry Benjamin. Because of the team’s research, the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic was founded in July 1966. At the time, almost no one else offered so-called “sex reassignment surgery.”

Into all this stepped Janet and Ronald Reimer of Winnipeg, Canada, desperate for someone to help their young son Bruce.

On 27 April 1966, eight-month-old twins Bruce and Brian Reimer were scheduled for a medically-necessary circumcision to correct their phimosis. The first twin to undergo the procedure was Bruce.


David Reimer

Because the attending general practitioner (not the usual urologist) elected to use a Bovie cautery machine (an electrical needle) instead of a more traditional method, very serious complications were visited upon Bruce. His penis was severely burnt, and the urologist who was called couldn’t insert a catheter in the urethra. The catheter had to be inserted through the abdomen and into the bladder, in an emergency suprapubic cystotomy. Over the next few days, Bruce’s penis dried up and broke off in pieces, with only the urethra left like a dangling piece of string [Colapinto, John, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl, 2000].

After the Reimers realized the damage was irreversible, and that Bruce wouldn’t just have a tiny penis but none at all, they were desperate for something, anything, to help their son live a somewhat normal life. All the doctors had told them Bruce would never have a sex life or be part of society without a working penis. The Reimers felt a new wave of hope when they saw Dr. Money on the TV program Tis Hour Has Seven Days in February 1967, being interviewed with Diane (né Richard) Baransky, a male-to-female transsexual whose reassignment surgery he’d performed [Ibid.].

The Reimers brought Bruce to Johns Hopkins, and Dr. Money told them he could live a happy, normal life if he were surgically altered and raised as a girl. At the age of twenty-two months, Bruce received an orchiectomy (castration) and rudimentary vaginoplasty. He was also renamed Brenda. This was the same course of action Dr. Money recommended for all intersex children, with the parents being the ones to decide which sex it would supposedly be easier for their child to be raised as.

Dr. Money saw in these young twins the potential to test and prove his theories about gender identity. Brian, the other twin, hadn’t been maimed, and so was still an anatomically normal male. He would be socially and culturally raised as a boy, while his pretend sister would have no memory of having been a boy, and also had no intersex abnormalities. “She” was still young enough to develop a gender identity as a girl, if she were strictly raised as one. With the right environment, gender identity could successfully change, with the child none the wiser. Identical twins provided the perfect paired test subjects, with a built-in control subject (Brian).

Janet Reimer began putting the renamed Brenda in “girls’ clothes” such as skirts, dresses, and blouses, studiously avoiding pants. Though Winnipeg has some of the most frigid winters in North America, Dr. Money didn’t want Brenda to wear pants like her other female classmates. Any deviation from the strict gender roles he insisted upon would ruin his experiment.

Dr. Money also insisted the Reimers not let Brenda play with “boys’ toys,” and ordered them to treat her “like a girl” (e.g., gently, sweetly, softly). Brian meanwhile was raised exactly the opposite, in the stereotypical gender role of a boy.

reimer twins

The Reimer twins

The twins regularly came to see Dr. Money, so he could see how the experiment was working out. During these visits, according to several sources, the children were forced to take their clothes off, engage in sex play as he took pictures, view pornographic films and photographs, inspect one another’s genitals, and many other things which were beyond inappropriate and unethical. Dr. Money also interviewed them to see how secure they were in their respective gender identities. The twins routinely gave him the answers they knew he wanted to hear, just so they could get out of his office as soon as possible. These interviews also included very graphic, inappropriate questions. At home, he ordered their parents to walk around naked in front of them, so they could see the differences in biological sex illustrated in real life. Another aspect of his experiment involved having sex in front of their children, which they wisely refused to do. (Sources bearing this out include Colapinto’s book, the 2004 BBC Horizon documentary Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis, and the 2000 BBC Horizon documentary The Boy Who Was Turned into a Girl. As adults, the twins also stated that they firmly believed this information is in files which Dr. Money donated to the Kinsey Institute, files which the institute refuses to release to the public.)

Money believed his experiment was a success, and he published several papers on what he called the “John/Joan case.” In particular, he publicized these findings in his 1972 textbook Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. These findings were used, for many years, to support surgical sex reassignment for intersex children, and children with conditions such as micropenis and an enlarged clitoris.

But behind the scenes, the experiment was never a success. Brenda always had an unexplainable feeling something wasn’t right, not least because her genitals didn’t look like those of other girls. She often fought with her brother at home and boys at school; found it very difficult to be friends with other girls, even the so-called tomboys; wanted to play with “boys’ toys,” like cars, and do “boys’ things,” like pretend to shave; didn’t like the stereotypical trappings of femininity; and urinated standing up. Brenda also repeatedly refused to undergo surgery for a more detailed vaginoplasty, and fought against taking estrogen pills. Both she and Brian were terrified of having to see Dr. Money ever again, and Brenda in particular experienced a suicidal depression [Colapinto, ibid].

When the truth came out when she was about 14, Brenda immediately reclaimed her natal male sex and took the name David, inspired by the warrior spirit of King David. Even though he couldn’t fully understand what his pull towards maleness meant, he instinctively understood something wasn’t right, and that he wasn’t like other girls, even the most tomboyish. This went far beyond merely being a very stereotypically masculine girl. The fact that his body had been surgically altered added to his sense of not being normal, and not belonging to the female sex class.

Though he wasn’t socialized as male, he knew who he was. Whatever the relative contributions of nature and nurture to stereotypical “male” pursuits—toy trucks, sports, rough-housing, and tool sets—David felt called towards the physical, biological aspects of maleness, and fought against the attempts to pretend he was a girl. He never felt female.

Unfortunately, modern-day transactivists regularly use his story to try to prove gender identity is innate, when it truly proves the opposite. David was born a normal male, suffered a freak accident, and was unsuccessfully raised as a girl. He wasn’t a natal female who always felt male, nor was he a boy who was able to adopt the stereotypical persona of a girl and never consider himself male in any way.

Dr. Money was still pretending the John/Joan experiment was a success as late as 1997, and using his pretended findings to recommend the same course of action to intersex children and children with genital abnormalities. It was then, in a 2000 interview with the CBC program The Fifth Estate, that the twins finally went public about the unethical experiment and counseling sessions they’d been subjected to. Their story was also told on a 2001 episode of NOVA, Sex: Unknown. They wanted to save other children from suffering the same fate, which had already been visited upon thousands.

For his part, Dr. Money believed the experiment had failed only because of the delay in Brenda receiving an orchiectomy and rudimentary vaginoplasty; Brenda’s knowledge of being an identical twin, and having this twin with whom to compare her genital self; various post-traumatic stresses; parental ignorance; intrusive outsiders threatening to give away the secret; having a trust fund while her twin didn’t; and not presenting lesbianism as a viable possibility.

Sadly, the childhood traumas never left either of the twins, and they had serious psychological problems as a result, including depression and a strained relationship both with one another and with their parents. Brian, who’d developed schizophrenia, died from an overdose of antidepressants in 2002, and in 2004, David committed suicide a few days after his wife told him she wanted a separation.

In spite of how Money has, in recent years, been rather clearly brought to light as someone who wasn’t exactly the world’s most ethical doctor, many people continue to sing his praises and tout his studies as proof positive of gender either being innate or able to be taught. On the contrary, if his research proves anything, it’s that biological sex is the only thing which is innate.

For those who claim David’s lifelong gravitation towards stereotypically male things means gender roles and expected interests are inborn, another explanation is that David, instinctively sensing he was first different from the others and then coming to realize he was male, was also influenced by society’s stereotypical gender roles. In another era or culture, he may have gravitated towards things considered feminine in the modern West.

David also knew something wasn’t right about his body. When he was living as Brenda, he realized his genitals didn’t look like those of other girls, and his own parents acknowledged this. They told her Dr. Money was pressuring her into a more detailed vaginoplasty because, when she was a baby, “a doctor made a mistake down there,” and it had to be corrected. Brenda then asked her father if he’d beaten the doctor up [Colapinto, ibid].

In addition to abnormal genitals, Brenda never menstruated, and had to be forced to take estrogen in order to grow breasts. Other abnormalities about her supposed female body were that she developed an Adam’s apple, never had a very feminine voice (not even the type of husky voice some women naturally have), and didn’t have a female bone structure or muscle mass. All these strange things about her body led her to feeling a disconnect from the gender role she was being raised as. This was far more than merely preferring certain toys and being rough-and-tumble [Colapinto, ibid.].

People nowadays who believe no lasting harm can come from socially transitioning a child, or a teen or twentysomething embarking upon that path oneself, need to take a long, hard look at what the true moral of this story is. Even if the child or young adult realizes it was a mistake, fueled by a myriad of underlying causes, and returns to living as the natal sex, there may be great confusion, a sense of betrayal, or deep-seated psychological damage, which can’t completely be undone. At best, it can be minimized, but certainly not overnight.

Today, Money’s legacy takes the form of transitioning children, or claiming a trans identity, because one’s personality and interests don’t match what society has decided is acceptable for members of one’s biological sex. Instead of surgically altering babies because of a micropenis, botched circumcision, or enlarged clitoris, gender-atypical children are socially transitioned, told their bodies are wrong but their brains are right, and given sterilizing drugs and irreversible surgeries by their teens or early twenties.

Though Money styled himself as a progressive, his theory of gender identity is anything but. It’s built around the idea that girls must always wear dresses, be spoken to softly, and play with dolls, while boys are the ones who play sports, wear pants, and study science.

One’s interests and chosen appearance (hairstyles and clothing) really amount to one’s personality—however atypical for one’s sex. Biology doesn’t dictate whether one likes a certain hair length, color, or item of clothing. In fact, many people have gender-atypical interests and personalities, particularly lesbians and gay men.

Even aside from gender roles, what person has never developed any interest independently of socialization and parental influence (whatever population norms may be for male/female typicality)? For example, my own passion for silent film didn’t come from anyone in my family or earliest circles of peers. It’s just something I’ve always been deeply enamored of, since my first exposure to it as a preteen.

Wouldn’t it be nice to return to the society we enjoyed all too briefly a few decades ago, when children of both sexes experienced far less pressure to pick between the blue and pink boxes, and when people realized biological sex was purely about biology instead of a collection of stereotypes?