Archive for the children’s sexual development Category

Theories of transsexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, homosexuality, Milton Diamond, parenting, psychoanalysis, transsexuality on October 13, 2009 by Steve

The development of human beings is extraordinarily complex. It is the intricate interweaving of genetic, uterine neuroendocrinological, environmental, social, cognitive and cultural factors which come together during the course of our lives to make each one of us absolutely unique. It is no surprise, therefore, that development in the area of one’s sexuality and gender identity is likewise multi-faceted. Understandably, the theories on sexual and gender identity development which have arisen over the years to explain these identity differences are diverse and complex.

Famously, psychoanalytic theories have proposed that resolving the conflicts surrounding one’s genitalia will have a profound influence on the unconscious processes in gender identity development. Freud claimed that a person’s lifelong sexual orientation, determined between the ages of 3 and 6, depends on how a boy resolves the fear that his father will castrate him and how a girl deal with the contempt she feels at her mother for not having provided her with a penis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this view has largely gone out of favour in recent decades.

Prominent since the 60s and 70s, environmental conditioning theories hold that gender identity arises out of the process of parental identification in the first two or three years of life. Here, for exmple, if a boy has difficulty identifying with a masculine gender identity was thought to be due to an excessive attachment to his mother and absence of a male role model during infancy during infancy. These sorts of environmental conditions could be associated with the development of mild gender identity problems and homosexuality, but do not adequately explain all forms of transgender identity.

In recent decades, neuroendocrinological studies have indicated that the brain’s normal differentiation as male or female may be interrupted if a deficit of testosterone in males, and an excess for females, somehow occurs during foetal development. This would appear to explain someone’s experience of “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”. Other interesting findings, such as the tendency for transsexual males to have been born into families with many sons and to have come later in the birth order, add to the mysterious complexity of transsexuality.

One of the most coherent, comprehensive accounts for transsexuality is the theory of gender development proposed by Milton Diamond, termed “Biased-Interaction Theory”. In this theory, Diamond regards a person’s genetics and uterine neuroendocrinological activity as the fundamental organisational factors which will influence the ways in which this person will develop as he or she interacts with the social environment (parents, siblings, culture). Specifically, the course of a child’s psychosexual development depends on whether peers are perceived as are the same or as different. Thus, a typical boy will see himself fitting into the category “boy” and grow up into a sex-typical gender role. The transgender, boy, however, will experience distress in his assigned gender identity, being unable to see himself as similar to other male peers. Finally, this model incorporates the culture’s level of permissiveness as an indicator of how likely the child will be to express his identity.

Diamond’s robust account of transgender identity development reflects the infinite intricacy of psychosexual development and reminds us that we cannot afford to see this experience as resting simplistically on just one or two factors. The mystery and wonder of the formation of the individual cannot be overstated. It is a overwhelming and worshipful thing for parents of both in utero and postnatal children, child-care workers and teachers to contemplate. We must respect the individuality of each human being, knowing that God is at work in the “typically” and “atypically” developed alike. Indeed, in areas where science is still unable to take us, we know that God is not unknowing, uninvolved, or unsympathetic:

You[, God] knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:13-16, New International Version

References and access to Diamond’s publications is available online via his website. Australian-based research and various forms of assistance to transsexuals and their friends can be accessed via the Gender Centre website. For an informative audio presentation on the development of sexual identity, check out the most recent podcast at The Psych Files.

References and suggestions for further reading:

Brown, D. G. & Lynn, D. B. (1966). Human Sexual Development: An Outline of Components and Concepts. Journal of Marriage and Family, 28(2), 155-162.

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & Gooren, L. J. G. (1999). Transsexualism: A Review of Etiology, Diagnosis and Treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 46(4), 315-333.

Diamant, L. & McAnulty, R. D. (Eds.). (1995). The Psychology of Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Identity. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Diamond, M. (2006). Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development: “How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?”. Sex Roles, 55, 589-600.

Lips, H. M., & Colwill, N. L. (1978). The Psychology of Sex Differences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Lips, H.M. (1997). Sex and Gender (3rd Edition). CA: Mayfield Publishing.

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Underbelly, Sex & Psychopathy – The case of Terry Clark

Posted in children's sexual development, John Bowlby, Narcissism, parenting, personality, psychopathology on March 24, 2009 by Steve

terry-clark-alison-smallerHaving been watching this series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, it has been facinating, enthralling and disturbing to see qualities in the relationships between characters such as trust, fear, respect, cowering, allegiance and power working themselves out in such an interesting period of Australian history (1970s-80s).

So far the main character – Terry Clark – has been revealed as the devious drug trafficking-boss; the persuasive and empassioned two-faced person-user; the brilliant and calculatingly cruel mastermind; the perfectly charming seducer and womaniser. Last night’s episode gave particular insight into the psychopathic and narcissistic aspects of his personality. Not knowing any of the true story apart from this series, I am basing my observations entirely on the character of Terry as revealed by the Channel 9 TV series.

Firstly, Terry is characterised by a cold, calculating attitude and remorselessly cruel treatment of anyone who threatens his drug importing schemes. He uses people for his own ends, buttering them up with praise and flattery, only to turn on them when they fall out of his favour. Superficially, he is warm and generous, lavshing money, parties and praise on his “friends”. However, without much warning at all, these so-called friends soon discover the daker side of Terry’s personality, and his perfectionistic standards don’t permit second chances. The result is that those failing to perform or “cracking” under police pressure don’t last long, usually ending up savagely murdered, battered and buried.

The underlying issue seems to be Terry’s incapacity to genuinely feel the reality of another’s emotions – an inability to empathise. This particularly came to the fore on last night’s episode when Terry threatens to kill his ex-girlfriend over her taking their son back to New Zealand: “If you take him away from me, I’ll kill you.” She aptly replies: “What do you think that will do to him? You don’t know how to love him. Until you can feel somebody else’s pain, you don’t know how to love.” Here, Terry’s obvious emotional coldness is verbalised in terms of his inability to feel another’s pain.

Interestingly, this comment seems to make an impression on Terry, since it stops him for a moment, catching him off guard. Momentarily aware of his emotional deadness, it saddens him, thus experiencing a genuine emotion. His super-cool façade is prized open, revealing a instance of grief and perhaps anger over his lost, emotionless existence. This momentarily living in his ‘heart’ rather than in his ‘head’ reveals that he is not simply a purely evil monster after all. He is not a monochrome Dr-Evil-carboard-cut-out villain of darkness. Some part of him is still emotionally alive; he is hurt – with a deep sense of powerlessness – and trying desperately to hide this pain behind his perfectionistic strivings, coldness and accomplishments of power and prestige.

Another facet of Terry’s narcissistic disturbance is reveal in his intimate and romantic exploits – particularly in his performance of sex acts. As revealed in the series so far, Terry has an appetite for women – particularly for having sex with them (the series is very intent on showing us this!). Having impregnated his first girlfriend from New Zealand, Terry is quick to move  in on a younger, more available girl – Alison – while the first is back home preparing to give birth. His lack of genuine attachment is seen in his inability to remain loyal for any lengthy period. Indeed, being alone is probably too painful a reminder of some past abandonment that Terry must find someone to share his lonely nights (bed) as soon as it is empty.

Nevertheless, Terry is an intense lover, and it may seem to stand in contrast to the earlier observations that Terry is emotionally cold to see such a passionate and romantic side to Terry’s personality. Indeed, Terry has the ability to charm and seduce. He knows how to put on sincerity and empathy when it comes to obtaining the sex he wants. He plays his smooth-talker cards and woos the woman with the body he desires. Ultimately, though, the sex is sought as a reflection of his ability to achieve, and the woman who provides the sex meets his narcissistic need to be successful in all areas to which he sets his mind. That he will later decide to have Alison killed reveals the true nature of his “love” for any of these romantic pursuits.

Furthermore, if the intimate relationship for Terry is not a genuinely emotional bond of mutual trust and respect, then the sex itself is not something he is emotionally engaged in – it is but a performance. Terry’s passion and intensity in the relationship is not directed towards her as a prized lover, but it is directed towards himself as a triumphing, accomplished performer. It is a show of his “success” at getting a woman respond positively to him. As Alexander Lowen explains in his book Narcissism about one of his clients, “Being emotionally dead, Erich derived little bodily pleasure from the sexual act. His satisfaction stemmed from the woman’s response… his lovemaking was more a servicing of the woman than an expression of passion.” (pp. 3-4)

However faithfully Underbelly portrays Terry Clark as a ruthless criminal, cold-blooded murderer and grandiose lover, it points us to the reality of the deep emotional disturbance which makes him a tragically fascinating case study from recent Australian history. Many books have now been written about the roots of psychological disturbances, but I would like to refer to one by John Bowlby, a psychoanalysist and attachment theorist, which I happen to be reading at the moment. The book is particularly remarkable since it was written with so much clarity on the topic and yet was written so long ago. Child Care and the Growth of Love is a summary of a World Helath Organisation report prepared by Bowlby in 1951 and details the psychological impact of deprivation in childhood and the importance of love from the primary carer (usually the mother). Written in the context of hospitalisation and institutionalisation of abandoned or unwell children, Bowlby revealed that an absence of motherly love in the critical period of a child’s first years of life will frequently result in depression, excessive demanding, superficial socialising, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing and aggression, as an adult.

In one example Bowlby described the child who has withdrawn himself emotionally from others, due to the previous intensity of pain of having had his heart broken by the loss of loving relationships (mother, nurses, carers). He wrote (p.63):

To withdraw from human contact is to avoid further frustration and to avoid the intense depression which human beings experience as a result of hating the person whom they most dearly love and need. Withdrawal is thus felt to be the better of two bad alternatives… But experience shows that once a person has taken refuge in the relative painlessness of withdrawal he is reluctant to change course and to risk the turmoil of feeling and misery which attempting relationships brings with it. As a result he loses his capcity to make affectionate relationships and to identify himself with loved people… Thenceforth he becomes a lone wolf, pursuing his ends irrespective of others. But his desire for love, repressed though it is, persists, resulting in behaviour such as promiscuous sex relations and the stealing of other people’s possessions. Feelings of revenge also smolder on, leading to other anti-social acts, sometimes of a very violent character.

Tragically, though such knowledge has been circulating for so many years and though we have more resources and support, we still seem to be unable to escape the cycle of neglect-pain-repression-coldness that continues on throughout the generations. Indeed, until we can find the healing that comes from warm acceptance and unconditional tender love that God wants us to give to and receive from each other, this cycle of pain will go on. Sadly, there will be more Terry Clarks.

So we long for mercy now, and for the healed, whole, resurrection-life to come when Christ returns.

Too much too soon, or not enough? – Honouring girls’ sexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, Naomi Wolf on October 20, 2008 by Steve

Having been born in the early 1980s, I confess my ignorance about the details of the social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the more I learn about these decades of “peace”, “free love”, “liberation”, etc., the more I realise how important learning about them is, comparing what is different  between what we take for granted today and what life was like then. Indeed, studying this period feels to me a bit like a lesson in ancient history, yet it is an era that the majority of Australians alive today have lived through, and therefore is directly relevant to those whose parents experienced that era.

It has been Naomi Wolf’s 1997 book Promiscuities which has, in recent weeks, aroused my interest in this historical period. After previously overlooking her as some predictable man-hating feminist with lofty and godless ideologies and nothing particularly relevant to say to me, her book has proven to be thought-provoking, and I have found myself agreeing with her more often than I expected to. Despite her view of sex outside of the marriage covenant as a universal norm, I appreciated her emphasis that female sexuality is an extremely precious gift – something that our world has too often abused, shamed or even sacrificed for the sake of some “higher” calling.

I would like to reiterate a couple of the applications she makes which I think are pretty important, and which are too easily overlooked. In my mind they apply equally to boys as to girls. Firstly, Wolf points out the great need to better protect chidren’s sexual development (by shielding them from inappropriate movies, etc). She sees neglectful parenting and a selfish demand for free speech as the cause of this damaging trend: “Our collective refusal to respect the sexual development of children, in the interest of defending our own freedoms constitutes a collective psychic assault on kids for which we must all take responsibility.” (p.241)

Furthermore, in Wolf’s mind, the distinction between the world of adults and the world of children in recent decades has become so blurred as to no longer exist: “I think that we who were young in the 1960s were perhaps the last generation of Americans who actually had their childhoods, in the… sense of childhood as a space distinct in its roles and customs from the world of adults, oriented around children’s own needs and culture rather than around the needs and culture of adults.” (p.26) This is a tragic reminder for parents to not make their kids grow up too fast.

Lastly, Wolf proposes certain rites of passage for a young girl in the laying of secure foundations for her transition into womanhood. Here, she recommends that a thirteen-year-old girl be taken on a retreat with older women to learn about sex, sexuality, motherhood, and so on. I see the value in giving such recognition and attention to what it means to as a young girl becomes a woman. The silence about human sexuality that still exists in so many homes as children grow up is a devastating tragedy.

These suggestions of Wolf’s are refreshingly thoughtful and practical. Though Promiscuities boldly over-applies Wolf’s very personal and limited experience to a whole generation, it is the intense realness of her (and others’) story which makes it compelling and relevant. As a New York Times review puts it: “Anyone – particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960’s – will have a very hard time putting down “Promiscuities.””