Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What sex is your brain?

So what sex is your brain?

I've been struggling to figure this one out for my whole life. It's quite clear that I seem to have strong aspects of both male and female in my personality.



The traditional view of gender behaviour is a bit like this. At one end of the scale, there is woman: emotive, nurturative, capable of multitasking. At the other end of the scale, there is man: structured, assertive, dominant. You can be somewhere in the middle, but you can't be both. Masculinity and femininity are exclusive. To become more masculine, one automatically becomes less feminine.

This model is simplistic, and wrong. It's not sophisticated enough. A more useful model is this one, where masculinity and femininity are independent traits. An individual can therefore be either mostly masculine or mostly feminine; strong in both at once, or even not particularly strong in either. This diagram plots masculinity and femininity as two independent bars on a chart, but it would work equally well to plot them as two dimensions on a graph.

Before I go further, let me be clear that this model says nothing about the gender of the person you would most like to go to bed with. In other words, this model describes gender behaviour but not sexuality.

I think this model is much more helpful for me. Among other things, I know I can do some of that masculine stuff really well: think logically, take a leadership role, be structured and organised. I also know I can do some feminine things really well: I am emotive and nurturative and compassionate. If you want to test yourself, the BBC has a free online self-test, in which you can compare your scores against 1000 responders who identified as male, and 1000 responders who identified as female. You can take the test here, though it takes a while to do the full thing. If you want to discuss your results, please post them below.

My results for this test were very interesting (at least to me). The results show that when it comes to masculinity, I am substantially above average across all categories. One way to interpret that result is to say my brain is more masculine than the average man's brain. When it comes to femininity, I am also above average in all categories (less so than for masculinity). One way to interpret that result is to say that my brain is also more feminine than the average woman's. Therefore I seem to score very highly for both masculinity and femininity. This seems to fit with the way I understand myself, inasmuch as I have been studying my own behaviour for almost four decades.

But once again, it's not as simple as that. For one thing, this test is not properly validated, although it's a clever and interesting diversion and the results are thought-provoking. In addition, I am sure people fluctuate in their performance and mood: I know that some days I feel very girly and other days I feel very manly. That might or might not influence my performance on the parts of the test.

Secondly, it makes no correction for IQ. I know my IQ, and it suggests I am likely to be intrinsically good at doing these sorts of tests. In other words, I am likely to have artificially higher results in both parts because of IQ, not gender alone. My final annoyance with the BBC test is that, although it displays the results for masculinity and femininity separately (which is great), on the last page it tries to boil that down to the linear scale above! It tells me my brain is 25% male.

Most recently, I've had my personality extensively and professionally assessed. Although the test gave results which I think fit very closely with my own views above, and seem to be very predictive of my reactions in some circumstances, the results made no mention of masculinity or femininity at all. I found that most refreshing. It fits with an even more fluid model of human behaviour, which I have tried to illustrate here.

In this model, there is no such thing as masculinity and femininity. There is only behaviour. The graph shows that genetic males have a tendency to do some sorts of things, and genetic females have a tendency to do other sorts of things, but there is a huge overlap in the middle, where just about everybody is. My hypothetical (male) figure here has quite a lot of overlap with the female behaviour range, but could for the same or very similar level of masculinity have a very different level of femininity.

What are these graphs counting, or showing? Nothing, except some hypothetical quality of behaviour. In themselves, the terms masculine and feminine are pretty meaningless: there is no absolute scale against which to judge either of them. The only way they can be defined is recursively: masculinity is what men are like. What are men like? They are masculine.

I think all of these models are attempting to make sense of an extremely complicated phenomenon. The subtleties of human behaviour and motivation are far too elusive to be nailed down in simple graphs, no matter how complex the test. Having done all these tests, I have come to a much more complete understanding (and acceptance) of myself as a whole person. I know that Vivienne isn't some alter ego of me: she is me. She cannot be suppressed, or got rid of, and she brings me a suite of skills and attitudes which have proven to be very helpful in my life.

But it's one thing to accept myself: what society thinks is a whole different ballgame.

Addendum: 28th April 2012.

Thanks to John, who posted below, I have found an insightful and interesting blog post by Jack Molay, which can be found here. It explores these same themes from a slightly different angle and in much greater depth.

19 comments:

  1. "In themselves, the terms masculine and feminine are pretty meaningless: there is no absolute scale against which to judge either of them. The only way they can be defined is recursively: masculinity is what men are like. What are men like? They are masculine."

    Agree so much with this. The meanings of masculine and feminine in our culture, at least traditionally, are very unhelpful. Not only are they exaggerated, some just seem to be not true at all. The gender stereotypes of our culture are stifling.

    There is no authority on what it means to be a man or a woman, unless you take the general biological differences and leanings between men and women. I'm okay with that. But every individual is different and all men will be different in some ways (each differently), from the rest of men in the world in their generalities. Same for women.

    One could appeal to a different kind of authority, and look to the Bible to see what masculine or feminine should mean. And many try to do this and I view that as good. But interestingly, the Bible's view of men and women often goes very much against the traditional stereotypes. For example, the fruits of the Spirit - self control, gentleness, faithfulness, peace, etc. are held up for both men and women.

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    1. Hmm. Actually, I think Jesus was a man who had powerful components of what we would call "femininity" about him. He was warm, caring, nurturing, selfless, good with children, kind to his mother, the centre of his social circle, and not afraid to put the needs of others in front of his own (this last trait was described by Helen Boyd as an almost essential aspect of being a woman: sacrificing your own needs in favour of others such as your partner or your kids).
      I think Jesus was a paragon for both men and women to emulate.
      I sometimes wonder what Jesus' reaction would be if he met a crossdresser? They seem to have left that particular scene out of the Synoptic Gospels! I tend to think he would react with love, forgiveness and acceptance (Look at his reaction to the Woman Caught in Adultery, or the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well). But perhaps you have a different view.

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  2. Vivienne,

    I've read many of your blog posts and really find it honest, interesting, and intellectually stimulating. I'm always looking for other crossdressers who are willing to do some honest introspection about the origins of their behavior as well as possible motivation and attempts at understanding. I suppose because I am a crossdresser, although one who is not actively dressing, I am always questioning the cultural influences about what is appropriate and acceptable male and female behavior, roles, and expression. I think most men and women do not think much about this at all and just accept it as "that's the way it is." I look forward to reading more of your posts and will post comments as I feel motivated to do so.

    You probably are aware of this site already, since you seem to be pretty thorough in your research, but if not, this blogger's attempt at looking at various dynamics of masculinity and femininity is quite interesting-I can identify with much of what he has written. Here is the link:

    http://www.crossdreamers.com/2010/12/cause-of-crossdreaming-alternative.html

    Take Care,

    John

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  3. Hi John,
    Many thanks for taking the time to post. I will take a look at that link and let you know my thoughts.

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  4. Grok again. Good point about the overlap in the middle. In the A. E. Brain blog there was comment about many people being, in a sense, bigender. That is, individuals who could function in either sex role. As I interpret the comment, many people are generalists.

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  5. Grok again. I should clarify what I mean by generalist. After I took aptitude tests, my pattern was described as "generalist." This was about aptitudes for work, not gender. Right, so in terms of aptitude there would be many men and women who are generalists.

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  6. Grok again. On the other hand, there was another comment in the A. E. Brain blog about neurology: in terms of sexual orientation or gender, the neurology may be described as either male, female, or bigender. For sexual orientation the results may be straight, gay, or bisexual. For gender identity, one's identity may be male, female, bigender..... (For gender expression, I believe that I myself am the bigender version, which may make repression feasible for me. To the world I am a white, middle aged male, with a bland version of masculinity. )

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  7. Grok again. Regarding neurology, I remember mention (but neither title nor author) in a book about hormonal influence on gender. It was suggested that there may be gradations of change, in a manner analagous to Intersex genetalia. The more influence on the brain's circuitry, the greater the effects on behavior; the fewer circuits affected, the lesser the influence. Perhaps this explains the observation that cross dressing falls on a spectrum, with some people departing more from convention than others. I suppose other aspects of (gender) behavior may be affected, depending on which brain circuits are influenced.

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    1. Hi Grok,

      I've touched on some of these points in response to your comments on the Men in Skirts post. In brief, I agree with you about bi-gendered people. It would be interesting for you to try the BBC Brain Sex test (link is above) and see what it makes of you.

      The best book I have found about the neurology of gender is Brain Gender by Melissa Hines. Readable, authoritative and thought-provoking, if a little heavy on the science. Unfortunately much of what Hines says doesn't really relate to the issues of this blog, i.e. human gender expression and behaviour. That's because much of the science relates to animal experiments, as it's (rightly) unethical to conduct such studies in humans.

      Vivienne.

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  8. Grok here. Looked at the Crossdreamers article. Read some of the comments posted in reply. Noticed that one person described himself as a "feminine" male, but with no urge to cross dress. Which brings up a question-could Gender Expression include several different attributes, each with its own brain circuit?

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  9. Grok here. Check out [url=http://www.drmillslmu.com/Sexdiffs/Textbook/chap2.htm] theories[/url]

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  10. Grok here. I have to wonder if many people are functionally androgynous. (referred to as "bigender" in the A. E. Brain blog). With gender expression that is within the range of what is deemed social acceptable...due to blandness.

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  11. Grok again. To elaborate about functional androgyny.... There may be an overlap between some men and some women, in terms of aptitude, if they are generalists. Also, the men and women in question may a strongly distinctive gender expression. Stereotypes about gender are based on those who exhibit the most distinctive gender expression. Acceptance of the functionally androgynous may not be based on society being enlightened or benign, but rather, on being bland enough that one is under the radar.

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  12. Grok again. Wikipedia article for Androgyny, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Androgyny. True androgyny.

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    1. Hi Grok. I read the article, but it didn't clarify what you mean by "true androgyny".

      Vivienne.

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  13. Clarification by Grok-"true" in the sense that there is-in effect-a kind of gender fusion in the fetal brain.

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    1. Hmmm... not sure how much I agree with that. What I remember about embryology is that, in the absence of masculinising hormones, a fetus will develop into an individual who is anatomically indistinguishable from a normal female. The most obvious example of this is androgen insensitivity, where a fetus with the male karyotype XY will develop into an apparently normal girl (who will not menstruate and be infertile).

      So left alone, Mother Nature makes girls. A little androgen, you get boys. Somewhere in between, if you pulse androgens at just the right time, you can create a sheep which is anatomically female but behaviourally male. I am not sure this is the same as saying there is "gender fusion" in the fetal brain-- or anywhere else.

      Vivienne.

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  14. Grok bringing more confusion. I have seen a couple different definitions each for "demigirl" and "demigod." I will quote www.emptycloset.com for one definition of demigirl: "...'demigirl.' It refers to someone who is loosely female...but doesn't feel a strong connection to that gender." The term demig uy mat refer to a person with a male body, but who feels only the barest identification with the male gender. For both definitions the sex of the physical body seems to function as a flag of convenience. BTW, the software kept turning demi guy into demigod.

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    1. I share your pain with the automatic spellchecker.

      I am not sure that the terms demigirl and demiguy do anything other than simply muddy the waters by adding further unfamiliar terms with uncertain definitions into an already uncertain morass of confusing terminology.

      Vivienne.

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