In 2007, when a 12-year-old child successfully applied for hormonal treatment to prevent their female puberty because they wanted to live as a boy, it got Australian writer Jane McCredie wondering, what is it that makes us a boy or a girl? From cradle to grave, our perceived gender has a fundamental affect on what we choose, how we live, and how we think about the world and how the world sees us. But are sex and gender really that simple a matter?
The belief that differences between the sexes are fixed or “hard-wired” in the brain has been labeled “neurosexism” and it’s a concept I am seeing crop up more often. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender was one of my most interesting reads of 2010 dealing extensively with the pseudo-science around sex. The word neurosexism is up for nomination as the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2010.
Evolutionary psychologists, trans-gendered people, children playing with trucks and dolls, hormone specialists – they all have different stories to tell about what makes us girls and boys and Jane’s book, Making Girls and Boys, interlaces those stories to look at sex, gender and identity, both in the labs and on the streets. I caught up with her to ask a few questions.
Why did you decide to write Making Girls and Boys, and why now?
In 2007, a 12-year-old child successfully applied to the Family Court to have hormonal treatment to prevent female puberty because, despite being born anatomically female, he wanted to live as a boy. In the wake of the case, I wrote a feature for a doctors’ magazine about what clinicians call gender identity disorder — it could also be called transsexualism — and particularly its manifestation in childhood. I was surprised to discover in the course of my research how early transsexual feelings appear, generally in toddlerhood. If a three-year-old child could have an absolute conviction they belonged to the other sex, I found myself wondering, what did that say about how all of us come to know which sex we belong to and what meaning that has in our lives?
So, when the publishers approached me shortly afterwards to ask if I was interested in writing a popular science book and did I have any ideas, that was the first thing that came to mind.
Neurosexism has been in the news a lot, including being nominated for the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year. Why do you think this topic is now attracting attention?
It’s definitely relevant. Science tends to look for, and exaggerate, differences rather than similarities between whatever groups it is studying. The new technologies of neuroimaging are giving us an unprecedented ability to look inside living brains, but I think too much is often read into some fairly inconclusive results, leading to claims about “female brains” and “male brains” that can be pretty hard to substantiate.
Gender is an interesting and contentious subject. How did people react when you told them what you were writing about?
Most people are fascinated. We all have to go through the process of becoming men or women — or, in some cases, not quite either or a bit of both. So it’s relevant to everybody. There have been some very successful books based on the premise that men and women are irreconcilably different, that we come from different planets or some such rubbish. Simplistic ideas like that can be seductive, but I think most people know that we human beings are a lot more complex and we don’t really fit into boxes very well. I think people are hungry for more complex, more nuanced information about men and women.
What was the most interesting part of researching Making Boys and Girls?
I think the most interesting thing for me was probably the personal stories. I feel very grateful to the people who shared their various experiences of gender with me. Often, these were very different experiences from my own and it took a lot of courage for some of these people to go public. But it was also fascinating talking to the scientists and reading the research and seeing what the science really has to tell us beyond a lot of the myths that get created in an area like this.
While you are experienced in writing, did you find that writing a full-length non-fiction book for a general audience brought any specific challenges? What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
Writing any book is a hard, hard slog. Something I found difficult in the beginning was working out how to put myself into the book. I realised early that I couldn’t write a dispassionate, removed account of this topic as though it had no relevance for my own life. It probably would have helped if somebody had told me at the beginning just to relax and just let the personal material become part of the story when that seemed the natural thing to do.
Any advice for non-fiction/science writers looking at a topic and thinking, “I could write a book on that?”
Just do it. By all means try to get a publishing contract first as I was lucky enough to do. But the only way to write is… to just sit down and write.
Jane launches Making Girls and Boys on Thursday February 10th in Sydney, at Ariel Books (42-44 Oxford Street, Paddington). If you would like to attend, the launch is at 7:30pm – please RSVP to [email protected] or (02)93324581.