Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture - The Case Of David Reimer

John William Money was a psychologist and a sexologist well known for the sex reassignment of David Reimer. When David Reimer’s (then named Bruce)  penis was destroyed by accident during his circumcision in 1966 , his parents brought him to John Money. They saw him in an interview and contacted him for help regarding the problem of their son. 

He advised the parents to change the sex of their child since penis reconstruction wasn’t a viable option back then. He was a supporter of the idea that gender was not necessarily predetermined in the womb but an influence of the environment and conditions experienced by the child. He thought that a baby’s gender is neutral in the first 2 years of life. So, at the age of 22 months Bruce Reimer suffered a surgery called orchidectomy  which would remove his testicles and the spermatic cord. He also started a hormone treatment and became Money’s guinea pig named Brenda. He comforted the parents telling them that this type of surgery was very common and was successful in the past. What Brenda’s parents didn’t know was the fact that this type of surgery was performed on intersex infants but never on normal infants.

Brenda’s childhood wasn’t great; whenever her mother tried to dress her with a dress she would tore it off. She also liked playing with her brother’s toys and was often bullied by her classmates in school. Despite these, Money made his case public and wrote: "The child's behavior is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother”.

Brenda suffered terribly, no hormones were able to make her feel like a girl, for some time she urinated through a hole surgeons had placed in the abdomen. It was clear that she identified herself as male as she declared that when she grew up she would marry a woman, not a man. Besides a traumatizing childhood, her visits to Dr. Money were also highly traumatizing and tiring because she was supposed to visit him regularly. He would often show her and her brother pictures of people having sex and also forced them to take off their clothes and examine each other’s genitals (however these claims might not be true).

Brenda soon developed psychological problems. She had a nervous breakdown when she was only a small child and by the time she reached adolescence she already had suicidal depression. When told that she was in fact born a man, she took the name David and decided to become a male again. She undergone surgery to remove her breasts and also had penis reconstruction. David married in 1990 and became a defender of sexual liberation.
In 2004, David committed suicide; the events that lead to his suicide were harsh: his brother died by taking an overdose of antidepressants (he suffered from schizophrenia), he and his wife separated, and he had financial difficulties.

If you want to learn more about this case, there’s a very interesting documentary here. 

Whether Money made the wrong decision or not is not for me to decide. Perhaps he wanted to help the boy have a normal life or maybe he just wanted to have a guinea pig that would confirm his theory. This was indeed unethical but before we blame anyone, we should remember that it was a time when little was known about sexuality and gender. However, this decision ended up scarring a boy for life and hurting those around him. 


  1. hi andreea, i still feel that Money, who had never experienced this before., should not tell the public that david is "somewht ok" - damn him for forcing the guy by showing all those sexual stuff and drag david's brother too.
    the fact that money is a a monster, reflects in both brothers commiting suicide.
    Money drove them to that extreme... cultivated from small..

  2. Yes Money was wrong for making false results public because it probably affected other people who undergone the same surgery because they thought his theory was confirmed.

  3. This money guy is messed up!!!

  4. well yeah this money guy is gonna sound like a monster when you've only read this article. Really though, back then with the limited knowledge of surgery they had, it was a question of either he lived his life as a boy without a penis or as a girl. Of course, nature had already taken its course somewhat and both routes would have resulted in disaster.
    this case really doesnt have any relation to the nature/nurture argument of gender studies though, its taking the construction of gender a little too literally. it is a sad case yes but it seems to have less to do with biology and more to do with living in a limbo between two social opposites- boy/girl.
    also, does schizophrenia run in the family?

    1. This has everything to do with the Nature Vs. Nurture Debate. It's about whether or not you can take a child born girl or boy and raise them as the opposite of their biological make-up. Nature vs. nuture is about whether we come out with some sort of pre set characteristics (or in this case if is all genetics that makes us a certain sex) or if we come out as blank slates and can be manipulated by our social environments to be whatever a person decides (if just by raising the boy as a girl, the boy would be a girl).
      Clearly, it is within our biological makeup/nature. That determines what sex we are. Our personalities can most definitely be affected by our experiences and environments, but not our gender identities.

  5. Schizophrenia can run in families as well as other mental health problems. David's father was an alocholic and his mother was suicidal, His twin brother Brian committed sucide. There wasn't alot of research done into sex changes in 1965. The problems may have not occured if the physican had used a standard scalpel instead of an electrocautery.

    Harper Perennial; 2 edition (August 8, 2006) – As nature made him: the boy who was raised a girl Author John Colapinto