The Science Museum and the Brain Sex game

Cross-posted from: Young Crone

Like many feminists, I was appalled to learn recently that the Science Museum has a long-term, permanent exhibition about gender aimed at children entitled Who Am I? Photos and reports from women who have visited recently paint a very alarming picture of an exhibition not only full of supposed statements of fact that are, in fact, pure junk science, conjecture, and illogicality, but inappropriate displays, including items presented at child’s eye level that in any other context would constitute a crime, such as a ‘packer’ (a fake penis which looks like a sex toy and which is worn in the underwear of females who wish to be/believe they are male, and increasingly bought for children as young as 3 by parents for whom the term ‘misguided’ is woefully inadequate). The newspapers have had a field day at the ridiculous ‘What colour is your brain?’ game, yet this is possibly one of the least troubling aspects of the exhibition, and none of the papers cared, dared, or had the brain power sufficient to also discuss the rest of the exhibition and make the link between this stupid, outdated game and how the trans ideology being presented in the rest of the exhibition relies utterly on exactly that kind of absurd belief, and that children are being transed by parents and (un)professionals on similar flimsy and silly ideas. 

image used with permission from @extreme_crochet
image used with permission from @extreme_crochet

Such was the outrage online, not just by feminists, but by parents, members of the public, scientists and so on – basically, anyone with half an inch of common sense and an understanding of what’s appropriate – that the Science Museum had to publish a long response on its blog. However, this response itself was also full of inaccuracies and feeble excuses, as well as trying to passage whole thing off as a laugh, and has actually made things worse, in my mind and for many others too. I want to discuss not only the problematic nature of what is stated and presented in the exhibition and the response, but precisely how and why what is said and presented is misogynistic, untrue, illogical and dangerous.

I am at an advantage for being able to see through what is being said by the Science Museum on this problem, as I did my Masters dissertation on Transgenderism in the 1990s, which included a great deal of research into what were then the most cutting-edge scientific work and beliefs, and I have always followed both the theory and science behind the topic keenly ever since. Which is precisely why I know that the Science Museum are simply not telling the truth about the information they used being the most cutting-edge available at the time that the exhibition was created and again when it was subsequently updated.

I can easily see that the curator or curators who put together the original exhibition, who most likely did not have any scientific background(s), would have looked only for the most popular and easily accessible information on gender when it was created in the year 2000, although this in itself is not particularly acceptable. The research at the level I did would’ve taken a great deal of effort to source at the time (although they should have gone to that effort). So, as such, I can accept that this was initially an innocent, in-good-faith undertaking. However, to still be saying that this was still the most up-to-date information available in 2010 when it was supposedly last updated, is either a woeful or wilful ignorance about the growing number of articles regularly featured in every type of news media source about neuroscience proving that there is no such thing as brain sex for at least the last seven years. Or, they are not telling the truth and they chose not to update it correctly for reasons we are left to guess at.

As well as plenty of articles about there being such thing as brain sex, published research and books which disprove the idea of brain sex and gender being in any way innate have been easily available for many years – Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine was published in 2010, for example, and was and is still widely available in shops and libraries, was well-known and highly-publicised, and has remained a very well-known and highly-respected book ever since. I got a copy from my local library, and I think that if I could find it in a small library in a former mining town in the East Midlands, then it was probably pretty easy to get hold of in London.

Despite stating that the exhibition has not been touched for years, this is clearly untrue, as items have been added to the exhibition as late as 2014. The Science Museum then tried to fudge this issue by saying that certain of these items were temporary and, as such, were removed after a while – however, the photos now widely circulating the Internet showing items such as a ‘packer’ and chestbinding materials was taken only a couple of weeks before the response by a mother horrified that these items were at the eye level of her small children. The first thing that I thought when seeing the pictures was how on earth nobody working in the museum could see those and not question their inclusion, not to mention questioning the so-called information as well. I can only imagine that members of staff who have expressed concern or disputed the ideas presented has been made to feel like bigots, prudes or similar and have had their opinions dismissed, as have members of the public doing the same.

As for that ‘packer’, it looks like a sex toy. It is a large silicone penis and testicles. Showing children items related to sexual activity is considered a form of child sexual abuse. If that had been a sex toy, the Science Museum would have been breaking the law. Just because a handful of parents might purchase those items for their children for what they kid themselves are innocent reasons might change the context but not the actual sight that greets people’s eyes. It is an unacceptable item to display in an exhibition geared towards children and I find it highly sinister that this was deemed appropriate, as I do about any items that give children the message that one’s ‘true self’ can/should be discovered by the means of mutilation, surgery, medication, strange appliances and dangerous practices such as chest binding (well-known to cause myriad serious long-term health problems).

As a mother, I am constantly very concerned about how the trans agenda not only makes otherwise sensible and moral people see the pathologising, medicalising and even mutilating of children and young people purely for displaying completely normal child development and exploration of self and world, as something not just acceptable but positive and caring, but about how it also works to lower, and in some cases, obliterate, some people’s sensible and moral thinking about what sorts of standards and boundaries we adults should have when it comes to children being taught about and allowed to see regarding adult ideas of sexuality, bodies and identities, and also about what boundaries children themselves are allowed to have. A child’s right to innocence and boundaries is the latest thing to be decried as bigotry by neoliberalism.

Even if one accepts the idea that people working for the Science Museum were totally unaware that anyone who so much as glances at a newspaper now and again can’t stop themselves stumbling across increasingly regular articles about how there is no neurological basis for gender, even if they wanted to, the facile excuse that the exhibition has not been updated for a while is still totally unacceptable. The very idea of gender, and particularly that gender can be innate, is not only scientifically untrue, but offensive and dangerous. Gender exists as a social construct to enforce, normalise then excuse a false hierarchy purposefully designed to posit males and those traits and things deemed masculine as superior, right and normal, and female and those traits and things deems feminine as inferior, weak, abnormal and The Other. The idea of innate gender has been used and is still used worldwide to oppress, exploit, abuse and kill women and girls with impunity. To leave an exhibition like this up and try to fob off complaints with “we haven’t updated it for a while” (especially when it can be proven that is not true) is similar to having an exhibition that discusses race by using phrenology and other racist, long-disproven methods, stating that some scientists believe that racist ideas are true with no counter viewpoint given, and acting like it is acceptable that it has been left up and been kept well-publicised and that no-one working there didn’t at any stage realise that it was wrong, unscientific and offensive.

In this scenario, plain old misogyny would actually the most positive reason why it is the way it is. Sadly, it isn’t the reason why. The exhibition was created in partnership with the highly questionable organisation Gendered Intelligence, funded by companies who stand to profit from the transing of children and adults and run by individuals with no scientific backgrounds, who promote a trans agenda to children as young as 4 (spreading regressive ideas of gender, such as the idea that sexist stereotypes of dress and toys make you male or female despite the actual truth of your biological sex, etc.), and who, on their own website, boasted of ‘hacking the Science Museum’ when creating the questionable exhibits and repeated pieces of text that state the dogma of ‘born in the wrong body’ as fact. The Science Museum, however, has tried to pretend that they didn’t work with them, or that their involvement was very limited and temporary, despite all evidence being readily available that this is not true. This in itself is troubling – if they are ashamed of their connection with Gendered Intelligence, then surely this points to them knowing that the exhibition contains inappropriate items for children to see, and information and ideas presented as scientific truths that are not, ideas which are ideologically dubious, to say the very least. And the question must be asked: if they are distancing themselves from G.I. because they know that their contribution was, and is, dubious, why has the exhibition been allowed to last, and, more pertinently, why were they allowed to co-create and curate in the first place? Perhaps the fact that Glaxosmithkline partially funded the exhibition might hold the answer – after all, the transing of individuals, particularly children and young people, has become hugely lucrative in the USA, and is already shaping up to be the same here in the UK. Gendered Intelligence itself receives funding from the NHS (with which it is embedded and is responsible for all NHS information on gender identity declaring that gender identity starts before birth and other such nonsense), the EHRC, the Heritage fund, Age UK (formerly Age Concern) and the Wellcome Trust, to name but a few. This agenda might be illogical and dangerous (not just ideologically but physically, to the children and adults whose bodies, health, fertility, lifespans and psychological well-being are being forever altered) but it is also a big money-maker, and jumping on the bandwagon is being sold to companies as a quick and easy way to look right-on.

The idea of gender identity is presented repeatedly throughout the whole exhibition as somehow innate and as though it is a given that this is accepted scientific fact. Ideas are presented as statements such as “Some scientists believe that gender is hardwired in the brain before birth”. This is not only a misleading statement but irresponsible, especially as no other opinion is given. We all know full well that that a statement presented as ‘some scientists believe…’ without any contrasting opinion presented will lead people to understand that they are meant to infer that this opinion is the correct one. However – some scientists believe that everyone who isn’t white is genetically inferior. Some scientists don’t believe in climate change. Some scientists think that disabled people should be euthanised. Some scientists don’t believe in evolution. When a minority of scientists believe in something that is totally unsupported by the findings of the most current and reliable research, not to mention plain common sense, it would be both bizarre and irresponsible to present it in the way that the concept of gender identity is presented in this exhibition.

The idea of innate gender identity is a concept which absolutely flies in the face of the most current and reliable research on the matter, as well as common sense. For well over a decade, neuroscience has been consistently and increasingly proving that there is no such thing as a male or female brain; that there is no such thing as innate gender. The way the Science Museum presents this concept is akin to having an exhibition about Autism and using “some scientists believe that Autism is caused by the MMR vaccine” as the only mention of scientific credence on the matter and only using the work of Andrew Wakefield and exhibits which could loosely and spuriously back up his utterly discredited belief.

Let’s unpack the idea that gender identity is innate. If gender identity starts forming in the brain in utero, this would mean that foetuses are capable of understanding not only who they are, but are also somehow in possession of a sophisticated knowledge of what the specific culture it will be born into uses in its version of gender, which will be different across nationality, geography, religion, era, and so on. This would mean that, for example, when my father was a foetus in 1940, he knew that pink was for a boy, whereas when my brother was a foetus in 1976, he knew that blue was for a boy, because the gendering of pink and blue swapped at some point in the late 1940s/early 1950s. There are instances of boys being designated as transgendered in the USA for liking soccer, as that is considered a sport for girls there, whereas there are instances of girls being designated transgendered in this country for liking football, as it’s considered a male game here. It is absolutely ABSURD to believe that any form of identity can exist in utero, never mind one based on a fluctuating, non-universally or temporally consistent social construct such as gender. To present this as some sort of scientific fact, without providing any opposing view, to children, is shocking behaviour on the part of a science museum.

For gender identity – a modern concept with no logic or substance to it – to be real, therefore, it would have to operate in the same way as a soul, as no sensible person can truly think for a moment that embryos and foetuses have cultural identities, and because we know that male and female brains don’t exist. There is no scientific proof or logic behind the concept of a soul. It is an entirely religious concept. If one has a soul-like identity which is innate to the person, regardless of the rest of their body, their brain or their life experiences, which somehow resides within the body, trapped within yet independent and fixed, then this would mean that conditions like amnesia or dementia couldn’t be possible. Identity is wholly formed by the brain, in response to every experience a body has, something which a Science Museum should know. It is this fuzzy, illogical way of thinking about identity which allows the concept of being ‘born in the wrong body’ to flourish, a concept presented in the exhibition as a truth, not a belief. While I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who feels like they are ‘in the wrong body’, I also know that this is scientifically impossible and illogical. It is a delusional belief, one which should not have any stigma attached to it, but which should also not be legitimised, just in the way that the way that the belief that one is fat when one has anorexia nervosa, which is in the same category of psychiatric disorders as gender dysphoria, should not be legitimised – for the sufferer’s sake. Again, to be ‘born in the wrong body’, a person would have to either have a gendered brain, which is scientifically impossible as these don’t exist, or have some sort of soul that should have been placed in another type of body by a supernatural force or deity, which is also scientifically impossible. When one steps back from the bandwagon of gender identity for even a few moments, it becomes obvious how nonsensical, illogical and scientifically impossible the ideas one is expected to agree with truly are. That they are being given credence by the Science Museum is absolutely disgraceful and, actually, very worrying indeed. It is nothing less than having an exhibition presenting Creationism as the truth of ‘why we are here’ without a mention of Evolution.

The Science Museum has now stated that it is talking with a number of expert individuals and organisations about the exhibition. We can only hope that when made to see the actual science and the actual facts, they will realise how grave their error has been, not only in allowing many thousands of people, especially children, to mistakenly put their faith in the (mis)information presented on such an important topic, but also regarding the implications of presenting the incorrect, misogynist idea of gender being innate to people in terms of how they will going forward in their lives and view themselves, interact with others, treat others, view others, parent their children, what they will tolerate and accept from others, etc. This exhibition is not the light-hearted lulz and bantz that the Science Museum’s blog tried to fob it off as, it is a complicity with the oppression of women and girls and the limiting, inhibiting and shaming of all children for just being kids with diverse tastes, interests and personality traits and quirks. I do not believe that they will dare present the truth about gender using the actual most up-to-date science and the most logical thinking on the topic as it has now become bizarrely and worryingly verboten to acknowledge both biological facts about male and female and the way structural gendered oppression works and exists. Instead, the best we can hope for is a speedy removal of the exhibition as soon as possible. Whether or not the Science Museum does so and can hope to redeem its former credibility remains to be seen.