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School photo of David (Brenda) Reimer
Dr Money and the Boy with No Penis

An experiment on nature versus nurture goes tragically wrong.

Q&As about sexology

Programme transcript

On 22 August 1965 Janet Reimer was granted her dearest wish: she gave birth to twins. The two boys, Brian and Bruce, were healthy babies, but they would lead tragic lives, blighted by one scientist's radical theory.

When they were seven months old, the boys, who lived in Winnipeg, Canada, were sent to the local hospital for a routine circumcision. Unfortunately the doctor in charge of the procedure was using electrical equipment, which malfunctioned several times. On the last trial, Bruce's entire penis was burnt off. Brian was not operated on. The family were distraught. In the Sixties plastic surgery was not an option: even today it is not recommended that new-borns undergo penis reconstruction operations.

It wasn't until several months later that Janet and her husband, Ron, saw a television programme that gave them some hope. Dr John Money, a highly renowned sexologist, featured in a debate about sex change operations on transsexuals. He had brought a transsexual with him who was convincingly feminine looking.

Perhaps, thought Janet Reimer, this was the solution - they could turn their baby son into a daughter. She wrote to Dr Money immediately. He responded swiftly and invited them to come and visit him in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr Money is a highly intelligent, well respected, charismatic individual. He suggested to the Reimers that they bring their son up as a girl. Thus, when Bruce was 18 months old, he was castrated and a rudimentary vulva was created for him. The family now called him Brenda and tried to treat him like a little girl.

Dr Money was the answer to the Reimers' prayers, but they were the answer to his too. He had studied people known then as hermaphrodites, now referred to as intersex, who are physically both male and female. As it was surgically easier to turn these people into females, this was standard practice.

The gender gate
Dr Money had used case studies of hermaphrodites to show that there was a window of opportunity for surgery - a 'gender gate' - which lasted up to the age of two. During that period, he argued, if the parents chose the sex of the child, the way they brought it up would determine the child's gender, not its physical characteristics. But until this point, Dr Money had never put his controversial theory into practice with a non-intersex child. Now he had the perfect and unplanned opportunity to do so: a set of identical twins, two biological boys, one of whom could be raised a girl.

Janet Reimer wrote to Dr Money of Brenda's progress and once a year the whole family visited him in Baltimore. When Brenda was five Dr Money started to publish her case - disguising her by referring to her as Joan/John - in his books. The case became a sensation. It was the proof that feminists in particular were looking for. It was proof, they argued, that there was no biological reason that boys are better at maths and that men should earn more than women.

Nurture not nature determines whether we feel feminine or masculine. Widely cited in many text books, the case was a landmark study - hailed as proof of the overwhelming force of nurture - in spite of increasing evidence that hormones both in the womb and throughout a child's life, play a huge part in an individual's perception of themselves as masculine or feminine.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, things were not so good for the Reimer family. Brenda behaved in a distinctly masculine fashion. She liked running and fighting and climbing and loathed playing with dolls. She had no friends and was increasingly lonely as her twin Brian was embarrassed to play with her in front of his other friends. She hated going to visit Dr Money.

Convincing Brenda of her gender
He insisted that to fully understand that she was a girl, she needed to grasp the difference between men and women, and frequently spoke to her about her genitalia. He took photographs of her and her brother naked. He tried to persuade her to have a vagina constructed, which, at the time, would have been made out of section of her bowel or else from the skin of her thigh, which would then be inserted into the pelvic region.

He showed her graphic photographs of a woman giving birth when she was seven years old in an attempt to get her to agree to having a 'baby-hole' made. He also suggested strongly that she take hormone tablets in order to make her grow breasts when she was 12. Other scientists, including Dr Money's ex-students, argue that he did these things in the best possible interests for his patient - to make her believe that she was indeed a girl. Brenda however felt traumatised and became suicidal.

Finally when she was 13, the family told her and Brian the truth. Brenda was intensely relieved as she had felt she was going insane. Almost immediately she turned herself back into a boy and called herself David. David received compensation money for the circumcision and used this to pay for surgery to have a new penis constructed. In his early twenties he met Jane Fontane, who had three children of her own, and they married.

Unfortunately, his relationship with his brother worsened. Brian had felt that David, as Brenda, had received all the attention when they were growing up; once he discovered that he was no longer the only boy in the family, he became extremely angry. It was the start of mental disturbance that would develop into schizophrenia. After two failed marriages, he died, possibly of a drug overdose, which may have been a suicide attempt.

David had never managed to complete his education and had to take semi-skilled work. He was made redundant and was unemployed for a year. He sold the movie rights to his story, but lost the money when a business man absconded with his investment. Stricken with grief for his brother, his marriage started to fail. Jane asked him for a short separation period, but David took this very badly. He returned to his parents' house for a few days, before driving to a supermarket car park on 4 May 2004 and shooting himself in the head. He was 38 years old.

Dr Money argues that he cannot be held to blame because David did not accept a female gender identity. He says that the family delayed making a decision until their son was almost two, just before the gender gate was about to shut. Others, however, argue that he could have admitted he made a mistake when the case clearly was not working, for he continued to let people believe that it had been successful long after he had stopped seeing Brenda and she had become David. It is, perhaps above all, a cautionary tale of what may happen when a scientist falls in love with a beautiful theory and ignores the ugly facts.

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Anne Fausto-Sterling
Professor of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University.

Press for Change
Transsexualism: The Current Medical Viewpoint

The United Kingdom Intersex Association

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