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Nature vs. Nurture Debate: Gender Identity, Research Paper Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2794

Research Paper

Abstract

The nature vs. nurture theory has always been a topic of interest to many individuals. Each individual has his/her own idea of what effects this theory might have on the development, personality and gender identity of human beings. Some studies can support that our culture and environment can shape our gender roles and expectations of how men and women should behave. Although many people might believe that your personality and development is shaped due to biological factors, I firmly believe that both aspects have a tremendous impact on our identity.

Gender Identity  

The theory of nature vs. nurture is a controversial argument based on “whether inherited genes or the environment have any influence over our personality, identities, our mental development, behavioral and intellectual abilities” (Ashdown & Homa, 2011). Due to the nature of our society, I believe that a nurturing environment is far more critical in both the emotional and preparatory development of children in their formative years. Based on my belief on the extraneous influences that affect the youth of today, it is in fact that a combination of these theories can determine who we are as individuals.

Every individual whether male or female, is comprised of individual chromosomes that help determine the sex of each human being. Gender roles and gender identity are largely influenced by society, though “many researchers have found evidence that can support the biological aspect of the development of gender identity” (Berenbaum & Bailey, 2003). What many of us don’t take into consideration, is the fact that during pregnancy the mother and child undergo a critical stage where many things can have an effect on the development of the child. Many studies on rats have shown how certain hormones can change the way the male or female rat acts towards one another. There have been studies on twins that live in the same household and were treated equally the same by both parents, and one child might like boy toys, while the other is more in tune with his feminine side. These siblings were both brought up the same way but at one point or another throughout the child’s development before birth the mother must have experienced or exposed to some sort of hormone or biological incident, which could have affected the development of one the children (Kaplan, 2012).

Some psychologists believe that people react upon their instincts, and that are personality is inherited before we are even born. It is thought that the nature aspect arises from the womb of the mother combined with that of our DNA which will determine our behavior, personality, criminal behavior, sexual orientation and intelligence. Others believe in the nurture perspective that the environment plays a major role which defines who we are as human beings. However, I believe that the nurture perspective plays a much grander role in the application of the development of a child because “their personality and growth becomes a reflection of their upbringing” (Money & Ehrhardt, 1973). This thrusts forth the idea that we as individuals are products of our environment and that the manifested behavioral changes are merely incarnations of both our life experiences and inspirations.

Complicating the issue of gender identity is the issue of Gender Identity Disorder (GID). While a significant number of children display behaviors that are considered to be gender-inappropriate at times, for some children (and later, adults) the atypical gender identities are more pronounced. It is difficult to determine exactly what constitutes GID, or if it should even be considered a “disorder,” though most clinicians and researchers tend to view it as such, at least in terms of how it can manifest problematically in the lives of those with GID.

Under the broad umbrella of GID are a range of symptoms and behaviors, running the gamut from gender dysphoria (the sense of belonging to the opposite gender) to transexualism (the wish to live as a member of the opposite gender, often accomplished through surgical means) (Aschemann, 2009). In order to fully understand GID, researchers have studied both behavioral issues and neurological issues, in an effort to determine if GID is a psychological issue, a physiological issue, or a combination of the two.

While the brains of most animals are fully formed early in life, the brains of humans continue to develop into adolescence. There have not been a large number of studies that have examined the differences in brain development between boys and girls, though those studies that have been conducted have typically not shown significant differences between the two (Asscheman, 2009). Studies that have attempted to determine what sort of role that nurture plays in GID have also been inconclusive and contradictory. In one famous case, a patient known as “John” had his penis burned off in an accident at the age of 17 months. On the advice of the family’s physicians and psychologists, John’s parents raised him as a girl named “Joan.” Despite their efforts, however, John displayed symptoms of GID throughout childhood and adolescence, and chose to return to living as John when he reached adulthood. While this outcome would seem to contraindicate the role of “nurture” in gender identity, there have been other instances of boys who suffered the loss of genitalia at a young age, were raised as girls, and who continued to live as women upon reaching adulthood (Asschemann, 2009).

There is no question that biology plays a significant role in gender identity. Although the overall differences in brain development between adolescent boys and girls are relatively small, there are distinct hormonal changes that develop during puberty that differentiate the two genders (Ehrensaft, 2012). There is an earlier stage of development that is dependent on hormones as well; this happens prenatally, when hormones trigger the initial development of, among other things, male and female genitalia. This hormonal activity is called “organizational,” as it organizes the development of the earliest physical characteristics that differentiate males and females. The hormonal activity of puberty is called “transitional,” as this activity guides the transition from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood (Asscheman, 2009).

Studies conducted on rats have shown that by injecting male hormones into a prenatal female rat, the lifelong behavior of the test subject can be altered from that of a female to that of a male (Asscheman, 2009). Along with the changes that occur in the earliest months of the rat’s life, the brain of the test subject will alter again when the transitional hormonal activity begins. This transitional activity will also mimic that of the test subject’s opposite gender, lending strong support to the idea that at least some amount of gender identity is formed in the very earliest days of life (Asscheman, 2009).

The research that has shown the significance of hormonal and endocrine activity on gender identity has led some researchers to conclude that GID can be treated as a physiological condition. One of the most common treatments of this type is the use of hormone-suppressing medications to delay the onset of puberty in children who display symptoms of GID. It is asserted that by delaying puberty, the patient with GID can have the “distress” associated with the puberty delayed (Asscheman, 2009). By delaying puberty, it is theorized, the patient with GID might be more likely to delay having surgical procedures to remove or alter genitalia and other physical characteristics that he or she associates with the incorrect gender.

Through a strict regimen of treatments, clinicians have been able to delay the onset of puberty while still allowing the patient to develop greater muscle mass and bone density, though neither amount of growth is as pronounced as it would have been had the patient undergone a normal puberty.  In most patients, the distress associated with puberty and GID was relieved, though there have been few long-term studies that have yet determined whether such relief translated to a diminishing of GID once the treatment was ended and the patient underwent puberty (Asscheman, 2009).

The use of medical approaches to treat GID is controversial, as not everyone agrees that GID should be classified as a disorder. In that view, gender dysphoria –the feeling that one is actually the opposite sex- is a natural occurrence, and those with gender dysphoria should be free to change their physical gender through surgical and hormonal treatments should they choose to do so (Ehrensaft, 2012). In the view of those who oppose treatments such as delaying the onset of puberty, GID is not something that should be seen as needing to be cured, but as a situation that must be approached on a case by case basis to assure the best outcome for those with GID.

A growing body of evidence exists that demonstrates stark differences in outcomes for those with GID who are allowed to freely express their gender identities as opposed to those who are pressured or treated to conform to normative gender roles. Many psychologists now believe that children with GID should be permitted to play and engage in childhood activities regardless of the gender roles associate with those activities (Ehrensaft, 2012). Further, say many psychologists, it is important for parents and family members to listen to and communicate with children with GID, and to make them feel loved and accepted despite their GID. In most cases, children who demonstrate non-normative gender behavior will eventually shift towards more gender-normative roles; those who do not, however, are more likely to be happy, well-adjusted adults if they are allowed to express themselves freely as children (Ehrensaft, 2012).

The evidence related to GID tends to support the idea that gender identity is not caused entirely by nature or entirely by nurture, but is in most cases caused by a complex combination of factors. While it is clear that hormonal and physiological activity plays a significant role in the development of gender identity, it is also clear that GID and gender dysphoria is not dependent entirely on nature or on nurture. It has been shown that some patients with GID can be treated through medical and psychological means to conform to normative gender roles, it has also been demonstrated that efforts to force those with GID to conform to normative roles can be psychologically damaging. It may be that those who are successfully “treated” for GID have manifested the condition for different reasons than have those whose treatment was unsuccessful, thus lending more support to the idea that nature and nurture together, in different combinations, are what determines gender identity.

The questions raised by gender identity issues such as GID cut to the core of society. Our contemporary culture, for example, places strong emphasis on the importance of “adult heterosexual monogamy” (Di Ceglie, 1998). Those who exhibit gender characteristics that deviate from this normative prescription are often met with fear and anger. What is interesting about such reactions to those who deviate from these culturally-prescribed norms is that many of those who react so strongly are oblivious to the ways in which they, or their perceived peers, also deviate from the norms of adult heterosexual monogamy. The divorce rate is as high as it has ever been, which means that adult heterosexuals are not adhering to their own beliefs and ideas about monogamy. To some degree it may be that the fear and anger expressed towards those who deviate from gender norms are really externalized reactions to the inner turmoil of those who feel such fear and anger.

While some researchers look at gender identity issues through the lenses of physiology or psychology, others view them through the lenses of sociological phenomenon. In this sense, gender identity issues are not simply to be viewed in terms of how one with GID is raised, or what kind of physiological factors may have influenced his or her development, but must also be considered in terms of the broader social and cultural contexts in which they exist (Di Ceglie, 1998). From that perspective, it can be understood that gender identity issues are problematic in terms of how those with such issues are perceived, and not just how they perceive themselves. If society was completely open and accepting of those with gender identity issues then perhaps they would no longer have issues.

Because we develop our sense of gender identity more strongly in adolescence, it can be difficult to make distinctions between those who have actual gender-identity issues and those who are simply struggling with universal problems of adolescence (Di Ceglie, 1998). Adolescence can be a confusing time, as we come to terms with our changing and developing bodies and begin to feel the urges of sexual attraction. For those with GID and gender-identity issues, these confusing feelings are compounded by the sense that they do not fit into the world the way their peers and others do.

Regardless of where one falls on the issue of “treating” gender-identity issues, the overarching purpose of any such treatments is to treat the discomfort and anguish associated with such issues(Di Ceglie, 1998). Those who deal with GID may feel isolated and depressed, so any effort to treat those feelings is understandable, even if not everyone agrees on how to best go about doing so. While some may view GID as a problem to be cured, and others may view at is something that can be dealt with by allowing the person with GID to freely express his or her own perceived gender identity, both sides would agree that they only want to limit the suffering and torment that can accompany GID-related issues.

The problem with these two views, however, is that they do not take into account the larger factors of social contexts. If the focus regarding GID is related only to dealing with the person who has GID, that ignores the fact that many of the problems associated with GID have to do with the way that society treats those who have such issues. If society continues to view those with gender identity issues as being abnormal, it is unlikely that those who have GID and gender identity issues will ever feel fully comfortable regardless of what sort of treatment they receive or whether they choose to embrace life as a member of the opposite sex.

For those with GID to ever be truly comfortable in their own skin, there will have to be changes not just in their own lives or in the lives of their families, but at the larger societal level as well. We are beginning to see some significant shifts in public perception on issues related to sexuality and gender roles, as more and more people begin to support issues such as same-sex marriage. These shifts are likely based on the idea that sexuality, like gender identity, is not simply behavioral, or a matter of morality, but is a set of characteristics that develop through a variety of nature- and nurture-related factors.

Various researchers and psychologists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner believed that human behavior can be conditioned. Skinner conducted an experiment with pigeons and had them perform different activities in order to demonstrate that nurture has a major influence on behavior. He eventually proved that “human behavior can be conditioned in much the same way as animals” (Powell, 2012).

In essence it appears clear that the theories, concepts and ideas explained referring to nature vs. nurture or behaviorism coexist within every human being to create the great circle of life that we live in. This is basically the belief and idea that one’s own experiences and knowledge can construct a better understanding and variation of operant, cognitive and behavioral learning. Behavioral principles are widely used in a variety of institutions such as schools and hospitals to help emphasize the environmental factors that can mold a behavior.

References

Asschemann, H. Gender indentity disoprder in adolescents.(2009). Sexologies. 18(2). 105-108.

Ashdown, B. K., & Homa, N. (2011). Child development: An overview of nature versus nurture. PsycCRITIQUES, 56(30), doi: 10.1037/a0023988

Berenbaum, S. A., & Bailey, J. M. (2003). Effects on gender identity of prenatal androgens and genital appearance: Evidence from girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 88(3), 1102-1106. doi: 10.1210/jc.2002-020782

Di Ceglie, Domenico.(1998). Stranger in my own body: atypical gender identity development and mental health. H. Karnac books Ltd. London, U.K.

Ehrensaft, Diane. (2012). From gender identity disorder to gender identity creativity: true gender self child therapy. Journal of Homosexuality. 59:337–356

Kaplan, J. S. (2012). The effects of shared environment on adult intelligence: A critical review of adoption, twin, and mza studies. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a0028133

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1973). Man & woman, boy & girl: Gender identity from conception to maturity. Jason Aronson (Lanham, MD, US), xx-311. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/docview/619019444?accountid=6579

Powell, K. (2012). Nature vs. nurture: Are we really born that way. Parenting Geneaology. Retrieved from http://genealogy.about.com/cs/geneticgenealogy/a/nature_nurture.htm

Schillo, K. K. (2011). Nature or nurture: The case of the boy who became a girl. National Center for Case Study Teaching In Science, 1-4. Retrieved from http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/files/gender_reassignment.pdf

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