Sunday, August 26, 2007

controversy surrounding psychologist J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism

August 24, 2007
Friday guest blogger: Julia Serano
Julia Serano is an Oakland, California-based writer, spoken word performer, trans activist, and biologist.
This Tuesday,
The New York Times ran an article about the continuing controversy surrounding psychologist J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. The premise of the book is that *all* transsexual women transition for purely sexual reasons - either to attract straight men or because they are sexually aroused by the idea of being or becoming female. This sexualizing of trans women’s motives is of course nothing new. In the media, trans women are regularly depicted as either sex workers, sexual deceivers who prey on unsuspecting straight men, or as fetishists who get off on the idea of wearing women’s clothing. The media’s (as well as Bailey’s) assumption that MTF (but not FTM) transsexuals transition in order to fulfill some kind of sexual fantasy not only dismisses trans women’s deeply experienced female gender identities, but also insinuates that women as a whole have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized. (For those interested, I discuss this more in depth in my own book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity).
Much of the transgender community’s initial outrage over Bailey’s book centered on the fact that it was presented to the public as a work of science. It was published by
Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of National Academies Press, whose goal is “publishing well-crafted, authoritative books on science, technology, and health for the science-interested general public.” But if one looks beyond the back cover copy, one finds little science at all. Bailey simply rehashes a scientifically flawed theory that was put forward by fellow sexologist Ray Blanchard nearly a decade ago. Rather than providing data to support Blanchard’s theory, Bailey instead attempts to make his points through the use of lurid (and often demeaning) anecdotes, sexist and racist commentary, gross generalizations and unsubstantiated speculations (for specific details, see Joan Roughgarden’s review of the book). In addition, Bailey conveniently claims that trans women and gay men whose personal accounts differ from his thesis are merely lying (he’s used this tactic before: see a 2005 NY Times article called "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited," in which Bailey insinuates that men who say they are attracted to both sexes are lying).
Of course, this week’s NY Times article doesn’t discuss the hypersexualization of trans women in our culture, and it barely mentions the fact that Bailey falsely presented stereotypes and sexual innuendo as “science” without any hard data to back his claims up. Rather, the article focuses almost entirely on accusations made by Alice Dreger in her
forthcoming article in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which she claims that several prominent trans activists stooped to conducting personal attacks on Bailey during their campaign against the book. As Dreger comments in the NY Times article:
“If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”
Now, I’m not going to comment about the accusations Dreger makes, as the trans activists involved have denied her charges and have made counter-accusations of their own. And while Dreger presents her essay as a work of
scholarly history, it’s clear that she is not an impartial, objective observer - she is currently an associate of Bailey’s and has become embroiled in the controversy that surrounds the book herself.
What does strike me though are the parallels between the way Bailey misrepresented anecdotes and opinions as “science” in his book and the way Dreger’s take on this controversy is now being misrepresented as a work of scholarly/scientific history. Indeed, the fact that a scientific journal such as Archives of Sexual Behavior would dedicate a whopping 62 pages (several times more than it allocates to standard research articles) to Dreger’s highly personalized account of this matter is unusual to say the least. While it is not uncommon for scientific journals to publish viewpoints from individual scientists on noteworthy issues, they tend to be clearly designated as editorials or opinions pieces, rather than as actual research papers (as Dreger’s article is being presented).
As an academic scientist myself, what bothers me most about the NY Times’ retelling of this controversy is that they portrayed Bailey as a “scientist under siege” fighting for academic freedom, without any mention of *academic responsibility*. In our society, people tend to view opinions as being inherently valid when they are spoken in the name of science and when the person voicing them has an advanced degree in a germane field. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in public discourses on transsexuality, where the opinions of non-trans “experts” (whether they be psychiatrists, sexologists, sociologists or gender theorists) regularly trump, or completely stand in for, the perspectives of actual transsexuals.
The fact is that when a self-appointed “expert” like Bailey claims that transsexual women transition for purely sexual reasons, and that they are lying if they state otherwise, people will believe him because of his academic/scientist status. The NY Times may try to frame the controversy surrounding Bailey’s book as an example of political correctness run amok, but the truth of the matter is that Bailey himself did exponentially more damage to the field of academic research when he misrepresented anecdotes and innuendos as though they were science.

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