Monday, July 05, 2010

Defining Feminine Behavior

The tale of giving prenatal dexamethasone to pregnant women who might be carrying a female fetus with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia is long and complicated. From Time:

The early prenatal use of dexamethasone, or dex, has been shown to prevent some of the symptoms of CAH in girls, namely ambiguous genitalia. Because the condition causes overproduction of male hormones in the womb, girls who are affected tend to have genitals that look more male than female, though internal sex organs are normal. (In boys, in contrast, the condition leads to early signs of puberty, such as deep voice, body hair and enlarged penis by age 2 or 3.) But while the prenatal treatment may address girls' physical symptoms, it does not prevent the underlying, medical condition, which in some severe cases can be life-threatening, nor does it preclude the need for medication throughout life.

I recommend reading through the article from which I quote and several other opinion pieces because the ethical aspects of this case are many, complicated and serious, and I don't cover them in this post.

My focus is on something slightly different: The way this line of inquiry treats gender. Girls should be girly to be healthy:

"Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior." Nimkarn and New continue: "We anticipate that prenatal dexamethasone therapy will reduce the well-documented behavioral masculinization . . ."

Bolds are mine.

I understand that the discussion in that quote is not about general gender norms but about possible treatments for one particular (and serious) condition. Still, how does one define "behavioral masculinization" except by arguing that there is masculine behavior and then there is feminine behavior and only the latter is what girls should practice to be counted as healthy?

Not quite sure that I have something here? Check out this quote from a 1999 article by H. F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg on the same kind of gender essentialism, oddly combined with a general retro worldview:

If, for the various reasons outlined above, general sexual motivation and heterosexual courtship and partner activity are reduced or lacking altogether, child-bearing is less likely to happen as a consequence of intercourse. However, the new (noncoital) reproductive techniques that are increasingly being used by women in the U.S., including by those, such as lesbians, who are not heterosexually active, are in principle also available to women with classical CAH. Yet, a barrier to their use may be another psychological characteristic, namely low maternalism. CAH women as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role (14, 48, 49, 50).

I am not sure if the author of that quote defines "low maternalism" as low interest in getting married and in performing the traditional child-care/housewife role, but that's the most likely interpretation. That would mean that most of the second wave of feminism was a horrible plot by women who suffered from low maternalism, because they wanted to widen the possible roles for both women and men.
Hat tip to J V-U.