Secret sex – the myth of the gender neutral childhood

Originally published on

BBC Breakfast on Monday 23d January* featured a story about Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper, parents of Sasha whose gender had been “kept secret” in order to “avoid stupid stereotypes” and increase the chances of experiencing an actual gender neutral childhood. They were right that this mystery is required for such a thing to be possible – studies have shown that even adults who report that they show no gender variance in their behaviour towards children do in fact treat boys and girls differently. If I carry on searching for a link to any such study this post will never exist, so you’re going to have to take my word for it until I find what I’m looking for.

Sasha’s story has gained a lot of attention and criticism, but it seems complete misplaced. As close family and friends have always been aware of Sasha’s sex, the only people who have not been told are people who don’t matter. Is that so unusual? When Polly is misgendered by some random stranger, I usually don’t bother correcting them. It seems to upset them more that they got it wrong than it bothers me what pronoun a complete stranger applies to my daughter. Sasha’s parents say that they have not attempted a “gender neutral” upbringing, as such – just allowed a “gender-rich environment”. Again, is this so unusual? Polly’s wardrobe is fairly evenly split between “boys” and “girls” clothes. Her toys consist mostly of LEGO (mostly Duplo), dolls, musical instruments and teasets. For a while she favoured the dolls, significantly. Right now she’s obsessed with spoons. She’s always loved the Duplo – previously favouring the animals, now suddenly the helicopter and plane.

I’ve had fairly long conversations with people about my happy chappy and his big smile. If I do correct them (even just by brushing it off saying “yes, she’s in a very friendly mood today!” or something) they fall over themselves with embarrassment and apology.

It’s this discomfort that seemed to penetrate a lot of the commentary about Sasha. Nick Tucker**, the “Child development expert” on the BBC Breakfast piece in particular seemed to be baffled by the concept – how on earth is one to relate to a child whose gender is a mystery?! This is telling. What I’m not clear on (being unable to watch the show again, and having been somewhat sleep deprived at the time) is whether he meant he wasn’t sure which pronouns to use (you can speak for a long time to or about a child without using any gendered pronouns, I know this from experience) or whether he is meant to praise the child’s looks or strength. Perhaps he needs to know whether to react with comfort or derision when the child cries. Perhaps he needs to know whether to offer a Disney Princess or Cars sticker. These are all pointless and/or harmful constructs, and if it’s about pronouns, then he needs to talk to whole communities who face this issue (and society’s response to it) on a daily basis.

Quiet Riot Girl rightly takes down Robert Crampton’s transphobic take in The Times (paywall) on Sasha’s upbringing, and discusses the double standard of gender expression. Why does nobody (well, fairly few people) bat an eyelid when Polly turns up somewhere in “boys” monster dungarees, but a boy (or potential boy) able to wear a dress makes national (and international) news? I suspect I have another blog post brewing on this topic.

The idea is not new, but again – only seems to make the news for boys or potential boys.

As Sasha’s sex has now been “revealed” at age 5 as he goes to school, he’s hardly going to be immune from the bombardment of stereotypes that will fly at him there, both from teachers and his peers. I recall myself the first time I got any vague inkling that girls and boys were supposed to be different. I was at least six years old, and it was a strange realisation. The idea had, to the best of my knowledge, never even crossed my mind before. I wish I knew how I’d managed to be so sheltered up to that point.

* I’m sorry, I suspect this link isn’t very reliable… Do let me know if you are aware of a better one.
** While the BBC called Nick Tucker a “Child Development Expert” I can’t find much out about him other than he’s a lecturer in “Cultural Studies” and wrote a book about children and literature.

About impeus

An interrupted gamer, perusing local art or alternative events while pondering gender, parenting, neurobiology, language and child development. Into LEGO, gaming, good beer and tasty food, but mostly just wittering on about my daughter.
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