“The Phantom Genitalia” would be a great band name

By , January 30, 2010 12:17 pm

A friend shot me an article from sfgate.com earlier this week: Gender Identity and Phantom Genitalia:

V.S. Ramachandran, a neurologist and psychologist at UC San Diego and a leading authority on phantom limb sensations, says it has long been known that some people who are born without arms have vivid phantom arms. They can swing them around, wave goodbye and make complicated gestures.

This suggests that an intact body image – the maps of the body laid down in the brain before and after birth – can develop without actual limbs. So-called mirror neurons that map the actions and intentions of others into one’s own brain may help bring the phantoms to life, Ramachandran says.

This got Ramachandran wondering whether the phantoms applied to transsexuality. To find out, he surveyed 20 male-to-female transsexual women and 29 female-to-male transsexual men.

The first finding was intriguing. Only 6 out of 20, or 30 percent, of the transsexual women who had had their penises removed reported feeling a phantom phallus. But 58 percent of “normal” men have such sensations after the surgery.

The second finding was surprising. A third to a half of “normal” women experience phantom breasts after a mastectomy, as opposed to only 3 out of the 29 transgender men. The third finding was downright astounding. Among the transsexual men, 18 out of 29, or 62 percent, said they had experienced a phantom penis long before their surgery.

It completely makes sens to me that trans men and women have different ‘phantom limb’-type experiences following the removal of breasts or construction of a vagina. Likewise, the article is respectful of trans identities: even if it doesn’t get into the label of cis(gender/sexual), there are quotes around “normal” in ‘”normal” woman,’ indicating that normal is a matter of perspective.

At the same time, even though the findings in the article make sense, I don’t think the article itself is that well written. It posits these phantom limbs as somehow explaining the existence of trans people:

Such discord [between body and gender identity] often gets chalked up to the physical – prenatal hormone exposures, abnormal brain structures, gay genes. Or to the psychological – repressed homosexuality, absent dads, overbearing moms, parents who wanted a baby of the opposite sex.

But there is a new explanation: Some transgender men claim to possess phantom penises. From the time they were little girls, they say they had vivid sensations of a penis between their legs. Others develop such a phantom when they begin taking testosterone therapy.

Um, what? That’s not an explanation. It’s a symptom of being trans, perhaps, but not a cause. Similarly…

The findings imply that transsexuality should not be regarded as abnormal, Ramachandran says. No rigid barriers exist between the sexes. Rather, sexual identity exists along a biological continuum that involves an innate body plan and life experience.

“I expect a lot of criticism,” Ramachandran says. “Those who study transsexuality tend to be territorial because they themselves have made so little progress. There is no literature that illuminates the underlying mechanisms, other than psychological mumbo jumbo. And then someone comes striding in and spends two weeks solving the riddle. It must be infuriating.”

I commend the journalist for treating trans issues with respect, but it’s a shame the narrative of the article doesn’t make sense! What “riddle” did you solve, Ramachandran? I’ll agree that phantom limbs in trans people are interesting, and may indicate that “no rigid barriers exist between the sexes,” and definitely agree that there’s a lot of psychological mumbo jumbo around the causation of trans identity.

But you didn’t solve any riddles. You just offered some additional places to look.

3 Responses to ““The Phantom Genitalia” would be a great band name”

  1. He’s surprised because only 30% of transsexual women experience phantom penises, while 58% of normal men do. He doesn’t seem to get that it’s because the transsexual women don’t “miss” their penises, while the normal men do.

    All studies about us should include one of us on the comittee. Normal people just don’t have the background to grasp these things.

    • Rebecca says:

      Good point! I’d expand that to say a study about any specific population – gender identities, racial groups, religious groups, genders, whatever – should have at least one member of that group to comment on the findings, and give a little ‘insider’ perspective.

  2. Jonah says:

    Any study comparing phantom breasts after mastectomy needs to look at the age of the people who had mastectomies; it would make sense to me for transmen to be younger than women with breast cancer. Yeah? And since I assume kids don’t have phantom breasts, it would seem to me that an expectation of oneself having breasts would have to come from having them.

    Also FWIW, I’ve worn implanted devices for medical purposes that I could feel on myself at all times. The longest one has been in me was 28 days. After they come off, I keep expecting them to be there, avoiding things that would touch (and hurt them). Having something on you makes it part of you.
    I think the difference between that and genitalia/breasts is how a sense that something shouldn’t be there can allow people to pretend that it’s not there. When I was a young teen (and I developed breasts at age 8/9), I would be SHOCKED every time I saw my breasts or if I saw myself as looking feminine. It was like getting punched in the stomache every time, because I forgot they were there, I was so strongly convinced they shouldn’t be.
    When I was older (and I’m forgetting how old- either 18 or 19, which is relevent ’cause I started T when I was 19 years and a month and I can’t remember if it was pre-T or post-T), I stopped seeing my breasts as feminine. They are, as far as I’m concerned, man boobs. I also use them for stuff- I inject them with insulin and so forth. I now expect myself to have them, am never shocked by them, and imagine that if they were removed it would take me a while (as in a few months) to stop expecting them to be there.

    A little bit funny story I tell too much: When I was in 7th and 8th grade, I wore white shirts all the time, and I played football. Sometimes it rained, and my shirts got see through. The girls in my class told me that I needed a bra; I didn’t think so. The assistant principal pulled me out of class one day to tell me that some people had been complaining and that I needed to wear a bra. I said, “But boys don’t wear bras!” I ended up adding an undershirt, and that was that.

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