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.