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Fausto-Sterling explores controversial gender identity ideas

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 08:02


Gabriela Ros / The Tufts Daily

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor at Brown University, last night in the Ballou Hall Coolidge Room spoke to the Tufts community about her research concerning the biology of sexual identity.


Brown University Professor of Biology and Gender Studies Anne Fausto-Sterling challenged the norms of children’s gender identity in a talk at Ballou Hall last night, outlining her research on the changing nature of gender in the development process as part of a Women’s Studies Program and Department of Biology event.

Fausto-Sterling emphasized that an individual’s concept of gender identity changes over time and detailed how parents’ interactions with their children mold brain patterns that develop during young stages of life. She focused on this process for zero to 3-year-olds.

“If you ever say gender is something, stop yourself,” she said. “Gender could be one thing at one point in the development process and a different thing at another.”

Fausto-Sterling explained how each maturation phase builds on the growth processes that occurred beforehand. Such “iterative development,” as she labeled this scientific approach, determines how children figure out their gender identity by the time they turn 3 years old.

While there is not recognition of gender in life’s first 10 months, infants’ understanding of female- and male-stereotyped images begins between their 18- and 24-month milestones, she explained.

She said that this development signals the point between pre-symbolic and symbolic association with gender. The latter phase can only occur once babies develop language skills — either auditory or spoken.

“The fact that transition from pre-symbolic to symbolic happens with language is significant,” Fausto-Sterling said. “The earliest that gender identity problems show up is post-language development.”

Using data from lower middle class families in Rhode Island, Fausto-Sterling has discovered that parents’ differential treatment towards male and female infants tends to result in gendered behaviors.

She played four videos where mothers played with their children, rewarding them for certain behavior more than others. For example, the mothers’ tendency to coddle girls and reward fine motor behavior contrasts with their focus on activity-related attention to boys, she said.

“Infants experience gender from before birth and via the minutiae of everyday care, but they also bring their own individually differentiated physiological systems to the table,” Fausto-Sterling said. “Infants assimilate the world.”

From the norm that girls like pink and boys like blue to the data that girls weigh less than boys at birth, Fausto-Sterling said she hopes future scientists study how subtle biological differences between sexes determine the country’s gendered culture.

“We all know that boys like trucks and girls like dolls,” she explained. “But not all girls only like dolls, and not all boys only like trucks.”

Fausto-Sterling has written three books over the past two decades — “Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World” (2012), “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality” (2000) and “Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men” (1992).

After the lecture, Fausto-Sterling took questions from several members of the audience, who asked her to go into greater detail about elements of her research, such as whom was involved and what it revealed about the variances between young boys and girls.

“The culture of gender is a time-sensitive thing,” she explained. “As society evolves, the relevant data for this kind of research changes with it.”

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