Sunday, 9 October 2011

Female behaviour - wired in from birth, or mostly learned?

In this post I'm attempting to explore how natal females come by their distinctive modes of behaviour, and whether it might be mostly a matter of learning it gradually while growing up. Because if that is true, then women with a trans history stand a realistic chance of picking it all up too, and practicing female behavioural patterns until they become perfect and automatic.

In the past, whether it was in male mode, or in the early days of transition when I faced fierce opposition to what I had embarked upon, it was drummed into me that women are 'wired up' in a certain way at birth - equipped with pre-determined female brain-connections if you will - that were quite unlike those of male babies, and that consequently the two sexes were always going to 'think differently' and 'behave differently' in certain characteristic ways. And examples were given to me of how a woman ends up with one type of approach, while a man has quite another. Or she feels or reacts like this, whereas he will feel or react like that - with the female of the species always having the more sensitive or perceptive edge. Similarly for interests: the woman's are people-centred and concerned with what will beautify her home and make her family happy; a man's are focussed on himself, and often involve a selfish use of time and money. And he can never break out of that, never be like her.

I'm bound to say that I used to feel there was a bit of propaganda and myth being thrust at me in this connection, having its roots in childhood assertions such as girls are 'sugar and spice and all things nice', and boys are 'slugs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails'. Which basically means that girls are nice, and they're clean; but boys are not nice, and they're dirty.

No wonder that some boys end up fitting their stereotype very well. And attitudes such as 'boys will be boys' and a general tolerance of anti-social male behaviour tend to reinforce the notion that even if a bad boy deserves punishment, his deeds reveal spirit and toughness and bravery and various competitive qualities that will stand him in good stead when he grows up and has to make his way in the world.

Boys are subject to this type of conditioning from an early age, and so it isn't surprising that many do admire muscular super-heroes, and want to be powerful and dominant, and see nothing wrong with fighting and cheating and putting weaker people down with a cruel and unthinking laugh. Not all boys, of course; but even the more 'civilised' male children find it hard to resist 'acting like a proper boy'. And if it's not in them to misbehave, they are still aware of the standard cultural expectations, and might feel inadequate or an outsider as a result; or get bullied by peers or parents if they don't conform. There must be a lot of fathers who are proud of a brutalised but respected son, and ashamed or scornful of one who seems weak. Certainly male criminality has been largely condoned, and in some quarters glorified.

My point is that a boy's outlook and behaviour is largely learned, a product of his environment and parenting. The biological impulses that (for instance) make him want sex, or protect his own, do not affect his conduct in the same fine detail as what he picks up as he grows up.

And if this applies to boys, then why not to girls also?

It has been put to me that the very different upbringing of girls adds little to an innate gentleness and motherliness, so that they are inevitably submissive, unassertive and child-centric.

It has also been put to me that natural selection ensures that competitive and dynamic women who are uninterested in having babies, or who fail to take opportunities to have any, do not replicate themselves. Consequently their qualities and talents remain unusual and untypical for females in general. And therefore only those female scientists and artists and political leaders who produce children to carry their personal characteristics forward can leave a mark on the great mass of womanhood. If that is true, it might explain why 'women come from Venus, and men from Mars', and why that never seems to change.

I think that if women were brought up differently, and not in conformity to a sterotype, their attitudes and expectations in later life would be very different too. Perhaps most would still go for a family, but the balance of power within that family unit, and the place of women in that society, would both be enhanced. And I think that history tends to illustrate this. Greatly expanded opportunities - and encouragements - for girls to receive a higher and more technical education in recent decades has transformed them as a force in the world and released a deluge of hitherto untapped talent. The days of a woman's normal place 'being in the home' as a compliant and subverted domestic slave are long gone. Would John Lennon and Yoko Ono feel justified in penning that song entitled Woman is the Nigger of the World (see Wikipedia at and YouTube at ) in 2011? (John Lennon was murdered in New York in 1980, you may recall; by a man with an attitude problem, needless to say)

I believe that any person, male or female, learns their social role and its associated behaviour from what they are exposed to in their early years. And that it that isn't simply a question of neural connections that can't be altered. Further, I believe that if my transness had been recognised and medically treated from birth, and I'd been raised as a girl, and exposed to all the experiences girls have, and if my Mum had loved me and cared for me as a girl, I'd have grown up with exactly the same attitudes, emotions, predispositions, expectations and skills as the other girls. You wouldn't have been able to discern any difference.

And if it could all have been learned when young, then surely some of it can still be learned now?

What do natal females think about this? Is it tosh, or am I shedding some light on an under-discussed subject that many take for granted?


  1. A very interesting theory. Personally speaking, I am convinced that the female brain is wired differently than the male brain but having said that, it needs the programming to function as a female in society. To suggest that a transsexual woman is somewhat different implies that she is a male tranistioning to a female (and I am not suggesting that is your view in the slightest). The problem as I see it is that the transgendered female or male has the unfortunate task of having to relearn her (or his) expected way of living (if that is the right way to explain it). She or he has grown up trying to fit into a mould that wasn't really the one she or he should have fitted into. Most of our behaviour is learned but our brain is inclined one way or the other and will accept the 'wrong' tuition under protest. Our spirit and not our brains dictate our ultimate behaviour however.
    Did I make sense?

    Shirley Anne xxx

  2. Yes, you make sense. It does seem a big effort - as if working against some kind of grain - to learn the finer points of female behaviour. I'm sure it is possible, though.

    What I'm suggesting is that despite certain physiological differences in brain structure, male and female brains have an equal capacity to absorb information and are able to process it in much the same way. That said, once the child begins to adopt a certain way of life, the brain must surely screen out information of no use for that life, and admit only stuff that reinforces and assists that life. Hence differentiation begins. I'm wondering if a person who adopts a completely different mode of living stimulates a 'reprogramming' of the brain, allowing a diffferent screening regime and the chance to learn new ways.

    I may be quite wrong. After all, criminals released from prison tend to reoffend. Perhaps they can't get away from their old life, and that's the problem. But maybe if they could only have a completely new environment, and were obliged - without any other option - to live in another way, they would learn to behave very differently.


  3. Girls and boys have been well observed and people's reactions to male and female babies when they swapped clothes. people do talk differently, more softly to baby that they believe is a girl.

    Girls bedrooms are decorated and their toys are inwards looking. teasets, dolls, pretend cookers etc (though boys do play with them as well) Boys get outward toys; rockets, cars, airplanes. see this post:

    I think that you can learn to 'be' a women and Lucy, when I read your blog, I sometimes think that you are more feminine than I am!

  4. You forgot peer-pressure as a powerful childhood dynamic. :-)

    Boys are pressured by other boys into being boys. It's very difficult, as a child, to resist such pressures. The "punishments" are cruel. (That's something I had to deal with as a kid.)

    That being said, I think it behooves us to separate out cultural "habits" from gender-specific behaviors; testosterone and estrogen both produce different behaviors in children and (esp. young) adults. They both affect how the brain is wired, but that's not to say that it can't be rewired - it clearly can be. The hormones also produce physical differences; some can be replicated later in life, others can't be.

    Figuring out what's cultural (skirts/dresses/etc) and what's biological can be challenging - and contentious!

  5. That's a sweet compliment, Anji, although I don't accept that it's true for a moment!

    Perhaps I'm just looking for a hopeful hypothesis here: I so want to believe that I can 'catch up' with natal females and be like them. And if that's really possible for me, then it must be possible for all other people like me, so that we can all hope.


  6. @Carolyn Ann:
    Ah, I deliberately didn't mention the modifying effects of hormones in puberty, or later in transition. So far as I know, there is no major published study of how the hormones taken by trans people affect the workings of their brains.

    As for peer pressure, well, I did very briefly mention it. It didn't play much part in my own young experience because I insisted on being myself, to the point of belligerant behaviour directed at others, which must have puzzled teachers. I simply would not join in, prefering to be nearly friendless. I preferred to be misunderstood in my glorious isolation. And it helped that I wasn't quite alone in wanting to be a misfit at school: there was a small group of us. It was a viable way of maintaining personal integrity, and of hiding the awkward fact that one was different, suffering from a vague and nameless but very real problem.



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