Psychoanalytic View of Gender Draws Criticism

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Gender is not genetically determined.

The "complex matrix" that culminates in a gender identity includes myriad parent-child exchanges, social influences, and physical experiences, Ken Corbett, Ph.D., said at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association. It's the accrual of life events--human interactions that can begin even before birth--when a chromosomal profile can reveal a child's sex to expectant parents.

In an era in which subtleties in gene sequencing and variations in endocrine profiles are being discerned, Dr. Corbett, editor of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, tackled the question: "What is our psychoanalytic view of gender today?" in a presentation at the meeting. He and others in attendance noted that gender is getting increasing attention in the psychotherapeutic literature, as investigators across the psychiatric spectrum attempt to hammer out a definition that is more inclusive than the Freudian one, which regarded many behaviors as either feminine or masculine.

Even putting gender in terms such as "male" and "female" is unhelpful, Dr. Corbett said. "Gender is not simply a sexual identity; it is a relational complexity that informs human development," he told other therapists at the meeting. Nor does it make scientific sense to talk about empiric, lab-based testing. "I think of gender as so very multiply determined that [this] kind of testing ... would not, as far as I can tell, really get at the intricate construction of gender."

In fact, it is far easier to state "what it is not" than to pinpoint, with any precision, what gender actually is, Dr. Corbett said. "We need to find a way to speak about gender that allows us to simultaneously speak about the psyche, the soma, and the social," he suggested.

What should the goal of therapy be for someone with a gender disorder? First, the determination that this is an actual disorder--the root problem causing the pain--needs to be established, he said. …