A professor once told me that psychiatry is the only medical area where the organ fights back. Much of mental illness involves people doing what they want to do and expecting that the world will change. Often, my job is reconciling distraught patients to the fact that their world (spouses, parents, employers or bodies) won’t change. Maybe one out of ten times people accept the news and move on to a happier life. Others ignore anything I or anyone else may say and hitch a ride on the merry-go-round in and out of therapeutic and/or correctional facilities. A few decide to fight the power and establish a new reality. When scientists and doctors don’t accommodate that new vision, get ready for fireworks.
In the world of sex and gender the new vision has been oozing from equality to homogenisation. Some idealists want to depathologise all sexual behaviors. In academia, at the entrance to the fire zone of sex and gender, a warning sign should be erected saying, “Approach with Extreme Caution”. Two years ago Harvard Dean Larry Summers missed the sign and was quickly consumed by the fire.
Isn’t framing and explaining difficult theoretical issues the object of
academic debate? Unfortunately, Bailey’s opponents have opted for the
easier, self-indulgent politics of personal destruction.
J Michael Bailey Ph D, the former chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology, has spent the last three years since the publication of his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, dodging bullets. Bailey has endured attacks on his family, unsubstantiated allegations and ostracism at the university and among his peers.
Last month The New York Times reported on the continuing attacks against the sex researcher. The Times misleadingly labeled the controversy an “academic feud”. Rather than a stiff and esoteric debate with his peers, the book prompted a high tech, smear campaign against Bailey by transgender activists.
Bailey’s book is a popularization of some recent scientific theories involving sexual orientation and gender. His critics state that he has promoted an idea that is “inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women”.
Bailey propagates a hypothesis formulated by Dr Ray Blanchard two decades ago. According to Bailey, Blanchard discovered that some of male transsexualism and cross dressing can be explained by a strange, erotic desire for oneself to be transformed into a woman. He called this “autogynephilia”. Bailey therefore categorizes the genesis of transsexualism as either erotic homosexual desire or heterosexual autogynephilia.
The resurgence of the theory has created a firestorm in the transgender community. The theory doesn’t fit well with the popular woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body meme and has been attacked by many activists and other sex researchers. Criticising an obscure theory in an obscure area of science has not been enough for some. Bailey’s reduction of cross dressing desire to sex has led some critics to become unhinged.
Writing in Reason magazine Deirdre McCloskey, a transsexual economics professor, blames Bailey for her estrangement from her adult children. A few transgender activists have pursued a scorched earth campaign against him. One of his leading opponents, Andrea James admits that the goal has been to discredit him. On her website, Transsexual Road Map, James stated, “Discrediting Bailey was the easy part. Framing the theoretical issues involved is the profoundly difficult part of this controversy.”
Isn’t framing and explaining difficult theoretical issues the object of academic debate? Unfortunately, Bailey’s opponents have opted for the easier, self-indulgent politics of personal destruction.
Bailey has been accused of research and ethics violations. He was reported to the state board and accused of practicing without a license. He was also accused of sexual misconduct. Finally, he has also endured the all too common slur of his views being compared to Nazi propaganda (whatever happen to creative name calling?).
Ms James even posted a picture of Bailey’s children on her website with sexually explicit captions. Demonstrating the blindness of fanaticism, she defended her attack on the children by stating, according to the Times, “that Dr. Bailey’s work exploited vulnerable people, especially children, and that her response echoed his disrespect”.
I guess you can do anything as long as it’s for the children.
Dr Alice Dreger, a colleague of Bailey’s at Northwestern, investigated the accusations. She told the Times that the charges were “essentially groundless”. Dreger’s account will appear in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour next year, and her findings are already available online.
Dreger concluded that “they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded”.
Still, that campaign against Bailey has had some victories. Bailey stepped down as chairman of the psychology department at Northwestern University in 2004. Although a spokesman said that the change was not related to his book, his opponents saw the change as affirmation of their complaints. A prominent association of professionals dealing with transsexualism, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, sent a letter to Northwestern echoing the calls for an investigation of Bailey and criticized his book.
Although the university completed an investigation of Bailey in 2004, it has refused to comment on the results to the Times. Colleagues of Bailey told the paper that the administration of Northwestern didn’t give Bailey “much support…they were quite scared”.
Of course, the main concern voiced by Bailey’s supporters has been the need for academic freedom. Can such freedom co-exist with the radical egalitarianism so entrenched in the modern university? Probably not. Over two decades ago the philosopher Allan Bloom foresaw the conflict between knowledge and the post sixties style of “live and let live”, “I gotta be me freedom”.
Bloom observed: “The insatiable appetite for freedom to live as one pleases thrives on this aspect of modern democratic thought. The expansion of the area exempt from legitimate regulation is effected by contracting the claims to moral and political knowledge. It appears that full freedom can be attained only when there is no such knowledge.”
The experience of Dr. Bailey is a cautionary tale for sex researchers. For those on the outside, the story raises concerns as to whether or not scientific findings in the area of sexuality are valid. In an area that has been plagued by self-serving agendas, will we hear only “scientific facts” screened by various advocacy groups?
The Bailey controversy is further evidence of the shaky foundation upon which both social science and mental health research rest. Although the university and her scientist would proclaim themselves beyond politics, Bailey’s battle shows how easily academic and scientific professional organisations can be manipulated by politics.
Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.