Dr. Patricia Weerakoon is a Christian Doctor, academic, and professional Sexologist, working at Sydney University. She is also the author of a number of books, including Teen Sex By the Book, which aims to show teenagers that God’s design for sex is best.
I caught up with Dr. Weerakoon to continue my series hearing from key Christian leaders about upcoming challenges facing western Christians (you can read my previous interviews with Archbishop Glenn Davies, and Christian ethicist Reverand Dr. Andrew Cameron).
Akos Balogh: Patricia, according to your expert opinion, what are some of the big challenges that Christians here in the West face in the not too distant future?
Patricia Weerakoon: I’m a sexologist, a sex therapist, and a Doctor, so in terms of sexuality and sexual health, some of the big issues (especially when it comes to our youth) would be Pornography, and secondly, the whole issue of gender.
AB: Most of us are familiar with the challenge Pornography poses. But what is it about ‘gender’ that’s concerning?
PW: The most significant thing is that both the Church and society at large don’t understand the complexity of gender. We throw around words like ‘transgender’, ‘cisgender’, ‘queer’, ‘questioning’, ‘intersex’, without really comprehending what they mean.
When we talk about gender scientifically, we talk about a number of aspects: the biology of gender or sex; the concept of gender identity or core feeling; and that of erotic attraction (same sex, other sex or both):
So firstly, we talk about the biology of sex, which is not just our sexual genitalia, but also the ‘sex’ of our brains.
There’s research now that tells us that in all likelihood, the way our bodies develop is that anatomical genitalia develops during our first 3 months in the womb, but brain development occurs later, during the last 3 months. So theoretically, there could be a disconnect, a difference biologically, between our genitalia, and our sex according to our brain.
And so we talk of ‘intersex’ as a condition where something goes wrong in the development of the genitals in the mother’s womb. Now in the old days, we use to talk about ambiguous genitalia, and that meant somebody who is born without the genitals being clearly male or female. But now we’d rather use the term ‘intersex’. In intersex people we don’t know what [their] brain sex is. It is estimated that about 1 in 1,500 babies are born intersex.
Secondly, there is the issue of ‘gender identity’, and that’s all about how a person sees their core identity, whether male or female or something they are still exploring (gender queer or questioning).
The term Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder is used to describe people for whom their core feeling of male or female differs from their biological sex. In these people, the best estimates tell us that about 1 in 15,000 to 20,000 are severely distressed and undergo the transition process to the sex they perceive themselves as.
Now, you see a lot of discussion around the term transgender, which in itself is an interesting term: it is an umbrella term for people whose sense of themselves, their sexual orientation, and their behaviour doesn’t clearly fit biological sex and societal expectations. But the very broadness of the definition makes it difficult to know how many people would consider themselves transgender. The best estimates we have is about 1 in 500.
Now, we also hear frequencies being reported like 14-15% of youth are LGBTQIA. I have not myself been able to trace the source for these numbers.
The reality is that the best research we have says that of young children who show/report what we call gender variant behaviour, even those who say ‘I am really the opposite sex’, only about 15% or at the most 18% would grow up to have any gender identity concern.
So this really puts a red flag as to how dangerous it could be to be listening to young kids when they say ‘I’m not a girl, I’m a boy’, or vice versa, and then doing something about it.
AB: Ok, so when you mean ‘children’, what age range do you mean?
PW: Pre-adolescent, to early adolescent.
AB: So of those children that report ‘look, I’m a girl in a boys’ body’, only 18% would carry this concern into adult life?
PW: Yes. When we say gender variant behaviour, there’s a whole range, a spectrum. Those who say ‘I don’t belong in this body’ are on the extreme end, but there are many others on the spectrum as well: like little Peter who wants to wear a tutu or little Jane who only wants to play with Tonka trucks and is interested in playing rugby, but who still see themselves as the same gender assigned at birth. So everything from games, toys, dress, to saying ‘I don’t belong in this body’.
Of these children, only about 15-18% would grow up to have any gender identity concern, such as gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria (the word ‘dysphoria’ means it’s a source of distress or a problem).
Of the other 85% or so (who end up growing out of gender identity concerns), about half might grow up to have same-sex attraction.
But again, we don’t know how much of it is actually biological, or how much of it is nurture: whether nurture from family, or from peer group pressure (e.g. you’re so gay etc): pressure that tells a child ‘maybe I am gay’. We just don’t know how much of it is nature and nurture.
This is because the developing brain is hugely neuroplastic. So as the child grows, their brains are being wired. So if somebody keeps telling a girl with gender variant behaviour, ‘yes, you are a boy’, and giving them boy things, sending them to the boys toilets, then that identity is going to become plastic in her brain. And as a Doctor, and a Sexologist, I’m very concerned about such early diagnosis and early labeling: it’s very dangerous to the child when it comes to gender identity.
AB: That leads to my next question, and that is the whole topic of the Safe Schools Coalition. From what I’ve read of them, they seem to be doing exactly what you’re saying, in terms of labeling and affirming kid’s sexual identity and gender identity. Is that your understanding?
PW: I haven’t really had the time yet to in-detail examine their documents. But I do want to check them out because I want to see where they pull some of their statistics from. I understand they say 15% of kids are LGBTQIA, and I want to ask ‘where do you get those stats from?’. The best researchers don’t have stats on those issues. I think we need to be really careful about such stats.
But secondly, what gets me anxious is, as I’ve said, young brains are neuroplastic, and so what are we feeding the developing brains of our children? Being fed an identity will wire the brain, with potentially serious consequences for the child.
AB: So nurture is happening all the time to children, and studies show that kids can change their gender identity, and so it’s not helpful to label them, without letting it naturally develop. So what’s a more helpful approach? Safe Schools want to fight against ‘heteronormative behaviour’ and celebrate/affirm all these diverse lifestyles, but what would be a better response in schools?
PW: Look, the reality is that kids experiment, and they take risks. So I would say give appropriate knowledge at an early age. Let’s teach them about gender, about pornography, just like I do in my book ‘Teen Sex By the Book’ (for teens over 15); and ‘Growing up: By the Book’ (for 9 to 14-year-olds). Because if we don’t teach them, they’ll get their facts from the internet, and from pornography.
Now, if a child show a propensity to some gender issue, then in consultation with the parents, we do the best thing for the child. And of course ‘to do no harm’ means anti-bullying and anti-discrimination. But we do the best for the child at that moment in time, in consultation with the family, and with health professionals, and then watch and wait.
But you must not teach every child that ‘if you’re a girl who wants to be a boy, then this is how you bind your breasts’. Of course there’s variation in behaviour among children: that’s the way the world is – people are different, and you don’t bully and put down people who are different.
AB: Now that’s where you come from, but some would say ‘well, that’s because you’re a Christian’. I’m wondering in terms of your profession, where would most non-Christian sexologists land on this gender issue?
PW: I would say that the majority of professionals internationally (who are working and researching in this area), would say that when it comes to gender identity concerns in children, then take the ‘wait and see’ approach, rather than treat/change/transition children and young adolescents. In other words, don’t do anything until the child is an adolescent, and then too see how much distress it is causing. And act with as minimum medical and surgical intervention as possible.
AB: So when you hear about the minus18 website, which has material teaching girls how to bind their breasts, and teaching boys how to tuck their genitals, what sort of things go through your mind?
PW: The things that go through my mind are that these aren’t the kind of issues that any website should be teaching young people. These are things that only professionals should be giving advice on. It’s not up to any popular website to be advising on issues as intense, and as emotive, as these.
AB: Thanks Patricia, you’ve given us all lots to think about. Gender is a vitally important topic for understanding our God-given humanity, and our society is becoming increasingly confused about it. Not to mention the politicisation of gender…so it’s great to hear from someone who actually understands the research, and sees it from a Christian worldview.
(Postscript: On the 23rd of February, the Federal government announced it would launch an investigation into the controversial Safe Schools Program).