The Torment and Tragedy of Teenage Girls
A LetterWiki exchange between Abigail Shrier and Heather Heying
Today’s post is a reprint of an exchange that the wonderful Abigail Shrier and I had on LetterWiki in 2020. LetterWiki no longer exists, but the conversation between Abigail and myself continues to interest readers. To facilitate access, I am reprinting it here, with Abigail’s gracious consent. The original is also archived here.
Abigail, of course, literally wrote the (or at least a, but it seems that it is likely the) book on the topic that we explore in the exchange to follow: Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. I highly recommend this book. I also highly recommend Abigail’s Substack, The Truth Fairy. I am grateful and proud to be standing next to her in this cultural moment.
Some more of my writings on sex and gender can be found here.
By Abigail Shrier
August 7, 2020
In July of 2019, I interviewed a prominent Canadian plastic surgeon who removes healthy breasts for a living. For a little more than 8 thousand Canadian clams, he and a growing number of surgeons perform “top surgery” on girls sixteen and up who claim to have gender dysphoria—severe discomfort in one’s biological sex. No outside diagnosis by a mental health professional need be made.
In the course of writing my book, Irreversible Damage, I heard the rationale for providing these surgeries so often, it came to feel humdrum: Though “Mary” might look like a girl down to the last cell of her body, in an important if ineffable sense, she was somehow really a man. Removing such a girl’s breasts are, from this perspective, like removing any other unwanted and unnecessary appendage—an extra finger on her left hand.
But wait a minute—I pressed the top surgeon. He also offered this service to teens who claim they are “non-binary”—that is, declare a gender identity neither male nor female. How did he know that a non-binary person had no breasts? How could he be sure that a non-binary person had a nose?
“You know, I long ago stopped trying to totally understand this,” he said. Even doctors who perform these surgeries don’t claim to comprehend what they’re doing.
There are many reasons to believe we are in the midst of a transgender “craze”— a mass enthusiasm that captivates a population so that matters more essential to its welfare fall neglected, to borrow Lionel Penrose’s use of the term. There are the alarming statistics, indicative of an epidemic: For a century, gender dysphoria has been understood to begin in early childhood (ages 2 to 4) and afflict males almost exclusively. In the last decade, apparently out of nowhere, gender dysphoria’s predominant demographic has shifted from young boys to teen girls. (The rise in girls presenting at gender clinics in the UK has been estimated at 4,400%).
All across the West, adolescent girls are suddenly identifying as “trans” with friends, clamoring for hormones and surgeries. Teen girls who are struggling with anxiety and depression but who had no childhood history of gender dysphoria at all. Under the guidance of numberless trans social media influencers, with the encouragement of peers, clusters of girls are transforming themselves from desperately unpopular to the toast of the virtual town.
In my book, I offer several explanations of how this particular social contagion came to befall teen girls. And one of the many flags I plant is this, garnered from academic psychologist Jean Twenge: Teen girls today spend a whole lot less time with each other in person (an hour less per day) than those of prior generations. That’s less time hanging out in each other’s rooms, combing the details of their lives for hidden grandeur; less time savoring gossip and telling secrets; less time caught in the current of breathless laughter, half-shrieking the lyrics of a song.
I wonder whether, as an evolutionary biologist, you agree with the significance of this loss? Do people need to spend time with each other in person—young girls, perhaps especially? Are there evolutionary reasons for female closeness? Women often say they couldn’t have survived without their girlfriends. Is this merely the Sauvignon Blanc talking or does this give voice to some truth?
And then there’s social media—wretched and omnipresent, haunting and hurting our adolescent girls. The girls who fall for the trans craze are typically the same high-anxiety and depressive teen girls so tortured by social media. Competition for status among teen girls has always been fierce, but never so zero-sum, so winner-take-all as when a girl can win not only the hearts of the fifteen most popular kids in your class—but millions of teens—granting their likes, as if casting votes, for Prom Queen of the World.
What does status competition typically look like among adolescent female primates? What if that competition were suddenly to intensify? What types of behaviors would we expect to see? A Queen Bee surrounded by infertile females? Competition so fierce and frightening that many would flee the reproduction game entirely?
Academic psychologist Amanda Rose has told me that the reason adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to peer contagions—to sharing and spreading their own pain—has to do with their modes of friendship. Teen girls like to rehash, again and again, the source and nature of their friends’ pain. They are even willing even to suspend reality to meet their friends where they are.
I think back to my own teen years with a mixture of longing and fondness, very much despite my present-day knowledge that they amounted to a kind of torture. If a boy dumped my best friend, I hated him with a fiery pique, no less severe than if I had been the one dumped.
And then there was the friend of mine, talking herself into anorexia. After one bite of food, she would say, “Oh, my God, I feel so full. Don’t you feel full?” And I could see the answer teleprompted by her eyes: “Me too! I feel disgusting.” Only I didn’t feel that. I was starving.
Why do young women do this? Can it be adaptive? It all seems so irrational from the vantage of womanhood.
If you forced me back in time and tried to shake sense into my teenage self, I wouldn’t have listened. Adolescent girlhood has a logic of its own: Pain is ubiquitous and demands to be shared; ice cream should never be eaten alone.
Those ridiculous years feel, still, like the making of me. A live wire of agony ran through them. Every novel encounter broke the skin. And yet, you couldn’t pry those misspent hours or hapless friendships from the foolish chambers of my heart.
By Heather Heying
August 13, 2020
Thank you for your opening letter, and for uncovering so many avenues for exploration.
Allow me to start 500 million years ago. Our ancestors have been reproducing sexually, with two sexes, for at least that long. Male and female have been real biological categories since then. There are often external indicators—genitals, plumage, song—but the thing that is most fundamental is the type of gametes an individual produces (or did or will or might produce). Females have eggs, which are relatively immobile and large, due to being filled with all of the cellular stuff of life. Males, meanwhile, have sperm (or pollen), which tends to be mobile, and tiny, stripped of almost everything needed for life—except DNA.
All of the other indicators of sex are less fundamental. But with so many systems in play, sometimes they are in disagreement. When your gametes and chromosomes, anatomy and physiology all say that you are female, but your brain is certain that you are male, we call this gender dysphoria (although we should call it “sex dysphoria”). This is what underlies (true) trans. Trans is real, and trans is rare.
Gender is the behavioral manifestation of sex, and some of our gender norms are here to stay. Women, with our wombs and breasts, will always be the ones to gestate and lactate, and this ancient truth set in motion a whole lot about our behavior—we are more likely than men to focus on connection, and on home. But some of our gender norms are wildly flexible, and we should also embrace that truth.
“Trans” used to mean “transsexual,” and suggested a deep and abiding disconnect between some of the manifestations of sex. Now we are led to believe that “trans” stands for “transgendered,” as if a mismatch between your actual sex and your gender should require some fix with hormones or surgery. I wonder when this happened, and what the history of that change is? Certainly it confuses the issue. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was growing up, while ignoring gender norms as a boy was still difficult, it was actually rather easy to ignore gender norms if you were a girl—to be gender non-conforming. Tomboys were cool, in many people’s eyes; I know because I was one.
The crucial distinction between gender-nonconformity and gender dysphoria is that girls who are attracted to more male-typical activities—sports and math and building things, for instance—are not pining to be boys. I never wanted to be a boy. I was pleased to be a girl who was allowed to think about and do things that would have been prohibited to me in earlier times. That was progress.
What we are seeing now is the opposite.
What has happened to girlhood? We have created a perfect storm, and you have put your finger on one key piece. Many girls have been helicopter-parented away from risk, all serendipity stripped from their lives. Too many are drugged—legally—when they experience the kinds of mental distress, like anxiety, that girls are more likely to succumb to. And they have lived much of their lives behind screens, one effect of which is as you say: time spent interacting through screens is, all too often, time not spent interacting in person. In other primate species, female friends bond simply by being together, sitting close, and grooming one another. Our girls have grown into adult bodies with far less of that than their predecessors had, and with little ability to regulate or understand their own moods or thoughts. Of course they are susceptible to suggestion. Of course social contagion is a particular risk.
You ask about competition between adolescent female primates. Decades ago, some of my earliest research was on a mirror-image concept: that of friendship between female primates. Loosely speaking, friendship is a close alliance that does not require frequent reassessment. Friends have long-term emotional attachments, and behave selflessly towards one another, at least sometimes. Ecological constraints (Is there enough food? Are you willing to share?), the presence or absence of males, and willingness to reciprocate for kindness or aid, all affect how attractive females find others as would-be friends.
And crucially, would-be friends also assess rank. High rank can be the difference between eating, or not; mating, or not; surviving, or not. And while rank is largely inherited, by rules particular to both species and situation, aspects of rank can also be contagious. To some degree, you can catch high rank—or low—from your friends.
Anyone who has been a girl knows that girls are no less competitive than boys, they just do it differently. Status among females is not established or maintained with displays of brute strength or raw power. Status among females is managed in more subtle ways.
Having or knowing the latest song, the most sought after invitation, or the newest fashion, can be the difference between rising in the hierarchy, or falling. Status begets status, and following trendlines so as not to be late to the party is one way to rise.
Add to this heady brew a new choice on the menu, one that masquerades as a celebration of civil rights, and confers immediate status, and voilà: teenage girls are falling all over themselves to be trans.
I will leave you with this: newly published research finds that “transgender and gender-diverse” individuals have high rates of autism, and other psychiatric diagnoses.
Given this, shouldn’t we consider the rapid rise of “gender dysphoria” in young women as a symptom, rather than as its own syndrome? Why do we chastise teenage girls when they cut themselves, but celebrate them when they find a doctor to do it for them? When a teenage girl cuts herself, or starves herself, we try to help the human being. We do not sanctify the behavior. Why are we now celebrating a symptom?
By Abigail Shrier
August 20, 2020
When parents call me about a teen daughter who suddenly identified as “trans,” they tell a strikingly similar story: A precocious, highly anxious and sometimes depressive girl with no childhood history of gender dysphoria hits puberty. She never perfectly fit in with other girls. But now, at 11 or 12 or 13, her social struggles intensify.
She tunnels into social media where she discovers trans influencers. At school, she takes cover in a Gay-Straight Alliance club and learns that if she does not feel perfectly feminine, she may be “pansexual” or “non-binary” or “trans.” Armed with this explanation, she has an announcement to make: She’s done being “Kate”; she’ll be answering to “Kent” now.
Most of these parents who call me—semi-weekly, for the past year—are politically progressive. They supported gay rights long before gay marriage was legal and have never voted Republican. They are members of GenX, believers in psychotherapy, remarkably devoted parents and even their daughter’s “best friend.”
They wouldn’t think of contradicting their daughter’s announcement, though it seems to contravene much of what they know: No girl feels perfectly feminine during adolescence. Their daughter has never even kissed another adolescent—how can she insist she’s “pansexual”? Pretending she’s somehow no longer a girl feels dishonest.
But they humor her. They adopt her new name and pronouns—or simply avoid using her name entirely. (“Hey, kiddo, feeling up for school today?”) She insists on a boy’s haircut and they pay for it, bite their tongues when she wears a binder (breast-compression undergarment) to school. They drive her to the Pride parade and rent her a tux for prom.
Now, the story takes an extraordinary turn. Rather than calming her anxiety, all this indulgence seems to exacerbate it. Why?
In my book, I suggest one reason: Perhaps what these adolescents really want is not agreement but opposition. Parents who embrace their 14-year old’s announcement of being “pansexual” are inadvertently coopting her rebellion. What she wanted was to individuate. Her loving parents sabotage this attempt with the poison kiss of approval.
That explanation, while useful, never fully satisfied me. Many of these adolescent girls are highly agreeable. Some are reluctant to be out of mom’s presence. They may yearn for individuation, but many don’t exactly want a fight. They’re suffering panic attacks, afraid to go to school. Many are barely getting through the day.
Then one night, after my book had gone to press, I found a mislaid copy of the May 2020 Atlantic buried under an embarrassing heap on my nightstand. I began to read Kate Julian’s “The Anxious Child,” and I had to sit down (literally).
Julian interviewed academic psychologists who successfully treated anxiety disorders in children and young adults by changing parent behavior. “The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress—minimizing things that worry or scare them, assisting them with difficult tasks rather than letting them struggle—may not help them manage it in the long term,” she writes. In fact, psychologists have been able to effectively treat anxiety disorders “by reducing parental accommodation”—stopping “those things a parent does to alleviate a child’s anxious feelings.”
Asking your kid’s teacher not to call on her in class because it makes her nervous or letting your anxious teen skip school may exacerbate the very anxiety each is meant to allay.
Here, at last, was another explanation for why parents who indulged their teens’ gender journeys frequently found their daughters’ distress increasing. Anxiety is nearly universal among suddenly-trans identifying teen girls. By accommodating their daughters’ demands, some of the parents may have been making their daughters’ anxiety worse.
You ask: “Why do we chastise teenage girls when they cut themselves, but celebrate them when they find a doctor to do it for them? When a teenage girl cuts herself, or starves herself, we try to help the human being. Why are we now celebrating a symptom?” We might also ask: Why are we accommodating this distress rather than treating it?
At least one reason seems to be that we’ve come to regard our racial, political and gender identities as the signal feature of any of us. We are living for the slogan, the team, the tribe to which we bind ourselves. Teachers, even scientists and doctors are activists now. And at least part of this sad reduction of humanity to hashtags and political-group identities has to do with the online audience to which we increasingly address ourselves. The more time we spend in this online world, the more we take up online identities that have no meaning in the real world—“agender” “two spirit”—the more our humanity seems to fade.
Consider another spiking diagnosis: erectile dysfunction. The last decade has seen a sharp rise in ED among young men. Experts connect this to online porn consumption.
The desire for sexual coupling would seem to be one of the strongest, oldest, and most durable urges. For eons, we’ve been able to count on young men reliably to manifest this drive, if not always to control it. And yet, the virtual replica’s unequaled convenience, emotional safety, and infinite variety subverts and supplants normal sexual arousal.
If a virtual life can suppress something as adaptive as sexual desire, how will our other, weaker inclinations fare? What will be left of the desire to connect, to learn, to accept challenge and grow up?
Internet porn gives young men the facsimile of a sexual relationship just as social media offers young women the facsimile of female friendship. Both seem to be rendering humans less suited to each other—less able to absorb life’s pain and challenge and joy? Are we all becoming the anxious child, endlessly accommodated in our retreat from the in-person world, forfeiting our vitality and efficacy and courage?
By Heather Heying
August 28, 2020
In hopes that we might find places that we disagree, in this letter I will offer up a story, about a young person whom I will call Sam. (In my final letter to you, I will return to your insight that internet porn provides young men a facsimile of sexual relationship, much as social media provides young women a facsimile of female friendship.)
As you have written about so effectively, the steep increase in teenage girls identifying as trans suggests contagion. Many girls are likely suffering crises of identity which cannot be resolved by asking the world to view them as the sex to which they were not born.
Given this, hormonal and surgical intervention ought, I think, be delayed until adulthood. I prefer to protect the vast majority of girls who do not turn out to be trans, than to facilitate permanent bodily harm in order to help the tiny minority that is. And yet. Sam might have been helped by earlier intervention.
Sam was a student of mine, smart and self-aware, and so at odds with the female body born to him that he could not use words to speak of it to me. He trusted me though, and wanted me to understand. To preserve his privacy, I will not provide some of the details of his story that would break your heart.
He could not say the words—"I am a genetic female, but I have felt male for so long that I must do everything that I can to be male,” although that is the reality that I came to understand. Sam and I went on several field trips together; I was responsible for his safety. We traveled places in which some would not look kindly on a person whose presentation did not match the sex on their official ID, so I needed to know some things that most people would not need to know. I did not know what sex Sam was, although he presented, more and more with each passing week, as male. Finally, because I knew we shared this language, I asked him, regarding his chromosomes—"are you XX, or XY?” He looked away, lowered his eyes, and whispered, “XX.”
In the field, Sam sometimes seemed too short of breath for someone so young and apparently healthy. I worried about him. Once, after Summer break, he emailed me to say that he wanted to pick up some papers at my office. When I wheeled my bike down the hall at the time we had arranged, he was already waiting. We had spent many hours talking in my office over the years, and I trusted him fully. After I unlocked the outer door, I encouraged him to go inside while I wrangled my bike through the narrow space.
When I turned back around, the door closed behind me, Sam was stripped to the waist, two fresh, fierce surgical wounds across his chest, stitches still in place. I caught my breath—this was decidedly new territory. He looked me square in the eyes. I looked between his eyes and his chest before saying, “you can put your shirt back on.” As he did so, I said, “this is why you’ve been having such trouble when it’s hot—you’ve been bound.” He nodded, looking away. “You haven’t been able to breathe.” I continued. Again he nodded. No words.
He wasn’t going to speak about it, this young man whom I could push intellectually more than I could many people of his age, who had such a command of the language. Of this he would not speak. He had been binding his breasts in order to present as a man, before finally having them removed. We never did speak of it, but now I knew.
This young man—and yes, I will not just call him a man, as he wished, but also understand him to be a man, even though he is XX—is the very rare case. He knows that. The other trans people whom I know, know this too.
In part because of Sam, I suspect those who insist on constant focus on their trans status of being dishonest. Probably some of them are truly extroverted and performative, and their pain is real, a manifestation of gender dysphoria. But many, I feel certain, are cosplaying, and insisting that the rest of us accede to their fantasy. Others, in the case of so many teenage girls, seem merely confused, perhaps hoping that someone—a parent, a counselor, a doctor—will step in and say: No.
These girls have been ill-treated by a society that encouraged their parents to helicopter them away from all risk and uncertainty, to encourage their every whim rather than resist and provide a force against which their daughters could push; to drug them out of anxiety or depression if they showed any signs of it; to allow them to seek affection through their screens rather than in person.
In further service of seeking places that we disagree, I will end with this: I believe that I have heard you say that parents who allow their children to transition are not guilty of child abuse. You have compassion for the parents, seeing—as do I—the strong societal winds that are blowing them in that direction. But parents are still responsible for the health of their children, and I do think it is child abuse. Keeping healthy teenagers from pharmaceutical and surgical intervention when they request it is, terrifyingly, difficult now. But it is necessary, and not to do so is an abdication of parental responsibility. Will your daughter hate you for doing so? Perhaps. I think she will also come to see your resistance as evidence of your love for her. Not only are we allowing children to undermine their own health and fertility, we are taking their childhoods from them, and thereby stealing their futures as well.
By Abigail Shrier
September 4, 2020
Thank you for your wonderful letter and the delightful privilege of this whole exchange. Sam’s story has so much wrenching complexity. It’s a good reminder that, though we necessarily describe social phenomena and trends, our ultimate goal is the flourishing of the individual. No two lives are identical.
Most of the parents who call me end up sobbing. For my book, I interviewed nearly five dozen parents of adolescents who suddenly trans-identified. But all told, I’ve spoken to—or exchanged messages with—dozens more.
More than one conservative journalist has asked me why so many of the girls caught in this craze seem to come from politically progressive homes. Was it because the parents were divorced? No, in fact, most were not. Were the parents irresponsible—full of wacky liberal hedonism? Actually, they were some of the most devoted and proficient parents I have known. Was it because they failed to give their children religion? Or was it simply because “the Left ruins everything”—from single-sex university clubs to office Christmas parties and healthy adolescence? No, I didn’t think so.
The question of ‘why progressive parents’ always makes me a little uncomfortable both because it carries a troubling touch of schadenfreude—conservatives straining to pat themselves on the back—and because I sensed that it wouldn’t be true for long. A trend that begins with teens in progressive families won’t stop there.
But it’s a worthy question—why progressives?—because, as with all puzzles, its solution has the potential to teach us something. And the answer I’ve landed on has nothing to do with the quality of the parenting nor exactly with the values of the home. True, many of the parents seemed to want to be their daughters’ best friend. They are members of GenX, as I am. We’ve all seen “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” more times than we can count. We may banish gluten from our pantries with prejudice, but when it comes to our teens’ behavior, we’ll do almost anything to avoid sounding like Principal Rooney.
But conservative parents did possess one considerable advantage with regard to this craze: an ample head-start in realizing that the culture is arrayed against them.
For at least a generation, conservatives have served as the punchline for every sitcom joke (sometimes styled as ‘Christians,’ but you get the point). White male conservatives play the villains (or, minimally, dunces) in most movies. Educated people who have never read a single one of his opinions are nonetheless confident Justice Clarence Thomas is an imbecile, unworthy of our highest Court. Our best universities don’t want conservatives, neither as undergrads nor faculty. Jewish students are routinely harassed if they dare support Israel. Ordinary conservative political positions—even those that had been uncontroversial among liberals in the 1990s—are deemed per se proof of bigotry.
Whether you or I embrace these positions is unimportant; conservatives have long been openly despised for them. It isn’t news to them that the professor or social worker might not share their vision of family or community. Conservatives have been painted by the culture as Principal Rooney for so long, they’ve long ago accepted the role; they've even have begun to like him.
That our culture has now turned against all parents seems to have surprised liberals, who mistook their broad support for LGBTQ as an inoculation against the Left’s assault on their families. They never considered that a teacher kind enough to lead the high school Gay Straight Alliance club would encourage their daughters to lie to them. They’ve long supported Planned Parenthood as a national treasure; they never guessed it would, on a first visit, dispense testosterone to their troubled daughters.
So, you ask, why don’t I blame the parents who’ve fallen for it? They acted on the advice of therapists who promised their children would be much happier as the opposite sex—as if such transformation were really possible. It is, at best, an asymptotic goal—a finish line that’s never actually reached.
Teachers are only too happy to launch other people’s daughters a gender journey, all while hiding this from mom and dad. Therapists surreptitiously agree with a girl’s pronouncements, solidifying a new identity in her mind, repeatedly referring to her as “Aiden” or “Ethan”—despite having promised her parents they wouldn’t. For dispassionate advice, parents turned to doctors, who wafted politicized studies like burning sage, less medical than mystical.
Many of the parents who allowed their children to transition should have been more skeptical. They should have recognized some of the so-called gender doctors for what they are: ideologues in white coats. They should have asked whether permanent sexual dysfunction would be the result of a procession from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones. They should have demanded to examine the basis of those suicide statistics. They should have known, in their bones, that no one else had their children’s best interest at heart.
If these experts had had callused hands, MAGA hats, or gold crosses about their necks—these parents would have presumed an agenda and been wary. Instead, the rooms these experts occupy—like the institutional credentials that line their walls—are pristine. They are housed by our best hospitals. The floors are all waxed to high shine, their teeth neatly capped, their lapels happily affixed with a rainbow pin.
They have the same training as the men and women who remove a cancerous lump. But the blight they seek to remediate is a girl’s healthy body itself. They answer not to Hippocrates, dead white male that he was, but to the capricious mandates of “social justice.” Curing disease is beneath them; they’re too busy changing the world. And so they are—one child at a time.
By Heather Heying
September 11, 2020
What a fabulous way for you to wrap up our exchange. Your answer to why progressive families are more susceptible to gender ideology than conservatives are is remarkable: progressives are not accustomed to being targeted by cultural norms. I think that you are right. Being the majority voice in the media and in education has made liberals—progressives, if you will—weaker than we ought to be. We have lost our ability to engage with careful arguments from the other side, because we are unaccustomed to hearing them. That, in turn, has made it easier to dehumanize those who have different opinions from us. If you’ve never met a conservative, it’s easier to imagine they’re the devil than if you had; the same logic goes for black people and gay people, Hindus and Afghans. In all cases, familiarity, normal human interaction, creates enough common ground that we are revealed to each other as human—both flawed and passionate, by turns despondent and full of joy.
I agree with your analysis. And I want to add another.
You elegantly evaded discussing personal politics in your analysis of progressive parents, so respectful and avoidant of finger pointing. I’m going to do the opposite, and point the finger at my own. I am a parent, and a progressive, but there is much in modern parenting that I have strong objections to. I arrive at my conclusions not through conservatism or religion, but through evolutionary biology.
One of the values that seems to be embraced by progressive parents is the idea that parenting is friendship. My children are older than yours by a few years, and as my boys become young men I see the beginnings of the friendships that we will have. But imagining all of parenthood as akin to friendship quickly decays into imagining that it is not yours to instruct, to correct, to punish. We don’t correct our friends, by and large, so we don’t correct our children, the logic seems to go. This is insane.
It is also insane to imagine that children are as fully capable of making decisions that will have life-long consequences as adults are. Even adults are poor at this sort of thing, but childhood and adolescence are precisely when such learning is happening. Today’s neurobiological model suggests that the prefrontal cortex, which controls “executive functions” like planning, impulse control, and deciding between competing inputs, is still developing even during late adolescence. Humans have long childhoods so that they can learn how to be adults. Pretending, instead, that they already are adults is missing the point entirely.
You and I disagree, but barely I think, as to whether to call the parents who get sucked in and allow their children to transition, guilty of child abuse. I am just a little less sympathetic to their plight. Perhaps I have seen too many witless parents since I myself have been a parent, people so willing to “go along to get along.” It’s a female-typical attitude, one that is lovely for reconciliation and soothing hurt feelings, but when weaponized or employed in the wrong place, it can get people hurt.
When your 14—or 16, or 18—year old declares a staunch belief that now they know who they are and were always meant to be—agreeing with them is not good parenting. Facilitating them making irreversible changes is the opposite of good parenting. Humans have the longest childhoods on the planet. Childhood is when we explore, find, and yes, create our identity: who we are and who we will be. This only works, though, if the child can walk it back, and change their mind, and it helps tremendously if that child has a parent—better, two; better yet, a whole community of adults who dearly love that child—who are actually watching out for the child and their long-term interests, rather than being concerned about whether the young’un thinks her Mom is her bestie at the moment. The younger you are, the harder it is to think into the future, to plan, even to believe in the stretch of time before you. Children therefore have a legitimate excuse for their confusion. Parents do not have this excuse.
A teenager’s opinion that they have a condition for which there is no test, no evidence, and no proof, is just that: an opinion. Anyone who remembers being a teenager, or who has parented teenagers, knows how full of opinions teenagers are. We do not take every opinion of a teenager as if it is the Truth with a capital T. The drugs given to “transitioning” teenagers harm children. Hormones and surgery are, at best, only occasionally helpful in reducing mental health distress in trans-identifying people. But we live in an era when we must celebrate girls who declare themselves trans, and denigrate those who ask if we are actually doing the right thing. You, I know, are well aware of this bind.
Before I sign off for good, I want to return to a point from your second letter. You suggested that “Internet porn gives young men the facsimile of a sexual relationship just as social media offers young women the facsimile of female friendship.” As it happens, I just wrote about how porn commodifies sex, and flattens human sexuality, for Areo. I argue, in part, that “One can be positive about sex—embracingly positive—without accepting that cheapening sex, rendering it available on demand and without emotional content, is positive for either individuals or for society.” Similarly, one can be positive about friendship, without accepting that relegating it to social media, which renders it two-dimensional, text-based, and devoid of most sensory input and feedback, is positive for either individuals or society.
I am honored to have had this conversation with you, and hope that it prompts more, not just between us, but between those reading our words.
Read more of Abigail Shrier’s unflinching and exquisite writing here.
A topic also explored in A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, which you can find here, now in English, Spanish, and French (more languages coming soon).
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“You ask: “Why do we chastise teenage girls when they cut themselves, but celebrate them when they find a doctor to do it for them? When a teenage girl cuts herself, or starves herself, we try to help the human being. Why are we now celebrating a symptom?” We might also ask: Why are we accommodating this distress rather than treating it?”
Best argument I have heard. This letter writing exchange was wonderful! Thank you for publishing it. The two of you are brilliant thinkers!
First, are there any teenagers who haven't, at least once, thought about suicide? So citing a "thought about suicide" statistic is going to be one of the statistics that Twain was referring to.
Facilitating the Transubstantiation of discomfort, real or imagined, into currency, social or actual, is a piece of the puzzle. Not much real good comes from advertisement of our weaknesses.
And your friend Sam aside, (or maybe not), being a man is tough. That a young girl thinks her life will be easier if she were a man is proof how juvenile they are. Just look at all the men who fail at being men. When you father a child, you raise that child, and try to do a better job than your dad did. When valor is needed to save someone you signed up to protect, the buck stops with you. When their life and your worth are on the line - do you have what it takes, or are you a Uvalde cop?
Jordan Peterson has it right. Pick up a heavy rock and carry it. If you are searching for a rock you prefer to carry (changing genders) you are missing the point.