December 31, 2003

Sex, ethics, pronouns, and culture (warning: adult situations)

The Chronicle of Higher Education's issue of December 19, 2003, page A17, has a news item about J. Michael Bailey, chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, who is alleged to have had sexual relations with a client and then used private details about that client and five others as research material for a book without getting informed consent from the people whose cases he discussed. But when I had finished reading the story I found I still needed to do quite a bit of inference to figure out what had gone on. The reason involves pronouns and sex. And from here on in I had better warn you that we get into what the movie warnings call "adult situations".

First I'll tell you what I could understand, and then I'll tell you what made it nonetheless baffling. The person who was later to complain about Bailey's unethical behavior apparently needed a a letter from him in his professional capacity as part of a dossier relevant to the case for doing some elective surgery. In 1996 Bailey supplied this letter, which established a professional relationship between him and the complainant, a relationship falling under the scope of the American Psychological Association's rules about treatment of clients and research subjects. The surgery was later done, and in January 1997 the patient appeared as a guest speaker in one of Bailey's classes and talked about it. A bit over a year later, after some socializing at a nightclub on March 22, 1998, Bailey and the client had sexual relations at the client's apartment. And then five years afterward Bailey published a book which included a discussion of this client's case, having never revealed that he was planning this, and having never obtained consent for the information to be thus used.

Now I'll tell you what makes the story so hard to understand the way the Chronicle printed it. The surgery was sex reassignment. The letter was a recommendation that a sex change be performed on the patient. So now, suppose we ask ourselves a simple question, like whether the sex that took place was gay sex. Can you tell, from what I've said so far?

I carefully avoided using pronouns to refer to the patient. But if you do try to use them you find that our language just isn't properly equipped for a story like this. The only unproblematically singular third-person pronouns in English are strictly classified by gender: he for males, she for females, and it for (non-human) neuters. And it is tacitly assumed that the relevant characteristics are both knowable and immutable. Even if a woman's successful transition to being a man results in great self-awareness, you cannot describe it by saying *She eventually came to have a much better understanding of himself: it's simply not allowed by the grammar.

The way the Chronicle tells the story, the she pronoun lexeme is used for the patient throughout. The Chronicle says (and I will underline the gender indications): "The woman ... says that Mr Bailey, as a psychologist, gave her a letter she needed from a professional supporting her desire for sex-change surgery." And they write "She had the surgery in January 1997, was a guest speaker in one of Mr. Bailey's undergraduate classes the next month, and had sex with him at her apartment a year later..."

But you see the problem with this? If he gave the letter to a woman, and she desired sex-change surgery, then by the time she'd had it, at the guest appearance in the class, she'd have been a man, and it would be a bit odd to say he later had sex with her because she'd be a him. On the other hand, if Bailey had sex with a woman, then in 1996 she would have been a man, and it would be a bit odd to say he had given a letter to him and then had sex with him, because although he'd have given the letter to him he would have had the sex with her after he'd become a she. (I hope this isn't getting too confusing.)

The outline of the story that I think the Chronicle is relating could be made clearer if we told it like this. Bailey saw a male patient and gave him a letter recommending sex-change surgery. The patient took his letter to a surgeon, had his operation, and hence became a woman. Bailey asked her to come and speak about her operation in his class. Then a year later, he socialized at a nightclub with her, and went back to her home and had sex with her. After that he wrote a book and included details of her case in it, and she complained.

But that isn't how the Chronicle put it: they opted for she throughout, using the pronoun that would be appropriate for the complainant now as a way of referring to her at all stages of her life, so they had Bailey giving the letter to a woman, and they even refer to "her desire for sex-change surgery." That's more than a little confusing, you must admit.

This isn't the first time the issue has come up, of course. Master synthesizer keyboardist Walter Carlos, whose album Switched-on Bach was a huge best-seller, underwent a sex change later in his career and changed his name to Wendy Carlos. One wants to grant that Wendy should get some credit for Switched-on Bach, since after all, she is the person who (as Walter) played the music on it. Yet it seems very strange to say that she recorded it, because She recorded it entails that it was recorded by a female, and it was actually recorded by a male who at the time had not even an announced an intention to one day be a female.

People say that language reflects culture, but one of the reasons it doesn't is that language can't change fast enough to keep up with culture. Sex reassignment surgery rapidly became a fact of our culture once the relevant techniques were worked out in the 20th century, but the English language couldn't change fast enough to keep up with what that meant. It'll be the same when gay marriage becomes a fact of our culture. Are the two guys bridegrooms? Is either of them a bridegroom? Should the minister say, "I now pronounce you husband and husband"? Here, for once, we have the kind of situation where the language really isn't equipped to talk about the new things we have to say. We'll work something out, but it's going to be rocky in the early years.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 31, 2003 01:38 AM