The David Reimer experiment is possibly one of the most unethical experiments in psychological history. The story in its essence is terribly sad. Even though he was born as a boy named Bruce, he was raised as a girl and made to attend sex reassignment therapy sessions for fourteen years. This eventually led to his suicide at age 38. But, why was he raised as a girl in the first place?
David Reimer was born as Bruce Reimer on August 22, 1965. Aged 8 months, Bruce and his twin brother Brian were diagnosed with phimosis and had to undergo circumcision. Phimosis is a condition in which the foreskin of a penis can’t be retracted, leading to balloon-like swelling when urinating and pain during erection. Unfortunately, during the operation, Bruce’s penis was accidentally destroyed. This is why the doctors chose not to operate on his brother.
Worried about Bruce’s future, his parents consulted psychologist John Money who claimed he should have a sex change, as plastic surgery wasn’t advanced enough. Unbeknownst to them, Money had an ulterior motive.
Money was a supporter of the “Theory of Gender Neutrality” and believed that nurture was more important than nature when it came to gender roles. And the Reimer twins provided him with the perfect sample. Two twin boys out of which one believed they were a girl, raised by the same people in the same way. Thus, his experiment began.
Bruce underwent sex reassignment surgery and was raised as Brenda, a girl. Money also continued to see Bruce every year for consultations and assessments, seemingly providing psychological support.
At first, Brenda behaved just like a little girl, playing with dolls, wearing dresses, baking cookies. Nevertheless, around the age of 7, Brenda started acting in a masculine way. In an attempt to force Brenda to realize she was female, Money resorted to horrific steps. He made the twins enact sexual acts, believing all that was part of healthy childhood sexual exploration that leads to adult gender identity.
Around the age of 13, Brenda developed suicidal depression and the therapy was discontinued. By the time she was 14, her parents told her the truth. She immediately decided that she wanted to be a boy again, so she stopped taking hormones and changed her name to David. He later had numerous surgeries to reconstruct his penis and went on to have a wife and adopt her children.
His case was revealed to the public in 1997 when Milton Diamond, a sexologist, convinced David to tell his story in order to prevent other doctors from doing the same to other children. He did this by going public about his traumatic experience through Rolling Stone magazine, and by publishing a book named As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.
Sadly, overwhelmed by his problems, David committed suicide at age 38, just 2 years after his twin brother took his own life. It is believed they both killed themselves because of the methods Money used on them and his impact in their life. Instead of trying to protect the twin brothers, he made them take their clothes off to explore each other’s genitals during their treatment. On at least one occasion he also took a naked photo of them.
This experiment has broken many ethical codes of conduct. Firstly, the twins’ parents were led to believe that a sex change was the only option for their son. Secondly, Bruce never agreed to become a girl or be involved in this experiment. His whole life was affected by decisions and lies of other people.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Money’s study was not only that it ruined the lives of the whole family but ultimately led to the death of both twins. They might have been the perfect sample, but as a psychologist, he should have been ethical and looked for other ways to carry out his research. As unethical as this study was, at least it proved that gender roles are biologically innate, with Nature overriding Nurture.
Here’s a documentary focusing on the life of David Reimer: