From a certain perspective, notably that of radical feminism, all gender socialisation is child abuse.
In a recent, controversial brought before the British courts, a judge took a child out of the care of its mother because it was deemed that the child was being forced to 'live as a girl' while in fact identifying as a boy. The mother, the judge claimed, fully believed that she was supporting the child's right to live as a girl despite having been assigned the male sex at birth. But, he went on, there was considerable evidence that the child did not identify as a girl, and that significant emotional harm was being done by the mother's practices.
This is one of those cases where we really need chapter and verse, and will not get it. We have the to go on, and we have the reactions of , who have about the value judgments implied in the judgment and the absence of gender specialists consulted in court. There is a seeking to reverse the decision. Naturally, transphobes of various hues have taken a degree of satisfaction in the story, as it appears to reinforce their view of the dangers of currently ascendant ‘trans narratives’.
But it is a mistake to conduct the argument purely at this level, which necessarily involves people in smuggling in value judgments as factual claims. What I want to do is ask: what if everything the judgment says is true? I doubt that it is that straightforward, but supposing it is: what conclusions should we draw? For the sake of argument, then, I will assume the factual accuracy of everything that is claimed by the judge.
In particular, I will assume that the child identified as a boy, and did not consent to live as a girl. Or, more precisely, that the child would have preferred to identify as a boy, and only consented to live as a girl in order to please his mother. I will assume that the details supplied by the mother about the trans characteristics of the child are merely a record either of the mother’s fantasies, or of her own over-interpretation of statements made by her child, or of her ability to induce certain statements and ways of behaving. Finally, I will assume that all of the ‘concerns’ expressed by various agencies are all perfectly well-founded and in no way shaped either by transphobic valuation or professional ignorance. We can start by acknowledging that this would indeed be unarguably a case of abuse, regardless of the mother's sincere intentions.
It is, of course, not news that the language of liberation can lend itself to perpetuating abuse. Nor is it at all new for parents to narcissistically use children as extensions of their own earthly designs, or to expect them to live in a gender that they do not particularly wish to inhabit. Nor is the specific phenomenon of mothers preferring their sons to live as girls at all new. What would have the tincture of novelty is the specific invocation of the language of trans liberation. And, assuming the judge is correct, this reminds us not to underestimate the ingenuity of parents in finding ways to fuck up their kids — even where, as Larkin insists, they may not mean to.
However, it is also worth being exact about where the abuse would inhere in this case. It obviously isn't in the “emotional harm” identified by the judge. Emotional harm is, firstly, a thoroughly nebulous concept and, secondly, a possible product of abuse rather than identical with the abuse itself. A great deal of abuse of children by adult carers has no demonstrably harmful result, and lots of emotional harm results from transactions that we would struggle to qualify as abusive. If the judgment is correct, for example, then it may be entirely appropriate that the child was removed from the mother’s care (perhaps the imperative of keeping families together that guides Social Services practice prevented appropriate action). And yet this, designed to put an end to abuse, may turn out to be even more traumatogenic than the abusive treatment itself.
What would be abusive here would be the extent to which the child became the mother’s symptom. Every child is, to an extent, its parents’ symptom. Long before it has been physically conceived, it has been psychically conceived, dreamed up, wished for, wished on behalf of — always in a gendered way. The child is written into existence as the subject of its parents’ obscure, complex and to some extent unconscious desires, long before it can began to articulate any desire of its own. It becomes a vector for displaced dreams, conflicts and disappointments between parents, in advance of its own dreams, conflicts and disappointments. However, in this case, if the judge is correct, then the mother’s desire for the child to be a girl monopolised any claim to the child’s identity, leaving him (or her, as the case may be) no space to work it out for him (or her) self.
And yet, of course, if we take seriously the benchmark that all gender socialisation is in some sense abusive, we have no reason to be assured that the abuse, if that is what was happening, will stop here. After all, the default assumption that the child is a boy, based on birth-assigned sex, might also be imposed in just as unilaterally insistent a way, either by the father, or by the judge, or by Social Services. Perhaps the mother was right to think that the child wasn’t satisfied with being a boy. Perhaps her mistake was to rush to the seemingly logical assumption that the child must therefore be a girl.
Between parenting, the law, and the pseudo-sympathetic, therapeutic idiom of social workers, it is not clear that the child’s own questions about gender will be given space to work themselves out, or will be treated as anything other than a pathological manifestation of abuse. Of course, we are given to believe that the judge, the social workers and the father who dispute the claim that the child is trans, are open-minded about the matter themselves. That, they have offered the child a choice and observed the choices made in a non-partisan, open way. This is the sort of thing that adults might believe, but children never do. That is, adults might be lulled by the soothing neutrality of legalistic and therapeutic discourses, or the nurturing language of parents, but children tend to be quite astute and worldly in working out what adults, cares and authorities desire of them.
Sandor Ferenczi, writing on the way in which children seek to satisfy their parents’ desires, referred to an “uncanny clairvoyance”. In a sense, he genuinely seemed to believe that children could so identify with adults as to completely internalise their desires without error. This is to lapse into magical thinking. There is no reason to assume that we are ever more than approximately right about what others want of us. However, what can be said is that since their survival depends on understanding what parents want of them, children become sophisticated interpreters of the words, gestures and silences they are met with. One by-product of this is that they are so busy preempting, satisfying or frustrating the desires that others have of them that they never get to decide what they want for themselves.
The earliest questions that any child puts to the world are, “where do babies come from?” and “am I a girl or a boy?” These are existential questions, concerning sex in both of its main senses. The answers offered by adults are strange, and would give anyone a complex. Parents are apt to be evasive and anxious in answering questions about sex, particularly if they are unhappy about their sex lives. And of course, children are apt to maintain a muted dissent about the silly fables they are offered, whether it be about storks or mummies and daddies who love each other very much. So they continue to hunt for the answers, and construct theories.
Yet the same parents are usually strangely emphatic, insistent, about who is a boy and who is a girl, and about the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory. They leave no doubt about the matter, even though many children quietly entertain the gravest doubts. Simply, where children want knowledge and independence, parents often communicate ignorance and obedience.
In this case, according to the court, the mother’s role was not to suppress the child’s knowledge. Indeed, the judge comments somewhat sniffily on the ‘inappropriate’ extent of the child’s understanding of sexual anatomy, as conveyed by the father. Instead, the argument is that the mother coached the child, artificially inducting him into a form of gendered knowledge that would otherwise only be passed on tacitly, incrementally, allusively and almost automatically precisely to the extent that it accorded with ‘normal’ gender socialisation. Yet at the same time, the judge comments, while the mother was a skilful advocate of trans children in general, she seemed unable to say much at all about the specific wishes of her own child. In short, the judgement describes a child discerning and seeking to fulfil the mother’s desire, rather than the mother defending the child’s ascertained wish to be trans.
This suggests that far from breaking with an abusive treatment of the child, the mother merely inverted it in a way that conformed to her own wishes. We do not, of course, know what is really true in this case. But we can say that gender socialisation usually means that someone else has already written your life story for you: and there is always a sense in which that is unavoidable, and always a sense in which it is abusive. From the abolitionist perspective, to imagine a non-abusive form of parenting is to imagine a world without girls and boys.
The space between where we are and that horizon is obviously not one that can be compressed at will. There is still a need to raise children able to survive and make choices in this world. But one could say as a minimum that to be assigned the term ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ doesn’t have to be decisive, irreversible, or exhaustive of all the options. Doctors don’t have to be in such a rush to assign sex, that — for example — they prematurely force intersex children into one of the binary classifications. Parents don’t have to be so determined to produce children adapted to sex assignment that they suppress all doubts or alternatives. And children can be allowed to suppose that they have a role in determining whether they are girls, boys or something else, and what that means.
Even reaching this comparatively limited goal would require a far-reaching cultural shift, one that is underway only in certain progressive enclaves. It necessitates, certainly, further constraints and checks on the automatic authority of parents over their children. But it also necessitates, as a minimum, that parents find other ways to desire of and for their children. The economy of parental desire has to be reconfigured so that they can accommodate a more capacious and imaginative sense of what it means for a child to thrive and do well.
Oscar Wilde spoke of how socialism would relieve us of the sordid necessity of living for others. Child abuse can be defined as the sordid necessity of living for one’s parents or caregivers, as if one’s life depended on it. Relieving that burden, however incrementally, is a start toward a comprehensive liberation for girls, boys and everyone else.