The Legacy of Sex Researcher John Money Controversial sex researcher John Money died late last week. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on his lasting effects on modern concepts of gender identity.
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The Legacy of Sex Researcher John Money

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The Legacy of Sex Researcher John Money

The Legacy of Sex Researcher John Money

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A eulogy will be one of the first items of business tomorrow, at a meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research. The society will remember noted researcher, John Money.

Money was a pioneer in the field of gender identity. He died last Friday, at age 84. As NPR's Joanne Silberner reports, he leaves behind a controversial legacy.


Psychiatrist John Money was controversial, from beginning to end. In the beginning of his career, he decided that men who truly believed they were women, and women who truly believed they were men, could benefit more from a sex change operation than the treatment of the day, counseling.

It was a revolutionary idea says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research and Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

Ms. JULIA HEIMAN (director of the Kinsey Institute for Research and Sex, Gender, and Reproduction): Some people got very angry with him, when he was early on in the 50s, willing to support the idea of changing adult people's genitals to conform with their gender identity.

SILBERNER: Money set up a sex change unit at John's Hopkins Hospital, one the hospital would later close. He worked with sex offenders, giving them hormones that would chemically castrate them, and he had a new idea for children with ambiguous sex organs.

Ms. HEIMAN: Before the age of three, at least, one could still change biology in such a way that environment would make up the difference.

SILBERNER: Money's most famous sex reassignment case, was a boy who had been mutilated during an incorrectly done circumcision. Raised as a girl under Money's care, she had surgery, was given hormones, but had problems, and eventually switched back to dressing and acting as a male, even got married.

But at age 39, he killed himself. Money never backed off his ideas though, says Alice Dreger, a bioethicist at Northwestern University.

Ms. ALICE DREGER (bioethicist at Northwestern University): I think John Money was really convinced that the theory of gender that he had was correct, that it was largely a product of nurture, or somewhat the product of nature, and I think that he knew that that was something he had made his name off of. And it's very hard to give up a theory when it's something you've really come to put your whole life into, and really believe in.

SILBERNER: Cheryl Chase of Sonoma County, California, was born with enlarged female genitalia in the mid-1950s. Doctors insisted on surgery. She's now head of the Intersex Society of North America, which encourages families to hold off surgery till children can decide for themselves. She's got mixed feelings about John Money.

Ms. CHERYL CHASE (head of the Intersex Society of North America): I think it's kind of ironic, that he is considered the founder of a kind of a medical intervention that's been so harmful to so many people. Because he really wanted to be known for breaking down sexual taboos and standing for more openness.

SILBERNER: John Money himself was very well aware of the controversy around him. At a sex research conference 16 years ago, he said it was time once-again, to make sex into a valid scientific pursuit.

Mr. JOHN MONEY (sex researcher): Those who look into the mirror of sexualogical history will see ourselves as reincarnations of our 19th century forbearers. And for them, their professional persona was divided.

On the one side of the divide was the sexual law reformer, and on the other side was the sexual researcher.

SILBERNER: The tape is from the John Money Collection at the Kinsey Institute. Today Alice Dreger, of Northwestern University, says Money's legacy remains contentious. Meanwhile tomorrow, Richard Green of Imperial College in London, plans on telling sex researchers at the Amsterdam Conference that John Money was a hero and the smartest man he's ever known.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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