A poorly designed study of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” deserves serious scrutiny, not protection from “activist interference.”
By Alex Barasch
Aug 30, 2018
“Rapid-onset gender dysphoria” is a term that might be familiar from anti-trans op-eds and blog posts, but despite the clinical-sounding name, it doesn’t have much of a place in the scientific literature. Earlier this week, the journal PLOS One published a paper that sought to change that, formalizing the idea of ROGD as a distinct, observable phenomenon in which dysphoria appears, with seeming abruptness, during or after puberty, likely (so the hypothesis goes) as a result of peer-pressure and “social contagion.” In ascribing trans identities to the influence of friends or the internet, the phrase is almost universally used to cast suspicion on teens’ claims about who they are.
When the author’s dubious data collection practices and conjectural conclusions came under rightful criticism, PLOS announced that it would be reassessing the study’s methodology. Good practice, right? You wouldn’t know it, based on the furor that’s erupted. Some have taken the very mention of an editorial review in response to readers’ concerns as evidence of censorship, with PLOS ostensibly caving to activists (as one tweet put it, “This is literally an attempt to destroy a scientific study solely on the grounds that it conflicts with a political narrative, these are truly Orwellian times indeed”). But re-evaluating a study’s content and methodology doesn’t stymie the scientific process; it’s a natural and necessary extension of it.
The study, conducted by Brown University’s Lisa Littman, is purportedly about 256 trans-identified “adolescents and young adults” (ranging in age from 11 to 27). But it’s perhaps fairer to say that it’s about their parents, who participated in a 90-question survey about their relationships with and perceptions of their children—with no input from the kids themselves, and no controls to speak of.
Indeed, Littman’s study is marred by errors and omissions, starting with its very premise: Though the introduction treats the emergence of dysphoria around or after puberty as something new and unusual that should be treated with suspicion, the existence of late-onset gender dysphoria (defined as exactly that) is already recognized by both the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the DSM-5. Littman doesn’t provide evidence to suggest that “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” is a discrete phenomenon—she just asks self-fulfilling questions of parents who already believe in and fear it, including those who have described the effects of medical transition as tantamount to “human rights violations.”
More worryingly, Littman does not account for the way this opposition to transition might skew her findings. The fact that the majority of parents said they believed “transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as others” is treated as proof that those surveyed aren’t disproportionately transphobic, but as Brynn Tannehill pointed out in the Advocate, even basic non-discrimination protections are regarded not as “the same rights” but as “special rights” by those who oppose them.
And you hardly need to know to look for such semantic distinctions; the sites that participants were culled from are full of damning evidence of bias. One, 4thwavenow, hosts long missives from parents who have strenuously denied their children’s identities for years, and its founder notes how she created the site “after much research and fruitless searching for an alternative online viewpoint,” as a platform for “her deepening skepticism of the ever-accelerating medical and media fascination with the phenomenon of ‘transgender children.’ ” Transgender Trend is similarly explicit in its mistrust of “recent theories of ‘transgenderism’” and anxieties about trans people seeking access to public bathrooms and changing rooms. Littman expresses concern over the possibility that trans youths are “isolat[ing themselves] from … mainstream sources of information” even as she deliberately seeks out parents who have done just that.