Prone to psychological and medical contagions

Carol Tavris at Skeptic (the Shermer one):

American culture is prone to psychological and medical contagions. An idea catches fire, seeming to be a plausible and important explanation of a familiar problem — depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sexual dissatisfaction. The idea outruns evidence. Experts emerge to treat people suffering from the problem, exploiting the most credulous. They open clinics. They give prestigious lectures and write books. They make fortunes. They blur the diverse possible origins of a person’s difficulties, attributing them all to the latest explanation.

Throughout the 1980s, the hot explanation was childhood sexual abuse: you have an eating disorder? Your father (or grandfather, or uncle, or close family friend) probably molested you. You don’t remember that? You repressed the memory. In the 1990s, it was Multiple Personality Disorder: your other personality remembers the bad stuff; let me give you a little sodium amytal to bring it out. In the 2000s, it was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), said to apply to all traumatic experiences from war to an unwanted touch on the shoulder. Tearful sufferers tell horrific personal stories, and who could doubt them? Who wants to be accused of being misogynist, antifeminist, or simply cold and heartless?

There were also tributaries, like the Satanic Panic and UFOs/close encounters.

I am old enough to have lived through too many of these social contagions, seeing how they rise, generating more and more believers and patients while trampling skeptics and doubters; and how, over time, as patients’ symptoms worsen, as cases of family devastation escalate, as recanters begin telling their stories, we start hearing the other side — from researchers, practitioners, and intrepid journalists.

I hope we get to that hearing the other side part soon. The other side has been talking all along, but the hearing part is still way down the road.

Today, once again, the public is hearing only one side of an emotionally compelling issue: the transgender story. Once again, distinctions are ignored, this time between people for whom identification with the other sex began in early childhood and those whose rapid onset gender dysphoria started during adolescence. Yet the difference between the two groups is itself a fascinating and puzzling phenomenon. Historically and cross-culturally, it is not uncommon for some very young children, mostly boys, to reject their natal sex early on and grow up to be gay or to live in an official, socially accepted category, a “third sex,” such as berdache among Native Americans (the term is now “two-spirit”), hijra in India, muxe in southern Mexico. But the last decade has seen an explosion of rapid onset gender dysphoria, which is occurring mostly among adolescent girls who are unhappy with their bodies and their sexuality and are persuaded that this discomfort is a sign they might be transgender.

If only they could be persuaded that this discomfort is a sign that they might be feminists.

More later.

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