It's often said that women like to bear baby girls, while men want male heirs. In our increasingly confused social environment, adages like this are still probably most common, but have come under pressure from people who have become so ethically "neutral" that they're more afraid of imposing sexual stereotyping on their children, than they are of risking psychological harm to them by insisting that they not be "aware" of their own sexual "identity" until puberty.
Growing up at any time is a difficult process. Psychologists don't yet fully understand how nature and nurture function together, to produce the sense of sexual identity we define as male and female, from one culture to another.
Our biological identity is fixed from conception, and current science doesn't permit us to alter that, except through some violent interdiction. Sex change operations to alter the body don't really change the sex of an individual; they obliterate the obvious traits, but can't make you into something you aren't, physically. Born a boy, you will always be a boy, no matter what you "think" you are psychologically, no matter what you want yourself to be during your life.
In traditional societies of all kinds, deviations* from the standard sexual identities are always rare, because the order required to make society work tends to discourage hybrids (sexual deviants). There is no ethical purity to any stricture regarding proper sexuality, but the recognition of the irreversibility of sexual identity is an acknowledgement of the rigidity of nature's biological format: In nature, there are some instances of sexual "variation" against the bifurcation of sexual reproduction and types, but these are not typical, and they certainly do not occur among the higher mammals.
Those who may wish to challenge traditional stereotyping of male and female sexual types must address the fact of biology, before attempting to address the issue of variant sexuality, and how it might be considered a valid alternative identity in the real world. At what age does sexual identity become templated in the individual? Quite early, of course. By age 5, at least, most children realize they're either boys, or girls, and understand the sexual differences in their bodies.
Sexual identity carries a host of complex associations and biases regarding behavior and capabilities, which are common to any culture. Challenging these, in the interest of breaking down traditional stereotypical roles, or of validating sexual deviations, is one of the minor preoccupations in our modern world. Research tells us that there has always been deviant behavior among individuals, tolerated, to a greater or lesser degree, but often scorned or even actively prevented, even outlawed.
In the West, there has been a trend over the last 75 years, to loosen the restrictions regarding deviant sexuality, and its attendant behaviors, to legitimate variant types and to remove the restrictions, in the interests of tolerance, permissiveness and individual right. This has involved questioning the bases of traditional sexual stereotyping, of de-mythologizing and de-constructing male and female archetypes, to make it appear that the presumptions about male and female identity are not only not hard-wired in all individuals, but that training, as a form of ethnical behavior-enforcement, may no longer be preferable, or even permissible.
Which apparently is how the couples in Canada and Sweden, reported recently in the news, prefer to approach the question. They wish to "withhold" the sexual identity of their children from the world, in order to prevent the psychological imprinting or prejudicial behavioral reinforcement, which treating their children would cause. These parents want to prevent their children from becoming sexually profiled, until some later time, such as early or late adolescence. This, presumably, will permit the children to grow up "neutral" with respect to their sexual identities.
But every child will follow the training they are subjected to. A child raised as a boy, will think of himself as a boy. A child raised as a girl, will tend to think of herself as a girl. Children raised to think of themselves as different than their biological identity, will certainly experience a sense of disequilibrium or contradiction, at some point. But children raised in a sexually "neutral" environment, are being subjected to a state of non-identity which may cause the greatest sense of confusion of all.
Opinion in the scientific community is divided about whether sexual identity is "hard-wired" in the brain, or is the result of training or disposition. Most agree that it is a combination of the two. Some small percentage of people will be born with a sense that they belong to the opposite sex from their biological, physical selves. Some will believe, from a very early age, that their sexual proclivity is against type, and will seek and be gratified in some kind of monosexuality (male homosexuality or lesbianism). This has been verified historically.
Children can't "decide" to become one sex or another, without some kind of training. They may "feel" one thing, but how they are treated is paramount in how they perceive what they are, and what they may become in maturity.
The two cases reported in the news seem extreme examples of one kind of ethical response to sexual stereotyping. These people have become so defensive about the probable harm which can be done to children through stereotypical training, that they've attempted to restrain the traditional training from occurring in their children's lives.
Sects and religious groups and utopian societies in history have often set about to try to live by different codes of conduct, to raise their children in a restricted setting, apart from the rest of the world, because they may believe that the traditional way is wrong, or harmful. The rejection of sexual stereotyping in traditional society may now be encouraging the development of a new kind of involuted social behavior, in which parents choose to wean their children away from thinking about themselves first as sexual beings with specific roles and identities. Is the discouragement of sexual typing among children a good thing? Is it proper for parents to raise their children in an environment of sexual neutrality, even while they (the parents) are living sexual lives which may be completely private, though confirmed in their own minds and hearts? Is there a secret "sub-text" of prejudice which such parents wish to impose on their children, i.e., that mono-sexuality is a valid alternative, one which the children are in effect being encouraged to consider, apart from society's traditional identity-preferences?
Is growing up a process that can, or should, be freed of all prejudice regarding sexual identity? Could any society in which such sexual neutrality was public policy, function? What is the consequence of making sexual identity so "neutralized" that people are literally confused about what their sexual behavior should be? Whose interests are served by fostering an environment of sexually elaborated alternatives?
What are the societal limits of legal intervention in the matter of children in families? How far should society--through legal entities--be allowed to interfere or intercede in the process of the raising of children? Do children "belong" to their parents, until they become legally "adult"? Is it within the purview of government to decide what's best for children, and what should be allowed within the family unit? This has been a hot question for thousands of years. In America, we have sought to balance the demands of individual human rights (of people at any age) against the claims of family, church, citizenship and so forth, with mixed success. Parents may have particular and deep preferences regarding the proper raising of their children. What is society's role in determining what is the proper home environment for children? In democracies, public education, and public health agencies, are deliberately designed to foster the production of educated, healthy, well-balanced, and free, individuals. But is the recognition, or designation, of one's sexual nature (and sexual performance) a part of society's responsibility?
In medical science, we have definitions of normality which are constantly being reexamined and redefined. We now accept that homosexuality is a recognized alternative choice which is not to be treated as a harmful illness or crime. We still have laws against sex with minors, sex with animals, and certain bestial acts, including those involving bodily injury, torture. Certain behaviors are regarded as technically abnormal, which are to be discouraged. Society's attitudes towards what is "normal" and "abnormal" are, however, in a state of flux.
In a state of nature, we know that human groups do engage in many behaviors which are considered inappropriate under civilized conditions. Sex among minors, and between minors and adults, is common in tribal cultures, and it was certainly common among our ancestors, going as far back as we can verify. When the median life-span was less than thirty years, the begetting of children began, out of necessity, at a much younger median age. As culture has developed, and the mean age has increased, we have tended to think that sexual awakening, and sexual activity itself, should be postponed until later. We believe this, I think, partly because we regard sexual maturity as an aspect of responsible knowledge and behavior in a civilized context. To seize the life of an individual at too young an age, we believe, robs that person of some of the time and opportunity to form a whole, individual personality. We think personality is not fully formed until the late 'teens. The right to bear arms in service to country, to engage in permitted sexual acts, and the right to consume alcohol and drive, are all measures of society's regard for the age of reason, the age of consent--in short, the age at which an individual has acquired the necessary consciousness of the consequences of full participation in society.
This is another way of saying that society has ethical rules and assumptions about behavior. To view society's--or government's--role in determining the ethical outcomes of its members, only in terms of legal "rights" which inhere in each separate individual--apart from the consequences of such inviolable "freedoms"--to honor a lower and lower standard of "tolerance"--seems a poor recipe for policy.
Allowing parents to keep the sexes of their children a "secret" until they see fit to "reveal" it to the world is a very peculiar kind of behavior. Should society have a duty to preserve the "rights" of children who may be subjected to various kinds of punitive or damaging control by their families--is a very touchy question indeed. In the interests of protecting the health and welfare of children, society does intervene, within its limits. One way society can enforce its will, in matters relating to the raising of children, is through public education. Another is through public health initiatives. But children may attend private school, or be home-schooled, and the parents may withhold permission for children to participate in inoculations, or medical examinations. The rights of families and parents must be respected and honored too.
Does society have a part to play in directing the progress of sex education and sexual behavior among children, adolescents, as well as adults? We now routinely conduct sex education units in public school, for which permission is still required. Most of the formal barriers to accepted sexual deviations have now been removed, at least in the U.S., Europe and much of the rest of the world; though, important exceptions still exist--for instance, in Muslim countries.
How should we regard the attempt by some families to provide children with a neutral sexual orientation? What are the benefits of doing so? Has anyone thought about this, or tested it? Is making a child feel neither male nor female a good thing? How is it beneficial? Is the real strategy to make children feel that they can "become" anything they want, regardless of what their actual sexual nature is? Is it appropriate to teach children that sexual distinctions are a matter of purely individual choice? Is that an actual alternative for children or adolescents? Or is it more likely that those advocating such settings really want to foster more sexual deviation?
* I'm aware that my use of the core words deviation, or deviance, or deviant may sound prejudiced. However, psychology and psychiatry both still define behavior according to norms of accepted numerical variations: Normal and abnormal is still a reigning distinction in the human sciences. I am not suggesting that someone who "deviates" from the accepted scientific norm is "abnormal" but merely using the word in its classical sense, a departure from the usual, or predominant. Anyone may deviate in behavior--that is not to suggest that this deviation is necessarily evidence of anything wrong or reprehensible. It may simply be different.