I am a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. I have been a professor for 34 years, and a researcher for 40. Over the decades, I have studied controversial topics—from IQ, to sexual orientation, to transsexualism (what we called transgenderism before 2015), to pedophilia. I have published well over 100 academic articles. I am best known for studying sexual orientation—from genetic influences, to childhood precursors of homosexuality, to laboratory-measured sexual arousal patterns.
But I have never had an article retracted. Until now.
On March 29, I published an article in the prestigious academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. Less than three months later, on June 14, it was retracted by Springer Nature Group, the giant academic publisher of Archives, for an alleged violation of its editorial policies.
Retraction of scientific articles is associated with well-deserved shame: plagiarism, making up data, or grave concerns about the scientific integrity of a study. But my article was not retracted for any shameful reason. It was retracted because it provided evidence for an idea that activists hate.
The retracted article, “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases,” was coauthored with Suzanna Diaz, who I met in 2018 at a small meeting of scientists, journalists, and parents of children they believed had Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD).
ROGD was first described in the literature in 2018 by the physician and researcher Lisa Littman. It is an explanation of the new phenomenon of adolescents, largely girls, with no history of gender dysphoria, suddenly declaring they want to transition to the opposite sex. It has been a highly contentious diagnosis, with some—and I am one—thinking it’s an important avenue for scientific inquiry, and others declaring it’s a false idea advocated by parents unable to accept they have a transgender child.
I believed that ROGD was a promising explanation of the explosion of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls because these young people do not have gender dysphoria as usually understood. Until recently, females treated for gender dysphoria were masculine-presenting girls who had hated being female since early childhood. By contrast, girls with ROGD are often conventionally feminine, but tend to have other social and emotional issues. The theory behind ROGD is that through social contagion from friends, social media, and even school, vulnerable girls are exposed to the idea that their normal adolescent angst is the result of an underlying transgender identity. These girls then suddenly declare that they are transgender. That is the rapid onset. After the declaration, the girls may desire—and receive—drastic medical interventions including mastectomies and testosterone injections.
There is ample evidence that in progressive communities, multiple girls from the same peer group are announcing they are trans almost simultaneously. There has been a sharp increase in this phenomenon across the industrialized West. A recent review from the UK, which keeps better records than America, showed a greater than tenfold increase in referrals of adolescent girls during just the past decade.
But there have been virtually no scientific data or studies on the subject.
In part that is because researchers who have touched this topic have been punished for their curiosity. Just ask Lisa Littman. Ultimately, her paper on the subject resulted in an unnecessary “correction” by the journal that published it, and the loss of Littman’s academic affiliation with Brown University, which prioritized activist outrage over Littman’s academic freedom.
This explains why my coauthor, “Suzanna Diaz,” doesn’t go by her real name. I don’t even know it, despite having met her in person once and spoken with her many times. She uses a pseudonym to protect her family, especially her daughter, whom Suzanna believes has ROGD. Suzanna isn’t an academic. She is a mother who has become an activist to raise awareness about this phenomenon, including by creating an online survey for parents who believed their children had ROGD. The survey was hosted by the website ParentsOfROGDKids.com. I was impressed with her findings and we decided to collaborate.
Although it is unusual for an academic to collaborate with someone who is anonymous, I decided to do so for two reasons. First, I understood why Suzanna felt she needed to keep her identity private. Second, at all stages of our collaboration, I was able to confirm that the work she had done was well-informed, careful, and reliable.
It’s not entirely unusual that a parent like Suzanna would take on this kind of role. Increasing awareness about ROGD is largely attributable to parents with daughters claiming to be sons. Desperate for sound medical advice, they find themselves confronted with a medical establishment that has come to prioritize surgical and hormonal intervention over traditional psychotherapy that seeks to resolve the feelings of distress.
Our article was based on parent reports of 1,655 adolescent and young adult children. Three-fourths of them were female. Emotional problems were common among this group, especially anxiety and depression, which many parents said preceded gender issues by years. Most of these young people had taken steps to socially transition, including changing their pronouns, dress, and identity to the other sex (or in some cases, to neither sex). Parents observed that after their children socially transitioned, their mental health deteriorated. A small number—seven percent of those whose parents answered Suzanna’s survey—had received medical transition treatment, including drugs to block puberty, or cross-sex hormones.
Disturbingly, those young people with more emotional problems were especially likely to have socially and medically transitioned. The best predictor of both social and medical transition was a referral to a gender specialist. Some 52 percent of parents in our study who had received a referral said they felt pressured by the gender specialist to facilitate some sort of transition for their child.
Our study had two obvious limitations: the way we recruited parents guaranteed that only those who believed their children had ROGD would participate, and we had only the parents’ perspectives. We clearly acknowledged and discussed these in our paper, beginning with the words “At least two related issues potentially limit this research” followed by three paragraphs laying out the limitations.
But when parents are worried about their adolescent children, there is usually a good reason. And these were not parents with a political ax to grind: with few exceptions, all of the parents we surveyed were progressive.
Our article was published to a fair amount of attention. It was covered positively by the conservative press and also was retweeted widely both by families and others concerned about ROGD. But from the start, it got negative attention from trans activists and their political allies.
Almost immediately these activists began to lobby both the publisher of Archives of Sexual Behavior (Springer Nature Group) and the organization affiliated with the journal (International Academy of Sex Research, or IASR) to retract the article and to punish the editor of Archives, psychologist Kenneth Zucker, because he had published our work.
On May 5, a group of 100 academic activists and gender clinicians published an online Open Letter expressing “ethical” and “editorial concerns” about the journal and “serious concerns over research ethics and intellectual integrity” of our article. This was a pretext for their real complaint: dislike of certain ideas and the people responsible for them. That is clear from the open letter, which focuses less on our article and more on Ken Zucker.
Zucker is a giant figure in academic sex research, and especially the science of gender dysphoria. He helped found the Family Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto, one of the first international centers for the study and treatment of childhood and adolescent gender dysphoria. He was chosen by the American Psychiatric Association to chair the working group on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders for the 2012 revision of its diagnostic manual, known as the DSM. Since 2002, he has edited Archives of Sexual Behavior, the most important academic journal covering research on sexuality, sex differences, and gender dysphoria.
But Zucker has also become a target of activist ire. That’s because he believes that gender dysphoria is a problem that should be treated, if possible, with psychotherapy to prevent transition rather than drugs and surgery to facilitate transition. Zucker’s most zealous critics accuse him of promoting “conversion therapy,” but this is incorrect. Conversion therapy is a religiously motivated attempt to change sexual orientation; it doesn’t work. Gender dysphoria, unlike sexual orientation, can change.
Zucker—like many others—wants to help youth avoid the psychosocial upheaval associated with gender transition and a lifetime of potentially unnecessary medical treatment. His position was almost universal until the past few years. The fact that it has become verboten is the result of a powerful activist movement that has been astonishing both in its effectiveness and its lack of scientific evidence.
Debate is essential to good science, but that is not what these activists want. They seek surrender. And that is what they got.
On May 23, we received an email from Springer informing us that they were retracting our article. The ostensible reason:
The Publisher and the Editor-in-Chief have retracted this article due to noncompliance with our editorial policies around consent. The participants of the survey have not provided written informed consent to participate in scholarly research or to have their responses published in a peer reviewed article. Additionally, they have not provided consent to publish to have their data included in this article. Table 1 and the Supplementary material have therefore been removed to protect the participants’ privacy.
We appealed after consulting a lawyer, but Springer retracted our paper on June 14.
Springer’s reasoning was preposterous and simply an excuse to retract an article they wanted to go away in order to stop the controversy. Springer accused us of not obtaining informed consent from the parents in our study. There are two aspects to informed consent in research: you should understand what you’re being asked to do, including any substantial risks and benefits, and you should be able to opt out. All parents completing Suzanna’s survey knew they were being asked questions about their children’s ROGD, and they decided to answer. Parents were promised privacy of personal information, and they got it.
Springer’s additional complaint was that we did not have consent to publish survey results. This is plain wrong. We did inform participants that we would publish their data. At the end of the survey participants were told: “We will publish our data on our website when we have a large enough sample. . . ”
We are outraged and disappointed that our article was retracted. But the belief that activists have won and science has lost is mostly wrong. Our article’s retraction has inadvertently resulted in a triumph for truth and reason.
The campaign against our article, from the open letter to the final retraction, has generated immense publicity by academic standards, so far largely favorable. Our academic article has been viewed online more than 100,000 times in not quite three months, an astonishing number for an article of this nature. This reflects a thirst for knowledge about this important subject.
Speaking for myself, this episode has guaranteed that I will study ROGD until we understand it.
That’s why I am about to launch a large, long-term survey of adolescent gender dysphoria, in collaboration with Lisa Littman and Ken Zucker. We will survey both gender-dysphoric adolescents and their parents, following them for at least five years. Among other things, we’ll have better information about adolescents’ early gender dysphoria, mental health, and sexuality; about parents’ attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs; and about the correspondence between adolescents’ and parents’ accounts of the same phenomena.
I guarantee two things. First, it will be a huge, important study with the potential to establish the validity of ROGD. (And if ROGD is an incorrect idea, we will show and publish this.) Second, between the three of us—Littman, Zucker, and me, three previously cancelled scientists who are among the world’s foremost experts in what we are studying—we don’t have a chance in hell of receiving government funding for this project.
We’ll do it anyway. (You can help if you want.)
Censors have tried to stop scientific progress before. Now, as then, the pursuit of truth requires scientists and researchers who refuse to cow to puritans, ideologues and activists.
If you want to read more about the threat to scientific inquiry, we recommend this important paper by Jerry A. Coyne and Luana S. Maroja.
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