October 27, 2020

What is the connection between transphobic TERFs and behaviorism?


Over at tumblr guiltyidealist asked me the following question:

Hey! I saw a post of yours that grouped TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] with "behaviorists". Would you mind explaining what behaviorists are in this context? I'm a psych major, so "behaviorism" for me refers to Skinner boxes and shit. 😅

Here's my reply:

Actually, this was a meme originally posted by trans activist and engineer Kelley Winters over at facebook.

The whole text goes like this:

“If gender identities of cisgender children were as eggshell-fragile as behaviorists/TERFs say, the whole world would be trans, and we would be debating whether cisgenderism is a psychopathogy. Hard enough to get kids to bring their dirty plates into the kitchen, let alone control their gender.”

Pavlov’s dogs

The behaviorism of Skinner & Co was based on a view of human beings as stimulus/response machines. The most well known example used to explain behaviorism is, as you probably know,  Pavlov’s dog experiment. 

Pavlov saw that dogs would salivate in response to the food placed in front of them, but he also saw that his dogs would begin to salivate whenever they heard the footsteps of his assistant who was bringing them the food. Pavlov managed to get the dogs to associate the sound of a metronome with food. The metronome would from then on make the dogs salivate, even if they were not presented with food. This is what is referred to as conditioning.

People as programmable machines

Behaviorists ended up believing that nearly all human behaviors were the results of such conditioning. Since these “experts” refused to discuss the inner life of humans  – as feelings and thoughts were thought not to be  scientifically observable and therefor not “real” –  their “therapies”  basically consisted of “reprogramming” patients with new types of associations. 

This led to a lot of unsavory practices, including different types of “conversion therapies” where gay, lesbian and trans people where taught to associate same-sex attraction or gender variance with negative feelings, for instance by giving gay men electric shocks while showing them gay porn.

Given their completely inhumane understanding of what it means to be human, many of these “therapists” ended up as tools of a sexist, homophobic and transphobic society. They became the torturers of cis/het “normalcy”.

Propaganda cannot change your gender identity

As I read the meme, the message is that most TERFs believe in the same kind of reductionistic and simplistic understanding of what makes people who they are. The reason that more trans people are coming out now than before is, as these transphobes see it, because these transgender people have been “conditioned” by the “transgender cult” to believe that they are trans. 

In other words: Trans kids come out as trans not because they want to express a real identity, but because they are positively rewarded by trans activist on tumblr, reddit and YouTube for coming out as trans. This positive conditioning apparently overcomes the negative conditioning from transphobic parents, teachers, friends and media.

This is obviously pure nonsense. No sane person would volunteer to go through all the negative experiences that follows from coming out as trans or enby: The harassment, the invalidation and the marginalization. 

In our societies the stigma attached to being trans is much stronger than any positive feelings the LGBTQA movement may instill in kids today. So even if the behaviorists were right about human learning and personality development, the TERFs would be wrong about their trans propaganda theory.


Skinner was wrong, very wrong

These days most sane psychologists and psychiatrists agree that Skinner was wrong, and that the forces that shape our personalities are much more complex and diverse. Much of what makes us us is also inborn, which is why siblings – undergoing the same social conditioning – may have very different personalities. 

There is also a lot of research that indicates that both sexual orientation and gender identity have strong inborn components. In any case we know that you cannot “cure” same-sex attraction or transgender/nonbinary identities with social conditioning.  

If a trans girl continuously and persistently tell others that she is a girl, it because she is a girl. Her gender identity is a fundamental part of her psyche, and it cannot be altered by way of propaganda or social conditioning.

Coming back to Kelley Winters: If kids were as programmable as the "gender critical" TERFs believe, the current coverage of trans issues would have made all kids trans and doctors would have been busy developing "cures” for cis kids instead. They are not, which proves that the TERF excuse for torturing trans kids is just that: a bad excuse, similar to the ones used to legitimize the hospitalization of free thinking women and the torture og gay men and lesbian women.

Or you could turn this argument upside down: If kids were as programmable as the TERFs believe, there would be no trans and nonbinary people, because their gender variance would have been beaten out of them by TERFs and other transphobes. Yet here they are!


  1. no doubt there is an aspect in social conditioning in all of us but something as primordial as a gender identity is often revealed to us in our earliest memories which removes the likelihood that we are the victims of herd mentality. Conservatives and TERFS adhere to this myth because it serves them as elegant excuse to push their respective agendas. If they allow for the kind of variants that actually exist in human beings and biology in general then it undermines their entire line of argumentation.

  2. Yes, and trans people has been around forever, also in communities where there were no positive role models or understanding peers. They could not find a "herd", yet trans they were.


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