Another Moral Panic: Reviewing Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

When I was in high school, around 16, I sat down with my mom and watched an episode of Oprah that she was interested in. The episode was about the sex lives of teenage girls - rainbow parties, blowjobs in the bathrooms during school, bracelets coded to tell others what different types of sex you’d done or were willing to do. Deeply steeped in purity culture as I was, when my mom turned to me and asked if I knew anything about this, I balked and went, “No, of course not.” And it was true; I’d never heard of anything like a rainbow party and coded bracelets.

The “rainbow party” sat in the minds of millennial kids like me - most of us had heard of them, typically from parents asking, but none of us knew people who participated in one. It wasn’t until 15 years later, when Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall debunked the “rainbow party” as a mythos in their podcast You’re Wrong About. Rainbow parties didn’t exist and never did.  Oprah cast it as an “epidemic,” but there was no real evidence that this was happening, that teen girls were “being used” in this way, or that teens were having sex all that more frequently than previous generations. Indeed, looking at it statistically, fewer and fewer teens are experiencing sexual activity early in teenage hood, which largely tells us that “teen sex craze!” is an overblown panic.

Rainbow parties were the moral panic of my generation. Moral panics are an interesting societal phenomenon, where a group of (usually) adults become convinced that there is some force out there harming our young ones - The Media pushing our teen girls to have sex and be anorexic (rather than, y’know, trauma that is maldapted into an eating disorder). The Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the current panic of QAnon and “pedophiles are everywhere and they’re all democrats!” we’re dealing with here in 2020. The moral panic is as old as America - the Salem Witch Trials being one of the first examples of a moral panic destroying a community.

So when I started “Irreversible Damage” by Abigail Shrier, a book about an apparent wave of young women declaring they are trans men, I was a bit surprised to find her positioning the current trans epidemic alongside other moral panics of decades before. After listing a series of moral panics that have gripped the narrative of society over the past centuries - the Salem Witch Trials, hysteria, nervous disorders, multiple personality disorder, anorexia - she says, “One protagonist lead them all, notorious for magnifying and spreading her own psychic pain: the adolescent girl.”

This was my first clue that Shrier doesn’t quite understand the concept of a moral panic. A moral panic is society caught in the throes of a panic over some alleged moral outrage, typically one that doesn’t exist. The Salem Witch Trials are famously mythologized as a moral panic because the town became convinced that their teen girls were cavorting with Satan - they weren’t, but that didn’t matter to the society that felt it had to correct it by sacrificing the lives of teen girls to their panic. The Satanic Panic of the 80s picked up on the same strains, without proof or evidence, propelled on by a largely unethical and likely faked account of repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse in the book Michelle Remembers.

Irreversible Damage is the Michelle Remembers of 2020. It is clearly designed to speak to parents of teenagers who have come out as trans, particularly to parents of children assigned female at birth. These teenagers, Shrier argues, are coping with their ongoing pain of being assigned female, of going through puberty, by deciding it would be easier to escape womanhood altogether and become a man. In true moral panic fashion, Shrier blames iPhones for isolation that causes teens to doubt themselves, Youtube stars for making transition seem like The Answer to everything, the Medical Establishment for making it far too easy for kids to access gender affirming treatments, and school districts for teaching “gender ideology” to kindergartners. This book has it ALL.

The one thing it does not have, however, is the voices of the young teens in question. Told through their parents eyes, we learn of Julie, Meredith, and others, all “beautiful, normal, young women” suddenly grew moody and distant as teenagers, drawn into the Scary Internet, and suddenly, “out of the blue,” declaring that they are boys. While one dad declares himself a failure as he laments his child’s top surgery, the parents are largely unreflective about their own behavior. They behaved as any parent would, baffled by their teens transformation, but also stodgily refusing to adapt to new names, pronouns, and conceptions of themselves. A couple of the parents initially went along with it, hoping that the teen in question would “grow out of it” or that it was a “phase,” only to take back their affirmation when it was clear that the teen was serious.

What I kept coming back to, over and over again, is that the teenagers panicked over in this book do not have any kind of a voice. They aren’t autonomous beings who can make decisions about their lives and know their inner life much better than anyone else. We don’t hear from them about how finding people like them online gave them language for something they’d always experienced. Instead, we hear from parents who say their child was always the picture of femininity, whose image of their “perfect daughter” has been shattered and replaced by a moody teenage boy - though they’ll never admit that their lack of acceptance, their refusal to use the child’s chosen name, their constant nitpicking of the child’s gender presentation might contribute to the moodiness and anger they see.

Instead, in true moral panic fashion, it’s gotta be something Out There. The internet, including trans Youtube stars, paint a picture of transition as a glorious thing and encourage kids to think about their feelings about gender. Shrier breathlessly tells us of how Chase Ross, a trans youtuber who began vlogging in 2006, early in his transition, looks like a man but still wears nail polish as a “nod to his birth gender.” This policing of the gender of trans adults goes on throughout the book, but more on that in a bit.

Shrier also blames schools for teaching kids about “gender ideology” as a mechanism for preventing bullying, when all they ostensibly had to do was punish the bullies. She also blames the medical establishment, which is apparently allowing children as young as twelve access to top surgery and cross-sex hormones (this isn’t happening, no one is giving a thirteen-year-old a double mastectomy). She blames “gender affirming care,” which she argues hamstrings therapists into never questioning their patients’ genders and simply affirming all the way. At one point, she even blames the push for medicare for all and the ACA for ...undermining doctors’ abilities to question their patients and compares the dispensing of hormones to the opioid epidemic.

But trans people who have gone through or are going through these processes will tell you it’s not that easy. A friend of mine has been struggling to get confirmation surgery for a decade now. Another friend in the UK - with access to that allegedly super permissive and fast acting NHS! - has to wait 2-3 years before they will be allowed to get surgery. Trans people coach each other on what to say because at any hint of questioning, many doctors and therapists will ask them to wait until they’re sure or question if they meet diagnostic criteria. Shrier desperately wants to believe that a teenager can declare themselves trans on Tuesday and have hormones and start self-injections by Friday. That’s simply not how it works.

But the reality of trans experience doesn’t seem to matter to Shrier. Despite interviewing several trans adults, she makes sly comments indicating that she believes they, too, are Not Really their gender. Of Buck Angel, controversial trans male porn star, she comments that she sees, when she looks into his eyes, that she’s talking to a woman. (Go look up a picture of Buck Angel. I’ll wait.)

She simultaneously encourages moral panic about teen girls by describing in immense detail the physical effects of taking testosterone to transform an AFAB body to a more masculine one. She seems particularly concerned about vaginal atrophy and the removal of the uterus and ovaries. Teenage fertility is the bogeyman sitting in the background of much of this moral panic - beautiful daughters, cutting off their life-giving breasts, atrophying their vaginas, growing facial hair! They are, Shrier proposes, fleeing womanhood.

For Shrier, this means only one thing: we must encourage young women to embrace womanhood. To tell them that being a woman is not a bad thing! That getting married to a man and having sex with men is okay! ...Yes, you read that right. Over and over again, Shrier cites trans men who suddenly and “out of the blue” became trans in high school using “[they] had a boyfriend in high school!” as evidence that they were a perfectly normal, well-adjusted teen girl. Unfortunately, this repetitive emphasis on boyfriends, marriage, fertility, and breastfeeding end up creating an idea of womanhood where a True Woman is straight, monogamous, and fertile. Far from giving us explorations of what womanhood can be, Shrier narrows it back down to the biological function of breastfeeding and having babies, excluding women who choose not to engage in such activities from the banner of true womanhood.

And this ultimately, reveals the true nature of the moral panic. Beautiful young white women are destroying their fertility, running from their periods, walking away from the chance of biological children. Young white women are destroying their chances at continuing the race, Shrier seems to be arguing, and that should worry parents everywhere.

Nevermind that she didn’t speak to any of the young men involved themselves. She reveals at the end of the book that of the cases she cites - whose parents she spoke to - the vast majority of them have continued living into adulthood as men. 4 of the 6 cases indicate that they still identify as trans men. In the two cases where the person in question went back, it’s fairly clear that they are simply closeted around their parents and have not necessarily returned to an identity as a cis woman.

And this, ultimately, is the problem of the moral panic. Shrier’s argument is that this spate of teens identifying as trans men is simply a mechanism for them to express their pain and control, like anorexia or cutting. It’s all fake and once you deal with the real problem underneath, the behavior should stop. In order to prove that, however, she would need widespread examples of these people desisting from trans identity as they grow into adulthood, that teenagers declaring themselves trans find themselves turning away from it as they get older.

This is largely not the case. Shrier does speak to a couple of desisters who used trans identity as a coping mechanism, but by and large, the people she speaks to who came out “suddenly” as teenagers have persisted in their identities, continuing on to live new lives as the trans men they actually are. Shrier’s panic is simply an invented, elaborate narrative, unsupported by the actual facts, that trans identity is somehow contagious - just as gay people were discriminated against in the 1970s because apparently we were going to teach it to your children.

Teenagers are autonomous beings. Treating them as an extension of the self of the parent is a mistake, no matter who that teenager is - trans, cis, gay, straight. Shrier never allows the voices of trans people to truly break through. They are instead couched in her gender policing, implied that they are not really trans, or silenced altogether as in the case of the six trans teens whose lives form the basis for this book.

I say, if we really want to protect our teenagers, we let them actually be heard.