Gender and Sexuality in sociology

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12 Gender, Sex, and
Figure 12.1 Some children may learn at an early age that their gender does not correspond with their sex. (Photo courtesy of Rajesh Kumar/
Learning Objectives
12.1. Sex and Gender
• Define and differentiate between sex and gender
• Define and discuss what is meant by gender identity
• Understand and discuss the role of homophobia and heterosexism in society
• Distinguish the meanings of transgender, transsexual, and homosexual identities
12.2. Gender
• Explain the influence of socialization on gender roles in the United States
• Understand the stratification of gender in major American institutions
• Describe gender from the view of each sociological perspective
12.3. Sex and Sexuality
• Understand different attitudes associated with sex and sexuality
• Define sexual inequality in various societies
• Discuss theoretical perspectives on sex and sexuality
Chapter 12 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality 251
Introduction to Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
In 2009, the eighteen-year old South African athlete, Caster Semenya, won the women’s 800-meter
world championship in
Track and Field. Her time of 1:55:45, a surprising improvement from her 2008 time of 2:08:00,
caused officials from the
International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF) to question whether her win was
legitimate. If this questioning
were based on suspicion of steroid use, the case would be no different from that of Roger Clemens
or Mark McGuire, or
even Track and Field Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones. But the questioning and eventual
testing were based on
allegations that Caster Semenya, no matter what gender identity she possessed, was biologically a
You may be thinking that distinguishing biological maleness from biological femaleness is surely a
simple matter—just
conduct some DNA or hormonal testing, throw in a physical examination, and you’ll have the
answer. But it is not that
simple. Both biologically male and biologically female people produce a certain amount of
testosterone, and different
laboratories have different testing methods, which makes it difficult to set a specific threshold
for the amount of male
hormones produced by a female that renders her sex male. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)
criteria for
determining eligibility for sex-specific events are not intended to determine biological sex. “
Instead these regulations are
designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason
of hormonal characteristics)
to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games” in the female category (International Olympic Committee
To provide further context, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight female athletes with XY
chromosomes underwent
testing and were ultimately confirmed as eligible to compete as women (Maugh 2009). To date, no
males have undergone
this sort of testing. Doesn’t that imply that when women perform better than expected, they are
“too masculine,” but when
men perform well they are simply superior athletes? Can you imagine Usain Bolt, the world’s
fastest man, being examined
by doctors to prove he was biologically male based solely on his appearance and athletic ability?
Can you explain how sex, sexuality, and gender are different from each other?
In this chapter, we will discuss the differences between sex and gender, along with issues like
gender identity and
sexuality. We will also explore various theoretical perspectives on the subjects of gender and
sexuality, including the social
construction of sexuality and queer theory.
12.1 Sex and Gender
Figure 12.2 While the biological differences between males and females are fairly straightforward, the social and cultural aspects of being a man
or woman can be complicated. (Photo courtesy of FaceMePLS/flickr)
When filling out a document such as a job application or school registration form you are often
asked to provide your
name, address, phone number, birth date, and sex or gender. But have you ever been asked to
provide your sex and your
gender? Like most people, you may not have realized that sex and gender are not the same. However,
sociologists and
most other social scientists view them as conceptually distinct. Sex refers to physical or
physiological differences between
males and females, including both primary sex characteristics (the reproductive system) and
secondary characteristics such
as height and muscularity. Gender refers to behaviors, personal traits, and social positions that
society attributes to being
female or male.
A person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with his or her
gender. Therefore, the
terms sex and gender are not interchangeable. A baby boy who is born with male genitalia will be
identified as male. As he
grows, however, he may identify with the feminine aspects of his culture. Since the term sex refers
to biological or
physical distinctions, characteristics of sex will not vary significantly between different human
societies. Generally,
252 Chapter 12 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
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Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate
persons of the female sex, regardless of culture, will eventually menstruate and develop breasts
that can lactate.
Characteristics of gender, on the other hand, may vary greatly between different societies. For
example, in U.S. culture, it
is considered feminine (or a trait of the female gender) to wear a dress or skirt. However, in
many Middle Eastern, Asian,
and African cultures, dresses or skirts (often referred to as sarongs, robes, or gowns) are
considered masculine. The kilt
worn by a Scottish male does not make him appear feminine in his culture.
The dichotomous view of gender (the notion that someone is either male or female) is specific to
certain cultures and is not
universal. In some cultures gender is viewed as fluid. In the past, some anthropologists used the
term berdache to refer to
individuals who occasionally or permanently dressed and lived as a different gender. The practice
has been noted among
certain Native American tribes (Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang 1997). Samoan culture accepts what
Samoans refer to as a
“third gender.” Fa’afafine, which translates as “the way of the woman,” is a term used to
describe individuals who are
born biologically male but embody both masculine and feminine traits. Fa’afafines are considered
an important part of
Samoan culture. Individuals from other cultures may mislabel them as homosexuals because fa’
afafines have a varied
sexual life that may include men and women (Poasa 1992).
The Legalese of Sex and Gender
The terms sex and gender have not always been differentiated in the English language. It was not
until the 1950s that
U.S. and British psychologists and other professionals working with intersex and transsexual
patients formally began
distinguishing between sex and gender. Since then, psychological and physiological professionals
have increasingly
used the term gender (Moi 2005). By the end of the twenty-first century, expanding the proper
usage of the term
gender to everyday language became more challenging—particularly where legal language is concerned.
In an effort
to clarify usage of the terms sex and gender, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a
1994 briefing,
“The word gender has acquired the new and useful connotation of cultural or attitudinal
characteristics (as opposed to
physical characteristics) distinctive to the sexes. That is to say, gender is to sex as feminine
is to female and
masculine is to male” (J.E.B. v. Alabama, 144 S. Ct. 1436 [1994]). Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader
Ginsburg had a
different take, however. Viewing the words as synonymous, she freely swapped them in her briefings
so as to avoid
having the word “sex” pop up too often. It is thought that her secretary supported this practice
by suggestions to
Ginsberg that “those nine men” (the other Supreme Court justices), “hear that word and their
first association is not
the way you want them to be thinking” (Case 1995). This anecdote reveals that both sex and gender
are actually
socially defined variables whose definitions change over time.
Sexual Orientation
A person’s sexual orientation is his or her physical, mental, emotional, and sexual attraction to a
particular sex (male or
female). Sexual orientation is typically divided into four categories: heterosexuality, the
attraction to individuals of the
other sex; homosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the same sex; bisexuality, the attraction
to individuals of either
sex; and asexuality, no attraction to either sex. Heterosexuals and homosexuals may also be referred
to informally as
“straight” and “gay,” respectively. The United States is a heteronormative society, meaning it
assumes sexual orientation
is biologically determined and unambiguous. Consider that homosexuals are often asked, “When did
you know you were
gay?” but heterosexuals are rarely asked, “When did you know that you were straight?” (Ryle
According to current scientific understanding, individuals are usually aware of their sexual
orientation between middle
childhood and early adolescence (American Psychological Association 2008). They do not have to
participate in sexual
activity to be aware of these emotional, romantic, and physical attractions; people can be
celibate and still recognize their
sexual orientation. Homosexual women (also referred to as lesbians), homosexual men (also referred
to as gays), and
bisexuals of both genders may have very different experiences of discovering and accepting their
sexual orientation. At the
point of puberty, some may be able to announce their sexual orientations, while others may be
unready or unwilling to
make their homosexuality or bisexuality known since it goes against U.S. society’s historical
norms (APA 2008).
Alfred Kinsey was among the first to conceptualize sexuality as a continuum rather than a strict
dichotomy of gay or
straight. He created a six-point rating scale that ranges from exclusively heterosexual to
exclusively homosexual. See the
figure below. In his 1948 work Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey writes, “Males do not
represent two discrete
populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats …
The living world is a
continuum in each and every one of its aspects” (Kinsey 1948).
Chapter 12 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality 253
Figure 12.3 The Kinsey scale indicates that sexuality can be measured by more than just heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Later scholarship by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick expanded on Kinsey’s notions. She coined the term “
homosocial” to oppose
“homosexual,” describing nonsexual same-sex relations. Sedgwick recognized that in U.S. culture,
males are subject to a
clear divide between the two sides of this continuum, whereas females enjoy more fluidity. This
can be illustrated by the
way women in the United States can express homosocial feelings (nonsexual regard for people of the
same sex) through
hugging, handholding, and physical closeness. In contrast, U.S. males refrain from these
expressions since they violate the
heteronormative expectation that male sexual attraction should be exclusively for females.
Research suggests that it is
easier for women violate these norms than men, because men are subject to more social disapproval
for being physically
close to other men (Sedgwick 1985).
There is no scientific consensus regarding the exact reasons why an individual holds a
heterosexual, homosexual, or
bisexual orientation. Research has been conducted to study the possible genetic, hormonal,
developmental, social, and
cultural influences on sexual orientation, but there has been no evidence that links sexual
orientation to one factor (APA
2008). Research, however, does present evidence showing that homosexuals and bisexuals are treated
differently than
heterosexuals in schools, the workplace, and the military. In 2011, for example, Sears and Mallory
used General Social
Survey data from 2008 to show that 27 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) respondents reported
experiencing sexual
orientation-based discrimination during the five years prior to the survey. Further, 38 percent of
openly LGB people
experienced discrimination during the same time.
Much of this discrimination is based on stereotypes and misinformation. Some is based on
heterosexism, which Herek
(1990) suggests is both an ideology and a set of institutional practices that privilege
heterosexuals and heterosexuality over
other sexual orientations. Much like racism and sexism, heterosexism is a systematic disadvantage
embedded in our social
institutions, offering power to those who conform to hetereosexual orientation while
simultaneously disadvantaging those
who do not. Homophobia, an extreme or irrational aversion to homosexuals, accounts for further
stereotyping and
discrimination. Major policies to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation have not come
into effect until the last
few years. In 2011, President Obama overturned “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a controversial policy
that required homosexuals
in the US military to keep their sexuality undisclosed. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which
ensures workplace
equality regardless of sexual orientation, is still pending full government approval.
Organizations such as GLAAD (Gay &
Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) advocate for homosexual rights and encourage governments and
citizens to
recognize the presence of sexual discrimination and work to prevent it. Other advocacy agencies
frequently use the
acronyms LBGT and LBGTQ, which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” (and “Queer”
or “Questioning”
when the Q is added).
Sociologically, it is clear that gay and lesbian couples are negatively affected in states where
they are denied the legal right
to marriage. In 1996, The Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA) was passed, explicitly limiting the
definition of “marriage”
to a union between one man and one woman. It also allowed individual states to choose whether or
not they recognized
same-sex marriages performed in other states. Imagine that you married an opposite-sex partner
under similar
conditions—if you went on a cross-country vacation the validity of your marriage would change
every time you crossed
state lines. In another blow to same-sex marriage advocates, in November 2008 California passed
Proposition 8, a state
law that limited marriage to unions of opposite-sex partners.
Over time, advocates for same-sex marriage have won several court cases, laying the groundwork for
legalized same-sex
marriage across the United States, including the June 2013 decision to overturn part of DOMA in
Windsor v. United States,
and the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Hollingsworth v. Perry, affirming the August 2010 ruling that
found California’s
Proposition 8 unconstitutional. In October 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals
to rulings against samesex
marriage bans, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia,
and Wisconsin,
254 Chapter 12 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
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Colorado, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming (Freedom to Marry, Inc. 2014). Same-sex
marriage is now legal
across most of the United States. The next few years will determine whether the right to same-sex
marriage is affirmed,
depending on whether the U.S. Supreme Court takes a judicial step to guarantee the freedom to
marry as a civil right.
Gender Roles
As we grow, we learn how to behave from those around us. In this socialization process, children
are introduced to certain
roles that are typically linked to their biological sex. The term gender role refers to society’s
concept of how men and
women are expected to look and how they should behave. These roles are based on norms, or
standards, created by society.
In U.S. culture, masculine roles are usually associated with strength, aggression, and dominance,
while feminine roles are
usually associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination. Role learning starts with
socialization at birth. Even today,
our society is quick to outfit male infants in blue and girls in pink, even applying these colorcoded gender labels while a
baby is in the womb.
One way children learn gender roles is through play. Parents typically supply boys with trucks,
toy guns, and superhero
paraphernalia, which are active toys that promote motor skills, aggression, and solitary play.
Daughters are often given
dolls and dress-up apparel that foster nurturing, social proximity, and role play. Studies have
shown that children will most
likely choose to play with “gender appropriate” toys (or same-gender toys) even when crossgender toys are available
because parents give children positive feedback (in the form of praise, involvement, and physical
closeness) for gender
normative behavior (Caldera, Huston, and O’Brien 1998).
Figure 12.4 Fathers tend to be more involved when their sons engage in gender-appropriate activities such as sports. (Photo courtesy of Shawn
The drive to adhere to masculine and feminine gender roles continues later in life. Men tend to
outnumber women in
professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics. Women tend to outnumber men in
care-related occupations
such as childcare, healthcare (even though the term “doctor” still conjures the image of a man),
and social work. These
occupational roles are examples of typical U.S. male and female behavior, derived from our culture
’s traditions.
Adherence to them demonstrates fulfillment of social expectations but not necessarily personal
preference (Diamond
Gender Identity
U.S. society allows for some level of flexibility when it comes to acting out gender roles. To a
certain extent, men can
assume some feminine roles and women can assume some masculine roles without interfering with
their gender identity.
Gender identity is a person’s deeply held internal perception of his or her gender.
Individuals who identify with the role that is the different from their biological sex are called
transgender. Transgender is
not the same as homosexual, and many homosexual males view both their sex and gender as male.
Transgender males are
males who have such a strong emotional and psychological connection to the feminine aspects of
society that they identify
their gender as female. The parallel connection to masculinity exists for transgender females. It
is difficult to determine the
prevalence of transgenderism in society. However, it is estimated that two to five percent of the
U.S. population is
transgender (Transgender Law and Policy Institute 2007).
Transgender individuals who attempt to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as
surgery and hormonal
therapy—so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity—are called transsexuals.
They may also be
known as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM). Not all transgender individuals choose to
alter their bodies:
Chapter 12 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality 255
Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World
many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as another gender.
This is typically done
by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristic typically assigned to
another gender. It is important to
note that people who cross-dress, or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to a gender
different from their biological
sex, are not necessarily transgender. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression,
entertainment, or personal style,
and it is not necessarily an expression …
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