Research Paper: Sex and Gender

Pages: 6 (2064 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Women's Issues - Sexuality  ·  Buy This Paper

¶ … Down There

When most of us think about differences between men and women (or boys and girls) we tend to think first about the biology involved. The physical shape of our bodies -- genitalia mostly, but also the relative breadth of hips and shoulders, the presence or absence of a uterus and the potential to sustain a pregnancy -- helps us sort humans into male and female. Simple as pie. Which is good -- because sorting people by sex is something that is very important to most people. Watch nearly anybody go up to someone holding an infant and the first thing that she or he will ask the parent if the child is a girl or a boy. But why should it matter to anyone what the sex of the baby is? Even if it is easy to tell masculine from feminine.

Except, of course, that it's not. There's nothing at all simple about the differences that exist between men and women because the biological differences between the sexes are only the beginning of the overall difference. (And even the biology itself can be ambiguous at times: Intersex individuals and others whose DNA is different from the most common XX or XY can be ambiguous in terms of appearance.) Much of what gives us our gender identity -- as opposed to what we might call our sexual classification -- derives not from biology (or at not from genetics) but from the social and cultural values that give shape to each person's life. Because of this latter fact, the sociologist (along with the anthropologist and the social psychologist) is ideally qualified to help us understand what distinguishes the male from the female and why there are more differences among men and women than between them. Doctors and physiologists are of far less use in determining gender than one might have suspected.

One of the most longstanding, most intense (and ultimately most frustrating) questions within the social sciences is that of "nature-versus-nurture" -- or how much we come into the world with and how much that birthright is shaped by our experiences ex-utero. This is frustrating because, of course, there is simply no way to determine what we begin with in terms of understanding our gender and having a sense of self: Infants are very poor reporters about their internal states. Moreover, phrasing the question as one of a binary choice between nature and nuture suggests that the two do not interact with each other rather than the reality, which is that they continuously affect, alter, or reinforce each other in an iterative fashion.

The area of sex and gender is one in which this debate (of nature and nurture) is especially fierce. This is true currently not primarily because of any discussion or disagreement about the nature of sex differences but rather because of the debate over same-sex marriage. One of the arguments that many proponents about same-sex marriage make is that sexual orientation is biological, something that results either from genetics, from biological conditions in utero, or from some interaction among genetics, biology, and other factors. If we accept this to be the case (and I do), then it is important to acknowledge that there are clear genetic/biological elements to gender identity and gender orientation -- in addition to the physical shape of people's bodies. Thus, while I am arguing here that gender is primarily socially and culturally constructed, I am not disregarding the fact that biology has no small part in identity.

While I am discussing the issue of sexual orientation, I would like to note that one of the ways in which men and women are both like each other (and highly variable within each sex) is that of sexual orientation. Very few men and women are purely heterosexual or purely homosexual. Rather most women and most men fall somewhere between these two poles. In this way a woman who is wholly homosexual is more like a man who is wholly homosexual than she is like a woman who is wholly heterosexual. The graph below

"http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/resources/images/rating-scale.jpg" d?

demonstrates the way in which sexual orientation plays out. Men and women can equally be graphed in each sector, and those in each sector are highly similar to each other, regardless of sex (Ross, 1983, p. 28). Likewise, those of the same sex can be very different from each other depending where they fall on this scale of sexual orientation.

But while there is an important biological element to gender, the majority of what creates a sense of gender identity (that is, what makes us identify and understand what "masculine" and "feminine" are and provides us with the psychological and social tools that allow us to act the way society expects us to) come about through several key areas: Our families and home environments, religious institutions (in some cases), schools, mass media, and what we might call simply society or culture.

From infancy, our culture teaches what it means to be a boy or a girl. From the colour of clothes to the toys we play with, the messages begin at a very early age. Young people are influenced by a barrage of messages to conform to a variety of expectations, to buy this widget, and to preserve a rigid set of values that stress the differences between genders (Learning Gender Stereotypes, n.d.)

Because I think that it has the most influence of all (simply because of the amount of time we spend at home and the fact that we are exposed primarily to our families when we are developmentally at our most receptive -- or vulnerable I will focus on the family of origin and the early home environment, including toys. Anyone who has spent some time with small children knows that there is a great deal of pressure on parents to give their children the "right toys." This is (I believe) generally true more for boys than for girls.

A relevant anecdote here. A few weeks ago I was in a Target store and heard a man talking to a woman -- I assume his wife -- who was carrying an infant. She had a package of pacifiers in her hand and the man was saying, "You get him anything that isn't blue and I swear to God if he turns out to be a fag then I'll kill you." I wanted to kidnap the child.

Many parents are adamant about dressing girls in pink (and handing them only dolls to play with) and boys in blue (and giving them only cars and guns). Parents who raise their children like this tend to make the argument that they are not forcing their children into gender roles, but rather that they are simply catering to the inherent gender self-identity of their children. This is perhaps most commonly seen in the way that parents dismiss the bad behavior of their sons with the phrase, "Oh, boys will be boys." True -- but the kind of thing that a boy is in large measure what his parents make him. Boys -- like girls -- are the creations of their cultures.

We can see this dynamic in the study performed by Condry and Condry. (The study was performed in 1976, but I believe it remains valid today. It is certainly a powerful study.) They asked a group of subjects to observe the behavior of a group of nine-month-old babies (who were dressed so that the observers could not determine the sex of the baby). After a few minutes, the babies were scared by a Jack-in-the-box leaping out at them. When observers were told that the infants were boys, the subjects described the infants as being angry. Then the next group of observers was brought in and asked to observe the same infants who were then scared (again!) by the Jack-in-the-box. This time, told that the infants were girls, the research subjects described the infants as being fearful.

Bland (1998) summarizes the cumulative effects of this kind of reinforcement from the outside world on the growing child's sense of self, including her or his sense of what her or his own gender should do.

The suggestion is, that boys may react with anger, and girls with fear, because we expect them to. All through our lives we tend to behave to match the attributions people make from social stereotypes because, to behave untypically, sets us apart. We are unconsciously behaving how we are expected to. To do otherwise, puzzles and alarms people. In effect, we are merging with, and adapting to our environment. Otherwise we run the risk of being labelled eccentric unless, of course, we are able to make a virtue of it (Bland, 1998).

If we accept the above as an accurate description (and I do), then it should be clear why sociologists and anthropologists can provide us with the most accurate analytical tools to use to understand how gender is constructed and made meaningful. If gender is learned… [END OF PREVIEW]

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