Gender socialization is the way society shapes our sexual attitudes and behavior through various mechanisms, it defines the roles that we as males or females in society are expected to play.
According to Ann Oakley, who first introduced the terms, sex refers to the biological divisions into being male or female while gender reflects the parallel and socially unequal division into being feminine or masculine (Sex, Gender and Society 1972). Sex is therefore can be seen as the biological constructed aspect of differences between men and women. As oppose to sex, gender can be seen as the socially constructed knowledge, values and practices linked to sex based differences mostly by the process of socialization. The term gender has been extended since than and not only reflects the individual identity and personality but also, at the symbolic level, to cultural ideals and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.
Gender roles are the societal expectations attached to being male and female. Through gender role socialization, a person is introduced and taught the behaviors expected to be played by them. The home often called ‘gender factory’ by some sociologists, reproduces society’s traditional gender roles through parental reinforcement (Appelbaum and Chambliss, 223). From birth to death, males and females are constructed to act according to society’s mold of gender identity. Parents describe their newborns with adjectives pertaining to traditional gender roles. Newborn girls are described as “tiny, soft, delicate, and fine-featured,” while newborn boys are described as “strong, alert, and well coordinate” (223). Even during breast-feeding gender divides, males are treated rougher and given more milk while females are treated delicately and given less.
This can best be illustrated by an experiment to show how gender stereotyping enters almost every part of an infant since the day he or she was born. The experiment better known as the Sussex experiment tried to unveil how people perceive the way an infant either a male a female should act. Infants dressed in blue were quickly thought to be male while infants dressed in pink were treated as female. Therefore gender stereotypes can be defined as one-sided and exaggerated images of men and women which are deployed in every day life.
Similarly, in the old days and even in some societies today, women’s place was regarded to be in the home while men are expected to be the bread winner for the family. But there is no permanent and definite framework on how men and women should behave. Such definitions vary from one society to another. For example the study conducted by Margaret Mead in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). In some of the tribes in which she had visited women were place in a higher status than men. They were regarded as the bread winner, hold important positions in the tribe and even made important decisions. Contradict to this, men were placed in lower positions and even played the role as ‘housewives’.
The roles and behaviors expected to be played by both sexes also change over-time. For example, the roles played by women in ancient Greek and Roman were limited. Women were portrayed as submissive and inferior. They did not hold any important positions in society. Most of them only played the roles of mother and housewife. Women nowadays are more aggressive and in some areas are more dominant than men.
Women during the Victorian era, were expected to be grace and beauty was signified by having small waist. They were forced to wear corset to get the shape considered to be beautiful.
Sexuality is defined as the sexual feelings and drives as well as the sexual practices common to a society. There is some debate on whether sexuality is innate or learned. To answer this question sociologists have come out with four main approaches: psychobiological, psychoanalytic, learning and sociological.
Sociobiology is the study of human behaviors on the basis that they are not learned instead determined by the biological aspects. In other words, human behaviors are innate. They believed that certain sexual behavior emerge through the process of evolution. These behaviors emerged and are maintained simply because they have been chosen through evolutionary means as the most advantageous features to maintain the survival of human being. Therefore sexual behaviors, whether they show feminity or masculinity are genetically programmed.
Sociobiology’s version of sexuality has been criticized for ignoring other factors that may contribute to the development sexual behavior such as surroundings, society’s expectation, norms and culture.
In psychoanalytic approach, human sexual behaviors are both determined biologically and culturally. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic approach asserted that human sexual behavior is determined by three factors, the id, the ego and the superego.
The id exist after an infant is born shapes the characteristic of the baby before he or she came into interaction with the outside world. The ego is the next stage of human development. In this stage a person will come into contact with external forces and this will influence the direction, whether he or she will adopt a feminine or masculine behavior. As the superego develops, the person will learn the norm and values of society. He/she will discover what the society expected from him/her. By learning the expected ways of society, the moral conscience of the person will develop. He/she will be able to distinguish what the society perceived as right and wrong.
Freud held that sexual experiences will influence adult sexual behavior and personality. A girl, raised among boys will develop a masculine-like behavior. Though it may change overtime, the sexual experiences faced by the girl will have a deep impact on his adult behavior and personality.
Freud has been criticized for his over-emphasis view on biological factor as the determinant of one’s sexual behavior. Though he did say that sexual behavior may be cause by the process of socialization, Freud personally agreed that the biological factors play a greater role in determining one’s behavior than culture.
He has also been criticized for only conducting most part of his experiment using mentally disturbed patients. His views stem from therapies with these patients.
He has also being criticized for being bias in his work. He made an implicit assumption that women are biologically inferior.
The learning approaches have a different view on how sexuality is developed. According to the advocates of these approaches much of sexuality is innate that is based on the cultural aspects rather than biologically. These approaches went further by identifying the process of self-identification and imitation. These approaches portrayed individuals as a reactor to society, neglecting the fact that he or she may also be an actor who constantly makes decisions to change society.
These approaches have been criticized for treating individuals like puppet on the string. Individuals have no choice to make decisions, everything has been set up for them by the society. Their actions must be in line with the social expectation or they will be punished.
In contrast with the earlier approaches, the Symbolic Interactionism based their theory on the assumption that individuals as social actors make have their own opportunity to make decision. They have the choice on which path they want to take.
According to symbolic interactionism, sexual behavior is the result of individuals constantly engaging in interaction and communication with others. We attach sexual meaning to behavior and ourselves by observing others and their reactions on certain stimuli and labels to our behavior. By interacting with each other, we learn to play specific roles and as the result of constantly involving in these roles we learn a series of ‘scripts’. These scripts help us to define sexual behavior. For example, the specific script for a woman and a doctor at a gynecological exam. The script or the roles played by the two social actors do not give any sexual meaning or sexual assault in situation in which the doctor has to check the woman breast and genitalia.
Symbolic interactionism has been criticized for not being able to explain adequately spontaneous sexual behavior and sexual behavior that occurs in ambiguous situations.
It has also failed to explain the situation in which two or more individuals with different sets of scripts engage and interact with each other. Differences in sexual scripts is often given as the reason for date rape where on person defines it as sexual and the other does not.
Functionalism believed that the disruption is sexuality, on how male and female should behave will lead to society to fall apart and social stability unachieved. Therefore, through the norms, values, laws and beliefs sexual behavior is regulated. Functionalists study the effect of regulations on sexuality and its contribution in the maintenance of society.
Functionalism has also been criticized for putting to much emphasis on the culturally aspects that determine social behavior and ignoring the fact that some sexual drives may be innate.
Ann Oakley outlines how socialization in modern societies shapes the behavior of boys and girls from an early age. Basing her work on the findings of Ruth Hartley, Oakley discusses four main ways in which socialization influences gender roles. The first way is by the process of manipulation in which parents play a huge role. For example, boys are dressed in ‘masculine’ clothes. The next stage is the canalization where children are given toys to build up their gender identity. Boys are given pistol and toy trucks while girls are given teddy bears, dolls and soft toys. The third is the use of verbal appellation where such sentences like ‘you are a naughty boy’ will build up boys’ sexual identity. The fourth stage is where boys and girls are given a set of different activities. This will encourage children to perform the sexual expectation of society and enable them to identify in which gender they belong.
Ann Oakley has been criticized for her emphasis on socialization in shaping gender roles. What about boys who have a high level of estrogen. Are they likely to behave like girls or will they due to the effect of early socialization behave like normal boys? Similarly, girls who have a high level of androgen, will they behave like boys? Or can the early process of socialization shape them to become like any other ordinary females?
Ethnomethodology regard the process of developing gender roles as socially constructed. Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy Mckenna stated that individuals categorized the world around them according to their own perspective. Therefore the decision whether to regard a person as male or female is socially produced.
The process of gender- role socialization begins at the early age of childhood and continues throughout life. Society still typifies males and females according to gender-role trait expectations. There are however evidences that gender attitudes are changing beginning in the 1970s towards a more egalitarian, liberal attitudes.
No matter what theories have been introduced in explaining sexual behavior whether it is innate or learned, I believed that both factors contribute in the development of gender-role identity. I based this statement on the fact that biological aspects play an important role in shaping an infant in his/her early age at least until he/she reaches the age of three. After that it is up to the family and society to shape his/her sexual behavior and define appropriate gender-roles for him/her. Gender role socialization is a life-long process. Therefore, I believe that cultural aspects play a greater role in shaping one sexual behavior than the biological aspects because they influence individuals from young until old.