In psychology many different perspectives seek to explain the differences between males and females. In societies they play distinctive roles and are treated and viewed differently. They behave differently too. To compare and contrast the accounts of sex and gender we need to define the terms sex and gender. To examine further we need to examine the key aspects of the biological, evolutionary, social constructionist and psychoanalytical perspectives focusing on similarities and differences regarding their accounts of sex and gender. Finally need to consider the ways in which these perspectives compliment, conflict or simply co-exist with one another.
Often the term sex and gender are used interchangeably. Often this usage has lead to confusion therefore we have to begin by attempting to draw a distinction between the terms for discussing psychological perspectives in this paper. Traditionally, the word gender has been used to refer to the cultural aspect of what it is to be man or woman. ”Womanly’ or ‘manly’ and ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are viewed as not being connected with a person’s biological sex, but more in terms of psychological characteristics shaped by individuals experience (EPoCH CD-ROM). The term sex is used solely when referring to biological and physical traits such as primary and secondary sex characteristics or specifically to ‘sexual intercourse’. (Hollway,Cooper,Johnston,Stevens ,The psychology of sex and gender p117).
It is important to bear in mind that different perspectives ask different questions and use different methods to examine the basic assumptions made by each perspective with respect to the concepts of sex and gender. In terms of the biological factors that are thought to shape sex and gender include external genitalia, sex chromosomes and genes, hormones and lateralization of brain function. Although it is important to emphasize that anatomy is not necessarily destiny but the most commonly used way to determine sex is then observation of the external (visible) genitals (Hollway, Cooper, Johnston and Stevens, 2003).
To determine the individual’s sex is through sex chromosomes and every human being has a pair of sex chromosomes; in females this pair normally comprises of two X chromosomes and in males an X and a Y chromosome. Another indicator of ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ for biological theorists are the levels of specific hormones such as testosterone (male) and oestrogen and progesterone (female) which produce primary and secondary sexual characteristics and are different in males and females.
But we must not fail to say that genetic abnormalities do occur for example Klinefelter’s syndrome is when males inherit an extra X chromosome resulting in an XXY pattern resulting in many feminine physical characteristics. While these genetic abnormalities are unusual, they make clear that biological processes alone do not make us male or female (Hollway et al, 2003).Then again biological sex is not central to explaining what it is to be man or a woman and can be unreliable in some cases, it does offer simple explanations which can be tested empirically.
Likewise the evolutionary perspective, while adopting a scientific approach similar to biological theorists, cannot be subjected to empirical testing and therefore can operate only at the level of speculation. This is due to its reliance in part on the principles of reverse engineering in constructing theoretical models regarding the origins of human behaviour (Hollway et al, 2003).
Moreover evolutionary psychologists argue that genetic make-up and behavioural predispositions between males and females evolved according to the process of sexual selection. (Phoenix, 2002). They believe that reproduction is the only way for an inherited characteristic to be passed on from one generation to the next and thus their primary focus on explaining gender differences is in terms of reproductive behaviour and sexual style.
In accordance to this it was found that evolutionary psychologist’s females generally devote more time and energy to the care of their offspring. As a result of this greater parental investment (Hollway et al, 2003) different patterns of behaviour between males and females developed. Therefore successful females in an attempt to maximise their reproductive success they are more concerned with selecting a mate that has good genes and is willing to invest in offspring.
On the other hand, males devote more time and energy to finding and attracting mates and are more concerned with mating as many times as possible. Clark and Hatfield (1989, cited by Hollway et al, 2003) carried out a study in which they found that 75% of male students as oppose to no female students consented to having sex with the opposite sex. They interpreted these results as supporting the evolutionary theory that women and men evolved different strategies and consequently different behaviour, for reproductive success.
So we can say that the biological and evolutionary approaches are similar in that they view sex as the foundation of gender; however, social constructivists do not see gender as determined by sex. They strongly believe that a person’s gendered behaviour is always constructed through the lens of their interpretation and understanding within their own historical and social contexts and therefore cannot be explained by their biological reproductive sex status alone (Hollway et al, 2003).
Social constructivists believe that both sex and gender arise in social interaction and have no existence independent of social interaction. According to this perspective we actively construct the world we live in and this is an on-going process that changes from situation to situation (Phoenix, 2002). Our knowledge of gender is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to see it as a socially constructed category nevertheless; gender is one of the most powerful constructed categories by which individuals define themselves (Hollway et al, 2003).
Bem (1994, cited by Hollway et al, 2003, Pg. 141) believes that ‘masculinity and femininity are socially and culturally constructed dimensions that inform all the forms of our thinking, emotional experience and behaviour’.
In addition to historical and cultural influences on gender behaviours the media and the school curriculum portray male and female roles in gender stereotypic ways. Social construction theorists would argue that gender inequality is produced and sustained in schools (Hollway et al, 2003).
Theorists from this perspective focus on the interpretation of meaning using symbolic data and subjective insider accounts, which are changeable and affected by discourses. This approach differs from the natural science principles embraced by the biological and evolutionary perspectives which are based on an objective, outsider viewpoint and are more fixed (Miell and Pike, 2003). The methodology employed in the next perspective, that of psychoanalysis, uses subjective insider accounts similar to the social constructivists. However, in contrast to the three perspectives discussed thus far, the psychoanalytic approach differs in that it stresses unconscious mental processes and turns to our inner psychological worlds.
Although psychoanalysts do take into account social factors like family structure and meaning, it differs from the social construction approach in that it suggest girls and boys have predispositions for behaviour (similar to evolutionary perspective). Moreover, Freud’s theory about boys and girls was based on their own perceptions about their bodies and cannot be reduced to biological or societal explanation (Hollway et al, 2003).
The psychoanalytic theory proposes that children acquire either feminine or masculine traits or behaviours by identifying with a same sex parent. They believe that sex and gender relations play a vital role in self-development and that children unconsciously internalise differences between the sexes and make them their own, thus establishing their own gendered identity (Hollway et al, 2003). Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a key figure in the development of psychoanalysis.
The genital stage of Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is traditionally seen as the beginning of gender and sexual identity. For Freud the acquisition of sexuality and a gendered identity is a totally psychological process in which children are born psychosexually neutral and then learn to identify with their same sex parent through having resolved their Oedipus (boys) or Electra (girls) complex.
The essence of this theory is that, at around five years old, a boy’s love for his mother acquires sexual connotations. He becomes a rival with this father for her love. Because his father is such a powerful figure he feels threatened and thus takes on the features of his father. Freud named this the Oedipus complex (Phoenix, 2002) The theory he produced for girls, the Electra complex, whereby she realises that she does not possess a penis (penis envy) and feels devalued, has brought about much controversy and aroused the ire of feminist writers.
Additionally, Freud has been criticized for making generalisations about human nature when his evidence was limited to gender relations of a particular time (Hollway et al, 2003). Times have changed and now women are taking on more male roles and have control over their own fertility. As a result Freud’s view of how the possession of a penis gives privileges and rites in the family and his failure to consider the significance of women’s genitals is strongly criticized. Moreover, research has found that males are envious of women’s ability to give birth (Horney, 1926, cited by Hollway et at, 2003).
Due to changing times many psychologists have come to believe that most people possess a combination of characteristics that until recently have been traditionally viewed as either masculine or feminine. According to Bem (1974, cited by Hollway et al, 2003) most people are androgynous, that is, they possess both masculine and feminine psychological characteristics.
Thus far we have examined four different perspectives in relation to sex and gender and clearly no one perspective can explain the psychology of sex and gender. From a methodological standpoint it is difficult to integrate the differing perspectives. Both biological and evolutionary psychologies embrace the scientific, quantitative approach whereas the social constructivists and psychoanalysts use a qualitative approach focusing on interpretation of meaning. As these methods are so fundamentally different it is most likely that, rather than conflicting, they simply co-exist with one another. The way these perspectives interact can be seen as complimentary for example, as we have discussed, it is accepted that generally individuals are sexed by biology and gendered by social influences.
The psychoanalytic theory can be seem as conflicting with the social construction theory in the focus on unconscious (psychoanalytic) versus conscious experience (social constructivists). As can be seen, humans are complex creatures rarely explainable in terms of a single type of influence. The accounts of sex and gender discussed are from four diverse perspectives and it is only by exploring how these interact with one another that we can gain a genuine understanding of the psychology of sex and gender.