The Social Construction of Gender and Sexuality Essay
The Social Construction of Gender and Sexuality
According to Johnny Weir, “Masculinity is what you believe it to be… [it is] all by perception, [I believe] masculinity and femininity is something that is very old-fashioned… [there is a] whole new generation of people who aren’t defined by their race or their sex or who they like to sleep with.” This statement exemplifies the definition of gender as a concept; gender is the expectations of a sex according to the culture of society. Sexuality, within this definition of gender, reflects society’s expectations, which are created in relation to the opposite sex. The variances between cultures means that gender expectations change within different cultures. These expectations put pressure on each member of society to conform and abide by the folkways of their own culture. The creation of gender expectations by society creates a restricting definition of gender roles and sexuality that vary from culture to culture.
Society created the role of gender and created an emphasis on the differences between the two genders. Alma Gottlieb states: “biological inevitability of the sex organs comes to stand for a perceived inevitability of social roles, expectations, and meanings” (Gottlieb, 167). Sex is the scientific acknowledgment that men and women are biologically different; gender stems from society’s formation of roles assigned to each sex and the emphasis of the differences between the two sexes. The creation of meanings centers on the expectations of the roles each sex should fill; society creates cultural norms that perpetuate these creations. Gender blurs the lines between the differences created by nature and those created by society (Gottlieb, 168); gender is the cultural expectations of sexes, with meaning assigned to the differences between them. Due to the cultural creation of gender, it is an element of socialization and is learned by members at an early age.
A member of society assumes gender roles as soon as he or she is born. The socialization of individuals forces he or she to identify with a specific gender and does not allow for the reality that gender is an emotional issue that exists on a continuum, and many feel they fit somewhere between the two rigid cultural definitions of gender. Often times a child is introduced to many forms of masculinity or femininity (Gottleib, 175). Gender roles are introduced and enforced as soon as the sex of a child is determined (Gottleib, 168); boys begin a life of masculinity, with emphasis put on toughness and girls begin a life of femininity, with emphasis put on emotion and tenderness. Each sex is introduced to the gender roles expected for a certain identity to be maintained.
The enforcement of gender roles in socialization is present cross culturally, as seen in “Life is Hard” by Roger Lancaster, children are taught the roles they are expected to perform before they are conscious of their own actions (Lancaster, 41). Critics believe, however, that when it comes to defining a person, gender alone does not describe the individual, for example, sexuality should be considered as well (Gottleib, 176). Since gender is learned through cultural socialization, and it’s ability to be a continuum, sexuality of individuals is created by the expectations of gender and is, in ideally, built on a sliding scale, but in reality is just as restricting as the gender roles that create it.
Sexuality reflects the gender expectations of society. It, like gender, is created in relation to the opposite sex. Sexuality has a way of restricting each sex into specific sexual roles; men are expected to have a dominant sexual style and women are expected to have a submissive sexual style; these expectations stem from the expectations of the roles of each gender. Women are criticized when they are considered too sexual (Jean Kilbourne, 133). Sexuality is the preference an individual has in relation to their sexual relations, but it is much deeper than that. Women, while being expected to be submissive, are portrayed as highly sexual, and young girls are expected to fulfill these roles. Sexuality reflects cultural opinions and is dominated by the gender that dominates culture, males (Kilbourne, 136).
Sexuality is dominated by culture because of the explicit sexual roles individuals are expected to fulfill; a disputed opinion is that sexuality is biological, but sexuality is defined by the gender roles assigned to sex, because of the emphasis on gender roles, it is culturally created. Sexuality is also an aspect of socialization; individuals are taught the sexual roles they should perform, according to their perceived gender. I use the word perceived because a woman can appear to be feminine, yet identify greater with the male sex, but this women is still expected to conform to female gender roles. The development of expectations of gender and sexuality within a culture allow for different expectations depending on the culture.
American’s expect that men do not display any sort of emotion as a sign of masculinity; in other cultures, the definition of masculinity changes and certain displays of emotion are considered masculine. In Nicaragua, for instance, men who display emotion in the face of danger (or in the case of cards, of chance) are considered masculine for their ability to handle danger with visible bravado. American men are considered masculine for their ability to handle danger while acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary (Roger Lancaster, 194).
Additionally the construction of sexuality changes from culture to culture. In Western Culture, it is natural to suppress sexual speech and the common belief is that men are more sexual than women; in Muslim culture, however, the accepted idea is that women are the more sexual of the two. This belief is both a product and an influence on gender roles; in Western culture, it is understood that men more often perform sexual violence because of their higher sexual nature, but, in Muslim culture, part of the reason women wear their shrouds is because of their perceived sexual nature (Gottlieb, 177).
Often times the belief is that there are distinct forms of gender, sexuality, and gender expectation; this belief is one that does not accommodate that there are often overlaps in roles and that many people to not identify specifically with culture’s explicit definitions. Opinions of gender and gender roles can be changed with time and can be redefined with the evolution of culture and acceptance of new ideas. The definition of acceptable behavior changes as society becomes more receptive to progressive ideas; this change allows for expanding definitions of gender roles and expectations.
The only thing that remains unchanging (except through scientific practices) is sex. If certain cultures can change gender roles and expectations, it is clearly not a set idea; people influence the way culture influences people, so the shaping of gender roles is in the hands of society. There is no easy way to define what femininity or masculinity is, or what makes a man or woman, as the characteristics vary just within a single culture; there is a greater difference between genders than within races.
The vast differences between cultural expectations of what makes a man or woman and what it means to be masculine or feminine allow for a never-ending debate. Culture creates the expectations men and women must conform to in order to be considered acceptable in society. The sliding scale of how a male or female actually identifies with their prescribed role depends on the socialization process and the way they identify with society’s expectations of them. The social construction of gender and sexuality all rely on the measure that people believe there is a difference between the two sexes, once this emphasis is taken away, is when gender roles will no longer play an integral role in the structure of society.