Chapter 12. Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
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Figure 12.1. Some children may learn at an early age that their gender does not correspond with their sex. (Photo courtesy of trazomfreak/flickr)

Learning Objectives

12.1. The Difference between Sex and Gender

Define and differentiate between sex and genderDefine and discuss what is meant by gender identityUnderstand and discuss the role of homophobia and heterosexism in societyDistinguish the meanings of transgendered, transsexual, and homosexual identities

12.2. Gender

Explain the influence of socialization on gender roles in CanadaUnderstand the stratification of gender in major North American institutionsDescribe gender from the view of each sociological perspective

12.3. Sex and Sexuality

Understand different attitudes associated with sex and sexualityDefine sexual inequality in various societiesDiscuss theoretical perspectives on sex and sexuality

Introduction to Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

When Harry was born, his parents, Steve and Barb, were delighted to add another boy to their family. But as their baby boy began to grow and develop, they noticed that Harry began to express himself in a manner that they viewed as more feminine than masculine. He gravitated toward dolls and other toys that our culture typically associates with girls. But Harry’s preference was not simply about liking pink more than blue or flowers more than fire trucks. He even began to draw himself as a girl, complete with a dress and high-heeled shoes. In fact, Harry did not just wish to be a girl; he believed he was a girl.

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In kindergarten, Harry often got into arguments with male classmates because he insisted that he was a girl, not a boy. He even started calling himself “Hailey.” Steve and Barb met with several psychologists, all of whom told them that Hailey was transgendered. But Steve and Barb had a hard time understanding that their five-year-old son could have already developed a gender identity that went against society’s expectations. Concerned with the social ramifications associated with his child being transgendered, Steve hoped this was just a phase. But Barb, and eventually Steve, realized that Harry’s feelings were genuine and unyielding, and they made the decision to let Harry live as Hailey—a girl. They came to this decision after concluding that the criticism he would endure from his peers and other members of society would be less damaging than the confusion he might experience internally if he were forced to live as a boy.

Many transgendered children grow up hating their bodies, and this population can have high rates of drug abuse and suicide (Weiss 2011). Fearful of these outcomes and eager to make their child happy, Steve and Barb now refer to Harry as Hailey and allow her to dress and behave in manners that are considered feminine. To a stranger, Hailey is likely to appear just like any other girl and may even be considered extra girly due to her love of all things pink. But to those who once knew Hailey as Harry, Hailey is likely to endure more ridicule and rejection as the result of adopting a feminine gender identity.

Currently, seven-year-old Hailey and her parents are comfortable with her gender status, but Steve and Barb are concerned about what questions and problems might arise as she gets older. “Who’s going to love my child?” asks Steve (Ling 2011). This question isn’t asked because Hailey is unlovable, but because North American society has yet to fully listen to or understand the personal narratives of the transgendered population (Hines and Sanger 2010).

In this chapter, we will discuss the differences between sex and gender, along with issues like gender identity and sexuality. What does it mean to “have” a gender in our society? What does it mean to “have” a sexuality? We will also explore various theoretical perspectives on the subjects of gender and sexuality.

12.1. The Difference between Sex and Gender

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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? As with most people, it may not have occurred to you that sex and gender are not the same. However, sociologists and most other social scientists view sex and gender 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 is a term that refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with being male or female. Gender identity is the extent to which one identifies as being either masculine or feminine (Diamond 2002).

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. For example, all persons of the female sex, in general, 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 American 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) can be considered masculine. The kilt worn by a Scottish male does not make him appear feminine in his culture.

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Figure 12.3. George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Caitlin’s sketch depicts a ceremonial dance among the Sac and Fox Indians to celebrate the two-spirit person. (Photo couresy of Wikimedia Commons).

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The dichotomous view of gender (the notion that one 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 the opposite gender. The practice has been noted among certain Aboriginal groups (Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang 1997). Samoan culture accepts what they 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 or women (Poasa 1992).